Monthly Archives: February 2011

Wisconsin, the NFL and Labor’s Big Opportunity

The drama unfolding in Madison, Wisconsin is bigger, better theater than just about anything on last night’s Oscars, with the kind of high drama, and battles to take ownership of the proverbial white hat and categorize opponents as black hats.  And while the attempts to diminish or even eliminate the state workers’ rights to collective bargaining have caused unprecedented amounts of conflict, I am guessing labor leaders are secretly thankful for this extremely difficult, combustible scenario.

Because this situation may accomplish what EFCA, BofA protests, and NFL tweets couldn’t — people are sympathetic to the labor cause again, in a manner we haven’t seen in more than a generation.

Not too long ago, in my home state of NJ, the Governor took on the teachers union, and encouraged voters to reject school budgets to send a signal to teachers about the need for “shared sacrifice.”  The bailout of the auto industry left many with a decidedly anti-union point of view, believing that the demands of the UAW over decades rendered a city, and indeed an industry, non-competitive.  Labor was on the fast track for some pretty negative labels – entitled, unyielding and an impediment to economic prosperity.

Then came the events of Madison…and once again labor finds itself carrying the mantle of the working man (and woman) in need of protection, representation and intervention between the working men and women and the big boss, in this case, the state.

Will labor be able to capitalize on these events and sustain their relevance with the media, and more importantly, the American people?  Or will they return to the entitled, unyielding labels that have plagued them for decades?  Their next steps will be important…and have a long-term effect.  Either way, it should be an interesting show.



Employees are the Canary in Your Reputation Coal Mine:  5 Ways to Keep Them Singing

Last weekend, I had the privilege of guest lecturing on the new realities of crisis communications at Farleigh Dickinson University as part of their Executive Lecture series.  And while I was invited there to share my experiences and talk about crisis communications in our wired, networked world, I was the one who walked away learning a lot.  The students were smart, insightful and particularly intuitive about the use of social media in a crisis…something so many clients are wrestling with today.  We debated some of the textbook crisis case studies, and whether those responses would have been as effective today.  All in all, a pretty engaging and rewarding way to spend a Saturday morning.

But for me, the greatest perk was staying for the lecture that followed mine….Driving Alignment Through Employee Engagement, which was the topic by Johnson & Johnson’s VP of Corporate Communications, Craig Rothenberg.  Unless this is your first time reading this blog, you know that employee engagement is a particular passion of mine…and Craig gave me some real food for thought.  He was candid about the recalls at J&J, and the challenges recent events have created from an employee engagement standpoint, particularly as it relates to the famous J&J credo as an authentic culture driver.  He talked about the downsides of decades of success, and a workforce with long tenure, when you hit bumps in the road.  And he talked about engagement as a means to an end, not the end itself.

My takeaways from his advice, not just to students, but to all of us:

  • Employees are talking about your company, with or without you. If you don’t participate in THEIR CONVERSATIONS, they will wonder why, and make judgments about that.
  • Engaging employees isn’t about what you say; it is about what employees hear. Messaging cascades are what you say….but did employees hear your intended message?
  • When you talk to employees, consider it a public statement, referencing the J&J communication to bonus eligible employees that the Company would not pay full bonuses this year. If you don’t want to read about a policy or program you are implementing at your Company in the NYT or WSJ, then you aren’t comfortable with that program…re-think it.
  • If employees see your reputation as declining, that is a canary in the coal mine…it foreshadows reputation damage to come. Pay attention to it.


Bold Predictions…reputation builders, or a big BUST?

It’s hard to break through the clutter and make real news….and even harder to make a real difference.  In the recent past, we’ve seen iconic Companies and leaders make the biggest, boldest predictions ever…Warren Buffet is going to get billionaires to give away half of their wealthBill Gates and the Gates Foundation are going to end HIV in Africa and Reinvent Education, among other things; and Google was going to reinvent philanthropy with (DotOrg).

These are major initiatives – the kind that get e-mailed about in ALL CAPS.  They garner big headlines, and the kind of in-depth media coverage and ongoing discussion that is hard to accomplish in a world where stakeholders lose interest in seconds and minutes, not hours or days.   They underscore your position as a game changer, a mega-influencer and certainly, a leader.

But what happens when you can’t deliver?  Is it better to get credit for taking on the biggest, most unsolvable problems?  Or better to tackle something smaller and succeed?

The easy answer is – it depends.  One factor to consider when making such bold pronouncements is this:

Do you have the kind of leader who can pull this off?  Who has enough gravitas to change the way others think, and act?  And enough influence to get others to follow, and to play by your “new rules.”

Consider the three examples we began with:

Buffet’s fellow billionaire’s are jumping on his bandwagon.  Not all of them, but enough of them to make a credible case that he is changing the notion of philanthropy among those who have the resources to make the biggest impact.

