What is it about CEOs? How can so many of them be so smart and so accomplished, and yet still say so many bad or dumb things?
It’s enough to keep a communications team up at night—and if they get to sleep, they have anxiety-driven nightmares.
Just this week, Guido Barilla, the CEO of one of the leading pasta makers in the world, brought a boycott down on his company for remarks that were viewed as homophobic. Within a few hours of the news, according to the guardian.com, the hashtag “boicotta-barilla” was trending on Twitter.
“For us, the concept of the sacred family remains one of the basic values of the company,” Barilla said in a radio interview when asked whether he’d use gay people in advertising. “I would not do it, but not out of a lack of respect for homosexuals who have the right to do what they want without bothering others. I don’t see things like they do and I think the family that we speak to is a classic family.”
This all comes just months after Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy renewed an old controversy he created in 2012 by tweeting his dissatisfaction with the Supreme Court decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.
Also this year, Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries brought negative attention on himself and his company when older comments surfaced where he said he only wants good looking people to buy his clothes.
And American Apparel CEO Dov Charney seems to be just minutes away at any given time from another lawsuit.
I think CEOs are smart, for sure—but they’re also human. And once people get to the top of their profession, they’re a) accustomed to thinking they’re always right, and b) used to subordinates telling them they’re always right. That leads very quickly to hubris and arrogance for most people, excepting only those who are really disciplined and have a very solid sense of self.
What’s a communicator to do? Here are a few options:
• Engage the executives in your company in media training. Not in sporadic episodes, but sustained programs. Don’t do it yourself. Bring in experts.
• Challenge the boss. Oftentimes, you’ll be putting your job at risk, but heck, it can’t be good for you or your company if you merely go along and get along.
• Know your executives. Know what their personal perspectives are. Respect those views, but help them understand that those views and the company’s marketing messaging are two different things.
• Offer yourself as a sounding board to flippant top executives—have them bounce their public statements off you first. And if they reject that idea, then it might be time to think about your own reputation and find an environment that is more receptive to good PR counsel.
I picked up a sound piece of advice the other night, during a college admissions event my daughter and I attended. Among the questions the prospective students asked of the alumni panel was whether the class sizes are so big that you can’t see, hear and learn in them. The very articulate Class of 2010 alumnus responded with a great piece of advice that was applicable to me — and you, I imagine. She said: “Just sit in the front of the room.” (Ah, if only it were that easy. Especially in college, when you really aren’t sure if you’ll be staying for the whole class, and what about your friends who wouldn’t dare sit in the front row?)
The high school senior who asked the question nodded affirmatively, but you could see that the sound advice flowed right over her head. I believe she was hoping for a literal answer, such as “Yes, it sucks, but you deal with it.”
The takeaway for me was an affirmation that just changing where you sit changes your perspective, improves your visibility, eliminates distractions, and gets you noticed. To take the advice further, instead of sitting in the back of the room (or being anonymous in your organization, or among your customers), move yourself to get closer, to be seen, and to hear things more clearly. By sitting (or getting closer), you’ll pick up on details that could make a big difference in your viewpoint. Our marketplaces are bigger than any college classroom; if you’re in the way, way back then you’re missing out on the conversation.
I didn’t expect to learn much from this college event – it was really for my daughter, not me. Which shows you can learn some life lessons from unexpected places and times. Just sit closer, and listen.
Last week, Buzzfeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti published a long memo on LinkedIn. It was titled a memo to the staff, but really was only partly directed to the staff. It was also a PR message to all stakeholders as well as competitors.
At any rate, it was brilliant. It was the most clear-headed, fully thought-out description of where media are going, and what attributes are necessary for success in a completely transformed media era. For those reasons—because it serves as both a great example of executive communication and helps PR pros understand where media is going—it’s worth discussing.
First thing Peretti did was thank his team in what seemed heartfelt and was certainly gracious:
“Before anything I want to thank you for all your amazingly great work over the last year. All of our success is because of you. BuzzFeed is on a significant roll, we have reached new milestones and our future looks tremendously bright.”
And that’s just the start. Peretti cited statistics illuminating BuzzFeed’s staggering Web growth. He outlined non-Web initiatives, such as an app, a YouTube channel and live meetups. He indicated the things BuzzFeed will not be doing: Live paid events, print magazines, white-label versions of BuzzFeed. And he reveals that his company is profitable—a rarity for Web-only startups.
