Monthly Archives: May 2011

What Dream Team CEOs Know that You Don’t

Fortune Magazine is creating yet another list….the “Dream Team” CEOs – one that is sure to be my favorite!   Today, this piece talked about what it takes to be a dream team caliber CEO.  Among some expected, yet valid, observations about the need to be able to reinvent strategy, like Sam Palmisano and Jim Skinner, or to truly be a citizen of the world, not just talk global – there was an interesting tidbit.

Dream Team CEOs treat government as a line of business.

Entire businesses have been built using government as a key line of business and source of revenue. Highly regulated businesses can tell you in dollars and cents the impact of government on their Company.  But the implications here are significant – even if you don’t do business with the government, and even if you aren’t a regulated company, government matters.  A lot.

At MWW Group, more than two decades ago, we began advocating a strategy we’ve dubbed Government as a Marketing tool.   And it is more relevant than ever today.  In order to be viewed as a leader among your peers, to be the kind of company that is trusted, and relevant to your employees, stakeholders, investors and communities, you need to be engaged and active with government leaders and influencers.  Not only to advocate for issues that impact your business, but to be a thought leader.  An advisor.  A go-to resource.

Being among the most admired CEOs requires a great track record, and a solid leadership reputation.  And while the first can fuel the second, these two things don’t automatically go together.  Government provides an unrivaled bully pulpit for establishing trust and relevance.  It is a key part of every company’s “network.”

This is a philosophy that we don’t just preach – we practice it, too.  For ourselves and for our clients.  Do you?

The Crisis Communicator’s Conundrum:  When you are the “scene of the crime,” Is Silence the Best Communications Strategy?

Most people understand that if you do the wrong thing, you’ve earned your spot on the front page.  A collapsed Ponzi scheme.  An airplane somewhere other than a runway.  A lawsuit.

But what happens when the actions of others put you in the middle of a story you don’t want to be in….when you are the scene of the proverbial crime, not its perpetrator? Like being the airline when the employee pops the chute and quits over the PA? (Disclosure: jetBlue is a client) Or being the hotel where sexual assault occurred and your employee was the victim? Or the restaurant where the mob boss was shot?

Crisis communications is about communicating, right?  Maybe not.  Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to just be quiet – to duck and let the story pass. Unless you are an enabler to the issue – something in your policies or actions enabled the situation, or could have prevented it – communicating just makes you a bigger part of the story.

Even though your instinct tells you to defend your Company’s honor, the more you communicate, the more you become a part of the story. This is especially true as the news cycle winds down, and the media starts looking for new angles for “day 2” stories.

For those reasons, Sofitel, the employer of the woman who was allegedly sexually assaulted by IMF Head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the site the location of the incident, has managed this crisis perfectly by cooperating fully with authorities and otherwise keeping its head low.

Sometimes the best strategy is to let it pass.

Is your story relevant?  Or is it just noise?

I have a really smart colleague who often says that in public relations, we are storytellers.  Our most important job is to find compelling and relevant ways to tell our clients’ stories in order to help them earn the trust of their stakeholders and motivate them to act.

Simple, right?  But everyone is trying to tell their story – and the result can often be chaos, and lots of noise.

How can you make your story relevant – whether giving a speech, writing an op-ed or blog, or pitching a reporter?

  • Begin with a provocative, attention grabbing headline. This is an art that the tabloids have mastered.  I tell every entry level member of our team that they must read the NY Post every day for this very reason.  (It also makes me pretty popular, since I am “requiring” them to do something they want to do anyway, but now it can be considered work)
  • Make a personal connection. Your story isn’t really about you – it is about why you matter to them.  Ronald Reagan, one of the greatest orators of our time, kept a collection of anecdotes for just this purpose.
  • Keep it brief. We are skimmers, not readers.  Tweeters, not letter writers.  We’re inundated with information, and brevity isn’t just the key to wit – it is the key to being memorable.

And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

What Donald Trump Could Learn from Bill Gates

I’ve never been much of a Bill Gates fan.   Nothing personal.  Maybe it is because I’ve spent more years with the “Bill Gates is the Devil” era than the Gates as a philanthropist era…or because geek chic just isn’t my thing.  But as a student of leadership, his is a fascinating case.   Today, this “devil” who had control of everything, and protected his turf with litigious fervor is one of global health’s elder statesmen, is redefining what it means to be a philanthropist – and raising the bar for the billionaires among us.

What is the biggest change?  A shift in tone that embraces optimism.  I could argue that it is easy to be optimistic when you are Bill Gates.  But it isn’t easy to be optimistic about ending AIDS in Africa.  Or lifting children out of poverty via vaccinations in places where modern conveniences like telecommunications and necessities like clean, safe water are scarce.  Or fixing a big, bureaucratic education system. The Gates Foundation’s core belief — all lives have equal value – is inherently optimistic.

This is in sharp contrast with Donald Trump’s so-called consideration of a run for President.  He was all about being the anti-candidate – dragging others down in an exhibition of self-promotion that has become as much his signature as his hairdo and his frown.

I’m not opposed to leaders being provocative or contrarian – but you can’t define yourself solely as being against someone or something else.

