The importance of having one voice

I apologize for not having posted in more than six weeks. I started a new job a couple of months ago, and that has kept me plenty busy. Hopefully now that I’m settled in some I’ll be able to write more and post more on social media.

This new job has been great. I work with great people, I get to do intense but fun work and I work for a company that is helping a good cause. There are many great stories to tell.

This is true for many businesses. The key is to tell those stories through one voice that reflects the company’s broader positioning strategy.

Most of my career up to this point has been in relatively small businesses – under 500 employees. My last employer only had 10 employees. Now I work for a company with more than 3,000 employees across the country. And it is responsible for communicating the stories for businesses in many different states. That’s a lot of different interests to consider, and a lot of possible stories that can be told. That makes it all the more challenging to maintain one voice.

This can take a lot of forms. In some cases it is due to the corporate bureaucracy parodied by the Dilbert cartoon above. And in most cases the conflicts are accidental and/or done with good intentions. But they nevertheless can result in more aggravation for the people responsible for conveying the story and/or lead to mixed messages coming out of the company. And that is not a good thing in the world of public relations.

Any entity – whether it has five employees or 50,000 – needs to speak in one voice. The message needs to be the same no matter who is doing the talking. Whatever stories the company is telling need to fit within the company’s overall positioning strategy. The larger the company, the more challenging this communication management is.

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What is to come in 2012?

It’s hard to believe, but another year is almost over. Christmas is only a few days a way, and a week after that, we’ll flip the calendar to 2012.

What will happen in the year to come in communication? In healthcare? In public relations? What new technology (or technologies) will emerge? Which existing technologies will be relegated to the dustbin of history, like coin-operated pay phones? What great advances will happen in healthcare and healthcare delivery? Which organization will build a strong foundation for years to come with strong, carefully planned and executed public relations efforts? Which organizations will be tarnished by bungling their public relations, particularly in a crisis situation?

We can ask those questions at this time every year. But here are some unique ones to think about as 2011 comes to a close:

1. Will Google+ seriously challenge Facebook? I was not impressed with it when I first got on, and I still use it only rarely. But it does appear to slowly be catching on. Will it become real competition for Facebook in 2012?

2. Will organizations reevaluate and improve their crisis communication plans? We saw the tattoo scandal at Ohio State and the horrible sexual molestation scandal at Penn State – they were just two examples this year of poor crisis PR. It’s an area to which many organizations do not devote sufficient resources or planning, and they can and have paid a huge price for that. Hopefully this year’s prominent crisis PR disasters taught them a lesson.

3. Will more pharmaceutical companies get serious about social media, even with no FDA guidance on the horizon? One of my favorite reads in the area of pharmaceutical marketing – Rich Meyer’s World of DTC Marketing blog – praised Sanofi’s “Why Insulin?” Social Media campaign as an example of how pharma companies can creatively and effectively use Social Media while not running afoul of the FDA. With no specific FDA guidance likely to come anytime soon, pharma companies can and should learn from Sanofi’s example. Will they? The cutbacks to marketing that many pharma companies made this year won’t help any.

4. Which Presidential candidate will do the best job crafting and selling his/her story? Next year will be a presidential election year (the Iowa Caucus is on Jan. 3!). Which candidate will put forth the best story? Which candidate will be the most effective at selling that story? And how much of an impact will the stories told by PACs and outside groups – who were greatly enabled by last year’s Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court – have on the election? While I do find the partisan bickering in Washington to be tiresome, I do find campaigns themselves to be fascinating, and the upcoming election will definitely be fascinating, no matter which side you want to win.

That’s all for me in 2011. It’s been an interesting year for me in many ways – finishing my masters degree, helping build a start-up pharmaceutical company into a tangible product that could attract a merger with a major pharmaceutical company and now looking for the next opportunity.  I leave you with what, in my opinion, is an underrated holiday song from an underrated movie. Happy Holidays, and all the best for 2012.

Overreacting can worsen a PR crisis

I have written here several times about the importance in PR of responding as swiftly and unequivocally as possible to crises. But you can’t panic either. Overreacting to a crisis can exacerbate the problem just as much as trying to ignore or hide it, if not make it worse.

Let’s look at the recent case of Lowe’s, the home improvement retail giant. It came under fire from the Florida Family Association, along with dozens of other businesses, for advertising on the TLC reality show All-American Muslim. The association, a social conservatism activist group that is known to protest TV shows, movies, businesses and other things its Evangelical Christian supporters find offensive, called on Lowe’s and other advertisers to withdraw from the show because it considers the show to be “propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values,” according to its statement on the matter.

