03.22.2010

Street Talk

by Robin

A few weeks ago I was contacted by the Steve Heacock for Congress campaign to lead communications efforts.  After meeting the candidate and the team, I accepted the role.  The same day I joined the campaign team, Rick Treur was brought in as Campaign Manager, a role he filled for Vern Ehlers previously.

In addition to developing a communications plan for the campaign, one of the first tasks was a news release announcing Rick as the new campaign manager. A couple outlets picked it up, including the Grand Rapids Business Journal, which mentioned the release in its “Street Talk” column.  It wasn’t quite the “pick up” I was expecting however.  Typically the PR person remains behind the news, not in it.

The problem is that I used to work at the GRBJ.  Back in 1990-91, I was a reporter covering manufacturing, banking and the economy.  Shortly before I left I was approached by Seyferth & Associates which, at that time, was Grand Rapids’ leading PR firm. After a couple of meetings, I accepted their offer of a job. At the time, I was a young guy with a young wife and a little baby girl trying to pay off college debt and live on the meager earnings of a reporter. I worked nights at a video store to earn extra cash.

Along comes a PR firm offering me a significant upgrade. Of course I took the job, even though in my heart I still was a journalist at that time. My Editor, Carole, took me to Teazers, a bar down the street, and bought me a couple beers while she tried to talk me out of taking the job.  That’s what led to the following portion of the column:

“…the news came in a release distributed by Robin Luymes. The Business Journal clan knows Luymes well from his start as a fresh-faced reporter with the BJ.  No amount of adult beverage at the time could keep the pride of Canada from traveling down the path that now has him stumping for political types and other interests as an independent PR pro. We tried.”

I was flattered (although embarrassed) to be the focus of Carole’s comments, because the real news was Heacock and the Treur announcement. But I’m thankful for my start with the GRBJ because it was my work there that earned the notice of Seyferth which led to my PR career. Ironically, I never did go to work at Seyferth.  Before I could finish my “two weeks notice” I was approached by Amway.  I interviewed and they offered me a job too (one representing a significant upgrade from Seyferth’s offer). 

The rest is, as they say, history.

In the media training I helped lead last week we discussed the slow response of certain business leaders in the wake of crises affecting their brands. With social media, what once was just a little slow would today be considered glacial. 

One case study we discussed was the emergency landing by Captain “Sully” of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River a little more than a year ago.  The successful emergency landing on the river, famously captured on a cell phone camera, occurred at 3:30 p.m.  The evacuation onto the wings of the Airbus A320 happened quickly, and within minutes nearby commercial ferries were taking on the passengers. Capt. Sully, who first walked through the plane twice to ensure all passengers had been evacuated, emerged as America’s newest hero.

At 4:55 p.m., fire crews began to stand down.  All the cable news channels had extensively covered the situation. Many interviews of experts and witnesses and analysts had been conducted. By that time, there was little that the American public didn’t know about what had happened. A jet airliner landing on the river in NYC?! Post 9/11, the media are super-prepared to be all over a situation like this.

At 5:07 p.m., US Airways CEO Doug Parker issued a statement during a news conference at the airline’s headquarters in Tempe, Arizona, confirmed that there had been an accident. He didn’t really say much more than that.  He didn’t use the opportunity to praise Captain Sully, with whom he had already spoken on the phone.  He didn’t say, ”We’re thrilled that the expertise of our flight staff prevented this from being a much more dire situation.”  After all, all 155 occupants of the ditched jet survived!  By the time he stood at the podium, he knew his airline had just been presented the biggest gift ever — an accident that couldn’t be avoided, but only minor injuries and some property loss.

Now, 90 minutes isn’t that much time, especially if a number of meetings and discussions had to occur before the hastily assembled news conference.  That said, more information needed to come from Mr. Parker and, more important, some emotion. People know that some accidents are going to happen and are unavoidable. But, people want to see a human reaction to crises … not some “don’t-say-too-much-for-fear-of-lawsuit” statement.

