In one of the most thought-provoking public conversations I’ve been a part of in recent years, the Public Relations Society of America’s Detroit Chapter invited me, along with Crain’s Detroit Business Publisher/Editor Ron Fournier and Finn Partners’ Taylar Koblyas, to sit on a panel last week, in front of a packed room on the campus of Wayne State University, entitled “The Role Of The PR Practitioner In The Era Of Fake News.”
We all agree that hoaxes have always been around, that provable facts haven’t always guided public opinion (see the flat Earth controversy of 1492) and that what makes today different is the speed and omnipresence of what looks like news in the palms of our hands. It’s true that news has trust issues today, which can hinder PR and its relationship with news.
In the midst of this, PR faces a looming crisis of credibility. We do not exist if not for our relationships, grounded in trust, with journalists and the audiences we work to reach. Right now, though, our actions threaten those relationships more than ever.
How can journalists trust us when, more often than ever, we won’t even talk to them? We encourage email “interviews” and push paper (in the form of statements) rather than people (human-to-human contact). We can’t build trust when we flood their inboxes with pitches and releases that we know would never be news in the current environment, rationalized by thinking “we’re casting a wide net” or so we can show clients and bosses “impressive” media lists, just to cover our rear ends.
How can the public trust us when all we say to our most important audiences is that the company is “Excited to leverage assets” or other corporate mumbo jumbo, written for our clients and bosses and not for our audiences? We need to revisit the concept of writing for the individual who approves our copy, rather than writing for the audience who is, more than ever, depending on the company to tell them what’s going on.
And then there’s this story – sent to me after the panel discussion. How can we be trusted to work with or provide information to anyone when those from our ranks bill a public school system $4.5 million over just three years for work? Any kind of work? The days of “charge the biggest number you can get away with until you’re fired” need to be over in order for the rest of us to be able to work with clients on the “need to have” services that will fulfill their most important objectives and provide the most value.
All of us in PR want the news business to be successful and credible in the eyes of our audiences. In order for that to happen, we have to be a part of the solution. But, on a day to day basis, we are too often a part of the problem.
In attempting to guide an organization out of crisis, you’re never just one interview away. You’re never just one email away. You’re never just one op-ed away. You’re never just one “positive news story” away. You’re never just one tactic away from recovering from a crisis.
I hope that’s the takeaway from the keynote presentation, “Reputation Recovery,” I was privileged to give at last week’s “Age Of Polarization” conference on the campus of Central Michigan University, an impressive event organized by student members of the CMU PRSSA, in collaboration with the professional members of the White Pine Chapter of the PRSA. The conference touched on many of the most important challenges in today’s public relations business.
Taking this opportunity to share with a wider audience what I shared in person, recovering from a crisis takes an organized campaign. It requires a different mindset. Organizations must be in a different mode, led by PR, but shared within the entire organization. Crisis recovery happens incrementally, providing proof to audiences over and over again, in multiple different ways, that trust will be re-earned, mistakes will be corrected and a new course is being charted. That simply will not happen with a “check the one box” approach.
United Airlines is a recent case in point. Two weeks after the pulled-from-the-plane incident, United remains, at best, in a fragile reputational state. Its CEO, in the wake of the crisis, did a grand total of one TV interview. It was on Good Morning America, a show that can reach between 4-5 million viewers on TV and, and probably a large fraction of that online. But United flew more than 100 million passengers last year. How many of them saw that one interview? Or have been exposed to the company’s messaging at all?
A few years ago, I was working with a membership organization in crisis, which was damaged from the inside out. It would take months, at least, of open conversation for any healing to occur. A couple of board members called me one day and said “We know what we need to do. We’re working on an email.” I explained to them that with so much damage done, they are not just one email away from solving their problem. It would take a campaign, over time, to be able to move on from the crisis, which it ultimately did.
Just like in our individual lives, when something goes wrong, we need to reallocate time and priorities in order to fix it. A company or organization is no different. It takes effort, resources and teamwork to be able to work through and past tough times.
Bill O’Reilly. The Facebook murderer. Media and society. All were hot topics and the center of conversation last night on Fox-2′s “Let it Rip” with Huel Perkins. As we helped weigh in as part of a distinguished panel something apparent became even more disturbingly clear: something is wrong in Denmark, on many fronts. And, tying in to the blog’s title (which comes from the 70s musical “Jesus Christ Superstar”) what is going on out there?
In the wake of Fox’s firing of Bill O’Reilly, one of the panelists, an attorney, suggested that the TV giant and his former boss may well have been targets because of their money and fame. As I posited on-air, if I was being accused of something of this nature and I did not do it, I’d be fighting back tooth-and-nail rather than hiding behind millions of dollars in payouts and “hush money.” I’d use that money instead to sue these women for defamation. Instead, denials reign and questions remain as Fox tries to repair a corporate culture and image from the top down.
