Is The McDonald’s Lawsuit Smart PR?

Is it a terrible PR move or just a juicy corporate communications case?  Yesterday McDonald’s announced it is suing ex-CEO Steve Easterbrook over previously undisclosed relationships with company employees. The complaint even claims “nude, partially nude, or sexually explicit” photos as evidence.

Yikes. The Easterbrook story is notable, and not just for obvious reasons. As the suit proceeds, it will surely result in more messy revelations for the company, which spends millions to promote a family-friendly brand.

Back in the fryer…

And it didn’t have to be this way. Easterbrook was let go in 2019 because of what was termed a “consensual relationship” with an unnamed employee. It was a disruptive move, but hardly the salacious backstory that the lawsuit has now served up. The ouster made headlines and threatened the company’s stock price because Easterbrook was credited with a turnaround at the burger giant. But a new chief executive arrived three months later and in time, the stock rebounded and things simmered down.

As David Enrich of The New York Times notes, “Normally such disputes would be resolved – and buried – in hushed boardroom settings.”

So, why jump back into the fryer now? Although forced out, Easterbrook came away with a rich compensation package reported to be worth $40 million. Monday’s lawsuit seeks to recoup those funds, claiming that Easterbrook lied and hid evidence of his sexual liaisons with subordinates, one of whom he awarded a lucrative batch of company shares.

Keeping the golden arches golden

But surely this isn’t just about money. As Enrich notes, most companies of the size and stature of McDonald’s would surely choose to move on with a minimum of public fuss rather than risk a protracted lawsuit that rakes up presumably resolved cultural issues and bad behavior at the top.

My bet is that it’s part of a longer-term strategy to shore up the company’s brand reputation led by new CEO Chris Kempczinski and his comms team. McDonald’s has been dogged by allegations of sexual harassment at franchise locations, and a former employee filed a class-action suit alleging a “toxic work culture.”

Just a few months after Kempczinski took over as CEO, The Wall Street Journal report ran a story about a McDonald’s company culture that enabled  “partying and fraternizing between some senior managers and rank-and-file employees.”

Kempczinski reportedly conducted extensive feedback reviews with employees and managers. In a company New Year’s message he slammed the “party culture” and pledged to recommit to a professional one that is more in line with company values.

Can you put a price on culture?

Maybe Kempczinski or his PR advisers were concerned that the details of Easterbrook’s relationships would emerge, and the suit is a defensive move. But it seems more likely that the litigation is exactly what the new CEO promised — a clean sweep for the freewheeling, possibly toxic “old” culture and a promise to walk, rather than just talk, when it comes to corporate values. There’s no way to do that without a reckoning.

It’s a rare move and one that should be applauded, not just by reputation experts, but by decision-makers at other organizations who face similar challenges. You know who you are.

Goya And The Art Of The Brand Boycott

The consumer boycott is a time-honored tactic for those who seek to force political or social change. But do boycotts ever work?

Consider the recent backlash dished out to Goya Foods CEO Robert Unanue after Unanue participated in a White House roundtable on economic and educational opportunities for Hispanic Americans. As he announced Goya’s involvement, Unanue praised president Trump’s leadership, commenting that the country was “truly blessed […] to have a leader like President Trump, who is a builder.” Unanue went on to compare the president to his immigrant grandfather who had founded the company he now runs.

The reaction to Unanue’s words among many Hispanics was predictable and swift. Boldfaced names from Alexandra Ocasio Cortez to Lin-Manual Miranda tweeted in support of a boycott with hashtags #goyaway and #boycottgoya, with accompanying media coverage.

The Hispanic Federation released a statement criticizing Unanue’s comments in light of the president’s track record and rhetoric about Hispanic immigrants. To many boycotters, the company CEO’s words were simply at odds with the values and well being of its core customers.

When a boycott sparks a buycott

Yet, just as quickly, Goya’s proponents pushed back with a grassroots tactic of their own. Many tweeted urging a #buycott of its products, with one notable GoFundMe raising over $300,000 to buy Goya foods for donation to the needy. The president’s daughter famously got into the fray, and just like that, black beans become a political statement.

One irony of the situation was that Unanue was at the White House to announce Goya’s donation of a million cans of chickpeas and another million pounds of goods to food banks – a part of its admirable history of charitable contributions that was lost in the sauce of mutual recrimination.

Goya was clearly unprepared for the fuss, as its handling of a friendly phone interview with The Wall Street Journal showed.

Through all of this, I can sense the PR woman fret, and I hear a scolding administered to Mr. Unanue in the background. The communications team’s risk-aversion becomes even more evident after the interview is over, when Mr. Trump and his daughter Ivanka tweet photos of themselves posing with Goya products. I email Mr. Unanue on Thursday asking for comment on the endorsement, and he responds with an expression of gratitude to the first family.

An hour later I receive an email from a different PR woman: “We’d like to retract and edit that quote immediately. Please see below for the approved quote.” The approved quote makes no mention of Donald or Ivanka Trump. Two more hours go by and I get yet another email from PR, retracting the reworked quote altogether.

