It’s the end of an era. Early Thursday morning David Letterman signs off as host of CBS’ “Late Show” after a 33-year-run on late night TV (including 10 years as host of “Late Night With David Letterman” on NBC).
Whether introducing America to “Stupid Pet Tricks,” swimming in a large vat of breakfast cereal or having Larry “Bud” Melman promote Toast-on-a-stick (“Bread’s answer to the popsicle!”), Letterman is a testament to original content.
Creating original content—often with an anarchic quality—is a lesson communicators can take from Letterman. In homage to Letterman’s “Top 10” lists, here are the Top 5 PR lessons from the soon-departed late night king.
Make conversation an art. Amid an increasingly social media age—where 140 characters qualifies as communication—Letterman was a strong long-form interviewer, where the goal was to inform, educate and entertain, rather than simply push product and generate yuks.
Show off your personality, warts-and-all. Letterman could hardly be accused of pretense. Often, he could be cranky and/or ornery, with and without his guests. He didn’t try to hide those facets of his personality, but played them up because they were an authentic part of his brand.
Diverse guests bring diverse audiences. Not so much in the last several years—in which A-list celebrities predominated—but certainly during his NBC tenure Letterman didn’t think twice about featuring peripheral yet impossibly interesting guests, such as surrealist Brother Theodore and musician/painter Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet). And we’re forever indebted to Letterman for launching the career of Chris Elliot. Musicians credit Letterman with his eclectic taste, which has helped boost a variety of musical genres, including Americana. The takeaway for communicators: look beyond the usual suspects when trying to cultivate new relationships and partnerships. And don’t judge a book by its cover.
Tonality is everything. The remarks Letterman made about the 9/11 attacks during his first show back after the crisis became one of his finest hours. His comments were humbling and sincere for a city and nation that had suffered incalculable loss. The comments were made “on the other side of the glass,” of course, but it was as if Letterman was sitting right next to you, providing comfort and kind words. He knew his audience; he knew the situation and acted accordingly.
Make your audience cringe (if only a little). Letterman and his writers were masters at creating scenarios that were slightly uncomfortable, but always compelling. Case in point: A 1983 split-screen interview with actor Charles Grodin that Letterman conducted remotely, with Grodin sitting alone in the studio. PR News dares you to watch the video and look away. Bet you can’t. Same with PR marketing campaigns. Nuke the ‘same old, same old’ and create strategies and tactics that are a little edgy, but not off-putting.
So long, Dave. It’s been real.
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1
The series finale of ‘Mad Men’ left it up to us to decide if Don Draper took on a new, third identity or whether California bliss and an inspired retreat experience led him back to the advertising life and to create the iconic “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial.”
After 92 hours of great storytelling by show creator Matthew Weiner, we say goodbye to Don, Roger, Peggy, Joan, Pete, and the iconic, misogynistic and inappropriate ’60s workplace. So one cliffhanger from the show which may frustrate communicators is: Where was the HR director at Sterling Cooper & Partners? Today, that HR dept. would be working overtime to deal with the goings-on among its troops.
To wit, I recap wonderfully horrible lines from ‘Mad Men’ over the years that hopefully you don’t hear in the workplace anymore:
“Give me more ideas to reject.” – Don Draper
“Well, I gotta go learn a bunch of people’s names before I fire them.” – Roger Sterling
“Being with a client is like being in a marriage. Sometimes you get into it for the wrong reasons, and eventually they hit you in the face.” – Roger Sterling
“I’m Peggy Olson and I wanna smoke some marijuana.”