Of greater concern, of course, is Facebook and its “Live” video component that is growing in popularity and usage among the media giant’s 2 billion users. No other media allows anyone, at any time, to post whatever they want, whenever they want. TV and radio employ time delays. Print media, of course, has editors. Now, more than ever Mark Zuckerberg and his team must come up with a solution that more widely, comprehensively and effectively monitors and vets what is posted. Call it “Big Brother.” Call it censorship. I call it making sure the majority of our society is protected from those who are disturbed and looking for a forum to be heard.
And what of society in general? Have we become desensitized to brutal images of gang beat downs and bad behavior and their being posted and displayed on-air and online? Is the media to blame? Cue the sociologists but we all bear responsibility – from home and parents to churches and counselors to video game manufacturers and news outlets. Ultimately, it is about respect for humanity and human life and providing our young people with the mental and intellectual tools, support and guidance they so desperately need and is altogether lacking. Because when we fail our kids, we all suffer the consequences.
If you answered, “Me” you could be a narcissist. We’ve all worked with, worked for or watched narcissism in action – in the workplace, on the sports field or elsewhere in life. In the latest issue of Rolling Stone, writer Alex Morris examines the individual many are calling pathologically narcissistic: our president, Donald Trump. It is an interesting analysis in that it provides traits typically found with individuals possessing this personality trait (disorder, actually) along with its origins.
Leading psychiatric professionals and organizations term narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) as: “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy.” A diagnosis requires five or more of the following traits, which RS lists followed, in some cases, by a “Trump” example: (1) Has a grandiose sense of self importance (“Nobody builds better walls than me”); (2) Is preoccupied with fantasies of power and success; (3) Believes he/she can only be understood by others of special or high-status such as themselves; (4) Requires excessive admiration (“They say it was the biggest standing ovation since. Peyton Manning won the Super Bowl”); (5) Has a sense of entitlement (“When you’re a star…you can grab them by the…”); (6) Is interpersonally exploitative (see 5); (7) Lacks empathy; unwilling to recognize others’ feelings (“He’s not a war hero…he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured”); (8) Is envious of others and believes others are envious him/her; (9) Shows arrogant haughty behaviors or attitudes.
Morris reports that NPD was first introduced in 1980, and affects up to six percent of the U.S. population. In 2008, a comprehensive study of NPD found that almost one out of 10 Americans in their twenties had displayed behaviors consistent with NPD. As with most personality traits, the roots go back to childhood where a parent either puts their offspring on a pedestal, or, withholds approval so that the child has to build up his/her own ego to survive. In the case of Donal Trump, his father Joe often referred to his son as “a king”, teaching him that it was important to be “a killer.” The article describes Trump’s childhood as problematic where other kids were forbidden from playing with him and detention was a way of life before being banished to military school.
Finally, Rolling Stone examines Trump’s communications platform of choice, Twitter, which, it says, ‘does not actually foster narcissism” but, like other social media, “(has) turned much of the Internet int a narcissist’s playground, providing immediate gratification for someone who needs a public and instantaneous way to build up their false self.”
We all have to deal with narcissists but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. One can best cope by understanding that that behavior comes from a place of weakness that is being overcompensated for by that individual. They just don’t know any better - and don’t want to. And though often maddening and frustrating most of us can also see that the narcissist’s behavior is actually very, very sad. Just don’t dwell on that realization for too long; more attention is just what they want.
If you’ve been online before reading this, you’ve seen the video of the paying customer being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight after what’s known in the airline business as “an involuntary bumping.” You’ve seen the response, attributed to the CEO, calling what happened a effort to “re-accommodate” the passenger.
As someone who cut my teeth in PR by handling media relations for a global airline client in the midst of multiple and frequent crises, I often hear from contacts when they wonder why airlines do what they do. The texts came my way often today, from professionals within communications:
“United seriously needs a PR firm.”
I’m sure they have one. At least one. I’m sure they have one of the biggest and most expensive firms on the planet on a retainer worth more money than some entire agencies bill in a year and that the account is extremely staffed. They were shrewd enough to get the company’s CEO named PRWeek Communicator of the Year just last month, for what that’s worth.
“That statement was pretty terrible.”
Yes it was. I would have hated to have been in the conference rooms or on the email chains where it was being hashed out.
“They respond by telling media to speak with law enforcement authorities?”
That’s what happens when the lawyers are in charge.
Meanwhile, to borrow a line from the movie “Airplane,” the corporate communications department “picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.”
This appears to be another example of the tug of war seen inside organizations in times of adversity. I tend to give PR departments the benefit out the doubt. They tend to know what to say and how to say it. But so many times, they’re not able to because the lawyers are running the show. Too often, executives not affiliated with either department side with legal counsel because it feels “safe.” Right now, for United, traditional and social media are anything but. In these cases, PR gets stuck with trying to clean up the mess from the parade rather than leading it.
