Absent Without Leave, Communications-Style

What do you do when your client or CEO pulls something that even you, the PR professional, didn’t see coming (or that, even if you did see it coming, blind-sided you anyway)? It’s a question that the communications team behind disgraced South Carolina governor Mark Sanford must be asking right about now.

Sanford’s undoing has taken a most unusual path. Earlier this week, after being questioned about Sanford’s whereabouts, his staff said the governor was hiking in the Appalachian Trail. Specifically, Joel Sawyer, Sanford’s communications director, said in an email to reporters, “I apologize for taking so long to send this update, and was waiting to see if [we had] a more definitive idea of what part of the trail he was on before we did so.”

That was June 22. By June 24, it was clear that Sanford wasn’t in Appalachia at all, but in Argentina. In a bizarre turn of events, he held a press conference after his arrival back in South Carolina, admitting that, not only had he misled the public about his whereabouts, but he had gone to Argentina to visit his mistress.

As the sordid details of the whole affair continue to emerge (most recently with the publication of email exchanges between Sanford and his paramour), one thing is certain: his communications team is in all-out crisis mode. How much or how little they knew about his jaunt abroad is still in question, but it hardly matters. Either possible scenario—that they were hiding information at Sanford’s request or that they were communicating what, at the time, they believed to be true—brings up compelling PR dilemmas.

In the former scenario’s case, the failure to communicate is always a bad plan, as nothing gets by the public these days. Case in point: The firestorm surrounding Apple’s failure to disclose news of CEO Steve Jobs’ liver transplant until two months after the surgery has led many of the brand’s loyal stakeholders to feel deceived.

The comparison between Jobs’ liver transplant and Sanford’s extramarital activities is tenuous, to be sure, but both reputational crises represent how quickly the mighty can fall when transparent communications isn’t the number-one priority. Had Sanford’s PR staff chosen to take a more logical approach—announcing the affair up-front so a disappearing act wasn’t necessary—the governor’s ability to bounce back likely would be far greater (he can kiss the 2012 presidential election goodbye).

That said, if his team really did think he was getting in touch with nature, it’s hard to blame their ambiguity early on. The decision to have Sanford deliver a press conference AND open the floor to questions was clearly a necessary one. Unfortunately, though, it’s too little too late.

Ultimately, what are the communications lessons that can be learned from the current Sanford scandal? Is his team’s response going to go down as a textbook example of how NOT to communicate during a crisis?

By Courtney Barnes

Brand Loyalty: Price isn’t Always Right

It should come as no surprise that consumers are shopping around for the best price.  And price is, more often than not, trumping brand loyalty in everything from cars to toothpaste.  A new study from Catalina Marketing and the CMO Council reveals that for the “average brand,”  52% of consumers who were very loyal to package-goods brands in 2007 were more apt to switch brands in 2008. Imagine what those numbers will be for 2009. Just today, the New York Times reported that smaller car brands are gaining significant market share over the big guys as consumers from Detroit to Dayton are saying yes to Kia and no to GM, and the smaller car makers (such as Hyundai which owns Kia) can make a respectable profit by selling less inventory.

These same consumers do go to work and are inclined to react the same way to “business brands” unless marketers and PR pros focus attention away from price. Buying Dove over Irish Spring is a less risky proposition than switching to PR Firm B because PR Firm A’s prices are too high. Or by cancelling a vendor contract and going the DIY route because you’ve got nothing but time and hair to pull out, right? What every communicator should be doing now is telling the unique story of their brands and what their brands can do for their customers.  If you sell on price alone, then when the economy recovers (and it will), what’s your real story? That your prices are lower? That might work at Wal-Mart, but when a client is choosing a PR Firm to manage a crisis or choosing a vendor to measure its PR, quality of work and brand reputation are the real currency.

– Diane Schwartz

Pardon Me, but Would You Mind Working for Free?

When I was in college, I would gladly work for free. Call it what you will (naiveté, paying my dues, idealism, boredom), but it turned out to be profoundly strategic; by the time I graduated, I had a laundry list of internships that made me poised for full-time employment.

Now, had I not been 17, 18 or 19 years old, the unpaid portion of the internship job descriptions wouldn’t have gone over so well. Imagine, then, how employees of British Airways felt when their CEO made a particularly unreasonable request: work for free for up to four weeks to help offset the company’s record annual loss of $656 million.

Everyone knows we are in the midst of the most staggering financial crisis since the Great Depression—no doubt about it. But, in a time when employees by no means expect grandeur—let alone small gestures—from senior management, compensation for their efforts is still well within the realm of reasonable expectations.

From an employee relations/morale standpoint, British Airways’ decision seems surprising—not to mention profoundly challenging to communicate. I’m assuming the rationale is that foregoing a month of pay is more palatable than being laid off altogether; plus, the execs were quick to point out that employees could opt to take unpaid leave if they preferred.

