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Thursday
Feb112016

Digital Age Crisis Communications

(Robert Waite - Seneca College, Toronto, Feb. 9, 2016)

Thank you, Ted (deWelles), for that very kind introduction.

And good afternoon, everyone. I understand from Ted that he has made my 2002 lecture on crisis communications available to you.

It is fairly comprehensive in terms of defining crisis communications...and provides some good historical perspective...including 9/11.

So I am not going to try to go over old ground, but instead will bridge from that...to a more focused discussion on crisis communications in our digital age.

Ted also asked me to sprinkle in some “war stories” – so I will try to do that as well.

I’ll start with what I call crisis communications in a digital age.

Crisis communications has never been easy, but I would maintain that it is infinitely more difficult today... then it was when Ted and I were beginning our careers thirty-five years ago.

Why?

First, speed.

There used to be this quaint thing called a news cycle. You worried about the morning edition of newspapers...or the 10 or 11 PM broadcast of the television news.

Then came all-news radio...and 24/7 cable news, initially in the form of CNN.

And then, of course, came the internet, hand-held devices like the blackberry and the iPhone...and apps like twitter and instagram.

Everything today moves at the speed of light.

What does that mean from a practical perspective?

It makes it more important than ever to prepare in advance...to have a crisis communication plan in place...and to try and anticipate worst-case scenarios before they happen.

Because your most precious resource when a crisis hits will be time – you simply won’t have enough of it.

I can give you an example from work I did a couple of years ago for a client...that illustrates what I think is a prudent approach to this problem.

The client was Big Brothers Big Sisters Canada. The context was that Scouts Canada had come under fire for sexual abuse visited upon juveniles by adult leaders...and they had done a very poor job of handling the media.

In fact, they had done such a poor job that the head of the organization was ultimately forced out.

This was not lost on the executive director of Big Brothers.

He realised that his organization was dispersed – dozens of local, semi-independent chapters under the Big Brother umbrella – and that they had neither the legal or communications expertise to react to any potential allegations.

The solution we came up with was an on-line crisis communications tool kit, complete with processes, procedures and stand-by statements.

It gave local leaders instant access to professional guidance...and more importantly, it gave them that guidance to study and internalize before an issue arose.

We also schooled the HQ spokespersons on social media – how to monitor it; how to use it; and when NOT to use it.

Fortunately, the instances where the tool kit has been put to use since have been negligible, but there is no question that the organization’s staff – and Board – are pleased to have it in place.

Of course before digital, we did have a version of instant communication – it was called live television and live radio. And it is still of course around.

Live TV and radio for most politicians and CEO-types is a terrifying prospect, the equivalent of walking a high wire with no net.

There are no re-takes. If you flub, the world sees it real-time.

So why did people do it?

Because of what is called “The 60 Minutes Effect”.

60 Minutes – the Sunday evening news broadcast - has been around on CBS and CTV television forever.

60 Minutes had a reputation for filming or taping interviews – and then editing them down to fit whatever point they were trying to make. Or at least that is what some critics alleged.

Communications professionals began to argue that it might be better for a client to do a live interview – where the entire exchange can be seen – than to be taped and become a potential victim of the editing process.

So here comes the first war story.

Back in 1978, I was press secretary to Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, the first African-American to be popularly elected to the U.S. Senate.

He was Obama...before there was an Obama.

It was an election year...and Brooke had decided to seek a third six-year term.

Unfortunately, he had also decided to divorce his Italian-American spouse of 30 years...in a state that was 71 percent Roman Catholic.

In addition, Brooke was a Republican – yes, a liberal Republican, but a Republican – in a state where only 13% of the voters identified with the GOP.

And he also had a conservative challenger, Avi Nelson, for the GOP nomination.

In short, Brooke faced an uphill battle.

In terms of strategy, we wanted to do interviews, but we didn’t want them to be edited down, if possible.

So we decided to do live radio, something called the Jerry Williams Show, broadcast nightly on WBZ radio in Boston.

WBZ was one of the most powerful radio stations in the United States. It broadcast using 50,000 watts and a clear channel signal – it could be heard at night as far away as Halifax, Toronto and Kansas City.

And the Jerry Williams Show was hugely popular in Massachusetts. The format was simple – he interviewed a guest for maybe 15 minutes and then opened up the lines to callers.

And I should add that Williams was considered a pretty straight-up guy – he had a reputation for being fair.

If you can picture it, these interviews take place in a fairly small, sound proof room. There’s a table, a couple of mikes, with Brooke seated on one side, Williams on the other.

I’m in the room, but not at the table. I’m taking notes, in case there is a need for follow-up or clarification afterwards.

As in, “What the Senator MEANT to say was...”

Well, the interview – remember, this is all going out live – seems to be going fine. The questions are about the issues of the day in Washington and Brooke handles them with his usual adroitness.

Then Williams announces that the phone lines are open...and people should call in with their questions.

The lines of course light up. “Go ahead”, Williams says to the first caller, “You’re on the air”.

