In the tech world, one of the iconic moments of the 1990s was when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997. He went to Macworld and gave one of his best speeches, during which he announced a partnership with Microsoft. Bill Gates made an appearance during that speech, projected on a giant screen behind Jobs.
Jobs was said to have always been uncomfortable with the visuals of that moment, where Gates was the giant presence, overwhelming the tiny Jobs, and symbolically, Apple itself.
Never mind that that actually was true in 1997. It got me thinking about how important the visuals are in public relations and overall communications, planned or spontaneous. It applies in every human endeavor, not just tech and not just business. Think politics. Michael Dukakis’ campaign was derailed in 1988 by that photo of him in a tank. He didn’t look presidential, to put it mildly. Or think about an iconic sports image, the 1968 Olympics medal ceremony where two American track athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, raised their fists in the black power salute. The third medal winner, Australian Peter Norman, appeared to be ignoring the other two, but he was involved and supportive in advance and actually wore a badge to show solidarity.
Great imagery that underscores a message—whether for a brand or politician or athlete—doesn’t just happen. It requires thinking and planning and in the case of public relations, collaboration. Back in the 1980s, Michael Deaver was a master image creator for Ronald Reagan, notably, with his speech at Omaha Beach, in Normandy, France, at the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Europe.
More recently, the MTV Video Music Awards created a stir that continues even now, as the one-time tween star of Disney’s “Hannah Montana” performed a song at the event that made the term “twerking” a household word and left a big slice of the country revolted. But I suspect that somewhere, some publicity team is saying, “mission accomplished.” In that case, I suspect, the image (an adult, racy Cyrus—not Hannah Montana) is exactly what Cyrus wanted.
So it was dissonant last week when Vogue Magazine published a rare in-depth article on Marissa Mayer. The Yahoo CEO opened up for really the first time in her headline-generating 13-month tenure in a long and essentially positive article. But accompanying the article was a weird photo of Mayer lying on a couch/lounge type of furniture, upside down, in a blue dress.
And what struck me most was why a Stanford-educated technology-company CEO would allow her image to be undermined in a way that no male CEO would ever do and frankly, in a way that no male CEO would ever be asked to do. Would Tim Cook be asked to pose in that manner? Would he do it? How about Warren Buffett?
So in the end, an epic fail for Mayer, and in a way, worse for her personal brand than spending $30 million on some teenager’s app.
Late last week, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s foundation, LeanIn.org, got some negative media coverage. An editor from the organization posted a call on her Facebook page for unpaid interns.
The criticism was immediate and furious. How could a non-profit dedicated to empowering women, and fighting the glass ceiling, engage in what many people say are exploitative personnel practices? How could an organization headed by one of the most famous woman executives in the country—a woman who is extraordinarily wealthy and wrote a bestseller on why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled—expect the most junior and vulnerable people on her team to work for free?
The response was swift as well. Here’s a shortened version of what LeanIn.org president Rachel Thomas wrote on Friday:
“Like many nonprofits, LeanIn.Org has attracted volunteers who are passionate about our mission. We’ve had four students ask to volunteer with us. These volunteers helped support our message and community, and gained valuable experience doing so. They did not displace or delay the hiring of paid employees. As a startup, we haven’t had a formal internship program. Moving forward we plan to, and it will be paid. We support equality – and that includes fair pay – and we’ll continue to push for change in our own organization and our broader community.”
From my perspective, the statement is too defensive, and it mostly doesn’t address the central issue.
It seems to be saying, “Hey, people are coming to us asking to volunteer. Why should we have turned them away?” It seems to be saying, “Even those who work for us for free still get value, so it’s kind of okay.”
Those things might be true, but they’re also, frankly, not productive. That’s especially so for an organization dedicated to principles that are fundamentally at odds with those practices.
From a communications perspective, the defensiveness left a lingering feeling that LeanIn.org still doesn’t quite get it, even through they’re changing their practices.
But the good news, and LeanIn’s real promise, is in Thomas’ last couple of sentences, indicating a change in policy that will require paid internships.
