Archive for September 19, 2011

Is the White House giving PR a bad name?

My first mentor in the PR business always used to say to me, “Hud, the only way PR works is when the words match the actions.” That counsel has proven germane countless times. But using its logic as a measure of current practice, you have to admit that from the NFL right on down the line (or up the Hill) to the White House, misalignments have led to a disastrous month for PR.

Let’s start with NFL wunderkind Tom Brady. He playfully urges New England Patriots fans planning to attend the team’s home opener to “… start drinking early … get nice and rowdy … get lubed up, come out here and cheer for (the) home team.” Within the hour, the team’s PR department issues a clarification. “What Tom meant to say was ‘stay hydrated, drink a lot of water, be loud, drink responsibly.’”

ESPN gabber Scott Van Pelt spoke for me when he said, “They’re lying and besides, isn’t beer one of the NFL’s biggest sponsors?”

Next, the CEO of Solyndra, recipient of a $585 million “green” loan from taxpayers, asserts on July 13 that his company’s revenue would double in 2011. Yet the letter to the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in which his assertion is made has nary a hint of the financial perils that would force the company into bankruptcy just six weeks later.

I don’t usually agree with Henry Waxman, but this time we are on the same page: the assertion and the reality “starkly contrast,” an uttering that may actually qualify for understatement of the year.

Then comes George Will’s WaPo column last week where he sticks it to political wordsmiths for their impoverished vocabulary. Thinking new words are potions for persuasion, “liberals” have become “progressives,” “stimulus” now goes by “investment,” and an intrusive “federal government” is suddenly the “federal family.”

Ouch. As a PR person, albeit a corporate one, this “needle” digs deep because it challenges two core tenets of our professional belief system. The first is the aforementioned word-action alignment rule. The second is never – and I mean never – try to outsmart the public. You’ll get discovered every time. Just ask Richard Nixon, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner, or Tiger Woods.

What really hurts is the name this gives PR and PR people. With such frequent high profile misspeak, people naturally assume we are in the business of making stuff up, spinning yarns, and generally trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes.

Which leads me directly to the White House … and a few would-be occupants, too. Ever since the President’s job approval ratings headed south, supporters have been chanting that the Administration has a messaging problem. It’s as though the political types believe that one of the Davids (Axelrod or Plouffe) can actually pen the words that will suspend the public’s disbelief.

Sorry. It just doesn’t work that way. Even for politicians, the “do” and the “say” have to be in synch. This is why I think no matter which way you lean on the political spectrum, your PR sensibilities have to be challenged by the remarkable penchant for politicians to say one thing and seem to be doing another.

For example, you can’t promise “no new taxes” for the middle class and then impose penalties for not buying government health insurance, stick the states with a bigger share of Medicaid (code for more state taxes), refuse to approve oil drilling leases (code for higher gas prices), cut off voucher systems for public education, and spend a trillion in “shovel ready” projects with no mention of who’s paying.

You can’t say the health care reform act ought to be repealed and then, in the case of one leading Presidential contender, defend the cost containment aspects of a similar plan that you helped enact while you were governor – a plan, by the way, that appears to be driving costs skyward at a record pace. The numbers don’t add up … and neither do the words.

You can’t say you are pro-Israel and then join in on European and UN condemnations of the Jewish state, attend ceremonies honoring alleged terrorists (Dalal Mughrabi, leader of the Coastal Red Massacre), and deliver an Arab Spring speech.

You can’t launch a tirade against “potentially dangerous” HPV from a Presidential debate platform and then, in the face of insurmountable medical and scientific evidence to the contrary, defend the original claim with assertions of even greater harm, also unsupported. Fact is, being loud and scary is not synonymous with telling the truth.

You can’t issue calls for civility in the political dialogue and then brandish the opposition as “fat cats,” Tea Party “terrorists,” “hostage takers” and elderly cliff-tossers. And you probably shouldn’t expect anyone to follow your lead when you urge supporters to “punish our enemies” or snitch at AttackWatch.com.

Finally, with the whole country feeling the pain of recession, you can’t say you empathize with the unemployed or socio-economically challenged from the balcony of a $50,000-a-week vacation villa … or that you are gravely concerned about the nation’s debt ceiling as you head off – at taxpayer expense – to a $35,000-a-plate birthday party.

So, back to the original question. Is the White House giving PR a bad name? To ask the question is to answer it, I suppose. To be sure, many other administrations have preceded the current regime with similar penchants for poorly aligned word play. And there have been plenty of high profile companies and celebrities afflicted by the same crooked logic.

So, it is no wonder that most people have a fairly low opinion of the profession. To hear the media tell it, PR is a distraction, a disaster, a challenge, a war, hype, just PR, schmooze … or worse. It’s painful.

My wish for the future, then, would be some new role models for PR. I want friends and associates to look at Disney or Coke or Apple as the examples of what we do. That way, years from now, it might actually be understood that the mission of PR is to help companies behave in ways that gain and retain the public’s permission to operate … and that my life’s work was spent helping them line up the “say” with the “do.”

How to Use Agitation and Instigation Media for Your Company’s Benefit

I have this argument with my wife all the time.  She says social media is dangerous: a boon for sexual predators, the next flash mob on Michigan Avenue, the death knell of civil discourse.  

I contend that, used properly, it is the Krazy Glue in community building: the ultimate affinity group connection, an early warning system, a digital extension of your best dinner conversations.  

There’s more than a kernel of truth in each argument.  I have to admit that there are times when I think we are just a Tweet away from toppling Illinois state government (would that be a bad thing?).  But I have to keep reminding myself that the Tweet is little more than an ignition switch that lights the passions and, yes, behaviors, of like-minded followers.  

And therein lies the point.  Social media is all about “the community, stupid,” not the Tweet.  

Put that notion in the context of crisis communication and it naturally gives rise to defense.  How can modern PR pros deliver a counterbalance to crisis-driven social media bombardments in an era when virtually every smartphone is a potential ignition switch?

Basically, it boils down to the old cliché: the best defense is a good offense.  There is one very big caveat, however.  The communities that spring to life in a crisis tend to gather around the negative, making the development of a counterbalancing community a pretty tough row to hoe, especially on the spur of the moment.

So, as I tell grad students in crisis communications classes at Northwestern University’s Medill School, if your company doesn’t plan for the unplanned, shame on them … and double shame if they (you) haven’t planned on how to activate a community of supporters long before the flames of crisis are burning down your brand.

Translated, this suggests three discreet planning efforts with an eye toward “agitating and instigating” when and if crisis ever hits.

The first has to do with identifying communities of prospective allies.  No doubt the list will rally around different topics and passions.  Some may be customers who believe in your brand … and tend to believe you.  Some may be vendors and/or suppliers who have a vested interest in your success.  Some may be civic leaders familiar with your company’s economic, social and cultural impact on the citizenry — in other words, people who can attest to your corporate citizenship.  Still others might be joined with you on science, public policy, business development and the like.

Once you’ve identified them, the second step is to figure the issues, topics, interests, vocations and avocations around which allies might gather.  The forces that bind are usually pretty obvious.  Starbucks, coffee lovers and growers on all things coffee, for example; or Science Diet, pet owners and veterinarians on pet care; or Huggies, moms and pediatricians on kids health.  

Finally, and this is the hard part, you have to develop strategies for engaging allies who can become possible support groups “when the balloon goes up,” as one of my Northwestern colleagues says.  This means using the community-building power of social media to create a group of followers and keep them interested.

A lot of companies may have to swallow pretty hard if they want to deploy social media for offense (or defense) during crisis time.  The “social” part the terminology is far from incidental.  To the contrary, it requires serious levels of frequent and transparent exchange to reach community status … and a constancy/intimacy of engagement to engender the trust that necessarily girds a support group.

Starbucks has it figured out.  They have nearly 1.7 million followers on Twitter who stay in touch because Starbucks lets them say what they have to say, and often responds with, “We’ll do what we can to help.”  Tweets post by the minute. The social tie that has been created probably gives Starbucks a fairly powerful ignition switch for informing, and even activating, its supporters in a moment of need.

On the other hand, with only 9,500 Twitter followers and Tweets posting daily, Huggies’ trigger might not be pulled to similar effect.  It’s a little harder to tell how Hills, maker of Science Diet, might fare with the 853 veterinarians following Tweets that post irregularly — a day or two or twenty in between — @HillVet. There are nearly 60,000 veterinarians in the US.

Of course, Twitter is not the only measure of community building, but the drift is quite evident. There is a new communications paradigm, and company communication executives need to pay heed to its influence on business and reputation. Dow Jones puts the challenge this way:  

The sheer number of social media platforms and tools, coupled with the deafening volume of conversations they host, leaves communications executives at the center of a chaotic information universe.

Their advice, and mine, is to get on the offense and engage.  Traditional news media and organized journalism aren’t the only games in town.  Now there is individual empowerment and public involvement with instant messages, Tweets, blogs and Facebook posts.  

When pressed into duty a decade ago, crisis PR staffs at Enron, Arthur Andersen and Martha Stewart generally knew how, when and where to engage with the media.  BP, Toyota and Tiger Woods had no such luck.  In their moments of crisis, every keyboard represented a potentially viral opinion, every cell phone was just a click away from an incendiary YouTube video, and everyone was reading everyone else’s mail.

My argument on social media, then, is that companies need to have a network/community in place “just in case” they want to trip a switch to agitate and instigate for their own account in an emergency.  

And that’s exactly the same argument I make with my wife.