Thursday, May 30, 2013

Happy 90th Birthday, Ketchum

Ketchum is celebrating its 90th birthday this year with a flurry of activity.  I was with the firm for ten of those years.

When I started, Ketchum was ranked among the top ten U.S. PR firms. When I left, it had a global presence, was part of the Omnicom Media Group, and was always on the short list of candidates to work for some of the world’s leading companies and brands.  That’s the business summary.

As with anything, the thing I remember most are the people I worked with and for during that time.  Because Ketchum Communications was headquartered in Pittsburgh for much of the time, and because my niche was in corporate communications, and crisis and issues management, I had the chance to do many things that mattered, at least to me.

I had the chance to work directly with agency leadership on agency initiatives.  As the company newsletter editor, I became the default archivist for the company, so as I see some of the 90th birthday celebration activities now, I recognize photos, events and other developments that I chronicled during my time at Ketchum.

My kids were young then, so every time I went to a new city on business, I bought a snow globe with the skyline of that city to bring home as a souvenir.  Those were among the most accessible souvenirs to find at airports.  By the time I left Ketchum, my sons’ bookshelf was full of those snow globes.

Clients I had the chance to serve included the Pittsburgh Pirates, the American Iron & Steel Institute, H.J. Heinz, FedEx, law firms, accounting firms, steel companies and others.  I had the chance to do a lot of pro bono work for charities that Ketchum supported, and the firm encouraged all of us to get involved in the community on our own, which we did.

Ketchum made a commitment to its employees by investing in professional development, the pinnacle of which was Camp Ketchum, a management training boot camp in Long Boat Key, Florida.  While it was a pretty intense program, it was the most fun week I had while at the firm.

One of the things I respected about the firm was that in its mission statement, and in its core values, there was language about doing things the right way, and doing the right thing.  While the language wasn’t very flowery, it was genuine.  The firm backed it up.  I saw this first-hand throughout my time there, whether the decisions were large or small.

And that brings me back to those people.  From the newest assistant account executive to the most senior member of agency management, there was an expectation.  Generally speaking, Ketchum was positive, smart, proactive, ego-less, and dedicated to client service.  Ketchum people were more likely to be optimists than pessimists.  They knew how to laugh and when to ease the stress.  And they knew when to get down to business. 

I met some great, life-long friends while at the agency.  Some were coworkers, some were vendors, and some were clients.  I hesitate to name names here because I’m sure to leave out people who have been extremely important, but I have to mention three of Ketchum’s most visible leaders while I was there.

Larry Werner ran the Pittsburgh office.  No one was more committed to providing quality work for clients, doing things ethically, and treating people with respect.  He is one of the finest people I’ve known in the business.  He set the tone for the Pittsburgh office and had a strong influence on the national culture of the agency.   I’m only one of many in Larry’s fan club.

Jerry Voros (see the video below) was the president of Ketchum Communications, the PR  and advertising firms’ parent.  A Korean war veteran and an ex-Marine, he was one of the toughest clients I had.  I worked with him on the Ketchum News, the company newsletter.  But as tough as he was on making sure we met the highest standards of quality in the office, he was equally compassionate and caring when it came to community causes and people. 

David Drobis (again, see the video below), was the Ketchum Public Relations president.  I worked with him on several projects.  He led the agency through a period of major growth and change.  David had this unique ability to take people from many diverse backgrounds, geographic locations and even at different levels in the company and get them to work together to create something that was nothing less than great. 

I could go on about the people who I worked most closely with - those of us in the trenches - account people, administrative people, everyone.  The people made going to work every day a pleasure.  Just thinking about them brings a smile.

When I left Ketchum to manage a corporate communications function, I took the Ketchum approach to communications with me.  And since I started O’Brien Communications, not a day has gone by that I haven’t tapped the Ketchum way to meet client expectations and business objectives.

So it is with the utmost sincerity that I’d like to wish Ketchum a very Happy 90th birthday and many more.

Click HERE for the Ketchum video.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Credibility is Not Always On Message

One of the staples of the PR business is the inevitable set of talking points we create for those who are about to participate in a media interview or speak at a media event. 

For anyone who isn’t familiar with the purpose of talking points and how they are used, it’s pretty simple.  PR people and others usually work together to hone some key points that the group believes the person being interviewed should make during the interview.  Sometimes, the preparations also involve certain questions that could come up and how the interviewee should respond.

In development talking points and preparatory Q&A, those of us in PR should follow a range of ethical principles that ensure that our interviewee is responding to the questions in good faith, with answers that include information that is as accurate and complete to the best of his or her knowledge.

At the same time, the primary purpose of creating the talking points is to provide focus.  We want to make sure that during the course of the interview, the interviewee stays “on message,” or focused on the key points that need to be made, regardless of any attempt by the interviewer to knock the interviewee off track.

Why would an interviewer do such a thing?

Reporters are more often than not smart.  They know that the people they interview have something they want to say.  Reporters see it as their job to get deeper than simply to take what the interviewee wants to say on face value.  Quite often, reporters don’t know if there is more to know, but they will ask questions to find out.

They use a variety of techniques to throw the interviewee off, such as interrupting, changing the subject and then coming back to the original question.  Asking the same question in different ways over and over.  Presenting hypothetical situations and asking for hypothetical responses.  Quoting third parties such as, “Critics say….”, and then seeking a reaction.

When an interviewee is on the receiving and of these techniques and stays focused, we say that the interviewee is “on message.”

From a PR standpoint, this is usually a good thing.  But there are times when simply staying on message creates the perception that the interviewee is one-dimensional or just a talking head.  That usually undermines the point of participating in the interview in the first place.

With this in mind, there are times, and they are completely situational, when the best approach is to go slightly off message.  There are times when the interviewee has to add color or nuance to a response that quite frankly makes the PR people in the wings cringe. 

I’ve had clients use very colorful language, tell jokes, and do a number of rather informal things in the course of interviews that were not only quite effective at developing a rapport with the journalist doing the interview, but were absolutely critical to building credibility.

Sometimes, staying on message is not enough. We have to demonstrate commitment, knowledge, understanding, empathy and compassion by responding with a little extra detail and information that conveys the credibility we need to support our messages. 

We certainly don’t want to contradict our messages, reveal proprietary or confidential information, or speculate irresponsibly.  But there are those times when going down a parallel path can actually help to make messages matter.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Actress Angelina Jolie Demonstrates the Power of an Influencer

In the PR business, we often refer to some audiences as “influencers.”  Theoretically, an influencer is anyone we might target with communications who in turn will have some influence over others we may want to target with our messages.

A simple example is a hair stylist.  He or she may not be likely to buy the expensive luxury car we are selling today, but the stylist may have the kind of clientele we are targeting with marketing messages. And our research may indicate that our desired customer tends to confide quite a bit in his or her hair stylist and oftentimes listens to tips they get in the salon.

Well, that’s the idea.  Putting it into practice is quite another matter.

A much more real and dramatic example of the power of an influencer came this week when the news was filled with stories about actress Angelina Jolie’s decision to preemptively have a double mastectomy to prevent the onset of breast cancer.

First the background.  The actress’s mother had breast cancer and died of ovarian cancer.  Ms. Jolie’s grandmother had ovarian cancer.  This is why when we go to the doctor’s office, they always ask us about family history. There is something to it.

Given this pattern, it was believed that the 37-year old actress had a strong likelihood that she could eventually be touched by cancer. 

 She had a test for a gene that confirmed she indeed was at high risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.  It’s called the BRCA1 gene.  Needless to say, not all insurance carriers cover this test and it’s not inexpensive. 

So, Ms. Jolie decided to have her two healthy breasts removed in February, and later had reconstruction surgery. 

That’s the news.  Now, about the impact.

Because she is a pop culture icon, she can command the cover of nearly any magazine just by picking up the phone.  If she attends a red carpet ceremony, she’s sure to draw attention of the cameras.  When she grants an interview – “grant” being the operative word – there aren’t many reporters who would turn down the chance.  If she wants to speak to the U.N., the door has been opened to her. If she wants to meet with an elected leader in Washington, she can probably get a meeting with just about anyone.

