On Friday, at the kind invitation of PR pro and educator extraordinaire Dr. Linda Hagan, I guest lectured a class of young artists at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. In fitting with the curriculum of business and marketing trends and practices, I advised the group on how best to go about creating their own brand. A significant slice of what I covered is evident in the excellent new movie, “The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton. Because when it comes to brands – iconic brands – McDonald’s best-known owner Ray Kroc was a true visionary.
I began the CCS class by asking students, ‘What constitutes a brand?’ In response I heard, ‘A logo’ and ‘A slogan’ before another chimed in with, ‘What you stand for.’ All correct, I told them, when taken together. Because, I further opined, a brand is the sum of all attributes of a particular company, product or service – it is how you answer your phones, how you treat your customers, referral sources and employees. It is how you differentiate yourself from your competition – not just in words but also by delivering upon a value proposition and brand promise.
Ray Kroc understood this as well as anyone ever. While peddling milkshake mixers to drive-ins across the country in the 1950s, he stumbled upon a little single shingle establishment in San Bernardino, California where an amazing thing was happening: families were waiting in line (and not long) for delicious hamburgers and soft drinks that took minutes from order to delivery. This was in stark contrast to the traditional drive-ins Kroc had experienced that were littered with trash, loud music and smoking teenagers in their hot rods. Food often took 30 minutes or more and orders were routinely wrong. The alternative restaurant? The brainchild of the McDonalds brothers.
McDonald’s was the model of efficiency, consistency and wholesome family dining. They offered a unique brand value proposition and delivered upon it each and every time. Kroc saw the vast opportunity to take this badly needed model across the country via franchising. He likened the golden arches to the church steeples and city hall flags he saw in every town he visited on his sales travels. These arches would add another icon to the skylines of each and every town in America, he predicted. And once these restaurant chain stores opened in their respective markets, Kroc worked tirelessly to maintain brand standards in operations, food offerings and, most importantly, customer service.
A brand, I told the class, works best when it is honest, genuine and true to who you are. As current students and future employees or entrepreneurs in the world of art and film, I offered, they needed to be true to who they were but also mindful that their brand must also keep in mind the audiences they want to reach. After all, a brand cannot be successful, ultimately, if it doesn’t resonate and compel. It must also stay open to evolution. In fact, McDonald’s has gone through decades of changes to meet evolving consumer tastes and priorities, as evidenced by their expanded menu options, dollar value meals and healthier fare. Ray Kroc didn’t found McDonald’s but he certainly honed and developed its brand, building the restaurant into arguably the greatest fast-food chain ever. And to millions starting in the Cold War era, Americana never tasted so good.
For those who try to read news stories closely, trying to figure how and why they come together, the past few weeks have been a case study in leaks. So much news coverage of The White House, not political analysis or opinion, but the actual reporting by those on the beat, has been driven by anonymous sources from the inside. Leaks have long been the stock-in-trade of political reporting, and business reporting for that matter. But the quantity of leaks, the consistency of them and the fact that there seem to be so many, so early, has led questions to come our way wondering what it all means.
We can’t pretend to psychoanalyze people we don’t know in an environment we have never worked. But, from first-hand experience, we have learned that deliberate leaks to journalists can be a reflection of workplace culture. In times of anxiety, we see leaks. But we especially see them when employees feel like they no longer have a voice and that leads to resentment toward top management.
A case in point is a client I worked with in the late ’90s. One of the underlying issues that ultimately resulted in monumental PR challenges for that company was serious tension between top corporate leadership and the company’s workforce. When the company had a phone conference – a single phone conference – to discuss whether to begin what would have been a lengthy process of due diligence that may have led to merger talks with a competitor, a leak made it news. Just days later, AOL and Time Warner announced a merger that had been kept a complete secret before its official announcement. The difference was as simple as cultures.
We have seen many other examples over the years, as texts and social media have enabled and empowered leakers. I once received a text from a reporter asking about something that had been tipped to him via text from a participant in a meeting, among people who weren’t getting along, that was still going on. Another client CEO who fostered dysfunction, whose emails were routinely published in news stories, asked “Don’t they know those are internal communications?” There’s no such thing when your direct-reports who feel alienated have access to the “forward” button.
A few years ago, an organization hired us to design a communications schematic to prevent leaks from occurring, as a piece of news needed to be communicated with precision. That foresight allowed the news to be broken on the organization’s preferred terms. That’s something every organization should consider in times of sensitivity.
If you’re concerned about leaks where you work, don’t blame reporters who are trying to do their job. Think about how to build trust on the inside. That will prevent those who have access to information from trying to turn to the outside.
Once upon a time, say, a few weeks ago, a business could take its time deciding whether or not it made sense to take a public stand, internally and/or externally, on a political or social issue. But events of recent weeks prove that you need to be ready now, in case a sensitive issue develops quickly.
In the wake of a White House Executive Order and the subsequent reaction, I had the privilege of representing my Tanner Friedman colleagues talking about these complex and emerging business communications trends with interviews in both the Associated Press and CBS News in recent days, both of which resulted in stories that appeared from coast-to-coast and across the Internet.
Your business now needs to be prepared by having a deeper understanding of your customers than ever before and how they think, feel and react when it comes to your brand and the issues that are in the news. One of our clients recently researched 1300 consumers to get to know their customer better. But even if you can’t spare that type of expense, you should still feel an imperative to know their attitudes about your company, the role it plays in their lives and why they choose your brand. If it comes time to communicate a stance on a politically-charged issue, you and they will know if you’re acting for them in mind.
When it comes to the issue of immigration, Uber, by removing its CEO from a Presidential advisory committee, took into consideration that its customer is younger and more urban than most of America. That affects how the company is viewed in light of that issue. A company targeting rural, older consumers may have made a different decision, based on what is known about public opinion on that and other issues.
The other group to consider is your workforce. Several tech companies, which operate across borders and employ immigrants on work visas, spoke out early against the Order. Other companies less affected first-hand chose the same course after making a decision based on values. Many companies, of course, have chosen to stay quiet, not wanting to get into this mix and upset anyone.
Regardless of the decision a company chooses, events of recent weeks have proven that these decisions may have to be made quickly, without the luxury of long deliberation between executives, PR counsel, government affairs and lawyers. Regardless of the size of your business, it’s something every company should be thinking about now. How do looming government decisions affect our company and our workforce?
If you’re worried about taking a risk, one way or the other, think of the companies that risked ridicule from the President of the United States. Think of your customers and employees. Do they expect you to take a side? As I told the AP in another story this week, “No company has gone out of business putting their customers and employees first.”
Can Donald Trump ever become presidential? Can he ever overcome his egotistic, misogynistic, separatist, nationalistic demeanor, posturing and dialogue? If his first few days in office are any indication he has a long, long way to go – if in fact it is at all possible. Trump needs a filter. In that way, as a communications counselor, how would I be advising Donald Trump, moving forward? That’s a very, very good question.
First of all, he has proven that he does not take direction well from insiders. During his campaign he went through a host of campaign managers, often finding himself vocally and publicly in disagreement with those that lasted for any length of time. Our team worked directly with some of his staffers when he came to Detroit last year to speak. Inexperienced and indifferent to anyone and anything other than what their boss wanted, these were clearly “yes” men and women; those in no position to put forth ideas nor advice.
And that is what Donald Trump is used to. It’s how he operates. I recall interacting once with a business associate who acted similarly. He put forth too many of his opinions and directions as though they were gospel, often with no regard for potential ramifications, often through aggressive diatribes and usually with disastrous results. I suggested to him once, “You really should think before you speak.” He smugly looked back at me and indicated he did not care what I thought as he had been successful throughout his career using this modus operandi. The similarities with Trump are unmistakable. He deludes himself into thinking that how he thinks, what he says and how he acts are right. And, if you disagree with him? Well, then there’s something wrong with you. There’s no room for discussion nor discourse and absolutely no latitude for a difference of opinion. Believe me.
How he handled the women’s rights gatherings this weekend is just one more example of how he needs to adjust his approach. After initially saying nothing nor acknowledging the worldwide protests he finally took to his favorite pulpit, Twitter, to initially mock perhaps a million people worldwide. He later changed his tune, writing something at least approaching professional when he talked about why gatherings of this sort were what make America special. Too late. Damage already done.
So how would I be advising Trump? Let’s be serious – it would never happen. But if I were in a position to do so, even for just a moment, I would advise him to always consider the big picture while looking at both sides of any issue. Get all of the facts, consider them closely and then act. Don’t agree with others are saying? Acknowledge where appropriate but don’t disparage. Be professional, show class, don’t engage if you’re going to enrage. After all, he is no longer a businessman acting in his own best interests. He is not a reality TV (star?). He is President of the United States, representing we the people, both here at home and across the globe. Act responsibly, Donald. We’re counting on you.
It’s impossible to do PR analysis of brand new Presidential spokesman Sean Spicer’s Saturday evening press briefing. That’s because it wasn’t PR. It was a diatribe that reeked of fascist-style propaganda, in tone and in content. Watch it here, unfiltered, to see for yourself.
As a media and PR fan, I have avidly watched and listened to press briefings for more than 25 years, when early versions of cable news showed them during the Gulf War. I have been particularly curious about how White House and other high-profile government spokespeople conduct themselves in front of the public, via the media. It is an extremely difficult job that requires preparation on an incredibly wide range of issues and daily updates. It is different from corporate communications work, but nonetheless interesting. Lest you accuse me of some sort of political bias (it happened just last week), on the Republican side, I learned a few things from watching and listening to Ari Fleischer and even paid to see Karen Hughes speak. On the Democratic side, I sat with Mike McCurry at dinner one night during a communications conference, impressed with his skill and smarts, and have listened to Josh Earnest’s briefings on satellite radio, appreciating his calm demeanor. That’s just to name a few on “both sides.”
All that means I think I write with some authority when I write that Sean Spicer and, during the campaign, Kellyanne Conway do not represent the PR business in this country. They represent Donald Trump, as Spicer would have said last night, “Period.” But their behavior and pattern of untruths – far beyond the typical (and often historically reprehensible) political “spin” and purported contempt for journalists hurts PR professionals who are expected to follow a code of ethics, widely, and that’s troubling.
What they do is as close to day-to-day PR as “Miami Vice” is to your local suburban police department. But, this is the only form PR that most Americans, even educated business people, see publicly. We are a business that, unfortunately, has worked very hard to deserve a reputation of sleaze. The marketplace doesn’t trust us to be fair our fees, after generations of gouging, and, too often, doesn’t think it needs our services because potential clients think they can communicate better themselves than the “spin doctors” of the world. What happened Saturday night makes this worse.
President Trump, via Spicer, apparently wanted to fire a salvo in his self-described “war” against the media. A consequence of that action is to hurt those of us who are just trying to sell communications services and counsel to businesses and organizations who have the potential to be more successful working with us, in order to make an honest living in this country.
As someone who advises clients on the impact of social media, I’m the one getting a lesson now.
It started late Saturday night, just after the football playoff game ended and the Saturday Night Live open began, when some news broke of great interest to me. Esquire reported that Trump transition officials, calling the White House Press Corps “the opposition party,” are considering essentially kicking the press out of the building.
As someone who has made a living because of the privileges afforded by the First Amendment for my entire career, I feel strongly about not infringing on our Constitution’s paramount principles as much as any value I cherish. I try to look for ways to communicate that feeling to those outside of the communications business, so they too don’t take this for granted. I have also taken advantage of many public speaking opportunities to talk about the difference between public entities and private businesses and how they should handle PR. So, in true modern-day form, I took to Twitter.
With this post, I tweeted, with a link to the Esquire story, “We, as citizens, own The White House. The Press Corps keeps an eye on the place for us.”
I write this 16 hours later and more than 40,000 Twitter users have seen this and hundreds have chosen to react to it, let’s just say, a variety of ways. That’s thanks to retweets from the likes of Ron Fournier, a former national journalist and new publisher/editor of Crain’s Detroit Business (full disclosure: I know Ron “in real life”) and Brian Stelter, a CNN journalist who covers the media itself and, subsequently, by Henry Blodget of Business Insider, who has more than 100,000 followers.
Want to know what’s it’s like on Twitter for someone who, even for a day, attracts a large following (on my own, I’m about 2,000)? Here’s a sampling of the responses, verbatim:
“Nobody has a more inflated view of themselves than journalists.”
“how about sexoffenders aren’t aloud to live in gov’t housing! This is a law the #DOJ should be using now!”
“Unfortunately the press corpse “eyes” have been shut tight over the last 8 years and have lost credibility”
“The press largely try to decide who we put in our WH. It’s that agenda that has lowered the esteem of journalism.”
“The lying FAKE NEWS is dead. We get our news directly from TRUMP. Journalism is dead! Gave Obama’s lies a pass.”
“I didn’t appreciate it at all, when Obama’s flooded OUR house with rainbow colors, celebrating gayness. Wrong!”
“We should demand his resignation this is a slap in the face of everything we stand for. It’s been there since T Roosevelt admin!”
“to bad you didn’t feel that way when Obama was in office.”
“Trump is a dictator commie pinko fascist.”
“ejecting the failing propaganda will be good for the american people!”
“It’s ok. Bc wall, or jobs or something. Who knows”
“Put them outside in a cold tent.”
“Press has thoroughly discredited itself. Until they earn people’s trust back, most are self-serving fake poseurs.”
“No, they don’t. They’re partisan hacks. If moving to a different room gives them so much agita, they’re coddled brats”
“Actually, you, the citizens, hired Trump to keep an eye on it.”
Is any of this representative of anything? The only certainty is that this has to be a challenge for anyone who has to wade through this every day. We have to remember that the First Amendment protects all of the above comments.
No matter your perspective on this particular issue, it’s an important reminder that all of us who depend on the First Amendment must be aware and speak up about threats to it, especially from the highest levels of our government.
Once I rose above the noise and confusion, set a course beyond this illusion…In 1976, the band Kansas produced its swan song album, “Leftoverture” and signature single “Carry On Wayward Son”. Though it was not their very first album (that had come two years prior), no one had heard anything quite like this art rock from the heartland. Some 40 years later and despite the exit of most of its original members, Kansas has found itself re-energized with a new LP: “Prelude Implicit” and a piece of work on par with their best ever. It’s a study in counterintuitives.
In a recent article on Rollingstone.com, writer Steve Smith provides more background on various aspects of this dynamic, including the fact that only band mates Phil Ehart (drums) and Rich William (guitar) remain from the early days. Of particular note is that the heart of soul of Kansas, singer Steve Walsh and guitarist Kerry Livgren are gone after both forever served as primary songwriters. How does any group survive such turnover? Such an undertaking is particularly tough without your lead singer. ELO II, as it was once named, tried unsuccessfully to make it without Jeff Lynne; the Guess Who without two main vocalists: Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman.
Many groups in recent years have toured successfully with “doppelganger” lead singers culled from tribute bands, Journey and Yes among them. Yet, it’s one thing to emulate on stage while surrounded by several original members, another to release and successfully market brand new music. With their first album of new material in nearly 16 years, “Prelude Implicit”, Kansas once again hits the right note despite what might otherwise be creative handicaps – just as it did in the mid 1980s when singer John Elefante temporarily replaced Steve Walsh for huge hits “Play The Game Tonight” and “Fight Fire With Fire”.
And, it appears, lightening can strike twice (three times?). This time, it’s singer Ronnie Platt who supplies the electricity as Kansas returns to two guitars and heavy organ – harkening back of course to its original sound. And, the signature violin never sounded better. The timing is also just right for this reincarnation as classic rock enjoys a resurgence and new appreciation by millennials who grew up with their parents playing these artists. Just look around you at your next Steve Miller or Styx concert to the audience’s demographic makeup.
What matters most, though, is the music – and these new tunes sound really, really good. As a huge Kansas and Steve Walsh fan I was very, very, pleasantly surprised. Reading reviews, I’m not alone. This is not a tribute band. As writer Craig Ellis Bacon recounts in the prog report this Kansas brings a fresh, new energy that is also “comfortably confident and mature”, “totally even and incredibly enjoyable”. Give it a listen. I think you’ll agree that 2017 sounds a bit like 1976 again.
Media Training, once a staple of PR service, particularly from those of us who once worked as journalists, had become, as we put it in this 2013 post, “Kona coffee in a 7-11 world.”
Clients didn’t want to pay for special sessions to be prepared for media interviews, viewed the service as a luxury item and didn’t see it as necessary, as the chances of being interviewed by a journalist seemed reduced on a regular basis. At Tanner Friedman, though, the trend seems to be shifting.
Last week, we were flown to New York by a global brand that wanted to prepare for a new product launch. More than anything, the client wanted its spokespeople to be as effective at possible in using every interview opportunity as a chance to draw audience to its product.
We had a chance to talk to the senior communications executive from the client company after the sessions and were informed that, if not for the company’s relationship with Tanner Friedman, they probably wouldn’t have done this training. Leaving spokespeople unprepared was a real option. That’s because the PR agency community had essentially priced projects like theirs out of the market. The going rate in New York, we were told, is a budget-busting figure, twice what our session had cost, including travel expenses.
Therein lies the problem with Media Training, as an agency service. It’s not just that clients don’t see it as essential anymore, agencies have made mistakes. First, for too long, it has been too expensive. Firms realized clients would pay a premium for it, then they got greedy with astronomical, fixed “half day” or “full day” rates. Second, firms tried to capitalize on fear, particularly in the ’90s and early 2000s, when “Ambush TV” filled the airwaves. Media Training was marketed as a way to “help your executives sleep better at night,” when companies were worried about camera crews showing up in their lobby (a rare event then, that’s even more rare now). It too rarely has had anything to do with real-life preparation.
Yes, there are fewer reporters and fewer opportunities to tell your stories in traditional media. But when you have news, it makes sense to find the right “outside” professional communications firm to help whoever is going to be interviewed get the practice needed to be successful. The fact is a media interview is unlike any other conversation you’ll have. Finding the right firm is a matter of finding someone who will provide Media Training with actual news experience, at a reasonable cost, customized to your needs. It can be done.
As has been written here before, nothing gets traditional and social media going like celebrity deaths. In an era of media done on the cheap, it’s an easy story to tell. In an era of lowest common denominator connections, it’s an easy story to share. This is all natural.
With respect for those who have felt emotionally stung by the death of a celebrity or multiple celebrities, I apologize if this message may be received as insensitive, but, as always, the goal here is to explain.
The popular narrative that seems to suggest that with the turn of the calendar, some sort of anomaly of celebrity deaths will come to an end appears to be driven by factors ranging from wishful thinking to online snark to flat-out ignorance. Celebrities will continue to die in what seems like large numbers because, quite simply, the evolution of media over the past five decades has simply created an enormous number of celebrities.
Once, there were just movie stars, radio stars and politicians, with maybe a few “stars of stage and screen” thrown in. Then, there were TV stars layered on top of that. Then, music expanded, creating rock stars, pop stars, soul stars, rap stars, country stars, jazz stars and opera stars (just look at the sheer volume of #1 hitmakers – it’s staggering). Then, TV expanded creating shows on dozens of channels of genres. Sports expanded, creating star legacies in new markets and in new sports, along with champion players and coaches every year. And so on and so on, to the point today where there are reality show stars, YouTube stars and household names that nobody in your household has ever heard of.
When the celebrity era really stared booming, with the proliferation of TV and the segmentation of music, those who became stars in their 20s and 30s are now in their 70s and 80s. The average life expectancy in the U.S. now is 78.74 years. So what is the chance of someone famous dying tomorrow? Pretty good.
Yes, some music icons died much younger. The reality is, sooner or later, living the way many of them chose to live is going to take a toll. It’s just not because of the year on the calendar.
Another factor is that the celebrities of the World War Two generation have mostly already died. So those who are remembered by Boomers and GenXers are now starting to die. That, in part, makes it seem like more celebrities are dying because we all tend to pay more attention to news that feels relevant to us.
The fact is that celebrity deaths won’t stop in just a few days. Losing an “all time great” or “all time favorite” will be commonplace, but still news, in 2017 and for the foreseeable future.
That’s what George Michael appeared to be preparing for in 2017. A new documentary film, a new album – all to come nearly two decades after exiting the record charts and moving largely into reclusiveness. It is a return (redemption?) that will, sadly, have to be realized without him.
I love writing about music but hate writing about an artist leaving us and, in 2016, this happened all too often. For many of us, George Michael is still in his 20′s or 30′s, singing his heart out and moving about, arguably among the top, true talents to come out of the MTV era. And while he was a singer, the words he sang spoke to millions of fans across the world. He knew his audience and they loved him for it.
George Michael could have easily been dismissed after first appearing as a member of Wham! with the bubble-gum pop, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” in 1984 and yet we watched (often in awe) as he not only moved feet but hearts with the haunting “Careless Whisper” and “A Different Corner”. As a solo artist, his growth as an artist – singer/songwriter – increased exponentially as he also matured with this audience. From controversial sex object (“I Want Your Sex”) to existentialist (“Father Figure”) to romantic (“One More Try”) Michael connected with his fans – giving them what they wanted but also keeping them guessing with beats and melodies the likes of which many had never heard.
In a Facebook post yesterday someone noted the cruel irony of Christmas Day being George Michael’s last Christmas, ala his holiday song of the same name. I prefer instead to refer back to a few of his other tunes (“Heaven Help Me”), (“Praying For Time”), (“Jesus To A Child”), and, considering his often tumultuous life, perhaps even “Freedom”. He has turned “a different corner” than expected yet we can still be thankful for the good fortune to have met him. (We) gotta have faith.