Remember the formula:  Trust + Relevance = Action.   A negative approach may be about relevant issues, but it’s relevance without trust…which typically yields the wrong kind of action.  Realistic optimism is a key attribute of trustworthiness.  People, by their very nature, are inspired and motivated by hope and optimism more than fear and negativity.

The concept of the  economics of happiness  is gaining traction…could it be that the economics of optimism is one of the keys to the economic recovery?   Because it is certainly a key to earning trust and remaining relevant.


IMF Can’t Stand by Their Man

News broke over the weekend that IMF head and would-be French Presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn, had been arrested in New York and jailed on sexual assault charges (he was actually taken off a plane to France on his way to meetings with European leaders regarding the debt crisis).  Stories about the sexual misconduct or marital dalliances of political/governmental leaders are certainly not new, yet the allegations against Strauss-Kahn given his prior history at the IMF raises serious concerns about the reputation of the Fund and how it will function going forward.

Strauss-Kahn, a married, former Finance Minister, has a bit of a reputation in France as a womanizer (not necessarily a negative for the French electorate) and was investigated just months after assuming his role at IMF for having a consensual affair with a staffer.  She resigned, he was cleared of wrongdoing, apologized and issued a statement which said, “I agree with the board that the personal behavior of the managing director sets an important tone for the institution and I am committed, going forward, to uphold the high standards that are expected of this position.”

So much for tone-setting and commitment.

The reputation of organizations, from corporations to NGOs, is closely tied to the standing of their leaders, perhaps even more so in the digital age when news such as this travels the world in nanoseconds.  The IMF board was put on notice early about possible issues with Strauss-Kahn but made a decision to stick with him in 2008, weathering the bad press at the time, but deferring to his promises, past resume and the battle being waged against the global financial chaos of the time.

For now, the IMF is offering little comment, seeking to deflect to Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers, and its Board will be considering its options.  While in American jurisprudence, you are innocent until proven guilty, the court of public opinion has no such protections.

Reputation is a fragile thing and the IMF is often in a public relations battle regarding its funding and activities.  It can’t risk any further assaults.  The IMF needs to be transparent, meet the issues head-on and move quickly to mitigate the damage already being done to its name and mission.  Unlike Strauss-Kahn’s wife who is publicly supporting his innocence, the IMF cannot afford to stand by their man.


The Burson-Facebook Scandal:  Relevance Without Trust = Another Blow to PR’s Reputation

This week I attended the Sabre Awards, where MWW Group was named Midsize Agency of the Year.  It was a great night to celebrate success, applaud the work of our industry and catch up with colleagues and friends.  But in the shadow of that celebration, where Burson-Marsteller was recognized as the North American Agency of the Year, the Facebook scandal was brewing – a scandal which ultimately cost Burson a flagship client.

No doubt there will be plenty of commentary about this issue – painting either Facebook or Burson (or both) as the big bad wolf.  But it is our industry, and the PR profession, with the most to lose as that dreaded “spin doctor” label emerges once again.

Working to advance a client’s point-of-view is a legitimate assignment.  Ditto for raising issues about privacy or other critical issues of importance.  So how can we do this without finding ourselves on the receiving end of reputational dings?

At MWW Group, we believe that trust + relevance = action….and while it appears that this campaign was designed considering the relevance of privacy issues, and perhaps taking advantage of the fact that Google is currently  on its heels  – failure to focus on the trust part of the equation yielded action that was very different than expected.

Three learnings for all of us:

  1. Our clients are the story – we never want to be the story.  Trying to be too stealthy makes people more interested in who is behind the issue than the issue itself.  Veiled finger pointing creates suspicion.  Even if your client won’t give an on the record interview – approaching a reporter anonymously begs to be “outed.”
  1. If you are Goliath, it’s hard to be David – and when two giants do battle, expect both to walk away bloody.
  1. Never put something in an e-mail you wouldn’t want to see in print.

Trust + Relevance….it’s not an either-or equation.

Leadership is Demonstrated, Not Discussed

Like many of us, I stayed up way too late watching events unfold on Sunday night when news of the death of Osama Bin Laden became public.  I remembered the u-turn I made in the middle of the George Washington Bridge on September 11, and watching the towers fall through the windows of our NJ offices.  Like it has been on many “big news” days, my TV was glued to CNN.  And in a recent development, my twitter feed on my iPad gave me better insight into the country’s reaction than I’ve ever had….and one tweet caught my eye.  It said something like – While Trump was talking birth certificates & college credentials, Obama was planning the take down of public enemy No. 1.

In our sound bite society, sometimes ridiculous things take on a life of their own in the news cycle.  But leadership and leading in the sound bites aren’t the same thing.  What is the difference?

  • Leaders stand for something – they aren’t just against someone or something else.
  • Leaders set the agenda and define what is important – and they stay the course, resisting distractions that don’t advance that agenda.
  • Leaders demonstrate what is important; they don’t just talk about it.

I’m often asked to help clients decide if, when and how to respond to all kinds of “attacks” on their reputation.  And that decision is always a complicated one…but applying these three tenets to the issue at hand can often provide clarity and context to that determination of whether the issue at hand requires a demonstration of leadership…or if it is just a distraction.

