Category Archives: General Corporate

November 14, 2014 | cwinters | Tagged , , ,

In Wake Of Blackfish Backlash, SeaWorld Takes A Plunge

 

BLACKFISH_Film_PosterThe verdict is out on the impact of “Blackfish,” the 2013 documentary that put SeaWorld’s treatment of orca whales in the line of fire: SeaWorld reported another disappointing quarter this week, with its profit falling 28 percent and its stock price down more than 50 percent from its 2013 April IPO following the news. We’ve been waiting to see how SeaWorld’s unconventional, public refutation would play out…and now we know. Customers and investors have spoken by closing their wallets.

While SeaWorld attempted to counter the flood of harsh criticism from animal rights activists, lawmakers, celebrities, and media, its response was not well received. The amount of coverage about SeaWorld’s reputational and financial fails only increased, and the entire counter-campaign has become a spectacle and learning lesson for corporations and communications counselors.

With a complaint to the Labor Department, an open letter to movie critics claiming that the film was misleading and false, and its “truth about Blackfish” website that frames the documentary as propaganda, SeaWorld has boldly played the defensive since the film’s debut at a time when companies would usually be holding their breaths. As I stated in another post, there’s a time to speak and there’s a time to remain silent. In this instance, staying under the radar would’ve been a better approach.

But SeaWorld is starting to acknowledge the reality of the controversy’s stifling ramifications:

1)      On August 13, following second quarter earnings, SeaWorld said in a statement, “Attendance in the quarter was impacted by demand pressures related to recent media attention surrounding proposed legislation in the state of California.” Referring to a June amendment in a farm appropriation bill that calls for updating federal regulations about keeping orcas and other cetaceans in captivity, the legislation is a direct outcome of the exposure Blackfish provided to the public.

2)      Two days later, the company announced the opening of Blue World Project, a new orca environment that will nearly double the size of the current facility when it’s completed in 2018, as well as over 10 million dollars in funding for research and conservation projects. Despite the company’s sizeable investment in improving the whales’ living environment, consumers, activists, investors, and even partnering companies aren’t buying it. Notably, Virgin America cut SeaWorld from its rewards program, Southwest Airlines terminated its 26-year-old promotional marketing partnership with SeaWorld, and Alaska Air stopped selling tickets to SeaWorld’s theme parks through its website.

3)      On this week’s third quarter earnings conference call, Chief Financial Officer James Heaney echoed an indicative sentiment when he discussed the factors that contributed to declining profits, recognizing negative media attention, and said the company is introducing numerous initiatives to address public perceptions and raise brand awareness. And while SeaWorld CEO James Atchison said the company has adjusted its attraction and marketing efforts to overcome current challenges, it’s doubtful that they’ll have the power to completely transform public opinion.

As pressures mount for updated regulations and SeaWorld opponents continue to hold adverse perceptions of the brand, SeaWorld will need to hum a different tune in order to prevent a colossal blow to its reputation and long-term growth.

My advice? Tread carefully before the growing criticisms put a plug in SeaWorld’s blowhole.

September 23, 2014 | cwinters | Tagged , , , ,

Advice to the NFL: Talk Less, Do More

Roger Goodell

If you are a reputation blogger, the NFL is a gift that just keeps on giving. I tried to root for them, I really did. I listened to Roger Goodell’s news conference and gave him the benefit of the doubt….apology (check), outline action & timeline (check), do something good for the issue of violence (check, check). Sure, Goodell fumbled badly when he had to go off script. And his delivery was hardly inspiring. But I hopefully (naively?) called it a first step toward reputation recovery.

I was wrong.

Perhaps the reason Goodell couldn’t manage well when he went off script is because the script wasn’t even his. It was written for him by a political operative (Because politicians are the gold standard in earning trust?).

And how about the performance of Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti’s lame apology for the Ray Rice bungle? His delivery was moderately better than Goodell’s, but does he think admitting “it didn’t occur to him” to press for the video was a good reason? How about his idea of giving Ray Rice a six figure job with the team in “player development” – because we need more players who behave like him?

The best advice for the NFL at this stage is to just stop talking. And start doing. Make the promised changes. Stop being so incredibly obvious that profit is the only thing that matters. Because once the fan numbers (and dollars) start to show evidence of flight from the NFL, recovery will be difficult. Then again, it might be just what professional soccer has been waiting for.

September 23, 2014 | admin |

Growing Up MWW: A 15 Year Lesson in Life, Business and Self-Discovery

A Note from Carreen Winters: From time to time we feature guest posts from clients, industry experts and other MWW leaders.  Today, we feature a post from Joe Cohen – who is a legitimate leader — of our firm, and our industry (he’s the National Chair of the PRSA).  I remember Joe when he joined us – an eager, earnest high energy Account Coordinator.  I was lucky enough to have Joe as a direct member of my team for more than ten years.  And I am so proud of all he has accomplished, and thankful for all he has contributed to MWW over the past 15 years.  As Joe gets ready to begin a new chapter in his professional life, he offered to provide his advice to PR professionals, from the hardest working man in PR.  Sometimes the student becomes the teacher.  And there is no better teacher of professionalism, passion and integrity than Joe Cohen.  I feel lucky to call him my colleague, and my friend.  I hope KIND knows how lucky they are to have Joe on their team.  Joe, MWW is a better agency because of you.

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“Our careers, like our lives, somehow divide themselves into eras, into distinct periods involving distinct kinds of experiences. People come and go and are identified with these periods. And the success of the enterprise frequently rides on the ability of the people to create a community of effort within each era.” – James A. Autry, author, poet and businessman (excerpt taken from “Love and Profit: The Art of Caring Leadership”)

On August 25, 1999, a new era began in my life when I walked through the doors at One Meadowlands Plaza and started my public relations career at MWW.  It was my first “grown up” job following a stint as an on-air jock at a radio station in Syracuse, NY.  I didn’t know it at the time, but it would also mark the beginning of an incredible 15 year journey.

Michael Carroll, a Wall Street executive turned Buddhist meditation teacher, once wrote, “work becomes our spiritual journey.”  These words resonate very deeply with me.  My time at MWW has been a lesson in life and business and a period of tremendous self-discovery. In the coming days I will depart MWW, a company that has been much more to me than a place of work.  It’s been my home.

As you might expect, the past few weeks have been a time of deep reflection and I’ve experienced a roller coaster of emotions.  I’m excited to take on the new challenge of becoming SVP of communications at KIND Healthy Snacks, but I will miss my team, my clients, my mentors… My family.  During my time at MWW, I’ve benefitted enormously from both the experiences gained and the individuals that I’ve worked alongside.  As I prepare for a new era in my personal journey, my intention is to impart some of the values that have been engrained within me during my years with the firm:

  • Professionalism – during my first month on the job at MWW, I missed the new hire breakfast, and came dangerously close to ending my career before it began. One of my early learnings at MWW was developing an understanding of what it means to carry the mark of a professional.  Discipline, reliability, accountability, personal presentation, organization.  I was fortunate to have great mentors who schooled me in these areas – sometimes in the form of painful learning experiences.  To this point, a very simple piece of advice I once received about being a professional: if you say you’re going to do something, do it.
  • Relationships – early in my career, I learned that when it comes to relationship-building, it pays on both a business and a personal level to go the extra mile.  People will recognize and remember when you cared enough to take the extra step to show support, provide help or go just a bit further than what is expected.  This should extend beyond managers and clients and should apply to all of your relationships.  There’s the philosophy that treating all people with respect will one day benefit you unexpectedly (and it may), but it’s also just a good way to live.
  • Directness – when I first became a manager, I found it very difficult to provide counsel to my clients when I knew that it was something that they didn’t want to hear, and offering constructive criticism to staff was a struggle as well.  Developing the courage to be direct made me a better professional and counselor, and a much stronger person as well.  It’s also worth noting that when delivering difficult messages, it is important to do so in a productive, professional, respectful and compassionate manner.
  • Self-Improvement and Humility – my greatest learnings at MWW have come during times when I’ve failed. Forcing yourself to look in the mirror and admit failure – but never accept it – is what will help you grow.  It is also important to identify and understand your strengths and weaknesses, and to surround yourself with teammates who balance you out.  Better to work alongside people who can be your professional foils rather than your duplicates.
  • Identifying Your Motivations – when I learned to identify my personal and professional motivations, my career instantly became more fulfilling.  This begins by thinking hard about the aspects of your job that you find to be the most deeply rewarding (for me it’s managing people and the creative process).  Of course, you need to still give your all across all of your assignments – this is part of being a professional.
  • Humor – we work in a profession that at times can be intense, demanding and downright grueling.  But it can also be a lot of fun and it’s often humor that brings teams together, cements relationships and helps to carry you through the tough times (this also applies to client relationships).  The personal chemistry and shared sense of humor that I have enjoyed with my team has helped us endure very challenging periods and helped make us more than co-workers but a family.
  • Seizing Opportunities – critical to professional advancement is identifying when the door of opportunity has swung open and then seizing the moment with both hands. Many of these opportunities opened up for me when managers left, “step up moments” when I was able to show that I was capable of helping to fill the void.My own departure creates this same opportunity for a number of my teammates, individuals who are extremely talented, capable and very deserving of having – and seizing – this opportunity to shine.

One of the great gifts from my experience at MWW is tremendous personal and professional fulfillment in my work.  I have also benefited significantly as a person and a professional as a result of the people who have invested in me – my managers, colleagues, clients and my team.  I would be remiss (a massive understatement) if I failed to express my appreciation for all that I have learned from Michael Kempner.  Michael – you have been a personal and professional role model, an adopted parent, a friend, and a guiding force in my life for more than 15 years.  It is a debt that I can never come close to repaying.

In the coming days one era in my personal journey will close and another will begin. For the emerging generation of leaders at MWW, it is my hope that these learnings that I’ve shared will be of value to you as you continue on the path that is your own personal journey.

September 22, 2014 | cwinters | Tagged , , ,

Is Paid Media the Final Reputation Frontier?

mediaReputation is one of those amorphous things that people struggle to define, yet seek to protect at all costs.  Famous quotes about the importance of reputation abound, and companies generally accept the notion that reputations are worth protecting.

Over the two decades I’ve been working in reputation management, the practice has evolved from an earned media-centric model that was driven largely by the client asks for “positive publicity about the Company, featuring the CEO, please” to a more integrated approach and an understanding that reputation begins with your actions – it is something you demonstrate, more than you discuss.  Clients increasingly acknowledge the importance of internal culture to reputation, as employees are the universal touch point to all of your other constituents.  With the rise of social media, reputation managers embraced content and owned media as an effective tool for enhancing reputation and worked to be prepared for the power and speed of social when a crisis threatens a company’s reputation.

Recently, there has been a noticeable uptick in the use of paid media for reputation efforts.  And while “brand advertising” has long been an accepted practice – these campaigns take a more substantive approach and highlight the Company’s values, ethos and citizenship, more than its products.  This is a subtle but important shift, signaling the value of a fully integrated approach use of media for reputation management, including earned, owned and paid.  Some brands, like Chipotle, have long been known for their citizenship as a core marketing message.  But they are no longer alone. Here are three companies doing it well:

  1. Microsoft has had a long standing commitment to education, and the opportunity for technology to level the playing field and lift entire communities out of poverty. Microsoft has been running a TV spot that contrasts an African village’s educational needs, with an Appalachian boys’ opportunity to get to college – showing us that the world isn’t so different, and that Microsoft’s commitment to education spans the planet (But ironically, that spot doesn’t seem to be online anywhere).
  1. In a recent campaign presumably designed to make you stop thinking about that oil spill in the Gulf, BP puts a face to the company (because we trust people, not companies, especially big oil companies) and focuses on the jobs they are creating all across America (more than a quarter million, in case you were wondering).
  1. Walmart’s Made in America campaign serves as a reminder of the retailer’s long tail, and its commitment to jobs beyond those seniors working as Walmart greeters. This is a not so subtle message to those who may have their issues with Walmart as an employer to remember that American manufacturing’s rebound is reliant on companies like Walmart.

There was a time when any kind of paid media was considered taboo in the world of public relations, and running reputation programs entirely on earned media was a badge of honor.  This may be the end of that era, as forward-thinking communicators tasked with building and protecting their company’s reputation fund the balance between owned, earned and paid media in order to effectively engage their constituencies with meaningful, substantive interaction.  And I think that is a good thing.  Let’s not shackle our profession with limits on how to best develop a client’s reputation.  Great strategy should be channel agnostic, and great reputations are earned over time across multiple channels.

Of course, when a Company starts using mediums like television advertising to tout its good citizenship, it invites scrutiny.  Before you start planning a Super Bowl spot, be sure you are walking the walk.

September 19, 2014 | cwinters | Tagged ,

Move the Chains: Roger Goodell’s Fumble Recovery

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell News Conference

Just as the calls for his resignation reached a fever pitch, Roger Goodell pulled off a fumble recovery with his news conference today  (Although I’d throw a flag for the late start!). While the NFL, and Goodell, are far from being out of the woods, today marked an important first step in reputation recovery.

What did the NFL (finally) get right?

  1. Goodell Manned Up – he took responsibility for bad processes, bad decisions and bad outcomes.  And promised to do better.  Never underestimate the value of an apology.
  2. Prescriptive and immediate actions were unveiled – education and training for all personnel will begin this month.
  3. NFL shed the block and pivoted to how the NFL can be a force for good – supporting credible organizations to tackle the larger societal problem of domestic violence.  They didn’t do it as well as NFL sponsor (and MWW client) Verizon – which made a similar call to action before the NFL did, and has been supporting domestic violence for years.
  4. Brought his potential adversary under the tent – the NFLPA by stating that they both agree that “There is no room for violence in the NFL” while outlining the need for change to the personal conduct policies – something which requires the support of the NFLPA. If player reaction to Goodell’s speech is any indication, he is going to need the NFLPA’s help.
  5. Established a timeline – of sweeping policy change before the Super Bowl.

For now, Goodell gets to keep the ball, and the NFL continues its attempts to drive forward.  But they are far from the Red Zone.  Once he was forced to go off script, Goodell struggled with a number of questions – including the revelation that a FOIA request for records shows no evidence that the NFL ever requested the Ray Rice video tape.  With his credibility already in question, millions of fans will be watching to see if the NFL can deliver on this plan with consistency, transparency and accountability.

Football is a game of inches.  And that is how the NFL can restore its reputation – one hard fought inch at a time.

September 18, 2014 | admin | Tagged ,

The NFL in Crisis – How Can Its Reputation Be Saved?

The biggest news from the NFL over the first three weeks of the season has all been off the field with player arrests and suspensions relating to domestic and child abuse.

EVP Carreen Winters recently appeared on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” to discuss what PR issues the NFL is facing and what the league needs to do to restore the trust in the shield.

See Carreen’s interview here.

September 9, 2014 | dlauer | Tagged , , ,

Becoming a lifestyle brand, the Apple way

top-10-brands-on-socialcam-eef22540ddI’ve led corporate branding and narrative development for companies in every industry, from start-ups to the Fortune 100.  At one point in each and every audit, when asking executives who they most want to emulate or be aligned with, they all say the same thing: “I want to be Apple.”

It has happened so often that I have had to specifically re-engineer my question to include a caveat – Apple doesn’t count.  Nor does Nike or Starbucks.

These are the go-to brands that transcend their categories. Their very names have become known as widely-accepted verbs by everyone from Wall Street Analysts to Main Street Millennials.  These companies have created such strong emotional connections with their customers that they now serve to validate their identities and customers reciprocate by voluntarily tattooing their cars, computers and even bodies.  Because for their audiences, they are not corporations, they are a lifestyle.

Lifestyle brands do more than achieve cult-like status among their followers. They successfully break away from the commodity space.  They command a price and loyalty premium unavailable to competitors.

And the secret sauce? After researching and following so many of these brands, including those that have had success on a humbler stage, such as Harley-Davidson, Whole Foods and Ralph Lauren, it has become apparent that there is none.  No amount of imitation in the way these companies look, talk or act can transform an everyday organization into a lifestyle brand. However, several major themes have consistently emerged in the way these companies operate market and think about their businesses that are worth putting into practice:

Stand for something specific

Have a defined identity and corporate narrative that your employees can strive to exemplify and customers and investors can believe in.  Invest in the time and resources to really understand what your company stands for and where it is headed, as well as what drives your stakeholders to action.  Building authentic and ownable thought leadership platforms from that narrative can help get your story told by the influencers, but then you need to reinforce that mission consistently by creating the same experience in everything you do: in store and out, online and in person, on Main Street and on Wall Street.

Tell Stories

Everyone loves a good story. We connect and learn through them; they can help humanize even the most esoteric of topics. However, how you tell yours and who tells it means the difference between empty noise and building authentic relationships with key audiences.  Take Nike for instance:  its 1977 ad campaign was revolutionary for its time, many called it “risky,” even “crazy.” The first of its kind, it featured zero actual Nike products, and it was all centered around the art of storytelling and creating an emotional connection with its audience around hope for what they could accomplish – as athletes and as people, punctuated by the “Just Do It” tagline that has become an iconic, cultural mantra of motivation for everything from climbing Mount Everest to climbing the corporate ladder.

The key is to think about what people want to hear, what motivates them and shape your communications strategically around that.

Are you shuttling people from point A to point B or are you enabling a great travel experience? Are you selling technology that brings Wi-Fi to a stadium or are you making it possible for hundreds of thousands of people to stay connected no matter where they are?

Every corporate story starts with a mission. Find ways to get people excited about yours.

Nobody wins by following the crowd

Don’t be afraid to be unconventional – culturally or otherwise. Distinguish your company from competitors by encourage new standards and “best practices” by looking outside the industry – who does it well in general?  Where are all the thought leaders on topic X, Y or Z convening?  Thinking beyond the category can help employees focus on excelling in key areas like customer service and innovation no matter what gadget or offering they’re supporting. It will also help to reshape the way you think about and approach strategies fornew products, experiences and communications that build your reputation as a leader.

Stay true. If it deviates, don’t do it

Because all associations echo your brand and can have a significant impact on your corporate reputation, mandate a laser-focus on associating yourproducts, partnerships, services and offerings with thesocial and cultural aspirations of your targetaudiences. You can only do this by making understanding the wants and needs of your stakeholders a corporate priority.  Building new products, services and innovations around insights will provide a framework for all decision-making.

September 7, 2014 | cwinters | Tagged ,

“Reputational foul…inconsistent messaging…on the commissioner…15 yards”

RogerGoodell-NFL-commissioner_originalAs one of the world’s largest non-profit trade organizations, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell plays the role of CEO and as chief executive, it is crucial to have consistent messaging from the brand’s voice. And right now, the NFL has a messaging problem.

Before the first 1:00 p.m. kickoff of 2014 this Sunday, the league has already created plenty of offseason noise to rival any stadium setting. Let’s recount some of the major news events across the field:

  • This summer, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Brown went through an appeals process to overturn his season-long ban with the league for his second failed drug test. The league recently upheld their decision and the public made it clear they were not happy with the decision.
  • Through a similar time window, on July 24, the NFL suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice two regular season games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy for his offseason arrest of domestic abuse; video surveillance shows Rice dragging his unconscious fiancé from an Atlantic City hotel elevator back in February after an altercation between the two.
  • On August 28, Goodell publicly stated his wrongdoing in mishandling the Rice case, more than a month after the initial announcement, as well as changing the NFL’s policy on domestic abuse – six games for a first offense, a full season for the second.
  • On August 31, San Francisco defensive lineman Ray McDonald was arrested for domestic violence and faces the new penalty of the revised NFL policy; Consequently, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter tweeted out these choice words:

 

nflt

 

As if there was ever good timing for domestic abuse

Even with these unfortunate events occurring over the last two months, the NFL utilizes a defense strategy that’s so maddeningly simple to deflect long-term scrutiny: football will continue to be played, generating enough revenue and attention to detract from its internal issues.  Even if the most popular sport in the U.S. continues to expand its fan base and wallet, what are the commissioner’s, and the league’s, message to its stakeholders (specifically its growing female fan base) about its ethics?

Good on Goodell for admitting that he got it wrong the first time around, but it’s still a sack on the league’s reputation, especially as a voice against domestic abuse, that could’ve been avoided through timelier action. As a “CEO,” he not only needs to penalize such egregious activity, but he also needs to create a league culture where this type of behavior is simply unacceptable.

The scoreboard still favors the NFL in the eyes of its rabid fans, but its reputational score could use some strategic play-calling from its commissioner in setting its message straight on doing what’s right.

August 14, 2014 | cwinters | Tagged , ,

The Art of Communications: When To Be Quiet

When you work in the public relations business, you learn to work the news cycle for your clients.  Bright ambitious professionals diligently track breaking news, and get creative about how to fit their clients into the trend.   A celebrity loses a ton of weight on your client’s diet program.  A prominent attorney comments on a verdict.  A CEO gives advice to college grads, or shares lessons learned from his Father on Father’s Day.  All in a day’s work.

But there are some news cycles that you should just sit out.  And some in our profession just don’t learn.  I remember UPromise getting hammered when a well meaning, presumably very junior PR person pitched reporters on the “other tragedy of the day” -  lack of college savings -  shortly after the terrorists struck the World Trade Center on 9/11.  Rarely are the offenses so extreme, but it is these kinds of events that damage the reputation of the public relations profession.

The most recent example comes from a major agency that tried to capitalize on the tragic suicide of Robin Williams by critiquing the mental health organizations who hadn’t engaged in social media, and reminding everyone that they are “in the business of helping clients create or join conversation.”

Simple rule of thumb: if it doesn’t pass the cringe test, don’t say it or do it.  How can we expect clients to get it right when the PR counselors get it wrong?

July 21, 2014 | cwinters | Tagged ,

GM CEO Mary Barra Stays the Course of Transparency Showing Action at Congressional Hearing

General Motors CEO Mary Barra Testifies Before Senate Committee About GM's RecallsIn her third appearance before Congress on Thursday, GM CEO Mary Barra held steadfast to her strategy of transparency and action. Her testimony showed accountability and company changes since the first recalls were announced in February, and it was clear she won over the Congressional panel, with Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MS) going so far as to say “some see the record number of recalls at General Motors as a problem. I see it as a good sign.”

Building on my assessment of Barra’s previous Congressional testimony in June, she did two things exceptionally well this time around to further her strategy and demonstrated that she has acted on her convictions.

1. Showed empathy and solutions for the victims

Empathy is a crucial element to restoring a reputation after a major blow. Barra hit this on the head, addressing the victims and the families who’ve lost loved ones at the start of her testimony. She immediately connected with them by offering her “deepest sympathies” and reassuring them that GM will rectify the situation with “compassion, decency, and fairness” through a no-cap compensation fund.

The hiring of outside consultant, Ken Feinberg, is the proof point that demonstrates this compensation will take place the way she publicly outlined.

2. Proved safety is front and center at GM

Barra made it clear—GM’s mission is to do all it can to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. And she reported five major company changes that include the newly-created VP of Global Safety’s direct line to her, greater information sharing among legal staff and other business units, and a Speak Up for Safety program that recognizes employees who report safety issues quickly. These changes have already had a direct impact—a total of 18 recalls on vehicle populations of 1,000 or less have been conducted. Moreover, she made it clear GM employees are behind her and are “all in” to make the company better. It’s evident that a cultural shift is taking place and the “new GM” is starting to take shape.

Being called to testify before Congress is rarely a positive thing for a company’s reputation, and GM certainly has work to do to restore trust in the company and its products.  But Barra gets high marks from me for effectively leveraging her position as a new CEO and agent of change, readily acknowledging fault when appropriate, but also defending people and processes that deserve it, such as her efforts to restore confidence in GM’s general counsel Michael Millikin, who has been cast as a “bad actor” in this scene, publicly calling him “a man of integrity” and the “person she needs on her team” in the face of brutal calls for his job by Congress.

Barra gets a thumbs up for now, but the more important issue to watch will be whether or not this ultimately damages GM as a brand and consumers start to vote with their wallets.