Monthly Archives: October 2011

Now Playing: Reputation Hits the Big Screen in Ides of March
October 19, 2011

The latest political drama to hit cinemas is The Ides of March (based on a play based on truth) adapted for the screen by the ever-relevant George Clooney and starring the newly ubiquitous Ryan Gosling, as the “country’s greatest media mind” behind the campaign of a presidential candidate (played by Clooney).

The film’s themes are provocative for those of us in the business of PR, as they reflect many ingredients of effective reputation management: one part media relations, one part crisis, and a helping of ethics on the side. In the film, Gosling’s character is a media relations superstar, tasked with maintaining the high profile reputation of a potential future president, yet grappling with a possible sacrifice of values.

No one would argue that reputation management can be a sneaky game especially in politics, but these days, flaws are harder to sweep under the rug. On the other side of the silver screen, everyone from corporations to students are realizing that it’s not just the media at the helm of their reputations – it’s social media. We know the examples: Nestle ran into trouble, as did Urban Outfitters. The political world is almost too obvious, with the downfalls of Anthony Weiner and Chris Lee as examples. Hollywood itself isn’t exempt – what’s the most buzzed-about topic related to the affair rumors facing Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore? Tweeting habits.

Though the film doesn’t address social media specifically, it recognizes the power of public relations on an individual and broader level, presenting a compelling narrative on ethics and the role of reputation and media. It does a particularly good job of examining the lengths that those in the highest echelons of politics go to in order to maintain that critical, yet fragile, sphere of influence.

But today, the approach by many lately has been the opposite of the underhandedness in Ides – it is openness over exclusivity, transparency over bureaucracy. Whether in Hollywood or in Washington, we’re all learning hard and fast that the person with just about as much power as that scrappy reporter from the Times, might just be your Facebook friend.

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Can A Local Government Ever Fully Recover From A Bankruptcy?
October 14, 2011

We are well used to retailers, airlines and a host of tech/industrial/manufacturing companies filing for Chapter 11 to try to fix a variety of financial messes and start anew. But government entities seeking court protection under Chapter 9 are rare indeed. On Wednesday, Harrisburg, PA, the State Capitol, took that seldom traveled road against a backdrop of a spectacularly failed incinerator project and political sniping at the local and state level.

For the citizens of and the companies that do business in and with Harrisburg, the way forward is unclear, particularly in light of conflicts at City Hall and the State Capitol about the legality of the move, much less potential solutions. What is clear is that Harrisburg’s reputation (which already had some issues even with Central Pennsylvania partisans) as a place to live and work has taken a big hit that may take a long time to recover. The public’s opinion of government on every level is hovering at all-time lows and unlike a retailer or airline, a marketing/PR campaign espousing “business as usual” through the process and an even better outlook on completion of the restructuring is a much more difficult proposition.

With politicians at the local and state level added to the usual mix of employees/retirees/unions, vendors and other constituencies, it should be an even more contentious and volatile process. The political grandstanding and gamesmanship in the court of public opinion is already off to a spirited start, a sad harbinger of how things may go once the action picks up in the Bankruptcy Court. Given the current economic climate, the Harrisburg case will also be closely watched by other cities and municipalities teetering on the brink.

All that said, government entities, like companies, can come out of a bankruptcy filing stronger. A good example is Orange County, CA which sought Chapter 9 protection over a decade ago after its investment portfolio tanked. It will take leadership, comity, compromise and shared pain among government officials, employee groups, the business community and others constituencies dedicated to a common purpose and the greater good. The start does not look good but as restructuring communication professionals, we are always optimists.

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Shareholder Value Begins at Home
October 14, 2011

Recently one of my colleagues posted here about the importance of narratives to be successful in investor communications. This piece makes a great case for employee engagement as a driver of shareholder value.

Whether talking to investors, or customers, for the narrative to be relevant and authentic, it must match the stakeholders’ own experience with the Company…it is at the heart of the distinction between brand and reputation.

From an investor perspective, delivering on the promise requires operational and financial performance…which ultimately boils down to every employee understanding the mission and their individual roles in making it happen.

I often remind clients that Citizenship begins at home (for CSR clients) and that turnarounds begin at home. Let’s add shareholder value to that list.

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Occupy Wall Street Must Get Relevant, and Fast
October 13, 2011

If you live in the NYC area and watch the evening news, you might have the impression that Occupy Wall Street is the biggest thing to hit since Lady GaGa. Think again.

In a recent poll, just 17 percent of Americans say that they are following the protest closely – down from one in four in April. It is not surprising that more people followed the death of Steve Jobs than Occupy Wall Street…but more people are also following the situation in Afghanistan closely than OWS.

It seems to me that the OWS protest is more like organized labor’s inflatable rat than a real movement…you see it, and move on without engaging unless you are already a supporter.

Why? The protestors are certainly getting plenty of ink and air – which is the key criteria for legitimacy for many in my profession.

  • Sustainable movements need a leader. A face for the cause. Would the Civil Rights movement of the 60s been the same without Martin Luther King Jr.?
  • You have to be for something. Much like the broader, more generic protests of the 60s, it is clear that the OWS protestors are against “the establishment” – but they offer little in terms of specific recommendations. President Clinton pointed this out in a recent interview, and recommended that the protestors get behind the Obama Job Plan.
  • They need defining moments that create a real connection with the broader population. Historically, these moments come from the missteps of the establishment, particularly law enforcement. One of the founders of the movement seems to think that the arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge are that moment – but I’m not sure that is sustainable. And I’m not sure jumping on the beat up Bank of America bandwagon will do it, either.

