He fired me and Launched my Career in Tech PR

People sometimes wonder how I started out in engineering and wound up in PR.  Something that happened recently really made an impression and brought my career journey full circle, 35 years later.  Read on to learn more, and I hope you enjoy the story!

Geeking out with Audio

I was walking the NAB show aisles at the Javits Center in NYC a few weeks ago, taking in the exhibits and scouting new business when I decided to check out the neighboring AES (audio engineering society) show.

Audio has always been a passion and was one of the reasons I wound up in the tech field.  I play keyboard, and liked to consider myself an audiophile back in the day; I attended AES meetings while in college in Boston, where luminaries like the Amar Bose of Bose Speakers and the “K” from KLH speakers also hung out.

I had briefly toyed with becoming a sound engineer before my parents convinced me that “real” engineering was a better career choice.  So, I switched majors, transferred schools and pursued an EE degree at B.U. – a move that cost an extra year in my studies, since I got a late start.

That was 35 years ago.  Now I was in NYC at an audio trade show and basking in all the gear.  I had recently decided to buy Avid Pro Tools, set up a home studio and finally figure out this sound engineering stuff – maybe get to compose and record the right way.

Anyone watching would have noted a shit-eating grin on my face.  And then, I saw a large booth for a company whose name I had been trying to recall recently.  I was amazed to see that it was Eventide – a manufacturer of effects processors for professional musicians.

Yes, that was the one! The company that gave me my first job.  They looked like they were doing great – it was an impressive booth, humming with activity.  And standing nearby, holding court among several admirers, was the man who had said: “You’re hired!”

It’s Agnello!!

His name is Tony Agnello.  

After flailing around after college, going on a European tour with my bros, and striking out on the job front for the better part of a year, I had lined up an interview with this man at an audio company in nearby New Jersey. If I wasn’t going to be a sound engineer, I was excited about the chance to work as a design engineer for a cool audio company like Eventide.  

It’s been a long time and I forget all the details.  At one point I made the mistake of calling him “Mr. Angelo.”  He snapped “It’s on-YELL-oh” (it seems the mispronunciation was a sore point).  That slip-up didn’t blow my chances and I was amazed to land what I thought would be my dream job.

So, I went to work at Eventide, which was in a cool office in a place called Little Ferry.  There was a funky vibe there, with much talk of gigs and name dropping of famous musicians who used the gear.

In addition to Tony, Richard Factor was a key exec (and is still there, Tony confirmed).  He was a long-haired, cool, fast-talking dude who was funny.  I once overheard Richard describing Little Ferry as “the most carefully pronounced town in NJ.” I remember there was a great hot dog place nearby, a local institution called Callahan’s.

I was given my first assignments, a station at a drafting board, circuit designs, chips, and testing equipment, and I set to work figuring out this design engineering stuff. But it was not the thrill ride I’d hoped for.  My eyelids would grow heavy as I did my best to figure out the circuits and assignments. No amount of coffee seemed to help.

And now, son of a gun, there he was, big as life, looking good, no worse for the 35-year wear.  OK, a bit grayer but fit and a little like Jerry Garcia in his later years, or Tommy Chong.

Remember Me?

The name on his show badge clearly identified the man; there was no chance I had the wrong guy. I waited for an opportune time and then tapped him on the shoulder.

“You’re never going to remember me?” Tony turned around with a broad smile, looking worried and eager at the same time. He said something like: “Try me!”

Tony Agnello, the Man, the Legend at AES

I told him my name and explained who I was.  He had given me my first job.  It lasted just two weeks. In the second week, I accidentally fried an expensive chip. Tony fired me soon after, telling me (not the exact words) that I had no idea what the fuck I was doing (and he had said that Richard agreed; seemed surprised about my fumbling around with the testing equipment).

Hearing all this 35 years later, Agnello was crestfallen and apologetic. He asked if he’d been mean about it.

“No,” I reassured.  “You were actually very nice and told me what I needed to hear.”  I explained that it really was OK, he had been right.  I was not an engineer.  But I’d gone on to a successful and fulfilling career in PR.

From EE to PR

These days when new business prospects ask how an EE geek wound up in PR. I sometimes talk about my ill-fated experience at Eventide.

From there I moved on to roles with GE, IBM, several startups, to where I am today – at Fusion PR, a tech PR agency that I helped grow from its earliest days. My roles were progressively less hands-on tech, more involving communications and people skills.  The common thread throughout has been working in the tech industry.

