Tag Archives: #press release

Research Integrity: The Achilles Heel of Content Marketing

The marketing profession has a reputation for sometimes using less than reliable market research to promote a point of view. And this marketer has been guilty of that sin.

Years ago, our insurance company client was introducing a new Directors & Officers liability insurance policy, and asked us to raise market awareness. With good intentions, but given no budget or time to perform proper market research, we interviewed a total of 6 corporate CEOs and board members to provide some validation to the underlying premise of our press release. The headline read: “Most Corporate Directors & Officers Believe They Are Not Protected Properly from Legal Risk.”

With very little expectation that a premise based on such shoddy research would qualify for exposure in the financial press, and dreading inquiries from journalists asking about our research methodology, the release went out. To our great surprise, we received no calls from reporters checking the facts, and the story was immediately picked up by two major wire services, and appeared as a news squib on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, followed by coverage in several business insurance trade publications.

Our client was overjoyed with the media exposure, but we felt less than honorable, and resolved that we would never use market research to promote a client’s product or service unless we believed the supporting methodology had sufficient rigor. And over the years we’ve lost work as a result.

Research integrity was an issue long before the internet became the platform for content marketing. Most often, your research-based news items would not be covered by respected media sources unless you ran the credibility gauntlet. Editors demanded your research methods and data, and had to be convinced that your study was objective and legitimate. Our very thin D&O liability research was a rare and risky exception…and perhaps a sign of things to come.

For well understood reasons, the “legitimate press” now has neither the manpower nor the time to dig deeply for validation of market research that supports content generated by organizations. The loss of this important filter, coupled with the explosion of online content, has created a marketing world in which sloppy, incomplete (and sometimes blatantly false) research generates news items that can go viral and become accepted wisdom. Pumping out content in volume has become far more important than creating high quality content that could withstand the scrutiny of a hard-nosed editor.

What this new world of content marketing means for individuals is simple: assume that all “research-based” information requires close scrutiny. Believe nothing at face value. If it’s important to your business strategy, or you intend to adopt the research to support your own point of view (or upcoming PowerPoint presentation), then you’ll need to become the hard-nosed editor who scrutinizes the original source; who looks at the sample size, respondents, questions asked, etc.; and who determines whether the research results legitimately support the conclusions.

What this new world of content integrity means to companies is more complex: assume that the “research-based” content that you produce is a reflection of your brand’s integrity. For the Marketing Department, this involves educating the corner office regarding the rigor, time and costs involved in market studies, surveys, research necessary to yield content worthy of customer-facing applications. For the corner office, this involves calculating whether the intended marketplace outcome is worth the necessary investment, and avoiding shortcuts.

Without the 4th Estate as the content gatekeeper, there is now far greater opportunity for companies to benefit from content marketing. And by not adopting the market research integrity standards that journalists long upheld, there are far more ways for companies to damage their brand through content marketing.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Stop the Insanity. Fire Your PR Firm in 2014.

The attribution is unsupported, but Albert Einstein is often credited with the quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” Its source notwithstanding, the axiom applies perfectly to the great number of companies that retain PR firms, year after year, to generate publicity that will have little or no impact on tangible business outcomes.

Over the past 5 decades, to rationalize hefty monthly fees, the PR profession has successfully promoted three underlying assumptions:

  • Any publicity is good publicity.
  • The more publicity, the better.
  • Publicity generates revenue.

Here are just a few reasons why it’s insane for most businesses to base their marketing strategy on any of those assumptions:

  1. Lots of Media Exposure is Worthless. The “worthless media” category can include one-off quotes or mentions in round-up stories that also reference your competitors…if you’ve gained no unique mindshare.  It can include appearances on network and cable TV…if the topics have a short shelf-life, or are unlikely to be of interest to target audiences.  And it always includes exposure in advertorials (regardless of the sponsoring publication’s stature) and feature articles in pay-to-play vanity publications…because you gain no credible 3rd party validation.
  2. Counting Media Clips is a Zero Sum Game. PR firms often justify their value by the sheer volume of media exposure they generate…regardless of whether it stakes out intellectual territory, supports a client’s value proposition, or differentiates them in the marketplace. The goal should be to create an arsenal of effective credibility tools; not simply to generate clippings to hang like hunting trophies in the “Media” section of a website.  This zero sum game is also played in social media, where scorecards of “likes” and “followers” are used as hollow substitutes for meaningful business metrics.
  3. It’s All About Merchandising. Business leaders must address two key questions in advance of seeking any publicity: “1. What type of media exposure will benefit us most?” and “2. If we gain that exposure, what will we DO with it?” Responses to Question #2 must provide clear direction regarding how it will support the firm’s sales and marketing strategy; how it will be used to drive leads; how it will initiate meaningful conversations with clients and prospects; and how it can be leveraged to gain other opportunities for targeted exposure.

