Friendship and the PR Agency Professional


In a relationship-based service business like public relations, it’s inevitable that agency-client relationships often become friendships. As PR agency professionals, being successful requires us to not only really understand our clients’ businesses, but our client contacts’ motivations, aspirations, challenges, etc. The best PR strategies take all of this into consideration.

Though everyone’s busy lives makes it tougher to schedule, a good agency-client relationship often involves cocktails, dinner and entertainment.  It’s these occasions, as well as the day-to-day work and late nights managing crises, when the bonds of friendship are born.

One of my oldest friendships started as an agency-client relationship back in the mid-1990s. We did some outstanding, award-winning work together and really got to know each other.  Over the past 18 years, we’ve watched each other’s careers and families grow.  Though we haven’t done any work together in more than six years, we both know the possibility of doing so again may be just around the corner.  It will happen when it’s time — and even if it doesn’t, that’s okay too.

Friends help each other – in many different ways.  One thing that many clients often forget — we PR agency types often hear about job possibilities (and organizational restructurings) before they become public knowledge.

One of the most important qualities in friendship is loyalty.  A good agency person is loyal to his client (and vice versa!).

Like any friendship, agency-client relationships will have their ups and downs.  And there might be legitimate reasons for the commercial side of the relationship to come to a close.  But, underlying it all, if there’s friendship, even the bumps in the road will be manageable.  Because we like each other and respect each other.

And, if we really have affection for one another, great things can happen.

4 Ways Coke Is Putting Its Brand Reputation Into Action


Compliments to Coca-Cola for showing how to put its brand reputation into action with its recently announced commitments to active lifestyles and happier lives.

Through a new website  and a full-page Wall Street Journal ad, the brand commits to:

  • Offer low-or no-calorie beverage options in every market.
  • Help get people moving by supporting physical activity programs in every country it does business.
  • Provide transparent nutrition information, featuring calories on the front of all its packages.
  • Market responsibly, including no advertising to children under 12 anywhere in the world.

Sure, the brand will continue to be criticized about soft drinks and their contribution to the obesity epidemic.  As someone pursuing a healthy lifestyle (and as a parent), I suggest everyone moderate soft drink consumption and other poor diet habits.

As a marketer, I commend Coke for taking action and encourage all brands to think about these strategies for putting their reputation into action:

  • Take responsibility for your actions; don’t blame someone else – when you can accept some responsibility for an issue, you will win more fans than foes.
  • Be part of the solution; not the problem – when you offer ideas rather than arguments, you will gain trust and appreciation with the majority of people. When you point fingers, you can appear irrelevant and even petty. You certainly don’t look like a leader.
  • Stick to your values – Coke is the real thing. It is in the fabric of America and the world’s life. When the world wants change, Coke does so in its way – using its assets to support programs like “Troop For Fitness” program for Chicago families.
  •  KISS – don’t overwhelm your audience with 20 points.  Research shows that people can only remember three to four points. Coke understands this.  You can even remember these Coke commitments using an old memory trick – Our Points Have Merit.

So how are you putting your brand reputation into action?


How Reputation Gains Value For Corporations And Brands


The value of reputation keeps gaining traction for companies and brands, according to a new report of business leaders and consumers. Consider these statistics:

  1. Priority -- 56% of leaders say that reputation is a high priority for executive management and the board of directors, and 63% expect reputation management to be a higher priority for their company in the next 2-3 years.
  2. Business value — 60% of business leaders believe that reputation has a high impact on their company, especially influencing increases in customer retention, sales and revenue, and market share.
  3. Drives support with an excellent reputation, 64% of consumers would buy a company’s product and 59% would recommend it.
  4. Reputation economy – 79% agree that we are competing in a reputation economy but only 20% claim they are ready to take advantage of it.

Those topline results are from the 2013 Forbes and Reputation Institute’s Global RepTrak™ tracking the world’s most reputable brands. By the way, the top five brands are BMW, Disney, Rolex, Google and Daimler. The report was assembled with input from more than 300 C-suite leaders and 55,000 consumer interviews.

The report also states these are the top 3 challenges for reputation leaders:

  1. Structured process for reputation thinking being implemented in business planning.
  2. Leveraging the knowledge we have to be relevant to each stakeholder group.
  3. Internal silos preventing cross functional collaboration.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

We are creating a brand reputation building practice to complement our successful corporate practice.  The cornerstones of this new practice are:

  1. A brand reputation planning 4-D model with four stages — Discovery, Direction, Deployment and Determination.  The goals of the stages are understanding, creating, activating and measuring brand reputations.  This might seem too text book but it does add discipline to our work that is becoming more dynamic every day.
  2. An approach that believes that building a brand reputation is about Awareness, Credibility and Energy.  We cleverly call that our ACE approach.

As the report claims, it is a reputation economy and becoming more so each day, so how are you optimizing your brand reputation?

Why don’t you contact us and ask for our SnapAudit that shows how your brand fares on our ACE approach?

What The Masters Teaches Us About Brand Strengths


It is the opening day of the 79th Masters Tournament.

This is the day when golf fans – male and female — act like kids getting their first I-Phone.

The Masters’ major attraction is its heritage, romantic lure and its lush Augusta National course. As CBS Sports proclaims it is “a tradition unlike any other…”

Whether it’s the winner’s green jacket, the vexing Amen corner, the patrons (not the gallery) or the winner’s interview in the legendary Butler Cabin; the Masters is a venerable brand. Its attributes can inspire all marketers and marketing public relations professionals.

In fact, the Masters brand reminds me of the Interbrand annual survey of top 100 global brands. No surprise, Coke is the leading brand followed by the usual suspects – Apple, IBM, Google, and McDonald’s, etc. Incidentally, Coke’s brand value is calculated to be about $80 billion.

Interbrand’s ranking considers these 10 internal and external brand strength factors:

Internal Factors

  1. Clarity – the brand’s values, positioning and proposition. It is about target audiences, customer insights and drivers. These must be articulated and shared across the organization.
  2. Commitment – a belief in the brand’s importance. The extent to which the brand receives support in terms of time, influence, and investment.
  3. Protection — the brand’s security across a number of dimensions: legal protection, propriety ingredients or design, scale or geographical spread.
  4. Responsiveness — the ability to respond to market changes, challenges and opportunities. A brand need leadership internally and a desire and ability to constantly evolve and renew itself.

External Factors

  1. Authenticity — the brand is soundly based on an internal truth and capability. It has a defined heritage and a well-grounded value set. It can deliver against the (high) expectations that customers demand.
  2. Relevance — the brand fit with customer/consumer needs, desires, and decision criteria across all relevant demographics and geographies.
  3. Differentiation — the degree to which customers/consumers perceive the brand to have a differentiated positioning distinctive from the competition.
  4. Consistency – the level to which a brand is experienced without fail across all touch points or formats.
  5. Presence – the point to which a brand feels omnipresent and is talked about positively by consumers, customers and opinion formers in both traditional and social media.
  6. Understanding — the brand is not only recognized by customers, but there is also an in-depth knowledge and understanding of its distinctive qualities and characteristics. (Where relevant, this will extend to consumer understanding of the company that owns the brand).

So for golf fans, the question of the week is who will don the Masters’ green jacket?

And for marketers and public relations professionals, the question should be what can my brand learn from the Masters’ and Interbrand’s strength factors?

Reflections on 10 Years As A PR Firm Founder and Owner


Every so often I get asked about what it’s like to found and own a PR firm and how it differs from my years working for large multinational corporations and PR firms.  Well, on the occasion of our firm’s 10th anniversary, here are a few observations:

  • Faster decision making.  At the big PR firms, we had to respond to nearly every RFP that came through the door.  We couldn’t argue that we didn’t have a specific capability or didn’t have a legitimate “shot.”  After all, RFPs were (and are) the source of most of big agency new business.  As a boutique firm, we don’t receive a large volume of RFPs.  When we do, we quickly dismiss the ones we don’t feel we have at least a 75-80% chance of winning.  Otherwise, too much time is wasted responding to them.  We’d rather spend it serving our clients or creating our own new business opportunities. We’re also able to make decisions a lot more quickly about clients we’ll agree to serve and people we’ll decide to hire.  No “checking with New York.”  If we want to do something, after considering it thoughtfully, we just do it.
  • Nick Kalm, Jane Devron and Megan Hakes started Reputation Partners in 2002.

    Talent that’s equal or better.  In my 29 years in this business on the client and agency side, I’ve been privileged to work with and learn from a lot of talented people.  I’m struck by the fact that the kinds of people we’re able to attract to our firm are as good as and often even better than the caliber of talent I worked with previously.  And there’s a little something “extra” in finding an employee who’s more attracted by the quality of the opportunity rather than the “prestige” of a big company/PR firm name.

  • No “dead weight.”  One of the unfortunate realities of many large employers is the fact that not everyone pulls their weight.  Given the economic downturn, this happens less than it used to, but it still occurs.  “Why are they there?” or “What are they doing?” are two refrains we never hear at Reputation Partners.  Here, we make sure everyone is productive; everybody’s working.
  • Great, big clients.  When we left the world of big agencies, some speculated that we might be too small to serve some of the biggest companies in the world.  Given that our first three clients were FedEx, GE and IBM, that notion was quickly put to rest.  In the ten years since, we’ve worked with numerous blue chip companies.  But, we’ve also worked with many smaller and mid-sized organizations – and have done some of our most interesting work for them.
  • Financial controls equal better results.  Running a PR firm well from a financial standpoint really isn’t hard.  Budget engagements appropriately.  Don’t overservice.  Get written agreements from clients before starting work and at every step.  Follow-up and collect on past due receivables.  Don’t allow one client to become too big a percentage of your business.  Having seen what to do and not do at the big shops, it was relatively easy to set Reputation Partners on a better path.

So, do I have any regrets?  Well, as the old song goes, I’ve had a few.  But, ten years in, I’m as ready for the next ten as I was for the first.  Being an entrepreneur, having a great team, and the opportunities I see ahead are what get me up at 5:00 a.m. every day.

What motivates you?

Labor Communications Lessons from the Chicago Teachers Union Strike


Despite years of declining membership and some very public drubbings, the union movement continues to show signs of life. The currently-unfolding Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike is the most recent example.

There are a few important labor communications lessons from the current CTU labor dispute and my own experience in providing counsel regarding labor union communications:

  • Strike votes are usually symbolic. But, as the parents of nearly 400,000 Chicago students now painfully know, strikes do occur. The first thing the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Board could have done was show the union (and public) they were ready, willing and able to operate completely without their members. In a very public way, run ads to spread the word that you’re lining up replacement workers, all while urging the striking employees not to strike/return to work. With unemployment hovering above 8 percent for years, plenty of people would jump at the chance. This was common (and effective) practice in the New York area when teacher strikes were frequent as well as in numerous private sector settings.
  • Chicago Public Schools Board President David Vitale was quoted as saying the Board agreed not to negotiate through the media. That’s another missed opportunity. If you have a union workforce whose absence is going to affect lots of customers, suppliers or the community, you better make sure your key audiences know what’s at stake and why the strike is occurring – before it happens. A scan of my Facebook and Twitter feeds and media comments show many people seem confused by the CTU strike. The CPS Board could have clearly defined what they had put into their various offers, thereby forcing the CTU to explain what the issues are that are “forcing” them to strike.
  • Union/management conflicts are, by definition, a battle for “hearts and minds.” Management needs to do the best job possible of showing the bargaining unit, salaried employees and others not only the logic of what they’re doing, but the emotional reasons for doing so.  “Hearts and minds” are what unions “do” beautifully. Management needs to embrace this as well.

The Chicago Teachers Union Strike in Downtown Chicago

It’s not too late for CPS management to consider some of these steps, as thousands of parents are counting on this strike to be over soon. But, if you work at an organization with unionized employees, you’d be wise to consider these and other steps before your own contracts expire.

What’s Missing From the Board of Directors?


On a Chicago stage, where the current production is “Enron,” the company’s Board of Directors are portrayed as three blind mice.  Certainly, the Enron Board’s epic failure is well documented, but more recent failures by various organization’s Boards of Directors (from Olympus to HP to Penn State to the Susan G. Komen Foundation) reveal an ongoing Achilles’ Heel that goes way beyond effective corporate governance.

Over my career, I’ve worked with countless CEOs — many of whom have correctly involved their Boards of Directors on matters of strategic importance.  And, to be sure, when large organizations face serious reputational issues, they often involve in-house corporate communications people and bring in external PR counsel.

But, I think a strong argument can be made that many serious issues could have been avoided or mitigated at the Board level before they rose to a crisis.  Corporate communications people have their fingers on the public’s pulse, so we can and do anticipate issues well and provide valuable insights into taking advantage of market opportunities.  The problem is: very few company Boards of Directors include executives with corporate communications backgrounds or expertise. This is a surprising and noteworthy omission.

Certainly, Boards benefit from the presence of executives with diverse corporate, financial and academic backgrounds.  And, many executives have solid instincts and experience dealing with communications/perception issues.  But, few of them are experienced in and attuned to identifying and addressing public perception issues at the early stages — when they are invariably easier and less costly to fix.

It’s difficult to find any public companies with communications executives currently on their boards of trustees (Yum Brands is a notable exception, but one wonders how active its board was in its Taco Bell subsidiary’s 2011 bruising battle with the plaintiffs’ bar).   Notably, among CEOs, only two — Brian Tierney (of Philadelphia Media Holdings) and David D’Alessandro (of John Hancock Financial Services) — immediately come to mind as having a PR background (vs. overseeing PR).

Would a PR person on HP’s Board have encouraged a more disciplined and thoughtful approach to  selecting CEO Mark Hurd’s successor?  Likewise, if a communications professional were on the Board at Olympus, what would they have recommended when’ CEO Michael Woodford asked the Board to investigate a series of acquisitions led by the company’s chairman?  Finally, though they eventually brought in outside PR counsel, how different would the recent fiascoes with Penn State and others have turned out if they’d had PR at the decision-making table?  I guess we’ll never know, but there are thousands of companies out there who would be advised to think more broadly when filling their next open Board seat.

Don’t Pick Fights With People Who…Have Internet Access


There’s a story rocketing around the PR agency world this week about a PR firm that finds itself in a very ugly and avoidable fight with a prominent blogger. (NSFW) It’s a great and timeless cautionary tale.

There’s an old saying about not picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.  Of course, this is meant to suggest caution about doing battle with a member of the media.

But with most newspapers, radio and TV news in decline, along with the rapid ascent of bloggers, I think the saying should be updated to the headline of this post.

In this case, the PR firm sent a pitch to a blogger who didn’t care to receive it.  Blogger said so (in typical blogger way) and got a snarky reply from the pitcher at the PR firm.  Blogger (who, by the way, had over 160,000 followers — compare that to the readership of your average daily newspaper!) sent back another typical blogger reply (a bit flip and edgy).

This was followed by a foolish “reply all” from the PR firm (that included said blogger).  Well, after this bonehead maneuver (which nearly anyone could have done), the blogger apparently gave the PR firm VP a chance to walk his NSFW comment back, but, no, instead, he decided to double down on snark.

And, gee, what do you think the blogger decided to do about this whole exchange?  Publish it!


Setting aside how this reflects on the whole PR agency world, it was just plain dumb to think that this firm could do (inept) battle with a blogger and come out a winner.

So, what are the lessons here:

Lesson #1 — Treat respectable bloggers (especially those with six-figures worth of followers!) with at least as much respect as you’d treat a reporter from The New York Times.  If you have an issue with something they said, or wouldn’t include in their coverage, etc., sure you can address it with them, but….

Lesson #2 — Assume that anything and everything that you put in writing to/about a blogger will find its way to said blogger (and everyone who follows him/her…and so on….and so on).

Lesson #3 — Once you’ve done your damage, the only thing left to do is give an unqualified apology to the blogger (and the world), and give your staff some remedial training.

Storm Clouds Gather Over Companies


A couple of news stories caught my eye recently. Left unaddressed, the issues they cover spell danger for many companies.

The first is from today’s Wall Street JournalThe story focuses on a Corporate Executive Board Co. (CEB) study of 4,300 employees exiting 80 companies, most with more than $2 billion in annual revenues. The study indicated that more than 75% of these employees wouldn’t recommend their employer to others — an astonishing number — and, according to the CEB, the highest percentage in at least five years.

The other seemingly-unrelated development is a proposal by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that would have the effect of dramatically accelerating the speed with which labor unions could hold electionsThe U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have expressed concern (and initiated legal action), stating that this change tilts the labor-management dynamic too far in labor’s direction.

So, why should companies be concerned?  Even though support for and membership in labor unions is at historic lows, and many industries have historically been poor or non-existent targets for labor unions, the fact that more and more corporate employees are disgruntled makes them an incredibly-attractive target now.  Couple this with the possibility that the unions may be able to launch an accelerated run on a companies’ workforce, it’s probably only a handful of companies on Fortune’s “Best Place to Work,” “Best Companies for Working Mothers,” and similar lists that can afford to be complacent.

To be sure, during the downturn, many companies had little choice but to put in such steps as pay freezes, hiring freezes, benefits cuts and staff reductions.  But with many companies now sitting on records amounts of cash, the unions can and likely will exploit the dichotomy of “employees who’ve had to sacrifice” with “companies sitting on millions.”

What can prudent companies do?  Of course, it begins with communications — outlining for employees what the company’s business and financial prospects look like and dealing head-on with any cost cutting measures in which employees bore the brunt.  Why did you do what you did and how long do you anticipate leaving these changes in place?  What other expenses (esp. those that didn’t directly affect employees) did you cut?

Do you still communicate top-down only or do you allow for upward and omnidirectional communication?  Are your front-line supervisors adept at communicating? Are you listening to what your employees (and ex-employees) are saying about you on social media?

Beyond that, a prudent review of HR practices is called for.  Are you still benchmarking with competitors to make sure your compensation and benefits practices are in line?  Did you allow your managers to forgo performance reviews?  Do you provide for 360 reviews?

Given the ongoing uncertainty in the economy, some of these steps may seem like luxuries to some companies.  But, with the alternative being the departure of more of your best and brightest, along with the specter of unionization, can you afford not to?

A Time to Sell, to Buy Back, or Neither?


About once a month, I read about one PR firm after another buying itself back from an acquirer.  The latest is Brodeur buying itself back from Omnicom.  A few weeks back, MWW bought itself back from IPG.

What’s behind all of this? I know my friend Rick Gould makes a number of compelling arguments about selling one’s firm, but, in order to convince me, I’d need to meet an agency principal who’s happy they sold several years later.

I know that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but its hard to envision retaining your culture and approach if someone else is controlling the purse strings.

I’m aware of firms such as MDC Partners that take a slight majority position and let the agency principals “keep doing what they’re doing.”   Count me among the skeptical.

One of the things that motivated me to start my own firm was being able to get out from under people who told me what I could and couldn’t do.  If you sell your firm (or even a minority stake), you’re undoubtedly giving (at least some of) that up.

I try “never to say never,” but as long as I still see a long flight plan ahead and can continue to use ongoing cash flow and, if necessary, a line of credit to fund and grow my business, flying solo is the way to go — at least for me.

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