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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Insert Round Peg Into Square Hole

If it doesn’t fit, you must quit.

I know I’ve said that I probably wouldn’t write about something that everyone else has written about, but this thing with Groupon and its now former head of PR, Bradford Williams, was just too juicy to ignore.

Just two months. That was all that it took before Mr. Williams resigned from his post as the top PR strategist for one of the hottest companies in the market at the time.

In all of my dozen or so years in this profession can I recall a similar incident where a highly touted communicator joined an organization and stepped down in such a rapid fashion, all the while the company that hired him was cresting in popularity and attempting to take their brand public. If there is another comparable case of this happening, by all means please do share. This type of thing has to be a rarity.

But what went so wrong that it prompted such a speedy public divorce? One can only speculate (so I think I will).

Before I get into the negatives, let me first give Groupon credit for understanding the important role of communications in its business strategy and making the investment to bring in a quality talent to oversee this effort. I saw Mr. Williams’ background and it was nothing to sneeze at. The brands he has worked for and with reads like a who’s who: VeriSign, Yahoo!, eBay, Levi Strauss & Co. and Gateway. In this industry, he would be what we refer to as a heavy hitter.

So with the supposedly right man in place the next logical step was to let him do the job he was hired to do. But that didn’t exactly happen, and my guess is that the barrier between those two events taking place had a lot to do with there being a lack of agreement in strategy and its plan for execution.

But how bad was the communication strategy gap between the experienced PR Pro and Groupon’s C-suite that it called for an immediate parting of the ways? I’m thinking canyon like.

Though an unfortunate but not unheard of situation, sometimes company leadership can be a little too hands on when it comes to communications strategy. This usually occurs when someone in leadership, typically the CEO, feels extremely confident about how to execute a company’s PR function, despite leading the charge or at least buying into the concept that someone with experience needed to be brought in to handle this important task.

If the decision is made to bring the necessary expertise in-house, then that company’s leadership has to not only create the space for that person to succeed, but it is imperative that they trust in that person’s experience. If you need surgery for a medical problem you’re experiencing, you’re not going to seek out a physician, solicit his consultation and then when time for surgery proceed to tell the surgeon how the operation should go because you’ve been in a hospital before or watched season one of “ER” on DVD.

So why do it when it comes to something as important as your external communications or protecting/projecting the image of your brand? The best advice is to trust your judgment in hiring the right person for the job, not using the opportunity to have somebody new simply rubber stamp your ideas.

If not, what happens when that person is brought into the company is that he/she is expected to validate what the company wants to do anyway. This is not a winning strategy and only marginalizes that individual’s expertise. In my eyes communications experience is just as valuable or important as say legal experience and it should be treated as such.

On the flipside, as a professional communicator what should you do when your years of experience and insights are at odds with the very people who hired you for those attributes in the first place?

Well the way I see it, you can do one of several things. You can tow the company line, put your professional knowledge aside and execute the communications strategy as dictated by leadership. You can come riding in on your abilities and past successes, confident in the understanding of your craft and ready to fight for what you feel is right. Or, you can think longer term about what you’ve gotten yourself into, see that this is not a good fit for your skill sets and cut your losses early.

Mr. Williams chose the latter. But I ask you, fellow PR professionals, if placed in the same situation what would you do?

As always, I welcome your feedback.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Are You Ready For Some Proactive Crisis Comm?

I give credit where and when credit is due. And my alpha dog PR nod of the day goes to the public relations team over at the Worldwide Leader in Sports, ESPN.

When aging country singer Hank Williams Jr. went off the reservation and onto the Fox morning news show to compare the currently sitting president to Hitler and declared Obama as “the enemy,” ESPN didn’t wait to react. Given the current climate of today’s 24 hour news cycle, it wasn’t going to be long before ESPN was a part of the story, so the sports giant went into a little of its own prevent defense (to borrow a sports analogy).

And while Hank Williams Jr. is not an on-the-payroll employee of the Mouse or its sports arm, he is strongly associated with the brand via Monday Night Football. For more than 20 years Williams has belted out the musical intro to the iconic football programming franchise. Whenever you heard the singer shout out, “Are you ready for some football?” it set the stage for the game about to be aired.

Williams’ inflammatory words were not only asinine and poorly chosen, they also were ill-timed. See, he chose to espouse his “political” opinions on a Monday morning and by that act alone, Williams threatened to take away the shine from one of ESPN’s premier products. As word of the Fox morning news show clip began to circulate, ESPN began to act and before it could become a part of the discussion, when everybody should’ve been talking football, the PR boys from Bristol tried to cut the story off at the knees.

First ESPN took no chances of people attempting to associate Hank the Tank’s political potty talk with the brand and cut his trademark intro from the program. Then it attempted to further distance itself from Williams’ remarks by issuing a very direct statement condemning the comments and making it clear that the singer does not speak for them. And finally, as an act of transparency, ESPN had its reporters cover the complete controversy (which included their response).

It should be noted that the situation with Williams is indicative of the problem with today’s celebrities and pseudo celebrities alike, and the brands that solicit their services. You can’t control what people say or do when they are “off the clock” and the celebrity/pseudo celebrity seems to forget that they, by way of their business arrangements and endorsements, also represent the people who pay them. If you have a controversial opinion that you want to share, maybe should think bigger picture before sharing it. I know that I have lots of opinions to share, but I don’t share them all and I water down some of the ones that I do.

But back to ESPN’s strategic move, by taking the bull by the horns sort of speak and not running or hiding from the potential problem, ESPN nullified the negative impact that the story would’ve had on their organization and showed their stakeholders/audiences what the brand does or doesn’t stand for. This was an excellent text book example of proactive crisis communications and how deal with a problem.

Right now, I give this PR response a grade of “A” but reserve the right to downgrade depending on how ESPN handles Williams for the rest of the season. Is the Hank Williams Monday Night Football intro a wrap or is it just on the shelf for a spell?

What are your thoughts?