Monthly Archives: January 2009

Those Shameful PR People

I learned yesterday who is to blame for the latest shameful episode on Wall Street. You know — the one where the Wizards are giving each other billions in year-end bonuses even though they crashed the world’s economy. It’s the PR people, stupid.

Yep. I heard that while on a conference call yesterday with some people from a variety of nonprofit organizations in DC. The call was about a totally unrelated subject. But like most — in business, education, government, nonprofits, whatever — the “meeting” meandered like the Snake River. Finally it made its way to Wall Street. And someone opined: “Where are the PR people. They should be stepping up and telling their management not to do those things. Don’t they know how bad it looks?”

Wow. If it were only that easy wouldn’t this be a great country. Here’s how I envision the beginning of the conversation in one of the corner offices on Wall Street.

PR Guy/Gal: “Ah, gee Mr. Thain. I don’t think you should spend $14,000 on a commode since you’ve flushed the economy down the drain.”

Mr. T: “Well, thank you Mr/Ms PR Guy/Gal, you’re right. I’ll give all of my current pay, savings, stock options and restricted stock grants to the food bank instead.”

The crisis in trust and confidence that is killing our economy doesn’t have anything to do with PR people. It has everything to do with the fact that we have a tremendous number of people in leadership positions in this country that know exactly what they are doing — and don’t care. They have no responsibility and display no ethical conduct.

Here’s where Barack Obama has it absolutely right. It’s shameful. And somehow we have to return to an era of civility — and responsibility.

The problem here is that the Wizards don’t listen either. And there are on penalties attached to actions that are not responsible and not in the public interest. Sen. Christopher Dodd, head of the Senate Banking Committee, says, as reported in The Washington Post, that he’ll bring before his committee any Wall Street executives who take big bonuses after their firms are propped up with public money. Oh boy. That will scare them. Note to Wizards: Leave the company plane at home.

Oh well, the era of responsibility still has a way to go. And maybe if the Wizards of Wall Street and others in organizations big and small would listen to PR people it would help.

And I was going to write about Rod Blagojevich. But no real point. Anyone know when the swearing out ceremony will be? As I understand it he hired a PR firm last week or the week before to help him tell his story nationally and reshape his image. Wonder if the PR plan had as a goal to get even one favorable vote in the Illinois senate? Wow. A shutout: 59-0.

So this being Friday, I have to finish my list of 25 personal items for Facebook. I started yesterday. But then I got distracted by reading my friend Bill Sledzik’s post on this Facebook list on his blog, ToughSledding.

I’m back and working on my list now. Here goes:

5. Go Steelers! 6. Go Steelers! 7. Go Steelers! 8. And so on.


Super Bowl Ads and PETA

OK. I’ll admit it. I’m looking forward to watching the Super Bowl game Sunday. But I’m a Steelers fan with strong ties still to the City of Champions. And what else is there to do in NE Ohio and most other parts of the country on the first day of the worst month of the year? Since the game itself generally isn’t all that compelling, I expect most people do plant themselves in front of the TV for five hours our more for the party — and the ads.

And even in the midst of the recession, NBC has managed to sell nearly all of the 67 advertising spots available, at around $3 million or so for 30 seconds. Wow. Think what John Thain could have done to his office with that kind of money. I digress. (Note to self: At least 67 opportunities to get up from the TV and get a drink, something to eat, curse that constant Tweeting sound upstairs on the computer, head for the head, and so on. Plan accordingly.)

GM won’t be among the advertisers. Neither will PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. GM most likely doesn’t have enough cash these days. PETA most likely doesn’t either. But in any event,  it received a penalty flag from NBC because its ad was too “sexually explicit.” Here’s from The Washington Post, “Veggie Tales, It’s Not: PETA’s Super Bowl Ad Is Too Much For NBC To Stomach“:

NBC has nixed a new Super Bowl ad from the animal rights activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals because the ad is too sexually explicit.

It shows beautiful women, dressed in sexy undies, getting very intimate.

With vegetables.

Particularly pumpkins. Total sex maniacs, those pumpkins.

“Studies Show Vegetarians Have Better Sex,” reads the tag line.

