Thursday, December 31, 2009

Three Branding Lessons From Microsoft in 2009

Following is an article from Fast Company, one of my absolute favorite sources of business insight. Thanks to David Brier for such a thoughtful — and heretical — post. From one heretic to another: Good job!

Three Lessons Microsoft Taught Us About Branding in 2009

For years now, Apple with its "I'm a Mac. I'm a PC." campaign has essentially established Microsoft's marketing position in the minds of consumers. In actual fact, Apple has "positioned" the entire PC world, but Microsoft, being synonymous with PCs, has become the greatest victim in that campaign's wake.

Most everyone seems to enjoy Apple's ads. The casting is brilliant, the ads are entertaining and the messages hit any sore points about Windows from Vista to tech support, and Indeed, these ads have become culturally iconic.

The Wrong Thing To Do

So what has Microsoft done over the years? From a branding standpoint, pretty much nothing. (At least, nothing effective.)

They hired the super-hot agency Crispin Porter for a reputed $300-million+ ad campaign. The first ad used Jerry Seinfeld with Bill Gates in what appeared to be an attempt at humanizing Gates and Microsoft. Ad critics grimaced. This ad was launched with the tag line, "Life Without Walls" which became a punch line for Mac enthusiasts and beyond. Mac-loyalist blogs commented, "In a life without walls, who needs Windows?" Ouch.

The Wronger Thing To Do

Then, Microsoft delivered a series of ads where the position they were trying to dislodge made up about 90% of its commercial copy lines. The "I'm a PC" campaign was created with very loose, amateur-styled video techniques, again to humanize. The obvious goal was "How do we become cool and relevant?"

Only problem is that it directly played into Apple's campaign. It's impossible to see one of those ads and not think of Apple. I could understand their thinking, but they were bringing nothing new to the table. It was all defense, with no strategic offense.

Even now, the Microsoft stores are being compared to the Apple stores.

What Have We Learned?

So, if the deep-pocketed Microsoft machine can make these missteps, is there anything we can learn from this so we can spend (waste) less marketing dollars in the marketplace to promote our brands and our own businesses?

Yes. In three simple steps.

1. Don't try to be something you're not. Pick your sweet spot and embrace it. Don't try to simply follow the lead of others because (even if you're Microsoft) if you're following, you're not leading. Just look at Zune (and its lackluster market share) as a case study.

What to do: Don't fake it. Elaine on Seinfeld once told Jerry that she'd "faked it". Totally shocked, Jerry asked, how many times? Her response was, "every time." Jerry compared Elaine to Meryl Streep for her incredible acting skills. When it comes your brand, be real. Don't try to fake it. Find something you can get passionate about and something your brand can do remarkably well.

2. To do nothing is branding death. Saying and doing nothing or too little leaves your customers to seek elsewhere to get the facts (or any ideas if facts don't exist). They'll take whatever information there is unless better, smarter, more thought-provoking information comes along to supplant it.

If you don't like your fate being dictated at random, you had better speak up. Then improve what you say. Then increase how many people hear it. As the business guru Peter Drucker said, "You can't shrink your way to greatness."

What to do: Something. Anything. Provide a regular stream of information that's informative, educational, interesting, engaging, and preferably, new.

3. If your branding is defensive, you're promoting the war, not your personal brand. Branding has often been compared to war on the battlefield. I like this analogy better: A brand is like a person. A person can engage someone or bore them. So can your brand. You can be genuinely interesting or you can try to be interesting (just like a brand). You can be passionate or monotonous. Inventive or ho-hum. In each case, your brand can embody those qualities as well.

Here's a good acid test: If your brand were a person, would you want to go out and hang out with her/him in your time off? If the answer is no, then the odds are others will have a similar response, leaving your brand as something one buys when it's needed versus being something that is passionately sought out.

Learn from Microsoft's Mistakes

With Microsoft's deep pockets, we can learn one thing: It's not the size of the pocket but what you do with it that counts.

As always, thanks for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic

Monday, December 21, 2009

Are Advertisers and Ad Agencies Targeting the Wrong Generation?

Thanks to a new resource — BoomerOpinion — for this great post ...

In a recent blog by Scott McKain titled, "Trapped in Traditional Thought...", McKain points out that a thirty second spot on the number one television show, "NCIS" costs $133,304 while a thirty second spot on "Grey's Anatomy" costs $240,462. Given the fact that "NCIS" has four million more viewers than "Grey's Anatomy", why would the ads cost less for "NCIS"?

This contradiction points to the traditional agency approach and thinking when it comes to what population segments to target. The demographics for "Grey's Anatomy" are younger and the agencies believe that younger viewers will be more easily influenced and become brand loyal over time. McKain points to the fact that his brand choices during his younger years have indeed changed over time. In his younger years, he drove a Chevy and now he drives a BMW, he drank Pepsi and now drinks Diet Coke, he listened to a Sony Walkman and now listens to an iPod, etc.

Matt Thornhill, in his book, Boomer Consumer, states that Baby Boomers are no where near done consuming. They will be buying things marketed to them for the next 20 years. And they represent a very large segment of the population. He also points out that with age comes wisdom and that Boomers are not particularly brand loyal. They are ripe for conversion, if a product appeals to their needs.

So why should the advertisers and ad agencies focus more on Boomers than the younger generations? Let's start with the fact that Baby Boomers spend $2 trillion a year on consumer products and services. That is $400 billion more annually than their younger generation counterparts. Baby Boomers represent one of every three adults in America. Almost 80 million Americans are Boomers!

Boomers like to travel, they buy lots of tech gadgets, they are still buying cars and homes, they are into fitness, and they eat out regularly. Given that a large portion of the Boomers are empty nesters with disposable income, they should be the prime targets of the marketers and advertisers in this country. And even the Boomers who aren't empty nesters, keep their kids clothed, fed and supplied with plenty of music and electronics.

Baby Boomers control 70% of the wealth in America. So why don't the advertisers and ad agencies target them more? It is beyond comprehension. And as a Boomer, believe me when I say, we would really prefer fewer advertisements about erectile dysfunction and bladder issues. Keep in mind, Baby Boomers on average feel like they are 14 years younger than their actual age. Treat them as seniors or older Americans and you won't sell them anything.

Use words like mature or senior in your ad and the Baby Boomers will tune you out in a New York minute. So if you expect to capture their attention, don't try to take them back to the sixties or seventies or use age related content. Most Boomers still believe that they are young and vital. Treat them as such and you will be more successful. Don't over do it, though. If you treat them like twenty or thirty year olds, then you will miss the boat and waste your ad dollars

The characters portraying Boomers in advertisements should be cool, hip, and youthful, not grandpa or grandma. Baby Boomers remain idealistic, eager to embrace change, and believe in self empowerment. Don't expect them to march in lockstep or be influenced or persuaded by traditional approaches. If an ad agency expects keep its clients, it had better begin targeting this segment of the population and use non-traditional, innovative approaches when designing the campaigns.