This kind of clout carries with it some real power.  Millions of men and women follow and care about this actress whom they’ve never met in person and are not likely to ever see in person.  In a Hollywood-obsessed society, the most famous actors and actresses are regarded as assets to a large number of marketing and cause-marketing programs.  And that’s just if you can get them to endorse the cause verbally or through the usual means – press conferences, special events, advertising, etc.

Now, here comes a member of the Hollywood elite who not only has an opinion on breast cancer, but she has a family history, and further, she actually endured a double-mastectomy to prevent developing the disease.

What could be more powerful than that in drawing attention to breast cancer and the preventative measures that can be taken?

To be sure, I am not saying what Ms. Jolie did was right or wrong.  That’s not the point here.  I don’t know enough about the costs, the medical issues involved, or even the actress’s tolerance for risk.  Other women facing the same odds may opt not to take such a significant preemptive measure.

But what has happened this week is that the actress drew attention to the whole idea of taking preemptive action, preventative measures to combat cancer.  She may have stirred debate on the issue.  Those of us in PR know that this alone is good for raising awareness of important issues.

Because so many women respect her, she may have given some the idea to have themselves tested and make a more informed decision, whether or not they take the same action. 

And that is the power of an influencer.  In the PR business, if you can get an influencer – famous or not – to endorse your message, you’ve gone a long way towards moving the needle.  But if you can tap the power of an influencer who is willing to serve as an example for others, there’s almost no way to quantify a value on that. 

Usually I'm skeptical when I see the weight people ascribe to actors and actresses. But I recognize an influencer when I see one, and this week, Angelina Jolie demonstrated just how powerful an influencer can be.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Pop Culture Invades the News Media

Even though I pride myself on being a “news junkie” I have a confession to make.  Until last night when I tuned into NBC’s Dateline program, I knew very little about Jodi Arias.  If you’re in the same boat I was until this week, here’s a quick summary:  She’s the woman who was convicted this week of killing her former boyfriend by stabbing him 27 times, cutting his throat and shooting him in the head.  In her defense, her attorneys she said this was done in self-defense.

The trial has gone on for the past four months and was televised.  Judges, jurors, former jurors, attorneys, witnesses and even some regular members of the gallery were made celebrities as a result of this trial. The testimony was so rich in sex, lies and intrigue that cable networks, book publishers and Hollywood will surely create a mini-industry out of the content here for those “based on a true story” productions and novels.

And that is why I didn’t pay attention to it.  When the news media began to cover the story, I sensed it was going to be a media circus around the kind of day-to-day courtroom drama that doesn’t interest me.

To be sure, the Jodi Arias story is a news story that really did happen.  Its attraction is understandable in that it is somewhat unfathomable that someone could not only do what this slight woman did, but that she could lie about it so convincingly. 

But when the media circus starts, that’s when I start to lose interest, because the coverage itself becomes a distraction.  This is also the case for just about every story featured on programs like Entertainment Tonight or on TMZ. 

What’s somewhat worrisome to me as one who has worked in and with the media for many years, however, is how the lines between reality and entertainment have been blurred in recent years. 

Charles Ramsey is the man who is said to have rescued Amanda Berry from that home-made prison in Cleveland where she and other young women were kept against their will for the past ten years.  In one colorful media interview that went viral on YouTube, Mr. Ramsey is now a media celebrity, something he certainly didn’t anticipate one week ago.

Jeff Bliss is a Texas high school student who lectured his teacher on what he believed were her lazy teaching methods while being captured by a smart phone on video. That rant went viral and now young Mr. Bliss is a celebrity.

A.J. Clemente is the right-out-of-college TV news broadcaster who in his first minutes of his first job got himself fired for dropping the F-bomb and a few other vulgarities while live on the air.  His reward was to become a YouTube sensation and a guest on the late-night comedy shows. The visibility will likely help him, not hurt him in his hunt for a new job. 

These viral celebrities are starting to make reality TV personalities like the stars of Duck Dynasty (another show I have yet to watch, and am not in a hurry) look like trained entertainment professionals.

Traditionally, when it came to the media, you had pop culture and news media, and the lines between them were very clear.  News coverage centered mostly on real happenings involving real people, whether the story was a feature or hard news.  Pop culture was relegated to the feature section of the newspaper or broadcast, where it was assumed that radio, TV, theater and other arts activities existed for entertainment purposes only and were therefore not held to the same standards of truth.

Thanks to the Internet and the evolution of the media, most notably reality TV programming, not only do you not need an achievement to become famous, but you really no longer need talent.

As a result, pop culture and entertainment media are no longer what they once were.  Pop culture has invaded the news media.

Studies have been conducted that have revealed that a large segment of the news viewing population think comedian Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Channel’s The Daily Show, is one of the most credible “journalists” on TV. 

The irony is not lost on Mr. Stewart himself who told Fox News’s Chris Wallace in 2011, “The bias of the mainstream media is toward sensationalism, conflict and laziness. The embarrassment is that I’m given credibility in this world because of the disappointment that the public has in what the news media does.”

Chances are as you tune in to your favorite local or network newscast, or read reports from your most respected newspapers, more and more of what used to be considered news is being squeezed out to make room for updates from pop culture.

I’m going to go out on a limb and presume that musical diva Beyonce is likely more recognizable and more respected to a larger share of the American public than U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan or Sonia Sotomayor.

An account of how a fan stormed the stage at a recent Justin Bieber concert in Germany will more than likely move “above the fold” in your local paper or on its Web site, and to make room, that story about the federal budget or the latest news on the stock market will be cut or eliminated.

While such trends are not new to local news story selection, what is becoming the norm is that public knowledge and understanding of the substantive events affecting their lives is falling to a level best described as current events illiteracy.

This trend of pop culture dominating the American consciousness may in fact be one of the biggest challenges those of us in the PR profession face in the coming years.  To date, our work to deliver our messages to the public has been rooted in the traditional journalistic model.  In the future, to break through the pop culture clutter, however, we will no longer be able to count on the same level of news media curiosity, a demand for facts, substance and information people need. 

It’s hard for that kind of thing to compete against the spray tanning secrets of Dancing with the Stars.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. "Obamacare," Enters the Employee Communications Arena

The Kaiser Family Foundation recently conducted a health tracking poll that found an unbelievable number of Americans do not know that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is now law.  More to the point, the poll found that 42 percent of Americans do not know the ACA is law - 12 percent of Americans believe the ACA has been repealed by Congress, and seven percent believe that the United States Supreme Court had overturned the ACA.  And another 23 percent are unsure of the ACA’s status.

As for the ACA’s popularity, 35 percent of those polled expressed support for the law, while 40 percent said they had an unfavorable view. 

The fact is, the ACA is law, its implementation is under way, and related changes will affect everyone.

One of the chief challenges for business as a result of the ACA’s passage is the requirement that most employers provide health insurance to employees.  More specifically, under the ACA, organizations with over 50 employees must provide health insurance to full-time employees.  Employers who do not cover those employees will be fined $2,000 per employee above the threshold of the first 30 employees.

The ACA draws a red line that any employee who works more than 30 hours a week is considered full-time.

To be sure, this has rocked companies that maintain work forces whose hours fluctuate due to business demand.  Retailers, restaurants and the hospitality industry are the hardest-hit.  But many other industries will feel the pain as well.  Seasonal industry sectors from landscapers and construction, to tourism and recreation will all feel the effects.

Some employers have already indicated fundamental changes in their approach to staffing.  In order to manage costs, more employers will add more part-time employees and eliminate full-time positions.  Others will seek alternative, less expensive, health insurance options for employees to remain in compliance with the ACA, while managing costs.

In the end, these employers have some explaining to do to their people.

That’s the employee communications component.  It won’t be business as usual this year.  For companies planning to introduce change, it’s never a good idea to blindside your employees with the news.  It’s best to communicate early and often, working to educate the employees and make them aware of their options.

If this is a topic that merits further discussion, please feel free to contact me.  I’ve written a position paper on this issue and would be glad to provide it to you and discuss it with you.