Everyday PR

How to Avoid Business Train Wrecks

At the closing bell of Wall Street in recent days, I can’t decide whether to bury my head in the sand or refill my wine glass to wash down more antacid.  Considering the debt fret leading up to the downward spinal, the financial havoc that’s wreaking across the globe shouldn’t be a surprise. Or maybe it’s just the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy as politicians couldn’t predict enough doom and gloom all summer, complete with much finger pointing and more drama.  I could hardly keep up with all sexual escapades of various members of Congress with all the theatrics going on, but I digress.

In the midst of all this financial heartburn, I thought about the number of businesses that respond with a similar approach of 1) denial and/or 2) self-perpetuating failure.  This kind of business behavior isn’t uncommon – I know, I’ve been employed by some and represented others.  And I’ve always wondered why can’t some business leaders see the train wreck that’s headed their way, especially when everybody else sees it? 

In the not-to-distant past, Americans regularly used things like videos, typewriters and sewing machines.  Did the makers of these products not recognize changing trends, new technology or the basics of supply and demand?  What about providers of services like medical transcription, land lines or travel arrangements?  How have these providers adjusted for change?  Some didn’t as they declared bankruptcy; others developed new product/service lines; and a few updated themselves.  And don’t even get me started on the U.S. Postal Service, an entity whose need has severely decreased over decades due to competition and technology, yet decision makers can’t seem to head off the pending train wreck.

To help determine whether or not a business can reasonably predict its success and sustainability, ask the following questions:

*  Does the organization’s purpose represent something timeless, recession proof or meaningful? 

*  Is the company creating or meeting a need? If so, how?

*  Do top decision makers have the firm’s best interest at heart, or are there too many egos involved? 

*  Describe the corporate culture.  Are people passionate about work and committed to working as a team? 

*  Have top execs sat down and anticipated worst case operational scenarios and how they could avoid them?

*  When was the last time you took a hard look at your own business or those of the clients you represent? 

Clearly, Congress is not to be considered the standard for exemplary decision making, problem solving and team building.  But business owners and public relations professionals can learn from their approach of what not to do.

In the meantime, what other questions are important to ask regarding an organization’s success?

Gap in Leadership Means Gap in Profits

Today’s post is from Ellen Bryson, president and CEO of Bryson Trails,  a management consulting company that gets it.  Ellen’s strategic mindset, grasp of the unspoken and tireless leadership make her the success that she is.  Ellen can be found on Linked In or visit her website.  Fact: Companies that focus on strategy generate significantly higher financial results and higher rates of growth than their competitors.  Apparently that’s easier said than done.

Results of the 2011 Talent Survey show a significant gap in leadership effectiveness and the ability to drive change in the post recession environment. Of the 1328 employees surveyed nationwide, results indicate the following:

*    Leaders play a vital role in meeting business goals; 56% of respondents agreed, but only 12% rated their leaders as extremely effective.

*    A leader’s involvement is essential in meeting profitability targets; 56% agreed, however, only 14% believe their leaders are extremely effective in doing so. 

*    Fifty six percent of the respondents felt their leader’s involvement was necessary in delivering service, but only 17% felt they were extremely effective. 

*    Lastly, 44% of the respondents agreed that their leader plays a vital role in retaining talent, but only 7% believe they are extremely effective in accomplishing employee retention.

These findings demonstrate the need for leaders to evolve their skills as they are confronted with new barriers to growth that have arisen out of the recent recession. New leadership skills are required to increase productivity and engage the workforce. In this environment, it becomes increasingly important to align employee’s jobs with the business strategy so that employees feel a deeper, personal connection to the company. Employee development and training are essential for equipping middle managers with the tools and expertise needed to help drive this change since they provide the bridge between strategy and execution.

The most successful companies develop a process that can help gain clarity and focus while aligning the organization around vision and strategy. The basic premise shifts executive team focus from operational issues to strategic priorities and decision making.  Here’s how the process might look:

1. Develop a strategic plan with three year, one year and 90-day priorities.

2. Communicate the plan throughout the organization.

3. Utilize a meeting framework to drive results, define accountabilities for the week, month, quarter and year.

4. Accomplish 3 to 5 priorities every 90 days. Set new priorities for the next 90 days. Expect results.

5. Identify and measure (at least weekly) your top 3 to 5 business drivers.

6. Align company from top to bottom around strategy. Make sure your human systems such as recruiting, interviewing, hiring, managing, and rewarding align with your strategy.

7. Develop leaders within your company by utilizing real business problems that arise in executing strategy as team building opportunities.

