Monday, April 30, 2007

Our “African Child”

For nearly 15 years, my wife and I have been helping to support various children through monthly stipends we send to The Christian Children’s Fund. We traditionally have been assigned a child in a faraway place. The Fund then sends us an annual “report card” on the child’s education, health, family, community and general ways the funds might be applied.

But a new element in the process emerged once Harriet Buyewa, 9, from Zambia became our “adopted” child, and that is Harriet’s uncle, Kelvin Simangolwa. Uncle Kelvin writes us from time to time, in his own handwriting on lined notebook paper, about life in Shacele Village, the activities Harriet is involved in, how grateful the family is for these small stipends and often, how the money is applied. We are so moved by these letters. It has made us feel so good about the help we are providing and the value of The Christian Children Fund’s work. Also, it has brought us closer to Harriet and changed our perception about our donation from a stipend to an opportunity. Thus, I share our most recent letter from Uncle Kelvin:

Dear Mr. Ken Makovsky:

It’s with joy and gratitude to have this wonderful opportunity of writing you again. I am the usual Uncle to your sponsored child, Harriet. How are you in the U.S.A.? Here in Zambia, Harriet and our entire family are fine.

I would like to thank you greatly for the birthday gift you sent to this child. She received U.S. $25, which is equivalent to one hundred and seven thousand one hundred and twenty five Kwachain, our local currency, and this is what was bought:

Beddings K35,000
Rice K15,000
Sugar K10,000
Chickens K20,000
Flour K20,000
Cooking Oil K5,000
Sweets K2,000
Balloons K125

Special thanks once more from our family and Harriet is thanking you a million times. May the Almighty God abundantly bless all the works of your hands. Bye for now.

Yours sincerely,

Kelvin P. Simangolwa
(Uncle to Harriet)

Communications between Uncle Kelvin and us have opened a new door of understanding that is making what we read in the newspapers about tribal life in Africa less remote than just a story and something more tangible … something we can touch and that touches us.

Technorati Tags: The Christian Children’s Fund, Zambia, Africa, Goodwill, communications, public relations, business

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Virginia Tech Massacre: The Communications Dimension

I am as amazed as you may be how timely, rapid communications could have been a critical factor in minimizing the terrible loss of life in the Virginia Tech Massacre. Thus, I am excerpting below an op-ed by Jack O'Dwyer, editor-in chief of the J.R. O'Dwyer publications, which effectively addresses this issue head on. (NOTE: The article is available to subscribers on O'Dwyer's website).

The failure of Virginia Tech cops to immediately put out a bulletin that two students had been murdered and that the assailant was still on the loose resulted in the loss of 31 more lives (including that of the shooter).

The culprit here is official reticence to face unpalatable facts. PR's job is to provide such facts. But it cannot perform better than the people it works for.

Rage over this delay now accompanies the enormous burden of grief being shouldered by the families of the victims, the student body and faculty of Virginia Tech, and the entire nation.

Explanations by authorities that it was felt the murders were an isolated "domestic" incident and that the assailant had left the campus were no more reasonable than the theory that the assailant was still loose on the campus and might kill others.

Available to police and school administrators were the campus radio station, a loudspeaker system, e-mails to student dorms, the local media and other forms of communication.

Official explanations for the failure to announce the news, citing the impossibility of closing down the entire campus, are adding fuel to this fire. …

Everyone on campus had a right to know shortly after 7:15 a.m. that there had been two murders in one of the dorms. Whether classes were to be held as usual is another matter. Students and faculty at least would have been on guard.

Withholding bad news, which is an automatic reaction among those in authority, was the culprit here. … [But] withholding this information … [has had] disastrous effects.

The essence of public relations, and most especially in crises, is thinking strategically about how and when to communicate with various target audiences, and thereby make a difference; in this case (on the heels of the two murders), in addition to the students, there were the faculty, the administration, the university employees, the city and student news media, the city officials and the local police, who should have been rapidly alerted using communications channels noted above in the O'Dwyer’s piece, as well as others.

In fact, in today's connected and highly mobile society, where probably most students and most people in responsible positions have cell phones, there may be – there should be! — technology where leadership can text message or email all students, as well as an emergency VIP list, in a matter of seconds.

Hopefully, one lesson from this national tragedy is that all educational institutions will develop crisis plans to deal with such situations, establishing an emergency communications chain and the technology to get the message out fast. Communications can save lives.