Most PR firms fail to deliver on the potential of their craft because performing it correctly requires really hard work, takes time, and demands accountability for business results. Your role as a responsible client requires that you hold your PR agency’s feet to the fire by expecting results that have a measurable impact on your company’s balance sheet. It also means that you must provide your agency with the time and guidance necessary for them to deliver something more than a pile of useless press clippings.

If you’re unwilling to make that commitment, or if they’re incapable of delivering on your expectations, then it’s time to stop the insanity. Fire your PR firm in 2014.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Why Public Relations Does Not Sit at the Senior Management Table

In his keynote address two years ago at the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) 50th Annual Distinguished Lecture and Awards Dinner, Richard Edelman – President & CEO of the world’s largest independent public relations firm – echoed the PR profession’s long-standing goal: “…to elevate public relations as a management discipline that sits as a full partner aside finance, operations, legal, marketing and strategic leaders in the C-Suite.”

If the Edward Bernays era is considered the profession’s starting point, then public relations has had nearly a century to earn its seat at senior management’s table. But there are two major reasons – involving credentials and values – why PR still does not, and may never, sit there.

  1. PR Lacks Credentials: Notably, the profession has no accepted body of knowledge, and lacks professional standards of practice that are supervised or enforced. Unlike law, medicine, accounting or engineering, it’s difficult to define or validate expertise in public relations – as evidenced, for example, by the volume of information and disagreement on issues as fundamental as press release protocol. Despite PRSA’s best efforts, its APR designation does not carry the same weight as MD, JD, CPA, CFA, an MBA degree, or even a Six Sigma belt.

This credentials dilemma for PR also involves the fact that other professions such as information technology, with far less than a century of corporate membership and a similar lack of credentials, have earned a prominent place at the management table.

  1. PR Enforces Values: Ideally, public relations should function as the conscience of an organization; defining what it stands for, and working to make it accountable on that basis. Unlike any other corporate management function, the role of PR involves holding a company’s feet to the fire in terms of institutional values. Either because a particular course of action is simply the “right thing” to do (for sake of transparency, honesty or fairness), or because it may cause unwanted problems (involving morale, public opinion or legalities), it’s the job of public relations to raise its hand.

This values dilemma for PR involves the fact that many senior corporate managers who have a longstanding and secure seat at the management table and who drive most decision-making would prefer not to make their decisions with Jiminy Cricket in the same room.

Not giving PR a voice in corporate decision-making, and instead relegating its role to spinning a decided course of action or to cleaning up a related messy aftermath, appears to be the preferred approach for senior management at most corporations. At the upper end of the corporate food chain, executives whose function is listed as either Public Relations or Corporate Communications are rarely included in the Schedule 14A proxy filings as a “Named Executive Officer” by FORTUNE 500 companies. Corporate America’s NEO list clearly defines what’s meant by the “senior management table,” and the PR profession is absent by design, not oversight.

PR’s Plan to Earn a Seat at the Table

Perhaps for the first time – reflected in Richard Edelman’s stated plan to harness PR’s collective brain trust to address this issue, and the current push for inclusion of public relations in MBA school curricula – the profession appears ready to take meaningful steps to gain the corporate legitimacy it has long coveted. But these efforts will take many years to yield change, and talented PR practitioners and potential industry newcomers may consider other career paths rather than wait, thereby compounding the problem.

Regardless of size or industry, companies change direction either when they believe change will provide economic benefit, to avoid defined risks, or when they are forced to change by regulation or competitive influence. The delta between the PR function and revenue generation eliminates that rationale from consideration as a means to argue inclusion of public relations at the management table. However, both risk and regulation are strong cards PR is entitled to play in its effort to gain a seat there.