I am grateful for my engineering background; it has served me well in technology communications.  I might not be great at designing circuits, but I know what CPUs are, how a computer works and can explain digital signal processing.

So, I thank Tony and Eventide for giving me my first job and firing me, setting me on this path.

Posted in Events, PR, Tech, Tech PR | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Call was Perfect! The PR pitch, Even Better!!

Recently, we’ve heard a lot about a phone call between a certain U.S. leader and a Ukrainian head of state. The call was said to be perfect at least by the former, and it must be true because he’s said it not once, but over and over again.

Some disagree, and there’s controversy on this (and even a non-proverbial act of Congress).  But without getting all political, let’s cut some slack.

We’ve all done things we thought were great but were not well received, or where reality crashed the perfection party:

  • The golf putt that almost went in
  • The drunken wedding toast that seemed funny at the time
  • The baseball pitch that was for sure a strike, until the ump ruled “ball!”
  • Perfect pitch (tonal) – this YouTube video explains that you can’t attain the skill after childhood; despite one adult who insisted he had. It’s by Rick Beato, a musical genius with a great and informative YouTube channel.

And what about PR pitches?  Public relations is my turf, after all.  In the spirit of transparency, I share a PR pitch that I thought had been stellar but that somehow missed the mark.  I asked others on the team to do the same.

Early in my PR career, I was getting a lukewarm reception when pitching a data storage startup.  This was before the tech took off in the early 2000s, and many did not seem to care about the subject or the vendor.  I took a humorous approach (and a clever one, at least I thought), likening covering storage to reorganizing a sock drawer:

“Last time I broached the subject 4 out of 5 people quickly demurred, citing the need to ‘reorganize a sock drawer’.

I didn’t get the chance to explain that amidst a tech downturn, one segment has continued to rack up impressive gains (IDC predicts an amazing 86% compounded annual growth rate through 2002), creating boundless value for shareholders and fostering a dynamic and innovative market. Do I have your attention?”

Pitch for Data Storage Vendor

One reporter did not agree it was so clever – and went so far as to rewrite the pitch:

You’re obviously not a salesperson.

Create dynamic tension. Sock drawers? Sure– most anyone would yawn the way you’ve approached the subject. Then cite IDC, the people that were sure that OS/2 would be the dominant operating system by 2000.

How to do this? Easy. Data is multiplying like horny rabbits in a good month. The madness: The powers that be estimate that data stored on the Internet is growing at a rate that actually doubles the size of all storage of anything anywhere in the world circa 1990 EACH MONTH!

How are people coping? What’s the impact? What about reliability? It’s not just about hard disks any more. It’s about a world that lives on magnetic and optical storage. Talk to our expert– he can give you the information, the timelines, the stuff that’ll make sense in a world that doesn’t make sense.

He’s strong, virile, and maybe even right sometimes.

See? Did I get your attention? Looking for left-hand socks.

Mark from our team shared these examples:

Early in my career, one of my clients released a Pink Panther computer game for kids.  I wrote a semi-humorous pitch letter from the point of view of The Pink Panther.  My boss thought it was creative and adorable.  At least one reporter disagreed, replying simply, “I HATE THIS PITCH.”

I also once put together what I thought was a truly fascinating pitch based on the information given to me by a client.  It resulted in MULTIPLE reporters informing me that I had my facts wrong.  One of them basically wrote a full essay explaining why I was so wrong. The lesson here: Never assume your clients know what they are talking about!  Research everything.

Emily also shared an example of a pitch she wrote based on inaccurate info given to her by a client; whose take on the market was 23 years out of date!  She started sending the pitch – only to learn from a friend in the industry that the assumptions were outdated.

And what about you? Got perfect pitch? Please share!


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Webinar: Scoring Great PR for you Blockchain Venture

You Don’t Need a CMO invited us to host a seminar earlier this month about PR tips for blockchain initiatives. The recorded session, called Thinking Out of the Block ran on YouTube and is also share above in this post.

Chris Nicholas of the No CMO team introduced me and led the Q & A portion. Here are some notes from the session; please check out the video, about 30 minutes long to view the entire session.

  • What is blockchain? A distributed decentralized network, database or ledger
  • Agenda: We focused on the state of buzz in blockchain space, a case study, the new rules in PR, how to attain PR and branding success for your venture.
  • Where is blockchain now?
  • Gartner Group, leading IT advisory and market research in enterprise tech published a Hype Cycle report that showed blockchain is in the trough of disillusionment 
  • Blockchains rose with the growth and excitement of crypto and bitcoin, that has changed.
  • The space is still relevant; it will take longer for mass adoption
  • BlockSafe technology was the first to market for solutions that protect crypto wallets 
  • We got attention and media coverage by busting the myth that blockchains are inherently secure.
  • It is a street fight for attention even in this industry 
  • Journalists mostly don’t care about your news because of all the pitches, noise and challenges of their jobs.
  • Success means not getting mired in tech for tech’s sake, thinking outside the ‘block’ 
  • Immutable Laws of Marketing and PR
    • Focus on long term brand building
    • Sharpen targets 
    • Connect with needs
    • Be interesting and relevant 
    • Tap content, social, influencers 
    • Understand the user

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Art of Communication: Q & A with Norm Magnusson

My friend Cecilia invited me to an exhibit of artist Norman Magnusson’s work. I don’t know a lot about art despite being engaged to a wonderful artist, Sine Hjort.  But Cecilia would not steer me wrong, and she raves about Norm and his work.  Plus, the theme for the exhibit is Communication – so I had to check it out.

The show opened two weeks ago, at Mount Saint Mary College, a beautiful campus overlooking the Hudson River in Newburgh, NY. I am glad we went, as I really enjoyed it and was extremely impressed. His art features playful riffs on how we communicate, or more often fail to, in a range of media.  

Each work drew me in, and shed light on the foibles we call modern communication. They were compelling, easy to relate to, and made this PR guy grin. 

For example, here’s a look at his piece: “I am Sorry…” Norm explains: “Individual words and phrases can be overused to the point of completely losing their sharp edge as carriers of thought and sentiment. Here, below is a drawing entitled ‘I’m sorry’, in which I’ve written ‘I’m sorry’ 1,000 times on a piece of nice thick watercolor paper.”

As he says, “Communication is a bitch.”  Tell me about it!

Norm is a former ad agency copywriter and creative guy, so perhaps it is not surprising that he chose communication as a theme.  I wanted to learn more about his work and asked if he’d agree to an email interview.

Norm said yes – so see the Q & A below.

Please tell me about your background; I understand you come from the advertising field?

I worked on staff as a creative director/copywriter at ad agencies in New York and london. one spring I had my first solo show (of allegorical animal paintings) lined up and I was sick of telling people “what I really wanna be is a painter” and I quit. I’ve been working primarily as an artist ever since. This exhibition, which has a lot of text-based work, feels, to some degree, like coming full circle.

Tell us about your work as an artist – when did you get into it, and why?

A deeply political piece in this era of “fake news”, one side reads “FACTS”, the other reads “LIES”. The effect of seeing both through this glass is obfuscation.

I started painting shortly after I moved to NYC in 1982. My mom had sent me a set of paints and some canvases just for kicks and they just sat there and then one night my roommate said: “Let’s paint a picture” and we did. He was amazing and I was mediocre but I got the bug and he didn’t.

I’ve been making art ever since. I still have the bug.

One of the things I’ve realized I really like about it is exploration and discovery and the CHANCE that things will work out as I’d dreamed they would. It’s kind of a gambler’s mentality: trying something new and hoping it turns out. In this show, there are a lot of pieces where the finished product made me really happy because it worked out. It’s like winning a little lottery. I’d never etched glass before but “Fake News” worked out exactly as I had hoped. I’d never written anything 1,000 times before but “I’m sorry, a thousand times I’m sorry” worked out even better than I’d dreamed. There are a few other pieces in this show that were brand new territory for me as well. I’ll tell you if you want.

Your work seems to have the same playful quality found in Dadaism – did the movement inform your art?

I remember the first time I saw Meret Oppenheim’s piece “Object”. The fur-lined cup, spoon and saucer at NY’s MoMA. It just killllllled me, it was sooooo beautiful. Not just on an aesthetic level, but on an intellectual level too. Same with “Cadeau”, the iron with sharp tacks welded to its smooth surface or the metronome with the eyeball, both by Man Ray or the urinal “Fountain” by Duchamp and many others, and these things really got under my skin in a big way. Some were considered “surrealism” and some “dada” I guess, but for me (I didn’t study art history and knew very little about any of it when I moved to NYC) they were all “absurd objects” and I loved them to bits. I even created and curated an exhibition a few years back on the subject. It was such fun. No one has ever asked me this question before. I guess it was the beginning of an understanding of conceptual art for me, a description that, increasingly, people attach to my creative output. I’m becoming less uncomfortable with it.

What inspired this exhibition?

