Monday, August 30, 2010

Can You Believe Delta's Attitude?

air traveler“When customers complain, don’t answer, just smile, and they will forget about it! That’s what my boss told me to do every time I get comments from flight passengers annoyed about the malfunctioning seats and video — which are never fixed no matter how many times we report them,” said a steward to me on a recent Delta flight from Copenhagen to New York. Even he was astounded by management’s insensitivity. He added, “No cabin crew wants to fly these planes because we know we are going to get disgruntled passengers.”

On my flight, the recline button did not recline the seats (you had to physically push them back), the footrest button did not ignite the footrest to rise and the movie’s video did not sync with its audio. And when the pilot called for seats to be put in an upright position, you needed help to physically pull the seat forward…an obvious safety threat.

Over the past month, I have now been on four separate flights with this defective equipment, which clearly hails from a time before the merger of Northwest and Delta, as one detects traces of the “NWA” logo in the front interior of the plane. By this time the older equipment should have either been repaired or replaced.

For business class passengers — or any passengers, for that matter — the price-value equation is out of whack. It also suggests a cavalier attitude about passenger safety. From a public relations standpoint, both the words and inaction make Delta’s management seem insensitive, unprofessional and irresponsible.

Management obviously needs training on how employees should address customers when equipment malfunctions. How about something like: “Please accept our apology. I know how inconvenient this is, and we will be at your side as necessary to assist passengers who are having issues with seating and video equipment. The equipment is due to be fixed on X date, and to make up for the lack of comfort you have had to experience, as a small token, you will receive a complimentary 20,000 frequent flyer miles if you alert our crew to these problems.”

Technorati Tags: disgruntled passengers, Delta, malfunctioning seats, time before the merger of Northwest and Delta, management training

Thursday, August 26, 2010


“Children stuck on scary roller coasters sometimes close their eyes and wait for the ride to end. So, apparently, do grown-ups heading giant corporations in crisis” … or, at least, so says New York Times economic writer Peter S. Goodman in his very interesting article, “In Case of Emergency: What Not to Do," which anatomizes the recent public relations missteps of three enormously successful enterprises — Toyota, BP and Goldman Sachs.

Goodman does a great job interviewing corporate insiders and agency experts who generally agree that the most important strategy in a crisis is to come clean: “When the story is bad, disclose it immediately — awful parts included — lest you be forced to backtrack and slide into the death spiral of lost credibility.”

Now, the fly in the ointment. There were more than half a dozen quotes from Eric Dezenhall, who, according to the article, was a communications strategist for Ronald Reagan (that would be 20 or 30 years ago) and once represented Michael Jackson when he was accused of child molestation.

Dezenhall believes that “when the facts are horrible,” the best strategy is to ignore the problem and get back to business, “while eschewing the sort of foolish communications gimmicks that can make things worse.” After all, he says, “the goal is not to get people not to hate [the executives responsible for the companies’ problems]. It’s to get people to hate them less.”

The world Dezenhall describes is anarchic and brutish: “The reality [of a corporate crisis] is absolute chaos…. Nobody knows what the facts are. The lawyers are trying to get the P.R. consultants fired and the P.R. consultants are criticizing the lawyers. Everybody despises each other. It’s a totally unmanageable situation.”

It’s a sad commentary on Dezenhall’s cynicism. In my world, our clients, their lawyers and the agency work together as a team to uncover, take responsibility for and correct problems. We don’t scurry into a corner and hide from them.

There’s no point in avoiding open and honest communication. There are no secrets any more. The internet has seen to that.

Brad Burns, who headed communications at WorldCom during the 2001 accounting scandal, knows that ducking a crisis is no solution. “The quicker you apologize and make it right, the faster it goes away. The longer you stonewall, the worse it gets.” This salient point doesn’t get the play it should have from the Times writer.

Ultimately the story ends with Denzenhall, who once again misses the point: “You have to have a realistic expectation of what communications can accomplish. Nobody ever says: ‘Oh, that’s wonderful communications. We feel good now.’”