MWW’s New POV: It’s all about relevance

Last week, MWW Group held its annual leadership summit – and our first all hands meeting since we bought our agency back from IPG….and we unveiled our “new” point of view.  (Technically, this is a new articulation of the point of view that has always driven our agency – but I digress).

Trust + Relevance = Action

Trust – too big to fail and the GEC (Global Economic Crisis) have created a crisis of confidence of serious magnitude.  We don’t trust leaders, companies, religious institutions.  So lots of big thinkers in our industry talk about trust & transparency as the end game.

Trust isn’t the end game.  Trust is the table stakes.   Unless you plan to go out of business, trust is a requirement.  Not the goal.  It’s true that some clients need help establishing, building or increasing trust…but if we stop there, we haven’t done our job.

Why relevance?

  • Because ultimately PR is about driving action….trust gives us permission to act, relevance makes us act.
  • Because participation, without relevance, is just noise….tweeting, blogging, posting, sharing….none of it matters if no one is paying attention. Relevance makes us pay attention.
  • Relevance provides staying power…when something is relevant to us, it becomes a part of our lives…and a part of who we are. We stick with it.
  • Relevance is the engine of the peer-to-peer economy. It’s why sharing is eclipsing search.    When something is really a part of us and our lives, we tell a friend.

Relevance is the game changer.  It is what causes us to buy a product, apply for a job, welcome a company into our community, invest our hard earned money.   It’s what makes a client newsworthy. It’s not just the end game.  It’s the whole game.

Maybe we should call this blog Return on Relevance…because isn’t that really what a reputation is all about?

Can being too successful be bad for your reputation?

It’s earnings season, and despite the daily headlines about the recessionary economy, the earnings reports haven’t been all bad.  Today, GM reported that it tripled its profits from last year.  Whole Foods reported its best quarter in five years.   Goldman Sachs disappointed the street with quarterly earnings of $2.74 billion.   MasterCard profits are on the rise.  Big oil, same story.

Healthcare,  energy, banking and financial services are trending well – something that their investors expect, and appreciate.  But how successful is too successful?  Particularly when gas and milk are both costing nearly $4 a gallon?  When millions of Americans are uninsured or can’t afford their prescriptions because they’ve lost their jobs and can’t afford private healthcare?  Do companies run the risk of reputational backlash when their success is perceived as being “on the backs” of their employees, their customers or their communities?

This is a tricky equation.  A growing profitable business creates and preserves jobs, provides much needed tax revenue to our communities and fuels growth of our stock markets and our economy.  I think the answer to this question is “it depends.”   When necessities like food, gas, healthcare and heating your home are viewed as “unaffordable” for many Americans, record earnings growth, big bonuses and other symbols of so-called “corporate greed” can create real reputational challenges.  This is where the communications becomes very important…the difference between applause and reputational backlash is all about context.  What will the Company do with those record profits?  Who will benefit (in addition to the shareholders and leaders of the company)?  What new employee programs can be funded?  How many people will be hired?  What investments will you make in the future?

This is why investor relations and financial communications professionals can no longer just think about their messaging and narrative exclusively through the lenses of Wall Street’s response – management’s commentary and company news spreads through the twitter-verse in minutes.  Your financial performance is relevant to consumers, communities, regulators and elected officials.    And it is reflected in both your valuation and your reputation.

Twitter and Bin Laden

In the aftermath of the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, fascinating accounts of what transpired in Pakistan are circulating in the media. One of the most interesting is the New York Times’ piece on how social media once again broke the news while TV anchors only previewed what might be coming. While TV viewers waited, people’s emotions flooded the digital sphere instantaneously, all across the country. Whether the news was right or wrong, it was out there in a big way.

Twitter, which has been at the center of the “Arab Spring” protests across the Middle East, saw its highest rate of posts ever, according to the Times, with an average of 3,440 tweets per second in a less than two-hour time span Sunday evening. And Facebook had more than five million mentions of Bin Laden in the U.S. alone. These two outlets simply cannot be ignored by anyone involved with news cycles – and basically that means almost everyone on the planet.

Many people question whether Twitter and Facebook have a place among the journalism elite.

If you have any doubt, listen to this. According to the Huffington Post, a former defense department official tweeted first, at 10:45 pm.

I’d say that’s journalism in today’s era. Reliably sourced, fast out of the gate and clearly for attribution.

As the team leader for the Reuters Airline, Aerospace and Defense team during 9/11, this phenomenon was a sharp contrast to what happened in the news media a decade ago. On that fateful day in September, TV broke the news with pictures of airplanes flying into the Twin Towers. Our journalists scrambled to cover the impending devastation by calling everyone we knew, running down to Ground Zero, sourcing headlines carefully and refraining from printing anything speculative about what had happened. While our newsroom in a Chicago skyscraper was evacuated due to fears it was also targeted, we hastily grabbed laptops and other reporting tools we’d need to write the story from another location.

Today, all we would need are our cell phones and it is highly possible we wouldn’t have been the first to report what happened.

Kathy Fieweger is on TwitterYou can follow her at @KatFieweger.