Monday, June 30, 2008

Why Corporate Reputation Crises Are Years in the Making

For many years – from my own experience as a public relations counselor (and that of friends in this field), I know that when the issue of proactive crisis planning for the management and prevention of potential threats to companies’ reputations, senior executives often would listen, nod, then stare silently into the distance. In contrast, any discussion of sales and profits engaged them immediately, eliciting an enthusiastic response.

These days, at least, leadership is likelier to say: “Advance planning would be a good thing to do.” Yet, as I watch their eyes, it’s clear that that they still view planning as pie-in-the sky … an intriguing idea, but down fairly low on their list of communications priorities. It’s pretty clear that most have no immediate plans to spend any dollars today on possibly life-saving planning for tomorrow.

However, the minute an oil field has to be shut down, a product has to be recalled, there is a security problem at the airport or an unethical act by a key member of a company — only then does corporate reputation rise to the top of the board’s agenda.

Obviously, the middle of a crisis is not a good time to be doing crisis planning, as it is strategy formulation under pressure. Management then publicly displays anxiety when they should be conveying calm. Far too often it’s in the midst of a crisis when the conversation begins for many companies … and that’s why so many fail to come out with their reputations intact.

It was not the fact that there were weather delays that ultimately cost David Neeleman, the founder and former CEO of JetBlue Airways, his job. He described the problem as one of faulty communication.

“We had so many people in the company who wanted to help who weren't trained to help," Neeleman said. "We had an emergency control center full of people who didn't know what to do. I had flight attendants sitting in hotel rooms for three days who couldn't get a hold of us. I had pilots mailing me saying, 'I'm available, what do I do?'"

This is a problem that could have been avoided by advance planning.

In truth, most “sudden” crises are predictable. Could the famous Tylenol tampering case have been predicted? Could the “Wendy’s thumb in the chili” scam have been predicted? Could the defects in the batteries used in Dell notebooks have been predicted? A good “potential crisis” discussion at any one of these companies with smart, creative public relations professionals most likely would have yielded these and many other risk-oriented scenarios.

Indeed, the reality is that all of these “sudden crises” were predictable with optimal planning. That is the point: very little happens suddenly. Most disasters are years in the making — be they managerial, product oriented or even natural disasters.

Certainly there are exceptions to the rule, but we often do not hear of these because the crises are avoided or minimized. Any solid reputation manager needs to employ a “Risk Vulnerability Test” with top management at least monthly. This is where potentially sensitive issues for a particular company are reviewed, possible scenarios are visited, and it is determined “how we would address them if…” A priority ranking system of red light, green light, yellow light could help establish which issues require immediate action.

Obviously, a strong reputation is the key to survival. It wins allies, encourages endorsements, expands business and attracts employees. Today most CEOs realize that and many work hard at building reputation. However, many fall short in the crisis planning dimension of the task. They have only themselves to blame if a crisis tarnishes what they’ve labored for years to build.

Technorati Tags: reputation, corporate reputation crisis, public relations counselor, proactive crisis planning, David Neeleman, JetBlue Airways, Risk Vulnerability Test, strong reputation, business, communications, public relations

Monday, June 23, 2008

Top 10 Writers’ Resources on the Web

Lifehacker — a blog that focuses on techniques for increasing the productivity of your life (and software!) — recently published a list of the “Best Online Language Tools for Word Nerds”.

I’ve distilled the best-of-the-best from writer Gina Trapani’s list and added a few of my own to create my own list of the top 10 writers’ resources on the web. My selection criteria were simple: in addition to meeting the needs of people who write on a regular basis, my recommended websites had to be reliable, easy-to-use and free of cost. Here they are:

1. Google is a great first step when you’re looking for the spelling or meaning of a word. Just type “define:[word],” hit the search button and, almost instantaneously, you’ll get list of definitions. If you misspell the word, Google will helpfully ask, “Did you mean [correct spelling]?”

2. Acronym Finder is a searchable database of more than 610,000 acronyms and abbreviations.

3. Bartleby is one the most comprehensive reference libraries on the web. It allows you to search an array of books — including nonfiction, fiction, poetry and classic reference texts — all for free.

4. Common Errors in English was developed by Professor Paul Brians of Washington State University to help professionals avoid “lost employment opportunities, lost business, and titters of amusement at the way you write or speak.” It’s useful … and fun.