Thus, it bears repeating that professional public relations is about strategic crisis planning, rapidly executed critical actions, creating the right kind of culture — as well as the words communicated — among a host of other factors.

Technorati Tags: BP Global, Peter S. Goodman, Toyota, Goldman Sachs, New York Times, Eric Dezenhall, Brad Burns, crisis, communications, public relations, Makovsky

Monday, August 23, 2010

How Many Books Are There?

I’m fascinated by statistics, so when I come across interesting data, I like to share — even though I’m well aware of the famous quote popularized by Mark Twain: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

Recently, I stumbled upon a little statistical gem on the Official Google blog. Using an algorithm that combines information from multiple sources, Google had determined that there are 129,864,880 different books in the world.

As you may already know, Google is digitizing books. Last year, the search giant announced that it had already scanned more than ten million volumes. (The first known library to gather a serious collection of books from beyond its country's borders, the fabled Library at Alexandria probably housed no more than half a million texts.)

This truly is a “digital revolution”!

Technorati Tags: Mark Twain, Google, digital, books, communications, public relations, Makovsky

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Litigation – or Innovative Solutions?

Forty-two percent of corporate counsel surveyed late last year by the law firm Fulbright & Jaworski reported that their companies expect to face increased litigation in the next 12months — up substantially from the results of the firm’s previous annual “Litigation Trends Survey,” when only 34% anticipated more lawsuits.

Despite the fact that my firm has a quality litigation communications practice — and that I myself have a Juris Doctor degree from Washington University in St. Louis — I regret that more corporations don’t employ a “stop-take a breath-think” approach before filing a lawsuit. While sometimes there is no choice, innovative thinking may, in some cases, yield an interesting alternative way of dealing with a potential problem. For example, when marketing executive William P. MacFarland of Campbell Soup Company discovered that Andy Warhol had been making use of the copyrighted images of Campbell’s soup cans in his pop-art silkscreens, instead of summoning the lawyers, MacFarland wrote a lovely letter to the artist and sent him some free product.

Following is a transcript of the letter. You can see a copy of the original at the Letters of Note blog.

Campbell SOUP Company

May 19, 1964

Mr. A. Warhol
1342 Lexington Avenue
New York, New York

Dear Mr. Warhol:

I have followed your career for some time. Your work has evoked a great deal of interest here at Campbell Soup Company for obvious reasons.

At one time I had hoped to be able to acquire one of your Campbell Soup label paintings - but I'm afraid you have gotten much too expensive for me.

I did want to tell you, however, that we admired your work and I have since learned that you like Tomato Soup. I am taking the liberty of having a couple of cases of our Tomato Soup delivered to you at this address.

We wish you continued success and good fortune.


(Signed, 'William P. MacFarland')

William P. MacFarland
Product Marketing Manager

Technorati Tags: Fulbright & Jaworski, Andy Warhol, litigation, litigation communications, Campbell Soup Company, communications, public relations, business, Makovsky

Monday, August 16, 2010

Hurd It All?

Okay. What does Hewlett Packard do now?

Mark Hurd, the company’s astonishingly successful CEO, was forced to resign following charges that he had padded his expense account and unsubstantiated allegations that he sexually harassed an employee.

The action was taken on the advice of a public relations firm which, according to The New York Times, urged the company to disclose accusations of sexual harassment against Mr. Hurd, but “did not advise the company to oust him.”

I can see how full disclosure and transparency might have seemed on target for a company like HP, which had a history of controversies and a somewhat secretive culture under Hurd’s predecessors, including Carly Fiorina. But, hey, did anyone consider the media firestorm and controversy that would ensue? Is this “role-model” action? Or is it a case of the punishment not fitting the crime? In an email to The Times, Oracle CEO Lawrence Ellison called the HP Board’s forced resignation of Hurd “the worst personnel decision since the idiots on the Apple board fired Steve Job many years ago.”