Lowe’s response to this complaint from one group of Evangelical Christians was to pull all of its advertising from the show, and this move has brought it under even more criticism, from all religious sectors. In a statement released Monday, Lowe’s claimed that it made this decision not just because of the Florida Family Association but because the show is “a “lightning rod for people to voice complaints from a variety of perspectives — political, social and otherwise.” But it doesn’t matter – Lowe’s has been branded as gutless at best, as bigoted at worst.
I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call Lowe’s bigots, but I would definitely call it gutless and guilty of pandering. Yes, there is a significant amount of Anti-Islam paranoia in this country; it has been here for many years and has only gotten worse since the 9/11 attacks more than a decade ago. But the vast majority of Americans do not share the views of the Florida Family Association and similar groups.  And businesses, like people, need to show guts to do the right thing. Pandering to one group of Evangelical Christians who (wrongly) associate all Muslims with terrorists is most certainly not the right thing.
Lowe’s would have been much better off addressing the Florida Family Association’s complaints but continuing to advertise on the show and explaining why. It could have even used the moment as an opportunity to do a public good. Instead, it made a panic reaction that only hurts its brand.
Lowe’s experience should be a lesson for all public figures and entities. You need to be proactive and emphatic in responding to problems. But you can’t panic either.
What other examples can you think of like this, where a person or business overreacted to a crisis and made their PR problem worse?

This year’s communication turkeys

Turkey is the food commonly associated with Thanksgiving. It’s also sometimes used colloquially to describe foolishness or ineptitude. And with that holiday (my favorite one of the year!) coming tomorrow, it’s an appropriate time to look at this year’s biggest turkeys in communication and public relations:

Penn State University: I don’t think there is any doubt that they are this year’s biggest turkey, the way British Petroleum was last year for its handling of the Deepwater Horizon accident. The alleged crimes committed by former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky are abominable, horrible and sickening. But university officials, including the school’s iconic football Head Coach, Joe Paterno, made this situation far worse by creating the perception that they cared more about winning games and preserving the Penn State brand than doing right by the alleged victims. If you believe the grand jury report in the case, these crimes were taking place as far back as 1998, and Sandusky was caught in the act by a graduate assistant in 2002, yet no one from the school went to the police, Sandusky was allowed to remain associated with the program and the victims – innocent children – continued to be cast aside until the indictment was finally handed down this month and it had to go public. And even then Paterno and others at the school only admitted to the vaguest responsibility. Then you have Paterno’s press release that said the school’s Boards of Trustees “shouldn’t waste one more minute discussing him,” the protests on campus that followed Paterno’s firing and everything else.

Herman Cain: I discussed this in a previous post. But his poor handling of the sexual harassment accusations against him, particularly how he changed his story multiple times, violated multiple cardinal rules of crisis communication practice. His campaign, which at one point had vaulted him into the lead in the polls in the Republican Primary race for President, was starting to slide before the allegations. But these allegations and his poor handling of them may have finished him off. Politicians have survived much worse than sexual harassment charges, so if Mr. Cain had simply handled the crisis properly, this would have been far less of a mess.

 

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY): Former Rep. Weiner’s story is sadly similar to Cain’s. The Congressman from New York City was caught texting pictures of his…um…male anatomy to a woman who wasn’t his wife. Rather than just admit the misdeed completely immediately and apologize (again, politicians have survived far worse), Weiner at first denied the story, then only grudgingly admitted to facts as they were reported by others. He lost control of the story and came across as a liar in addition to a fiend. He was eventually pressured into resigning, ending what could have been a promising political career (he had been speculated as a possible candidate for Mayor of New York City).

Jim Tressel: In the span of a few months, Jim Tressel went from one of the greatest football coaches in Ohio State history and someone on the fast track to the College Football Hall of Fame to resigning in disgrace. And all because he knew of NCAA violations in his program and didn’t tell the truth to his superiors and NCAA investigators. It wasn’t until Sports Illustrated came out with a report detailing a slew of NCAA violations that Tressel finally came clean, and by then it was too late. Now the program that won seven Big Ten titles, nine of 10 meetings with archrival Michigan, four BCS bowls and a national championship under his watch is disgraced, and so is Tressel. Like so many college coaches, he preached doing things the right way but sacrificed that principle in the name of winning football games. And that gambit ultimately failed, as it usually does.

Do you have any other examples of communications turkeys?

From my family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.

Cases of poor crisis communication: Herman Cain

Crisis communication is never a pleasant experience. And good crisis communication is particularly challenging these days when Social Media and the web further reduces how much time one has to get out in front of a story.

But one thing you should definitely not do in a crisis is what Republican Presidential Candidate Herman Cain did this week: change his story multiple times.

On Sunday evening, the political website Politico reported complaints that Cain sexually harassed two employees while leading the National Restaurant Association during the 1990s. The Associated Press reported a third complaint on Wednesday.

Cain is hardly the first Presidential candidate to be ensnared in a scandal involving the opposite gender. And while sexual harassment is certainly unacceptable, politicians have survived worse (see Bill Clinton). But Cain didn’t help himself by changing the story he presented to the media so frequently it was hard to keep track.

Here is the timeline of Cain’s “explanations,” as assembled by TalkingPointsMemo‘s Josh Marshall:

  1. Cain claimed the Politico report was false.
  2. Cain admitted that there were allegations, but that the allegations were false.
  3. There were allegations, but they were false and he didn’t know what money was paid (how could he not know that if he were in charge of the organization?)
  4. He didn’t know whether money was paid and that it would be wrong to find out if money was paid because that is confidential (see #3)
  5. He was cleared by an in-depth investigation but didn’t know anything about it.
  6. Finally explaining the gesture that led to the complaint and admitting that he remembered discussing a settlement figure.