Finally, when creating the ads, the agency should understand that Boomers are more receptive to the ads that tell a story. Boomers expect the ad to appeal to their generation, so make sure you personalize the pitch to them. When using personalities in an ad, ensure that the Boomers can identify and relate to the personalities. Be sure to include a "what's in it for me" connection. Follow these simple rules, create a compelling ad and you should be able to capture this lucrative market segment.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Are you targeting Baby Boomers and if so, how successful have you been? If not, why aren't you going after this market?

If you are a Baby Boomer and haven't joined our community,, please consider it. It is free and only takes a minute to sign up. You can share your viewpoint and voice your opinion on the critical issues facing America. And once enough of you weigh in, we can begin shaping policy in Washington, as well as at the state and local levels.

As always, thanks for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic

Boomer Opinion — the Boomers' Voice in America: Are Advertisers and Ad Agencies Targeting the Wrong Generation?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Rich Robinson: Top Ten PR Blunders of 2009

Rich Robinson: Top Ten PR Blunders of 2009 — this speaks for itself!
(from the Huffington Post, December 15)

For some this was, as Queen Elizabeth might say, "annus horribilis" - a horrible year. For the rest of us, it was another lesson in public relations crisis management. Here are the Top 10 PR blunders of 2009:

10. Fox News Caught Using Fake Footage. To make it seem like a protest over health care reform was larger than it actually was; the lying liars over at FNC used footage from a previous protest on the National Mall. Jon Stewart played clips from both events, clearly showing that the network used archived footage from a better-attended rally on Sept. 12 (with green trees, cloudy skies) to show thousands of protesters taking to the streets in Washington, DC, which took place in November that had fall trees and sunny skies.

9. Michael Steele, Human Gaffe Machine. The chairman of the GOP discovered a comfortable place for his foot all year long: his mouth. From his attempt to "urbanize" the Republican Party to his "strategic" use of the uttered gaffe, he has personified a political party that is lost far, far out in the woods.

8. Serena Williams' Outburst. After losing to Kim Clijsters at the US Open Semi-finals in September on a foot-fault call, the tennis powerhouse walked over to the diminutive judge and began berating her. "I swear to God, I'm [bleeping] taking this ball and I'm shoving it down your [bleeping] throat," Williams said. She was fined $10,000 for the outburst.

7. Tom Daschle's Tax Lax. Nominated as Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services, Daschle was looked upon as a key player in the looming fight over health care reform. But in February, he withdrew his nomination in embarrassment, due to his neglect over paying taxes on the use of a chauffeur service. In 1999 Daschle stated that "tax cheaters cheat us all, and that the IRS should enforce our laws to the letter," only underlining the irony of his blunder.

6. Kanye West Interrupts. During the MTV Video Music Awards, Taylor Swift unexpectedly won for Best Female Video. As she was making her acceptance speech, West leaped up on stage, grabbed the mic from her and said, "Yo Taylor, I'm really happy for you, I'll let you finish, but Beyoncé has one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!" He ruined Swift's moment and was quickly and roundly condemned by performers of all stripes, via the Twitter-verse. During an interview, the topic arose and President Obama commented that Swift seemed like perfectly nice person. "Why would he do that?" asked CNBC's John Harwood. "Because he's a jackass," Obama replied, to many laughs in the room. Nice call, Mr. President.

5. Balloon Boy Hoax. Richard Heene claimed his son had floated away in a home-made balloon. After a flight that lasted hours and was covered live on television, it landed about 12 miles from the Denver Airport. Once on the ground, the boy was not inside, so authorities began a manhunt of the area, raising fears that he had fallen from the balloon. Later that afternoon the he was reported to have been hiding at his house the entire time. Suspicions arose that the incident was a hoax following the Heene's interview on CNN. Responding to a question about why he was hiding, the boy said "You guys said that, um, we did this for the show." The Larimer County Sheriff announced the incident was indeed a hoax, and the parents would likely face several felony charges. Heene pleaded guilty to the charge of "attempting to influence a public servant."

4. Bobby Jindal Flops. It was supposed to be the governor of Louisiana's national coming out party: he was selected to give the GOP response to President Obama's first State of the Union speech. And little Bobby fell flat on his face. His reviews were harsh: "amateurish," "laughable" and, "a missed opportunity." On PBS, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks said, "to come up at this moment in history with a stale 'government is the problem,' 'we can't trust the federal government' - it's just a disaster for the Republican Party."

3. Gov. Mark Sanford's Hike Through the Appalachian Trail. Hey, you can't blame a guy for falling in love. It even happens to guys that are already married, and that much is none of our business. But when said guy is the governor of a state who leaves his duties behind (without telling his staff how he can be reached) to travel to South America to be with his lover, a few questions might come up. Mark Sanford (R-South Carolina), disappeared to Argentina several times to be with the woman he calls his "soul mate." Touching, but perhaps not to his wife, who recently filed for divorce. The funniest aspect of this is Sanford told his senior staff that he was going to be away and out of touch, "hiking on the Appalachian Trail" - which has now become code for "off boinking my mistress."

2. Rod Blagojevich Attempts to "Sell" Obama's Senate Seat. Illinois Democrat and Tammany Hall wannabe Blagojevich is caught trying to get cash for his appointment to fill Barack Obama's seat in the United States Senate. In possession of recorded phone conversations, the FBI will have none of it. "Blago" loses his job and still faces federal corruption charges. Meanwhile, Roland Burris is named to the seat, but that's an entirely different PR blunder from the get-go.

1. Tiger Woods' Fall From Grace. Few public figures have assumed such a carefully constructed persona only to have the bottom fall out so harshly. Woods' bevy of infidelities has caused huge damage to his reputation and will take time to fix. The good news is all he will have to do is win golf tournaments. The bad news is it takes a great deal of concentration to win at golf ... so for the moment, he is not in a good place. Walking away from the game is a smart move. Now he needs to shut up, make amends with his wife and stop with the waitresses and porn stars.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Message to Rupert Murdoch: Stop Whining!

Once again, I'm sharing a post from elsewhere ... because it seems so perfectly on-point that I couldn't hope to do better myself. In this case, I'm presenting a post from Arianna Huffington on Huffington Post. You can read the original here, or simply scroll down to read it in its entirety here —

Great job, Arianna. I don't always agree with you, but this time I'm giving you props!

Journalism 2009:
Desperate Metaphors, Desperate Revenue Models
and the Desperate Need for Better Journalism

by Arianna Huffington
co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post
December 1, 2009

I was asked to give a speech this morning at a journalism conference in Washington, DC sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission. The topic, as it so often seems to be these days, is what can be done to save journalism? Since Rupert Murdoch was scheduled to address the conference a little before me, I thought this would be a good time to take a look at Murdoch’s increasingly bellicose war against new media sites that aggregate the news, the increasingly desperate revenue models being discussed for online news, and what, in fact, needs to be done to ensure that journalism will not only survive, but thrive.

I. Desperate Times Lead to … Desperate Metaphors
Ever since we decided to launch the Huffington Post, I’ve talked about how the future of journalism will be a hybrid future where traditional media players embrace the ways of new media (including transparency, interactivity, and immediacy) and new media companies adopt the best practices of old media (including fairness, accuracy, and high-impact investigative journalism).

And with so many traditional media companies adapting to the new realities, it was ridiculous to engage in an us vs. them, old media vs. new media argument. Either/or was the wrong way to look at things.

But playing nice has increasingly become a one-way street — suddenly the air is filled with shrill, nonsensical, and misplaced verbal assaults on those in the new media.

Apparently, some in the old media have decided that it is, in fact, an either/or game and that the best way to save, if not journalism, at least themselves, is by pointing fingers and calling names. It’s a tactic familiar to schoolyard inhabitants everywhere: when all else fails, reach for the nearest insult and throw it around indiscriminately.

So now sites that aggregate the news have become, in the words of Rupert Murdoch and his team, “parasites,” “content kleptomaniacs,” “vampires,” “tech tapeworms in the intestines of the Internets,” and, of course, thieves who “steal all our copyright.”

It’s the news industry equivalent of “your mama wears army boots!” Although, not quite as persuasive.

In most industries, if your customers were leaving in droves, you would try to figure out what to do to get them back. Not in the media. They’d rather accuse aggregators of stealing their content.

Of course, any site can shut down the indexing of its content by Google any time it wants with a simple “disallow” in its robots.txt file. But be careful what you wish for because, as soon as you start denying your content to other sites that aggregate and link back to the original source, you stand to lose a large part of your traffic overnight. But as they say in Australia: “Good on ya.” Of course as someone who cares deeply about the future of this country, I’d say that having Glenn Beck not searchable by Google is an entirely good thing. But a good business move? Not so much.

Thinking that removing your content from Google will somehow keep it “exclusive” shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the web and how it works. As an experiment, Google the key terms from any interesting story currently kept behind a paywall, on the Wall Street Journal, for instance. And imagine no News Corp. source being included in the search results. You’d still get dozens and dozens of links to other sources — including many of the biggest news sites — writing about the story, riffing on it, quoting from it, and commenting on the key facts in it. So what are you going to do, try to make the case that no one should be able to talk about or write about or comment on or report on the stories you make them pay for? It’s a ridiculous notion.

I was recently on a panel in Monaco with Mathias Döpfner, CEO of the German publisher Axel Springer. He decided to play a confusing metaphor game by comparing news content to beer. “If it’s your business decision to offer beer for free, fine,” he said. “But don’t take our beer and offer it for free.”

This struck me as a really bizarre metaphor. Information is hardly the same thing as a product that can only be consumed once by a single person. If you consume a news story, you might be one of millions. If you consume a beer, no one else can consume it.

So it’s a false metaphor. And if you start from a false premise, you will inevitably be led to a false conclusion. Or, to put it another way, if you chug-a-lug too many of old media’s metaphoric beers, you will end up staggering down the street of illogical thinking and banging into the lamp post of wrong revenue models.

In his speech this morning, Rupert Murdoch confused aggregation with wholesale misappropriation. Wholesale misappropriation is against the law — and he has legal redress against that already. Aggregation, on the other hand, within the fair use exceptions to copyright law is part of the web’s DNA. Period.

At HuffPost, aggregation goes along with a tremendous amount of original content including original reporting and over 250 original blog posts a day. And we love it when someone links to one of our posts, or excerpts a small amount and links back to us.

Most sites understand the value of this and the way the link economy operates. It’s why HuffPost gets hundreds of requests from news outlets asking us to feature their material and link back to their site. They understand that the web is not a zero-sum game and that consumers love the freedom to be able to follow where their interests — and the offshoots of a story — take them.

Plus, let’s be honest, many of those complaining the loudest are working both sides of the street. Take, for example, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Just look at the sites News Corp. owns, as recently did, and you will see example after example after example of the pot calling the kettle black. And aggregating its content.

The Wall Street Journalhas a tech section that’s nothing more than a parasite — uh, I mean, aggregator — of outside content. has a Politics Buzztracker that bloodsucks — uh, I mean aggregates and links to — stories from a variety of different sources, including the NY Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC and others.

AllThingsD has a section called Voices that not only aggregates headlines, but also takes a nice chunk of text — and puts the links out at the bottom of the story.

And Murdoch’s News Corp. also owns IGN, which has a variety of web properties, including the Rotten Tomatoes movie review aggregation site — which is entirely made up of movie reviews pulled together from other places. Did someone say “stealing”?

Talk about having your aggregation cake and bitching about others eating a slice too.

That’s why I could only roll my eyes when the Wall Street Journal’s Robert Thomson wagged his finger at Google, and complained that it “encourages promiscuity” among news consumers.

Heaven forbid! Let’s be honest, while promiscuity is not good in relationships, it’s great for those looking for news and information. Trying to deny news consumers as wide a range of options and viewpoints as possible seems shortsighted — and ultimately self-defeating. This is a Golden Age for news consumers who can surf the net, use search engines, access the best stories from around the world, and be able to comment, interact, and form communities. The value of having the world of information at your fingertips is beyond dispute.

So it’s time for traditional media companies to stop whining and face the fact that far too many of them, lulled by a lack of competition and years of pretax profits of 20 percent or more, put cash flow above journalism and badly misread the web when it arrived on the scene. The focus was on consolidation, cost-cutting, and pleasing Wall Street — not modernization and pleasing their readers.

They were asleep at the wheel, missed the writing on the wall, let the train leave the station, let the ship sail — pick your metaphor — and quickly found themselves on the wrong side of the disruptive innovation the Internet and new media represent. And now they want to call timeout, ask for a do-over, start changing the rules, lobby the government to bail them out, and attack the new media for being ... well, new. And different. And transformational. Suddenly it’s all about thievery and parasites and intestines.

Get real, you guys. The world has changed. Here are some facts culled from one of the most popular anthems to the impact of technology on our world, a video originally put together by a math teacher, Karl Frisch:

Did you know that newspaper circulation is down seven million over the last 25 years while unique readership of online news is up 34 million in the last five years?

Did you know newspaper advertising fell nearly 19 percent this year while web advertising is up 9 percent and mobile advertising is up 18 percent?

Did you know that more video was uploaded to YouTube in the last two months than if ABC, CBS, and NBC had been airing all-new content every minute of every day since 1948?

And did you know that we have access to more than a trillion web pages, 100,000 iPhone apps, and send more text messages a day than there are people on the planet? And Rupert Murdoch still thinks aggregators are the problem?

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. And some things are better while some things, for the moment, are worse in terms of upheaval and especially the painful loss of jobs. But this is unarguably a Brave New Media World. And there is no use living in digital denial.

The information superhighway is a busy thoroughfare and there’s going to be some road kill along the way. But only among those who insist on merging into traffic riding a horse and buggy.

II. Desperate Times Lead To … Desperate Revenue Models
Practically every day now, we hear about a new initiative designed to “harness digital media” and “get people to pay for their news on the web.”

The big buzz last week was about News Corp’s fantasies of breaking up with Google and tying the knot with Microsoft, giving its heart — and all its content — to Bing. I’ll gladly wager my share of the Huffington Post that this ain’t gonna happen.

The charge-for-content crowd seems to change strategies as often as Lindsay Lohan switches meds. First paywalls were going to be the answer. Then it was micro-payments. Then per article purchases. Then day passes.

James Harding, editor of the London Times and a member of Team Murdoch, recently said that he preferred the idea of charging for 24-hour access to his paper’s website over the use of micro-payments, which he fears could lead to newspapers, and I quote, “writing a lot more about Britney Spears and a lot less about Tamils in northern Sri Lanka.” For those of you up on Britney but not on the Tamils, they were on the losing side of the Sri Lankan civil war.

In any case, only three percent of consumers say they prefer the micro-payment method. But, hey, who cares what they prefer … they are only consumers!

Now, James Harding is a really nice, really smart guy and Times Online is a really great site, but, seriously, on what grounds would a reader decide that on any particular day instead of surfing around the web, clicking on the stories they find interesting, snacking, sampling, and moving on — or digging deeper by following a link — they are going to purchase a 24-hour pass to every bit of content on just one single site? Is it because, of course you fool, Tuesdays at the Times are always so much newsier than everywhere else? Or will readers save their money until Thursdays and pay for The Sun because they have more boobs and bottoms that day? I mean, Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, Stephen Brill’s Journalism Online reportedly has 16 different payment schemes that it plans to offer its member publishers. Nieman Lab recently listed six payment models that Brill has trademarked, and that news publishers can employ.

These include: High activity Pay Points (a metered model); Selected Content Pay Points (a partial paywall); Time-based Pay Points (charging for new content only); Enhanced Service Pay Points (charging for special features); Market Access Pay Points (charges based on a users location); and Preview Activity Pay Points (allowing previewing of paid content).

In other words, it’s payment made simple!

Or take the New York Times. A quick search of headlines in the business press shows that in the summer of 2009 it was, “New York Times Company CEO Confirms Likelihood of Paywall for NYT Content by Autumn>.” By September that had become: “New York Times Paywall Decision to Be ‘Gut Call.’ By November it had become: “New York Times Paywall Decision Coming Within Weeks.”

It amazes me that Murdoch and Brill and the Paywall Team at the Times continue to believe that people are prepared to pay for news online — despite the recent survey showing that 80 percent of U.S. news consumers say they “wouldn’t bother” to read news and magazines online if the content were no longer free.

Sure, free news content is not a perfect system but it’s a lot like what Churchill said about democracy: it “is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” That’s the reality. Free content is not without problems. But it’s here to stay, and publishers need to come to terms with that and figure out how to make it work for them.

And all across the country, passionate entrepreneurs are doing just that, experimenting with new and creative revenue models. is monetizing its engaged and highly informed community by turning them into focus-groups-for-hire. ProPublica is using a not-for-profit model to produce impact investigative journalism. And there are many different powerful local journalism models, including Voice of San Diego, which supports its award-winning local journalism with a combination of advertising and public radio-style contributions from foundations and users.

The new paths to success are still being charted — and much remains uncertain. But this much is clear: we can’t use an analog map and expect to find our way in a digital word.

III. Desperate Times Desperately Call for Better Journalism
Here is what we must not forget: our current media culture (with a few honorable exceptions) failed to serve the public interest by missing the two biggest stories of our time — the run-up to the war in Iraq and the financial meltdown. In both instances, there were plenty of people who got it right, who saw what was coming and warned about it, but they weren’t given much of a voice or were drowned out by the thumping sound of journalists walking in lockstep.

As a result, we’ve had far too many autopsies of what went wrong and not enough biopsies of what was about to go wrong. Many important stories have died on the front pages of newspapers. Online media, on the other hand, are particularly well-suited to obsessively follow a story until it breaks through the static. When new media journalists decide that something matters, they chomp down hard and refuse to let go. They’re the true pit bulls of reporting.

We hear lots and lots of talk these days about saving newspapers — Congressional anti-trust exemptions, perhaps? — but we mustn’t forget: the state of newspapers is not the same thing as the state of journalism. As much as I love newspapers — and fully expect them to survive — the future of journalism is not dependent on the future of newspapers.

Indeed, the future of journalism is to be found, at least partly, in the rapidly growing number of people who connect with the news in a whole new way.

News is no longer something we passively take in. We now engage with news, react to news and share news. It’s become something around which we gather, connect and converse. We all are part of the evolution of a story now — expanding it with comments and links to relevant information, adding facts and differing points of view.

In short, the news has become social. And it will become even more community-powered: stories will be collaboratively produced by editors and the community. And conversations, opinion, and reader reactions will be seamlessly integrated into the news experience.

We saw the power of citizen journalism during the uprising earlier this year in Iran. People tweeting from demonstrations and uploading video of brutal violence taken with their camera phones were able to tell a story, in real-time, and circumvent the efforts of the regime to control the media and the flow of information.

In fact, the new paradigm was illustrated perfectly by the New York Times, which covered the story both in the old way and the new way. The former came by way of executive editor Bill Keller who was in Tehran for the election. Three days after the fraudulent vote, and well after the street protests had been revved up and hundreds of videos had been uploaded and thousands of tweets had been posted, he reported: “With this election, Mr. Khamenei and [Mr. Ahmadinejad] appear to have neutralized for now the reform forces that they saw as a threat to their power, political analysts said.”

Uh, not exactly.

At the same time, the Times also ran an aggregation blog by Robert Mackey that was, like the terrific one our national editor Nico Pitney did on HuffPost, a 24/7 nerve center of updates, video and tweets — largely by citizen journalists.

Citizen journalists can play a key role in investigative journalism. At the Huffington Post, they help shape our stories in multiple ways — from whistleblowing to combing through thousands of pages of bills and government documents to being part of our Bearing Witness 2.0 project, finding great stories from across the country that put flesh and blood on the statistics and consequences of our economic crisis.

And yet the contributions of citizen journalists, bloggers, and others who aren’t paid to cover the news are constantly mocked and derided by the critics of new media who clearly don’t understand that technology has enabled millions of consumers to shift their focus from passive observation to active participation — from couch potato to self-expression. Writing blogs, sending tweets, updating your Facebook page, editing photos, uploading videos, and making music are just a few of the active entertainment options now available. But when the data began to show a significant shift in consumer habits, traditional media responded by belittling web journalism.

The same people who never question why consumers would sit on a couch and watch TV for eight hours straight can’t understand why someone would find it rewarding to weigh in on the issues — great and small — that interest them. For free. They don’t understand the people who contribute to Wikipedia for free, who maintain their own blogs for free, who Twitter for free, who constantly refresh and update their Facebook page for free, who want to help tell the stories of what is happening in their lives and in their communities... for free.

At the Huffington Post, and at the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, we deeply value the role of professional reporters and editors, and have dozens of them on payroll. And we think the value of editors will only increase as the constant stream of information coming at us continues to swell — making trusted guides and curators more and more essential to keeping us from being swept away.

But there is no denying that thousands and thousands of other people want in on the process and have much to contribute to it. And that number will only continue to grow. To deride the value of their contributions is to completely misunderstand the world we live in.

And the sooner we all embrace that world, the sooner we’ll be able to stop the name calling, put aside the increasingly desperate metaphors and increasingly desperate revenue models, and focus on what really matters: ensuring that in the future, journalism will not only survive, but be strengthened and thrive.

As always, thanks for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic

Friday, November 13, 2009

Bailing Out on a Challenge ~ or Optimizing a Unique Opportunity?

Once more, I'm borrowing a comment from a favorite source:'s PR Junkie column. This was posted back in October and I loved it so much I (again) feel compelled to share. Sometimes someone says something so well there's no point in trying to better it. And Ragan does that pretty often. If you've never checked their page, I highly recommend it for both insight and humor.

It seems that last summer, the Wisconsin Tourism Federation rebranded itself, changing its name to the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin. The change was announced via the Associated Press, although I regret that the article about it is no longer available at AP.

You might well wonder why an established organization would change its name. As a former (albeit short-term) Wisconsinite myself, I was certainly curious. Ragan's article follows:


Wisconsin, you blew it.

The Associated Press reports that your Wisconsin Tourism Federation — WTF — quietly rebranded in July, changing its name to the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin — TFW.

So, what prompted this rebranding? After all, Wisconsin’s WTF was around well before teens, and later adults, started saying WTF to mean “what the f****.”

“Blogs started poking fun at it,” AP reported.

Because blogs started poking fun at it? Really? One blog, it seems, made fun of it. That blog, called, posted the Tourism Federation’s logo on July 1 with this comment, “would really think someone would warn them about this kind of stuff.”

Ouch. Better call up the PR SWAT team for that one.

Other blogs and articles are claiming the people of Wisconsin cracked wise about the acronym endlessly, and the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin, a group of businesses in the state, finally got sick of it. Clearly, the blog played a strong hand in the decision, given the timing.

It was a big mistake. This organization had a marketing goldmine. Wisconsin’s “WTF” was branded in 1979. So, WTF, optimize it! Next time someone types WTF into Google, there’s your site. Someone types WTF into a Facebook update or G-mail e-mail and an ad for Wisconsin appears.

And make light of the silly acronym, don’t run from it. Someone Googles “WTF” and finds the Wisconsin Tourism Federation site, here’s some sample text that could accompany it:

WTF? That’s probably what you’re asking? What the f — OK, we’ll stop you right there. Here’s why you’ve landed on a Web site dedicated to Wisconsin. WTF are the initials for the Wisconsin Tourism Federation. We were here before WTF meant something else, and we’ll be here after it evolves into something like WTFF (think about that for second).

So, while we have you, here’s why you should come to Wisconsin —
  • Our great sense of humor — just look at this ad!
  • [Reason]
  • [Reason]
  • [Reason]
"It surprises me that the people of Wisconsin, who always seemed fun-loving, would take exception to the acronym. Or, as Jonathan Turley, a legal blogger and fellow Chicagoan, wrote, “What I fail to understand (admittedly with a Chicago bias) is why people who wear cheese on their heads at football games are this sensitive about being called WTF.”

Turns out one of my Ragan co-workers grew up in Wisconsin. I asked her about it: Did you know about WTF? Is this something that bothers you? Should they have changed it?

Here’s what she said:

“Never heard of it. Never even heard any one talk about it. I think it’s dumb. Only in Wisconsin would this happen. And I’m from Wisconsin, so I can say that.”

The state has spoken.


Thanks again, Ragan, for giving me such great fodder for my heretical nature! I can only agree that [the former] WTF had a terrific opportunity to ave some fun with their circumstances. The organization could even have reworked the logo to change the emphasis on the apparently uncomfortable acronym if it really bothered them so much, which would have enabled them to offer two distinct campaigns — one embracing the humor and another ignoring the issue.

But no; instead they folded. And, in my view, missed the opportunity to appeal to a whole new audience. And that's a pity, especially given the state's potential appeal to young outdoorsy folks. Apparently, you can show people opportunity, but you can't make them take it.

Now, to my readers, as always, thanks for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic

Friday, October 30, 2009

New Rules: Authenticity & Participation

I just finished reading The New Rules of Marketing & PR by David Merman Scott. The book, originally written in 2007, was updated this year by the author. Since my philosophy for organizational/corporate communications emphasizes truly BEing what and who we SAY we are, I was pleased to see some terrific guideposts for authenticity throughout this easy-to-read book.

The tools of marketing and PR have changed. The skills that worked offline to help you buy or beg your way in are the skills of interruption and coercion. Success online comes from thinking like a journalist and a thought leader.

Herewith some key observations, comments and clips:

Search out people online (blogs, articles, etc) talking about your topic — find out their point of view and then engage them in a way that’s congruous with their interests

It’s about new ways to tell stories directly to your audience

Educate, engage (in conversation), entertain and tell compelling stories

Anticipate needs and supply content to meet them, even before they know they want it

Social media provides a feedback loop on what a brand means in the marketplace

Marketing is not about your products; it’s about your consumers

Aiming for unique hits or PR clips is not the right measure — it’s like in soccer focusing on the ball instead of the goal

Use the same language as your buyers — words, phrases

What do you want them to believe?

Become an online thought leader, talking about what's important to your customers, not mentioning your company/products at all

Marketing and PR are meant to be the bridge to a relationship, with buyers and with journalists

What problem do you solve for customers? use real-world language, not corporate jargon ... without going too far (it will sound phony if you push it)

The New Rules
  • Marketing is more than just advertising
  • PR is for more than just mainstream media
  • You are what you publish
  • People want authenticity, not spin
  • People want participation, not propaganda
  • Instead of creating one-way interruption, marketing is about delivering content at just the precise moment your audience needs it
  • Marketers must shift their thinking from mainstream marketing to the masses to a strategy of reaching vast numbers of underserved audiences via the internet
  • PR is not about your boss seeing your company on TV; it’s about your buyers seeing your company on the web
  • Marketing is not about your agency winning awards; it’s about your organization winning business
  • The internet has made public relations public again, after years of an exclusive focus on media
  • Blogs, podcasts, eBooks, news releases and other forms of online content let organizations communicate directly with buyers in a form they appreciate
  • On the web, the lines between marketing and PR have blurred
If you haven't already read this, check out the book yourself at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. How can you change your stance in communicating with your world to become more authentic? To truly BE who you SAY you are? And if you’re not holding yourself (and your organization) to that standard, how will you defend yourself when you’re found out?

As always, thanks for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Are you putting everything of yourself into your life?

I don't normally post someone else's work here on my page, but I just read this article over at TalentZoo and simply MUST share it with my readers. I've edited it just a bit, which I hope Mr McFarlane won't mind ....

A Matter of Life and Death
by Paul MacFarlane

Let's get the obvious out of the way: We're all going to die. (In fact, how we feel about death is a sure sign of how we live.)

And none of us really know when or how we're going to fly from this world. Hit by a bus? Car accident? Cancer? Sudden heart attack? Slowly in a nursing home with Alzheimer's?

So, I want to know, since neither of us is dead at this moment, how you're thinking about the project you're working on right now. Are you putting everything of yourself into it (or at least fighting to do so)?

What if this one project ended up being the last ad you ever write, design, produce or approve? And what if this one last project was what you were ultimately remembered for?

Do you want to be remembered as a SEO expert?
Do you want to be remembered as making soft-porn sales promotion posters?
Do you want to be remembered for saving 1% off the media budget for the same reach and frequency?

I suspect that most of us, if we knew and had the choice, might want our last professional act to make a difference in this world, to make people smile, to think, to make life something far more than the ordinary.

So, realizing that neither of us know how much longer we have to live, to work, to breathe ... couldn't the project you (and I) are working on right now be just a little bit better?

I know, it's really hard most days, but may I suggest that it's worth your while.

Please, may the work we do today be based on a better idea make both of us better human beings.


So my challenge to you, readers, is this: How do you want to be remembered? What are you doing to make it so? I once read an article that asked a similar question: If someday someone created a museum of YOU, what would it contain? How would it portray you, your life and your work? Ponder this just a bit ....

As always,
thanks for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic

Friday, October 2, 2009

Hyatt PR Gaffe Goes Viral, Global

Hyatt’s Boston-area recent firing of nearly a hundred housekeeping employees has demonstrated how a management decision, perhaps thought to be a minor local action, can reverberate around the world and threaten the foundations of an otherwise respected brand.

The Boston Globe broke the story in its September 17 edition and the very next day, at 6:24 pm September 18, an unidentified individual registered the Web URL, which is now pumping out support for the terminated employees and spitting venom at the hotel chain.

Hyatt’s decision resulted in a viral campaign. Hyatt should have considered the ramifications for social media destruction, noted a hotel manager in faraway Beijing, as they failed to manage the response in the online world. Instead of managing discussions at sites like Twitter, Facebook, etc., they simply issued a formal press statement.

And the story kept growing and growing and growing….

How It Happened

Employees are critical stakeholders — it’s such an obvious statement that to say it seems simplistic. Yet executives at three Boston Hyatts seem to have missed that lesson in their corporate management class. Here’s how this blunder came about at the Hyatt Regency Boston, Hyatt Regency Cambridge and Hyatt Harborside at Logan International Airport.

We know the global economy has been in crisis during the past year. This created an equally serious decline in business and recreational travel, including hotel bookings. As a result, hotel management everywhere has been under pressure to cut expenses.

Facing this dilemma, the Hyatt Boston-area brain trust decided housekeeping costs were too high. So executives decided to outsource housekeeping, replacing employees earning up to $15/hour (plus benefits) with less experienced workers making about $8/hour and no benefits.

To smooth the transition from the existing workforce — some of whom had over 20 years on the job at the hotel — to the new contract crew, the 100 in-place workers were assigned to train their replacements, being told that the trainees would be vacation replacements.

And then…

The City of Boston joined “the battle against Hyatt,” the city council issuing a resolution condemning Hyatt’s “poor treatment of its employees” and Mayor Thomas Menino adding that the job cuts “fly in the face of what Boston is all about.” Governor Deval Patrick even threatened to have state employees boycott the hotel chain.

Showing a further lack of insight and sensitivity to community and other stakeholder interests, Hyatt Regency Boston president Phil Stamm fired back, “We are very disappointed by the governor’s decision to threaten a boycott of our hotels since it directly threatens the 600 associates who work in Hyatt properties and who live and work in Massachusetts.”

A local TV station reports that a union representing some 1,700 Boston cab drivers said it will boycott Hyatt hotels in the city unless the company rehires the fired housekeepers. And at least one news broadcast about the situation went global on YouTube.

The social activist organization joined the fray and made “Join the Hyatt Boycott” its lead story. Highly respected institutions and sites ranging from AOL Travel to the and the Harvard Business Review have prominently covered the story and, in doing so, denigrate Hyatt’s management decisions. In fact, the HBR piece calls Hyatt’s actions a “sure-fire way” to “damage to your brand.”

International travel authority Fodor’s has an active blog thread on the Hyatt debacle with one reader echoing the sentiments of several others:

“This morning on NPR, there was a piece about Hyatt Boston firing all their housekeepers and hiring temps, so as to save on healthcare and benefits. There was a woman who had worked housekeeping for Hyatt for 19 years who had a 13 year-old son with asthma. Where is she going to get another job or healthcare benefits? I for one will NEVER stay at Hyatt again.”

All these actions keep the story in the active media eye, keep the pot stirred and prevent the story from simply fading out of the public consciousness.

Timing is Everything

Do you believe in coincidence?

Hyatt announced in August it had filed a statement with the SEC proposing an initial public offering of its shares. In such a situation it is common to clean up the balance sheet, cut expenses, boost top-line revenues as high as possible and optimize cash flow — everything a potential investor wants to see. And since employee costs are always a big item in service industries, they’re always vulnerable.

Of course, if service goes to hell because employees are demoralized, who cares? Once the Prizker family members get its money from the IPO, the whole mess is someone else’s problem. Let shareholders worry about shoddy service and a sinking reputation….

So we wondered: Since other hotel operators are suffering from the same global economic downturn, how are they handling the inconvenience of paying housekeeping staffs?

Earlier this year the Liberty Hotel, a posh Boston establishment, took the opposite route, eliminating their outsourced security and night janitorial services and replacing them with hotel workers from other departments who might otherwise have been laid off. “We would not [outsource housekeepers] because we want to tightly control the guest experience here and the cleanliness,” managing director Jim Treadway said. And when asked, Hilton and Marriott executives told the newspaper that they had no plans to outsource their housekeeping responsibilities.

All stakeholders — including employees, customers and shareholders — count big time; all of them. And management should never, ever forget it… because the communication impact can be devastating, especially in this age of viral online communication among consumers. We are best advised to never forget the power of an angry individual, either.


My thanks to one of my favorite blogs — edit30… insight for business communicators — for bringing this mess to my attention!

And, as always, thanks to my readers for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Intrinsic Value of a Brand

What's in a brand? We hear the term tossed around cavalierly in business conversation all the time. It's become one of the many misunderstood, overused and therefore diluted terms in the marketplace.

Among the many wrenching stories about our economy over the past several months has been the corporate shattering of General Motors. The venerable GM has suffered tremendous public humiliation during the recent economic crisis and now stands at a crossroad. It has made some tough choices and has many more to make before the ultimate fate of the former giant is known.

One such decision is the choice to eliminate the Pontiac brand effective with the 2009 model year. Not that this is the first time. You might recall that Oldsmobile was the first of the GM brands to be shuttered in the new century in an effort to focus its resources on its more popular brands. And admittedly, at the time, GM was weighted down in the midsection with little differentiation between the Olds and Pontiac brands.

But I've been struggling with the decision to throw Pontiac under the bankruptcy bus. Does this really make sense? Pontiac was the "we build excitement" brand: youthful and muscular. The Grand Prix, GrandAm, Firebird/TransAm, cars run as much on adrenalin as petroleum. I couldn't — and still can't — for the life of me figure out why GM would choose to kill the "excitement" while keeping the Buick nameplate alive.

In my personal experience, developed throughout decades of absorbing advertising slogans and just looking around, it's clear to me that Pontiac really does reflect a more youthful, vigorous aura ... while Buicks appear to be the cars of old age (and company cars). Yes, I know this is a gross generalization based on my "gut." but seriously: when was the last time a 20-something or 30-something told their buddies excitedly about their new Buick? Perhaps somewhere amidst the intricate number crunching at GM this choice makes sense, but it sure doesn't to me. (Transparency disclosure: I have owned a few Pontiacs — in fact, my very first car was a GTO; and my parents have driven Buicks since they reached their late 60s.)

Does this matter? Should the suits at General motors care about the gut feeling of an ordinary consumer, albeit one who happens to know a thing or two about brands? Apparently not, since a thoughtfully analytical eMail sent to senior officials when the decision was merely in the rumor stage received a "how nice of you to share your irrelevant opinion" reply.

But here's the thing: Whatever definitions are used in B-schools and marketing classes, a brand is what consumers think it is. The new Buick promotions say "Everything you thought about Buick just went BOOM. Take a look at me now." Clever, in a way — a blatant pander to the baby boomer generation they apparently hope to seduce. This approach clearly indicates that they know that they're selling the brand from a position of weakness, and it's a position they put themselves right into. Why? Again, maybe there's a secret in the numbers that we mere mortals don't understand. Or maybe there's a ghost in the Buick attic that must be ameliorated.

Of course, we also need to keep in mind that this is one of the arrogant American behemoths that ignored the writing on the wall when Japanese manufacturers came ashore in the 70s with their compact, economical, high-quality vehicles. So it would not be surprising for this to be yet another enormous, stinking error.

It's far more difficult to try to change public perception about brands than to leverage those perceptions to your advantage. What GM is doing is simply counterintuitive. And I don't think it's going to fly. I'll be watching to see what happens. And since we Americans now own a stake in the company, I'm sure I'm not the only one.

How do you see it? Am I blinded by my own myopic view? Share your thoguhts with me below —

As always,
thanks for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic

Friday, July 17, 2009

Pretty Tricky, These Advertisers

As a lifelong marketer, I know I pay a lot more attention to the advertisements I see around me than most people. Recently two TV ads in particular have attracted my interest and inspired me to the topic for this post.

Wow — triple hops!
The first is
this ad for Miller Lite beer. Anyone who watches television must certainly have seen this by now as they have been everywhere with it for a number of months. Their information made me curious, so I searched for online information about the role of hops in beer — and learned that hops are almost always added three times, that this is the standard for brewing.

While Miller manages to make it sound impressive, the truth is, that’s just how you make beer. In fact, John Palmer’s book about brewing,
How to Brew instructs readers to add hops three times during brewing because hops are divided into three different types: bittering hops, flavor hops and aroma (or finishing) hops.

But Miller counts on the average beer drinker not actually knowing very much about beer. Some beer-fan blogs have pointed out the truth, but the broader consumer world is quiet on the subject. And they're still running the ad.

No wonder they call it the cheesiest

The second spot that has more recently caught my attention is for Kraft's ubiquitous macaroni and cheese, the favorite of kids everywhere. For years — more than I can recall — Kraft has used the branding tagline, "the cheesiest." Now they've performed a brilliant sleight-of-hand maneuver and expanded that tagline to "No wonder they call it the cheesiest!"

But who is the "they" in this statement? The company themselves! They've called their product "the cheesiest" for so long they hope none of us notice that the designation is really just a part of their own advertising armory! In fact, a quick glance at the official ingredient panel for the product proves that there is truly precious little cheese int he product, as most adults have known since we were old enough to think about it.

Now, as a marketing professional, I acknowledge that a lot of what is said in advertising falls within a broad expanse of "what you can get away with." In both these instances, the companies have shown sharp wits in selecting their themes and building on them: making statements that sound larger than they are and assuming no one will think very deeply about the meaning of the statements themselves. So I'll give them props for that ... but with a wink and a nod, because I can see the magician's secret.

What ads attract your notice as slick twists of reality? I'd love to hear from you.

Thanks for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Future of Marketing

I recently read an online article, The Future of Marketing by Gareth Kay, at TalentZoo that I simply have to share ... because while the propositions made by the author are dramatic (within the marketing microcosm, that is), I sincerely hope he's right. You can read the piece yourself here.

Kay begins by referencing the vast amount of discussion we hear about new technologies for communication:
Pick up any of the trade papers or read any of the marketing blogs recently and you’re likely to notice Amara’s law at work: “We invariably overestimate the short-term impact of new technologies while underestimating their long-term effects.”
... and then observes, "but there is precious little conversation about the impact technology is having long-term on culture, and how this might challenge some of the assumptions we have built marketing programs on for the last few decades." He then notes four interesting signs of where be believes marketing may be headed:

1. Brands will be built on cultural and social missions, not commercial propositions
Marketing historically has been obsessed with the concept of positioning — how you are different to your competitors in your category. Increasingly, great brands are realizing that people don’t see categories and don’t obsess about them. What actually matters is having a point of view on the world, a cultural mission to ask people to rally around. You can begin to see this come to life in marketing ideas like Dove’s ‘Campaign For Real Beauty’ and, more importantly, embedded into the very DNA of businesses. Howies, a UK clothing brand is a great example. As its founder Dave Hieatt said, “We’re not trying to sell things. We are trying to make people think about stuff.” That belief (make people think about the world around them) is self-evident in everything from the materials they use to their design to their catalogues to store design.

2. Marketing will be about what you do, not what you say
Marketing has for far too long been built on the notion of saying things at people, rather than doing things for or with people. Great marketing will increasingly be about what you do, not what you say. And that means that rather than being a silo within a business, marketing needs to be an ethos pervasive throughout an organization. Great marketing ideas today and in the future are as likely to be ideas that ‘live’ in operations (think Zappos unannounced upgrade to overnight shipping or Amazon’s one-click shopping), retail design (handheld registers in Apple stores to cut down queues and increase staff/customer interaction) or HR (the Zappos culture book).

3. Lots of little ideas, not one big idea
The future of marketing lies in breaking the tyranny of the big idea for two reasons.

First, while marketing (and brands) exist for a commercial purpose, they live in a cultural space. And culture is far richer, deeper, complex and nuanced than 99.9 percent of marketing. Marketing will be more culturally interesting if it is made up of lots of coherent ideas than repeating consistently one idea.

Second, given our inability to predict the future (despite the fortunes spent on research) it makes much more sense to start lots of fires to see what takes hold and place lots of small bets, rather than putting everything on black 35. We need to think about investing lots of small bets, learning from them and then scaling up behind the ideas that seem to be working. (It’s worth noting that this has been made practical by the fact that the internet is reducing the cost of failure to almost zero).

4. People first
Marketing in the future will be about putting people first. This may sound ridiculously obvious, but too often marketing is about convincing people how great you are rather than working out what people are interested in and how you might be able to help or add value.

A great example of this was the Tate Tracks campaign created by Fallon London for the Tate Modern gallery. They needed to increase the number of under-25s visiting the gallery and quickly realized that the conventions of gallery marketing — show the art on display — was unlikely to change behavior. So instead they thought about what this audience were passionate about — music — and created a campaign around art inspiring new, exclusive music.

If I had to sum it up I think the future lies in realizing that creating cultural value will create commercial value. Whatever the future may bring, it’s certainly an exciting time to be in the industry.


Those of you who know me or have followed my posts will quickly recognize why I am so enamored of Kay's Four Predictions. These are precisely the kinds of ideas I have been promoting in this blog and, in fact, in my conversations and other writing. Marketing — and communications in general (whether internal or external) simply MUST become more about "the other" than about ourselves. We must acknowledge our place as small atoms in the tremendous cultural entity and contribute to the environment in which we live rather than merely attempting to suck energy from it.

And now, an apology balanced by some good news:
My dedicated readers may have noted a recent absence of new posts from the Communication Heretic. A family emergency took me away from my desk for several weeks, but I promise to be back more frequently in the coming months. And thanks to those of you who inquired about my absence. I appreciate your loyalty and concern! Until next time —

Thanks for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Elephant in the Room

I hesitate to jump on this bandwagon like everyone else ~ surely we're all beyond tired of hearing about it ~ but unfortunately the recent AIG executive bonus mess presents a perfect case study in bad PR. This is all the more baffling when one realizes that the very god of crisis communications, Burson Marsteller, is said to be guiding AIG through its perilous situation. Certainly it's not heretical to suggest that this one is a disaster that will have PR professionals shaking their heads for decades to come.

Can this possibly be the same Burson Marsteller who counseled the absolutely spot-on crisis PR response to the Mother of All PR Crises, the Tylenol poisoning tragedy of 1982? How can the response be so different? In the Tylenol case, the client stepped forward immediately, publicly and with tremendous humility and compassion. It called for an immediate recall and virtually oozed responsiveness, engendering trust. Had it acted differently, Johnson & Johnson ~ not just the Tylenol brand ~ might very well have been sunk by the sheer horror of the case. Because of its unquestionably responsible approach, Tylenol remains one of the most trusted brands in over-the-counter pain relief.

AIG's response to the bonus crisis could not be more different. Instead of acceptance of responsibility and public humility, we see defensiveness grounded in legalese and an apparent cluelessness to the pointedly visceral reaction of Jane Q Public to the news. From the beginning, one has been tempted to ask, What color is the sky in your world? Surely only aliens from another galaxy could be so thoroughly and blithely unaware of the disbelief and rage of the average citizen.

Is AIG a more difficult client than Johnson & Johnson? Has Burson Marsteller changed? Is the agency giving sound advice that is not being followed by client execs? Or does Burson not "get it" either? Does anyone believe that, simply because no one died in the AIG crisis the corporate response can be more self-aggrandizing? How to explain this seemingly inexplicable sea change?

Several days ago, Advertising Age published an excellent assessment of the situation, "No Easy Fix for AIG's Bonus Blowback" by Michael Bush. In it, he says, "Even PR pros are shaking their heads at the blundering giant insurer, which is fast becoming not only the poster boy for financial-industry greed, but also a company seen as too arrogant or stupid to keep out of its own way." Dramatic words, but hard to argue with. Both the industry pros he quotes in the piece and the many reader comments make it an informative read.

The immense size of the dollar amounts in this discussion defy comprehension. Even in the PR/marketing world, where big salaries and bonuses are well understood, surely we can see how utterly indefensible AIG's position in this matter looks from the outside ... Or can we?

Thanks for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic