Posts filed under ‘Media Relations’

Steve Jobs, Apple and Alfred E. Neuman: “What, Me Worry?”

By Chris Scott

apple_jobsIf you’ve never had a front-row seat at a corporate communications debacle, just Google “apple jobs illness” and pull up a chair for a lesson on how not to work the media when it comes to a serious health issue with a company CEO.

The results page generates everything from “Do shareholders have a right to know?” to “It’s a nutrition problem” to “SEC review under consideration.” Is this the image that Apple, or Jobs, wants to dominate headlines versus continued trumpeting of the success of the new iPhone 3G S?

There’s no doubt that Steve Jobs has persevered in various health issues: a cancerous tumor in his pancreas diagnosed in 2004; a speech at Apple’s 2006 Worldwide Developers Conference that raised serious questions about his unusually gaunt frame; and this year’s “hormone imbalance” that prompted a six-month leave of absence ending this month. Finally, there was the disclosure of a liver transplant in April that took several days to confirm.

There’s also no doubt that Jobs deserves a certain amount of privacy when it comes to dealing with these serious medical issues. But the wunderkind who founded Apple in 1976 — and spearheaded its stunning comeback upon his return to the top spot two decades later — appears to be following the standard script for Apple when it comes to disclosure. And the Securities and Exchange Commission has definite regulations on disclosing situations that could affect the company’s financial health.

Apple’s legendary secrecy about products and new developments, of course, make sense. (The company has no problem quickly firing employees who blab about new products in development and even successfully shut down the Web site http://www.thinksecret.com over its leaks of what Apple considered proprietary information.) But investors, the media and federal regulators are correctly questioning why Apple has repeatedly failed to provide accurate, timely information on the status of the person who is often hailed as being personally responsible for driving the computer maker to its current successful state.

SEC rules prompted Coca-Cola to report in 1997 that its then-CEO, Robert Goizueta, was suffering from lung cancer, the disease that killed him that October. And following the sudden death of McDonald’s CEO Jim Cantalupo of a heart attack in 2004, successor CEO Charlie Bell decided to resign less than a year later before he died of colon cancer. Tragically, Bell was forced to have surgery a little more than two weeks after taking over as CEO, a fact that was prominently, but appropriately disclosed by McDonald’s at the time.

These multinational companies were able to meet federal requirements while protecting the privacy of the individuals involved. The evasive nature of Apple’s corporate responses to inquiries into its CEO’s health could be attributed to a corporate culture that is used to keeping secrets. It also might be part of the orders from the top that Jobs’ medical condition is his and his alone to be concerned about.

But Jobs decided to come back to work and that complicates the already troubled public relations effort. (Some reports put him on the campus of One Infinite Loop in Cupertino last week, before his officially scheduled return on Monday, June 29.) If he had decided to retire, his medical condition and prognosis would have no public component unless he decided to divulge their status himself. Unfortunately, his corporate communications team continues to work between a rock and a hard place with a sick CEO who sees no reason to adhere to SEC rules and Wall Street investors who rightfully contend that disclosure from Apple is appropriate and long overdue.

Alfred E. Neuman, clearly, has nothing on the keepers of Apple’s current public gates.

June 30, 2009 at 5:18 pm 1 comment

PR and the respect factor

Sally Saville Hodge

rdPublic relations has always been like the Rodney Dangerfield of the communications field. You know: We just don’t get any respect.

Our collective inferiority complex has been self-created, to a significant extent. The tendency by many in the profession to use overstatement and hype as their stock in trade hasn’t helped the cause. And high profile ethical lapses haven’t added any to the practice’s luster. (Remember Ketchum PR’s payment of $240,000 to minority radio broadcaster Armstrong Williams to tout on air and with his peers the No Child Left Behind program?)

That’s on the public side. Generally speaking, PR is low on the totem pole among business professionals as well. Never mind some of the more unfortunate associations that play down PR’s value. The term “free publicity” is emblematic.