In totality, OWS needs a relevant, sustainable narrative, delivered by a credible and compelling spokesperson.

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If you want to be relevant, tell a great story
October 12, 2011

If you work in the public relations profession, you’ve probably heard a common lament among clients – “People aren’t getting our story.“

It may be one of the common denominators that make clients from diverse industries and across all practices of public relations alike. Whether launching a brand, working an issue in Washington, conducting an investor road show or managing a crisis, having a compelling story is a fundamental requirement.

In the public relations business, we’ve always been storytellers – whether you call it messaging, corporate/brand positioning or narrative – it’s all about the story. And the greatest, most iconic brands and companies do it really, really well – Nike, GE, Apple and Starbucks all understand that to remain relevant as you grow and change, having a story that resonates is key.

This piece on Starbucks features the philosophies of noted brand evangelist Stanley Hainsworth, and credits great storytelling for transforming a commodity product into a $4 splurge. He talks a lot about the art of storytelling, and gives us a glimpse into the approach he uses to create an emotional connection with stakeholders. As I read this piece, I was struck with the significant alignment between his priorities and the way we approach developing a client’s narrative at MWW Group…in particular, the emphasis on tailoring your story for different audiences – what we call the Total Stakeholder Approach.

The irony is that while this may be a fresh, new approach for the brand evangelist – it has been core to of great public relations programming and strategy from the beginning.

How do you know if your story needs revisiting and refreshing?

  • Any time there has been a significant change in your business – new leaders, new business strategy, new line of business. Chances are you need to rethink your narrative. A more thoughtful approach would have made a big difference for Netflix, and saved them lots of backpedaling.
  • Significant changes in your industry also call for a new story – because your old story simply won’t be relevant anymore.
  • Shift in strategy or emphasis on who, or what, is important.
  • If you are underperforming – in sales, in employee retention, in share price performance – that may be a sign that your story isn’t resonating.
  • If it feels stale, out of date or misaligned with your priorities – even if it isn’t impacting your stakeholders yet.

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Investors buy stories, so better tell it well
October 7, 2011

Every now and then, it’s good to get out of the office and hear what the experts are saying about the latest trends and then bring them back for the benefit of our clients.

Yesterday, an IPO seminar hosted by Proformative featured plenty of interesting tidbits from the speakers who specialize in bringing companies public. For example, a banker said data shows that about 900 investors buy 90 percent of the deals. And if you miss your first quarter numbers right out of the box, “you’re dead.”

Where should a company list in the U.S., on NYSE or Nasdaq? Experts say it really doesn’t matter, but best to stick with your peer group.

One of my favorite comments was that investors in newly public companies buy stories more than anything. Of course, the numbers are important, but does the story resonate? When it doesn’t, the euphoria and excitement that can come on bell-ringing day can quickly turn sour when share prices plummet.

So what does a good story look like from our point of view? Crisp, compelling and easily understood messages, or as we like to say, the narrative. What the business does, how it makes money, how it will grow, what the risks and opportunities are and how it differs from competitors. Sounds simple, right?

It is and it isn’t. Often these key concepts get buried in a slew of financial data and turned into cumbersome, corporate-speak sentences after dozens of people have weighed in from management to bankers to lawyers and often last, the communications and investor relations professionals.

Similarly, sometimes presentations are just too long or not well-crafted in terms of keeping that overarching story prominent throughout. How many slides do you need, according to the experts? 30 for 30 minutes. How many of us have sat through a 50-page or more deck? I know I have.

And finally, another bit of advice was for all of the finance professionals to remember that the all-important road show – when management travels to see investors around the country or world – is really “a big selling exercise.” So make sure the people who are doing the selling are prepared and yes, interesting to hear.

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Finally, some good PR for PR: Amanda Knox’s Reputation Rehab
October 5, 2011

Amanda Knox arrived home in Seattle last night, tearfully thanked her supporters, pinched herself to be sure it was real, then went home to sleep in her own bed after four years in an Italian prison. Four years is a long time to remain relevant in the American psyche…and I’ll admit that I didn’t follow her case week by week, blow by blow. But I do remember early reports of the wild, promiscuous girl partying, I mean studying, abroad. Fast forward two trials and four years, and we see a completely different picture – one of the girl next door – our sister, our daughter, our BFF. That’s quite a reputational turnaround.

This story in the New York Times is one of the few I’ve seen recently that provides a realistic, constructive view about the role of PR – in litigation support and in reputation management – rather than the popular hobby of bashing the “spin doctors.” With time, diligence and working with the media – vs. trying to either ignore them, trick them or bully them, Amanda Knox’s family successfully evolved her from “Foxy Knoxy” to the accurate view of a girl unfortunately caught up in a wrong place, wrong time scenario, halfway around the world.

Would an image overhaul alone have secured the reversal of her conviction? Not likely. But when the DNA evidence came in to play, the image of the demure girl next door gave the judges and jury emotional permission to reverse that decision – and the public “air cover” for doing so.

That, my friends, is a good day – for Amanda Knox. And for our industry.

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