So why don’t more companies focus on leadership? 

Pick a Mission and Stick to It

For the love of stars and stripes, pick a mission and stick to it.  Depending on the White House official speaking, we’re either handing off a baton of military action to European coalition leaders as previously discussed or we’re out to decimate Gaddafi to prevent loss of Libyan civilians. 

Santa AND the Nativity Scene? Major Disconnect.

In the past 72 hours, the following inconsistencies regarding this country’s mission in Libya differed as follows:
*     Per General Ham, the guy leading the U.S. effort in Libya, the mission is “not to support opposition forces,” or to remove Gaddafi but later added that the coalition will not support rebels if they take offensive action against Gaddafi regime, only if they are attacked. 

*     Attorney General Holder says Gaddafi has lost his legitimacy as a leader and must go

*     Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mullen said the goal “isn’t about seeing Gaddafi go.”  

*     Defense Secretary Gates said the plan was to turn the mission over to the coalition in “a matter of days“.

*     President Obama said the military goal was to protect civilians but his administration’s goal was to force Gaddafi from power, but that the two items weren’t necessarily part of the same mission. So the bombs for protecting civilians, but the sanctions are for regime change. In the same mission, right?

*     At this point, no agreement has been made to accept a baton of military action, which means we may continue to run around the track of missiles, air strikes and embargoes until somebody grabs the baton from us.  Volunteers seem scare right now.

If such contradictory missions and mixed messages were coming out of a publicly traded company, the stock would be in roller coaster mode.  If such confusion existed within a household, how would the children know what to do and what not to do?  Similar to our annual Holiday Season when people  display Santa and his reindeer hovering by the Nativity Scene, there’s a tangible disconnect to what you’re trying to do and what you’re trying to say.

Experience as a public relations practitioner tells me that mixed missions and messages don’t work.  Target audiences lack clarity, employees decrease productivity because of uncertainty, key stakeholders become emotional, and media magnify the confusion. 

To our administration: get on the same page, please.  Most of us are probably less concerned about which page, but pick one. 

On the other hand, maybe mixed missions is the strategy….what do you think?

Don’t Raise the Bar if You Can’t Jump that High

Last night’s State of the Union address, like many in the past, was full of touted rhetoric, great promise, but with little substance.  It spoke of five-year plans, green job investments and spending cuts that barely make a dent in responsible fiscal policy.  The President promised many of the same things in last year’s address, but no movement was made toward any of the words spoken then.  Plus, five years is a little presumptuous for a person who may not be in office then. 

Green jobs and technology have led to financial boondoggles in Spain, Australia and many other places.  Some analysts believe that every green job displaces over two regular jobs in the current economy.  If there were true demand for green technology it wouldn’t have to be so vastly subsidized by  taxpayer funds.  Ethanol subsidies are a great example. Ethanol drives up food cost, lowers fuel economy and produces a product that takes more energy to create than the produce produced.  Look at the innovations in computers, phones, I-pads and web businesses.  These were created out of consumer demand without government subsidy.  As to the budget cuts, we’ll have to wait and see.  I have yet to see anyone in Washington, even before the Kumbaya seating, who was serious on cutting any spending of any substance.

During the 2008 election, Barrack Obama came on the scene touting the globe was starting to cool, the seas were starting to recede, and that his administration would change all that.  They shouted transparency and accountability. They promised hope and change. Earmarks would be gone. Proposed bills would be posted online in advance to allow public comment. No lobbyists would work for them. And no family who earned under $250,000 would be given any kind of tax increase. (To quote “Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes.   

Say we’re at Fenway Park watching the Yankees and Red Sox play.  The pitcher throws two out of every five pitches in the dirt, hits one batter each inning, and the first baseman misses one in every three balls thrown to him.  In protest, we would scream loudly, demand our money back or at least wonder why we’re paying eight bucks for beer. But if we’re watching a little league game with the same set of circumstances, we would display a completely different attitude. 

It’s the same principle with the White House. The Obama administration has raised the bar it can’t reach, yet when we as a participant in this political landscape point out the flaws, we are told to silence our criticism. We are told that pointing out errors, misleading rhetoric, and outright failures is “throwing stones” and does no productive good.  I would point to my first two examples as to my reasons for all the criticism.  Our country cannot afford to stay silent when, in November 2008, so many people obviously looked to Obama as our deliverer.  Those of us who saw through the disguise still see through it, and we ask those who were once fooled to step up and demand better performance. Demand follow-through on empty promises, especially those that contradict pre-election talk. We have to demand transparency, responsibility and accountability in Washington. We have to point out the flaws with such volume that the current administration can either be changed into productive good or silenced with the revolution at the ballot box.  