I’ve always thought much of it related to how much of a budget PR commands and controls, particularly vis a vis the far weightier purse carried by Marcom and advertising. After all, money equals power, and it’s not unusual to see ad budgets of the big players in the millions of dollars – hundreds of millions, even. On the other hand, a million-dollar PR campaign is considered exceedingly healthy.

The irony is that for all the disrespect, and for whatever reason, it’s PR that really has the power to build a brand. For all of traditional media’s failings (and recent flailings, for that matter), it’s the news coverage that PR helps bring about that carries credibility, not the “they’ll say anything to make you buy” advertising messaging that’s so transparent to the public. And that’s only part of the powerful overall PR package.

We’re hearing more stories these days of some recession-hit businesses cutting their marketing budgets, but diverting more funds into PR programs instead. I don’t know that I’m ready to call it a trend, unfortunately. We just haven’t managed to do the job of convincing our partners in marketing (and higher up the food chain) that we can be more than simply masters of spin.

Or have we, but marketing leadership just can’t bring itself to respond accordingly?

Michael Dunn, Chairman of Prophet (full disclosure: a client since 2001) has just authored a book called The Marketing Accountability Imperative. It’s a heavy read, but a must-read for senior management. But apropos to this conversation, here’s a pullout worth thinking about:

    “Our 2007 senior marketer survey showed that B2B companies believe that public relations is the most effective activity for long-term brand building and the third most effective at driving short-term sales (after field sales activities and outbound marketing). No form of advertising came close to PR in its perceived long- or short-term effectiveness. Despite this, B2B marketers spend only about 1 percent of their budget on public relations and over 20 percent on advertising. The effectiveness of PR is also rated higher than advertising among B2C marketers and their contradictory spending relationships are even more pronounced.
    …[M]arketers’ behaviors seem somewhat puzzling – they do not believe that the marketing activities that they are spending the most on are the most effective, yet they are unwilling or unable to take the steps necessary to quantify this performance.

Puzzling, indeed.

April 6, 2009 at 5:17 pm 1 comment

Bad customer service: Don’t get mad. Get even.

Sally Saville Hodge

Many years ago, I shocked my then-doctor’s officious nurse when I told her, in setting up my next appointment, that I’d be sending a bill for my time if I was kept waiting for over an hour again. And…by the way…my hourly fee was $200.

After she finished sputtering, she thought about it for a minute. “Okay, let’s get you in first thing in the morning, then, before he has a chance to get backed up.”

I never had to wait again.

Good customer service is, arguably, perhaps one of the most important contributors to a strong brand. It’s integral to the total customer experience that really defines a business’, professional’s or individual’s brand. But this fact must not be getting through. Why else do so many botch it?

We, as consumers, have many, many options on ways to spend the time allotted to us. An hour wasted waiting for the doctor to fit you in, on hold while questioning a bill, or trying to figure out where that order placed three weeks ago has disappeared to is lost forever.

For those that don’t care about their reputation, perhaps hitting them in the pocketbook is action they will appreciate.

It worked for Howard Schaffer. This Colonie, NY publicist found himself without phone service for a full month after moving offices last fall. He used stop-gap measures (borrowing a phone line from his landlord and having employees use their cells) while putting up with promises and excuses. It took an article by the consumer advocacy columnist of the local Times-Union to eventually shame his carrier, One Communications, into fixing it.

Nine apologies, however, were really not sufficient for lost time and, one can assume, lost business. Smartly, he kept careful track of the time and money he expended in trying to resolve the problem. He sent them an itemized bill for $5,481. Incredibly, One Communications paid.

You ask me, they got off cheap. And the rest of us learned how tenacity and moxie (with some help from the media) can pay off.

February 5, 2009 at 10:45 pm Leave a comment

Any PR is not, in fact, good PR

Sally Saville Hodge

Rod BlagojevichThere’s an all-too-common school of thought that “any PR is good PR,” and Illinois’ soon-to-be-deposed Governor Rod Blagojevich is clearly a leading advocate.

His whirlwind New York press tour this week only succeeded at underscoring the fallacies of such thinking. If anything, his frenzied “I am not a crook” and “they’re denying me my rights” proclamations made him more of a caricature than he was prior to his arrest in December on charges of trying to sell the President’s former Senate seat.

But it’s too easy to riff on Blagojevich. My beef is with the flack he hired to trot him out to the press. Did he (or she) warn the Guv of the dangers of this course from the perspective of an image that has already been battered to hell?

What’s been wrought is not good PR. Good PR doesn’t further decimate an already shredded reputation. Good PR practitioners counsel their clients in the interests of creating positive buzz. They ask what the client’s end objective is with the media outreach. To change minds? To shape or re-shape a brand? They coach their clients – especially vigorously if television is a primary target– on their key messages, and how to segue back to them. They learn their clients’ tendencies and try to head them off at the pass to avoid situations like the use of bad analogies (cowboys and revered religious leaders, for example) that may provide fodder for derision.

Okay, Blago was probably not inclined to listen to wiser (saner?) counsel on these matters. When his estimable attorney Ed Genson threw in the towel in disgust, it gave a pretty clear signal that the Guv was intent on bulldozing his own path – rightly or wrongly.

But still. Many perceive PR folks as generally ranking right up there with used car salesman when it comes to ethics and honesty. In this instance, someone just took the money and ran, perpetuating many myths in the process.

January 28, 2009 at 4:52 pm Leave a comment

Municipal PR, Chicago Style

By Chris Scott

There are 34,264 metered parking spots in Chicago and by 2013, the per hour rate for meters that charge a quarter in 2008 will rise to $2, a 700 percent increase.

Chicago residents know this because Mayor Richard M. Daley proposed that the city follow earlier fundraising strategies and lease control of the city’s parking meters — and the money they collect — to a private company for the next 75 years.

You would think that such a serious issue would be managed through the experienced PR machine in place at City Hall and its departments, with residents and news organizations aware of the bidding process and the proposals. Chicago citizens would then be able to attend Town Hall meetings where residents and business owners could voice their opinions on how such a deal might affect their quality of life in the Second City.

But you would be wrong.

In the space of less than one week of the Mayor’s proposal, drivers who will be forced to pay the higher rates — as much as $6.50 per hour in certain areas like downtown — were told that a City Council committee had passed the proposal and that it would be voted on by the full City Council within two days. And faster that one could say “Get your 26 quarters together!” the $1.15-billion deal was sealed. One bidder, one contract.

It’s not that the infrastructure to get the word out to the press and the public in a timely manner didn’t exist. The city of Chicago spends an estimated $4.7 million each year to pay for 50 public information officers in a variety of city government offices and agencies. Additionally, weeks before the parking meter lease agreement, the Daley administration announced contracts with 10 outside PR firms for services that could net each firm as much as $5 million per year. Those contracts were announced at about the same time that city officials revealed an anticipated $469-million budget gap for fiscal 2009 along with layoffs of 929 city employees and the elimination of 1,346 vacant positions in city government. (A reduction in city services and higher fees for other things like parking tickets also will be implemented to save money in these troubled economic times, the mayor said.)

What’s wrong with this picture? Absolutely nothing from at least one perspective. Anyone who engages a PR firm is essentially free to utilize or ignore the vendor’s capabilities or advice as they see fit. If the city believes — as Mayor Daley expressed when questioned about the new contracts — that these relationships with the outside PR firms are necessary, so be it. But don’t the agencies with relationships with City Hall have an obligation to advise the client that it might be a good idea to remove even a whiff of impropriety in the ways “The City That Works” generates an anticipated $1.15 billion in upfront revenue through solid, proven PR strategies (community forums, press conferences, more transparency)?

As it turns out, the city suspended the contracts with the PR firms until the budget crisis “is over.” It’s apparently the same old story: Chicago citizens don’t hear about City Hall decisions in advance. What do you expect from an administration that destroyed a municipal airport’s runways in the dead of night in 2003 with no public relations effort or public comment before the bulldozers rolled? At least City Hall is consistent in how it delivers its message, regardless of the number of agencies it hires to consult on such matters. And that counts for something to taxpayers, doesn’t it?

December 29, 2008 at 5:21 pm Leave a comment

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