For example, to quantify the tangible value of PR, it could be beneficial for the profession to conduct research that compares the long-term stock price volatility (or beta) of public companies that include PR in its senior level decision-making process against those companies that do not. If a stock’s beta reflects market uncertainty, then a company’s track record of consistently avoiding “PR problems” as well as its ability to address those issues quickly and effectively – as a result of having a PR professional involved in operational decisions – should have a measurable effect on its stock market valuation, cost of capital and brand reputation.

Armed with objective evidence that supports the inclusion of PR as a best practice of corporate governance, the profession will have a solid platform that resonates with CXOs. Corporate America’s boards of directors may then be far more likely to require that management include PR in all strategic decisions, and issuers of Directors & Officers liability insurance might begin to factor a company’s PR discipline into pricing of its policy premiums.

To earn a seat at the management table, PR must argue its case with hard, relevant facts that will either incent or coerce companies to change. Otherwise, the keynote speaker at IPR’s 100th Distinguished Lecture and Awards Dinner in 2061 will be echoing Richard Edelman’s aspirations for the profession.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Make Your Corporate Anniversary Worth Celebrating

candle_cupcake_thumbnail1-233x300

B2B firms that have flourished for 20, 30 or 50 years are understandably proud of their longevity, particularly after having endured the most recent decade’s harsh economic conditions. But many of those companies do not leverage their achievement, by failing to capture the attention, interest and engagement of the internal and external audiences that will determine their continued success.

Too often important corporate milestones are treated in a manner similar to a wedding anniversary: companies will send out an announcement (press release, advertisement or email blast), host a modest reception, and provide a memento to a select number of longstanding clients.

These traditional corporate anniversary tactics may yield a few congratulatory notes, but will not deliver what might have been achieved – in terms of confirming core values, building corporate culture, and reinforcing brand presence – if the company had approached the opportunity in a strategic manner.

As a starting point, effective corporate anniversaries require the same high level of planning discipline that’s applied to other aspects of business development at the firm, which should include:

  • Articulation of measurable business objectives the program will seek to achieve;
  • Identification and prioritization of the target audiences the program will reach and influence, including employees, current and prospective clients, suppliers, referral sources, the media, etc.;
  • Framing the core messages that will be expressed through the program, and
  • How success of the anniversary program will be evaluated.

Based on that strategic groundwork, a company is prepared to identify appropriate tactics, make well-informed decisions regarding budgetary allocations, assign responsibilities for tactical implementation, and to build a program calendar.

Ideally, a corporate anniversary strategy is based on a limited number of high-quality tactics, rather than a long list of activities with limited impact or strategic value. A few examples of high value tactics might include:

  • Logo Modification – This need not be elaborate or permanent, and might also include a forward-looking tag line or theme. A simple “Celebrating 25 Years” or “Since 1988” can easily be integrated into an existing logo design. The reference can also be integrated into email signatures of all employees.
  • Website Visibility – This can be as simple as an anniversary banner at the bottom corner of the home page, or as elaborate as a corporate timeline or new “history” section that explains significant events since the company’s founding.
  • Client / Employee Gifts – If it’s deemed appropriate to give an anniversary gift to long-time clients, employees or suppliers, these gifts should be personalized and delivered in a very personal manner; either presented individually and in person, or accompanied by a customized letter from the CEO, managing partner or owners.
  • History Wall – This multi-media display, consisting of photographs and historical artifacts, displayed in the firm’s lobby or a conference room, can serve as a permanent and updatable validation of the company’s milestones and achievements.
  • Custom Publication – A commemorative book or brochure, well-written and nicely produced, can tell your company’s story and feature the people who have been responsible for its success. For the same reason people hold onto their high school and college yearbooks, this keepsake item has a useful shelf-life that extends far beyond your firm’s anniversary year.
  • Client-Focused Ad Campaign – Rather than touting your company’s anniversary, select 4 or 5 blue chip clients who are willing to be profiled in an advertising campaign that promotes their longevity and success. Passing (rather than direct) reference to the length of your firm’s relationships with those clients suggests that your company puts client interests ahead of its own.
  • Video Profiles – To humanize the firm, and pay tribute to long-time employees, video interviews can showcase the personal stories, values and dedication that have served as the cornerstone of the company’s success. These 2 – 3 minute videos can be posted on the corporate website, and on the company’s social media sites.
  • Earned Media – Press releases announcing corporate anniversaries are of little interest to most journalists. But if your company has an interesting or inspirational story to tell – involving hardship, unique challenges, failure or creativity – it’s well worth soliciting interest from appropriate media sources. Positive coverage in respected business or trade publications provides valuable 3rd party endorsement of your company’s long-term achievement.
  • Philanthropy – Rather than hosting an expensive celebration or social event, a charitable tactic may generate greater client goodwill and provide opportunities to promote the firm’s anniversary (and underlying values.) These tactics might include scholarships, research grants, sponsorships, named donations, fundraisers, etc. that are related to the firm’s business or mission.
  • Recurring Content  – To sustain top-of-mind awareness related to the firm’s anniversary and reinforce thought leadership, firms can publish and distribute theme-based content that’s likely to be of interest to target audiences. For example, an accounting firm celebrating its 25th anniversary might publish an interview series featuring CEOs of 25 long-term clients, who share the best business advice they’ve ever received. If published monthly, this tactic represents 12 separate opportunities to promote the firm’s anniversary.