“Say yes with your voice not just your eyes.” – Pete
“I’m not a solution to your problem. I’m another problem.” – Joan
“Remember when God closes a door he opens a dress.” – Roger Sterling
“I know you’re ashamed of your body. Or you should be at least.” – Stan [to Peggy]
“Although things are precarious financially, it’s been a magnificent year.” – Lane
“Could you keep it down? I’m trying to drink.” – Don Draper
‘Mad Men‘ is arguably one of TV’s best written stories and will be fondly remembered for years to come. The workplace culture and the dialogue that accompanied it? It’s good to know we’ve progressed, or as one ’60s advertising slogan noted, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
– Diane Schwartz
—inscribed on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi
In 1967, in what seemed like a far less-complicated time, a McDonald’s TV commercial, borrowing the tune from “Down by the Riverside,” claimed its burger restaurants were “my kind of place, a hap, hap, happy place, a clean and snappy place.”
Today McDonald’s is a public company, a global behemoth, with nearly 2 million employees serving 68 million customers daily in some 118 countries and territories.
Last year, for the first time in nearly two decades, the company’s quarterly sales fell. That downturn mirrored what has been happening in McDonald’s’ country of origin. U.S. same-store sales at some 14,000 McDonald’s have been mired in a five-year slump.
As a result of the sales downturn, every move this traditional Wall Street darling makes as it attempts to return to glory is scrutinized, picked over by restaurant insiders, not to mention financial analysts and the media, PR News.
Whether it’s simplifying what some believe has become an overly large menu, changing prices, serving breakfast all day or becoming more transparent about its food suppliers, the former hap, hap happy place is becoming a tes, tes, test case. As such, PR pros are anxiously watching how the world’s largest burger chain attempts to reinject gold into its arches and how clearly it communicates those efforts.
The corporation’s biggest move to date had president/CEO Don Thompson, 51, announcing he was stepping down in late January. Steve Easterbrook, a 48-year-old Brit and one of Thompson’s former lieutenants, has replaced him.
In a PR News piece last month that discussed Easterbrook’s first visible moves—closing 350 restaurants—it was argued that changing consumers’ perception of McDonald’s will be critical to a turnaround. Mark Renfree wrote:
“McDonald’s product isn’t the problem; it’s how customers perceive the Golden Arches. The brand has become synonymous with unhealthy eating habits and horrifying factory farms.”
One of the great things about watching McDonald’s as a case study is that for every solution proposed, there will be someone who takes the opposite view.
Embracing Fat, Grease and Friendly, Clean Environs
While Don Draper and later Peggy Olson once counseled their clients saying, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation,” this may prove difficult for McDonald’s, according to Professor Adam Galinksy of Columbia University’s business school. In a book to be published in September, Friend and Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both (Crown Business/Random House), Galinsky and co-author M. Schweitzer discuss whether brands should fight to change public perception or concede on certain points. Successful brands have done both, they argue. Can McDonald’s win by admitting that the burger chain ‘is what it is’?
Several brands have responded to less-than-flattering perceptions by changing their names—the Patagonian toothfish resurfaced as Chilean Sea Bass, Philip Morris morphed into Altria, Kentucky Fried Chicken modified slightly to KFC. McDonald’s is an icon, so a name change would appear to be out of the question, Galinsky says.
McDonald’s is fighting on select fronts and is succeeding. To combat the pasting its food has received on social media, McDonald’s has chosen to go to battle in the arena where the damage was done. McDonald’s has used social media to make a foray into transparency. Its “Our Food. Your Questions” has attracted more than 31 million social media views, outdistancing successes the campaign has enjoyed in other countries.
On the other hand, attempts at changing perception also have hurt McDonald’s. Adding healthier items to its menus, some argue, has damaged one of McDonald’s’ hallmarks, fast service.
This leads to the thought that perhaps part of Easterbrook’s resuscitation plan should include McDonald’s embracing its image. “We’re a hap, hap, happy place offering good-tasting food that perhaps is not the healthiest choice, but who cares? We serve you quickly, inexpensively and in a clean, kid-friendly atmosphere.”
For years PR pros have advocated a version of this prescription, even in the volatility of the digital age—have a sense of humor about your brand, own your image. In a situation where your brand is the punch line of jokes on social media, if they constitute a relatively minor threat, you could do worse than to laugh, Ivan Ristic counseled recently.