I worked in advertising as a copywriter. A part of that craft is to say things JUST SO. So that they can be read only one way. The opposite of poetry, if you will. You would never want to write a line of copy that could be misinterpreted in an unflattering way or in any way at all!! I feel that I’m GOOD at that, both professionally and personally. And yet……miscommunications happen. ALL THE TIME!!!! I’m always wondering why? And how? And there are soooo many reasons….. It’s really fascinating to me. And I started to think about it and make art about it and started to think that it could make a really fun exhibition. I think maybe one of the first pieces I made happened when I was dictating through the voice recognition software, Siri, and it was just getting things wrong. Honestly, I think I could make art on this theme forever. There’s no end to how interesting it is to me. Communication is tough and it’s fun to figure out why.  

What’s next for your work?

I’m working on a series about internet pornography. It’s been percolating for years and finally, it’s ready to be created. I’m fascinated with how there is, as they say, something for everyone out there. It’s ubiquitous, 12% of existing websites are porn, 35% of all internet downloads are porn-related. Every second, 29,000 internet users are viewing porn and 1 in 3 of them are women. It’s an amazing force in our contemporary lives and I’ve planned a bunch of obsessive pieces on this topic and made one small example of one of them. I’m thrilled to get going on it.

Thanks Norm!

If you are in the NY northern suburbs I strongly recommended visiting the exhibit, which will be on display through November 13. You can see all the work in this series (some in the show, some not) here.

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Think outside the Block in Promoting your Venture: Join our 10/2 Webinar

Looking to launch or grow a blockchain venture?  What are the secrets to success?

It’s a noisy world and a never-ending battle for the consumer’s attention.  If the average user is slammed with info and updates, just think about journalists!  They’re an especially tough crowd to reach and impress.  Sure, you can try to take your message to the crowds directly, via social media.  But it is not easy to rise above the noise in crowded newsfeeds and social streams.

This is especially true in the realm of blockchain. People are trying their best to understand what it all means – and if the tech really will be the game-changer that lives up the hype.  There’s some baggage associated with ups and downs of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.  Plus, the jargon and technical details can be hard to decipher.

There are loyal and dedicated communities that follow updates in the crypto and blockchain worlds.  They can be echo chambers that cater to speculators and recycle the same old buzz that links crypto to the blockchain.

To be successful and breakthrough to a mainstream audience, you need to think outside these communities – outside the block, that is.  At a high level that means going beyond technology to talk more about utility and benefits.  It means using the latest tactics and tools to unleash the marketing and PR that can help your venture get the attention it deserves.

Please join me, and Chris Nicholas in a No CMO webinar, on Oct 2, 2019 02:00 PM in Eastern Time (US and Canada). Click here to register.

Thanks! We hope you can make it.

Posted in Agency news, Events, NY Tech, PR, Public Relations, Tech PR, Technology | Tagged , | Leave a comment

How to Contain PR Fallout from a Cyber-attack

Fusion PR works extensively in the cyber security space.  We are often asked about how to handle the PR fallout from breaches. What are the similarities and differences with other kinds of crisis management?

I decided to answer these questions in this post, with input from our team.

Like other PR Crises?

A cyber-attack is a special kind of crisis.  It has some things in common with other types (e.g. product liability, malfeasance) in that the company’s reputation can also be at stake.

But by their nature problems related to cyber-security and data leakage can be more challenging to understand and contain.  It is not always easy to know the cause, the damage or even where and when the problem begins or ends.  They can be insidious, confounding and always seem to find new ways to bedevil.

As such, these incidents add wrinkles to the traditional crisis management playbook.

The Role of PR in Cybersecurity

PR can and should play a vital role. Unfortunately, most companies take an overly cautious and defensive approach when it comes to communications.  They are reluctant to go public in a positive and proactive way about the measures they are taking to protect their networks and data (see my post We’ve been Hacked! Call the Press).  And they may say the wrong thing or not enough after an attack.

When an organization is attacked, assuming it is significant (not the everyday attempt but real damage has happened or is underway), the PR team should advise the client (or employer, if in-house PR) to respond according to the tenets of crisis management.

That means moving quickly to gather the facts and implement a crisis management plan.

The Crisis Plan

One of the best ways to limit the fallout is to be proactive and vocal, sooner, rather than later.

If it is a major breach, word will get out and the potential damage to brand and reputation will be compounded (and possibly open the door to legal penalties).  You need to be transparent and address concerns of all stakeholders (customers, shareholders, employees) early on.

There can be a life cycle to these things that requires different statements at different times.  E.g. if it is a major attack, do you say anything if it still is happening and/or before damage has been contained?

An example that comes to mind is the recent wave of ransomware attacks – if a company or government is being extorted, should there be public statements before it has been resolved? Again, the rules of crisis management and even hostage negotiations can come into play.

In general, you need to act quickly and transparently (guided by the crisis plan and with input from the CISO, PR team, legal advisors and C-level execs).

Piecemealing information is a way to prolong the PR pain – it can be like death by 1000 paper cuts. Boilerplate responses should be avoided.

How to Prepare

Organizations should have a crisis plan in place that includes specific measures for breaches and other cyber-attacks.

Plans should spell out things like crisis team, process, stakeholders, communications channels and include specifics (e.g. contact details, links) – so that you don’t have to hunt the details down when an actual crisis such as a cyber-attack occurs.

The plan should be deployed at the first sign that trouble is brewing – even if it is a false alarm, it is better to be ready.  On that note, good crisis plans include steps to pre-empt real crises.  That means anticipating vulnerabilities, taking steps to limit exposure and practicing via simulated scenarios to ensure readiness for when one occurs.

A good plan will help mitigate backlash, but it may be impossible to completely avoid this if there were egregious errors and extensive damage.

Other Thoughts

Several members of our team chimed in with additional thoughts, see below.  And what do you think?  Please chime in!

As is true for any other crisis – tell the truth, tell it fast, tell it all.
Also, some things must be done simultaneously – monitor all social media channels to address customer concerns, identify rumors and counter them, offer updates in regular intervals…

Ruchi

I think there’s an argument on saying too much too soon vs. saying too little too late. And as far as putting a plan in place so it doesn’t happen again, don’t make promises you can’t keep, that’ll make things even worse.

Brian

The main concern of cyber crisis management is ensuring that the customers know what to do and feel safe. Tell them to change their passwords or give them a place to go to see if their data was affected. Let them know what you’re doing to make changes and how the breach happened in the first place. It’s important to show compassion and customer care for the victims rather than blaming the breach on somebody else.

Mark
Posted in Campaign Analysis, Crisis Management, Current Affairs, PR, Public Relations | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Getting Political in Branding and Messaging

It used to be a much simpler world for brand development. The tough questions related to name, design, and color.  If you were launching a new tech company circa the early 2000s, you might wonder whether to include a swoosh with your logo.

The messages – i.e. the copy surrounding the graphical components – might have been hypey but seldom were too controversial.

Today it’s more complicated, as I wrote in my post: United we Brand. We live in turbulent, divided times. It’s tempting to play it safe, but companies and their leaders are either being dragged into politics or proactively taking stands and speaking out.

What does this mean for the arts of messaging and brand development? I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday which made me wonder where all this is going. It reported that major advertisers are taking brand safety to a new level – by blacklisting news stories based on political keywords mentioned in the content.

Rethinking the Brand Question Framework

When companies are defining their brand attributes, one of the first steps involves sitting down with an expert, who asks innocent but sometimes irritating questions.  For example, if your brand was an animal, what kind would it be? These articles explain more: 7 Tips to Find your Brand’s Personality and The 8 Question Framework for Successful Rebrands.

PR messages are workshopped too, although it’s typically a less abstract exercise.

It seems certain that the questions will change based on today’s realities. Maybe companies will start hiring political messaging gurus like Frank Luntz (whom I blogged about) on the right and George Lakoff on the left (see this post) to better tell their brand stories.

You can envision a session involving a startup with no obvious political leanings, e.g. not a gun company.  Say a soft drink company.

Branding and messaging guru:

OK, gang today we are going to explore your brand. Let’s start with one word, “Trump!”

Ah, OK, that’s a non-starter, never mind let’s switch gears!

We’re going to play a game called F—-, Marry, Kill: AOC anyone? Kelly Conway?

Guys (and gals) the competition is polling strongly in the swing states! We need to get bold!!!

If your brand was a gun, what kind would it be?

You’re stuck on a desert island – who do you bring along? A) Bernie Sanders. B) Sean Hannity

OK, I can see where this is going.  Never mind… If your brand was a tree…

Messaging Guru

Posted in Branding, Fun Stuff, Politics, PR | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Do’s and Don’ts Of Handling A PR Crisis

This post is by David H. Lasker, Founder and CEO of News Exposure

 

Your company’s hard-won reputation is an immeasurable asset. Start with the fact that your bottom line is built on customer trust. Add the likelihood that employees who steered your brand toward its good standing feel more invested. They may be increasingly productive as a result, further perpetuating the cycle of success.

Intangibles such as these matter. That makes it all the more disturbing to realize how tenuous all of this can be. A PR crisis could ravage your reputation, and any number of potential developments can trigger one. Thanks to technology, news will spread fast and far about a criminal act, a faulty product, a data breach, an offensive remark, an incident involving insensitive treatment of a customer … the list continues.

Between news reports and social media — and do not underestimate the latter — people around the globe can learn about your company’s unfortunate situation almost instantaneously. How will your company respond? Disaster may seem inevitable, but there’s no reason to panic. There are ways to reduce the impact of a PR crisis, the best of which is to prepare for one. This can be achieved even though the specific circumstances that touch off a crisis cannot always be foreseen.

Don’t leave your company in a position where it must resort to scrambling amid the chaos of a PR crisis. Learn these key do’s and don’ts in advance, so the response is polished and smooth if and when a crisis hits.

What to Do During a PR Crisis

  • Act quickly and transparently. If delivering an informative response immediately is not possible, at least communicate that your company is looking into the issue and explain why there will be a delay. Transparency is critical, as the media may have more information than you suspect and attempts to be deceitful might backfire.
  • Understand the scope of coverage. The depth and content of your company’s response to a PR crisis may depend on who is saying what, as well as where it’s being said. A company experienced in media monitoring services can be a great help at keeping you informed.
  • Make sure your response team is engaged. Individuals designated ahead of time to respond to a PR crisis should be briefed and given assignments related to the specific crisis. If you have not already formed a response team and a protocol for internal crisis communications, now is the time. Don’t be afraid to add outside media experts to this team. When a crisis erupts, they can present perspectives your internal team may not consider.
  • Coach your spokespersons. Those who will directly address the media or the public must understand the specific response strategy and be presented with enough information to answer questions. If time allows, set up a practice session. Emphasize that the message must be consistent across multiple channels, regardless of how many individuals are responsible for delivering it.
  • Seek feedback. If you work with a professional PR company, heed its advice. Also gauge reaction to your response. If it’s repeatedly being deemed inadequate from multiple channels, switch gears or risk making the situation worse.

What Not to Do During a PR Crisis

  • Fall silent. Shutting down communication can lead to speculation by others — and what they say may be worse than the truth. Make it known that you are at least working on a response and why you cannot immediately provide more information.
  • Express anger. Lashing out in public or aggressively challenging the media creates a negative impression and will not solve any problem.
  • Blame others. If your company is innocent of whatever it is accused of, let the facts sort themselves over time. Immediately implicating another party as responsible will be perceived as dismissive — even if it’s a customer who misused a product, for example.

How you manage a PR crisis can determine the depth of the impact on your brand’s reputation and/or the length of time it takes to recover. A strategic, well-conceived response may even increase the trust level of your customers/clients. For more insight that’s easy to share with your team, see the accompanying guide.

Author bio: David H Lasker is founder and CEO of News Exposure, a digital content solutions company specializing in media research and monitoring. Lasker has over 25 years of experience in the industry and focuses on TV and radio broadcast monitoring, media intelligence, and PR analysis.

Posted in Campaign Analysis, Crisis Management, PR, Public Relations | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

United we Brand? Top Reads on Corporate Activism

Should CEOs speak out on social, civil and political issues?  Should brands take a stand?

Pixabay

Back in the day (meaning just a few years ago) the answers were easier.  It was a more innocent time and easier for businesses to step up to the plate when government was not doing its job.  The Edelman Trust Barometer (an annual gauge of trust in institutions) has long ranked CEOs higher than others

Today it’s more complicated.  There’s a hot mess of issues that divide and we all seem ready to have chips knocked off our shoulders. Political correctness dominates, and it is easy to get in trouble by saying the wrong thing.

So, what’s a brand (and their top execs) to do?  Should they play it safe or take a stand? Fence-sitters might alienate those who want to know the brand’s political and social colors.  But taking sides can also fail spectacularly, as I pointed out in my post Just Don’t It.

There are many sides to these questions.  Below, I dig deeper and shed light by excerpting from the many excellent articles on the topic.

Lead with Values

In a PR Daily story about Starbucks, Ted Kitterman recommended leading with values; he cites some great examples:

The biggest takeaway for anyone following the news cycle these days must be that you can’t please everybody. So, what should you speak out on? Brand managers and PR pros should be actively searching for ways to express their brand values to consumers…

Think about Patagonia’s campaign to save protected national park land. More controversial efforts have included Dick’s Sporting Goods stand on guns, Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad and Gillette’s campaigns regarding inclusion.

What all these companies have in common is a cadre of leaders ready to stick to their principles and take the heat. They are also ready to lose some customers for what they believe in.

From Hero to Zero

Can businesses do well by doing good?  What happens when bottom line realities collide with CSR goals?

This NY Times article shows the blowback that can result.  It reported how agricultural giant Cargill fell out of favor with environmentalists:

For years, the American agricultural giant Cargill has been on relatively good terms with environmental advocates, praised for agreeing to a landmark moratorium on buying soybeans grown on deforested land in the Amazon rain forest.

In recent weeks, though, that relationship has soured over the company’s refusal to agree to a similar moratorium in another environmentally sensitive region of Brazil and… its failure to meet its anti-deforestation targets. This month, the environmental advocacy group Mighty Earth released a report titled “Cargill: The Worst Company in the World.”

50 Shades of Woke

Sword & Script blogger Frank Strong wrote about the nuances of taking a stand, covering another Edelman study, and his own survey:

A study by Edelman found… “64 percent of consumers around the world now buy on belief, a remarkable increase of 13 points since 2017.” The ensuing narrative has been that “taking a stand is no longer an option for brands.”

Yet asking people if they buy on belief is not the same thing as … if they’d buy from a company with a public position on a political issue with which they disagree. There’s a level of granularity that needs to be explored…

If the quality, convenience or price of a product or service is better than the competition, respondents said they would still buy from a brand even if they took a political position with which they disagree… employees matter too. If the workplace is divided over an issue, any stand could be disruptive.

PR tech firm Meltwater posted an article that explores the different sides of brands taking stands, and also shares some great examples.  The story, by NewsCred, says:

The prevailing advice seems to be that if a brand chooses to go down this path, it should proceed with caution. It should select an issue that’s a fit and be prepared to back up its promotional efforts with REAL actions to support the message it puts forward.

In Employers we Trust

Frank Strong mentioned the importance of employee concerns.  Indeed, the latest Edelman Trust Barometer reveals “My Employer” is the most trusted institution:

“The last decade has seen a loss of faith in traditional authority figures and institutions,” said Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman. “More recently, people have lost confidence in the social platforms that fostered peer-to-peer trust. These forces have led people to shift their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their employers.”

Workers also like to take their employers to task, according to the many stories I’ve seen about employee activism.  This Medium article is a first-person account of #GoogleWalkout, a trend so prevalent that it apparently deserves its own hash tag.  The author, a 13-year Google veteran, railed against the company’s unchecked power on the way out the door. 

This NY Times story reports that an employee revolt led a PR agency to drop a contract they’d just won for a private company that runs border detention centers.

Regarding activist workplaces, right leaning, anti-PC Mises Institute wrote about the dangers of The Rise of Woke Capitalism for Education News. The post likens these companies to totalitarian governments or even religions pushing their beliefs.

Boardroom Sociopaths

I’m a cynic and question the motives behind most corporate activism. Do companies push CSR and philanthropic agendas without regard for the PR dividends? In the Jewish religion, true charity should be given anonymously. Who really believes that Nike chose Colin Kaepernick without some consideration for their bottom-line business interests?  And if they didn’t, shouldn’t they have?

In a NY Times DealBook piece, Andrew Ross Sorkin writes about Jame Gamble, a former corporate lawyer for the largest companies:

[He’s] concluded that corporate executives — the people who hired him and that his firm sought to protect — “are legally obligated to act like sociopaths.”

It’s because they have a fiduciary responsibility to guard the bottom line and protect shareholder interests.

“The corporate entity is obligated to care only about itself and to define what is good as what makes it more money,” he writes in the essay. “Pretty close to a textbook case of antisocial personality disorder. And corporate persons are the most powerful people in our world.”

Sorkin describes Gamble’s modest proposal:

Companies, he suggests, should “adopt a binding set of ethical rules, approved by stockholders and addressing the key ethical dimensions of corporate life” including relationships with employees, communities, customers, and [companies’] effects on the environment and on future generations.

This movement, if successful would compel them to balance profits and ethics.  Sounds great, but Andrew Ross Sorkin points out the obstacles and unintended consequences of such a move.

A Few Final Thoughts

Can companies do well by doing good?  I think they can by taking a long-term view, insofar as stronger local economies, clean environments and happy employees can all be good for the company.  Yes, they should be strong businesses; but not the kind built on the backs of exploited workers and plundered ecosystems.

I love the proposal above, that boardrooms and C-suites should also be guided by ethical rules.  I agree with PR Daily’s advice: that top execs should lead with principles and damn the torpedoes.

E.g. we can just look at the latest news cycle, which included two mass shootings.  Matthew Prince, CEO of cloud tech firm Cloudflare showed guts in taking extremist messaging board 8chan offline, as reported in NY Times.  Legally, he did not have to – and other big tech companies have dragged their feet when it comes to policing extremist content.  The paper also ran an open letter to Walmart’s CEO, urging Doug McMillon to take a stand against guns.  Will he?

Above and beyond that, getting involved in culture wars, and picking gratuitous political fights seems to be a perilous idea for these tense and divided times.


							
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Just DON’T It: Brands Fight Culture Wars at their Peril

Should brands get involved in culture wars?

E.g. some thought that Nike was very shrewd in hiring Colin Kaepernick as a brand ambassador.  He’s polarizing, but the bold move seemed to sync with their brand.  For the uninitiated, Kaepernick is the football player who got lots of kudos and crap for sitting during the national anthem at games and inspiring others to do the same.  By picking Kaepernick, Nike was standing up for rights and championing athletic prowess – or cynically playing to their base.  Either way, they placed their bet.

Some say that brands should express human, relatable qualities.  But people are often careful about sharing provocative views in public or at family gatherings or at work.

This was lost on Nike.  Sure enough, their Kaepernick gambit exploded like July 4th fireworks when Nike pulled new sneakers that had the Betsy Ross flag from production.  They did this at Colin’s urging, according to this NY Times piece, because the flag can be a symbol of oppression and racism.  Now, everyone is mad at Nike, and clearly, they are taking a business hit and PR lumps (it remains to be seen, what if any long term impact there will be on the brand and sales).

I know, it is easy to play armchair quarterback.  Hindsight is 2020. Etc. And there were lots of moving parts to the mess.  Should Nike have hired Kaepernick in the first place? Having done that, should they have heeded his advice on marketing strategy (if that actually happened)?

The alternative is for brands to get bland – so neutral and inoffensive that they don’t appeal to anyone.

We live in polarized times.  We have become numb to provocation.  But in a sick way, we love to have our buttons pushed. So it is tempting for a Nike or any company to take their culture war shots.

But the latest episode shows the risks.  Nike and other companies should think twice before doing this – that is my opinion.

What do you think? I asked some friends and co-workers – see their answers below, and feel free to chime in with your comments.  And happy July 4th, Flack’s Revenge readers!

Emily said: “I think it is fair for brands to take sides in culture wars, especially if a brand ambassador is being called out by the public as a bad role model. If a brand isn’t being properly represented or the brand ambassador does not uphold the company’s values, I think it is the company’s right to pull lines and end sponsorships as needed.”

George said: “They missed the elephant in the room – the controversy over the past few years about the Confederate flag and statues should have put Nike on the alert about flag symbolism.”

Mark said: “It depends on the company’s preferred image and appetite for controversy. It can always be interpreted as ‘jumping on a bandwagon’ and can definitely backfire in terms of sales, but it’s always an attention-getter!  I’m all for companies getting involved in culture wars.  It helps me know which brands to avoid!  I think pulling the shoes was a mistake though.  Their stock has taken a hit, and that’s a case where they should have let the marketplace decide whether or not they wanted flags on their feet.”

Jordan said: “Brands are being forced to participate in cultural wars usually erring on the conservative side. If anything becomes offensive to anyone these days, brands are so wary of negative repercussions that they almost don’t have a choice but to pull a product, or an ad, or an individual.  Is that taking a side? In a sense it is. Making a choice is taking a side.  Even doing nothing could be, although that would passive.  However, nowadays doing nothing can be ground for an attack.   A deeper question could be whether brands are acting out of what they believe to be a correct choice ethically. Clearly most brands these days believe that it’s in their business interests to take what is generally reverse-action (pulling back on something or someone) but at some point, there will be a backlash against that as well.  The flag and Nike might be a good example, we’ll see. “

Brian said: ” I think it’s the most socially unaware/tone deaf branding decision ever – you can go with Kaepernick, but then you need to stay from the flag – especially one from an era that obviously had slavery. Don’t hedge your bets.”

Adam said: “Who the fxxk wants sneakers with a Betsy Ross flag anyway.”

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