Never say those PR reps don’t earn their salaries.

Brand boycotts rarely succeed

So, who’s winning the PR war here? Between the pro-boycott noise and the #buycott clapback, the Goya situation may be something of a draw. The fact is that most boycotts fizzle out. And experts say they don’t usually harm the bottom lines of the brands or companies targeted. Barely a quarter of them result in desired change.

Yet the goal of a boycott should be in the media coverage and brand reputation harm (or benefit) it generates. A study by Mary Hunter-Dowell and Brayden King shows that. A successful boycott isn’t about lost sales or financial pressure. It’s about negative media headlines that persist. “The no. 1 predictor of what makes a boycott effective is how much media attention it creates, not how many people sign onto a petition or how many consumers it mobilizes,” notes King.

A clash with brand values can stick

In my view, the bad PR is effective when it runs counter to a corporation’s character or values. After Stephen Ross, majority owner of Equinox and SoulCycle, hosted a Trump fundraiser last summer, both brands were targets of a celebrity-led boycott. A data analytics company that tracked SoulCycle signups concluded that its business slumped in the weeks following the controversy.

What made the difference? Brand image, for one. As “lifestyle” brands with large LGBT followings, Equinox and SoulCycle count on being status symbols – or at least they did in pre-COVID days. The brands also convey social responsibility commitment in their marketing, sponsoring progressive and LGBT events, so the fundraiser made them seem hypocritical at best.

By that logic, the Goya brand controversy will simmer on, because the food fight isn’t over. The Trump campaign has seized on the boycott as a proxy for the latest culture war, producing Spanish-language broadcast ads that highlight the “shameful smear campaign” against Goya in Florida.

It’s a canny move. If the president and his advocates can link the Goya controversy to cancel culture and intolerance among progressives, they can win. If, on the other hand, Goya’s critics align it with the administration’s anti-immigration policies and racist attitudes to paint the CEO as hypocritical or callous, they will have elevated the boycott to a movement that’s above partisan politics.

As Americus Reed of University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School writes, “If the boycott reflects a movement — rather than a moment — it can change the world around it.” Stay tuned.

Why PR And Marketing Matter Now

It used to be that when things got tough, the tough cut marketing and PR budgets. “Below the line” spending was lopped off the spreadsheet faster than you could say “recession.”

But that conventional wisdom was from a time when PR and marketing worked through one-way channels. They were designed to push out businesses messages through traditional media to customers. Today, brand communications is much more of a two-way street. Customer engagement isn’t something you can turn on and off. In a depressed economy, a business that maintains marketing and communications will bounce back more quickly than one that cuts its budgets.

That’s easier said than done. But there are good reasons why brands should stick with PR and marketing as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, even if in a modified way.

To be sure, the pandemic has changed everything, including how businesses market and promote their brands. In most cases, scheduled campaigns went out the window. So-called traditional marketing gave way to empathetic customer messaging around the impact of the virus and subsequent lockdowns.

A pause in ordinary, pre-COVID marketing has frozen many brands in place. There’s little new product news outside of entertainment, no innovation to announce, and no launches planned unless they’re for antibody tests or the like. Paradoxically, this has made smart PR more important than ever for brands. Here’s why.

Customer communication has never been more important

In an uncertain situation, communication matters. We’re struggling to reopen, with the virus spiking in new areas just as it settles down in others. Businesses must communicate proactively to employees, customers, and stakeholders about practical matters like business changes, measures to protect health, and the eventual return to business. It’s even more important to connect with customers about intangibles – what a business values and prioritizes as employers and corporate citizens.

Now is the time to ramp up customer-centric measures like community service and thought leadership – which classic PR programs deliver very well.

A business pause means opportunity for smaller brands

As many states contemplate reopening, smaller businesses have an opportunity to be creative. Some have already mastered new business models involving apps, customer deliveries, or new products adapted to home consumption. Some cafes and restaurants are using parking lots and sidewalks to build outdoor service opportunities. Salons have adjusted hours and redesigned to accommodate pent-up demand from clients.

Empathy is also a two-way street. The COVID-19 pandemic is unusual in that no one was spared, and no business is seen as responsible for what happened. The crisis threatens the survival of many smaller businesses, so everyone is rooting for recovery. Most people aren’t worried about whether P&G’s brands will survive the pandemic, but they’re concerned about the corner restaurant, or even the tech startup they read about last month. Some of the largest brands in the world have paused ordinary communications, which offers opportunities for smaller brands to stand up and differentiate themselves through strategic PR and marketing.

Leaders are more visible, for better or worse

In times of crisis, change, or transition, leadership is critically important. For most organizations, that means C-level communications is under scrutiny. Even in pre-COVID times the CEO had become a public spokesperson about critical matters, whether for a private or public company. Now, the spotlight shines even hotter for business leaders. A well-crafted executive PR campaign can help convey a business’s core values and future intentions through its leadership.

