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.
By now you’ve heard the news that Adam Levine hates his country. No, he loves his country. Wait a minute: what does he really feel and why do we care? If “The Voice” coach and Maroon Five singer truly hated America, the worst that could happen is he gets kicked off “The Voice” and his band suffers in the Apple store.
For communications professionals, Adam Levine’s gut response, “I hate this country” made after two of his singers got voted off “The Voice” on Tuesday night, is an example of public figures saying something stupid for a split second. That’s all it takes, a split second, for a quote to go viral and escalate to a top story. The public and media know a great sound bite when they hear it, especially surprising when it comes out of the mouths of generally well-liked, behaving celebrities.
What PR advice would you give Adam? Here are some steps Adam has already taken and that he might want to consider over the next 48 hours:
Respond via social media. On his Twitter handle, he tweeted definitions of “humorless,” “joke,” “misunderstand” and “lighthearted.” His fans are on Twitter, so responding to them in a less conspicuous manner was the right move.
Issue a statement. That he did:
“I obviously love my country very much and my comments last night were made purely out of frustration. Being a part of The Voice, I am passionately invested in my team and want to see my artists succeed. Last night’s elimination of Judith and Sarah was confusing and downright emotional for me and my comments were made based on my personal dissatisfaction with the results. I am very connected to my artists and know they have long careers ahead, regardless of their outcome on the show.”
Ride it out. This too shall be passed over by other non-important news. Justin Bieber continues to behave badly, Arrested Development is back and Beyonce might be having another baby.
Be more careful. That microphone works, Adam. Think before you speak into it.
Here are things Adam shouldn’t do in the next 48 hours:
> Wear red, white and blue.
> Get a tattoo of the U.S. flag on his wrist (wait at least a year).
> Write a song about patriotism.
> Become the spokesperson for the Armed Forces.
> Step down from “The Voice.”
And, for the producers of “The Voice,” enjoy the boost in ratings.
- Diane Schwartz
There you are, reporting to your CEO on the outcome of a recent PR campaign you spearheaded. Your excitement is contagious as the CEO wants to know more about the positive tone, product awareness and visual dimensions, more about your company’s share of voice and the way you were able to tie sales to the efforts. He asks you what the ad equivalency would be for this PR campaign and you explain, patiently, that AVEs are not how we measure anymore; that’s for amateurs. You refer a few times to the Barcelona Principles, but you had him at “awareness.”
Measurement is the new black. Those who measure their PR understand the profound impact the activity can have on a company’s brand and bottom line. Measurement experts go far in their career because they have gained a keener understanding of their activities by tracking what’s important and by dispensing of activities that bear either no fruit or rotten fruit. One of the best indicators of an organization’s support of the PR department is its investment in measurement and its willingness to listen to the results (however tough they may be) and heed PR’s counsel.
What used to be cordoned off as the geeky discipline within PR, measurement and research is now integrated into everything communicators do. Or it should be. Whether it’s measuring the impact of a tweet or analyzing the performance of a year-long community relations effort, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.
In a recent PR News/CARMA survey, roughly 10 percent of respondents admitted they don’t typically set objectives for some campaigns and don’t measure social media, and nearly 64% still use clip counts more than other metrics. And surprisingly, 32% said the primary reason they measure is because their boss or senior management requires it. Until we get the 32% of PR pros to measure because they want to be better at PR and until we get 100% of communicators setting real objectives, then we are not done with evangelizing the power of measurement.
- Diane Schwartz
PS: At PR News, we are bringing hundreds of communicators to the National Press Club on May 15 for our annual PR Measurement Conference. We’ll share measurement tips, tactics, war stories and advice. Hope you can join us for this “sexy” event. I hope you’ll join us. Email me your hot-button measurement questions to pose to the speakers at firstname.lastname@example.org.