Today’s guest post is from William L. Hughes, CPA, CMPE, administrator, Women’s Health Specialists in Jensen Beach, FL.  Bill and I have known each other for decades.  We always clicked. Of course we couldn’t help it as schools use the alpha order, and we were always seated close to one another.  He can be reached at bhughes@whsfl.com.  

   

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To Be a Fly on the TSA Wall

Considering the controversy, threats and headlines regarding the newly announced TSA screening procedures, I imagine the feds wish they could have a do over.  Maybe not, but in any case, I wish I could have been a fly on the wall of the meeting room where plans were made.  There were plans, right?

I’d like to know if the following issues were discussed:

1)   Public Announcement – I’m not saying this didn’t occur or doesn’t exist, but I can’t find anything from TSA that announces the new procedures and timeframe to implement.

2)   Timing – This week starts the busiest travel time of the year.  How was the implemention of the new procedures factored into the security process?

3)  Anticipation of Issues – All good plans anticipate issues.  In this case, I’m wondering how many issues like consumer reaction, training uniformity, advocacy group backlash and political posturing were anticipated and plans made accordingly.

4)  Collateral Tools – I’ve not been in an airport in recent weeks, so I may be speaking out of turn.  But I do know this:  you have to drill down through the TSA website to find any information or tools to demonstrate what travelers should expect with the new screenings.  The website’s statement from Administrator John Pistole is relatively lame.  I’m pretty sure the person who wrote it also worked for Tiger Woods.

5)  Testing – Were the new procedures tested at a few airports or other equitable setting to help gauge consumer reaction?  Were media invited to a “screening of the screening” to provide insight on rationale and benefits of new procedures?  I’m not saying that efforts like this weren’t taken; I simply don’t know.

The point here is that when you’re dealing with change, especially when it impacts a lot of people, you can’t plan enough.  While I personally support efforts to maintain our national security and don’t foresee me objecting to being poked and prodded, this isn’t a battle I want to fight.  I’ve traveled enough to experience search procedures in other countries; in fact, I almost took up smoking after an extra special up-close-and-personal probing in Germany.  As a professional who does a lot of strategic planning for clients, I would just like to know what really went on in those planning meetings.  What do you think about the roll out of the new procedures?

Technical things I would do differently

With today’s news about Facebook privacy, I shudder to think about the steps I have taken to jeopardize my own privacy.  I consider myself to have average technical knowledge – just enough to be dangerous.  But it’s that average level of intelligence that I fear most and that I wish I could undo some things in cyberspace. 

Be young, be foolish, but don't be posting this for public consumption.

A few learning opportunities that might be helpful to others include:

*   Established a secondary e-mail address on something like G-mail.

*   Use that e-mail address for electronic purchases.

*   Here’s a thought:  don’t buy anything over the Internet.  Couldn’t work for me since I detest shopping.

*   Give serious attention and time to things like Privacy Settings.

*   If a phone number is required, give a fake one or an old one.  Same thought regarding e-mail address. Don’t know if that would work, but why not try?

*   Reconsider the whole social media situation, especially from a personal perspective.  Some updates just fall in the “TMI” category.  I only want the “Need to Know” updates. And what’s up with men from my past turning into public broadcasters of all things emotional, a la Alan Alda, when I remember them as total jerkwads, but I digress.

*   In regard to Facebook, if you post your most recent PAR-TAH photos and define your interests as “I like to party and have fun”, you’ve given up your privacy, alienated yourself from any serious job offers and embarrassed your parents.  Of course, I’m just grateful that this technology wasn’t around when I was a lot younger.

*   Invest in the most sophisticated spam filters available.

*   Get a Mac.

What other technical things would you do differently or recommend?

Silver Lining of Controversial Clouds

As public relations professionals, one of our responsibilities is to keep it real with our clients and organizations.  While we need to understand the big picture, we also need to maintain the appropriate perspective regarding controversial issues.  In other words, let’s keep the level of hysteria to one that’s accurately reflecting the situation at hand.  There’s almost nothing worse than an out-of-control client being guided by an out-of-control counselor, PR or otherwise.  While the following clouds have their fair share of controversy, let’s take a look at the silver lining of each.

Bristol and Levi's engagement theoretically means a silver lining for their son.