This is apparent in the many large-company CEOs who have pledged not to cut jobs during the COVID-19 downturn, as well as several who have taken voluntary salary reductions, like Yum Brands’ CEO David Gibbs and Marriott’s Arne Sorenson. The good will generated will pay reputation dividends for their brands long after the COVID-19 crisis has eased.

PR and content offer long-term value

Finally, many businesses, like most Americans, face an uncertain future. The go-go economy of the past decade has sharply retrenched, and it’s time to prioritize. PR, content marketing, and social media marketing offer a relatively budget-friendly and measurable way to define a brand through its own actions as well as leadership communications. This is particularly true in the high-value sectors of healthcare and crisis management, but it can hold for nearly any kind of proactive PR.

Experienced communicators know that businesses can’t turn PR and marketing on and off in a crisis. Tomorrow’s leaders should use this time to offer empathy, resilience, and leadership in their industries and communities.

Can Technology Companies Achieve Diversity?

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, corporate America is trying to walk the talk when it comes to matters of racial justice and equality. This time it’s bigger than press releases or PR-driven diversity pledges. Early efforts have been led by African-American CEOs, entrepreneurs, and companies that serve a diverse customer base, but nearly all major brands have stepped up. Nike pledged $40 million over four years to support black communities. Comcast has committed $100 million over five years in grants to equal justice groups and support for small businesses owned by people of color. Wal-Mart has ponied up $100 million in community grants… and the list goes on.

Big Tech struggles to reach DEI goals

Yet businesses continue to fall short when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. One glaring example is the technology sector. From startups to enterprise companies, tech just can’t seem to make measurable progress when it comes to greater black representation in senior management and on boards. Venture funding, too, goes mostly to youngish white men.

Make no mistake, just like other businesses, Big Tech has stepped up with financial pledges to antiracist causes and statements of commitment to racial justice. But six years after their first diversity reports, a string of technology players have seen only marginal increases in the number of black employees. Overall, nearly every company on the top-tier list has fallen short of their announced goals. Facebook went from having a three percent black workforce to 3.8 percent over a five-year period. Amazon’s numbers are better, but they include warehouse and delivery personnel who typically don’t enjoy the salaries and benefits of office employees.

Data-driven — except when they’re not

Diversity experts say that part of the problem is these large tech companies just weren’t designed with diversity in mind, so efforts now amount to a “retrofit.” If that’s the case, one would think that the startup and venture worlds would offer greater potential for progress against DEI metrics. Yet, there, too, the news isn’t very encouraging. The progress reported is around women entrepreneurs — good to hear, but it’s not enough.

Clearly, for the tech world to become more diverse, there should be not just metrics, but consequences for falling short of DEI goals. As Bari Williams, former senior counsel at Facebook puts it, “These companies are data-driven, but if people are not hitting their diversity metrics, where’s the downside?” There seems to be none.

Start with startups

And in the startup world, there will never be equal investment in black-founded startups until and unless venture capital companies are more racially diverse. TechCrunch reports on a rush by VCs to support black founders and investors since the protests began. SoftBank, the world’s single largest tech investor, has announced a $100 million Opportunity Fund that will invest exclusively in black startup founders and other entrepreneurs of color.  Andreessen Horowitz has followed with the unveiling of its Talent x Opportunity Fund established with donations from a16z partners for all-important seed capital to entrepreneurs with non-traditional backgrounds.

It’s a move in the right direction. In addition to diversity within VCs, formal and informal mentorships and accelerators for nonwhite founders would seem critical channels for building truly diverse organizations from the get-go. Starting with startups is a real key to building a more diverse technology sector and community.

The commitments amount to a big step forward, and the intentions are good. But reaching real DEI metrics in this sector, as in others, is a whole lot harder than it sounds. The protests will eventually fade, and the economy could slip into recession, or worse. But commitment to racial diversity and equality is now inextricably linked to business reputation. And now the world is watching.

Post-COVID, Brands Start To Open Up

The past two months have been extraordinarily challenging for brand communications and PR people. In the initial weeks of the COVID-19 shutdown, brands struggled to find the right response. Early efforts were tentative, pretentious, or shallow. As the pandemic progressed and the news grew worse, many stepped up with substantive offers of help, workforce tributes, or public service messages. No one wants to be perceived as insufficiently serious, compassionate or concerned about the terrible toll of the virus. Yet when COVID-19 messages are so indistinguishable from one another and widely parodied, you know they aren’t connecting.

The marketing hasn’t been bad, but most of the marketing messages have been numbingly similar. A somber soundtrack, a voiceover or chiron alluding to these “uncertain times” and a brand pledge that it will be there for customers until “we can be together.” Sometimes there’s a PSA in the middle about social distancing. The tone is typically ponderous and the ads are pretty forgettable.