By changing his story so many times, he kept the story in the news longer than it may have needed to be. Had he simply responded quickly to the Politico report with a detailed explanation of what happened and stuck by that story (and assuming that that story held up factually), he could have gotten this story out of the headlines after a day or two. Even with the first Presidential primaries still two months away, there would have been plenty of news (political and otherwise) to take its spot. And if voters can forgive Bill Clinton for cheating on his wife in the Oval Office and lying under oath, they certainly could have forgiven  Herman Cain for a sexual harassment charge that may not even be truthful.

Instead, it became a major scandal that has been in the headlines all week. And that’s not a good thing for an public figure or organization in a crisis.

The sins of Marketing, PR and Communication

Yom Kippur begins at sundown this Friday. By translation, it’s the Day of Atonement. It’s the day that the 13 million or so Jews in the world (including yours truly) fast and spend the day praying in synagogue to be forgiven for sins against God (I believe the day should be about much more literally than asking God for atonement for our sins, but that’s another story). Not surprisingly, at the heart of the Yom Kippur prayer liturgy is a series of confessional prayers that list sins that some Jew, somewhere, committed over the course of the previous year; all Jews recite them as a sign of solidarity.

With this day fast approaching, I was thinking about what mistakes people in my field commonly make. What are the “sins” of Marketing, Public Relations and Communication in general? Here are several that I thought of:

1. Giving your customers the message you think they SHOULD want: The most important element of a successful business is providing a good or service that your customers want. Many aspiring business owners and marketers make the mistake of trying to force feed their vision to consumers rather than serving their customers. If you own a Ford dealership and car buyers in your area prefer driving pickup trucks and SUVs, make sure you stock a lot of Ford Explorers and F-150s and convey to your potential customers why Ford’s products in these classes are better than the competition. If you stock a lot of Fusion Hybrids and tell your customers that they should buy them instead because they’re more fuel efficient, the dealership probably isn’t going to last very long. The ideal business should know what its customers want so thoroughly and have an offering so finely tuned to those desires that the product sells itself.

2. Letting your opponents define you and your brand: If you don’t aggressively define yourself and your message to your audience, your opponents will, and not to your advantage. Many businesses, celebrities and politicians make the mistake of not being proactive, particularly in crisis situations. Get your message out there early and keep repeating it.

3. Not being up-front and transparent in crisis situations: Many businesses make the mistake of thinking they can hide bad news from the public. You can’t, especially now with the web. And the cover-up is always worse than the crime itself. If you don’t come clean yourself and do so right away, someone else will do so on their terms, not yours. Now in addition to the consequences of the bad news itself, you have the added image damage that comes from not being forthright with your consumers.

4. Using Social Media as just another means to shout at consumers: The most valuable characteristic of Social Media are that they allow for two-way communication. This provides businesses opportunities to actually engage consumers and build relationships with them. A business that simply uses Facebook and Twitter as another channel to send out the press release announcing their new Chief Financial Officer is not going to get the most out of those tools.

5. Using a one-size-fits-all approach to marketing: This somewhat goes back to #1. No two businesses are exactly alike, so no two sets of marketing and communication strategies should be exactly alike either. What works for Amazon.com won’t necessarily work for Southwest Airlines. Know who your audience is and where it is, THEN design the strategy.

What about you? Can you think of any other “sins” of marketing, PR and communication?

And to my fellow Jews, G’mar Chatima Tovah – may you be sealed for a good year ahead.

Social Media can be useful in emergencies

If any of you live in the Middle Atlantic states like I do, you experienced two natural disasters last week that are pretty much unheard of in this part of the country. On Tuesday, we got the 5.9 magnitude earthquake centered in Central Virginia that was felt as far away as Chicago. This weekend, we got Hurricane Irene, which ravaged the entire east coast from North Carolina to New England.

Perhaps it was somewhat apropos that the newest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine has an article on how Social Media can be integrated into emergency-preparedness efforts. Dr. Raina Merchant, Dr. Nicole Lurie and Stacy Elmer write:

“Since these new media are so pervasive in communication (more than 40 million Americans, for instance, use social media Web sites multiple times a day), it makes sense to explicitly consider the best way of leveraging these communication channels before, during, and after disasters. “

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other government leaders relayed information to their constituents via their Twitter feeds. Businesses posted information about early closings on their Social Media feeds. People shared photos and videos of the two disasters – many admittedly just for fun, but others to genuinely inform. And in the chaos that emergencies such as Hurricane Irene bring, clear communication is vital.

The important thing the Christies and Bloombergs of the world need to remember, however, is that they need to listen to what their constituents are saying on Social Media during these emergencies as well. Don’t just use it as another means of shouting your talking points. If electricity is down or someone is in a bad cell phone reception area, Social Media may be their only way to communicate. One of my graduate school instructors, Leigh Fazzina, used Twitter to get rescued when she was injured in a bicycle crash in a wooded area with no cell phone reception. And Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker regularly monitors Twitter to identify potential and actual problems in his city and either address them himself or direct people to the agencies who can address them.

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