What Goldman Can Learn From Toyota: Apology Communications

Lately, the public apology has been cheapened to the point of commodity. Hardly a month passes without a tearful, televised mea culpa from a politician or athlete. On the corporate front, the typical PR offering is more along the lines of “mistakes were made” – a masterful mouthful of nothingspeak. The banking industry’s contrition is epitomized by Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s stilted apology last November, followed by an orchestrated move to throw money at the problem. But, like the actions of a guilty husband trying to gift his way out of the doghouse, it smacks of insincerity.

Toyota’s recent response to its accelerating business and PR crisis reminded us that apology communications is in part shaped by culture. The “apology gap” between the U.S. and Japan is profiled in an entertaining New York Times column by Alina Tugend. Most telling, however, are the photos. (I couldn’t find the exact images online, but it’s worth looking at the hard copy of the paper if you have it.) The image of three U.S. bank  CEOs – looking frustrated and combative at a government inquiry – is juxtaposed with a shot of Japan Airlines executives in a deep bow of contrition after filing for bankruptcy. The contrast couldn’t be more striking.

The piece echoes the observations of Bob Pickard, recently named CEO of Burson Marsteller’s Asia Pacific region. Pickard blogs that, after relocating to Asia from North America, “I increasingly found my own culture’s approach to apology callous and calculating; a tactic of last resort.” In Asia, perhaps, former Time Warner chief Gerald Levin’s mea culpa for “the worst deal of the century,” and his call for CEOs to take responsibility for poor decisions, wouldn’t have been quite so startling.

Yet, it’s not just culture. Most PR pros agree with me that it’s our legal system that gets in the way. In our litigious society, it’s hard to accept responsibility and pledge to change when it can be used against you in a class-action suit.

So, does Toyota have a strategic advantage over a typical U.S. company? In theory, yes. Its president took the first step by communicating regret over the massive product recall caused by a gas pedal problem. A U.S. spokesman went further by making it clear that Toyota takes responsibility for the problem rather than blaming it on a supplier.

Yet, the Toyota case also reveals when saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. When a risk to public health, safety or security has occurred, the infringing company must not only show contrition and accept responsibility. It must spell out how it will make things right, and convince stakeholders that it has done everything possible to eliminate the risk for the future.

Toyota will get there. The repair of its brand reputation will pick up speed when it announces its remedial plan with a full-court PR and advertising campaign, probably next week. That’s where Lloyd Blankfein and his colleagues might want to listen up. Until they’ve convinced us that the problem can’t happen again, their apology will be a little like a penny stock – cheap, not very credible, and lacking value over the long term.

Does Apple Have A “Female Problem”?

No other company could have raised the anticipation bar as high and managed the PR tsunami as deftly as Apple did in the months leading up to the unveiling of the new iPad tablet.

But contrary to the stratospheric expectations, the iPad didn’t self-levitate, dispense cash, or heal the sick. Apple-watchers had their criticisms. Many called it nothing more than a “giant iPod Touch.” Personally, I was a little glad to read mixed reviews, given charges by some that major media – who might have much to gain by the iPad’s success – are incapable of covering it objectively.

Still, there’s no fan base as evangelical as Apple’s. Some began posting “I want it!” minutes after the most live-blogged product unveiling in history got underway. (Personally, I don’t agree with many of the objections. My disappointment was that AT&T is the sole data service provider. Not good.)

But, the masters of technology, design, and marketing may have stumbled a bit with the branding of the iPad. The most unexpectedly entertaining part of the announcement was the response to the name. While my first thought when I heard it was the potential for confusion with “iPod”  (particularly for Bostonians), to many people it connoted a kind of high-tech feminine hygiene product.

As Twitter users and message-board commenters piled on in the minutes and hours after the announcement, the one-liners were, um, flowing. Within moments, “iTampon” was a Twitter trending topic. By day’s end, bloggers posted an oddly prescient 2007 skit from Mad TV in which two female office mates share a confidential chat about a feminine protection product called – yep, the iPad. Blogs like adrants began to post the best jokes about the iPad branding.

So, does the iPad naming show that Apple has a…”female problem”? Many women bloggers questioned the decision, and some claim it shows a dearth of estrogen in Cupertino, at least where the marketing and branding decisions are made. “Do any women work at Apple?” was the theme of most posts.

Maybe it’s that the technology industry – with its CES booth babes and Silicon Valley geekpreneurs – is still a male-dominated one, both in numbers and in character. The typical early adopter is a man, and the way tech products are sold at retail reminds some women of the automotive industry. The tech-toy race is a stereotypically male preoccupation, and, despite women’s appreciation for technology, our default mindset is more practical than status-conscious.

Personally, though I might have favored “iTab” for a name, I think the period humor is way overblown. After all, the iPad comforms to the Apple product  nomenclature. And the word “pad” is used in scores of ways, including “notepad,” “mouse pad,” and “touch pad.”

The naming critics will lighten up, and the iPad will succeed or fail on its own merits. But, the iPad example shows that being gender-blind isn’t always a good thing. And, I’m willing to bet that, for the next big product branding, there’ll be plenty of women in the room.

Royal Caribbean In Haiti: A Tough Call

When I first read about the Royal Caribbean Line ship that docked at Haiti’s Labadee beach shortly after the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, I was taken aback. To say it created a royal PR problem for the cruise line was an understatement.

The storm of criticism was so fierce that it was hard to glean the facts. After a story ran in the UK Guardian, the floodgates were opened to media and bloggers who excoriated the cruise line. Under a headline screaming “Ship of Ghouls,” the New York Post , in true tabloid form, reported that passengers frolicked “60 miles away from rotting bodies.” In an AdAge story this week, the PR community weighed in, proclaiming that Royal Caribbean’s corporate reputation was all but sunk.

From a reputation standpoint, the cruise ship dilemma is a classic no-win situation, and it has most commenters sharply divided. While I understand those who recoil at the “bad optics” of the move, i.e. the visual of beachgoers sunning behind a security gate within days of the quake, I think what Royal Caribbean did was right.

And it moved quickly to communicate just that. Both RCCL Chairman & CEO Richard Fain and International President & CEO Adam Goldstein jumped into the breach in what was clearly an all-hands-on-deck corporate response to the crisis. In a blog post, Goldstein explained that a decision to bypass Labadee would mean deserting Haitian employees and market vendors and depriving them of critical income.

Both execs were widely interviewed by broadcast media, with video footage of relief efforts available on YouTube. Photos of pallets of supplies being shipped to the disaster zone were posted on the Royal Caribbean blog to visually document its actions. The company then announced a $1 million donation to Haitian earthquake relief. Importantly, its communications emphasized the long-term nature of the process. There’s no quick passage to recovery.

In hindsight, I might have waited a week to resume leisure port calls at Labadee, out of respect for the victims of the quake. A pause could also have served as a practical way to regroup and expedite communications to passengers, stakeholders, and press, while ramping up the aid to the earthquake zone.

In my mind, the best way of keeping communications on an even keel would have involved Haitians themselves. Comments from Royal Caribbean’s own head of operations there, and an appeal for a quick resumption of port calls by Haitian development officials, might have averted the media shipwreck. But, I imagine those steps were unfeasible amidst the chaos and confusion following the quake and its aftershocks.

There’s no American analogy to the death and devastation that is Port-au-Prince today. But, like most New Yorkers after 9/11, I was grateful for the convention and tourism groups that planned visits and meetings to the downtown area in the months and years that followed the attack. I applauded those business associations who changed their plans to host meetings in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. There can be no renewal without an economic recovery.

Maybe that’s why what feels right to me, from both a humanitarian and a public relations standpoint, is the commitment to stay in Haiti and use both philanthropic and commercial levers to drive the rebuilding and recovery. Cruise lines like Royal Caribbean are in a rare position to fulfill that commitment, and I’m betting that, over the long haul, they will do exactly that.

What PR Boom? Why The Recession Hasn’t Helped Public Relations

Like  my peers, I was interested to read the latest article about our industry in The Economist. Titled “Good News,” the piece posits that PR has profited during the recession, since so many companies have suffered business and reputation declines. It cites the latest Veronis Suhler Stevenson data indicating a 3% growth for the PR business in 2009, although the gains have come amid layoffs and declining budgets for many firms.

Good news for PR? I don’t think so. The recession may have underscored the need for a long-term, strategic approach to reputation management. But, I seriously doubt that it’s been good for PR firms. I don’t know enough about Veronis’s methodology to challenge its numbers, but nearly everyone I know in the business has experienced layoffs, compensation freezes, or furloughed salaries in the past year.
My straw poll is more in line with the 2009 survey by StevensGouldPincus that’s also mentioned in the piece. It reports a revenue slide for nearly 64% of participating PR firms. (Happily, my own firm exceeded its revenue targets for 2009, but as a newly branded spinoff of a larger company, we’re an anomaly.)

In fact, the very example cited as evidence of the industry’s strength is ironic. It’s the Domino’s Pizza YouTube incident, by now well-known both in and outside of the industry and held up by many (including yours truly) as a fine example of crisis response and use of social media. Yet Domino’s didn’t use a PR firm to manage fallout from the rogue employee video that nearly took down its brand. Its response was led by the internal communications group and ad agency partner Crispin Porter Bogusky.

To me, that’s a reminder that, in many cases, PR firms still aren’t the chief social media gatekeepers and strategists, although we’re well-suited to the task.

But, let’s not quibble about one example. What really bothers me about The Economist article is the implication about the respect factor. It quotes a large-agency exec who touts PR as “the organising principle” of business decisions. Yet, it presents public relations as a band-aid for corporate misbehavior or poor or sloppy business practices.

I’ve no doubt that the reputation battering experienced by many companies has made PR more top-of-mind. But, in cases where the wounds were self-inflicted,  I can’t help but wonder where the PR counsel was when things went wrong in the first place. Was corporate communications a dissenting voice when Goldman Sachs advised clients to buy mortgage-backed securities, while lightening up on them for its own investment purposes? Was a reputation officer at the table when the Big Three auto companies planned their remarks and (private jet) trips to D.C. for the government bailout hearings…let alone along the road that led them there?

I don’t know, but I doubt it. The “quick-fix” characterization of PR makes me cringe, because it’s anything but a band-aid. It brings to mind Bill Sledzik’s 2007 post about our professional responsibility to say no when the party line goes against corporate or societal values. (If you haven’t read it, please stop and do so here.)

PR isn’t a magic bullet for an economic crisis. But, I’ll think we’ve come into our own when organizations of all stripes make PR a fundamental part of business planning, and when communicators are free to express an independent or contrarian view at the corporate table where we so badly crave a seat. Until then, it’s nice to have the reputation lift for our industry, but it feels a little like…well, just another PR piece.

McGwire PR Strategy Misses The Mark

Somehow, I expected more of Ari Fleischer.
Fleischer, who served as George Bush’s Press Secretary for two years (which is like 10 years in real time), knows a thing or two about PR and messaging. But, his coaching seemed to fall short for his client Mark McGwire this week when McGwire tried to come clean and apologize for his use of illegal steroids in the nineties.

Maybe the strike-out isn’t Fleischer’s fault. After all, it’s not as if he had much practice in “apology communications” under The Decider. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a mess like Mark Sanford’s fiasco of a press conference. In fact, from a execution perspective, the media relations piece was by-the-book. It started with the release of a statement to the Associated Press, followed by one-on-one print interviews and culminated with a tearful televised sit-down with Bob Costas.

But, no matter who’s keeping score, McGwire’s confession and apology was a case of too little, too late. When we last saw him, it was during the 2005 Congressional hearings on steroid use in pro baseball. Citing legal advice, McGwire refused to respond to questions about his own steroid use, offering only the infamous statement, “I’m not here to talk about the past.” In this situation, as in so many others, what may have been the safest legal strategy was in direct conflict with the classic rules of the public relations game. From a credibility perspective, McGwire would have been better off getting things off his brawny chest then and there.

McGwire was in a legal bind, so maybe it couldn’t be helped. But, by waiting nearly five years to confess what everyone already knew, he raises questions about his motivation. The delay makes it look like he finally stepped up to the plate to smooth the way for his re-entry into the sport, and possibly even to try to boost his Hall of Fame chances.

What struck me and others as an even bigger miss was McGwire’s messaging. He seemed to be making excuses for what he did rather than just taking responsibility. He claimed he injected the drugs to stay healthy and speed healing from injuries, not to enhance his batting performance. This seems pretty disingenuous, and, of course, it tries to skirt the obvious question that he should address more candidly – would McGwire have broken records without a little help from his “friends”? While I give him points for calling Roger Maris’ widow, the call only serves to reinforce what most people see as a tainted legacy.

Maybe, as Commissioner Bud Selig suggests, the steroid confessions are good for baseball and have helped clean up the sport. But, I think McGwire’s half-baked apology falls short by sending a mixed message to kids, the very people he should be influencing to walk away from performance-enhancing drugs. From a communications perspective, it looks like somebody dropped the ball.

Lady Gaga And Polaroid: Beautiful Music Or Bad Romance?

Picture this. When Polaroid announced its new relationship with pop diva Lady Gaga, it rocked the CES haus and nearly brought down Twitter. The former Stefani Germanotta, looking wonderfully preposterous in a hat made of her own hair, was shakin’ it as the brand’s Creative Director. She even showed off her new business card.

Okay, the pairing might be a stretch. At least on its face. What’s a nostalgia-inducing instant camera brand got to do with a bi-friendly, 23-year-old pop star known for bizarre costumes, explicit lyrics, and over-the-top theatrics? And, the reaction among media and bloggers has been mixed. But who cares? When’s the last time you thought about Polaroid? Exactly. The brand has nailed the first rule of relevance in our celebrity-saturated, paparazzi-loving, “instant” culture. It has everyone talking.

Polaroid has struggled through two bankruptcies and changed ownership twice over the last seven years, so it’s exciting to see it take center stage. And, it pulled off the PR announcement with real flair, creating a reasonable context for the Gaga relationship, leveraging CES to the hilt, and virtually stealing the show. It’s a far cry from James Garner and Mariette Hartley.

But, techies wonder, why not just invest in R&D instead of renting a celebrity? In my view, that’s missing the point. The Gaga hook-up is about positioning the Polaroid brand for the younger crowd, the digital natives, the fashion-forward. For me, it’s also about aligning it with creativity and pure fun. And the 2010 new product lineup seems to be right in the same frame.

Personally, I think Gaga’s an inspired choice. She’s a very visual entertainer who’s all about image, but with real talent under her eccentric get-ups. And, her sexualized, androgynous, no-holds-barred style puts it all out there, so there’s little risk of a nasty surprise, a la Tiger Woods. The only bombshell here is Gaga herself.

But by giving her a lofty title and taking pains to describe the relationship as a true partnership, Polaroid is pushing limits, including those of credibility. It begs the question of what, exactly, her role will be. It would no doubt have been easier – and maybe more authentic – to announce a conventional brand-sponsor endorsement deal. Polaroid would still have the benefit of Gaga’s creativity, fashion iconography, and monster fan base, but without straining plausibility.

But, I’m willing to wait and see. The bigger picture won’t be clear until we see the kinds of specialty products designed under the Gaga imprimatur, and whether the Polaroid gig is actually integrated into her music, fashion, and artistry. It’s a bold move, but at the very least, one thing is certain. We’ll all be watching to see what develops.

CES Gets Its Mojo Back

To me, the international PR and gadget-fest that is the Consumer Electronics Show has always been an adrenaline-charged kick-off for the new year. For starters, it’s in Las Vegas, where everyone’s welcome, and anything – and I do mean anything – goes. Both the show and the town are an orgy of imagination and commerce, and both are over the top.

Yet, last year’s CES was the lowest-wattage one in recent memory. The 2009 show came on the heels of the economic meltdown, and last January, Vegas was a subdued, almost gloomy place. It was actually easy to hail a taxi…and to get a dinner reservation. That may sound like a good thing, but, trust me, it’s not.

Well, I’m happy to say that CES is back. The attendance numbers might still be depressed, but the mood is pretty upbeat. That could be because the e-reader craze has attracted a whole new industry to the show. Then again, it might be the slightly surreal presence of pop icon Lady Gaga, who’s here today as Polaroid’s new Creative Director. (More on that later…) Or, maybe it’s just because we’re all so damn grateful that 2009 is over.

One aspect that’s bigger than ever is the show’s power as a PR platform. It’s not by chance that Google launched its Nexus One smartphone earlier this week, even though it was in Mountain Valley, not here. And, Apple seems to have timed another “controlled leak” about its much-anticipated tablet for CES week. Here on the floor, CES 2010 is already pulsating with news around 3D  TV, VUDU apps, solar-powered cell phonesKindle-killers, new four-color LED TV technology (debuted by my client Sharp), and mobile everything.

But, what feels different this time is the buzz outside the Vegas bubble. It’s always attracted high-decibel media attention, but this year the news is flying at what feels like 4G speed. The day before the show opens is a press day, which means back-to-back media briefings that generate bursts of coverage and help drive crowds to the exhibit floor over the next several days.

We’re accustomed to having our client’s news posted before the room has emptied. But, this year’s flood of tweets, live-blogging, and micro-posts was unprecedented. Not only did Sharp’s new LED TVs get a flurry of pre-promotion, but there were instant updates about every detail of the set-up, powerpoint slides, even one speaker’s sudden scratchy throat.

Social media has definitely added some extra fizz to an already exciting CES and maybe even changed how it’s experienced by those of us here. What happens in Vegas just doesn’t stay in Vegas anymore. It’s everywhere.

Ten Trends Affecting PR Professionals In 2010

Despite their overabundance this time of year, I’m a fan of lists. They impose structure and order on what is actually messy, imperfect, and disorderly. But, because I missed the 2009 list window I’ve taken a crack at identifying the major trends affecting our business and what they’ll mean in 2010 and beyond.

1.   Social and traditional media will merge. Or, the distinctions will become meaningless. I know, duh. But, for most of us, 2010 will finally see the death of the one-way communications channel. As traditional press has begun to be disintermediated, we’ll be “relating” directly to our publics as often as not. Social media will be so integrated through our programs that the very term will be anachronistic – it’s all media. And, we need to be knowledgeable not only about online media, but about the emerging social trends – social gaming, social shopping, and new forms of viral content.

2.   Content will be king – if it’s relevant, compelling, and searchable. In a sense, traditional journalists and PR professionals have been trading roles. As more journalists cross over into PR, we PR professionals are broadening our conventional job description to the point where we can be an online and offline content resource to complement – or even rival – “old” media. The trick is to ratchet up our output to make fresh, relevant, compelling content a daily creative product.

3.   Quality will become scarcer. With the explosion of blogs and user-generated content, it’s awfully hard to find the good stuff. That means communications professionals must step into the void as the quality content resource, at every level. Every member of the account team is producing, posting, updating, high-quality material. It also means that old-fashioned research and reporting skills and adherence to journalistic rigor (e.g., fact-checking) will be prized.

4.   Consumer expectations are higher than ever. They’re in control, the’re using social media as a megaphone, and they expect brands and companies to deliver on their promises. Increasingly, customers also expect brands to stand for something beyond their own attributes. According to Brandingstrategyinsider.com, “smart marketers will identify and capitalize on unmet expectations.”

5.   Everything must be targeted – or targetable. Micro-targeting is the watchword for 2010. News, content, and entertainment are increasingly personalized. And, with original content needing to be as mashable, adapable, and “spreadable” as possible for users, mapping back to brand strategy is critical. So is in-depth knowledge of our increasingly fragmented audiences.

6.   Reputation is more fragile than ever. With the rise of Social Media, previously tangential areas like customer service, retail environment, and word-of-mouth are a huge part of the brand conversation – and its reputation. Couple that with the speed of real-time search, and it amounts to a very high bar for strategic smarts, crisis preparedness, and rapid mobilization.

7.   Everything will be measurable. Increasingly, PR professionals must be familiar with current analytics and measurement tools if we’re to justify our budgets and collaborate with marketers. We’ll also work more with SEO experts as brand and corporate reputation looms larger on the social Web. In fact, Daryl Tay of Blue Interactive feels that sentiment analysis will become more important to future marketers, which means we need to move beyond strictly automated metrics that don’t capture nuances of language or a reputational threat.

8.   But, how we measure up will take many forms. According to the Mobile Marketing Association, marketing results will be evaluated not just in recommendations, but in eyeballs, shakes and finger swipes. The number of blogs, articles, tweets and diggs. The number of acquisitions, conversions, calls, responses or purchases. Check-ins on foursquare and check-outs on Amazon.”

9.  News and content will be increasingly mobile. More and more news, content, and entertainment will be accessed via smartphones and other mobile devices. This has implications not only for the quality and length of what we produce, but for how we reach and engage with consumers and media. And the rise of geolocation services offers opportunities for marketing and PR professionals, not only for enhancing the relevance of our content, but for event marketing and PR-driven promotions.

10. Influencers will have more influence. Influencer marketing will be bigger than ever in 2010. The vaunted relationship component of what we do will be more complex and more interesting, particularly if more online communities and social networks go behind walls to behave like exclusive clubs. So, we not only have to find the influencers for every category, we need to be them.