A female voice suddenly comes on the line. There is something strangely familiar about it, I think.

And the voice says, “Daddy, why are you destroying our family?”

Then...and only then... do I realise it’s the Senator’s daughter, Remy.

Suddenly live radio seemed like less of a good idea.

Now I have to tell you that Brooke handled the whole thing as well as anyone could expect – he patiently said there can come times when parents just need to be apart - but from my perspective, the whole thing was a disaster.

It always reminded me that while communications professional can advise...it is the client that has to take the real risk – who has to be the one out there teetering on that high wire.

But my point here is that in those days, a politician or a business leader could often choose when and where to be in the public eye.

And a communications professional could help them make that choice.

Which brings me to the second disrupter in the digital age – ubiquity.

No matter where you are, or what you are doing, today you have to assume someone nearby has the ability to record you; video you; or snap a picture of you.

And they can send the result to the four corners of the earth... in a nana-second.

Another quaint concept that Ted and I, your wizened messengers from the distant past, can recall was the concept of a private or “off-the-record” meeting or interview.

This was a construct in the world of journalism...in the days before virtually everyone had the ability to become defacto journalists.

The best example I can think of came in 2012...when Mitt Romney was conducting what he thought was a private meeting for donors.

What he didn’t know was that someone in the room was recording him – voice and video – and captured him saying that he faced a tough uphill climb against the Democrats because “47 percent of Americans are dependent on government”.

This was a line that provided red meat to his supporters – it reinforces the idea that taxpayers are burdened by people on welfare or public assistance.

But it was one of those “facts” that don’t hold up too well to scrutiny.

Among those being counted as “supported” by the government were active members of the armed forces...those in veterans’ hospitals...and seniors on social security and Medicare.

If Mitt Romney had been delivering a public speech, I can assure you that the phrase would have been scrubbed out by the speechwriter... or by staff.

But he wasn’t. He was speaking off the cuff to what he assumed was a friendly audience.

In my opinion, Romney never fully recovered from that one unguarded moment.

I know what you’re thinking – Donald Trump says crazy stuff all of the time – and yet he leads in the polls.

To which I say two things.  One, those are polls among Republicans. That’s a unique universe unto itself.

And, two, Donald Trump, in my opinion, will not defy gravity forever.

He may well win New Hampshire tonight, but he is accumulating so much verbal political baggage that even with a private jet, his campaign won’t be able to stay aloft over the long haul.

I say this because I want to be an optimist. In this world of interconnection and transparency, I’d like to think that with more information, people will make the right choices.

I think about Wikipedia, which is a kind of self-correcting entity, in theory - through constant editing and revision - finding its way to something like the truth.

But of course you then start to ask “whose truth”?

Think back to the Arab Spring, just a few short years ago. It was largely fueled by social media wielded by young people in places like Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia.

If you picked up the Economist, Time or Macleans during that period...you got the impression repressive regimes region-wide were soon to be a thing of the past, due in large measure to social media.

In fact – and this formed the basis of my daughter Emily’s master’s dissertation this past year at the London School of Economics – ISIS  has turned out to be equally adept at using twitter, FaceBook and all of the other social media tools to recruit and to spread their world-view.

Indeed, among many in the Middle East and among young Muslims in places like the UK, France and the United States, ISIS’ message has resonated profoundly.

And they’ve used it – think of the You Tube beheading videos – in ways that might make even Quentin Tarantino flinch.

Thus social media is not only ubiquitous – but it is also available to virtually anyone.

The third thing to consider when trying to deal with a crisis in this digital age is that messages – evidence – is almost impossible to destroy.

It used to be that companies – or countries – could cover their tracks.

Think of the Germans burning thousands of pages of documents as the allies advanced at the close of the Second World War.

Or Richard Nixon famously having his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, erase 18 ½ minutes of tape conversation that directly linked him to Watergate.

And who knows how many letters have been destroyed over the years. I mention letters, because they point out a key difference between the paper age and the digital age.

Letters typically went to the recipient – senders seldom kept a copy.

E-mails of course end up residing both with the sender... the recipient...and anyone else who was cc’d.

And if you don’t think that creates issues...think about VW and the diesel emissions scandal...Hillary Clinton and her home server...or the unfortunate women who have taken Jian Ghomeshi to court.

Now I know some of you are thinking, “Well, you can always erase e-mails, especially if you use an encrypted device and app, like blackberry messenger.”

Actually, you really can’t.

Another war story: It was late 2004. I was working for CIBC.  We had previously let go a very senior guy, the head of our investment banking operation.

Rumours started circulating around that he was working with some of our current employees to harvest customer information... with the intent of setting up their own firm.

They had apparently been doing all of this using BBM – blackberry messenger – using PIN to PIN communications.

My initial thought was there’s no way we can get to that stuff. The CIA and the White House it – that’s how secure it is.

But I was wrong. We hired a forensic data expert – there are such guys – and he was able to go into the server and pull off the e-mails, e-mails that the individuals thought they had erased.