So having perhaps learned a lesson, an organization dedicated to empowering women can now start a much more widespread conversation about changing something that’s much more pervasive than it used to be: Unpaid internships, and paid internships with no benefits replacing what used to be entry-level jobs.
A 20-person brawl at a Chuck E. Cheese outlet in Wisconsin is just the latest episode of violence at the fast-food chain that caters to kids.
Earlier this week a dad and his young son both had to be treated for injuries after an attempted robbery outside of a Chuck E. Cheese outlet in New Hampshire, Manchester police said, per CBS Boston.
And earlier this month, a patron of a Long Island, New York Chuck E. Cheese was caught on camera taking a swing at another customer (while clutching a baby in her arms).
You know your brand is in trouble when all of the information associated with it starts to resemble a criminal court docket.
The restaurant chain has responded to myriad incidents with the following statement (abridged).
Despite our corporate and in-store staffs’ efforts to facilitate a friendly atmosphere, unfortunately an occasional altercation occurs with a very small percentage of those who visit our restaurants. And like kids’ soccer and baseball games across our country, typically the incidents are not with the kids—but regrettably the parents. For us, even one altercation is too many. In light of this, we will continue to test and evaluate additional measures for the benefit of our guests—such as increased security camera presence and awareness, re-examining our facility seating arrangements and our party parameters as well as working closely with local authorities—with the goal of deterring future incidences. Maintaining a wholesome, safe, family experience that sets a standard across our more than 560 locations is of utmost importance to Chuck E. Cheese’s.
To Chuck E. Cheese’s credit, the statement takes pains to tackle some of the problems plaguing the restaurant chain.
But when your brand becomes synonymous with bad behavior—particularly when there are children involved—it’s time to take a much more proactive approach to cauterizing the wounds and protecting the integrity of your company.
Chuck E. Cheese needs to communicate what the company is doing to prevent any fisticuffs (or worse) from taking place at its outlets. How, exactly, is the company working with local authorities to stem the fighting? And is the company working with academics and/or psychologists to find ways to nip any fighting in the bud and change the store environment?
The fast-food chain also may need to reevaluate its prize-exchange programs. (The incident in Wisconsin reportedly started after a child was taking too long to exchange his tickets for prizes.)
Putting out a press statement in response to such incidents also leaves the company’s C-level executives off the hook.
Even if we weren’t in the throes of a social media age, wouldn’t it behoove Chuck E. Cheese CEO Michael H Magusiak to communicate to the public in no uncertain terms that fighting at his restaurants is totally unacceptable behavior? PR 101: Never let a crisis go to waste.
Perhaps the company is betting that these incidents will soon be forgotten. The country’s short attention span has always played into companies taking the path of least resistance in response to negative publicity.
Still, we are fast entering an era in which companies need to “own” their mistakes or bear the consequences (read: fewer and fewer customers and even fewer prospects).
Chuck E. Cheese, which dates back to 1977, is likely to weather the latest PR storm. But what happens if another brawl breaks out at one of its outlets and a customer is seriously hurt? Will the restaurant company continue to shift the blame to unruly customers or take more responsibility for why these ugly incidents continue to happen on its premises?
At that point, consumers may not be ready to forgive and forget like they usually do.
Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1
New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, also known as Carlos Danger in the sexting world, issued an apology this week after more salacious text messages surfaced between him and a twenty-something Indiana woman. The messages were exchanged after he resigned from Congress in 2011 amid a sexting scandal, promising to rehabilitate. At his press conference this week, he and his wife Huma Abedin sought forgiveness and understanding. Meanwhile, the Web site on which the latest texts were revealed, TheDirty.com, is enjoying its 15 minutes of fame and women’s groups are at odds over whether his wife should stand by her man, or at least encourage him to drop out of the mayoral race.
Many have noted that Weiner has a “PR problem.” Surely, a crisis such as this requires a public relations strategy. And we know that Weiner’s camp is pretty good at PR, considering he rose from the ashes of the original sexting scandal two years ago to run for mayor of New York – and the polls had him to neck and neck with his competitors just a few days ago.