The depth and range of anniversary-related tactics that can be leveraged by B2B firms is limited only by creativity and budget. But activity is not the benchmark for success. The real challenge involves alignment of strategy and tactics to achieve tangible business outcomes.

[If you’re looking for some guidance to create your company’s anniversary plan, we’d love to be of help. Reach out to us here.] 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Herb Schmertz Era: When Public Relations Had Some Balls

The recent passing of Rawleigh Warner, Jr., former Chairman and CEO of Mobil Oil Corp., brings to mind what many consider to be a golden age for Public Relations: the period from the mid-60s to mid-80s, when the PR profession had the mandate, the skills and the balls to stand up to criticism leveled against the organizations and people they represented.

The tip of Mobil’s public relations spear was guided by Herb Schmertz, who served as Vice President of Public Affairs under Warner (and whose credentials included a law degree from Columbia.) During Warner’s tenure, Mobil operated at ground zero of the 1970’s energy crisis, and was a primary target of the American public’s frustration over the availability and price of oil. For more than a decade, Mobil remained in the media’s crosshairs and often served as the corporate poster child for greed and unbridled capitalism.

Herb Schmertz countered public criticism against Mobil with hardball PR tactics, under the pretense that if companies don’t pro-actively participate in pertinent discussions, they deserve what they get, in terms of reputation. Under his regime of “creative confrontation,” Schmertz applied a number of innovative and controversial tactics including:

  • Introduction of modern-day advocacy advertising, or “advertorials,” which first appeared on the OpEd page of the New York Times in 1970. Mobil’s weekly commentaries, which Schmertz called “the honorable act of pamphleteering,” covered a broad range of energy related topics – the environment, oil reserves, taxation, regulation – and also took on detractors. The Mobil advertorials eventually were published weekly in several leading daily newspapers over the course of three decades, and serve as the template for what the PR profession now calls thought leadership.
  • Corporate underwriting of artistic endeavors unrelated to Mobil’s core issues, including sponsorship of the PBS television series, Masterpiece Theatre. Herb Schmertz called this “affinity-of-purpose marketing,” where audiences associate successful ventures with the companies that sponsor them.
  • Slash and burn public relations, where all communication is shut down with a media source considered to be biased or not acting in good faith. Notably, in 1984 Mobil boycotted the Wall Street Journal – refusing to provide the nation’s premier business publication with any information, to respond to its reporters, or to advertise – following what Schmertz considered to be history of inaccurate and biased reporting on Mobil. Although this over-the-top tactic was and is considered childish by many PR and media executives, it made a strong statement to the public and Wall Street Journal editors as well.

Herb Schmertz was no reckless PR cowboy. His communications philosophy was well-grounded in democratic principles, and his tactics well-reasoned and effective. In this 2-minute YouTube clip, Schmertz (who is now 84 years-old) eloquently describes how Mobil’s confrontational and sometimes abrasive public relations strategy reflected the company’s obligation, as a custodian of significant physical, human and economic resources, to maintain its role as one of the pillars of a free society.

In contrast to Schmertz-era brand management, most current PR practitioners are hamstrung by corporate legal counsel, who advocate non-confrontational PR strategies, advising CEOs to simply hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.  This enduring one-sided focus on the aversion of legal risk not only has precluded many organizations from opportunities to manage their brand reputation effectively, but has also emasculated the Public Relations profession in the process.