Technorati Tags: Virginia Tech, Virginia Tech Massacre, Jack O’Dwyer, O’Dwyers, business, public relations, communciations

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Public Relations Value of an Apology

Do apologies work? In day-to-day life they usually do. When someone has said something offensive, and he or she apologizes, it is generally accepted without strings attached. But it takes courage to apologize. Not everyone has that courage.

OK. Now shift to the public sector, and specifically to the Don Imus incident. Imus called the extraordinary Rutgers women’s basketball team, “nappy-headed hos,” a particularly nasty sexist and racist slur. Shortly thereafter, in the face of enormous criticism, Imus apologized to an audience estimated at more than two million. Why was it not rapidly accepted without strings attached? Simply because there were strings attached, and the apology had geometric impact that carried way beyond the simple act itself.

Despite Imus’ apology, he was initially suspended for two weeks. Then major advertisers — which included American Express, Sprint Nextel, Staples, Procter & Gamble and General Motors Corp. — began to desert. They quite reasonably wished to dissociate themselves from the appearance of condoning racial slurs and the risk of alienating tens of millions of their consumers in today’s wired world. Then, shockingly, Imus was fired by CBS and MSNBC. The consumer-dependent networks also did not want to share Imus’s fall from grace.

Yet he apologized. He repeated his apology many times and in many venues, including the “Today Show”. He requested a meeting with the team and got it. But it was too late. His remarks were all over the place, online and offline, in broadcast and print media, ranging from Sports Illustrated to Harvey Fierstein in The New York Times. Did the apologies hold no weight?

Asked by Matt Lauer if he could clean up his act as he promised in an earlier apology, Imus said, "Well, perhaps I can't," and added, oddly, "I have a history of keeping my word."

My interpretation is that the mistake for which an apology is made can only be made once. If it is made twice (or more), the public relations value of the apology is completely diluted. This was not Imus’ first racial slur; many years ago the shock jock called Gwen Ifell — an African-American woman who is currently moderator and managing editor of PBS’s "Washington Week" and senior correspondent for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” — a “cleaning lady”. And over the years there have been other such slurs against various minorities.

In addition to the “twice factor,” one needs to examine the environment in which Imus made theses remarks. With the rise of the internet has come the growing power of the individual, the value of the individual protest, the growing stature of minority and human rights and growing respect for the victim. In fact, Imus’ comment, in my opinion, radically boosted the stock of the team, even beyond where it was before. The team’s decision to hold a press conference on April 10, where various individuals expressed their feelings about Imus’s remarks further reduced his standing and credibility. Suddenly a photo of the team was on the front page of The New York Times. The media broadcast some interviews of former high profile guests who said no to future appearances on the show. The steam was rolling and the apology became an empty promise.

Yes, this was a victory for human rights and respect for women and minorities. In our country differences should command respect. Was the punishment out of whack with the crime? Was firing Imus over the top? I don’t know. But indeed it was an example of how some nasty remarks destroyed an empire, if you will, and mushroomed into a bomb that could have had shareholder impact. reports "Imus in the Morning" generated about $20 million in revenue last year — about one percent of CBS Radio division's total. The networks decided that Imus was costing them more than they could afford to lose. They decided to stop the steamroller. Goodbye revenues. Goodbye apology. Goodbye Imus.

Technorati Tags: apologies, Don Imus, Rutgers women’s basketball team, nappy-headed hos, American Express, Sprint Nextel, Staples, Proctor & Gamble, General Motors, CBS, MSNBC, Today Show, Harvey Fierstein, The New York Times, Matt Lauer, Gwen Ifell, PBS, Washington Week, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Imus in the Morning, public relations, communications, business

Monday, April 09, 2007

Do You Follow Your Instincts?

While corporate management wants to know the estimated return on every marketing investment, we will shortchange management if science always trumps instincts.

Pure instinctive actions often have paid off in big ways.

Do you recall the famous and historic Avis "We’re Only #2, But We Try Harder" campaign? Research showed that advertisers would never admit to being #2, and the public would turn down their noses. Conventional wisdom was that advertisers should never promote any position other than #1; Hertz occupied that position. Yet, the client decided to follow its ad agency’s — Doyle Dane Bernbach — instinct, and the campaign built Avis into a car rental leader, tripling its market share to 35% and bringing name recognition equivalent to that of Hertz, the market leader.

