When The CEO Takes A Stand

There was a time when good public relations dictated that a CEO shouldn’t take a position on a controversial issue. A public stand, of course, can risk backlash among customers or employees.

Conventional PR wisdom may be changing. Starbucks chief Howard Schultz is known for his willingness to wade into treacherous waters – from healthcare reform to race relations. Apple’s Tim Cook slammed Indiana’s “religious freedom” laws last year. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has galvanized C-level opposition to similar laws that many see as discriminatory, including the infamous North Carolina “bathroom bill.”

But should a public company CEO take a stand? Some studies say yes — with caveats. According to research by Global Strategy Group, public opinion favors corporate engagement on political and social issues. Some 78% of Americans believe that corporations should actively engage on important social and political issues, and 88% say companies can influence social change.

Yet, as the study notes, we view issues through a partisan lens, and some are more polarizing than others. The 2016 GSG survey lists those with the top three “polarization scores” as Donald Trump’s immigration position, marriage equality, and the Confederate flag. Yikes.

CEO Visibility Can Drive Polarization…Or Not

Polarization is magnified when CEOs get involved. A Penn State study measuring responses to three divisive topics (marriage equality, health care reform and emergency contraception) confirms that C-level involvement leads to a real bottom-line impact – for better or worse. Most PR professionals recall – and still debate – whether Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s stance against gay marriage was good or bad for the company. It usually boils down to how aligned the position is with a customer’s own view.
But there are many things that can drive reaction among customers and others. Here are some key factors from a PR perspective.

Knowing the audience.  When Whole Foods founder John Mackey bylined an op-ed against healthcare reform in The Wall Street Journal, it left a bad taste with many customers. The reaction was probably due to the disconnect between Mackey’s libertarian views and the progressive mindset of a typical Whole Foods shopper. A deep understanding of customer values should precede a decision to go public on a hot-button topic.

Age and demographics matter, too. Global Strategy Group research shows that those aged 18 to 35 are most likely to do business with companies whose positions on social issues align with theirs. It may be why Marc Benioff could leverage his influence with Georgia Governor Nathan Deal to strike down its religious freedom amendment earlier this year.  Georgia is a fairly conservative state, but Salesforce has huge economic clout in Atlanta, where its Pardot division is headquartered. Marketing technology employees tend to be young (just ask Dan Lyons), and as a native Atlantan, I can vouch for its progressive and relentlessly pro-business culture.

Relevance.  Another reason why Benioff can throw his weight behind polarizing issues while managing the reputation risk is that he frames it as protecting employees from unfair discrimination. That may not make his zeal any less divisive, but it creates greater relevance in the eyes of stakeholders.

Understanding the issue. Wading in impulsively on a complex political issue isn’t smart. Principles are one thing, but in the business world policy positions are complex. It’s one thing to press a state government on LGBT rights, — but what about doing business with other countries that openly discriminate against minorities or gay people? Those who take bold positions need to thoroughly vet them first.

Having your house in order.  The most accomplished of the outspoken CEOs preside over profitable, growing businesses. In a different situation, if a company were faltering or losing money, a political stance would be seen as a distraction or worse. But Benioff’s shareholders can hardly complain that his activities are hurting business if the company continues to flourish.
And that’s what it comes down to at the end of the day. A careful communications strategy is useful, and knowing your customers is even better. But in the end, the best reputation safeguards may be a track record of business success and a commitment to leadership – both in and outside of the company.

How To Tell A (PR) Client They’re Wrong

Once, after I offered unvarnished – and fairly negative – feedback to a prospective PR client about his company’s branding, an associate cautioned me for being so frank. The prospect was planning a luxury product launch, but the brand didn’t carry an upscale image. My colleague agreed but warned me that I was “telling him his baby is ugly.”

And I was. But he hired us a month later, and although the branding didn’t change as much as we would have liked, we reached a compromise and helped him achieve a successful launch in a local market.

Honest Feedback Promotes Transparency in PR

Most PR people agree that honesty promotes transparency and trust, both of which are key to a successful relationship. In the case of the luxury client, it was easy to be candid, because the unsophisticated branding risked undermining our PR and social media efforts. But it’s not always so easy. It got me thinking about how honest any agency should be when the stakes are high or the situation is sticky.

In public relations, our reasons for objecting to a strategy or creative direction is not always straightforward. PR and media relations can be a “black box” to those not grounded in the business, which makes offering feedback on an idea or strategy particularly challenging at times.

Here are some strategies for making your point without fear of insulting someone’s “baby.”

Give legitimate critical feedback in the selling process. Most PR agencies will present challenges along with the opportunities, and I have yet to meet a client situation that didn’t have at least a few challenges. When constructive criticism is offered at the outset, it sets a precedent for the ongoing relationship.

Be a recommender. Problems are always easier to swallow when they come with recommended solutions, or at least alternative strategies. It’s not only face-saving, but it enables a constructive dialogue and lets you avoid political traps.

Listen carefully before weighing in. In our zeal to be decisive and offer value to clients, we sometimes fail to listen to all sides of a complex situation. Before weighing in, it’s smart to get a hearing on each aspect of the situation and ask pertinent questions. More information is nearly always better. Informal market research, competitive audits, and early PR outreach can all come into play here.

Reference specific experience. As much as we talk about public relations being data-driven, it remains an inexact science. Talent and expertise are our currency, and they come together in counsel that is on-target due to firsthand experience in a given category or with a specific PR tactic.

Avoid personalizing. That’s an obvious one, but in a corporation, each function or product division is linked to individuals, so it’s vital to know the internal lexicon and network of relationships that come with every part of the business. Precision of language is also important.

But beware of ultimatums. I was prepared to walk away from Mr. Luxury Client if he didn’t change his branding, but I’m glad I didn’t put a stake in the ground by stating it so baldly. Later we learned some things about the target audience that altered our understanding and enabled us to deliver an effective program under less-than-ideal circumstances. In most cases, a compromise is in order, so that – to adapt the old phrase — striving for perfect isn’t the enemy of the good.

A Journalist’s POV: Questions From A PR Team

One of the coolest things about working in public relations is forging strong working relationships with press. Recently, we were pleased to begin such a relationship with Modern Marketing Exchange, an online publication and weekly newsletter focused on innovation and new technology for marketers and filled with short, punchy and relevant pieces. Editor Agata Smieciuszewski was good enough to answer our questions.

How do you characterize Modern Marketing Xchange? MMX is a place for today’s marketers to come and learn about what’s new and exciting in the industry. We also send out a weekly newsletter to our audience of brands and agencies. My goal for the site is to bring the news that you may have missed to you in a condensed and quick way, with the main points outlined in a clear way.

What kind of stories are you looking for? What constitutes a great pitch for you? A great pitch for me is a current news-based or thought leadership article that addresses an issue facing modern marketers today. I want to inform marketers about what they may have missed and educate them on how major technology changes affect the industry. I love news that deals with upcoming major events (for example, Super Bowl ad season is huge for marketers) or new technology (new updates on social channels, a new Apple product, VR technology, smart cars, etc.)

What are the top qualities you look for when considering content submissions (byline articles)? I love getting submissions from people who want to contribute to MMX! I want it to feel like a collaborative environment where experts share information with each other. The three main prongs of my editorial mission for MMX are as follows:

Keep it short: People have less time to waste these days, and their attention spans are way shorter. Publications have to be mindful of this and adapt their strategy to reach the audience in the best possible way.

Keep it current: With the onslaught of news from all angles, it’s important to sift through to what’s really important and affecting marketers today. (for example, MMS is huge for marketers)  I want news that matters.

Make it visual: Images add a new and interesting element to an article, and can add a lot of information in a small amount of space. I love including images, diagrams, infographics, or any other visual elements to a piece that will make it more valuable to the reader.

 What kind of content do you avoid? Self-promotional content that serves just to sell to my audience. Nobody likes to be tricked into reading ad copy when they think they’re reading informative articles. I want to make sure that reading MMX is worthwhile, and that people come away feeling like they learned something that matters.

Clever PR Ideas For Mother’s Day


Mother’s Day is one of the most unavoidable holidays when it comes to marketing opportunities, and for public relations campaigns, it’s not one to be ignored. But consumer public relations professionals have their work cut out for them, as media quickly grow weary of endless pitches about “perfect gifts” for the day. Still, clever ideas that win earned media and positive brand buzz do exist. Here are a few.

Turn data into holiday fodder. Sound statistics are hard for media to ignore, and if you’re able to package data from a survey or other original research into something that plays to Mother’s Day (or any holiday for that matter), you might have yourself a win. This story shows how one survey linked questions for moms to the Presidential candidates – a clever move in a season when a raucous election is winning round-the-clock earned media coverage.

Offer DIY ideas that are real. Consumer media are always looking for new ideas on how to help readers hack their own personal style, and Mother’s Day traditionally tops the list for handmade gifts. If your company falls into a creative category, a DIY design tip could do the trick, such as this article’s practical tips on how to create your own flower bouquet (yes even from the grocery store flower section). Keep in mind, Americans are expected to spend $2.4 billion on flowers this Mother’s Day, which is twice what they spend on Valentine’s Day, making it the biggest flower-giving day of the year.

Tap into local pride. It’s easy to focus on big top-tier media with national reach, but it’s important to remember the power of the hyperlocal movement and local media, especially for consumer facing brands. Top local media in every market are bound to do write-ups about ways to “keep it local” for Mother’s Day, including highlighting places to brunch, local establishments to patronize, and locally made goods. Consider any and all local angels that could play to these types of opportunities.

Create your own celebrity angle. If your company is fortunate enough to be able to partner with big names, earning publicity and media coverage is easier. But of course not every business can be Apple partnering with Taylor Swift to create a commercial that goes viral. For the rest of us, suggesting the right connections can make sense. For example, this list of double strollers Blake Lively ought to consider for her growing family made the rounds on social and earned media alike, after running in US Weekly, earning brand buzz and multiple placements without ever having an “official” celebrity connection. In another spin on that angle, one contributor curated a list of Mother’s Day gift ideas from products featured on Shark Tank, without any apparent endorsement from the hit show.

Find the niches. Of course, gift guides will abound, and for consumer brands it’s worth offering up your most fitting products. One way to be less mundane is to find the niches where your offering might fit in. Consumer tech products can go under “tech-savvy mom” gift lists while personal finance services are for the “financial guru mom” lists, etc. As a former client used to always say, “there are riches in niches.”