Many brands see an opening

It’s enough already, say consumers. According to a Pew report, 71% of Americans are tuning out of the news because they don’t want to hear anymore about the pandemic. A widely reported survey of 7000 consumers by Mitto suggests that a hefty chunk of the public is ready for brands to change the channel. And there’s bad news for PR people, too — a recent study by the Clyde Group found that 59 percent of consumers believe that companies’ pandemic responses are “mainly PR efforts.”

So what’s a brand to do? As the U.S. moves in fits and starts toward a reopening of sorts, some companies are cautiously venturing back into the pre-pandemic waters. Consider this gorgeous post-lockdown TV ad from a French grocery chain. The best thing about it is the utter lack of PR sell for the brand.

Yet it’s still a very tricky time to be in external communications for any organization. Here’s what the research shows about the steps to a successful “reopening” strategy.

Consider the audience

Obviously, the shutdown has affected different segments of the population in different ways. Magid did a study of consumer reactions to COVID-19 marketing by generation. Gen Z respondents, for example, are not moved by the sobering “new normal” messaging of many brand ads. Half of younger consumers said they feel bored, in contrast to only 30% of adults 25 or older, as reported by Marketing Dive. 

Nothing stays still

Though for many, our sense of time has been distorted by the pandemic, there’s been a real evolution during the shutdown, not to mention wide regional differences in the impact of the virus. The smartest marketers have remained nimble, adjusting brand messaging, social platforms, and PR tactics as things change. It’s a great time to test and tweak digital storytelling.

Above all, context matters

Given the hazards of overreliance on programmatic advertising where brands can unwittingly find themselves next to inappropriate or unappealing content, marketers have rediscovered contextual advertising, and not a minute too soon. A MediaScience in-home audience survey of viewers who watched ads from Ford, Amazon and Domino’s found that coronavirus-themed spots performed better when part of news programming, as opposed to comedy entertainment. It stands to reason that a “stay apart to stay together” message works better for Rachel Maddow viewers than it does popping up during an escapist binge on Schitt’s Creek.

The door is opening; now all we have to do is walk through it – carefully.

Unpacking The Away PR Disaster

DTC luggage company Away replaced Steph Korey as CEO just days after a PR trainwreck of an article by The Verge exposed its punitive work culture. Korey will be kicked upstairs to take an Executive Chairman post and former Lululemon executive Stuart Haselden will step into her old position.

To be clear, Haselden’s hire must have been planned before the “toxic PR” generated by the Verge story. But it’s a perfect time for fresh leadership, and a good way for Korey to be sent packing as a public face of the brand. It didn’t have to be that way.

There’s a lot to sort out here. Yet my first take on the Away reputation mess wasn’t just that workplace culture impacts brand reputation, although that’s true. It’s not only that muzzling workplace dissent is a terrible idea and often backfires, though it does. Or that Korey’s apology was inadequate. Or even that warp-speed growth goals and cult branding pervert work culture — though they often do.

The entire episode tells us something else, too. It’s about one of the key departments Korey oversaw – customer service – and its seemingly impossible standards.

PR, CX and ever-higher expectations

These days, customer relations is public relations, especially for high-growth DTC brands. You can tell a lot about a company by how it handles customer complaints. Businesses spend millions on brand reputation and community service. They hire high-powered PR agencies. But a reputation can unravel quickly when a public-facing employee mistreats a customer, and the customer takes the case to the social mob. In many ways PR and customer relations are two sides of the same coin.

Even more, the Away fiasco shows how brutally hard it is to maintain the CX standard that most of us have come to expect. It’s a standard largely set by Amazon. Lydia Polgreen said it well when she tweeted that “the CX expectations set by behemoths like Amazon are impossible to meet in a humane way and yet set the standard for any DTC business.”

It probably hit me then because I was in the midst of a 9-day effort to cancel, then return, an incorrect Black Friday order from National Grid Marketplace. (National Grid is a company that may be great at getting your gas turned back on after a storm but is comically inept at to e-commerce.) My experience involved seven real-time chats with different customer service reps, 14 emails, three phone calls and 29 minutes of phone waiting time. To top it off, each interaction triggered an automatic email customer service survey, but no one addressed the actual problem.

That CX experience was objectively terrible, but most companies are not terrible. Most are even pretty good. Yet given customer expectations, they’re hard pressed to meet an Amazon-like level of customer service.

Remember the New York Times piece that peeled back the wrapper on Amazon’s own cutthroat, exploitive work culture?

(Employees) are told to forget the “poor habits” they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they “hit the wall” from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: “Climb the wall,” others reported. To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, “I’m Peculiar” — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

Sounds like the Verge article. This is not to excuse Korey’s creepy, abusive cult-leader-like tone or her use of “empowerment” language and “brand values” to manipulate employees into working around the clock. Yet we assume that businesses, especially retailers, will strive for an Amazon-like level of customer service because it’s the only way to compete today. That comes at a cost, even for well-funded DTC companies like Away. Especially for those companies, because they’re slavishly following the model. For high-growth businesses who need to hit their goals, the customer service bar is forever rising and the only way to balance it with growth demands is to push workers harder and harder. There is a model, and the model is Amazon. Give them part of the credit, and some of the blame, too.

The PR Winners Of 2019

For most experts in public relations, it’s easy to identify episodes where companies or individuals made mistakes, often making a bad situation worse.

But what about the successes? Those are harder to assess. They may be about the brand that punches above its weight, one that makes a comeback against the odds, or even the crisis that didn’t happen. Here are my nominations for the PR Winners of 2019.

Gillette Gets Woke

This one’s a controversial entry for the winners’ column because reaction to the brand’s 2019 ad campaign was sharply divided. The commercial Gillette debuted in January was a different type of ad for the men’s razor category.

Instead of touting the product’s advantages, it tackled “toxic masculinity” just in time for the Super Bowl. Inspired by the #MeToo movement, the two-minute spot depicts boorish or sexist behavior by men, then cuts to a celebration of “woke” men and a challenge to do better. It ends with a twist on the brand tagline, “The Best A Man Can Get.”

Did the campaign boost sales? It’s hard to say. Some men were angered by it and vowed to toss out their Gillette products in protest. In its July earnings report P&G took an $8 billion writedown on the Gillette division. Yet the charge was due to currency fluctuations and a shrinking U.S. market for men’s shaving products — beards remain popular, and the competition from upstart DTC brands is still keen. All in all, I’d say that if the campaign’s goal was to drive conversation and engagement, it was a clear win.

Popeyes Scores In Sandwich Wars

The great Chicken Sandwich War of 2019 probably boosted sales for several fast food chains, but Popeyes came out on top both in PR and product quality. (Yes, we did our own taste test in the office.) What’s more, the brand took advantage of a summer news lull and punched above its weight in the social media arena. The feathers started flying when Popeyes launched its first nationwide chicken sandwich, directly targeting Chick-fil-A, but pulling in Wendy’s and even Boston Market and KFC into a Twitter food fight. Celebrities and news anchors weighed in as the sandwiches sold out and customers rushed to find it. Someone even tried to sell one for $7000 on eBay.

When Popeyes ran out of product six weeks early, it hatched a clever plan to invite customers to BYOB (Bring Your Own Bun) and come for its still-plentiful chicken tenders. And according to the Apex Marketing Group, it served up an estimated $65 million in equivalent media value for Popeyes. More importantly, the brand scratched its way to one of the most significant improvements in YouGov’s Ad Awareness metric among consumers throughout September. And the fight lives on today.

Capital One Deals With A Data Breach

In general, companies do a poor job reporting on security breaches. When a hacker accessed personal data from the Capital One account of more than 106 million people, however, it fared better than many before it. The breach was potentially very serious, involving the Social Security numbers and Canadian Social Insurance numbers as well as bank account numbers of Capital One customers. Yet in many ways the company was lucky; the hacker was arrested after she bragged about her exploits on Twitter and on an open slack channel, and she didn’t seem interested in selling or otherwise profiting from the data. And Capital One got credit for addressing the breach less than two weeks after it was discovered.

Capital One’s handling wasn’t perfect, and it initially offered incomplete information about the hack. But when it comes to this kind of disclosure, speed trumps specificity, and it moved quickly. Within two weeks of learning of the hack, CEO Richard Fairbanks released a statement about it, apologizing and assuring customers that it was fixed. The company’s website directed customers to updates on the breach as they became available, detailing what happened and promising to make free credit monitoring and identity protection available to all affected. Months later, reports surfaced that the hacker, a former Amazon Web Services employee, may have obtained sensitive data on other companies, so there may be more challenges to come, but for Capital One, the worst seems to be over.

Barilla Pasta Comes Full Circle

The reputation journey of Barilla Pasta has taken years, and that’s precisely why its recovery deserves recognition. The brand stepped in the sauce in 2013 when company chairman Guido Barilla made anti-gay comments on Italy’s best known radio talk show, publicly praising “traditional families” and criticizing gay adoption. His remarks quickly reverberated across the Atlantic, where LGBT activists called for a boycott and celebrities tweeted in protest. Competitor Buitoni took advantage with a Facebook ad proclaiming “Pasta for All” with images of tortellini pairs featuring gender symbols of opposite and same-sex couples. An Italian-American mother of a gay son started an online petition to ask Stop & Shop to pull Barilla from its shelves.

CEO Claudio Colzani told Bloomberg that he planned the brand’s comeback in three chapters: apology, investigation, and promotion. It started with several video mea culpas from Guido Barilla. But the brand also put action behind Barilla’s words. It appointed a chief diversity officer and set up a diversity and inclusion board of outside experts and well recognized advocates. (Barilla’s attempts to win the trust of LGBT activist and author David Mixner is a great story all by itself.)

It then launched a D&I training program for employees and joined the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, which evaluates companies for LGBT-friendly policies. Five years later, Barilla has nearly pulled itself out of the reputation hole. In fact, it launched a special limited edition of spaghetti in a package featuring two women holding hands and a pasta strand in their mouths, Lady and the Tramp-style. Colzani summed it up this way: “We were simply trying to be a good citizen. Now, we’re trying to be a role model.”

Felicity Huffman Does Her Time

Of the 50 people charged in Operation Varsity Blues, as the college admissions bribery investigation was known, Felicity Huffman may have faced it best. Her handling of the situation was right from the crisis management playbook. First, she issued a well-crafted mea culpa for her actions. Huffman took full responsibility for the bribery and cheating that she enabled, making it clear that she alone was to blame. Looking wan and decidedly unglamorous for her court appearance, she apologized to her family and children (whom she asserted were unaware of the scheme), but that’s not all. She also expressed contrition directly to “the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.” That’s the part of the bribery scandal that so infuriated regular people.

Huffman then proceeded smartly and swiftly with a guilty plea and served a 14-day prison sentence, admittedly a very light punishment. Since her release she has been involved in court-mandated community service and has wisely given no media interviews. I predict a Martha Stewart-style comeback by 2022.

Which organizations fared worst in 2019? Check out my nominations for the PR Losers of 2019 and let me know if you agree.

Top Ad And Marketing Podcasts For PR Pros

The golden rule of public relations is to stay current and relevant. For PR pros, it’s not only expected, but part of our job to stay up-to-date on all industry trends and current affairs in the U.S. and beyond. While we have access to a wide breadth of digital platforms to consume our daily dose of news and information, let’s not ignore an essential medium for staying smart – podcasts.

Podcasts are mainstream

62 million Americans listen to podcasts each week, and the first ten months of 2019 saw a record 192,000 new podcasts launched. Because they’re easy to consume and offer a certain intimacy, brands are using podcasts to inform, entertain, and be visible. With WFH a new normal in the COVID era, listeners are consuming a vast array of podcasts across business, finance, education, entertainment, and more, and at different times of the day.

Here’s a roundup of some top advertising and marketing podcasts. It’s by no means is a complete list, but a good starting point if you’re looking to raise your podcast game.

AdExchanger Social Distancing With Friends

As most people stay home and practice social distancing, AdExchanger (the leading voice in ad tech) was quick to adapt and start a new podcast series titled, “Social Distancing With Friends.” In this new series, AdExchanger editors invite top industry newsmakers and practitioners in digital and data-driven advertising – all while under social isolation. They’ve featured a stellar lineup of industry experts including Innovid Founder Tal Chalozin, advertising legend Martin Sorrell, marketing veteran and DoubleVerify interim CEO Laura Desmond and many more. Each episode reflects on the company’s business, opportunities, and challenges as well as how they’re navigating these unusual times.

AdExchanger The Big Story

Yet another AdExchanger weekly series, hosted by the seasoned editorial team and featuring discussions and compelling conversations on the week’s top news stories affecting the industry.

AdAge Marketer’s Brief

Hosted by industry veteran and AdAge Assistant Managing Editor E.J. Scultz, this weekly podcast offers insights from industry leaders and looks at stories making waves across the marketing sector. It features brand marketers and CEOs in travel, retail, FMCG, health and wellness, among other high-growth and heavily COVID-affected industries.

Adweek Yeah, That’s Probably an Ad

Launched in 2016, Adweek Yeah, That’s Probably an Ad features co-hosts David Griner and Ko Im debating the highs and lows of creativity, advertising, marketing, media and technology. David and Ko are joined by Adweek’s news team every week in deep dives into a wide range of topics, including diversity and inclusion, social media influence, streaming media, women empowerment, etc.

The Mumbrellacast

Moving beyond the US, The Mumbrellacast from Mumbrella – Australia’s key ad trade media, this podcast throws light on the latest news in the Australian media, marketing and advertising industries. Every week features a rotating panel of hosts including Mumbrella’s news team, and they invite the adland’s key newsmakers to share their take on news and trends dominating the region.

AW 360 Great Minds

This is a fairly new podcast, but it looks promising! Matt Scheckner, widely recognized as the producer of Advertising Week (the world’s largest and premium advertising, marketing, media industry summit) sits down with great minds from all walks of life for thought-provoking conversations. The list of remarkable featured guests includes Martin Sorrell, Ndaba Mandela (Nelson Mandela’s Grandson) and Lisa Gilbert, CMO at IBM Japan, among other industry leaders.

The CMO Podcast with Jim Stengel

Hosted by industry trailblazer Jim Stengel (former CMO of the largest marketer in the world Procter & Gamble), the CMO podcast holds intimate style conversations with the industry’s most dynamic leaders. Highly rated and inspirational, every episode is packed with real-life experiences of business and success, sharp insights and storytelling. Jim goes deep into the thought process and motivation of the CMO and offers a unique perspective on their pivotal role that touches every facet of customer experience. His list of inspirational guests includes CMOs of Uber, Roku, KFC, Lowe’s and the list goes on.