Tuesday’s press conference, however creepy it might have seemed to some, was a smart step forward for someone who refuses to quit the race. (I emphasize: it was a good media relations play for someone who’s still in the race.) His demeanor during the press conference was on the mark, as he was deferential to his wife, contrite and even-keeled. And the public is extremely forgiving, so Weiner has that going for him. Plus, as most media trainers would advise, he stayed on (his) message, noting: “This is not about me, this is about the fact that the middle class has people struggling to make it in this city.”
A good PR counselor would work hard to get the public to see him in a new light – that of a loyal but flawed husband, a doting father and a hard-working civil servant who will fight for New Yorkers.
But wouldn’t it be interesting if a PR counselor could advise someone like Weiner to do what’s right for the person (and arguably for the city of New York) and take the public relations strategy of no relations with the public? My advice to Weiner is to:
> Get help for his behavior — not for the after-effects
> Step away from the podium– forget about being mayor for now
> Become self-aware and learn to shun the spotlight
Lastly – putting it all in perspective, Weiner is not a criminal. He is a man with questionable character and integrity. He doesn’t have a PR problem. He has a personal issue that shouldn’t be the public’s problem.
– Diane Schwartz
The ugly story of Aaron Hernandez raises again the issue of perception challenges in big-time sports, both on the professional and collegiate levels, and it’s worth some time thinking about how we got here.
We’re a sports-obsessed culture. Always have been. It goes way back in the country’s psyche. I recently read a book called “Crazy ‘08: How a Cast of Boneheads, Rogues and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History.”
You might think it was about 2008, and Alex Rodriguez, Brian Wilson (the San Francisco Giants closer with the long dyed-black beard), and George Steinbrenner.
But it was really about the 1908 season, when America was equally baseball crazy.
Then there’s the long history of idolizing college football players like Red Grange, George Gipp (Ronald Reagan made Knute Rockne’s phrase “Win one for the Gipper” famous) and Notre Dame’s 1924 “Four Horsemen.”
Going back even further than that, baseball became a national sport during the Civil War, when soldiers from all over the country were introduced to it and in the years after the war spread it to the four corners of the nation.
This explains why we revere sports institutions and athletes. But we give them a pass way too often. We create a hothouse environment where a sense of entitlement reigns, where cheaters are celebrated, where criminals are excused, where the money is huge, and where institutions like the Penn State football program end up driving university policy, not the other way around.
In what other context would someone like Ray Lewis, recently retired from the Baltimore Ravens, be considered the face of a business?
Big-time sports are popular, but also tarnished. And they have the power, when they run amok, to tarnish other brands, like the universities that lend their names to sports programs. After Hernandez’s arrest last month for murder, new light was cast on his time at the University of Florida, when 25 players were arrested a total of 31 times during the tenure of coach Urban Meyer, a period when the team won two national championships.
Are championships worth more than character and reputation? It appears so, and while Hernandez and others must face the consequences for their alleged actions, the system collectively really is to blame. Here are some suggestions on how to fix things.
1. Make use of performance-enhancing drugs a career ender. Baseball, especially, has a huge problem, mostly because it turned a two-decade-long blind eye on the problem while gladly raking in the revenue generated during the steroid era.
2. Pay college athletes. This will go a long way toward eliminating the mostly false notion of the “student athlete.” If the athlete is selected based on raw economics, overlooking character will be less likely.
3. Do a much better job to acknowledge and explain the role athletics plays in college finances. This will mitigate the excessive influence that boosters play, and also help schools from a public relations standpoint. Incredibly, in 40 of the 50 states, the highest paid state employee is either the football or basketball coach. That made major headlines a few months ago. The reaction was largely indignation. Put aside questions about terribly misplaced priorities, however, and you really can justify those salaries based on the economics—who brings more revenue to a school (and thus helps fund important academic initiatives) than the coach of a successful sports program?
4. Don’t play the victim, as Bob Kraft, who owns the New England Patriots, did when he recently said that the team was “duped,” by Aaron Hernandez. Own the mistake. And communicate to the public how you’re going to do everything possible to avoid the same mistake in the future.