5. Confusing Words is great when you are trying to negotiate “confusables” (i.e., words commonly mistaken for each other, such as their, there and they’re or eminent, imminent or immanent).

6. TheFreeDictionary, another of those amazing Internet-enabled reference resources, includes medical, legal and computer dictionaries, a multilingual dictionary tool, a thesaurus, several encyclopedias and a literature reference library.

7. ThinkExist is a quotation search engine and directory with more than 300,000 quotations by over 20,000 authors.

8. Urban Dictionary is a collaborative community dictionary of pop culture and urban slang. NOTE: Because slang terms can often involve vulgarity, some listings on Urban Dictionary may be NSFW (Not Safe For Work).

9. Merriam Webster’s Visual Dictionary is an incredibly useful reference tool when you know what something looks like … but not what it’s called, or when you know the word … but can’t picture the object.

10. Visuwords not only defines words, it also allows you to see the relationships among words by way of an animated graphical node map that you navigate by clicking related words.

Technorati Tags: Lifehacker, Gina Trapani, writer's resources, Google, Acronym Finder, Bartleby, Common Errors in English, Confusing Words, TheFreeDictionary, ThinkExist, Urban Dictionary, Visual Dictionary, Visuwords, business, communications, public relations

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Ideal Education for Public Relations Professionals

What’s the right education for someone who wants to enter public relations?

In my opinion, it would encompass a wide range of disciplines not currently unified in one program at the vast majority of universities offering degrees in communications in the U.S. … or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. What is needed is a School of Public Relations (at key universities) that broadens its curriculum to include more diverse subject matter than the more traditional “vocational courses,” (PR advocacy, writing, PR programs, creativity, media relations) which are of course, important as well.

When I think back on my own long career — and the myriad client problems I’ve had to solve — I’d say the perfect course of study for a public relations practitioner (in no order of importance) would include classes on:

  • Business planning and strategy
  • Project and people management
  • How to negotiate
  • The techniques of persuasion
  • Marketing, sales and word-of-mouth
  • Financial skills (e.g., budgeting, accounting, reporting, billing and forecasting)
  • Economics
  • Human resources
  • The workings of Wall Street
  • Corporate governance
  • Database management
  • Mergers & Acquisitions
Social Sciences
  • The sociocultural and psychological dynamics of group behavior
  • The political science of interest group formation and survival
  • How to craft opinion and product studies
  • The impact of communications on society
  • Ethics
  • Government relations
  • Specialty writing (e.g., memos, speeches, reports, video scripts, blog copy)
  • Journalism (press releases, feature stories, editorials)
  • The art and science of media relations
  • Technology-driven communications (e.g., the internet and the social media)
  • Trend-spotting
  • Issues management
  • Communications and the law
  • The elements of advocacy
  • Understanding and reaching influencers
  • Communicating in a global, multicultural market
  • Event marketing
  • Creativity
  • Internal communications
  • Graphic design and visual identity
  • Understanding the Federal government (e.g. 3 branches, FDA, SEC)

The above is just a stream-of-consciousness sampling of the formidable skill sets required of today’s public relations professionals, and it is far from all-inclusive. This kind of training provides a basic foundation for intellectual agility: the ability to grasp complex information and act on it, quickly and efficiently. This skill is effectively learned in Schools of Arts & Sciences, where students are required to delve in to various subjects, learning and applying the knowledge rapidly. This is a fundamental need in public relations and should be addressed in a School of Public Relations, perhaps through joint programming with Arts & Sciences. In fact, mastering a diversity of subjects is one of the factors that led me into this field. And my intellectual desires have been more than fulfilled through the myriad subjects via clients I have tackled over the years…everything from computer, chemicals and automobiles to finance, hotels, aerosols, prescription drugs and robots.

Training alone in the more “vocationally tilted” communications schools is simply not enough to create a new generation of exceptional practitioners. The essential topics I’ve noted above are being taught in many parts of the University. The students, the profession and the clients are being disserved when the academic world can’t bring these pieces together in one School or develop joint programs with other Schools.