As part of his thank-yous, he cites the work of various content, technology, data and marketing teams. Then Peretti gets into some interesting territory.
“Most other publishers integrate off-the-shelf products built by others, but this full-stack, vertically integrated approach was worth the significant, multi-year investment and is paying off fantastically today,” Peretti said. “There are great tech companies and great editorial institutions, but it is very rare for one company to take both as seriously as we do.”
This is an important point. Very few traditional media companies look at their businesses this way. And that serves to ensure that they are perennially a half-lap or more behind technology companies like Google and Facebook, which understand the direct relationship between content and technology, and how it drives the new types of media consumption. It’s simply not about monthly magazines, with a front-to-back pattern, and traditional devices like the TOC and a feature well.
This leads to the really interesting core of the memo, where Peretti pivots into a discussion of the characteristics and economic prospects of BuzzFeed (and presumably other pureplay media companies) compared to traditional media companies.
“Facebook, Twitter, and the other Silicon Valley-based social sites are amazing distribution platforms, but user generated content alone isn’t enough to fill the hole left by the ongoing decline of print newspapers and magazines,” he said. “The world needs sustainable, profitable, vibrant content companies staffed by dedicated professionals; especially content for people that grew up on the web, whose entertainment and news interests are largely neglected by television and newspapers.”
This is all true. It’s important to hear, even if his point about the “Silicon Valley-based social sites” ought to be looked at with skepticism. That’s because the basic dynamic of social sharing undermines the profit-generating ability of news organizations, and because BuzzFeed’s founding idea is about creating (and also finding and sharing) content for those same “Silicon Valley social sites.” You can’t have it both ways.
Still, Peretti is pointing to a new future, and he elaborates in nine additional points, covering everything from news to mobile to international coverage.
(The point about being an international brand is especially valuable. Old-school media companies launch international editions. Technology companies, and, Peretti said, BuzzFeed, are one brand, one content package, translated and presented to different markets.)
One of Peretti’s points is that his company is investing in news. “There is a huge opportunity to be the leading news source for the social, mobile world,” he wrote. “As we saw during the 2012 election, the Boston bombings, and our LGBT focused coverage of the Sochi Olympics, a new generation of readers are turning to us for news.”
You didn’t need to search very hard last week to find a contrary perspective, one that Peretti never addresses. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO who just bought the Washington Post for $250 million, gave his first interview—to the Post. Said Bezos:
“The Post is famous for its investigative journalism. It pours energy and investment and sweat and dollars into uncovering important stories. And then a bunch of Web sites summarize that [work] in about four minutes and readers can access that news for free. One question is, how do you make a living in that kind of environment? If you can’t, it’s difficult to put the right resources behind it.”
Bingo. If BuzzFeed is truly going to succeed in homegrown news, it needs to crack that code. Nothing that I’ve seen indicates anyone—including anyone at BuzzFeed—has figured that out.
And then there’s advertising. “Part of being a great business is being a “must buy” for advertisers who have many options,” Peretti said. “This means giving advertisers the full advantage of our scale, our data, our creative team, our social and mobile reach, and our technology platform. We have more expertise about social content than any other company. We can light up the social web for an advertiser across Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, with content that is worth clicking and sharing.”
Peretti has done a lot of thinking and writing about how content is shared. He’s serious and knowledgeable about his business. The challenge with that is that BuzzFeed’s own advertising model is based on a trend that works against media companies. BuzzFeed specializes in native advertising—advertising that looks and feels like and lives in the same format and in the same context as BuzzFeed’s (and other media companies’) own content. That is innovative, for sure, but it plays into another major trend—companies creating their own content and building audiences on their own, without the traditional dependency on media companies. This, combined with the targeting capabilities social sites and Google, enables non-media brands to create content, engage audiences, identify leads and sell products and services without the same level of reliance on third party companies.
I love the clarity of Peretti’s vision. That doesn’t mean there aren’t significant trends playing against BuzzFeed.
Women are being told to “lean in” to advance their careers; others are encouraged to lean out. I’ve got some advice that’s gender-neutral and is in response to a troublesome trend permeating society, from business meetings to social gatherings, from conference rooms to concert halls, from boardrooms to, um, bedrooms. The advice? Look Up! Move your focus from your phone to your physical environment and you’ll be pleased with the meaningful connections you can make in real-time.
This is not a lecture to stop texting, emailing, posting or pinning. Rather, it’s a reminder to be in the moment. To embrace the conversation in front of you without the distraction of the cloud. Without the addictive need to upload a photo, tweet a thought or respond to an email that really can wait. Sometimes you must look down and away, sending out an important message or just taking a break from the real world. It’s forgivable.