Tony Silber: @tonysilber
There are countless communications takeaways from the recent celebrity gaffes. Whether it’s Paula Deen dealing with allegations of being a racist and then dropped like a buttered sweet potato by every brand partner, or Jennifer Lopez singing “Happy Birthday” to Turkmenistan’s authoritarian ruler for his 56th birthday last Saturday night, one thing is for sure: another day, another blunder by a celebrity or public figure.
Is the PR team to blame for either of these crises — or is it to be sympathized with? After all, wrangling bosses with high stature and over-sized egos to do and say what you advise is not kid’s play. You win some, you lose some. In the Paula Deen and J.Lo cases, I take the side that PR could have done a better job of doing their job. Public Relations is not just about pitching stories to the media (which is what most of the public thinks) – it’s about improving or maintaining reputations, shaping messages, avoiding crises, moving a brand forward, managing expectations, and so much more.
PR could have shined in both these crises – resulting in another needed feather in the PR cap. (Notably, there are hundreds of crises every day that never see the light of media because PR is in fact doing its job.)
Because too much has already been written and said about Paula Deen, I will keep this one simple: PR counselors can’t make their clients less racist, but a strategic and strong PR counsel can guide their client to take the right steps to mitigate crisis, to apologize, to articulate how he or she will make amends. Instead, we hear Deen utter: “I is what I is” and we hear her challenging people to throw stones at her head if they weren’t guilty as well of saying mean things. Even before getting into crisis management mode, shouldn’t Deen’s PR team have seen this coming? Did they have a seat at any of Deen’s many tables, guiding her on public perception, listening to what her employees were saying and feeling? It was a public secret that Deen used the “N-word” often.
From Savannah to the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan we have another situation that will predictably be less of a long-term problem for the celebrity. J.Lo was the guest of a China National Petroleum Corp. event in Turkmenistan when she was asked to sing “Happy Birthday” to that country’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. J.Lo’s spokesman, Mark Young, told the New York Post: “Had there been knowledge of human-rights issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended” the birthday party. Um, Google or Bing “Turkmenistan” and you’ll find that Human Rights Watch lists it “among the most repressive” countries in the world. As my PR News colleague Lucia Davis writes on prnewsonline, this crisis, too, could have been avoided.
The whole situation was made worse by J.Lo’s team members’ enthusiasm for being at this event, with her choreographer cluelessly tweeting: “The Turkmenistan breeze feels amazing at night, kidz! I wonder where all my Turkmenistan followers are!? Hit me up!” Perhaps the people of this land can’t follow him on Tweeter because, according to Human Rights Watch, “The Turkmen government exercises total control of public life.”
In my 18 years in the PR space, one of the most basic pieces of advice volleyed between media and PR people has been to “do your homework.” PR people shouldn’t pitch stories to reporters without knowing what and whom they cover. And reporters should respect PR’s role in the ecosystem, whether it’s a political, entertainment, business or nonprofit story, and should come into the interview knowing a thing or two about their subject. Had J.Lo’s team done its homework, it would have easily discovered that even showing up for an event honoring a repressive world leader is ill-advised. Singing “Happy Birthday” was just icing on the stinking cake. Had Paula Deen’s PR team done a listening tour of the people closest to her empire – such as her employees – they could have put measures in place to avoid the downward spiral.
Summer’s here, school is out, but we will always have our homework to do.
- Diane Schwartz
In abruptly firing Men’s Wearhouse founder and executive chairman George Zimmer, the men’s clothing company has sent a few messages to the marketplace, none of which are likely to help the brand’s reputation or its PR efforts.
Men’s Wearhouse gave no explanation for firing Zimmer, who built the company from one small Texas store to “one of North America’s largest specialty men’s clothiers with 1,143 locations,” according to The Huffington Post, adding that the company generated revenue of $2.48 billion in its latest fiscal year ended Feb. 2.
To add insult to injury, the firing came on the heels of the company’s announcement last week that profits were up 23%.