Unlike advertising, public relations not only builds awareness and promotes sales, it opens doors, triggers discussions, connects people, builds support, enhances credibility, changes cultures (and minds!), solves financial problems and creates political victories. The top public relations practitioner has to be more than “just” a communicator. He or she must be able to deploy a vast array of additional skills to master the problems confronting corporations these days and counsel a CEO.

As these proposed Schools of Public Relations become more demanding and stringent about who is admitted, we will gradually raise the level of people entering the field. Attracting top quality people to the field is an ongoing concern.

With more comprehensive and relevant training, more of us will be invited to have a “seat at the CEO table.” Because we will have been “table trained” from early on.

Technorati Tags: public relations professionals, education, School of Public Relations, social sciences, graphics, government, arts and sciences, PR skill sets, media, business, communications, public relations

Monday, June 09, 2008

Communicating Bias

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Way back in 1949, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein explored the issue of racism and prejudice in their brilliant musical, South Pacific, which included the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

You might have thought we’d have learned something in the intervening 59 years. Not so, according to a very persuasive New York Times op-ed, "Boys on the Bias," by former Governor of New Jersey Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2003.

Whitman writes about the “images and expectations” of women candidates as communicated by the press throughout the Hillary Clinton campaign. Gender bias is still very much with us, she says, and it’s creating challenges for every female candidate. It is a problem that we must address and correct “if we want all people represented in public service,” Whitman points out. Her brief article is quoted below:

“Fifteen years after I was elected New Jersey’s first female governor, women running for office continue to face huge obstacles. Indeed, watching Hillary Clinton these last few months, it’s clear that voters and the news media still struggle with images and expectations of women as candidates."“When Mrs. Clinton made points forcefully, people called her shrill, not bold and determined. When Mitt Romney teared up, he was described as compassionate, while she was labeled weak.""For its part, the news media paid too much attention to Mrs. Clinton’s haircuts and jackets, ignoring the male candidates and their endless parade of blue suits and red ties. The press presented Barack Obama with his two years in the Senate as an agent of change, not a novice. In contrast, ABC’s Charles Gibson asked Mrs. Clinton if she would ‘be in this position’ if it weren’t for her husband."“To this day, a businessman with no elected experience is considered qualified for high public office; a woman with the same background is called unprepared."“Mrs. Clinton’s sex was not solely responsible for her loss, but the implicit and explicit challenges that women face are such that we as a country must take notice if we want all people represented in public service.”If we can be taught to hate and fear, it should follow that we can be taught to love and respect our fellow human beings. It seems to me that those of us in the communications professions — including public relations practitioners, mainstream media and members of the social media — should always try to keep that higher calling in mind.

Technorati Tags: racism, prejudice, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, South Pacific, Boys on the Bias, Christine Todd Whitman, Hillary Clinton, gender bias, media, business, communications, public relations

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Pay Employees To Quit:
A Public Relations Strategy to Consider

Say you want to staff your call center with friendly, high energy, intelligent people who want to help customers and who enjoy their job. How do you find them? Well, apparently you hire people, train them, then offer them $1,000 to quit. Read this story from Harvard Business Publishing:

“It’s a hard job, answering phones and talking to customers for hours at a time. So when Zappos hires new employees, it provides a four-week training period that immerses them in the company’s strategy, culture, and obsession with customers. People get paid their full salary during this period.”

“After a week or so in this immersive experience, though, it’s time for what Zappos calls ‘The Offer’. The fast-growing company, which works hard to recruit people to join, says to its newest employees: “If you quit today, we will pay you for the amount of time you’ve worked, plus we will offer you a $1,000 bonus.” Zappos actually bribes its new employees to quit!”

“Why? Because if you’re willing to take the company up on the offer, you obviously don’t have the sense of commitment they are looking for. It’s hard to describe the level of energy in the Zappos culture—which means, by definition, it’s not for everybody. Zappos wants to learn if there’s a bad fit between what makes the organization tick and what makes individual employees tick—and it’s willing to pay to learn sooner rather than later. (About ten percent of new call-center employees take the money and run.)”

Zappos employees also have no scripts, no call time metrics, and are empowered to do whatever it takes to make them happy.

Now you understand why Zappos pays new employees to quit – and it is a public relations strategy move all companies need to consider.

Technorati Tags: Zappos, Harvard Business Publishing, public relations strategy, commitment, pay to quit, business, communications, public relations