Healthy Eating or Pass the Coke?
Yet the McDonald’s case may be different. There’s deep, well-documented resentment against McDonald’s on several fronts and healthy eating indeed has risen in the public’s awareness, else Coca-Cola wouldn’t be reeling also.
Still, Americans have a long way to go before we can be said to be healthy eaters. We may be health-conscious, ie, we know we are ingesting too much sodium, fat, sugar and calories and getting too little exercise. For some reason, however, those misgivings recede quickly as we devour a few more of those delicious French fries and slurp an icy, cold Coke.
Another thing to consider, with all the moaning and groaning about lower sales and reduced income for McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, Americans likely will drink more than 100 servings of Coke this year and McDonald’s boasts a consistent average of selling 75 burgers per second worldwide. These brands are not going away soon.
Still, it won’t be easy for McDonald’s and Easterbrook to laugh at and accept the perception of the brand as a purveyor of unhealthy fare. As noted above, sales are down. Shareholders and franchisees, owners of 80% of McDonald’s restaurants, are looking to Easterbrook for solutions. Of course this could be a situation for PR and communication pros to come to the fore, crafting a strategy where McDonald’s embraces its unhealthy image, but in a subtle, constructive way that helps boost sales.
Will McDonald’s admit to what it is and own its image, warts and all, or try to revise its public perception as a purveyor of healthy comestibles? It’s clear what Galinski recommends. “Stigmatized companies aren’t better off hiding from their characteristics,” Galinsky says. “They’re better off owning them.”
Most likely Easterbrook’s rescue plans will include elements of both approaches. In any case, McDonald’s will supply plenty of food for thought in the weeks and months ahead. Let the fun begin.
Seth Arenstein is Senior Editorial Advisor to PR News
There are so many sources of news media now and so many ways to get the news, it’s difficult to determine which outlets and journalists have the most influence. Also, social media has leveled the playing field, and traditional media brands don’t matter as much now.
So you’ve been led to believe—or want to believe.
If a new ranking of influential financial journalists and media brands is any indication of a larger trend about who and what really has influence in news media—and it should be an indication—traditional news media brands remain supremely influential, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
In a survey of 400 U.S.-based financial journalists conducted by Gorkana in partnership with Matt Ragas and Hai Tran of DePaul University, none of the top 10 most influential journalists work for an Internet-only media brand. The top 10 work for newspaper, magazine and TV brands that have diversified into digital. Felix Salmon (tied for fifth), works for a new TV outlet called Fusion, but even that’s a joint venture between two traditional media brands, ABC and Univision.
In the list of the 10 most influential financial media outlets, Yahoo Finance is the only Internet-only brand on the list and, in fact, dropped two places to 10th compared to a year earlier.
Are the financial journalists surveyed more inclined to select the legacy brands and out of touch with what PR pros might select? Not necessarily, says Ragas, assistant professor and academic director of the M.A. in PR and advertising program in the College of Communication at DePaul University. “They’re not blind to the changes that have been going on. I’ve seen them nominate Business Insider.”
Ragas says PR pros need to pay close attention to journalists’ opinions about media influence. Journalists often get their news from other journalists, so any study like this shows the true centers of influence.
“We know from prior academic research that financial journalists indicate that they look to other media outlets as well as their readers for story ideas,” he says. “It’s not to say the PR [that comes their way] is not important, but every PR pro needs to understand how the media ecosystem operates. You want to know who the perceived influencers are. In our guts PR pros might think that the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are the most important outlets, but now we have data from the very people who create business news that they are the most important.”
So if you’re a PR pro and your CEO or client complains that you haven’t landed positive or neutral coverage in the Times or the Journal, there goes your excuse that old-school media no longer matter.
Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI
In-house PR practitioners don’t have it easy, in general. Sometimes they have to deal with a lack of understanding and appreciation for the work they do. (Did I say sometimes?) Sometimes they get recognized internally only when something goes wrong that needs to get fixed, now. Sometimes they’re asked to wear so many hats and expected to be masters at media pitching, crisis management, Facebook, Twitter, speech writing, SEO and measurement dashboards that they run to webinars and conferences to boost their skills, only to be frozen by anxiety when they see how much they have to learn.
Sometimes these in-house PR practitioners—and their senior leaders—need to enlist a PR agency to combat and defeat all of this fatigue and anxiety. What an agency offers is not the brand and reputation of the agency itself—that’s beside the point. It’s the unique mix of skills and experience that an individual agency practitioner can offer that really matters.
In a recent issue of PR News’ premium newsletter, Catherine Frymark, SVP, corporate communications for Discovery Communications, reflected on her time spent working for agencies before joining Discovery. “I don’t regret one minute of starting my career in the agencies,” said Frymark, who was honored as one PR News’ Top Women in PR at a luncheon in New York in February. “In fact, when I am hiring I give a lot of weight to candidates with agency experience. I know they have the fundamentals. They can multitask and serve the client.”
Frymark pointed out that working on a portfolio of brands keeps agency pros fresh. And that’s the key selling point for brands and organizations that may be considering working with PR agencies. Agency pros are like the proverbial shark that Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer discusses in “Annie Hall.” Alvy says that “a relationship is like a shark—it has to constantly move forward or it dies.” If you work at a PR agency, to survive and grow you have no choice but to keep moving forward, from client to client, from skill to skill.
This brings to the in-house team—which may live their brand but may be lacking the outsider’s perspective—a freshness that’s very difficult to achieve inside the brand.
Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI
I was in high school when my Home Economics teacher disclosed that Betty Crocker was not a real person but was a device to personalize the brand. For this naive Jewish girl in Baltimore, it might have been the equivalent of hearing there is no Santa Claus. Betty Crocker was not a real person. I resented that teacher and General Mills for many years, though relished in this newfound knowledge and spread the word about Betty to anyone who would listen.
Fast-forward 30 years and we are still inundated with Betty Crockers. Seemingly real, but not. All smiley faced and perfect, at least in the kitchen.
This dawned on me recently when at a PR News conference two attendees embraced and one said to the other: “I never really thought we’d meet in person. Great to know you are a real person and not just a Twitter handle!” To that, the other said, “Isn’t it great to get out of the office and meet real people?”
(Excuse my nosiness, but I was doing PR News research.) My radar was on for these types of interactions throughout the day of our event, and they were rampant over the course of 6 hours. To wit:
One well-respected industry leader declared proudly to me: “I am no longer using Facebook—I don’t even recognize my own siblings on there. I am going to focus on the here and now.” I get what she was saying. Last week alone, three people asked to be my friend on FB, and I have no clue who they are and what value I bring to them. They are connected to me through other acquaintances who I wouldn’t know if I bumped into them while buying a Betty Crocker mix. But more to the other point, who we are on social media is usually not who we are In Real Life. That means, to some extent, that what our customers are doing and saying online is not necessarily who they are offline. Understanding these nuances requires a human, not a machine. We all know this, though the lure of automated technology and social media communication can blur our vision.
The PR News conference last week was focused on PR Measurement, and there were a lot of great conversations about creating the ultimate PR dashboard, understanding Big Data and proving PR’s worth. It was agreed by most that even though we have an unprecedented array of technologies to assist us, it is beholden on us as brand leaders not to forget the human touch and the human brain. An algorithm can only tell us so much about our audience or our campaigns. A dashboard can reveal a lot, but it takes a human being to sift through the data and make real sense of it.
We can tweet and post and like and follow, but at what cost to human interaction? It is very efficient to use email and social media, but it is divine to sit across from a journalist, a customer, a colleague or any stakeholder and have eye contact, exchange words and ideas, relate in real life.