Renegade Thinkers Unite

Renegade Thinkers Unite focuses on marketing innovators, uncovering the how, what and why behind their ongoing success. Hosted by award-winning marketer, author and entrepreneur Drew Neisser, this podcast is considered consistently refreshing and is packed full of marketing lessons that you can use in your day-to-day work.

AList Daily’s Marketing Today With Alan Hart

Alan Hart, host of Marketing Today, goes behind the scenes with the world’s best CMOs and business leaders. Alan does an excellent job bringing strategies, tips and advice from the marketing stalwarts. Each episode takes a deep dive into what makes a great brand, marketing campaign, or turnaround. His recent guests include Petco CMO, Head of Brand Marketing at Oreo and CMO Planet Fitness, to name a few. Alan keeps his conversation style quite casual and offers great takeaways on how to build a successful business.

Marketing Over Coffee

Weekly podcast Marketing Over Coffee covers both new and old marketing. Hosted by John Wall and Christopher Penn, each episode covers all aspects of marketing and business, SEO, analytics, email marketing and more. Regarded as the go-to-destination for people with no marketing background, this podcast offers guidance on how to build and market your brand. For someone with a small business, it’s a definite asset for learning marketing fundamentals and shaping a successful strategy.

Sure, I’m missing many other influential podcasts. While we all can only hope to go back to our normal lives soon and tune in to our favorites while commuting or running errands, for now, we can tune in from home and plan for the future. Happy listening!

6 Reasons Your Tech Company Needs PR

A high-impact PR program can be a technology company’s greatest asset – provided it’s well conceived and skillfully executed. In today’s frothy tech market, where the venture dollars are flowing and 32 new unicorns were created last year, PR can be a strategic weapon. Good will and strong community relations are also in demand as Silicon Valley is blamed for a host of problems, from data privacy threats to income inequality.

Still, the decision to hire a PR agency can be a controversial one for a cash-strapped startup. Mark Cuban famously advised against it for most early-stage companies, and for some it’s simply premature. Yet even if the PR program is executed internally, public relations and influencer marketing can help put a tech company on the map. For a more mature technology business, they can help build a competitive advantage. Here’s how any tech company can benefit from the right PR campaign.

PR educates customers and prospects

The typical B2B technology customer is an educated buyer who may research his purchase for weeks or months. Business software, for example, usually has a lengthy selling cycle and comes at a significant cost. If you make the wrong choice, there’s pain in switching. The earned media that results from targeted journalist relations and professional reviews can help attract educated customers and deepen their knowledge. Good content can overcome the tech “language barrier” that confuses prospects or clouds the relevant issues. Most valuable of all, inclusion in an analyst report can build brand consideration for months or years.

Earned media drives brand differentiation

Today’s tech categories are hotly competitive. Most buyers and business partners are selective about their relationships – and any purchase truly is a commitment. Visibility from earned media coverage and social sharing can differentiate a brand by aligning it with exciting ideas or communicating corporate values. This is particularly important for early-stage businesses that don’t have lengthy track records.For products, the implied third-party endorsement can work hard to elevate a solution within a sea of sameness.

News creates a market presence

The right PR plan means a new brand can grow a reputation as a major player – or an up-and-comer  — in a given category. That kind of visibility offers credibility and relevance to complement other marketing functions, as well as a solid foundation for growth. Most importantly, high-profile business coverage can help validate an emerging market and reinforce the stature of the startups who are leading change. Remember, even huge names in once-new categories like Uber and Lyft relied on good PR about their growth plans for recognition.

Expert content builds brand authority

Customers trust reviews and profiles from third parties, and such content often influences brand preference and product choice. Savvy business customers rely on earned media visibility and in-depth research from analyst reports, for example, before making a purchase decision. B2C customers also rely on articles and reviews, particularly the word-of-mouth experience that is shared on social platforms like LinkedIn or Instagram. Influencer marketing, another element of most B2B PR campaigns, can confer authority by association or endorsement. Even simple bylined articles and thought pieces can go a long way to inform customers and are typically more credible than other forms of marketing content.

PR supports demand generation

A great PR program can also drive demand and user acquisition – with some caveats. The kind of customer interest that comes from earned media and contributed or shared content isn’t as reliable as email marketing or sales promotion as a generator of website traffic. Yet a glowing profile or positive review is fully capable of moving a customer through the funnel.

Credibility is like money in the bank for brand reputation

I often tell clients that when it comes to earned media aspect of public relations, we trade a certain amount of control for credibility. Great PR, contributed content, and expert recommendations work to validate and build a reputation over time. When a problem occurs or a crisis situation hits, a stellar reputation and solid relationships are like money in the bank.

Crisis PR Lessons From The Iowa Caucus

As every politics fan knows, the Iowa caucuses mark the official start of voting in a given election year. Because of its first-in-the-nation status and a quaint, complicated caucus system (or maybe in spite of it), Iowa has an outsize impact on news and social media coverage.

Newspapers camp out there, journalists embed with campaigns, and the cable news shows bring on more pundits and plan hours of airtime in anticipation of a newsworthy outcome.

This year’s outcome for the Democratic caucus was newsworthy, all right, but not in the way Iowans hoped. Results were expected Monday evening, but two days after caucus night, we don’t have complete results. After months of buildup and millions spent on ads, appearances, canvassing and other politicking in the state, caucus day ended with no clear winner and many questions. As political scandals go, it’s not salacious. It may not even be particularly damaging to any candidate, although that’s arguable. But it’s definitely a mess. And poor communications by the Iowa Democratic party made it worse than it needed to be. It’s a classic case of what not to do in a crisis situation.

What went wrong?

Plenty. For the first time, the party chose to produce three sets of results: the totals for the first-round picks by caucusgoers; totals after a second round or “alignment” where supporters non-viable candidates go to a second choice; and the total number of delegates earned (technically “State Delegate Equivalents”) for each candidate. It was an ambitious undertaking for what was already a complicated process. Apparently precinct captains planned to use an app to communicate their totals to headquarters quickly and efficiently, but it wasn’t fully tested and wasn’t working properly. There didn’t seem to be a good backup plan, phones were jammed, and the things went downhill from there.

The primary failure was clearly operational. Even the most brilliant crisis response wouldn’t have solved the problem, yet it could have ameliorated some of the resulting coverage and reputation damage. Here’s where Iowa officials ran afoul of the crisis PR playbook.

Get in front of the story

When things go wrong, it helps to get in front of the story. Ideally, you offer concrete information about an unfolding situation. But when that’s not possible, it’s better to tell media and stakeholders when to expect the information rather than leaving them hanging. As time dragged on Monday evening, cable news stations were left with hours of airtime to fill and virtually no updates. Nature hates a vacuum, and so does the media. There was speculation about what was causing the delay, some of it irresponsible. When the party eventually told the press that full results would not be coming that evening, no one was happy, but at least media outlets could shift gears and plan accordingly.

Be careful and sensitive with language

The Iowa Democratic party initially communicated about the situation as delays became apparent Monday evening. The language was vague and not particularly reassuring. The first statement blamed the delay on “quality control checks” – strange, sanitized words that suggest a factory assembly line or bureaucratic doublespeak. They did not inspire confidence. A later comment specified “inconsistencies” in vote totals, which raised more questions than it answered and to some overwrought political junkies, implied shenanigans. Finally the party communications director released a statement that explained the problem with greater clarity and described the failure of the app.

“This is simply a reporting issue. The app did not go down, and this is not a hack or an intrusion. The underlying data and paper trail is sound and will simply take time to further report the results.”

The statement was better than earlier comments, but it came very late and was short on specifics. It focused a bit too much on what the problem wasn’t, rather than what was  happening and when the information would be available.

Make a trusted spokesperson accessible

Even when concrete information is lacking, access to an organization representative can engender trust with media and stakeholders. This is why crisis experts counsel clients that the designated crisis manager and the media spokesperson should never be one and the same. When the stuff hits the fan, phones are blowing up and rumors are flying, the crisis team is firefighting and cannot give updates. It helps to have a dedicated person with inside access offer regular bulletins, even if those updates are just about future updates.

There’s also education to be done. At a time when election security is paramount, the Iowa officials missed a chance to inform less sophisticated audiences about how truly hack-proof the caucus process is. It’s not like a primary, and it doesn’t happen through technology. It happens out in the open, precinct captains record everything on paper, and the votes are verifiable. I didn’t fully realize that until I happened to hear a third-party pundit explain the process on a radio show. The technical glitch was maddening, sure, but it wasn’t a security threat. Yet I don’t think anyone we heard that from the party itself.


Another classic step to clarify and improve a crisis situation is to accept or assign responsibility for the problem and apologize. In the Iowa case, some responsibility rests with the app developers, but ultimately it’s with the caucus organizers in the state party. A Tuesday afternoon statement from Iowa Democratic party head Troy Price did offer an on-air apology, calling the delay “unacceptable.” Price hit a few defensive notes, but I give him points for the sincerity of his delivery and his messaging around process’s importance and the preservation of data security and accuracy.

“My number one priority has been on ensuring the accuracy and the integrity of the results and we have been working all night to be in the best position to report results. The bottom line is we hit a stumbling block on the back end of the reporting of the data but . . . we know this data is accurate.”

Describe the fix

Typically a crisis situation begins to resolve when the responsible entities announce how they will remedy the issue. A faulty product is recalled and redesigned, an executive is fired, or damages paid. In this instance, the state party chairman promised a thorough investigation into the matter, which is the appropriate first step. We may also see his resignation once the dust settles. That would show that someone is taking responsibility and enable the party and the process to move on, at least theoretically. But the true fix may well be a change in the Democratic primary calendar. Of course, no one from the party is saying it out loud, but Iowa’s first-place status is in jeopardy, and there’s probably nothing the state can do about that.