Perhaps Zimmer—the face of the brand who assures consumers in television commercials that “You’re going to like the way you look”—is being punished for helping to generate solid numbers for the brand. That’s puzzling enough. Yet it wouldn’t be the first time that a company’s founder was ousted by the board of directors, the late Steve Jobs being the most prominent example.
What’s even more bewildering is the Zimmer handed over the CEO reins to his successor, Douglas Ewart, in 2011.
Zimmer, for one, has not been shy about airing his grievances. “Over the past several months I have expressed my concerns to the board about the direction the company is currently heading,” Zimmer told CNBC. “Instead of fostering the kind of dialogue in the boardroom that has in part contributed to our success, the Board has inappropriately chosen to silence my concerns through termination as an executive officer.”
Men’s Wearhouse has responded to Zimmer’s comments with radio silence. That’s the company’s prerogative, of course, never mind that it betrays an incredibly dim view of public relations.
“The move goes against everything you learned about corporate communications,” said David Johnson, CEO of PR agency Strategic Vision LLC. The decision “creates uncertainty among existing customers about where the brand is going.”
Some reports pegged the move to Men’s Wearhouse wanting to re-tailor the brand for the millennials (people born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s).
If so, Men’s Wearhouse has a peculiar way of communicating to millennials, who seem to value transparency, openness and dialogue—everything Men’s Wearhouse avoided when it decided to dump Zimmer.
Indeed, they don’t call it “social media” for nothing. Other reports suggested that Zimmer’s support for legalizing marijuana may have gotten him in trouble.
Whatever the case, Men’s Wearhouse comes off as a company that’s stuck in time.
If the company had serious differences with Zimmer it should have had the gumption to tell consumers via its social channels why the man synonymous with the brand was being summarily let go and where the company goes from here.
Initial returns on Men’s Wearhouse secrecy strategy are less than encouraging. Hundreds of Men’s Wearhouse shoppers took to its Facebook page to express their outrage over the firing of Zimmer, per CNNMoney.com. Said one customer: “Oust George and lose my business. I guarantee it.”
Maybe the suits at Men’s Wearhouse need to reconsider their decision to get rid of Zimmer and get more schooling in PR in the process.
(Earlier today, Men’s Wearhouse Board of Directors released a statement explaining why the company fired Zimmer.)
Follow Matthew Schwartz:@mpsjourno1
If you’re an immigrant from Krypton living in the U.S.—or in any spot on Earth—then flying without the benefit of a wingspan or jet propulsion and hearing the flutter of a butterfly in Ensenada while you’re leaping over the Empire State Building in a single bound is old hat. Warner Bros.’ Man of Steel, the new Superman reboot, is no cause for celebration for you either—it’ll just flush out the anti-immigrant wingnuts who’ll once again terrorize you and your relatives with Kryptonite hockey pucks.
You didn’t ask for superpowers—you just needed to find a more hospitable planet. Your superpowers make you feel like a freak and, if you work in PR, cause no end of frustration. Using your superpowers for your own professional ends feels too much like cheating—your old-school Kryptonian parents certainly wouldn’t approve—and so you toil away like just another Clark Kent.
I’m telling you now to embrace your true, Kryptonian self—own your inner Superman or Superwoman, put your powers to use as a PR pro. Let’s face it—part of the reason you deny your superpowers is you’re afraid that they might not be so super after all. And that’s just not logical.
Here are just three suggestions to get you started:
- If your brand is in crisis because of, say, an oil spill or because of a cruise ship that’s run aground, fly around the Earth really fast to reverse its rotation around the axis. This will take you back in time so you can prevent the oil rig from exploding or the cruise ship captain from carousing.
- Make your brand a CSR leader by using your super breath power to re-freeze the melting polar ice cap.
- Use your blinding speed to respond to every tweet that mentions your brand’s name—in real time! And, as a bonus, using this speed you’ll finally be able to clear out all those unopened emails.
One of the bigger viral stories of the last two days was the foul-mouthed racist rant by a Dunkin’ Donuts customer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who filmed herself abusing the store’s employees and posted the video online.