It turns out PIN-to-PIN works fine...until you cradle your blackberry back in the office to recharge. That recharger is connected directly to the server.

So we put out a press release, just before Christmas, accusing a half-dozen people of stealing company confidential information. We also fired them for cause.

A day later, absolutely convinced there was no proof, they denied it. Three hours after that, we released the e-mails to the media. Game; Set; Match.

So all I am saying in all of this is that crisis communications in a digital age is fraught with challenges, characterized by the three factors I mentioned – speed; ubiquity; and, ironically in this paperless age, a new kind of permanence in the cloud or on hard-drives, where messages never really die.

It is also a time of few rules and even fewer referees.

You are entering an exciting profession at a time of great change enjoy the ride.

Communicators have to be more nimble, tech-savvy and resourceful that ever to be successful.

You are entering an exciting profession at a time of great change. Enjoy the ride.

Thank you.

Thursday
Feb112016

A Career in PR – Is It Right For You?

(Robert Waite - Seneca College, Toronto, February 9, 2016)

I’ve been asked to say a few words about communications and public relations as a possible career path.

It is said that public relations professionals are a lot like lawyers.

Except that lawyers are the object of better jokes.

PR agencies and communications practitioners represent individuals, firms, brands, products, associations and even countries.

They are asked to perform a variety of tasks aimed at achieving a wide range of objectives, from building awareness; to driving sales; to dispelling or deflecting a negative image.

They use a variety of tools, including polling research, focus groups and behavioral studies, to inform strategy and messaging.

And they reach target audiences through a variety of channels, including the news media, paid advertising…and, increasingly, through social media.

In my own career I experienced PR in a variety of ways.

As a young journalist and editor I was the target of PR campaigns. My first encounter with a real, live PR person was a guy from Goodyear… who invited me to ride in the Goodyear Blimp over Beverly, Massachusetts.

I was the summer reporter for the Danvers Herald and about 20 years old.  I took up the invitation. In the piece I wrote, which was generally light-hearted and positive, I referred to my host as “the blimp pimp”.

Years later, when I was doing PR for Ford Motor Company, I was happy that a younger version of me wasn’t covering some car event I’d organized. My penchant for alliteration would have undoubtedly led to calling myself the “Ford whore”.

My next career stop was as a press secretary, first to Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts; and then to Senator Bob Dole of Kansas.

In many respects the press secretary’s job harkens back to the earliest form of public relations – the “publicist”.

Hollywood actors… or individuals in the public eye, like John D. Rockefeller or Henry Ford… would hire individuals to keep them visible…or burnish their image.

From politics there was a hop to the corporate world – to IBM, Ford, an aerospace company called CAE, a bank called CIBC and Canada Post.

In those jobs I was both a client of PR companies, as well as the person directing in-house communications, advertising, marketing and government relations functions.

Today, I own my own company. My firm includes PR as an area of expertise.

I was asked to provide you with some tips – some dos and don’ts – based on my own experience.

My first tip is to step back and decide if PR is actually the right path for you - because it is not right for everyone.

Why do I say this? Because, to one degree or another, it is highly unlikely that your views, beliefs or opinions will align perfectly with those of your client at all times.

There will even be times when you believe the client is dead wrong about something.

That may seem unlikely with an entity like Seneca College… but it could easily be the case with a corporation, a political figure or an advocacy group.

If your color pallet includes only black and white, you may have to get used to adding some gray.

My second tip is think of yourself as a brand.

How do you wish to be perceived by friends, family, associates and the public in general?

A brand is different from a label. People may label you as an engineer; or a writer; or as an Indo-Canadian or Franco-Canadian; or as man or woman. It’s pretty one-dimensional and superficial.

Your brand, on the other hand, is something you create for yourself, through your actions day to day.

It is really all about reputation.

Much as a corporate misstep can cripple a company like BP for years, a personal misstep can cast a long shadow over a career.

 It may be that you will see your role as that of a professional advocate – much as a lawyer will defend the unpopular individuals or causes – because everybody has a right to be heard.

But doing PR for tobacco… or North Korea…or the Tea Party… may not be your, well, cup of tea.

These are boundaries you need to set in advance – not after you land a job or position.

And if your job truly does conflict with your values, by all means quit. But keep in mind you will only get to resign so many times.

I worked with an individual, Jerry terHorst, who briefly worked a President Jerry Ford’s press secretary. He resigned over Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon.

He was never sorry he did this. But he knew it was a card you can only play once… if you want to stay employed.

My third piece of advice is to be willing to say you to a reporter or blogger that you don’t know the answer to a question – and that you’ll get back to them when you do.

Most of the people I’ve hired over the years in media relations or public relations jobs are super-smart.

They were that annoying kid who always had their hand up in third grade with the quickest answer.

And they didn’t change much during university.

But PR isn’t Jeopardy. Getting it right is more important than getting it fast. There is no shame in taking the time needed to be really, really sure.

The reporter will be fine as long as you do eventually get back to them within their deadline.

My fourth piece of advice is to put yourself in the shoes of the reporter or blogger.

Understand what motivates them. Understand that while you are fighting to get their attention, they are fighting to get the attention of an editor, news director or a producer. 

Ask yourself, “Is this really news?”

And don’t limit your interactions only to things that advance your interests.

Help them out with ideas or news tips even when it doesn’t immediately benefit your client.

PR is all about relationships and trust. They will remember the favor.

My fourth piece of advice is take statistics; learn about quantitative and qualitative analysis; take courses in behaviour economics; understand opinion polling and how to run and interpret a focus group.

I know what you are thinking – I got into PR to avoid all that math stuff.

But measurement is important. Analytics are important.  When firms are hiring today, these are skills they look for.

I would of course also urge you to hone your writing skills. The ability to write clearly and concisely will always be a key skill. Any firm worth its salt will test your writing skills – on a timed basis, typically with no access to Google or some other crutch.

So write - and read as much good writing by others - as you can. Start a blog. Or submit work to Huffington Post or another outlet.

One thing you may wish to think about is whether to enter the PR field with an agency… or a corporation.

My guess is the majority of you may think the agency route is the best way to go… perhaps because you’ve watched “Mad Men” and want to be the next Don Draper or Peggy Olsen.

Or maybe it’s just because you’ve heard that agencies like to hire lots of young people.

But working on the client side – the corporate side – can have advantages. My son Joseph is a good example. When he graduated from Carleton College in Minnesota he went to Cargill in their media relations function.

He learned a lot about a sector – agriculture. He learned a great deal about what corporations are looking for in their communications. He even managed the relationship with a PR company, Weber Shandwick.

These skills and that knowledge allowed him a year later to be hired as an account executive at one of U.S.’s up-and- coming PR firms, Exponent.

In my view, a corporate opportunity can be a fulfilling as an agency job. A lot depends on what you make of it.

And you need not stay with the same company – if you yearn for diverse experience you can always change companies and/or sectors. I did this six times over my career.

My brother, who worked for management consulting firms, described his client experience as “promiscuous”. He described my approach as “serially monogamous”.

The trick of course is winning the engagement or getting hired.

Speaking of hiring – go with a firm that hires slow, but fires fast.

Seriously.

A good firm spends a great deal of time selecting people that are a good fit for their culture… and reflect their values.

A good example is Four Seasons Hotels. One of my clients is Katie Taylor, CEO of Four Seasons and Board Chair at Royal Bank. She told me that Four Seasons will often interview thousands of individuals to fill a few dozen jobs.

It is all about maintaining the highest standards of quality and service.

And if a person doesn’t live up to those standards, they’re gone. Because one bad employee can ruin a brand and a firm’s reputation.

I would also urge you to move beyond electronic communication, like e-mail, to include telephone and face-to-face.

Don’t get me wrong – e-mail is great.

But a smiley face is never a full substitute for an actual smile.

And you can never get the tone of voice or the nuance that often tells you more than the words by themselves.

And if you go into the Agency side of things or even the corporate side, I would recommend you read a book called “The Trusted Advisor” by David Mainster.

Consultants hate this book…because it tells the inside story on how consulting firms and agencies worm their way into the clients hearts…and wallets.

So those are just a few thoughts.

Public relations is a challenging, intellectually stimulating field. It is populated with some very good people. It can be wonderfully rewarding… and infinitely frustrating.

But it is never boring.

Thank you.

Wednesday
Dec092015

WAITE-O-GRAM (RELEASE 237.0)

SPOTLIGHT ON OR OFF?
One of my clients, Jay Rosenzweig, the founder and head of a very successful international executive recruiting firm, recently undertook two activities that perfectly illustrate differing approaches to the CEO position. In the first instance, Jay appeared on a syndicated radio/streaming video show out of LA called "Business RockStars". Jay, who is a very successful entrepreneur in his own right, received great profile from doing the program. Not long afterwards, in Toronto, Jay participated in a live stage event, interviewing William N. Thorndike, the author of "The Outsiders". Thorndike is founder and managing director of Housatonic Partners, an investment firm. In the book, which was extensively researched (and inspired by a conversation with Warren Buffett), Thorndike postulates (with eight examples) that it is more often the "quiet ones", rather than the Jack Welch's of the world, that achieve long-term, sustainable shareholder success as CEOs.
A COMMUNICATORS' DILEMMA
So what is the right model? Communications professionals, perhaps understandably given their background and inclination, often lean in the direction of the spotlight for their CEO. And CEOs often want to avoid the spotlight - for many, gaining public profile, especially media profile, is about as welcome as a visit to the dentist. In truth, there is no one model. Much depends on stakeholder expectations and the way you wish to present yourself to the marketplace. In Jay's case, he is the face of the company, a company that by its very nature benefits from positive CEO exposure. Literally what you see is what you get. And certainly a company like Apple, in the person of Steve Jobs, benefited immensely from his charismatic media events. 
ON THE OTHER HAND...
But in Thorndike's book, he puts forward compelling cases where ignoring various stakeholders - most particularly the media and the analyst community - seemed to have no negative effect and arguably left additional time for more important things, like sorting out capital allocation and executing acquisitions and divestitures. (Interestingly, almost all of them eschewed paying dividends, which undoubtedly drew only a certain kind of investor.) The individuals cited in the book thus include people you likely have never heard of - Bill Anders of General Dynamics; Henry Singleton at Teledyne; John Malone at TCI. Collectively, these CEOs outperformed the S &P average by 20 times and their sector by a factor of seven.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT PATH
So what to do? There is no one right approach. Every company - and every CEO - has different needs and strengths. Those need to be assessed with a clear eye. And it is important, as my good friend David Moorcroft, former head of RBC communications used to say, to remind executives that they are passing stewards... and that the brand lives on long after they are gone. My own philosophy is that good corporate communications should begin from the inside and work out - communicate frequently and effectively with employees and suppliers and then work your way out to customers, investors and the public as is needed to advance your strategic agenda. Starting CEO life with an interview in the Wall Street Journal or ROB is probably good for the ego... but probably not wise. Always secure your base first.  
SPEAKING OF EGO...
One does not know where to begin with the rolling reputational car wreck that is VW. The question I get from people responsible for reputation management is, "What were they thinking?" I actually think the question can be answered in fairly straight-forward manner: The then-CEO, Martin Winterkorn, suffered from hubris-extremis. When he took over in 2007 - essentially by staging a coup at the board level - the first thing he did was cancel a contract his predecessor had signed with Mercedes to provide VW with clean diesel engines. Having been in charge of VW's research and development (a position he maintained as CEO), he found the outsourcing to a rival to be abhorrent. So he told his staff to get on it - and produce a substitute powertrain in time to meet the product launch date. 
A FEW BILLIONS LATER...
We can all guess what happened next. Faced with an intractable deadline -- and an intractable CEO, whom they feared would fire them -- engineers executed what is euphemistically referred to as a "work-around". And that's what they literally came up with - a software patch that went around normal emissions testing. Full disclosure - I own a 2007 Mercedes BlueTEC. It has 322,000 kilometers on it (or 200,000 miles for the metrically challenged). It has worked like a charm - and I am sure it would have worked like a charm for Herr Winterkorn. Instead, he is gone, leaving his company in a deep hole and his shareholders out billions of Euros. Some say he can take solace in the fact that he exits with  a severance and pension package worth over $80 million US - but, seriously, can any amount of money pay for a sullied reputation? It does not take a genius to figure out what the first line of his obit will be...
ANOTHER SUCCESSFUL LAUNCH
I recently completed a three-year succession exercise with a prominent Boston-area bank. Working with the Board Chair and the CEO-to-be was a real pleasure, not only because they were good folks, but because they took succession seriously and executed each step flawlessly. And  smooth successions matter, especially (as in this particular case) the retiring CEO is an iconic figure strongly identified with the institution. And failure to get it right can be hugely costly. In a recent issue of Strategy + Business Magazine, authors Ken Favro, Per-Ola Karlsson and Gary L. Neilson estimate that muffed successions cost companies in aggregate of $112 billion and that "even at the best-functioning companies, they can wreak a harsh toll on revenues, earnings and stock price.  Their solution? "The board should make succession planning a routine, recurring and candid topic of discussion." To that I would add that a two-year runway of coordinated planning and activity around the successor...followed by at least six months of "launch" activity...can make things go more smoothly. Certainly better than a hastily planned board coup.
SPEAKING OF SPOTLIGHTS
For anyone interested in the media and investigative journalism, I would highly recommend the film "Spotlight", which dramatizes the Boston Globe's special investigative team's probe into the dark underbelly of juvenile sexual abuse by priests (and subsequent cover-up by  Boston Archbishop Bernard Law). It is a riveting work of cinema, extremely well acted and meticulous in portraying the sheer drudgery of chasing down leads and checking facts. It is perhaps ironic that I am praising a film about the Globe "Spotlight" team - one of the first calls I received when I became Senator Ed Brooke's press secretary was from "Spotlight". I was ill-prepared, truth be told, and could have done a better job of preparing the Senator. Interestingly, it was Walter "Robby" Robinson, the Michael Keaton character in the movie, who helped steady me. Robinson was not on the Spotlight team at the time and was essentially the "good cop" you could go to on the staff. At any rate, the movie is terrific. 
NOT THAT YOU ASKED
Still on the subject of film, I would also recommend "Trumbo" with Brian Cranston (which speaks to the Hollywood blacklist era and perhaps has relevance in these days of great fear and scapegoating) and "Room", which is a fictionalized (and Americanized) version of a monstrous Austrian small-space confinement of a young woman by a warped man. I know - neither sounds very holiday-like. But they're really worth seeing.
WHERE DID WE GO WRONG?
I mentioned that one of Waite + Co.'s clients recently appeared on "Business RockStars" in Santa Monica, California. What I didn't mention is that daughter Emily, finishing up her joint masters communications program at the Annenberg School at USC, handled all of the prep, acted as liaison with the shows producers, and went along to the broadcast. Both she and her brother have fallen into public relations, driving their Engineer/MBA mother nuts... and mystifying me. Joseph is in his second year at Exponent PR (which recently was named "Boutique Agency of the Year" by the Holmes Report) in Minneapolis and Emily will presumably be gainfully employed at graduation in May. I guess it could have been worse - they could have gone into politics (or investment banking).
AND FINALLY...
We recently returned from three weeks in Turkey. It was fascinating from many perspectives, including being there at the time of the Turkish election (and the Paris bombing). I carried away a lot of memories and impressions. One that I must say still sits uncomfortably in my mind came from visiting the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle and Holy Relics in Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. This lavish former domain of the Ottoman Sultans contains several rooms displaying items moved from Medina and elsewhere to what is now Turkey. (And they make it pretty clear they are not going back any time soon - echoes of the Elgin Marbles and the British Museum.)  At any rate, what set me back in my sneakers as I walked through was a display of "The Prophet's Sword" and "The Prophet's Bow", both purportedly used in battle. It seemed a marked contrast to the rather passive countenance of the Buddha, not to mention Jesus of Nazareth. Looked like a PR problem to me.
(This message represents the views of the author, who is solely responsible for any errors, omissions or sacrileges. The term "Weekly" is a relative one, meaning that it is issued more than once a year, but less than daily. Any complaints should be directed to Waite + Co.'s President, Karen Shigeishi-Waite, who, while deeply engaged in succession planning, is always ready to field complaints about her employees.)  

