Posts filed under ‘Public 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

If e-mail’s dead, then what’s all this stuff in my inbox?

Sally Saville Hodge

I keep hearing rumblings, then reading blog posts by various and sundry social media prognosticators that e-mail is dead.

Taken out by Twitter, Chat and Communities,” opines Gartner Group’s Michael Maoz, saying, “Customers want more immediacy, and e-mail never lived up to that standard.”

Social American, a firm that designs social media campaigns, is a dab less emphatic than Maoz in sounding a conditional death knell. Is it dead? one of its bloggers queries, citing a Nielsen Online study that indicates more people in digitized countries use social media networks and blogs to communicate with each other than e-mail.

Of course, if you look at the difference in reach, as per that Nielsen study, the member communities were ranked at 66.8 percent versus 65.1 percent for e-mail. A 1.7 percent differential represents a stake in the heart of the e-mail channel?

Source: Sacramento State

Source: Sacramento State

Look at the numbers. Do you think 25.2 billion Tweets or instant messages are being exchanged by office workers each day?

I’d like to see e-mail evolve (in other words – that people would get smarter in how they use it), but I don’t think it’s dead. And that’s because, for all their allure, the other contenders have distinct drawbacks.

Take Twitter. Nobody (outside of Twitter itself) quite knows how many people are using it now, with estimates ranging from millions to tens of millions. You can Twitter online. You can use it from your cell phone. You can get all sorts of applications to help you use it better. You can follow Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore and Oprah or someone random, like me.

And, yeah, savvy businesses are using it to improve the customer experience, which makes it a whole lot cooler – and, yes, more immediate – than plain old e-mail. I recently tweeted a complaint about Comcast screwing up our service before a recent move and within minutes was tweeted by ComcastBonnie: “How can I help?” Cool beans.

Of course, responding to her was problematic because the issue would have required maybe 50 Tweets to explain fully. That’s because there’s a limit of only 140 characters (including spaces) per post. That limit is why so many of the tweets that I scan are incomprehensible, and why it’s no substitute for anyone who truly wants to create meaningful dialog. Between hash marks and RTs (re-tweet = sharing someone’s post with your network) and abbreviations and other forms of shorthand, you often need an interpreter to make sense of it all.

But replacing e-mail? Think again and be aware of how slippery stats can be. Consider the other side of the Twitter growth coin: The percentage of Twitter users in a given month who return the following month has languished below 30 percent for most of the past year. Not likely that’s a trend you’re seeing with e-mail usage.

Then there are the social networking communities. To me, these versus e-mail represent an apples and oranges comparison. Social networking is another communications tool, an adjunct, perhaps, to e-mail – less individual, less private, and with an entirely different functionality.

And chat? Again, it’s more immediate, and from a customer service perspective, that’s not a bad thing. Comcast, again, is using it to help solve customer issues. I tried it out the other day for a whole different matter. But how dumb is this? Because of the confidentiality issue, the customer service rep broke off in the middle of the online chat to call me on the phone to get my permission to give me the information I needed via chat. Once granted, she hung up, typed in the relevant information…and then my computer froze and had to be rebooted. Faster than e-mail maybe. But not necessarily more efficient.

And, again, as a broader communication tool, it represents a huge time suck. I know people who have juggled five or six “conversations” at once. I never could figure out when they worked because they were always available on IM. And it just seems so intrusive:  Give me e-mail, where you can control the pace of the back and forth, and delete and ignore at will.

I’ll believe that e-mail is in its death throes when I can stop tracking an increase in the missives – a substantial amount of it junk – delivered daily to my inbox. It ain’t happening yet!

May 27, 2009 at 4:54 pm 3 comments

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

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