As we take on Big Data and elaborate dashboards, cloud computing and crowd sourcing, let’s remember to humanize our communications and apply human expertise to PR measurement so we can spot a Betty Crocker when she rears her pretty head.
– Diane Schwartz
When an organization is hit with a crisis, the response will often determine how long the crisis will last, in terms of negative media coverage, as well as any long-term erosion in brand reputation or lead revenue.
That’s why PR execs need to keep a close eye on how the crisis now engulfing Blue Bell Creameries plays out. On Monday the company announced that it is voluntarily recalling all of its ice cream products, because of listeria concerns, following a succession of smaller recalls.
Blue Bell realized its initial assumption that the bacteria was isolated to one machine in one room was “wrong,” after an additional half gallon of contaminated ice cream was found in its Brenham, Texas facility, according to a statement from Paul Kruse, the company’s president-CEO.
Blue Bell is trying to get in front of the crisis, which, considering the severity of the situation, may cause further damage to the 108-year-old brand. In a little more than a month, three deaths and several illnesses in Kansas and possibly Texas have been linked to the company’s products.
For communicators, the major takeaway from Blue Bell’s initial response is that however fast PR attacks a problem, it’s probably not fast enough.
In a digital age, the window for responding to a crisis keeps getting smaller.
“When there’s a recall and somebody does something quickly and when they handle it properly, we forgive it,” Phil Lempert, food industry analyst for SupermarketGuru.com, told The New York Times. “When it’s the entire product line or the entire company, people are very concerned.”
Blue Bell, which sells ice cream in 20 states, in no way is downplaying those concerns.
In a video apology (get used to it) posted on the company’s website and Facebook page, Kruse said: “We’re heartbroken over the situation and apologize to all of our Blue Bell fans and customers. Ice cream is a joy and pleasure to eat. It certainly is for me, and I do it every day. And it should never be a concern. For that, we apologize, and we’re going to get it right.”
Kruse hits the right tone, but, for the sake of transparency, he probably should have mentioned the deaths that have been linked to the company products and how the company intends to compensate the victims’ families.
Blue Bell reportedly has contracted both Burson Marsteller and kglobal for crisis management.
Now comes the heavy PR lifting. How will Blue Bell use both traditional media channels and digital venues to communicate how it’s fixing the problem? A FAQ post on its website—and linked on its Facebook page—is a good start.
Correct me if you think I’m wrong, but this is the sort of crisis in which digital needs to be subordinate to the human touch. Blue Bell’s senior executives should visit the communities that have been affected by the recall and tell consumers how things are being corrected. And it has to be a multi-pronged conversation.
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1
As Major League Baseball’s 2015 season gets under way this week, another rite of spring is just around the corner—spring cleaning.
It’s as good a time as any for PR managers and directors to assess their work, reevaluate those campaigns that worked (or failed) and recalibrate how they use media channels to get their message out and measure the results.
With that in mind, here are a few spring-cleaning tips for PR and marketing execs to consider.
> Sharpen your pitches. It’s getting increasingly harder for PR execs to get their message across the plate. This could be a function of time-poor reporters, a saturated media market, a fickle public or all of the above. Either way, communicators should take some time to sharpen the way they and their team members pitch the media. Try and figure out how to boost your odds. Does a reporter covering your industry seem to gravitate to certain stories about the sector while avoiding others? Maybe the reporter wants to cover your company but has a problem with the designated spokesperson? Maybe he or she wants an interview with the top brass? Get better (and below-the-radar) intelligence about reporters and your pitches should improve
> Retool your lineup. PR managers should get out their scorecard to see if they can reconfigure their lineup in a way that plays to individuals’ strengths. The person who seemed to get tripped up by Twitter may be better suited for producing online video programming. The person who tends to strike out pitching the media may have a knack for online analytics. With PR campaigns needing more and more disciplines—whether digital or behavioral—brand managers need to determine who’s the best person for the gig without squeezing a square peg in a round hole.
> Gauge your measurement efforts. With apologies to the late management guru Peter Drucker, “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” Nevertheless, PR measurement remains a severe sticking point to enhancing business communications. Part of the problem is that too many brands and organizations take a reactionary approach to measurement, failing to bake metrics into the campaign/project from the get-go. Any PR gains may be thwarted by lousy PR measurement. Senior managers don’t want “good news,” they want to see a correlation between PR and revenue (if not earnings). Use a change in season to make some changes in your measurement efforts. Perhaps you need to be more selective in the metrics you use, or maybe you’re relying too much on the algorithm and not enough on the human touch. Are you still banking on so-called vanity metrics such as “followers” and “likes”? Keep the Endust handy.
What would you add to the list?
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1
All the talk about mentoring can make you feel a bit left out. If you are neither a mentor nor a mentee, then what the heck are you doing with yourself? The truth is, you are probably mentoring or being mentored without even knowing it. It’s the new fabric of our work culture – people helping people. If you’re not guiding someone or asking for help on a regular basis then you are missing out in a significant way.
As communicators, we need to recognize that our pace of advancement might be inversely affected by the age of our mentors. The older you are, the better off you may be if you are mentored by a Millennial. The concept of Reverse Mentoring, first championed by GE’s Jack Welch more than a decade ago, is not only a great way for senior executives to learn the nuances of social media, it’s a way to bridge the communications gap between generations, increasing morale, retention and knowledge.
Three influential PR executives I met with recently were eager to share their experiences with reverse mentoring. Said one: “One of my young employees has been showing me how to do a tweet chat. I had no idea.” Said the other: “They are taking over – best to get to know how they think.” While much of the conversation was centered around social media and younger generations holding comfortably the Digital Native mantle, it goes without saying that Millennials and the Generation Z following them into the workplace are the future leaders, current and future customers and business creators.
Identifying a mentor – formally or informally – who is of another generation than yours and embracing the unique perspective and skills that person holds will take you far. And many Millennials are schooling the senior set to great effect for the company’s brand, too.
If you’re not engaged in some sort of reverse mentoring, you are not only missing out, you will be spinning your wheels until they eventually fall off.
– Diane Schwartz
We all have our pet peeves that we cherish and use to define ourselves to ourselves. One of mine is the way people behave when looking at their mobile phones while walking or standing in public. Specifically, people in elevators gazing at their phones.
Perhaps this has happened to you: You’re waiting for an elevator, the doors open, you allow a couple of moments to pass for people to leave the elevator, no one leaves, so you step in just as some mobile-phone addict starts to leave. You nearly collide with that person as he looks up from his phone and starts to exit, and then you get the dirty look.
Each day, as I deal with this inconsiderate behavior, I feel a growing urge to take to Twitter and write, “Fellow citizens, please look up from your phones when elevator doors open to help avoid collisions.” Except I wouldn’t put it so tactfully.
So far I’ve resisted the urge.
I resist the urge by asking myself, “Would I make this statement aloud to strangers in a crowded elevator?”
Of course, I wouldn’t. At least one person would curse me out and the rest would write me off as a nut.
And that’s what Twitter and all other social channels are—elevators packed with strangers. Sharing a link to worthwhile content is one thing. Before expressing a strong opinion about anything, or making a stand about a controversial issue, remember that you’re communicating with strangers who didn’t ask you for your opinion. Would you disparage an NCAA basketball team during March Madness in a crowded elevator, to no one in particular? Maybe you would, but you would have to prepare for and expect some negative consequences. Imagine doing the same thing on Twitter.
Individuals and brands should keep this elevator test in mind before posting anything on social channels. For instance, while no one asked Starbucks to start a national conversation about race in the U.S., it launched its daring online and in-store #RaceTogether campaign, and things got so out of hand that one of its senior PR executives shut down his Twitter account temporarily.
Perhaps if Starbucks had tested this campaign in an elevator filled with strangers, it might have played out differently.
Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI