Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Global Economy and Public Relations: Impact and Outlook

On February 14, a group of senior corporate and agency PR executives came together, under the sponsorship of PRWeek and MSLGroup, to discuss a number of issues that had also been on the agenda of the World Economic Forum at Davos.  One of the top questions:  quantifying the impact of the global economy on the communications industry across key regions of the world.

Not surprisingly, we concurred that — in our industry — the impact of the economy has been a very mixed bag. 

A week ago, I surveyed my colleagues at IPREX , an independent global communications network with over 100 offices and 1,500 staff worldwide.  Roughly half of the respondents were from North America; the remainder were European.  I asked them whether and what kind of growth they had experienced over the past two years.

Their answers varied wildly from country to country and city to city.  One respondent reported revenues that increased 44%; another confessed to a decline of 20% between 2011 and 2012.  Many reported that the economy had “no discernible impact” on their business.

Veronis Suhler Stevenson (, a leading private investment firm, is bullish on our industry.  They’ve predicted that annual U.S. spending on combined public relations and word of mouth marketing services will increase at a compound annual growth rate of 14% between 2010 and 2015, to $10.96 billion.  (Of course, not everyone agrees.)

There’s one unassailable fact:  the fate of our firms is closely linked to the health of our clients.  The IMF estimates that the world economy will grow about 3.5% this year, just slightly better than last year's 3.2%.  Of course, that improvement will be uneven from region to region.

According to PwC’s 16th Annual Global CEO Survey, when it comes to the economy, CEOs are definitely not relaxing.  In fact, they’re worrying more — and have more to worry about — than ever before … including economic and policy threats well outside their direct control.  Of all the threats that concern CEOs, social unrest is the most worrisome by a significant margin.

Burying your head in the sand is not an option.  Working with experienced and capable communications experts is essential for maintaining dynamism while minimizing potential risks.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Women in Leadership in PR

Earlier this month, the World Economic Forum sponsored a panel discussion on "Women and Economic Decision-Making," with a focus on closing the gender gap at the highest levels. At a subsequent roundtable sponsored by PRWeek and MSLGroup, senior communications executives – including myself -- took a look specifically at the role women play at the top levels of PR – both at agencies and in-house.

It's not that doors to the PR profession have been closed to women. Quite the contrary! For as long as fI've been in public relations, women have been ... everywhere.

In 2010 reported that 73% of the 21,000 members of PRSA were female. Another estimate, from the chair of the PR department at Syracuse University, put the percentage of women in the industry at 85%.

Until recently, the problem hasn't been equal representation of women in PR ... it's been the domination of men at the highest levels of leadership. An estimated 80% of upper management in PR is male. And that has led to a significant earnings gap.

According to a recent PRWeek Agency Business Report, an increasing number of top firms have women in their most senior roles. As that number increases at both agencies and in corporations, I have every expectation that the earnings gap will close ... ultimately good news for everyone in our business.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A “Big Idea” that Delivered

What is your favorite "Big Idea?"  More fundamentally, do you know how to define a "Big Idea?"  Well, today, at Makovsky, we start an eight-week (one class per week) agency-wide instructional program  called "Managing the Creative Mind: In Search of the Big Idea."  Even we, who use "Big Ideas" regularly, need to review the elements from time to time, particularly in this digital age.

Thus, I want to discuss one of my favorite "Big Ideas."

Sometimes the best ideas in marketing completely defy conventional wisdom.  At the time, they may even seem unacceptably risky.  But experience and intuition are two variables that can trump custom and convention ... as in the story of the "Big Idea" that re-launched Avis, the car rental company, in the 1960s.

It was 1962.  The business was car rentals.  The market was simple:  Avis had a tiny share (11 percent) and hadn't made a profit in 13 years; Hertz was the leader by a country mile.  Avis president, Robert C. Townsend, was talking with his ad agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) about ways to boost his business.

"Are Avis's cars newer than Hertz's?" the ad men asked.


"Does Avis have more rental locations?"


"Lower rates?"


"Isn't there some difference between the two?"

"Well," said Townsend, thinking for a moment.  "We try harder."  I imagine — at that moment — the clouds parting, sunshine breaking through and the heavenly choir singing "Hallelujah."

DD&B now had what they needed for a "Big Idea"...

"Avis is only No.2 in rent a cars. So we try harder."

It was truly unique and instantly recognizable.  At that time, it was "We Try Harder" that illuminated an important insight, strengthened by repetition:  Avis will never give up, never surrender.  It's a uniquely American attitude.

It was also audacious ... even shocking.  No company had ever before described itself as an "also-ran."

One of the litmus tests of a "Big Idea:"  "We Try Harder" also worked across all media platforms ... including print, radio and TV ads; stuffed into employee pay envelopes; and even on the ubiquitous "We Try Harder" buttons.  Avis's concept was a powerful, honest and engaging platform for a whole variety of marketing communications and media channels.

Within a year of the new campaign, Avis was making a profit.  By 1966, Avis's share of the market had more than tripled — to 35 percent.

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

“Let There Be Light!”

At their best, world-changing ideas can be simple, elegant, engaging and enlightening.  They don’t always require millions of dollars of seed money and armies of advocates.  An idea doesn’t have to be expensive to be really big ... and really good.

I recently saw a video about a new kind of light bulb that has the potential to change millions of lives … especially among impoverished people who live in dark shacks in slums in The Philippines, where electricity is unavailable or unreliable. 

The idea was generated by a group of students from MIT.  Take a simple, one-liter plastic bottle.  Fill it with water and a few tablespoons of bleach (to prevent algae).  Install it through a sealed hole cut in a metal roof. 

This solar bottle bulb provides a surprising amount of light to gloomy interiors by refracting sunlight.  It can be installed in less than an hour, lasts for five years, and is equivalent of a 60-watt bulb.

One good idea can also lead to others.  Sponsorship of this initiative in the Philippines could be a great opportunity as part of a corporate social responsibility campaign, sponsored by The Clorox Company, Coca-Cola or NextEra Energy Resources, one of the biggest solar power companies in the U.S.  It could be a big idea for your firm … or ours.

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Monday, February 11, 2013

Communications: Mind the Gap

Sometimes leadership looks right past communications, when they should be confronting it as a root cause of a problem at the center.

This point came alive for me in a couple of news stories I’d seen recently about Major League Baseball’s decision to finally allow interpreters to accompany managers and pitching coaches to the pitching mound to have conversations with their pitchers about strategy — often the key to the game.

Talk about being behind the eight ball!  How long have there been non-English speaking baseball players?  For decades.

In 2011 alone, 27 percent of all players were Latinos, and more than 2% were Asian.  Last year, the total number of foreign born players rose to 243 (or 28.4 percent).  In the Minor Leagues, the place of future resources for the Majors, today nearly half of players were born outside of the U.S., representing 41 countries. 

Hello-o-o!  Where have you been, MLB?  To date, managers and coaches visiting the mound with a pitcher who does not speak English have had to resort to their own made-up sign language or spotty word knowledge … which often led to misunderstandings. You have to wonder where management’s brain is when the game itself is based on good communications.  Sort of unbelievable.  Now the gap will be covered, so let’s see how it works out.

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Thursday, February 07, 2013

Communications: The More You Know

When communications sometimes gets lost in the shuffle it can sometimes compromise historical wisdom and shortchange our understanding of great people and important events. 

A new book celebrating  the 100th Anniversary of the birth of a civil rights icon — The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks proves that. The book — was discussed in a column by Charles Blow  in the February 2 edition of TheNew York Times.

In 1955, Rosa Parks, a black woman, became famous for breaking custom and segregation rules by not surrendering her seat on a bus to a white man.  That one act alone made national news and became one of the key factors in kicking off the national civil rights movement. 

The communications gap here was the little-known — but very important — fact that Mrs. Parks  grew up aware of and distressed about the treatment of blacks by whites and the public policy in the South that supported it. 

She was a civil rights activist for nearly two decades before the bus incident, which was the culmination of her activism, rather than an instant reaction or a refusal to get up because her feet were tired.  Although the latter reason was reputed as her rationale, in reality, Rosa Parks said, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

"The mother of the freedom movement” was not the first person to resist bus segregation.  Others had been there before her, including Irene Morgan, Sarah Louise Keys and Claudette Colvin.  But NAACP organizers believed that Mrs. Parks was the best candidate in terms of following through on a court challenge after her arrest for civil disobedience.

But for most people, I assume, and certainly for myself, I knew little more than the commission of a critical act and not much about how she got from point A to B.  The back story has been omitted for too long.

The more you know, the better you can understand.

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Monday, February 04, 2013

NFL: The Future Strategy

NFL: THE FUTURE STRATEGY--As the hoopla dies down from last night's exciting Super Bowl victory by the Baltimore Ravens, complete with blackout, Beyonce, confetti storm and all, the National Football League has a lot to celebrate.  But it also has to begin focusing on some tough problems in the year ahead.   While football is our biggest national sport and possibly our most exciting one, it is experiencing a crisis that has to be strategically managed if it is not to lose the momentum it has built up over recent decades.  

Establishing a "health and safety" culture is how the NFL's Commissioner, Roger Goodell, terms it, and he says it is "evolving."  He is no doubt well intentioned, but how quickly it evolves and how he communicates what he will do to create this culture could indeed make the difference between keeping the sport at its current levels or seeing its revenues fall.

It is facing some tough hurdles. There are lawsuits involving 4000 former players on safety issues that could cost the NFL hundreds of millions of dollars or up to a billion, according to Bob Costas, NBC sports broadcaster who was interviewed on "Meet the Press" yesterday morning. He also said there is an 11% decline in student participation in football because of concerned parents who have been impacted by publicity about concussions, suicides and other issues.  There are even some current players who have spoken out regarding limiting their own kids' play.   Lately, President Obama said that, if he had a young boy, he would think long and hard” about letting him play football unless new safety measures were put in place.  Bart Scott of the Jets agreed with the president.

What measures could be put in place?  The head of the Players Association, said Costas, pointed out that they will have independent neurologists at every game to make instant concussion diagnoses.  While this is positive, it seems the NFL is going to have to consider eliminating bounties and illegal hits to the head, says Costas.  And it may have to consider the elimination of all head contact.  There has been a considerable amount of 10-year later sub-concussions discovered.  And that has to be dealt with now. 

A plan of action must be communicated and followed through on with full transparency to the public to sustain the growth of the sport and the support of parents who are growing skeptics.

This weekend we got a refreshed look into the League’s proactive communications strategy. Goodell emphasized on “Face The Nation,” in a TV interview the rule changes, equipment advances and the major investments in research that are already well underway. The NFL also used its considerably valuable institutional advertising time during the Super Bowl broadcast to raise awareness for NFL Evolution, the NFL’s new health and safety portal. This site is a content-rich resource that covers a diversity of topics ranging from the NFL’s medical research initiatives to resources for parents and a detailed outline of the evolution of the game with a view of changes to come.

Despite Demarious Thomas’ (head of the NFL Players Association) contention, the NFL is well aware that player safety is its single-largest issue the sport will face.  While many are attracted to pro football because of the risk and thrill of violence, and a less violent sport may not be as appealing, Goodell has to bring about the "health and safety culture" he is advocating sooner rather than later. To bring about this kind of culture change is no small undertaking for the League and the onslaught from the opposition will continue to mount. I believe the communications of the NFL’s actions will be as vital as the very actions themselves and while Goodell made some strides in the public eye this weekend, there is still a long way to go. The irony here is that if there is one thing the NFL now knows, it is that the only way to tackle this issue in the public’s eyes is… head on.

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