 

Sunday
May242015

WAITE-O-GRAM (RELEASE 234.0)

QUEBEC AND IRELAND - SEPARATED AT BIRTH?
 
While most might not instantly think of Quebec as Ireland's doppelganger, the recent Irish gay marriage popular vote victory reinforces how quickly the two societies have moved in less than half a century. Both were arguably among the most conservative places on earth and each was dominated, politically and socially, by a particularly stifling variant of the Catholic church. It was a formula that worked...until it didn't. And when the change did come, it came swiftly and with a vengeance. Quebec today is in many respects Canada's greatest flouter of conservative convention. It has Canada's highest common law coupling rate; led the way in terms of public opinion polling regarding gay rights (including, somewhat ironically in La Belle province's case, the right for gays to marry, legalized in Canada in 2004), and has been a leader in legislation providing public child care for working mothers. The lesson? Perhaps that reactionary regimes, at least in the west, seem to sow the seeds of their own undoing... especially at times of massive generational change.
 
YOUTH IS SERVED
 
In some respects the seemingly rapid sea-change in Irish attitudes had been predicted. Economist and journalist David McWilliams' perceptive 2005 book, "The Pope's Children", chronicled how a much-delayed Irish baby-boom, commencing in the late 1970's, led to a generation that by the late 1990's and into the new century was questioning everything, from sectarian violence to strictures on birth control and abortion. As the Irish government's Minister of Communications, Alex White, put it, "This (vote) didn't change Ireland - it confirmed the change."  And, if exit polls can be trusted, it wasn't just the young, urban voters that carried the day. Rural folks and people over 40 apparently ticked the "Yes" box too (although the percentages were said to be somewhat lower). 
 
DO THE CHILDLESS CARE ABOUT THE FUTURE?
 
Speaking of children... with federal election campaigns now essentially underway in both the United States and Canada, we're hearing a lot of rhetoric regarding future generations. Nearly every candidate invokes children (or grandchildren) in making a pitch for votes. There seems in all of this to be an underlying assumption that you need to have progeny to care about the future of the planet. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson not long ago went so far as to suggest that the childless "don't give a damn about the planet or the future". But is this true? While my spouse and I have let loose two offspring to roam the earth, we have countless friends who are childless, by design or by chance, and they pretty much seem as committed to the planet's long-term survival as anyone else.
 
THINK GINK?
 
As it happens, there is actually an advocacy group for those who believe the childless are unfairly portrayed as ecologically uncaring. It is called "GINK" (Green Inclinations, No Kids) and is headed up by Lisa Hymas, an editor at "Grist". Her mission is to challenge what she calls a "pro-natal bias" in the media and society in general. One of the points she makes is that she and her childless cohort are doing more for the planet simply by not adding another generation of carbon footprint-stomping, oxygen-depleting humans. Almost makes you want to give up on the idea of grandchildren. Almost.
 
SHAMELESS SIBLING PROMOTION
 
My brother Tom Waite has a new novel set for release. Titled "Trident Code", it is the second in his popular Lana Elkins series and is once again focused on cyber-terrorism, but this time with an ecological twist. (And yes, the fictional Lana Elkins has a child, which I suppose would please Professor Ferguson at Harvard). Tom is getting some very encouraging reviews and comments on the novel, including from Admiral Ron Thunman (Ret.) who judged it "a winner". Not to give anything away, but nuclear submarines are involved in the plot...and few would know more about submarines than Admiral Thunman, who was at ComSubPac during the latter stages of the Cold War and prior to that served under legendary Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the "Father of the American Nuclear Navy".  Tom was interviewed by Factor magazine recently about his new book - you can read the interview here:
             
BASEBALL'S LOSS: MARKETING'S GAIN
This weekend one of baseball's forgotten legends will be turning 65. I speak of course of Eric "Sudden" Morse, the Massachusetts-born teenage pitching sensation who in the 1960's seemed on the verge of becoming for the Boston Red Sox on the mound what Tony Conigliaro had been in the outfield. Morse, who pitched in the Maine Developmental (ManDev) league under the tutelage of noted French-Canadian coach George Washingmachine, had a fastball that clocked in at above 100 miles an hour and a dipping curve that caused fillings to spontaneously fall from the teeth of baffled opponents. I know this because I faced him more than once. "Sudden" seemed destined for the Big Leagues straight out of high school, but then tragedy intervened - a croquet accident so severe he was never able to pick up, much less throw, a baseball again. Eric instead went on to university and a stellar career in advertising and marketing in Boston and New York. I want to wish him all the best on his upcoming special day (even if I personally hold him responsible for Boston's 1975 World Series loss to Cincinnati and Bucky Dent's 1978 playoff home run.)
 
AND FINALLY...
Shouldn't there be an NHL rule that at least one of the Stanley Cup finalists be a Canadian team?  So that there is an actual audience that cares?
 
(The views expressed are solely those of the author, who takes full responsibility for any errors, omissions or exaggerations. In fairness to Professor Ferguson, for example, he later tried to modify his statement regarding the childless. And in fairness to Eric Morse, he also had a pretty wicked change-up...but should have never demonstrated it with a croquet ball. And in fairness to my brother, I probably should have included a link to Amazon, so you could buy his book. But sibling rivalry is a cruel thing.)  
Wednesday
May062015

“Public Relations – Is It Right For You?”

Speech given at the University of Minnesota - College of Liberal Arts  (April 24, 2015)

Thank you for that kind introduction.

I am very pleased to have been asked to provide my thoughts to your group today – the CLAgency is a very innovative concept and you and your faculty member advisors, especially Scott Meyer, should be congratulated for creating a real-world (and paid) opportunity to practice public relations.

I am a great believer in the liberal arts. I was a history major. My son was a political science major at Carleton College. And my daughter an anthropology major at UCLA.

As a family, we are “all in” when it comes to the value of the liberal arts. The fact that you actively promote this course of study using PR is commendable.

Public Relations. PR. Spin-meister. Flack.

It is said that public relations professionals are a lot like lawyers. Except that lawyers are the object of better jokes.

PR agencies and practitioners represent individuals, firms, brands, products, associations and even countries.

They are asked to perform a variety of tasks aimed at achieving a wide range of objectives, from building awareness; to driving sales; to dispelling or deflecting a negative image.

They use a variety of tools, including polling research, focus groups and behavioral studies, to inform strategy and messaging.

And they reach target audiences through a variety of channels, including the news media, paid advertising…and, increasingly, through social media.

In my own career I experienced PR in a variety of ways.

As a young journalist and editor I was the target of PR campaigns. My first encounter with a real, live PR person was a guy from Goodyear… who invited me to ride in the Goodyear Blimp over Beverly, Massachusetts.

I was the summer reporter for the Danvers Herald and about 20 years old.  I took up the invitation. In the piece I wrote, which was generally light-hearted and positive, I referred to my host as “the blimp pimp”.

Years later, when I was doing PR for Ford Motor Company, I was happy that a younger version of me wasn’t covering some car event I’d organized. My penchant for alliteration would have undoubtedly led to calling myself the “Ford whore”.

My next career stop was as a press secretary, first to Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts; and then to Senator Bob Dole of Kansas.

In many respects the press secretary’s job harkens back to the earliest form of public relations – the “publicist”.

Hollywood actors… or individuals in the public eye, like John D. Rockefeller or Henry Ford… would hire individuals to keep them visible…or burnish their image.

From politics there was a hop to the corporate world – to IBM, Ford, an aerospace company called CAE, a bank called CIBC and Canada Post, a more profitable version of the United States Postal Service located north of the border.

In those jobs I was both a client of PR companies, as well as the person directing in-house communications, advertising, marketing and government relations functions.

Today, I own my own company. My firm includes PR as an area of expertise. I was asked to provide you with some tips – some dos and don’ts – based on my own experience.

My first tip is to step back and decide if public relations is actually the right path for you. Because it is not right for everyone.

Why do I say this? Because, to one degree or another, it is highly unlikely that your views, beliefs or opinions will align perfectly with those of your client at all times.

There will even be times when you believe the client is dead wrong about something.

That may seem unlikely with an entity like the University of Minnesota… but it could easily be the case with a corporation, a political figure or an advocacy group. If your color pallet includes only black and white, you may have to get used to adding some gray.

My second tip is think of yourself as a brand.

How do you wish to be perceived by friends, family, associates and the public in general? It is really all about reputation. Much as a corporate misstep can cripple a company like BP for years, a personal misstep can cast a long shadow over a career.

It may be that you will see your role as that of a professional advocate – much as a lawyer will defend the unpopular individuals or causes – because everybody has a right to be heard.

But doing PR for tobacco… or North Korea…or the Tea Party… may not be, well, your cup of tea.

These are boundaries you need to set in advance – not after you land a job or position.

And if your job truly does conflict with your values, by all means quit. But keep in mind you will only get to resign so many times.

I worked with an individual, a wonderful journalist with great integrity, Jerry terHorst, who briefly served as President Jerry Ford’s press secretary. He resigned over Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon.

He was never sorry he did this. But he knew it was a card you can only play once… if you want to stay employed.

My third piece of advice is to be willing to say to a reporter or blogger that you don’t know the answer to a question – and that you’ll get back to them when you do. Most of the people I’ve hired over the years in media relations or public relations jobs are super-smart. They were that annoying kid who always had their hand up in third grade with the quickest answer. And they didn’t change much during university.

But PR isn’t Jeopardy. Getting it right is more important than getting it fast. There is no shame in taking the time needed to be really, really sure. 

The reporter will be fine as long as you do eventually get back to them within their deadline.

My fourth piece of advice is to put yourself in the shoes of the reporter.

Understand what motivates them. Understand that while you are fighting to get their attention, they are fighting to get the attention of an editor, news director or a producer.  

Ask yourself, “Is this really news?” And don’t limit your interactions only to things that advance your interests. Help them out with ideas or news tips even when it doesn’t immediately benefit your client.

PR is all about relationships and trust. They will remember the favor.

I would also urge you to hone your writing skills. The ability to write clearly and concisely will always be a key skill. Any firm worth its salt will test your writing skills – on a timed basis, typically with no access to Google or some other crutch.

So write - and read as much good writing by others - as you can.

One thing you may wish to think about is whether to enter the PR field with an agency… or a corporation.

My guess is the vast majority of you think the agency route is the best way to go… perhaps because you’ve watched “Mad Men” and want to be the next Don Draper or Peggy Olsen. Or maybe it’s just because you’ve heard that agencies like to hire lots of young people.

But working on the client side – the corporate side – can have advantages. My son Joseph is a good example. When he graduated from Carleton College he went to Cargill, the giant agro-commodity company, in media relations.

He learned a lot about a sector – agriculture. He learned a great deal about what corporations are looking for in their communications from some great practitioners, including Pete Stoddart and Mike Fernandez. He even managed the relationship with a PR company, Weber Shandwick, on a project.

These skills and that knowledge allowed him a year later to be hired as an account executive at one of the nations up and coming PR firms.

In my view, a corporate opportunity can be a fulfilling as an agency job. A lot depends on what you make of it.

And you need not stay with the same company – if you yearn for diversity of experience you can always change companies and/or sectors. I did this six times over the course of my career.

My brother, who worked for consulting firms, described his client experience as “promiscuous”. He described my approach as “serially monogamous”. Either path can be rewarding.

The trick of course – especially at your early career stage - is winning the engagement or getting hired.

Speaking of hiring – go with a firm that hires slow, but fires fast.

Seriously.

A good firm spends a great deal of time selecting people that are a good fit for their culture… and reflect their values.

A good example is Four Seasons Hotels. One of my clients was Katie Taylor, former CEO of Four Seasons and current Board Chair at Royal Bank. She told me that Four Seasons will often interview thousands of individuals to fill a few dozen jobs.

It is all about maintaining the highest standards of quality and service. And if a person doesn’t live up to those standards, they’re gone. Because one bad employee can ruin a brand and a firm’s reputation.

I would also urge you to move beyond electronic communication, like e-mail, to include telephone and face-to-face. Don’t get me wrong – e-mail is great. But a smiley face is never a full substitute for an actual smile. And you can never get the tone of voice or the nuance that often tells you more than the words by themselves.

And if you go into the Agency side of things or even the corporate side, I would recommend you read a book called “The Trusted Advisor” by David Mainster.

Consultants hate this book…because it tells the inside story on how consulting firms and agencies worm their way into the clients hearts…and wallets. Mainster is a former McKinsey guy. And believe me; McKinsey is very good at what they do…including endlessly expanding the scope of their business.

I would also urge you, as your careers progress, to find opportunities to interact with other professionals. At your stage, the Public Relations Society of America, or PRSA, is a good forum. When you reach the most senior level, the Arthur Page Society and The Seminar are excellent forums for interaction with your peers.

So those are just a few thoughts.

Public relations is a challenging, intellectually stimulating field. It is populated with some very good people. It can be wonderfully rewarding… and infinitely frustrating.

But it is never boring.

I would love to get your reaction, comments… and try to answer any questions you might have.

Thank you.

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