Gates is tackling far more complex problems than Buffet…things that have plagued the world for generations (on the short end) and even centuries.  Has he solved one of those problems entirely?  Not yet.  Is he making an impact…I think so.  And the Gates “likeability factor” has risen exponentially in the process.

Google’s Dot Org project is another story altogether.  They’ve made good on their promise to commit their financial and human capital resources to reinventing philanthropy….but it’s hard to say they are actually succeeding in the bold, game-changing way they originally envisioned.  The reasons for this are complicated….and in part due to a mismatch between the Google “silver bullet” model of change, and the nature of the problems they’ve tried to tackle.  (This piece from the NYT does a great job in discussing the DotOrg issues).  But I would argue it is also about their lack of a leader who really owns it, and is a meaningful “face” to both the Google brand and the DotOrg mission.

The moral of the story – big, bold pronouncements need a big, bold pronouncer.


AOL trying to Buy Relevance with HuffPo Acquisition?

Remember when AOL was the “IT Boy” of technology and corporate America?

Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks were sighing as they heard the AOL version of the Intel jingle – a chirpy pronouncement that You’ve Got Mail.  We all watched the “finishing” bar as we loaded ourselves onto the World Wide Web.

AOL was a game changer….they were our source for online news and information,   Our e-mail carrier.  Our shopping portal.   Our Internet North Star.

Then came Google.  Facebook.   Twitter.

Like an ex who hasn’t gotten the hint, AOL has trailed behind tech’s new “cool kids” looking for an opportunity to get back into the group.  They haven’t gone away, but they haven’t been all that relevant, either.

AOL’s newest bet is on news, with the planned acquisition of the Huffington Post.

Despite lots of celebratory quotes to the contrary, I think AOL and HuffPo make strange bedfellows.  The AOL business has been in decline for a decade, in large part because it doesn’t provide anything that is unique or presents a real POV. It aggregates the same content you can find just about everywhere else.

HuffPo, on the contrary, is largely known for its political clout and leanings of Ms. Huffington, and as a platform where citizen journalists can make an impact.  It’s like the of content.   There is a lot of stuff, but you can tailor it for you.

No doubt this deal will be great for the wallets of the original HuffPo founders and investors.  But what about HuffPo’s reputation (and Ms. Huffington’s – known for her clear political POV and voice, which she acknowledges will not be part of her AOL platform/role.)  The question of the day – will HuffPo help AOL get its groove back, or will HuffPo’s reputation take a hit as it becomes AOL-ized?

What Everyone Should Have Known About PR 20 Years Ago…And Still Need To Know Now

Twenty years ago this month I put on my new Ann Taylor suit, accessorized with a scarf (flight attendant style) and began my entry level job at a little PR firm in NJ that no one had ever heard of.  Those were the days when press releases were mailed (yes, my 20-something colleagues, you read that right), executives carried beepers, and you waited for the giant Burelles envelopes to come in the mail with your clips.

MWW Group was a startup – we’d just opened our 2nd office in Trenton, NJ, (of all places) and had a whopping staff of 5.  I did it all….answered the phones, pretended to be our CEO’s assistant (he couldn’t’ afford one), made media lists…and got my first “hit” in The New York Times. Back then Bill Gates was “the devil” – not the hero-philanthropist of today.  Gordon Gecko told us (the first time) that greed was good.  And the overnight news cycle ruled the day.

A lot has changed in our business since then, and I guess I’ve changed a lot, too.  I’ve worked in every practice in the firm – yes, consumer marketing and public affairs, too.  I’ve held every position (ok almost every position…I haven’t run the finance department or been CEO).  And I’ve seen some of the most dramatic changes possible… The (original) real estate bubbleThe rise of the Internet.  The dot com boom, and bust.  Strategic Philanthropy has given way to CSR, employee communications is now employee engagement. Visibility became buzz and then, conversation.

But there are some universal truths that haven’t changed since I was an Account Coordinator.  When it comes to the PR business, and building, enhancing, and protecting reputations these 5 things are constants:

  1. We trust people, not companies. Back then, the Celebrity CEOs ruled…Iaccocca, Welch, Crandall.  But we knew that putting a face on a company was a good thing…and we understood that it was important to have a story and a POV beyond just your own Company.
  1. Third parties tip the scale. What others say about you is more important than what you say about yourself.
  1. A mistake in the initial response of a crisis can damage your reputation forever.
  1. The only way to build a great media list is to work the phone. Whether using today’s databases, or my trusty old 1992 edition of NY Publicity Outlets…nothing substitutes for direct conversation.
  1. If you want to learn to write a great headline, read the NY Post. And in our 140 character ecosystem, headline writing is more important than ever.

Another universal truth — my family still doesn’t understand what I do.  Except now, when someone says I am in advertising, I don’t argue about it.

I’m thinking these might still be the same 20 years from now.