The ad suggests that changing over to a healthier, vegetarian diet — or, alternatively, dressing like a broccoli — will help guys attract hot, horny models.

Clearly, this is a story that requires more direct and personal investigation. So as an inspired quasi-journalist (or is it citizen journalist?, semi-retired douche bag?) I went to PETA’s website. PETA says NBC ruled the ad out of bounds, saying it “depicts a level of sexuality exceeding our standards.” Ouch. NBC has standards?

Oh well. I doubt that PETA ever expected the ad to grace the airwaves during the Super Bowl. But the fact that it has been rejected by NBC now gives it some great appeal and commercial oomph on the Internet. Maybe that is the point of social media and viral marketing.

Anyway, I guess the PETA ad will now take its place among the others —, Wynn Las Vegas, Airborne and others — that can now be found in the Super Bowl Banned Advertising Hall of Fame. Probably just as well. As I understand it, one of the proposed PETA ads made the claim that “eating meat caused impotence.” Country has enough economic woes. Can’t possibly afford to have millions of viewers swear off hamburgers, chicken wings and so on.

And while I was in the midst of my scholarly research into the virtues or lack thereof of ads like the ones for, I did have this thought that social media and viral marketing are taking on the qualities of a massive chain letter.

For instance, I was tagged yesterday on Facebook by someone who wanted me to list 25 personal items and then pass the list on to 25 “friends” with a similar request. I appreciate that actually. In my dotage I enjoy almost any connection. Yet I’ve decided not to send the request to 25 of my “friends.” Who knows. They may actually be working. Or out ordering ground beef and chicken wings for the game.

Still, I’ve started on my list of 25 items. Here it is.

1. Go Steelers! 2. Go Steelers! 3. Go Steelers! And so on.

Pittsburgh Steelers and the Titans of Wall Street

Wow. Pretty much snowed in here today in NE Ohio. I was supposed to take an early morning flight out of Cleveland to DC, but it was canceled last night. I expect it was the snowy weather forecast, but I don’t know the specifics about why Continental pulled the plug so early. In any event, it was a good thing. And I credit Continental’s customer service staff with handling the matter extremely well.

Thought I should say that. People writing blogs — myself included certainly — tend to look at problems, focus on things that fall short of what we consider excellent or even acceptable and dwell on the negative. Then — at least from time to time — we try to turn those examples into “teachable moments” and offer some perspective based on personal experience or the views of others.

For instance, yesterday I wrote about the Cleveland Browns and how that business handled the firing of a dozen or so administrative employees last week. My view: The situation speaks to an organization that is poorly managed — and its product (football) suffers as a result. And if the “ten minutes and you’re out of here” policy as reported by the Akron Beacon Journal really is accurate, then it speaks to an organization that has a long way to go to if it wants to cultivate a culture of trust and loyalty.

I wouldn’t be writing about this again today except for two stories I read in The New York Times yesterday. Both stories — from totally different perspectives — focus on management, leadership, trust, loyalty and business success. Both stories warrant a quick read.

The first — and maybe no surprise here — involves Dan Rooney and the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s written by Holly Brubach, “Steelers Owner Dan Rooney Turns His Business Into a Family.”

Brubach weaves together a portrait of Rooney as a strong leader and manager, someone who puts his employees (players and staff) first and someone who is not consumed by personal wealth or power. From the article:

Rooney walks to the Steelers’ home games, on a broken sidewalk, past an abandoned gas station and underneath the overpass for Route 65.

For away games, he travels with the players. “I wasn’t used to the owner flying on the plane,” said the backup quarterback Charlie Batch, recalling his surprise when he arrived to play for the Steelers after leaving the Detroit Lions. “And not only was he on the plane, he was sitting in the seat that doesn’t recline, in front of the bathroom.”

Rooney goes to Mass every morning, then commutes to the Steelers’ training facility on the South Side. He drives a Buick. In the office by 8:15, he checks in with the coaches, the players and his son Art II, the oldest of his nine children and the team’s president. He watches practice. He eats lunch in the cafeteria with the players and the staff.

“Some owners treat you like a rental property,” said defensive end Nick Eason, who has played in Denver and in Cleveland. “They have some maintenance guy to take care of it, they just come by to check on it, they look and they leave. Mr. Rooney comes around, he always sticks his hand out to you. ‘Hey, Nick’— and I’m like, he knows my name?”

Nose tackle Casey Hampton said: “A lot of owners, this is a hobby, but for him, this is his business, what he does. He’s here, shakes your hand, talks to you every day. Every day.”

There’s more — but what you see is a model for business success. You have strong leadership and management, a leader who defines the organization’s values and then brings them to life through personal example and conduct, and someone at the top of the organization who has empathy for employees, customers and the community. Not a bad management and leadership case study here.

Then you have another story in The Times yesterday that demonstrates almost the polar opposite. Andrew Ross Sorkin writes, “The Titans Take It on the Chin.”

Here you have profiles in hubris, where the best and the brightest went to Wall Street with  eyes primarily focused on the big bucks during an era of self-entitlement and self-enrichment. (My words, read the story.) The result: a financial meltdown with millions losing their jobs and savings and even the former Titans of Wall Street diminished in stature and riches.

The big money is disappearing, and with it some status and power. Yes, the highest of high fliers are still rich, some spectacularly so. But their stature seems to sink with every point of the Dow. The whole cult and ethos of Wall Street, which lured so many bright minds, is in retreat.

The wounds were mostly self-inflicted, of course. News last week that John A. Thain, the fallen boss of Merrill Lynch, spent $1.2 million redecorating his office as Merrill hurtled toward its end seemed only to confirm people’s worst suspicions about money and the hubris it can breed. His $35,000 “commode” might strike some as a bit over the top.

Even Tom Wolfe, who chronicled an earlier era of Wall Street excess in his 1987 best seller “Bonfire of the Vanities,” says he is a little shocked. And he knows about the Masters of the Universe: He coined the term, after all.

“The idea of ‘Masters of the Universe’ on Wall Street just went kaput,” Mr. Wolfe told me the other day, as Wall Street was digesting the news of Mr. Thain’s ouster. “The whole order of things has changed.”

“Just went kaput.” Let’s hope so. As a nation we don’t need any more Masters of the Universe, any more Titans of Wall Street. But we sure could use some more leaders and managers like Dan Rooney. Perfect? No. I’m sure that’s not true. But from what I have read, heard and seen during the past 40 years, he’s a manager who inspires the best and creates a working environment that thrives on trust, personal integrity and treating people with dignity.

I hope the Steelers win the Super Bowl Sunday. But more importantly, I hope our nation once again embraces the values exhibited by Dan Rooney and many, many others like him.

New era of responsibility anyone?

Cleveland Browns and Job Cuts

I was able to hit the concrete this morning at 5 a.m. for five miles. Good run — with the temperature about 18 degress and no wind. And I figured I better get out in the real world this morning because I’m heading to DC tomorrow morning. Wait, that didn’t come out exactly right. I’m flying to the nation’s capital for business — weather permitting. But no matter how much of a hassle that becomes because of the likely snow in NE Ohio tonight and tomorrow, at least I have some business to attend to these days. Many don’t.

Take yesterday as a example. One announcement of a large corporation cutting jobs after another: Caterpillar, Sprint, Pfizer, IBM, Texas Instruments and so on.  In one day more than 50,000 jobs had evaporated into the black hole what has already swallowed several million more. And Business Week opines that we may be far from the end. Note to the feds and the economic bailout gurus: Couldn’t someone have seen this coming and taken steps a year or so ago to avoid this train wreck?

Yet while running this morning I wasn’t thinking about the big dogs — the Microsofts and so on — but rather about the Cleveland Browns.

Patrick McManamon provided some perspective on the management of the Browns in his Akron Beacon Journal column Sunday, “Layoffs reveal priorities.” McManamon reports that the Browns fired 12 or so administrative employees last week at the same time they were negotiating to hire a new general manager and writing checks totalling around $20 million to pay off the defunct GM and coach. From a financial standpoint, you have to wonder how the salaries and benefits of those 12 employees could make much of a difference.

But that’s really not the point of McManamon’s column — or the reality of how the Browns and many other businesses operate. It’s about management. And the word to describe it: inept. Here’s from the ABJ:

Yes, Randy Lerner deserves the right to run his team as he wishes.

Yes, many other businesses are facing cutbacks.

No, I do not have all the financial details.

But these moves speak to judgment and to leadership and to priorities. And they speak to decisions. In a business in which players are paid what they are and coaches make what they do, it boggles the mind to think that people making $50,000 or $60,000 can have any effect on the bottom line.

The people who were fired by the Browns this past week are our neighbors and friends and, in some cases, our families.

They worked for the Browns because it was a job, and also because it was the Browns and the orange helmet stood for something. At least it used to.

These are real people with babies on the way and young children and children in college. They came to work Wednesday and were blindsided, then told they had 10 minutes to clean out their desks.

Wow. “They had 10 minutes to clean out their desks.” Browns management let Romeo Crennel twist on the job hook for half a season. Not sure which is the more humane human resources exit strategy. I digress.

So the point of all this is that football is a business. I don’t know about Microsoft and the rest of the corporate titans. Do they really need to slash these many jobs? Impossible for an outsider to tell. But you hope management at those companies is getting it right because it sure affects a lot of people and their families. Something tells me that the Browns, as usual, got it wrong. And at a minimum if the “10 minutes and you’re out of here is true” they didn’t show much class for an organization that gets so much support from the community.

Saying all that — come Sunday I’ll be sitting in front of the TV cheering for the Steelers. The Steelers as a business are better managed than the Browns and most NFL teams. (Probably better than most of the titans of business as well.) That’s why they will be trying for a league-leading sixth Super Bowl title Sunday.

Next week maybe I’ll start cheering again for Ford, GM, Microsoft, IBM and so on.

Hey, it’s all about business.

And one more thing. Here’s a shout-out to Tania Lundreen, the senior VP of sales at Ty Inc. That’s the company that is making and selling the “Sweet Sasha” and “Marvelous Malia” dolls that appear to resemble the Obama girls. And when Mrs. O said she wasn’t so happy about that, Lundreen demurred. She told CNN that Sasha and Malia were beautiful names — but the dolls weren’t meant to represent the first daughters.

Liar, liar pants on fire.

Oh well.  From the perspective of PR people, we should be be thrilled that the world is populated by sales and marketing executives. Because of them we’ll never be on the lowest rung of the public opinion ladder.

Wal-Mart and Public Relations

Another day chasing the treadmill here in NE Ohio. Temperature tonight expected to hover around 10 above. Wahoo. A heat wave. Maybe a return to the concrete tomorrow at 5 a.m. We’ll see. In the meantime I was thinking about Wal-Mart and a very interesting story about that company in The New York Times Sunday, “Green-Light Specials, Now at Wal-Mart.”

When I was teaching ethics of mass communication at Kent State, I’d start each semester by asking students several questions. Who is the most ethical/unethical person you know? What company do you consider to be the most ethical/most unethical?

Every semester Wal-Mart was the runaway winner in the unethical company category.

If the story in the Times yesterday is accurate, it looks like Wal-Mart management is finally getting that message — and is using some two-way communication — dare I say it, public relations? — techniques to improve its reputation and financial performance and prospects. The article essentially looks at how Wal-Mart made the decision to “go green” — which had the effect of pushing its big suppliers to change their business practices as well.

But it also presents a modest case study of what we talk a lot about in public relations but don’t always see that much of — a company listening to its critics and then changing its business practices. Certainly, in this case, changes — from products to working conditions, pay and medical benefits — are tied to some large degree to Wal-Mart’s self-interest and business goals. Anything wrong with that if the changes also reflect the interests of customers, employees and investors? Nah. Although I’m sure you can argue that some (many?) of the changes don’t go far enough.

Here’s from the article:

A confidential 2004 report, prepared by McKinsey & Company for Wal-Mart, found that 2 percent to 8 percent of Wal-Mart consumers surveyed had ceased shopping at the chain because of “negative press they have heard.” Wal-Mart executives and Wall Street analysts began referring to the problem as “headline risk.”

So the company, known for bitterly rebutting critics or simply ignoring them, began working closely with activists to improve its labor, health care and environmental records.

It is hard to measure the financial return of a good image. But no one at Wal-Mart talks about headline risk anymore because the headlines have become largely positive.

And looking to the future:

Come February, it will be the job of Michael T. Duke, 58, who has led Wal-Mart’s international operations since 2005, to steer the company through the downturn.

As for Mr. Scott [Lee Scott, the chief executive since 2000], he will serve as chairman of the executive committee of Wal-Mart’s board until 2011. And he intends to increase the retailer’s lobbying muscle in Washington, especially regarding health care, energy and sustainability.

“As businesses, we have a responsibility to society,” he said this month, speaking to members of the National Retail Federation in his last public speech as Wal-Mart chief. “Let me be clear about this point.There is no conflict between delivering value to shareholders, and helping solve bigger societal problems.”

Saying all that, it’s hard to argue that Wal-Mart has become the model business or employer. The company still faces a class-action discrimination law suit, critics question its commitment to provide affordable health-care and other benefits, and, according to the article, the average wage for full-time employees is $10.83 an hour. Try raising a family on that amount some day.

Still, Wal-Mart appears to be listening — and changing. That’s something we talk a lot about in the classroom but don’t always see in practice.

And other organizations might want to consider doing some listening — and some honest talking — as well. Hey, Merrill Lynch. Did John Thain really spend $87,000 on a rug for his office?

John Thain: Bring Back the Stocks

The era of responsibility is off to a somewhat rocky start. Yesterday we were engulfed with the Caroline Kennedy U.S. Senate debacle. Did she jump or was she pushed? Is there anyone who will speak to reporters these days on-the-record? No such ambiguity with John Thain, the now defunct CEO of Merrill Lynch (now part of Bank of America and a ward of U.S. taxpayers) and former Wizard of Wall Street. Thain got the pink slip yesterday. Ouch.

But what got me thinking about this again this morning was a post I read by Paul Begala on The Huffington Post. The former Clinton adviser and now CNN commentator opines:

As President Obama ushers in a new era of good feeling, allow me this potentially discordant note. As we finally and belatedly stop torturing people, can we please start humiliating sleazeballs?

Bring back stocks. Not the equities that are tanking on Wall Street; the ancient English punishment wherein a criminal’s head and hands where placed through a piece of wood, immobilizing them.

Bringing back stocks might restore a commodity that’s in even shorter supply than hope: Shame. Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting we put terrorists in stocks. They need to be in prison. But what about those who shamelessly and shamefully ripped off our country, bankrupted our economy and tarnished our national identity? They need to be shamed.

Here’s my proposal: An evildoer, when found guilty of fraud, market manipulation or other crimes like lying about weapons of mass destruction, illegally spying on Americans or outing a covert CIA agent, would be placed in the stocks.

This appeals to me on a number of levels. First this kind of public humiliation would be perfect for Cable TV. So it should attract attention, at least initially. And to add some visual oomph, we could follow the model of Nathaniel Hawthorne and affix a scarlet letter. How about — “D” — for douche bag.

imagesAnd it strikes me that building stocks — every community would need more than one — would be a great part of the president’s economic stimulus plan. Heck. Around Wall Street you might need thousands.

From Begala again:

Can’t you see some Wall Street dirtbag immobilized in Battery Park with a sign explaining that he manipulated derivatives and caused millions of cops and firefighters and teachers to lose their pensions? Given the ingenuity of the free market, someone might even open a rotten tomato stand nearby.

Or here in Washington, the people whose arrogance and incompetence have weakened America and caused so many American troops to fight and kill and bleed and die should, at a minimum, be paraded before the public they betrayed. We could set up stocks in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. Of course, we’d make them wheelchair accessible.

Wussies and wimps would call it cruel and unusual punishment. But stocks were in use when the 8th Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1791. So the Reagan-Bush majority on the Supreme Court, being originalists and textualists, might well uphold stocks. Justice Scalia certainly would. He’s already said so. In an April, 2008 interview, NPR’s Nina Totenberg asked Scalia if stocks would be permitted under the 8th Amendment, since they were in use in 1791. “I would say that may be very stupid,” he told Totenberg, “but it’s not unconstitutional, if indeed it was a punishment that was at that time accepted.”

OK. Now we get to it. Begala asks “who would you like to see in the stocks and why”?

Ah, hum, tough to pick only one. But OK. How about John Thain?

Among other outrages, while Merrill Lynch was crashing it appears that Thain was redecorating his office to the tune of more than $1 million, with features including a $87,000 area rug and a $1,400 “waste can.” There are also some annoying details about some last-minute bonuses and the fact that he may not have been totally forthcoming about the financial situation of Merrill Lynch during and even post merger. Oh well. A billion here. A billion there. (Disclosure here: What’s left of my retirement account is with Merrill Lynch. Think I’ll stop by my “wealth creation adviser’s” office today and check out his rug.)

Thain, like many business and political leaders these days, just doesn’t get it. It’s not his company. He is just a hired employee like everyone else. And investors and fellow employees expect him to do the right thing. So let’s recognize him for his lack of responsibility — and for further undercutting the confidence and trust that has to be restored if we are going to work our way out of this mess.

Give him the scarlet “D” — and bring back the stocks.

Caroline Kennedy and the generation gap

Well, I was finally able to get outside and run again this morning. Not bad here in NE Ohio. Around 19 degrees with a modest breeze from the southwest. And it beats chasing the treadmill. If nothing else, I relish the opportunity to have an hour of quiet time, to think about things.

And I was thinking this morning about Caroline Kennedy. Before leaving to hit the concrete I read the numerous reports that she has taken herself out of the running to be appointed to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat from New York. I don’t know whether she would have been a good senator or not. She is obviously intelligent and well-connected. She has been active in fundraising and issues involving the New York City schools. And she has name recognition — which matters with the news media.

Still, from the beginning of this story I was troubled by what appeared to me at least to be a sense of entitlement. I don’t think that her handlers did her any favor by restricting access to the media and lobbying New York Gov. David Patterson so hard and so directly. And if she wants to be senator, she still has an option. Run for office — engage the voters — in 2010.

But here’s the rub. I think Patterson — who stands for re-election at the same time — had some reservations that Caroline Kennedy can be elected. And that could diminish his chances as well.

Why? It’s generational.

Caroline Kennedy strikes me as the kind of person we need in public office — or at least as an advocate for public policy. She appears to have personal and professional integrity, and at this point in her life at least, a willingness and ability to serve in the public interest. But the name Kennedy (beyond her uncle) doesn’t necessarily resonate with voters at the polls these days.

We saw on Tuesday the shift to Barack Obama and the next generation of leaders. The name Kennedy is very much affixed to the generation that is now exiting, or has already exited, the public and private stage. John Kennedy entered the White House in 1961; he was assassinated in 1963. Had he lived, he would be approaching his 92 birthday.

Many (most?) of the generation who supported Obama so strongly — and joined in the celebration on the National Mall — don’t remember or identify with John Kennedy. It’s history.

And this next generation — the members of the so-called Generation X and Generation Y — deserve their opportunity to lead — and to secure the kind of jobs that baby boomers — including me — are reluctant to give up. I’m not sure where Caroline Kennedy falls in this generational lineup. She’s 51. But I think the name Kennedy to many people says yesterday, not today.

One of the significant problems facing businesses during this economic meltdown is how to ensure a qualified younger workforce — while retaining the experience and expertise of an older one.

That’s going to be a big issue in coming months and years as Obama will have to face up to the “legacy” costs of Social Security and Medicare. And younger workers continue to struggle to find jobs.

Not sure how I get all of this back to a discussion of Caroline Kennedy. But I do think that in politics — as well as business and jobs — we’re looking at issues that are generational. So if she wants to be senator — or mayor — or whatever, Caroline Kennedy is going to have to do it the hard way. Knock on some doors. Explain herself to the voters and the news media. And then let the voters decide.