Other famous campaigns that led to major market share expansions and highlighted the creativity of a single individual with a gut feeling that "this is the right way to go" include:

---Nike: "Just do it!"

---Ivory Soap: "99 and 44/100% pure"

---Clairol: "Does she...or doesn't she?" [color her hair]

---Benson & Hedges 100s: "The disadvantages ..." [of the extra-long product]

Outside of advertising and public relations, artists and writers often rely on inspiration and intuition to create their best work.

It is my contention that instincts often emanate from years of experience. People with experience tend to recognize situations that are similar to, or different from, their earlier experiences, allowing them to form accurate, intuitive courses of action.

Obviously, there may be other reasons for correct instinctive actions: e.g., dreams, assessment of information learned in a classroom, recollections of what people have said or was physically seen, belief in first impressions.

In no way am I diminishing the importance of research and measurement. In fact, I serve on the Board of Trustees of the Institute for Public Relations, the category leader in this area, and I believe strongly in collecting evidence which is persuasive in choosing a particular strategy. But research also shows, as noted by the above examples, that intuition pays off way more than just occasionally.

Technorati Tags: instincts, Avis, Doyle Dane Bernbach, Hertz, Nike, Ivory Soap, Clairol, Benson & Hedges 100s, advertising, experience, Institute for Public Relations, intuition, business, communications, public relations

Monday, April 02, 2007

Do Newspapers Have a Future?

Newspapers are dead … or maybe not. In the past week alone, I’ve read thoughtful observations on the subject in blogs by Scott Karp, Robert Scoble, Duncan Riley, David Strom and, most recently, Jeff Jarvis, just to name a few.

Everyone recognizes that the internet has challenged the very existence of print media (i.e., newspapers). Many have closed their doors. Others -- to survive -- have reduced the size of the printed page, thereby giving readers less. Advertising dollars, both commercial and classified, are shifting to the Web. Perplexed, newspapers are trying to figure out solutions.

Thus, last Thursday, the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University sponsored a breakfast seminar in New York City to discuss whether newspapers have a future. Hundreds of people in the NYC communications business came (including yours truly -- Makovsky is a sponsor of this ongoing breakfast series, covering multiple topics). Guest speakers were: Gary Pruitt, chairman, president and CEO of the McClatchy Company, a major owner of newspapers, and Dean Baquet, former editor of the Los Angeles Times and now Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Times.

Here are some of the enlightening points made by our panelists:

— 25-30% of 18-34 year olds still read newspapers daily.

— The best local newspapers today need:
▪ The best local advertising
▪ A good online supplement
▪ Niche publications within it
▪ To play an important watchdog role, keeping business and government on their toes
▪ To build cohesion in a community

— Many newspapers have cut back on both foreign and Washington DC coverage to the point where some members of Congress have trouble getting coverage in their own areas, thereby eliminating a check on scandals. "This is really not good for the country," one guest said.

— New and old communications channels gradually accommodate each other, but there will be casualties along the way until the market adjusts. For example, there were never more newspapers in the U.S. than in 1919. Then radio came in, and many newspapers went bankrupt. The same thing happened to radio and newspapers when TV was gaining popularity. Once the market adjusted, all three helped each other become profitable. "While the newspaper decline may continue for a few years, like before, the tide could turn again, and all of these channels could complement each other," the panelist advised.

— Because the web is an explosion of personal opinion, demand will increase for a more balanced, objective medium, and newspapers can play that role.

— The newspapers which survive will be more innovative than ever before. For example, perhaps newspapers need to consider starting specialty publications at universities, foundations and other non-profits. But there has to be a way of merchandising such publications and making them profitable.

— People trust newspapers. After September 11, newspaper circulation spiked. People who wanted in-depth coverage of what really happened turned to the tried and true.

Finally, the seminar underscored an underlying question: "Can we develop a new profitable business model where advertising continues to support journalism in a major way?"

I believe they can. Newspapers just need to find their place in today’s Wired World.

Technorati Tags: newspapers, Scott Karp, Robert Scoble, Duncan Riley, David Strom, Jeff Jarvis, print media, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University, Gary Pruitt, McClatchy Company, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, LA Times, NY Times, communications, public relations, business