My question, then, is simple: How does this apply to the senior management team, which is surely making exponentially more per month than the average employee? Are they losing out on a month’s salary? I’d venture a guess that they could not only afford a pay cut more easily, but that a pay cut from the top would go a lot further than one that takes $50,000-a-year employees out at the knees.

Any thoughts on alternative approaches to communicating this news, or to addressing the company’s financial strife in the first place?

By Courtney Barnes

Ask and You Might Receive

At a recent PR News 3-hour workshop on measuring public affairs activities, an interesting challenge was presented to the attendees and BurrellesLuce trainer Johna Burke. A PR executive lamented that it’s perceived by her senior management that she’s so effectively managing her PR department that there’s no need for additional staff or resources.  The better she performs with the resources she has, the less likely she can effectively petition for a bigger budget.  So how can she get more money in her budget; how can she hire an additional staff person so she has, um, time to breathe and a fighting chance at improving her PR activities?

I hear this problem often from PR professionals, who are dealing with a legacy of comparatively lower budgets than their Marketing counterparts and in which proving PR’s value is a Holy Grail endeavor.  Let’s put aside the fact that in this challenging economy it’s probably not the best time to be asking for a bigger slice. Because it turns out this story has little to do with measurement.

PR measurement has become the license of the trade — if you can’t measure your PR, then you shouldn’t be driving your organization’s communications efforts.  So let’s assume that you read PR News every week and check out our Measurement channel and Webinars for additional ideas. And let’s assume you have the dashboard and the other basic measurement tools. Interestingly, the PR professional at this PR News workshop had all that and was spending an afternoon and the following day learning more about measurement from our PR News conference trainers.

After speaking with her at the break, during which she indulged in not one but too energy bars, I realized that her challenge was not so much the activity of measuring.  Rather, it was how to communicate with her boss. How to ask for more without feeling like she might get fired or, at best, looked upon as a less competent employee. In other words, she didn’t have the courage of her convictions. She was, after all, a pretty good communicator from what I could tell.  Among her peers, she knew how to talk the talk. But with her superiors she became a shrinking violet who didn’t believe in her ideas or her ability to communicate need. Turns out she hasn’t even asked for additional resources. “I was getting vibes from my manager that I was doing so great that he doesn’t need to worry about spending more on PR,” she told me.  Operating on “vibes” and failing to communicate PR’s successes are a recipe for disaster for PR professionals who’ve come a long way from being perceived as press release pushers.

– Diane Schwartz

When Speakers & Marketers Don’t See Eye-to-Eye

As the editor of PR News, I am partially responsible for securing speakers and content for our various events (webinars, conferences, etc.). While the logistics themselves are usually painless, I have encountered a number of instances in which I realize (only after receiving the presentations the speakers plan to give) that the content only vaguely resembles what we agreed upon during planning calls.

I think what often happens is that marketing copy with the event’s “deliverables” is crafted up front, and then speakers are chosen accordingly. Usually, each person is asked to address certain areas of content to avoid any overlap or redundancies. And they do … for the most part.

Often, though, I find that speakers get an idea of what they want to cover in their heads and then run with it, crafting their presentations around this information and then peppering in points that address their “assignments.” Sometimes this works well; other times, it results in an event that isn’t completely aligned with what attendees were promised in marketing materials.

As a frequent conference attendee myself, I see this happening often, but I don’t know how best to address it. Being strict with speakers is an option, but there is no guarantee it will work (plus, there is a strong chance of souring the relationship). Another option is choosing speakers, identifying their discussion topics and then writing the marketing material with their input; of course, this flies in the face of the separation of church and state.

Ultimately, I don’t know what the solution is, or if one is necessarily needed. It’s just an observation, and I’d welcome any comments or insights …

By Courtney barnes

New Chairman of GM Driven to Tell It Like it Is

The newly appointed chairman of GM says he doesn’t know much about cars.  From the Bloomberg article: “I don’t know anything about cars. A business is a business, and I think I can learn about cars. I’m not that old, and I think the business principles are the same.”  From a media training perspective, this is both refreshing and frightening. Now that most Americans own a bit of a stake in GM, we are listening more closely to what the top brass at the auto companies (and banks) are saying. So while Edward Whitacre is being very upfront about what he brings to the table (and he does have an impressive business background spanning 42 years including a major overhaul at AT&T), it might have been prudent for him to have chosen his words more wisely.  His quote hit the Web fast and furiously and stuck at the top of the fold for maybe an hour before other news surpassed it.  The other good news for GM is that Whitacre promises to learn about the auto industry (pheeew) and, according to a former AT&T colleague quoted by Bloomberg:  “He doesn’t like long meetings.”  That’s a sentiment people can really relate to.

– Diane Schwartz

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