The coffee-shop chain has a policy that states that if employees neglect to provide an accurate receipt, then the customer gets their order for free.
In the video, the customer, Taylor Chapman, had made a drive-through order the prior evening and didn’t get a receipt, and she showed up the next morning loaded for bear, claiming that because she and her friends didn’t get a receipt the night before, she should get the same order that next day. Her bizarre eight-minute video got worse and then worse still, but all the while, the DD employee, 18-year-old Abid Adar, calmly and politely handled the abuse, offering to make good on the policy and provide a free order for Chapman.
Put aside for the moment that the rant was so over-the-top crazy, and that the video was first posted by an anonymous YouTube account with no prior videos, that it made the entire incident seem somehow “off.”
Consider instead how Adar was an exemplary brand ambassador, and that it took Dunkin’ Donuts a full three days after the incident to acknowledge Adar’s poise and make some form of recognition.
@caseyhall_ We’re proud of how our franchisee’s crew member handled this situation! ^LH
— Dunkin’ Donuts (@DunkinDonuts) June 13, 2013
There are significant communications ramifications here. In no particular order, here are some that occur to me:
• Other than some Twitter responses, I’ve found no official Dunkin’ Donuts statement on the incident, hoax or otherwise. Big mistake.
• If nothing else, use a personal statement by an executive, in a press release and not just a tweet, to acknowledge that your employee, a bottom-of-the-totem-pole teenager, responded with exceptional restraint and professionalism.
• Better yet, take his story to the media and make him an example to all of your employees coast to coast.
• Remember that your people are your best brand ambassadors. Adar and a second employee, who was singled out for especially ugly invective late in the video, were either well trained or were special representatives of Dunkin’ Donuts. Sometimes the most valuable PR can come from the most unheralded and unexpected sources. Internalize that. Make it policy. Make it proactive. That way, every employee will know in advance how to deal with abusive customers.
• Rethink the policy about the receipts. It’s dumb. Most times I don’t need a receipt for my coffee, and when I do, if I don’t get it, I don’t expect a free order.
If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you know that there will be blood and some of your favorite characters might not make it to the next episode of the HBO fantasy hit series. Sunday’s episode, dubbed “Red Wedding” was a fascinating, cringeworthy episode that angered fans and saddened so many viewers that a Twitter handle @RedWeddingTears was created to comfort the afflicted.
The episode got me thinking that the beloved Starks could really benefit from communications counsel. Game of Thrones is, in a sense, about relations with the public, a rather unforgiving fractured world of stakeholders who are ready to fight for their leaders to gain market share and mindshare. The Starks are a relatively honorable family in this fictional world. Robb Stark, heir to Winterfell and the North, seeks counsel from his mother and wife as he attempts to form game-changing alliances.
I present to you a few PR tips stemming from Robb’s ill-fated decision last episode that might be applicable to your next business decision. Hindsight is 20/20, but you might find these useful for your next potentially heated situation:
* Trust but verify: Your heart might be in the right place, but when doing a deal with a competitor, do a background check on who will be in attendance at the seminal meeting. Check out the meeting space. Had Robb Stark taken this advice, he might not have shown up for the Red Wedding.
* Your mother doesn’t always give the best advice. A PR counselor would have told her client that his mom is a wonderful person but her advice might need to be tempered with reality. Robb should have gone with his gut or taken advice from a professional.
* Apologizing doesn’t set you free. Just saying you’re sorry doesn’t lead to absolution. Sometimes people don’t want to forgive. Know your audience and if you sense you might get stabbed in the back anyway, be prepared to defend yourself.
* Don’t let them shut the doors on you. As viewers of the Red Wedding, we knew things were going to get bloody when the hosts closed the big doors and silence ensued. Always look for an “out” and make your way to the exits without causing a stir.
There’s one more episode left of this season’s Game of Thrones. Perhaps they’ll introduce a communications expert who will introduce a new measurable strategy for the remaining Starks that will allow them to rule the kingdom. This is a fantasy, after all.
Follow Diane: @dianeschwartz.