As the PR profession’s role is increasingly relegated to management of Tweets, Likes and unread press releases, as its practitioners continue to lose their seat at the senior management table, and as the long tail of online content extracts a heavy price for avoiding legitimate and timely confrontation, PR professionals will likely wonder why their role as architect and defender of the company’s reputation no longer belongs to them.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

5 Ways to Merchandise the “Masthead Value” of Publicity

Not to be confused with "The Wall Street Transcript"

Not to be confused with “The Wall Street Transcript”

Many companies will invest considerable effort seeking positive publicity in influential media sources, and then fail to benefit from the masthead value of that exposure.

Originally a seafaring term relating to the brass plate attached to a ship’s mainmast that memorialized its owners and builders, a publication’s masthead lists the members of its current editorial and production staff. The industry term “masthead value” can be defined broadly as the level of stature, credibility and influence associated with a specific media source. The Wall Street Journal, for example, has high masthead value; the Wall Street Transcript…not so much.

Masthead value can be relative. A respected trade or professional publication in a particular industry may have greater masthead value – in terms of its influence with a particular audience – than well known publications such as the Wall Street Journal or New York Times. For example, physicians are likely to assign the New England Journal of Medicine greater masthead value than the Journal or Times on topics relating to clinical care of patients.

Masthead value should drive your publicity strategy. A placement from a single highly respected source can be far more valuable, in terms of influence, than a dozen hits with low masthead value. Because gaining inherent 3rd party endorsement is the end goal, in the publicity game quality always trumps quantity.

Here are 5 ways to leverage media placements with strong masthead value:

  • Put high value placements directly in front of your target audiences – Even if your coverage appears on the front page of the Wall Street Journal or makes the cover of Fortune magazine, don’t assume it will be read by clients, prospects, referral sources…or even by your employees. There’s simply too much offline and online noise to ensure that any media exposure on its own will gain the attention you’re seeking. If you’ve developed an internal CRM-driven discipline to communicate directly and regularly with target audiences, then you’re well prepared to apply that distribution capability to increase the chances that decision makers will notice, remember, and respond to your high value exposure. (Lacking that discipline, your time may be best spent building an effective distribution capability, in advance of seeking additional publicity.)
  • Avoid “Hey, look at me!” self-promotion – Pickup in a media source with high masthead value provides some reason for high-fives internally, but it should not serve as a platform for self-promotion. Extreme examples of this error include companies that issue a press release, or generate Twitter and Facebook postings to announce, for example, that their CEO has been profiled in Inc. magazine. This type of over-reaction to high value publicity suggests to target audiences that you were surprised to receive the media endorsement, and therefore may not have really deserved it. The key is to showcase the media exposure in a relevant context (you may need to create this), to make the media placement secondary to the underlying content (such as the reasons why your CEO was profiled in Inc.) and to pull off these tasks with a matter-of-fact level of self-confidence.
  • Rank graphics over content, in terms of impact – Most people are surface readers. Online visitors are more likely to scan images, heads, subheads and captions, than they are to read body copy. (Long blocks of copy on websites that require scrolling are rarely read.) If you’ve earned a placement with high masthead value, you can increase the likelihood of your company being associated with the “endorsing” publication by displaying its logo with the capsule description and link to the placement. To be clear: the critical element is the logo. If your placement is from the New York Times, for example, you should replicate the logo – as it appears on the front page of that publication. Based on how people gather information, simply typing, “from The New York Times,” or a similar attribution, is about 75% less effective than actually depicting the New York Times logo.
  • Prominently showcase high value placements – If you’ve invested and succeeded in generating media placements with high masthead value, why make it difficult for target audiences to find them on your website? Rather than burying influential publicity in an obscure “In the News” section that requires multiple clicks for visitors to locate, you can amortize your investment in publicity (and perhaps improve your website’s bounce rate in the process) if you create a location for these high value items on your home page. This can be accomplished by applying a design format in which the content either remains fixed or is refreshed regularly. For formats that supply current information, extend the shelf-life of each placement by not including its publication date.
  • Cite a relevant endorsement on your home page – One of the most effective  ways to  merchandise high-value media exposure is to select a very brief, relevant phrase from the coverage, for placement in a prominent position on your home page. Here’s a hypothetical example:

“…a recognized authority in Big Data technology.”