I am sometimes guilty of Looking Down and I try to catch myself – before I either walk into a wall or become so disoriented with what’s being discussed in the room that I’m scrambling to come up with something smart to say to prove I was listening. But those of us who regularly Look Down are not fooling anyone. Over time, you become “that person” who is always on her phone, that person who has better things to do than Look Up and engage. That person who thinks sending a Selfie in the middle of a meal with colleagues will keep you in the loop, in the know. Don’t be that person.
In the business of communications, it is imperative that we listen and engage. We are storytellers, and the cumulative effect of always Looking Down is we miss the story. For those in management or mentoring positions, modeling the Look Up behavior will go a long way toward creating knowledgeable and focused apprentices who will not only learn to Look Up and listen, but will inevitably look up to you as a shining example of restraint and engagement in a noisy, digital world.
– Diane Schwartz
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.
When I was a child, my mother always corrected me when I used the word “uh” and “like,” as in the sentence, “Uh, I am not sure, like I really want to do this but I don’t know how.” I have made up that sentence for great effect (hopefully) to illustrate how uneducated one can sound when using unnecessary, filler words. Kids can get away with “um” and “like” and “you know” – then one day, kids become directors, managers, account executives, spokespeople, and colleagues in a professional environment. What you say and how you say it starts to matter. Whereas a mother would implore her child to not use “uh” and the child will roll his eyes and still say it, it’s unlikely your boss or your colleague will correct your language. It would just seem rude and make you feel bad. So you are left to your own devices, to self-correct. How many times in a given day do you think you fill your dialogue with these words:
- You Know
- Ta (a mangled variation of “to”)
- Honestly (as in “Honestly, what I think you need to do)
- I mean
The last word I’d like to bring to your attention is “but”. It’s a fine word and grammatically acceptable. But it’s ripe with nuance. Try, for a day, to replace the word “but” with “and”. I bet you will come across as kinder and less contrary. Consider these possibly familiar exchanges:
“I just read your report and found it very interesting. It’s well-written and thought-out. But you are missing a key idea.”
An alternative without “but”:
“I just read your report and found it very interesting. It’s well-written and thought-out and if we were to add a few more sentences on (fill in the blank), it would be ready to distribute.”
Response: “Great! Thank you!”
“How does this outfit look on me?”
Response: “It looks nice, but you might want to loosen the belt.”
An alternative without “but”:
“How does this outfit look on me?”
Response: “It looks nice, and I like the shoes, too!”
Try replacing the word “but” with “and”. It may do wonders for your relationships, you know?
Are there are other “filler” words that should be added to this list? Please chime in.
- Diane Schwartz
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.
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
My son Max tells very long stories that veer in curious directions. By the time he’s nearing the point, he forgets the ending. It’s rather cute and endearing – he is, after all, only 12 years old. He will sometimes exclaim frustratingly: “I forgot what I was going to say!” Can we admit that often it’s as if a 12-year-old is telling a story about his brand? And we aren’t as forgiving, are we?
Storytelling in PR comes in many forms: press releases, emails, memos, phone calls, meetings, press conferences, interviews. Our stakeholders have short attention spans and are less charitable about seeing through the foggy messages. They are not our parents, who will listen to our stories and love us even more for the muddled storytelling. No, stakeholders will send you on your merry way, and latch on to a better story.
Like you and me, our audiences like a story that has heart, that makes us think and moves us in some way. A few days ago, I heard about Pedigree’s partnership with “Annie” on Broadway and the search for a shelter dog to play Sandy. The story is heart-warming and memorable, and makes me want to buy Pedigree dog food and see Annie for the umpteenth time. The story had emotion.
It’s the communicator’s role to find the compelling story in the message and then make it stick. At PR News’ Content Marketing Boot Camp on Tuesday, one speaker noted that “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” That’s a catchy reminder, but even in the age of social media and attention deficits, your story must be authentic, true to your brand’s story line and characters.
The best stories spread, then stick and, most importantly, result in a positive action or reaction. In other words, sticky can sometimes be stinky. Which leads me to my last point: know what to leave out of a story. Every brand and company is filled with stories. Not all of those stories should be told. Curate your stories, identify the narrative and figure out what’s better left unsaid. Not every story is worth repeating. Unless it’s about your kids.
- Diane Schwartz
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.