Monday, January 26, 2009

An Inappropriate Thank You Note

Outrageous! Chrysler has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads that have been running in The New York Times, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal , among other media outlets, to thank Americans for “investing in Chrysler” through the government's $17.4 billion auto industry bailout. The ad also stated Chrysler’s commitment to making quality products, improving fuel economy and providing “vehicles you want to buy.”

It is hard to fathom why Chrysler would be spending this kind of money on a thank you note when they are struggling to survive.

Don’t get me wrong. Thank you notes are nice. But the bailout was not a thoughtful gift to Chrysler from its legion of fans. Nor are taxpayers investors in the classic sense … so why does the ad use the term “investing?” Among all the investment options open to taxpayers, they did not choose to buy shares in Chrysler…it was a government decision, right or wrong.

While thanking your stakeholders is a noble policy, it could have easily been achieved through public relations techniques including press releases, the website, and emails … which would have amounted to a comparatively small dollar amount and could have accomplished the same thing. These funds could have been better spent on research to make better vehicles.

Taxpayers who are forced to help Chrysler in this bailout have a right to be angry about what undoubtedly is perceived as irresponsible spending. This was a disappointing public relations move on the part of Chrysler.

Since writing this, I noted that the ad was posted on the Chrysler blog. In fact, it got so many negative comments that Chrysler recently pulled it.

Technorati Tags: Chrysler, The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, government, auto industry, fuel economy, bailout, taxpayers, investing, stakeholders, vehicles, business, communications, public relations

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

When America Expected a Black President — and Why

I was intrigued by the reprint of a 2001 survey of the American public appearing in USA Today on January 19, the day before Barack Obama’s inauguration, which asked the question, “When do you think the US will have its first black President?” Keep in mind that this question was asked in 2001. Here’s the answer:

• 43%: within 25 years
• 36%: within 10 years

The remaining 21% were split into small percentages showing “never,” “no opinion“and “after or within 100 years.”

Why, I wondered, did nearly half the population say “within 25 years” and why only slightly more than a third say “within 10 years”? What were the conditions in 2001 that would make people feel that the election of a black President was possibly six elections off? Here are my speculations on the entire matter as well as why one-third of the population turned out to be right.

The first reason is lack of a viable black candidate. While there have been many proven black leaders in positions of national responsibility who became a recognized force in public life — Ralph Bunche, Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, W.E.B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth and Marcus Garvey and, of course, Martin Luther King — only a handful ( including Shirley Chisholm and Carol Moseley Braun) have run for the presidency. None was considered a mainstream candidate.

More recently, Colin Powell — who served, during his illustrious career as U.S. Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army Forces Command and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the Gulf War … and who led us to victory countering Iraq in its invasion of Kuwait during the administration of Bush 41— might well have been the most universally respected and credible potential Presidential candidate in recent memory, but he declined to run. Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State during the administration of Bush 43, was never a candidate. At the time of the USA Today survey, therefore, there was no one on the horizon to make a black President seem imminent or even something that could happen in the foreseeable future.

Secondly, among the 43% or 36% who might have been far-thinking, they possibly realized that the minority population of the U.S. was projected to pass the white population in 2042, making the minority a majority, thereby increasing the likelihood that, by then, we would indeed elect a black President.

Thirdly, we were lacking role models. While to some extent Hollywood movies (such as “Deep Impact”)and television shows (like “24”) have cast blacks in political leadership roles and even the presidency, the idea still seemed like a novelty … far-fetched.

Fourth, most black political leaders who had declared for the presidency were positioned as representing the black community and dedicated to improving the lot of that community, rather than all of us. Two come to mind: Chicago’s Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, from New York. It would have been challenging for them to change their positioning, as their careers were built on that premise; their identities as advocates for African-Americans were already firmly established.

Fifth, in 2001, following 9-11, as a nation focused on security, and in the throes of the dot com recession, the ascendancy of a black President was just not on the public’s mind. Impressive black talent was emerging in business and state leadership, but the numbers were not significant enough for even those paying attention to make bold predictions.

Obviously the 36% who predicted the event would happen within 10 years were either clairvoyant, lucky or saw something that others did not. For example, the aforementioned rise of blacks in state and business leadership positions, the changing attitudes gradually wrought by the Civil Rights Act and the integration and social acceptance of blacks among those on university campuses (e.g., by the dawn of the new millennium, most fraternities and sororities had eliminated the color and religion bar).

Whatever the reasons people made those projections in 2001, I know I am not alone in contending that Barack Obama’s success transcended color. Nevertheless, the very fact that his election happened is still a critical positive change in American attitudes and the way in which our legal system can effect that change.

Obama, the man, caught the drift of what the public needed to hear, and he delivered. From the very start of his campaign, Obama has refused to allow himself to be positioned as a “race” candidate. Unlike his predecessors (e.g., Jackson, Sharpton, et al), he spoke unifying themes: change when the public felt change was needed, bringing people together following a period of divisiveness, inclusiveness when we needed the power of many to get things done, and a vision of hope when the public pulse required optimism and reconciliation.

What came across was a man who could lead with compassion and get things done, not a black man inevitably linked by his color to the many challenges the black community has faced for years, although he embraced those as well.

The situation recalls the statement made by the famous black actor, Sidney Poitier, in the 1960’s movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Poitier plays the role of a brilliant doctor who has held world-class health leadership positions. He’s about to marry an upper class white woman. Poitier, facing the rejection of his father who feels his son should stay within his station, says, “Dad, the difference between you and me is that you see yourself as a colored man, and I see myself as a man.”

We have come a long way since the ‘60s. But this indeed describes Barack Obama and the image he projects. Many social forces enabled us to become color blind. His self-image can only positively affect the black community and how it sees itself, in the future. This perception and the resulting self-confidence of that community can only expand the talent available to make this country greater.

According to the Washington Post, in 2000, President Clinton's former chief adviser on race, Christopher Edley, Jr., was asked to speculate about the prospects of a black president by 2020. "I'm pessimistic about that," said Edley. "I think we will see a woman or Latino before we see an African American."

Nearly one-third of the population in that 2001 survey was able to more accurately predict the future than Edley, now dean of the Boalt Hall School of Law at U.C. Berkeley. They were visionary enough to imagine our first black president. I’m proud they were able to do so.

Technorati Tags: Washington Post, Colin Powell, Bill Clinton, Toni Morrison, election, Martin Luther King, population, President, Barack Obama, inauguration, USA Today, American, business, communications, public relations

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Monday, January 12, 2009

The 13 People, Places and Things that Most Need a PR Bailout in 2009

What’s a public relations bailout? It’s a necessary, fundamental and substantive change in an individual, organization or institution that’s lost its way, which requires a program to communicate the change and thereby redeem the entity’s reputation. Here, in no particular order, are my picks for the top 13 of 2009:

  1. The financial services industry (e.g., subprime lending, asset management, credit default swaps, hedge funds)

  2. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)

  3. The Republican Party

  4. Ford, Chrysler and GM

  5. City of Detroit

  6. New York Yankees

  7. Oil Industry

  8. Alan Greenspan

  9. United States (as a global brand)

  10. Airline Industry

  11. Starbucks

  12. Richard S. Fuld, Jr. (former chairman of Lehman Brothers, now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.)

  13. Paris Hilton

Technorati Tags: financial services industry, SEC, Republican Party, Ford, Crysler, GM, Detroit, New York Yankees, oil industry, business, Alan Greenspan, United States, global brand, airline industry, Starbucks, Richard S. Fuld, Jr., chapter 11 bankruptcy, Paris Hilton

Monday, January 05, 2009

The First Presidential Blogger?

Imagine! The first blogger President. And a blog is right in line with the bold and transparent environment which Obama has tried to create.

He could discuss every new or controversial policy in a blog – and people throughout the world could comment. While he could tackle topics from Iran and Iraq to health and defense, he also could talk about his favorite movies, how he spends time with his daughters, and the foods that he can’t resist. With one keystroke, he could conduct his own “March of Dimes” for the people in Darfur and with the next, challenge a trade in baseball or softball. Press conferences could be conducted on the internet with instant survey reactions to what is being said.

This Presidential internet strategy would model democratic behavior – and serve as an example for the world. It literally is worldwide citizen engagement. As FDR gained support of Americans via the radio fireside chats, Obama has the opportunity to build global support for his vision of a unified world. Idealistic? Maybe. But possible with this new chosen channel.

While the government has challenged Obama’s use of the Blackberry for fear a misstatement or sharp response could be published rapidly around the world, nothing offers better control than a blog. It is final once it is posted. All responses can be calculated.

The only negative I can see is that it indeed will accelerate the shift away from newspapers, TV and radio even more than before.

But the overriding advantage — if Obama is open to it and can find the time — is that citizens of the world will get to know our president in a way that has never happened before. And perhaps that level of communications can bring a level of understanding that has never existed in the world.

Technorati Tags: President, Obama, controversial policy, blog, internet strategy, Americans, Makovsky, Blackberry, March of Dimes, business, communications, public relations

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