                                                       –Wired Magazine

By limiting your publicity efforts to media placements with high masthead value, and by ensuring that those placements are effectively merchandised through direct communication, social media tools and proper website visibility, PR practitioners will spend far less time worry about the ROI of public relations. The fruits of their labors will be self-evident in tangible business metrics, ranging from lead generation to high search engine page rankings.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

PR / Media Pros Should Stand Firm on Requiring Quote Approvals

Quote Approvals Lower the Risk of Media Burn

The practice of requiring journalists to submit on-the-record quotes for approval by a source in advance of publication has long been a sore point between the media and the PR profession. A new spotlight has been cast on the issue, with writer Michael Lewis’ acknowledgment that he’d agreed to quote approval for his Vanity Fair profile on Barack Obama, and the new policy issued by the New York Times, which forbids their reporters from agreeing to “after-the-fact quote approval by sources and their press aides.”

Notwithstanding the New York Times’ effort to protect the integrity of the Fourth Estate, there are at least 3 reasons why it makes good sense for companies and organizations to stand firm on stipulating that reporters obtain quote approval as a pre-condition for granting an interview:

  1. Reporters Are Human. They often don’t bring the depth of knowledge that’s required to cover the assignments they’re handed…so they will make mistakes. They also bring their own points of view…so they will be selective in how they quote sources. And sometimes, they don’t always play by the rules. This blogger was told by a New York Times reporter that if I pressed for a correction to an error he had made regarding one of my clients, that he would never feature any of my clients in his column.
  2. The Spoken Word and Written Word are Very Different. A comment or offhand remark that’s expressed during an interview can cast a false or unfair impression when taken out of context, and when it is read rather than heard. Very few individuals have the ability to envision…as they are speaking…how their spoken words will look in print and to know what message those words will convey. Mark Twain recognized that “talk in print” results in “confusion to the reader, not instruction.”
  3. Journalism Is a Cat and Mouse Game. Reporters are frequently looking for a “gotcha” quote that can juice up their coverage, or support a point they’re seeking to make. Their questions can be contrived, or their approach designed to wear down a source. This blogger learned that lesson the hard way, when a Chicago Tribune reporter twisted a fact-based comment in a very long conversation that enabled him to write a story entitled, “Amex Official Admits CBOE Superiority.”

If you’re willing to participate in media interviews without the safety net of quote approval….here are some guidelines that will lower your risk of being burned:

  • You Can Never Be “Media Trained” – Regardless of whatever training, practice sessions or actual interviews you’ve had, believing that you are “media trained” provides a dangerous and false sense of security. Every reporter is different, every interview is a unique opportunity, and you need to be properly prepared every time.
  • Don’t Lead Lambs to Slaughter – For a host of reasons, and regardless of their org chart position or years of experience, some people are media disasters. If your senior manager or client has a track record of interviews that did not go well, avoid putting them in harm’s way. If a heart-to-heart conversation regarding their poor interviewing skills is not an option, at least ensure that they are equipped for interviews with tightly scripted talking points.
  • Tape Record all Interviews – When there’s a recorded version of an interview, a reporter is likely to be more careful in quoting a source, and you have something more credible than written notes, if there is any controversy. It’s good form to let the reporter know upfront that you will be tape recording an interview. If the reporter objects, and you still agree to conduct the interview, then your organization deserves whatever misquotes or misrepresentation may occur.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Harvard Cheating Scandal: Do Administrators Need “Public Relations 101”?

Harvard University announced last week that the school is investigating 125 students for possibly cheating on a take-home final exam for “Government 1310: Introduction to Congress.” After reviewing more than 250 take-home exams turned in last Spring, the Harvard College Administrative Board has opened cases involving nearly half the 279 students enrolled in the class. The school has contacted every student whose work is under review, who now face sanctions that include suspension for up to a year.

In considering whether Harvard may have caused significant long-term damage to its own reputation unnecessarily, let’s ignore some fuzzy facts and conjecture:

  • The course, as measured by the professor’s own words and behavior, did not reflect a level of academic rigor one might associate with a prestigious university.
  • Take home exams, by their very nature, are generally considered a joke by most students.
  • Apparent confusion over at least one of the exam’s questions was exacerbated by the unavailability of the professor during the exam period, causing students to seek clarification from fellow classmates.
  • It’s unlikely that such a large proportion of the class would purposely cheat on what appears to be a gut course.