1)   The Cluster – Yes, it’s the most catastrophic disaster in decades; yes, it’s painful, if not criminal, to see the countless people being completely displaced by this never-ending series of they said-they said; and yes, people lost their lives for what appears to be a profit motive.  Ironically though,  some Gulf residents who previously spent all day fishing are now cleaning up all day for BP for big bucks, keeping jobless and insurance claims to a minimum.

2) The Betrothed - Brisol and Levi announce their engagement.  As much as the story makes for tabloid fodder, at least their baby will have a father figure in his life.  I’m not saying what kind of father as I’m keeping a forgiving perspective unless given reason otherwise.

3) The Vacationers - In recent weeks, President Obama has been chastised for playing golf on a Saturday and vacationing with his family in Maine as opposed to dealing with the controversy du juor.  Personally, I’d rather have a leader whose mind and body are rested, enabling clearer thinking and decision making that affect the rest of us.

4)  The Publicity Hound – While LeBron James recently became the focus of the world, he and his team get credit for arranging such an ordeal that overshadowed everything else happening on the planet, even if only for a few minutes.  On the upside, his style raised millions for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

5) The Queen of Denial – So Lindsay Lohan is in “obsessive denial” about have to go to jail for repeatedly breaking the law. On the upside, the streets of Los Angeles will probably be safer for the next several weeks.  And by the way, Lindsay, the courts don’t recognize acceptance or denial – they’re funny like that.

Granted, the silver lining is longer in some controversial clouds than others.  What other linings are out there, or am I the hopelessly glass-half-full person?

I’m a recovered glass-half-empty person which means my dose of optimism often can make others growl with disdain.

PR Fundamentals Elected Obama

While the tools of public relations have evolved over time, the basics of research, planning, implementation and evaluation remain the most effective approach to accomplishing specified goals.  And what if your goal is to be elected President of the United States?  Then you turn to the best, brightest and most successful strategists and public relations thinkers like Barack Obama did for his 2008 presidential campaign. 

Smart Choice was one of several Clinton campaign slogans.

Based on the best-seller book Game Change by political reporters John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, here’s what I believe to be the backbone of success for the Obama campaign:

1)  Research – Know your audience.  Some politicians did (like Clinton’s large female voter base), and some didn’t (John Edwards never did get how his supporters didn’t like any philandering behavior).  From focus groups to ad testing, Obama’s camp got it right.  They tested messages in various formats and presentations before any public unveiling.  Conversely, McCain’s campaign conducted little to no research (which happened to match the amount of budget they had for such a fundamental).  Ads often hit airwaves without the candidate having seen them.  

2)  Planning- It was literally hours before McCain settled on Sarah Palin as the VP selection.  The lack of proper vetting and preparation made what as supposed to be a ”game change” announcement a short-lived bright spot. In addition, the GOP strategy lacked an overall anticipation of issues, key talking points, message consistency and ability to stay on point.  Clinton’s staff, on the other hand, appeared to overly plan, as in changing the campaign’s slogan several times in as many months. 

3)  Implementation – After initial campaign overload by Obama strategists, they adjusted their approach and schedule, which showed the ability, and more importantly the adaptability, to be fluid during this phase.  Both the Clinton and McCain camps seemed to be shooting it from the hip especially as they got closer to the  election. 

4)  Evaluation - My respect for Clinton shot way up after reading the book.  She was the only one quoted as actually having a decent reason to want to be president, and she was fiercely protective of her daughter, which tells me about her character.  However, at the end of the day, Hillary’s biggest liability was Bill, hence the painful delay in conceding to Obama.  McCain, on the other hand, fought the good fight even though he likely knew the outcome of the battle.  I respect the fact that he’s not a quitter.

If you’ve read Game Change, what other fundamentals did you find?  If you haven’t read it, you should.  Ample political poop for all sides  of the aisle.

PR Pros Opine on Tiger/Nike Ad

Nike’s unveiling last week of a new ad featuring golf-pro-turned-tabloid-fodder Tiger Woods caused quite the buzz.  And much like the game of golf, people seemed to either love it or hate it.  In polling my colleagues, I wanted to test my theory that reaction to the ad may be generational: professionals younger than 40 were much more positive about the ad and its objectives (although unclear) than those over 40.  Here are some of the reactions from public relations and communications experts from across the country that generally support that theory.