For weeks, the crisis at Toyota has been building.  A little less sensational, but affecting many more people. Quality issues have now resulted in the recall of 9 million cars worldwide. Again, people don’t expect mechanical things to be perfect, but they do expect the manufacturers of mechanical things to not only fix the problem, but to publicly acknowledge the errors and demonstrate some *human* remorse.  Not just a statement. Not just a policy. Not just a fix.  They want to see real people saying real things about real situations.

Toyota’s president, Akio Toyoda (grandson of company founder), was part of a hastily arranged news conference Friday night (earlier today) and apologized, taking personal responsibility for the problems. “I deeply regret that I caused concern among so many people,” he said. “We will do our utmost to regain the trust of our customers.”  He acknowledged this is a crisis (Really? You didn’t know that earlier?) and he also apologized to shareholders for the 20% drop in company stock.

That he is apologizing and taking this seriously is great.  That it’s happening a few weeks after the news first broke is not so great.  And while I believe shareholders are indeed an important audience, an apology to them should be done through a shareholder-only communication. Doing so in the news conference only indicates that the only reason Mr. Toyoda is up there is because the crisis is affecting financials, rather than the fact that his faulty cars are affecting people.

I appreciate good brakes. This morning, while I was taking a left out of a parking lot, some oncoming cars were stopped to allow me through.  Little did I know, however, that another car was barreling down the left turn lane.  The driver/cell phone talker, however, did have good enough sense and brakes to come to a skidding stop as I inched across the lane. Thank you for good brakes to unknown car maker (I don’t remember what make of car it was … it could have been a Toyota!).  

I want Toyota to say, “We’re sorry that a faulty process has led to this. We will do our utmost to ensure this doesn’t happen again and to make sure every Toyota owner has complete confidence in their car’s mechanical abilities!” I don’t own a Toyota personally, but I believe I drive next to many of them every day. 

And I want them to say these things early in the game and not weeks later when their stock is crashing. That’s all I want.

For the past few months I’ve been working with ShowSpan to publicize their Grand Rapids Camper, Travel & RV Show, which opened yesterday.  I have been very impressed with ShowSpan’s “behind-the-scenes” operations supporting the show, which is one of many they produce (they also do the auto show, the home & garden show, the golf show, and others).  ShowSpan works with an ad agency as well, of course, to place ads on TV, radio, print and billboards. They have a good online presence.  And they have me.

For the past few weeks, I’ve helped keep ShowSpan spokespeople pretty busy.  This morning we had Fox17 out here between 6 and 9 a.m. which also meant that the show manager was here as well as a few of the vendors we were featuring.  Later this morning the RV show will be featured in an EightWest segment on WOOD TV8, the result of a taping yesterday with Rachel Ruiz.  Last night the show was on Fox17’s evening news and was featured as part of WGVU TV’s “Ask The Expert” with Shelley Irwin.   WZZM13 also has been here and that show appeared yesterday. 

Last Sunday The Grand Rapids Press featured the show on the back cover of the sports section and John Gonzalez made the RV Show one of Gonzo’s Top Five picks for the week. Add in all the radio interviews and the media interest the show will continue to generate (NASCAR favorite Johnny Benson’s here tomorrow … that’ll bring a crowd), and it all equals a lot of exposure for the RV industry.  One result of that was record crowds arriving for the Thursday open of the show, now in its fourth year.

The exposure increases  interest which generates traffic which, hopefully, results in sales for the RV industry. Talking to some of the RV dealers who are showing their wares at the show, interest is high among show attendees to buy.  That’s a good sign, because the RV industry is a leading indicator for the overall economy.  It’s the first to decline when the economy softens, and it’s among the first to rebound when confidence rises.

SO, I’m not a trained expert in this field, but I do sense a strengthening economy and hope that my role supporting one show in one city for one industry is a part of the solution.  As for you, it’s time to plan your vacation, and you should at least explore RVs as an option. Benefits include family bonding, flexibility, cost benefits, and more. I’ll send you the news releases if you’d like.  :-)

As I entered my office (aka The Sparrows) today, I noticed a cooler right next to the Jones Soda cooler labeled Naked, a brand of fruit juices. It reminded me of a blog post I wrote a few years ago on Getting Naked.  I thought I’d revisit that topic here.

At the time, I was preparing for a WOMMA conference at which I was speaking on managing online corporate reputations. It’s a theme I’ve tried to carry through on my site and business cards and in my practice of public relations: Honest, Open, Transparent communications (HOTcomms). 

If HOTcomms were practiced by all companies and organizations, the public relations profession itself wouldn’t have its own reputation issues.  When organizations use their “PR” function to obfuscate or “spin” or perform some other sleight of hand to distract their audiences from the plain, bare truth, the public simply loses trust in the organizations AND anything labeled “PR.”

When will CEOs, political candidates and others realize that eventually their disingenuous communications will come back to bite them in the butt?  There may have been a time in the past when you could get away with tricking your audiences, but today there are millions of people online ready to correct the record or shed light on a topic they feel is being “spun.”  Candidates espousing a particular position are reminded of previous statements or actions indicating a different viewpoint in the past. Companies hiding information related to their financials are usually discovered these days. Ask Enron or any of the hundreds of companies listed online that have tried to get away with unethical practices.

Social media — a vast online conversation surrounding just about every topic — has nearly ensured that the truth will eventually come out on just about any topic.  If more than one person knows a secret, eventually they’ll talk.  And that secret will quickly spread throughout the online universe, because that’s what happens with secrets. The more you try to hide something, the bigger the “aha” moment when it’s discovered.

Robert Scoble and Shel Israel wrote about being open in Naked Conversations, and Don Tapscott and David Ticoll covered similar territory in The Naked Corporation.  In April 2007, Wired Magazine had a series of articles themed “Get Naked and Rule the World.” All of them pointed out that, increasingly, there are no secrets. Information “wants to be free” and quickly becomes so online.

With this new reality, businesses and organizations that will advance to the next level are those committed to transparency, adapting to consumer needs as expressed by the consumers themselves, and providing a level of unprecedented participation. There are many examples of brands that have succeeded in creating productive, engaged conversations around their brands. Those conversations are not always positive, but the willingness to allow critique results in a “double positive.” The honest, open and transparent brands get good marks for what is already positive about their brands, and they get good marks for openly discussing what’s not completely positive (provided that consumers see movement in the right direction on those negatives).

People don’t always expect perfection. But they expect not to be lied to. They can forgive a company when things don’t always go right. But they don’t forgive attempts to spin or cover up or outright lie about what hasn’t gone right.  My advice always is to “out yourself before you’re outed by others.” If you allow someone else to tell your bad news before you, you’re already digging yourself out of a hole. By presenting the not-s0-great information yourself, you’re able to also tell your key audiences what you’re doing about the situation.

So, my advice back in 2007 and for 2010 is to “get naked.”  While HOTcomms may not always be the way to quick success, it is fundamental to long-term success.

12.28.2009

I’ve mentioned before that sometimes I cry at movies. I’m reminded of that last night as I watch “Bridge to Terabithia” with my kids. We saw it in the theater a few years ago and my kids thought it was funny that I cried during the movie. SPOILER ALERT … Read no further if you still want to watch this movie!

OK? Alright. Well, the movie is about a boy who is a bit of an outcast because his family is poor.  Then, a new girl moves in next door and she’s a bit of an outcast too because she’s different. The two become friends and, after school, spend time creating their own imaginary kingdom in a nearby woods called Terabithia. They also join forces at school to deal with a few of the bullies that make their lives miserable. So far so good. As far as family movies go, it was imaginative and interesting. Then, out of nowhere, the girl dies!  The boy took a special trip with a teacher and wasn’t around when the girl visited “Terabithia” and accidentally drowned in the engorged stream running through the woods. The boy was devastated … his only friend had just died and he felt somewhat responsible.

Just a movie? I guess. But I love good stories and my problem(?) is that I empathize with the characters. There are lots of movies that have pulled me in that way.  Like in “Forrest Gump,” when Forrest (Tom Hanks) asks Jenny (Robin Wright Penn) if his son is “like him,” meaning mentally challenged …  like after George (John Travolta) has died in Lace’s (Kyra Sedgewick) arms in ”Phenomenon” and then she is alone, on the porch, overcome with grief … or when Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) breaks down toward the end of “Schindler’s List,” wondering how many more Jews he could have bought with his car, his ring, his watch.  I can remember each scene and why it brings tears to my eyes … feeling the anguish of the characters and placing myself in their situations.

Good acting, yes. Great stories, certainly. They made me empathize with these characters. They made me feel their emotions, even though they were just acted out. Of course, that empathy extends to the real people I meet and know. There is the grief I have personally felt … but also the heart pangs for others’ losses.  The love I’ve experienced … and recognizing it in the way others might hold hands or look at each other.  There are the distressing moments I’ve lived … and knowing that look in another’s eyes.

The ability to empathize with others is, in my opinion, one of the most important skills required of PR professionals. It’s not just the ability to write well or know how to use the communication tools of the trade. Turning a good phrase and knowing which side looks better on camera and having an idea which editor will lend an ear to your spiel are all good to have in your PR toolbox.  But knowing people and what they need and what they feel and why … that’s what defines true PR pros.

When you understand and empathize with people in their situations, you better understand how they will receive information and respond.  Not only that, you have a better sense of what your organization needs to do to make them happy. PR’s role is to know its audience. Not just who they are and where they are, but why they are and how they are.  To truly know why and how, you need the ability to empathize.

Why is the disgruntled person that way? It requires understanding of their experience and then imagining how you would feel in the same situation.  When I was with Amway, I met a number of the online “critics” of the company. Few of them were truly against the Amway business; most felt there were some flaws with how the business was being conducted and felt the need to inform or warn others. Simply disagreeing doesn’t help. Acknowledging their experiences and explaining what you’re really doing to change the situation might. 

Empathizing with key audiences requires a lot of work. It’s not merely found in a white paper. It requires living and breathing, it requires experience, it requires wading through the lives of others.  

The kids are on Christmas break, so today I took Dillon and Jack to see “Where the Wild Things Are.” You guessed it. I got all misty eyed again at a movie made from a kids book.

12.19.2009

I was reading a Miami Herald article about the Ad and PR industries both scrambling to master social media. As budgets shrink, both the ad men and their PR cousins are scrambling to master social media. At Amway I oversaw advertising, sponsorships and public relations.

Advertising has a big role to play in the online space. Indeed, advertising online provides many benefits, including lower costs and  higher measurability than traditional media outlets. Not as broad a reach, but not all campaigns require that.  Meanwhile, search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) efforts ensure what you’re saying online will be seen by those interested in what you have to say, whether they know who you are or not.   

But when it comes to the dialog fostered by platforms like Facebook, Twitter and even YouTube, there is no profession equipped to represent clients effectively other than Public Relations. PR always has been the function that handles dialog for a company, whether that be through speeches, media interviews, press materials, or FAQs.  Advertising has mastered the art of telling a story in a way that elicits a response, but has not traditionally been there to answer the follow-up questions.

Social media, meanwhile, is about the entire dialog, not just the 30-second ad or the 10-word tagline. It’s about listening as much as it is about talking.  In fact, it’s about listening far more than you talk.  It’s about sharing the messages from your organization to your key audiences, but it’s also about taking their responses back to the organization and recommending responses.  Not just spoken or written responses … but responses in the form of actions. 

An example? Your product has been tampered with and people are getting sick.  At this point, it’s not just what you say that matters.  It’s what you do.  A recall is a start.  An investigation and sharing the results of that with the public is another.  Providing your customers with some incentive to stick with you even though they may have lost some trust in you is another.  These are not just words.  They’re actions and they might cost the company in the short run (but in the long run it might not only save their business, but earn them even greater support).

Integrated marketing, by the way, is more necessary than ever. What you say in advertising needs to be reflected in the dialog your public relations group is supporting.  It should be reflected in the types of sponsorships in which you engage. All of these marketing services are more effective for the company when they work together.

As long as there are internal battles and squabbles about who does what, however, there is little chance for integrated messages. The silos need to come down inside large organizations.  Strategies need to be shared.  Broader plans need to be fleshed out together and not in separate conference rooms. 

That’s my vision for what integrated marketing should involve.  I don’t think many marketers are well-equipped yet to work across all the media, and as long as they continue to favor one discipline over another, they will not achieve the full benefits of a truly integrated marketing plan that involves advertising, sponsorships, public relations AND the correspondingly appropriate uses of the digital space.

This month I start my term as president of the WMPRSA – West Michigan chapter of Public Relations Society of America.  I know, it’s a mouthful. Not only is it a lot to say quickly, I also get the distinct impression that when I say this to most non-PR people they’re thinking, “Huh?” If a lawyer says they’re a member of the Bar Association, most people would get it (except for the few who would think they have a drinking problem). There’s an old saying about the cobbler’s kids having the worst shoes — PR people are too busy communicating about others and suffer from their own reputation/awareness problems.

I started my PR career 18 years and 6 days ago, leaving journalism for the world of corporate PR at Amway. Since then, I have been on a path of constant learning about what the public relations profession is all about.  PRSA has played no small part in my education and professional development and for that I am incredibly thankful.

WMPRSA created a list of reasons that West Michigan PR professionals should join the local chapter. I can honestly say that I have personally benefitted in all 10 ways that are described. And in ways that have not been mentioned.  It was several years after I had started my PR career that I joined WMPRSA, thanks to my enlightened management.  They knew that what I learned through my PRSA involvement would benefit the quality of my work on their behalf.

My PRSA involvement included an educational process that led to Accreditation in Public Relations — a distinction that is not often enought sought out by prospective clients. Accreditation in Public Relations (as indicated by APR behind a professional’s name) means the PR practitioner has gone through a rigorous testing process to ensure professionalism, ethics, experience, and best practices. Through the APR process, the practitioner learns about the history of PR and why it even exists. Many of the ills of the PR profession are caused by those who don’t fully know what the PR profession is really about.

Another benefit of my involvement has been leadership development.  Several years after joining PRSA and after going through the APR process I joined the WMPRSA board. A few years later, in 2003, I was elected president of the chapter. That’s right … 2010 is my second time around as WMPRSA president. I think that’s only happened once before. I just can’t say no!  I loved working with a strong group of professionals seven years ago and learned so much from them.  I’m learning just as much from the incredible group who are serving on the board this time around, too!

When I first became involved in PRSA, I didn’t think I’d need to worry about networking for the sake of a job or prospective clients. Well, here I am, starting off my own independent practice and thankful for all of the connections I’ve made over the years. Those connections have already led to a couple of clients and I have no doubt that more of my business will result from my PRSA involvement.

My primary goal for 2010 WMPRSA, which I shared with the board a few weeks ago, is to provide ways for more PRSA members to become involved in the chapter’s operations, by helping on a committee, by helping judge awards, by attending programs, by becoming a mentor to a PR student, by studying for the APR exam, by writing for the newsletter, by serving on the board. Being a member is only the start; you only get out of PRSA what you put into it.

I’m looking forward to a great year leading WMPRSA’s efforts and helping more people get involved in promoting and building the PR profession for the benefit of all.

12.07.2009

My mom and dad taught me well.  Not intentionally, really, because in many ways they were hands off when it came to me and school work.  My older brothers and I all excelled in school, so they never really felt the need to hover over our homework. I’m not sure it would have done much good anyway since both were immigrants and had limited grasp of English.  Growing up in the depression and WWII Europe, my dad only finished the equivalent of 9th grade.

My mom was an avid reader and encouraged us by taking us to the library each week.  By the time I was in 6th grade I was reading at college level.  I read everything she had on her own bookshelves too, including authors like James Michener and Leon Uris.  Given my appetite for historical fiction, it’s no wonder I became an English major and History minor in college.

My dad, meanwhile, loved to tell stories.  About everything.  About growing up in the Netherlands during the war, about the construction projects he led, about his early years in Canada. He was the kind of story teller who also told the sidebar stories. In some ways I am shy; I’m not the best at walking up to a person I don’t know and starting a conversation. However, I am very receptive to being approached by others and, once engaged, I launch into stories depending on the other person’s interests. And finding out their stories, of course. It’s no fair to dominate the conversation that way.

When you combine the reading/writing trait with story telling, it naturally led to journalism and public relations and, in more recent years, blogging.  Thanks mom and dad. This is a lot more fun than math.

12.05.2009

My friend Bill Salvin of Signal Bridge Communications wrote a great piece on Tiger’s flawed approach to his PR problem this past week. I know that I earlier said it was probably a good thing Tiger was seeking privacy and supporting his wife and not sharing more information. Of course, at the time I didn’t know there was going to be texts and voice messages produced as proof of his infidelity. Maybe Tiger didn’t think so either.  And, as Bill points out, in his brief statement on November 19, Tiger lied. He called the rumors “false, unfounded and malicious.” Some of them, at least, were true! That’s “doubling down” on a mistake, which should never happen.

I believed he probably did have an affair, and I believed his wife may very well have have chased him around with a club and maybe even got a few licks in on him before taking out the back window of his SUV (was it before or after he crashed the vehicle?). But I didn’t think sharing all the details was going to help him, his wife, or any of us, for that matter.  The fact is, however, the dogs would not let this bone lie still.  And if there was any way to tell the story without Tiger “outing himself” first, it was going to happen.  Despite other financial problems traditional media may have, there are no shortages of budgets to reward any person willing to share photos, videos, or text/voice messages helping to show Tiger cheating on his wife.

I’ve always stated that it’s better for an organization (or person) to out themselves on issues rather than wait for someone else to do it. At that point, you’ve lost the ability to frame the story in any way. I don’t think there is any way for Tiger to share this story in a way that earns sympathy.  Even if he was a victim of spousal abuse as a result of his infidelity, many would think it was justified. Not only that, potentially getting his beautiful, cheated-upon wife put in jail for said abuse would have created a media circus.  It’s a mess.

Does Tiger owe us explanations? I’ve thought about that for a couple days now. If his sole source of income was winnings from golf, I’d say he doesn’t.  BUT, because Tiger makes the majority of his income from product endorsements — selling us on the stuff his face sells — then he does have an obligation to talk to us about what’s going on, provide explanations (if there are any) and, most importantly, apologize.  Apologize for the bad example he was for our kids.  Apologize to his wife for abusing her trust. Apologize to all of us for lying in his statement.  There are times we don’t need the full story. But we never deserve to be lied to.

Tiger has a lot of work to do to earn back people’s trust. Without that, his endorsement deals will evaporate and he will have to get used to living off his winnings alone.  :-)

12.01.2009

We all make choices–good and bad.  Often there are consequences for those choices. Fortunately, for most of us, those consequences aren’t played out in the tabloids (print, web or TV variety) as they are for Tiger Woods right now.

Choices Tiger made throughout his life yielded tremendous success in golf. Apparently, although the full truth is not known and is probably none of our business, his personal relationship choices may have placed him in a difficult position.

His accident this past weekend and the resulting scrutiny – fair or not – may have knocked some of the lustre off his sterling reputation and possibly nicked his bankability as an endorser.  The brand of Tiger has been hurt. Tiger’s response to all of this is critical. So far, seeking privacy and defending his wife against rumors have probably been wise choices.

Companies and individuals make bad decisions all the time and have to pay the consequences. How one responds to the negative consequence, however, is just as important.     

Too often corporate decision makers don’t pause to consider all potential consequences before pushing the button, whatever that button might be.  Too often they don’t bring in the right people to talk about possible consequences for any business action. Considering all of your stakeholders is important when making a business call, and too often a single decision maker within a large organization doesn’t know enough about all of the stakeholders. A quick review by a PR counselor can ensure that all of the important questions have been answered before proceeding.

Bad decisions happen and they can lead to problems for an organization. But what happens next is really important. Do you double down on your bad decision? The worst consequence might not be a drop in next month’s sales when you consider a damaged reputation can affect sales for years.

Bad decisions can lead to bankruptcies and even government bailouts, damaging reputation. A decision to then grant executive bonuses probably isn’t involving good PR counsel.

Major business decisions should involve some PR counsel, just as they require legal review. That holds especially when the decision is a response to a problem resulting from an earlier bad decision. Not someone who can help “spin” the story positive.  Rather, someone who will tell the decision makers what they really need to hear to make the right choices for their organization — choices that will serve the organization well for years to come.

« Previous PageNext Page »