Starbucks: Sticking to its Knitting?

Starbucks just announced it’s ditching sales of warm breakfast sandwiches which might have been getting in the way of the addictive aroma of its coffee. And, after opening storefronts faster than you can say half-caf, half-decaf latte, it’s closing 100 lackluster stores. Back to the sandwiches: what makes Starbucks such a strong brand? Surely not its sandwiches and certainly not the smell of them. Customers love walking into a Starbucks, the aroma of warm coffee, the din of the coffee machines, the feeling of doing something for one’s self, if only for a moment. This is the incredible brand and lifestyle that Starbucks created. And some would argue it has begun to lose touch with its customers (and Wall Street) , trying to become too much to too many people in too many places. Kudos to Starbucks for trashing the sandwiches, retrenching from every street corner, and focusing on what it does best – selling the experience.

- Diane Schwartz

Target Misses the Cyber Bull’s Eye

This just in: Retail behemoth Target “does not participate with nontraditional media outlets.” Um … what?

A public relations executive for the company made this statement when Amy Jussel, founder of marketing blog, wrote to complain that a recent Target billboard in Times Square was demeaning to women because the bull’s eye was conveniently placed in close proximity to the model’s crotch. (The billboard depicts a hat- and glove-clad woman making snow angels atop the Target bull’s eye–completely harmless, really, unless your mind is in the gutter.)

But, despite the ridiculous sentiments of Jussel, Target’s response was even more out-of-line. Acknowledging that blogs and other “nontraditional media outlets” don’t make it into the company’s radar is a massive mistake because, as everyone knows, these platforms are key to reaching target audiences.

The PR exec continued her e-mail response by saying that, “This practice is in place to allow us to focus on publications that reach our core guest.”  Mmmhmm.  Apparently the core guests of this hip retailer don’t have Internet connections.  Regardless, it’s an astonishingly anachronistic policy that one might expect from a small, mom-and-pop shop that isn’t up on modern communications practices–not from a company so lovingly referred to as “tar-jay” by its loyal (though apparently technologically illiterate) consumers.

By Courtney Barnes

Random Footnote: Fear of Flying

According to New York Magazine, Hillary Clinton’s communications director, Howard Wolfson, is afraid of flying–so much so, in fact, that he drives from state to state along the campaign trail to avoid boarding an aircraft. (The article alleges that he hasn’t flown on a plane since 1999, and that plane happened to be Air Force One.) How he manages to show up to key events on time is beyond me, but it’s interesting evidence that you really can communicate to anyone from anywhere about anything these days.

By Courtney Barnes

Marketers and PR People Equally in Need of Measurement, Xanax

Last Thursday, I attended the CMO Leadership Forum in the New York City, and it was an enlightening, if not ironic, experience.  For starters, the line-up was great: Everyone from the group VP and CMO of Eli Lily to the managing director of Google’s Creative Lab (who was in violation of the New York Athletic Club’s strict “no jeans” policy, haha) was there to talk about the challenges and opportunities presented by new media, measurement, integration and empowered consumer groups.

Almost every member of the audience listened raptly to speakers and panelists as they tried to assuage the fear and loathing sparked by digital media, especially in the context of how it transfers control from the hands of executives to the hands of consumers. “Everyone is in a panic about digital,” said one panelist. “Stop the separation of traditional and digital.  It’s ridiculous to talk about it any other way.”

But everyone did talk about it any other way, and they also talked about the complications surrounding measurement, and the need to integrate.

Here’s the ironic part: By 2pm in the afternoon (mind you, this event started at 8am) not one single person mentioned the word “PR.”  I couldn’t believe it, especially because every single challenge these senior marketers cited could have easily come verbatim from the mouths of senior PR execs—in fact, they have.

So, I decided to call them out on it.  During a Q&A session, I asked why everyone complained and worried about these various business challenges (which I see as opportunities, but I’m just a writer) without ever thinking that they could join forces with their PR peers down the hall and (gasp) work together on digital media, branding and measurement. After all, that’s what PR people have been up to the past few years—at least, that’s what I’ve been hearing.

Anyway, the reaction to my question was very positive: Panelists from that point on incorporated PR into their discussions, and everyone kept a running tally.  Plus, each time the word “PR” was uttered, whoever said it would look to me for a nod of approval.

Talk about good PR.

By Courtney Barnes

Just a Green-Tinged Thought…

Recently, I’ve been asked to address the concept of “green” PR a number of times. Not that this is unusual–after all, I’ve covered “green” in PR News many times. However, a recent request to come up with green-related questions for a panel on corporate responsibility got me thinking: Why the obsession with “green” when it does nothing to address bigger CR issues? Green implies all things environmental, but what about fair labor practices, human rights issues, etc.? Green is something that Hollywood glitterati can wrap their arms around, making (fashion) statements with their hybrid vehicles and their eco-friendly bags. But this doesn’t have the longevity of a real, world-changing movement towards good business. Even I am old enough to remember the last green movement, which, as we all know, faded into oblivion as quickly as scrunchies and spandex.

If you accept this argument as sound, what is the best label for “good” business practices? Sustainability? Corporate citizenship? Corporate responsibility? What will give initiatives the best chance of enduring time, rather than just languishing as a momentary trends?

I don’t have the answer, but I thought I’d pose the question …

By Courtney Barnes

It’s Her Party, and She’ll Cry If She Wants To

Sometimes you just can’t catch a break. Hillary Clinton knows this better than anyone: She’s publicly lambasted by detractors as being too robotic, too stoic, too strong, too emotionless, too fill-in-the-blank and, when she shows emotion in the form of a near-tear, she’s criticized as being vulnerable. Then, as her handlers looked on in what must have been disbelief, she actually won the New Hampshire caucus because of, as many are hypothesizing, her watershed moment and nothing else. Come again?
The whole ordeal raises a number of questions: Is this a good thing or a bad thing? What will her tears mean for the future of her campaign? And, was her display of emotion a maybe-brilliant PR move?

Surely psychoanalysts could have a field day here, but I’ll tackle the latter question from my own perspective (that of someone who is prone to crying after, among other things, a lack of sleep—something Clinton was surely suffering from). Planned or not (and I’d bet money on “not”), her momentary breakdown spoke louder than words—something communications executives should take note of. I’m not saying that crying should be employed as a PR strategy; rather, I think business people should be more open to expressions of emotions, be they fear, excitement, anxiety or sadness. And why not? Appealing to the human side of things, especially in an employee relations/management context, is a great way to connect with your team and build trust.

Here’s another, non-political anecdote about communicating without words. I just returned from 10 days in Peru, four of which were spent hiking the Incan Trail to Machu Picchu. As an urban junkie who would classify a walk through Central Park as hiking and a college dormitory as camping, this trip was not my idea of a vacation (I blame my boyfriend). Couple this with the fact that we were the only people on the hike who didn’t speak Spanish, and you will be face-to-face my personal version of Hell.

So where does crying—or general expressions of emotion—come into play? Well, when you are standing on a snow-capped mountain summit at 14,000 feet, seeing spots from a lack of oxygen to the brain and thinking that this view (albeit amazing) will be your last, there are a thousand things you want to say to your tour guide: “Help,” “carry me,” “I can’t breathe,” “are we there yet?” and “I need medical assistance” were, in my experience, all returned with a blank stare, a grin and an enthusiastic “Vamos!”

Here’s what didn’t get lost in translation: wide, teary eyes, a rapid heart rate and a look of utter desperation. The vertical drop between me and our next resting place scared the hell out of me. With genuine emotion and nothing else, I conveyed to my guide that divine intervention would be required to get me to the next base camp. Nino (thank you, where ever you are) guided me down the rocky 1,000-meter, near-vertical drop in one piece. Even better, he didn’t act like I was weak or pathetic or helpless. In fact, with the help of a translator over dinner, he said this:

“It’s nice to see that New Yorkers aren’t always as tough as stones.”

I wonder what he’d say about Hillary.

By Courtney Barnes

Clemens’ Media Relations Offensive is … Well, Offensive

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about baseball (only that the games seem interminable, and that the related metaphors, exhausted by every literary and non-literary genre, need to be struck from writers’ repertoires—current company included).  I’ll also say that the constant barrage of steroid accusations within the sport has diluted the impact of such claims into mere static, at least to the ears of non-fans.
However, the current chaos surrounding Roger Clemens and his alleged steroid use would catch the attention of any PR connoisseur on its media relations implications alone. On Monday, January 7, the pitching icon went on the PR offensive during a press conference in Houston, which ended abruptly with him walking out of the room after spewing his fair share of venom.  OK, I get it: Being accused of something as reputation-damning as this could rub you the wrong way, but you’ve got to keep it together in the public eye.
His performance the night before on 60 Minutes alone demonstrated his PR team kicking into high gear. The interview coincided with the electronic filing of Clemens’ defamation suit against his former trainer, and his interviewer—the usually tough, fearsome Mike Wallace—was uncharacteristically sympathetic toward Clemens.  In other words, Clemens was handed an opportunity to make his case on a golden platter, but he brushed the offering away brusquely with his overt bitterness.  It seemed like he felt bothered by the trouble, as if he just didn’t have the time to defend his good name. (“I cannot wait to go into the private sector,” he said during the news conference. “I’ve said enough.”)
In a case where, at least right now, it’s one man’s word against another’s, the best strategy would be to play up Clemens’ credibility and good character to the public via the media machine. ‘I’ve said enough,’ isn’t a defense or an answer to the charges; it only provokes more questions.

What Gives? Nonprofit Exec Stumbles Online

Judgment – it’s in shorter supplier these days, thanks to the ease of non-stop posting (and posing on ) the Web. Case in point is the judgment of Holden Karnofsky, co-founder of nonprofit research org GiveWell. Karnofsky masked his identity on an industry web site soliciting suggestions from visitors on the best source for comparing charities (hint: GiveWell). He then answered his own question by recommending GiveWell, all the while not disclosing his association with the organization. Curiously, though, he used his true identity on the latter posting.

No surprise, he was caught.

I commend GiveWell for responding quickly and deftly – it issued an apology, demoted Karnofsky, withheld his salary and plans to notify donors and let them retract their contributions.  This is good crisis management by the Board of Directors and the damage done to the nonprofit will likely be lessened by the Board’s rapid and smart actions.

Some have called for Karnofsky to be fired and the question becomes whether, because of the nature of the organization (a nonprofit which essentially rates charities), it is hypocritical to keep Karnofsky on board. My take is: give him another chance; while what he did was wrong and unethical, at least he is being admonished and rehabilitated by the Board. That is the charitable thing to do. As for GiveWell’s reputation, it will be interesting to track its progress in the coming weeks. As we know, this bad press will soon fade as the next bad judgment from another organization is exposed.

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