“In a lot of ways, I think the ad was a bold move. Had Nike came back with a stereotypical ad with Tiger on the golf course, it may have appeared trite and would have ignored the giant elephant in the room. I think this was Nike’s way of addressing the situation so they could move on and put the scandal behind them.It also didn’t hurt that the ad is somewhat controversial with the inclusion of Tiger’s father. Controversy always has a way of generating buzz. The bottom line is that this ad is not going to sell a lot of Nike apparel, but then again, that wasn’t really the point, was it?”  Laura Click, Nashville consultant

“Bravo Nike for taking a stance on showing they still stand behind Tiger (who is, let’s be real, the greatest golfer of all time), but that they don’t condone his behavior. What a fantastic way to show the world they have integrity!” Gini Dietrich, CEO, Arment Dietrich.

“A little creepy to hear a dead guy’s voice, but brilliant.  A lot of the chatter around the Tiger situation was what would his father say.  I think he ‘asked’ some important questions, and I’d like to hear Tiger’s answers.  Maybe the next ad.” Abbie S. Fink, Vice President/General Manager, HMA Public Relations.

“The commercial did not work for me on a number of levels. Mainly because the ‘Did you learn anything?’ question appears to not be answered. You darn well better have a ‘Yes I learned something…’ response to close the loop. Otherwise, you open yourself up to brand parodies ‘Do you learn anything? Yes, just do it.’ I also see Tiger just standing there and not reacting to the key question, like my oldest son does when I am telling him something and he doesn’t get it. He is standing there, listening and then will move on. Basically the ad catches my attention – but it doesn’t work for me.”  Mark W. McClennan, APR, Vice President, Schwartz Communications

“My first reaction was is this a joke or is it for real?  When I realized it was real, I thought it was ill-advised.  It seemed contrived, and I’m not sure what it was supposed to prove.  I now wonder if it was Nike’s way of helping Tiger move on with his life.”  Aileen Katcher, APR, Fellow, PRSA, Katcher Vaughn & Bailey Public Relations

“The ad did nothing to help Woods or Nike.  There is no ethical stance from the subject or the sponsor.  With the help of some very creative people, Nike and Woods worked together to create pure manipulation. I did see a brilliant ad, as well as faux contrition supported by crass commercialism. A pained-looking Tiger reacting to his dad’s words never would have seen the light of day if that conversation actually took place.”  Bob Reed, Element-R Partners LLC

“I think it’s odd, eerie and buzz-worthy. What more could you want in an ad? It doesn’t make me feel any differently about him; it just happens to be a good ad.” Margie Maddox Newman, Flack Rabbit.

“College public relations students agreed that the ad was creepy and exploits Tiger’s dead father. But, from a Gen Why perspective, they think it will sell Nikes!” Susan Barnes, APR, Fellow, Instructor

According to this blog from the New York Times, the data indicate the ad seems to be working via online measurement indicators.  Another poll  claims the opposite, and Brandweek has weighed in on the topic - all of  which begs the question of how old were those polled to collect the data.

Want to add your two cents?  Send us a comment!

We’re All Failures

Raise your hand if you haven’t failed at least once in your life.  According to Steve McKee, author of When Growth Stalls and regular BusinessWeek columnist, we’re all failures, including him. Before the economic downturn, his own company initially flourished but then plateaued, which makes his experience relevant to all business owners. While I’ve posted on Steve before, here are some new nuggets of knowledge gleaned from his recent talk.  

Author Steve McKee

* The absolute worst time to reduce spending on R&D and marketing is in a down-turned economy.  Think of a race car driver entering a turn on the track.  He (and I use that pronoun androgynously) has to put on the brakes and be attentive to the surrounding cars so that he can best position himself to gain a lead once he’s out of the turn.  Organizations that apply the same principal of focusing on their task during the turn (developing new products/services, revising products/services, preparing for market launches, maintaining visibility, etc.) are much better equipped to take the lead and gain market share after the turn, in this case, the recession.  

* External market tectonics can wreak havoc on an organization’s original mission.  It’s not just about the economy; it’s about how changes in consumer behavior affect traditionally stable businesses.  For example, people are spending less on funerals for friends and loved ones, but the sky is the limit when it comes to paying for pet burials.  

* Top reason for stalled growth continues to be an internal lack of managerial consensus.  In the words of Margaret Thatcher, “A lack of consensus is the absence of leadership.”  

To check out the health of your company, take this free self diagnosis.  While failing isn’t the worst thing that can happen, it possibly could be avoided.

Susan Hart

Susan Hart, APR, is an independent public relations consultant with 25+ years of experience. Beginning as a journalist, she represents clients in health care, financial, technology and real estate. Accredited by the Public Relations Society of America, she serves as Co-Chair of the Ethics Committee for her local PRSA Chapter.

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