The fallout from what the board ostensibly thought was great advice turns out to have created a credibility problem for HP. Is the company blaming the public relations firm? If not, who revealed the existence of the PR firm? All a PR firm can do anyway is to provide counsel; clients make decisions. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the PR firm did not anticipate all the consequences of the advice or provide enough information on the “sins” to justify the punishment. To what extent were the expense accounts “padded”? Was it $22 or $2,200 or $22,000? And where is the evidence? If it was a piddling amount, where does common sense end and morality begin? Fudging an expense account for a small sum, though blatantly dishonest, rarely is a reason for termination or forced resignation. Perhaps this was just a convenient excuse for a more fundamental problem with Mark Hurd's leadership.

Thus, isn’t it time that HP’s chairman of the board stand up and speak out? By delivering the right information and addressing the issue of whether or not the punishment truly fits the crime — or whether Hurd’s forced resignation was the result of a core issue not really addressed in this incident at all — he alone can provide a credible rationale, and thereby play a major role in restoring HP’s credibility. A press release alone will not do.

Technorati Tags: New York Times, Hewlett Packard, Mark Hurd, business, leadership, communications, public relations, Makovsky

Thursday, August 12, 2010

FINANCIAL REFORM: A Major Opportunity for Public/Investor Relations

Financial reform has arrived, even though its specifics are still being hammered out by regulators. But we do know, right now, this for sure. The new act will confront all businesses — not just financial firms — with a set of communications challenges unparalleled since Sarbanes-Oxley. That means public and investor relations are poised for a boom in the executive suite.

Financial reform boils down to one big thing for business leaders: greater transparency.

Henceforth, companies must publicly disclose in-depth information about executive pay, lending practices, fees and business operations. Financial firms will be monitored by two new government agencies, each with the responsibility to report their findings to the public. Employees themselves will be empowered as public whistleblowers with the promise of significant cash bounties.

This fishbowl environment could dramatically increase a company’s vulnerability to competitors and consumer activists. Or it could usher in a period of heightened compliance, social responsibility and ethical leadership on the part of American business.

At the core of each is a public relations and investor relations issue. And professionals in this space have a lot of work ahead of them to communicate whether financial reform truly ameliorates our business culture and enhances our economic stability, as well as articulate and demonstrate how their companies and clients are taking leadership in this new era. For those of us in the communications business, that’s the good news.

Technorati Tags: financial crisis, Financial reform, Wall Street, public relations, business, Makovsky

Monday, August 09, 2010

A Solution To Joblessness

Several weeks ago I read a Bloomberg Businessweek article by Andy Grove, former chairman of Intel, the technology company, in which Grove contends that the major reason that U.S. domestic employment and the economy haven’t yet rebounded is because we have sent our jobs to Asia. Manufacturing creates large numbers of jobs, he says, and as things became cheaper to produce in Asia, we shipped our manufacturing overseas.

Conventional thinking is that becoming a knowledge and service economy is more desirable than manufacturing, and Grove implies that various thought leaders in journalism and government saw the migration from manufacturing as a higher calling. If I recall correctly, Tom Friedman supports this point of view in his best-selling book, The World is Flat, which advocates a global perspective and the need for retraining American talent to focus on innovation.

According to Grove, however, this line of thinking is a major mistake. While he agrees that jobs do come from start-ups and government action to ignite more of them would be desirable, he urges the U.S. to rebuild its manufacturing economy, as there is no sector that produces jobs in the hundreds of thousands like manufacturing. Grove believes the economic issues will take care of themselves through the momentum derived from the major job surge that manufacturing can provide.

Grove’s reasoning makes eminent good sense to me. There is no need to stop building our knowledge and service economy, but it is probably true (even though I do not have statistics at hand to prove it) that the population of jobs provided in those sectors is unlikely to rival those that could be created by a major influx from the manufacturing sector.

Assuming that research bears out Grove’s contention, which I believe it would, what can public relations do help stimulate this reversal in thinking?

First and foremost, public relations can effectively develop a campaign to get the message out broadly among the business community. The popular business press is a critical channel, but so are magazines known for intellectual leadership, such as The Harvard Business Review. We need business and government leaders speaking out at economic clubs and before manufacturing organizations. The National Association of Manufacturers and other such organizations could be effective policy leaders. Perhaps Grove’s article needs to be expanded into a book—with extensive evidence—that is widely marketed to build persuasive acceptance. Social media can also play a key role.

As the political debate charges forward, let’s take Grove’s point of view into account. Beyond this one story — and an op-ed by columnist Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post — I have seen no references to the topic. For most voters the single most critical issue facing the nation right now is high unemployment. Bold action is needed to solve that problem.

Technorati Tags: Bloomberg Businessweek , Andy Grove, Intel, Tom Friedman, The World is Flat, communications, public relations, Makovsky

Thursday, August 05, 2010

State-of-the-Art Technology that’s on Its Way OUT

It seems as if, every time you turn around, there’s an amazing new technological breakthrough that promises to revolutionize the practice of communications and public relations. As new tools are born, others are just as rapidly being relegated to the trash heap of history.

The UK-based Telegraph recently printed its list of “50 technological advances [and must-have gadgets] your children will laugh at.” Here are four examples that I’ve picked at random. Definitely food for thought!

1. Laptops. An array of light-weight, high-power devices — including smartphones, subnotebooks, netbooks and tablet computers — are beginning to replace the seven-pound “portable” computers that are the bane of every road warrior.

2. Fax machines. Every now and then a piece of paper can't be emailed and even overnight shipping takes too long. It’s at these times that the venerable fax machine is a blessing. However, it can also be a labor-intensive process. Do we really need to write a memo on the computer, print it, fax it and then phone to make sure it arrived safely?

3. Email. The benefits of email are legion: it saves time, money and trees. But it’s no longer the last word in communications. Teenagers these days prefer instant messaging (IM), social networking and microblogs (like Twitter) for direct communication.

4. CDs, DVDs and Minidiscs. Physical recording media are constantly being replaced. “The path from records to eight track cartridges to cassettes to CDs to minidiscs to MP3 players is littered with defunct stereo equipment,” say reporters Shane Richmond and Ian Douglas. “Along the way are cul-de-sacs such as laser discs, digital audio tapes and HD-DVDs.” It’s probable that, ultimately, they will all be replaced by wireless downloads to a device.

Technorati Tags: Telegraph, Fax machines, Email, Shane Richmond, Ian Douglas, communications, public relations, Makovsky

Monday, August 02, 2010

The Editorial “We”

If you’re not a writer, you may never have heard of the “editorial ‘we.’” Simply stated, it refers to the use of the first person plural (“we”), rather than the first person singular (“I”) by individual representatives of an organization. For example, a person may say, “We believe that…” rather than “I believe that….” Why use the word “editorial” before “we”? Because the concept derives from the journalistic practice where one person writes an editorial that expresses the opinion of the newspaper as a whole (e.g., “We support a policy that expands individual liberty”).

Now, why am I writing about this? Because it really bugs me when people in professional services firms are discoursing with clients or prospects and use the word “I” when they are expressing their firm’s point of view…especially since firm policy is generally a collaborative product, determined after research and multiple discussions. It is carefully considered and intended to give the client the best advice.

Here’s a PR hypothetical (imagine an agency person speaking to a client): “I feel you should always have a two-line headline on a press release.” Huh? Indeed the individual account rep may feel that way, but the “two-line headline” policy was clearly stated in the firm’s stylebook. The appropriate statement would have been: “We feel….“ Or another example when “we” should have been used: “I feel you should always do scenario planning when preparing a crisis plan.” Since the whole firm has analyzed best practices in special situations and thoughtfully arrived at this conclusion — as, in fact, has the entire public relations industry — “we” would have been the preferable and more correct pronoun. The client should always be aware of the firm’s position. (Of course, this is not to be confused with a client asking you who can best do a particular job and your responding, “I believe that John Jones can.”)

Further, use of the word “we” adds weight and authority to an individual who is speaking on behalf of the firm. While individuals influence client actions and selections, clients also want to know they are accessing the best advice and all the resources of the entire firm. That is a good part of the value provided to the client and must be reinforced. The firm is “we” not “I.”

Technorati Tags: editorial ‘we’, professional services, organization, journalistic practice, communications, public relations, Makovsky