In examining whether Harvard may have caused significant long-term damage to its own reputation by acting in a hasty and imprudent manner, let’s speculate on a few likely catalysts:

  • After discovering similarities in the exams, and in advance of sending out letters to the 125 students suspected of cheating, Harvard failed to consider the high likelihood that this issue would quickly become a news item. If the school had acknowledged that risk, Harvard would (or should) have announced the scandal in advance of sending out letters to students.
  • Harvard likely became aware of the possibility of negative media coverage either after a call from a reporter, or in reaction to a threat from a student (or their lawyer) to make this a public issue.
  • Regardless of when and how Harvard began to think about negative media exposure, the most significant catalyst that caused administrators to blow the whistle on the affair was a post-Penn State fear that Harvard might be accused of hiding or covering up an incident related to institutional integrity.

If this speculation is correct: that Harvard overlooked the potential media impact of its cheating inquiry, and then blew the whistle on itself mainly as a knee-jerk defensive strategy….here are two fundamental PR lessons from this brand debacle:

  1. Assume the press will always learn about a problem, and plan an offensive strategy (well ahead of time) to minimize the damage. Because Harvard has long enjoyed a pristine reputation, it’s likely that their PR professional was not involved in this issue from the outset, or they had little input.
  2. If the press is on your damaging story, or is likely to be very soon, sometimes it’s better to keep your powder dry if you haven’t planned ahead. Harvard would have been better served if the school had completed its inquiry of the 125 “cheaters” in advance of its public announcement. Even with the media pounding on its doors, Harvard would have provided those 125 students and the school’s reputation with greater justice by responding publicly that “the issue is under investigation and a public statement will be issued only after all the facts and opinions are considered.”

Ham-fisted, panic motivated PR – even when it’s disguised as a self-righteous effort to maintain academic integrity – is not behavior you’d expect from one of the nation’s smartest institutions.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

PR Lesson from the Lolo Jones / New York Times Controversy

Did Jere Kill Lolo’s Mojo?

On August 4th, New York Times sportswriter Jére Longman – who has been covering the Olympics under an “Inside the Rings” column – wrote an article on American hurdler Lolo Jones that was considered by many readers to be overly harsh and entirely unnecessary. In his piece, Longman characterized Jones as a self-promoter who is more flash than substance, and he appeared to go out of his way to discredit Jones’ athletic credentials; ignoring her long list of athletic achievements, as well as the fact that Jones had qualified for the Olympics in spite of spinal cord surgery a year ago.

Four days following Longman’s hatchet job, after a disappointing fourth-place finish in the 100-meter hurdles, in a tearful interview on the TODAY Show, Jones expressed her frustration, telling Savannah Guthrie: “They should be supporting our U.S. Olympic athletes and instead they just ripped me to shreds. I just thought that that was crazy because I worked six days a week, every day, for four years for a 12-second race and the fact that they just tore me apart, which is heartbreaking.”

The public appears to agree with Lolo regarding Longman’s attack. In a highly unusual column entitled, “Lolo Jones Article is Too Harsh,” the New York Times public editor Art Brisbane acknowledged the volume of reader pushback the Longman piece has created, and noted that, “In this particular case, I think the writer was particularly harsh, even unnecessarily so.”

Putting aside Longman’s opinion or Jones’ reaction, and discounting speculation that Jones’ spokesperson made a serious tactical error in declining to participate in the story, there is a simple but valuable PR lesson in the New York Times coverage of Lolo Jones, which is:

MEDIA RELATIONS 101

It is not a journalist’s job to make you look good. In fact, journalists are always more likely to make you look bad…because it suits their temperaments, pleases their editors and attracts more attention.

We’ll never know Longman’s motivation for trashing Jones. He might have eaten a bad hot dog that day. He might have placed a small wager against Lolo, and was hoping to kill her mojo. Or perhaps his rant was based on moral grounds, exposing the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed virgins who appear nude in sports magazines.

Several years ago I brought a Forbes magazine reporter to meet with the CEO of a major grocery chain. The interview went very well. Or so I thought…until the story was published, which turned out to be a devastating attack on my client. After being summarily fired by the CEO for arranging the public debacle, I called the reporter to ask why she had written such a damaging piece. Her response was simple: “I didn’t like the way he treated his secretary, and he needed to be taught a lesson.”