We live in a culture where there seems to be an “outrage of the day.” It could be argued that, by tomorrow, there will probably be something replacing this incident in the public consciousness. But there are a few factors here that can’t be ignored. First, United is a repeat offender. There was the leggings incident just a few weeks ago. And remember the “United Breaks Guitars” phenomenon several years ago? Also, travelers are emotional consumers with long memories. We all know people who tell stories about delays and cancelled flights for years to anyone who will listen. Airline issues strike a chord. It’s an industry Americans love to hate. Take it from someone who worked with an airline that was shut down during a pilots’ strike, then months later, operational dysfunction led to planes landing in a Detroit blizzard where some sat for 8 hours waiting for gates to be cleared.
The thing about what happened to United and what has happened to other airlines is that the incidents in question are not inherently PR problems. They are internal issues that cause PR problems. And they are generally reflective of culture. If United board members and executives really care about their audiences, awards aside, they will make PR an integral part of corporate culture. As of now, “thou shalt protect thyself from litigation” appears to be the singular guiding commandment.
Over the past five years the Metro Detroit business community has grown at a degree not seen in literally decades, led in large part by a resurgent city center downtown where, with a nod to Dan Gilbert’s Quicken, more and more people are coming to live, work and play. Yet, is it sustainable?
On Wednesday May 3rd from 7:30a-1p in Tech Town, the 2017 “Small Business Workshop” will examine exactly that with a theme focused on business sustainability. The Lee Group, led by media personality and marketing consultant Mark S. Lee, is the presenter and Tanner Friedman a proud sponsor and workshop participant. More here: http://leegroupinnovation.com/small-business-workshop/ The conference aims to dive into dynamics and considerations sure to be of value to any business, company or entrepreneur operating in the Southeast Michigan region. We aim to look at both challenges and recommendations for remaining viable in any business climate.
In my area of expertise in marketing and public relations, at the very core, it really comes down to a few foundational considerations, among them: Knowing who you are and who your customers are. And, from there, how do you communicate value to that audience with messaging that resonates and moves them to action? Then, for the long haul, once you have those customers, how do you retain them and remain viable? There, we will look into the importance of delivering on your value proposition and building long-term relationships. After all, in virtually any industry, your existing customers should be your greatest allies and referral sources.
Marketing, media relations, social media – all factor into how you can build, maintain and grow your business with – again, back to that word – sustainability. We hope to have a dialogue with you on May 3rd. Like you, we’re in it for the long haul and eager to share the recipes.
News this past week that Sears may have trouble staying in business beyond the immediate future shouldn’t make you think of just retail. It should also get you thinking about your business.
If when you heard the news about Sears you thought “Sears? Are they still around?,” you weren’t alone. And if you have anything to say about the communications and marketing where you work, you should consider that question the worst case scenario for your business, whether it’s a professional services firm, a nonprofit organization, a manufacturer, a health care entity or even a media company. Examples on a weekly basis prove that the key to business success is relevance.
PR strategy conversations with clients have changed significantly over the last decade. It used to be “How can we get you media attention?” Now, it’s “How can we help you stay in front of your audiences?” Sometimes, that includes news coverage, if situations warrant. But, always, it’s about communicating to audiences proactively about who you are, what you do and how you’re different, in a variety of ways, across multiple platforms. Think about what you’re doing. If it’s like Sears, just being there at the end of the mall hoping customers would come in while resting on the historical value of your brand, that’s just not going to work.
Business challenges don’t develop overnight. Don’t believe those who tell you that Amazon alone is forcing Sears out of business. Sears has been in this spiral for decades. Personally, I haven’t set foot in one of their stores in more than 20 years, after an all-time customer service debacle about which nobody from the company seemed to care. When we walk into organizations suffering reputation challenges, it’s rarely just “one thing” that causes a situation. Often, brands are the victims of collective negligence. When merely surviving becomes a top priority, things like service and PR just don’t get done and cause the company increasing levels of harm.
“I didn’t know you were still in business” is something you never want your audiences to say. Communicate to them, engage with them and that’s something you’ll never have to hear.
No one will be shocked by the front page headline of the latest issue of Wired magazine titled: “The News in Crisis.” Equally ‘yawn-able’ infographics in the accompanying article inside show (a) the decline in news jobs for all media (10% in the past 10 years) and a generation gap where only 5% of 18-29 years olds get their news from print newspapers. Tell us something we don’t know, right? Yet, a sister article by writer Gabriel Snyder shines a light on how the venerable The New York Times is humping like never before to remain relevant.
Working in favor of theTimes and other legitimate news outlets are the very times we are living in. As, while ‘fake news’ is a ridiculous term coined by the current administration to describe anything it does not agree with, social platforms all too often cater to scribes and sources who put forth opinions and conjecture that is not fact checked and certainly not news. Most rationale individuals want real journalism from credible news sources.. In the wake of the recent presidential election, in fact, the Times reported that subscriptions had surged to 10 times its usual numbers.
To remain viable, however, the Times knows it has to continue to build upon its digital platforms. In 2000, print advertising accounted for 70% of revenues, with digital just 1%. There was no digital news content at that time. In 2015, both digital and digital news encompassed 12% of revenues (24% total), with print advertising down to 28%. Since that time, the “paper” has continued to build upon its digital platforms to offer a wide range of multi-media programming. The centerpiece, or, starting point, is the print subscription. Readers are offered a small bit of ‘free’ content each month but then incentivized to pay for more news, information and fun. This includes a suite of apps, blogs and verticals on a range of topics with original content, akin to a Netflix or Hulu. There is Cooking and Crossword and, soon, Real Estate. Live streaming and text messaging are also utilized regularly for news and sports, and, the Times is also running virtual reality films. Regarding the latter, one early example has Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ben Solomon ‘embedding’ viewers with Iraqi soldiers battling Isis.
Is it working? Early returns are promising as more than 1.5 million people now pay more than $200 million for yearly subscriptions. Overall digital revenue is nearly $500 million. Perhaps as impressive as the Times on-going informational experimentation to raise readership and revenue, reports Snyder, is management’s willingness to ruffle the feathers of tradition and ‘prim and proper.’ The time-worn mantra: ‘The Times wouldn’t do that’ is headed the way of the Dodo Bird. And it has to. The new rallying cry? Evolve or die. It is a call that should be watched closely and imitated widely.
Generally speaking, those who don’t work in PR or media aren’t particularly interested in what we do, with one notable exception. When something goes wrong, they become very curious.
It’s always interesting to take questions when speaking about crisis communications, whether it’s to a college class, an Optimist Club, a PR conference or a business group. Recently, I had the chance to present to a group of nonprofit leaders convened by the Plante Moran accounting firm on the campus of Lawrence Technological University. Several dozen attended but, reverting to the mentality of their college lecture days, all but very few sat in the back rows of the big auditorium.
When bad news strikes a nonprofit organization, the priorities are often different. Never was this more clear than a situation I helped with a few years ago when a prominent religious organization fired a longtime member of its clergy. The Board Chair’s husband, a corporate executive, had a relationship with a PR firm that worked primarily with manufacturing companies. The Chair and the firm drafted and then sent a letter to members and, despite the fact that this was a deeply emotional situation, it had the level of charm and compassion that only an employment lawyer could embrace. To say the communication fell flat would be an understatement. It helped create misunderstanding and discord that escalated to crisis.
When Board members came to see us for a “second opinion,” we offered a much different approach. Without getting into the complex details (it was a doozy, to say the least), we ended up taking a path, that was ultimately successful, including candor, listening and respect for the organization’s mission. The takeaway here is that for a nonprofit organization to survive “bad news,” the situation must be managed through a different lens than with a corporation or certainly a political scenario. There’s much more to this than can be covered in a blog post and thanks to Plante Moran and Lawrence Tech, you can watch the entire presentation (less than 30 minutes) and the one hour of live Q&A that followed (it was a really good group).
To watch the presentation in its entirety, click here. Spoiler Alert: I don’t rhetorically ask “Right?” after attempting to make a bold point, even once. Thank you for taking a look.
In a supposed land of equality there are all too many of us who, from the cocoon of our comfortable lives, all too often ask questions such as: What is wrong with our society? Why are our prisons filled to capacity? Why can’t everyone just follow the right path and take advantage of the opportunities that exist for us all? Watch the Oscar-winning “Moonlight” and you may feel differently.
Without giving away too much of the plot, the story centers around three phases in the life of an African American youth (“Little”) living in a rough neighborhood in Miami. Without the role models, without the guidance, without the proper day-to-day guardianship, he is rudderless and largely helpless. He truly never stands a chance. How does one communicate your hopes, your fears without anyone to communicate them to? As for goals and aspirations – what are those?
I have not seen “La La Land” but by all indications, it appears to be a wonderful film. Perhaps fittingly it is the polar opposite of “Moonlight”; a throwback fantasy far flung from reality. And while I know I might appreciate the performances in the former, I associated deeply with the school bullying sequences in the latter – a life experience that made me stronger and helped shape my life for the better but that I will never forget.
“Moonlight’ will shock, sadden and disturb but should move you to introspection. As my mom used to say to me as we walked by someone less fortunate, “If there but for the Grace of God go I.” We will never and should never tolerate drugs nor crime but this movie works to force each and every one of us to contemplate the ‘why’ of it all. “Moonlight’ does not provide answers but does ask us to consider compassion and, eventually, redemption.