The CEO and I learned very different lessons that day. He is unlikely to have changed the way he treated his secretary. But I changed the way I treated journalists.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Should Companies Manage Their Employees’ LinkedIn Profiles?

Everything Counts in Brand Management

LinkedIn has become an important business channel, not only for individuals to showcase their professional credentials, but also for companies seeking to promote their value proposition and to establish or manage brand awareness.

LinkedIn is no longer simply a social media tool that enables corporate executives to put themselves in play for a better job under the guise of “networking.” LinkedIn also is no longer just a digital marketplace for consultants, freelancers and agencies seeking new clients. For better or worse, LinkedIn has become part of the world’s due diligence process: a public resource that enables employers, customers, regulators, competitors, prospective employees, referral sources, vendors, creditors, shareholders, research analysts and journalists to look beneath the covers, and to establish an opinion (or decision) not only regarding individuals, but also the companies they work for.

Although LinkedIn provides companies with an opportunity to present a basic or enhanced (for a hefty fee) corporate profile, what most businesses either fail to recognize – or are reluctant to address – is that the content, quality and consistency of individual and collective descriptions of the company embodied within their employees’ LinkedIn profiles can have a significant impact on brand perceptions. (These brand implications are less significant on Facebook, which is not generally viewed as a business channel.)

To illustrate the point, simply in terms of brand clarity and consistency, here are 5 different ways (grammatical shortcomings and typos included) that High Street Partners – an 80-person Boston-based consulting firm – describes itself through various LinkedIn profiles of its employees:

“High Street Partners is an international business services firm. We simplify the management and control of international operations, empowering our customers to capitalize on their growth opportunities in foreign markets.”

“High Street Partners (HSP) is the leading professional advisory firm in the international expansion space. We offer a range of cross-border finance and administrative services to organizations with new or existing global operations, including entity set-up, payroll, accounting, tax compliance, advisory and HR services.”

“High Street Partners provides international business services to companies operating overseas. These services include international accounting, tax, global cash management, HR and compliance solutions that mitigates a Company’s risk when operating in foreign markets (www.hsp.com.)”

“Our cross-border solutions enable the HQ finance and HR teams to quickly and efficiently implement expansion plans, establish appropriate entities, get overseas employees paid, and navigate unfamiliar overseas tax codes and compliance regulations.”

“Providing financial, tax and compliance services to companies in their international explansion.” (sic)

There are (at least) two fundamental issues involving LinkedIn:

  • The employees’ right to describe themselves any way they see fit on social media sites, and
  • A company’s right to protect its brand reputation through accurate and consistent descriptions of the enterprise that are posted on social media sites by its employees.

Although the underlying issues related to freedom of expression and corporate intrusion frequently serve as catalysts for heated protests and endless debate, there is really no good reason why both employee and corporate interests cannot both be served, if the process is managed in a reasonable, respectful manner.

At the risk of over-simplifying an issue that can quickly escalate to union grievances, CEO town hall meetings, picket lines and national media coverage, perhaps the company’s Chief Marketing Officer can initiate the change process with an internal memo along these lines:

Dear Valued Employee:

We are encouraged to see that so many of our staff members are using LinkedIn to develop professional networks. Increasingly, social media tools like LinkedIn are playing an important role in personal and corporate life.

While we recognize and support your personal right to participate in social media sites, we would like to ensure that the descriptions used in your LinkedIn profile to describe our company are consistent with the guidelines we’ve established to enhance understanding and appreciation of our corporate brand.

Toward that end, we would greatly appreciate your cooperation in using only the approved description of our company for your LinkedIn profile. This company description is located on Page 3 of our Employee Handbook. In fact, we have recently added some additional suggestions regarding LinkedIn profiles, which you may find helpful.

Thanks for your support on this important issue. If you have any questions or concerns on this topic, please let me know.

Your Friendly CMO

An alternative approach regarding brand presentation in employee LinkedIn profiles is to do nothing. Maybe it’s an issue that’s too insignificant or considered not worth the time. But companies with enduring world-class brands understand that everything matters. That’s one reason why you never see a dirty UPS or FedEx delivery truck.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized