Across America it’s back to school time. Families are getting used to packing lunches, the joys of nightly homework and arranging after school activities. It’s also a time when work calendars fill up as people return from vacations, supposedly refreshed. Of course in America they don’t take the long vacations that are common in countries such as France and Sweden. Instead they stretch to ten days, or two weeks if they are feeling particularly brave. Either way, Americans are now ready to do battle with the economy while their kids do battle with mathematics and English. In the world of communications and marketing in general, the summer is a quiet period where only a real crisis will garner much attention. The Fall on the other hand is a period where news floods out as businesses launch products and make acquisitions. The flood of news does of course make it harder to get people’s attention. You are, after all, competing with others for your fifteen seconds of fame (the Internet equivalent of Warhol’s prediction). So does this make sense? I appreciate it is difficult to get things done over the summer when so many people are away and the argument goes that: what’s the point of announcing things when nobody is around to read about it? I’d argue that in the age of social and online media, the summer is no longer a dead time for getting attention. It is merely a dead time for people seeking it. While I was away I checked on the news, industry and otherwise, everyday on my iPhone and I’m not that unusual. With today’s technology people hear about the news whether they are at work on a south pacific island. So it makes me wonder whether companies should rethink summer media madness and use the fact that attention is easier to get to their advantage. Perhaps, therefore, it’s time for us communications folk to go back to school…
PR agencies will at some point find themselves faced with the opportunity to work with a company that at one point in its history was a great. The brand in question was so well known that it was a household name. Years later that brand has lost its way and some rival has eaten its proverbial lunch. PR people, being the optimists they are, love the idea of making the once great business great again. Of course, deep down even they know that their chances of success are tied to what the brand in question actually does. If the client has finally start making a good product again, and started solving pricing and distribution problems, then PR can really step up and be a major part of the turnaround.
I recall being invited to try and help a once great Canadian business (there’s aren’t many Canadian tech businesses that were huge so you can probably guess who they are). I met the CEO and we talked about how they could tell their story in a better way. I threw out a tag line that summed up this approach. Following the meeting I heard that he loved the thinking that I and a colleague had given him. We were excited to be a part of this future success story. Then things went quiet and then, rather odly, we heard that our contact at the client had been asked to leave and then we heard that the tag line we’d given them was being used for all their adverts. We were paid nothing for that tag line btw. Indeed it seemed they’d used the meeting to get some free advice and were then acting on it. Of course the free advice didn’t really save the company and it has now filed for bankruptcy.
I truly believed the advice we had given was great advice. But at the end of the day the advice was about how they managed their communications and not about how they managed their business. What they needed was a better business model, not a new tag line or better messaging. When you realize that PR alone can’t really save a business it makes you (as a PRO) feel a little sad. We’d all like to think that with our help the business can be turned around. But unless the problems that got the business in to trouble in the first place have been solved, then PR will at best slow the process of decline. So next time you are faced with an opportunity to turn around the image of a company, be sure to find out that that is all that is needed and that the business itself is taking the steps it needs to to fix its underlying business. Otherwise you too could witness the death of a brand that has really sharp positioning but little else.
I’ve been giving some thought recently as to why companies have to try to look their best. For some time I’d believed that looking your best was simply a matter of the right training and discipline and then eventually it would simply become second nature. When taking a photo of my eldest daughter I had a revelation. I asked her to smile. She duly obliged and I got my photo. She then went back to her more normal expression. In short she looked great for a few seconds. Of course like most people she wants to look her best most of the time. When I asked her why she didn’t smile like she did for the camera more often, she said “it’s too much like hard work.” Of course few, if any, people look their best all the time (I look awful most of the day and especially so in the mornings). So why do we expect companies to be any different? It’s also no wonder that like many of us who struggle to smile nicely for the camera, some companes that are trying to look their best, look like they are putting on a false face. I guess the real answer to all this is not to train companies to put on their ‘camera’ face but instead, teach them to exhibit their real qualities – and of course encourage the people observing them to use the right lense. Now say ‘cheese’.
Context Analytics recently published a paper showing that for certain brands PR was way more effective than advertising. The brands most affected were those which had ‘high involvement’ products such as computers. High involvement products are ones where consumers typically do quite a bit of research before they make the purchase. I’d put cars firmly into that category and yet unless I’m blind I’d suggest that most car makers have done a pretty poor job on their PR. Instead they seem determined to convince people using TV adverts that they should rush out and buy their new vehicle. I’m of course basing this thesis on little real science. I did do a Google news search on major car brands and if you ignore all the bad articles about how deeply troubled the industry is, you see little that appears to be the result of a PR campaign.
A great example to me of a missed opportunity is Toyota’s launch of the new Prius. The car doesn’t go on sale until ‘late Spring’ but it is already on the Toyota website. Given how popular this car is I’d have expected there to be a lot of PR outside the traditional trade press. As yet I’ve seen nothing and as Prius owner (or Pious as a friend of mine calls them) I tend to notice when images of the less than attractive vehicle appear in the paper.
For the record then I’d strongly advise GM, Ford et al to forget their expensive ads and focus on getting the argument across using the media and social media. Assuming Context’s study is accurate, they’ll spend less and sell more.
You know when someone is trying to tell you something and you do anything you can to make sure you can’t hear them? Well it would seem the various stock markets have become a little like that in the last few weeks. In the US Apple announced sales of the iPhone are doing great and the stock tumbled. Intel then announced profits up 50%, their stock was pounded. In our sector, Huntsworth and Chime both put out positive trading updates only to see their stocks fall – despite the fact that in both cases they used expressions like: “we are confident about our prospects for the year ahead.” So it would seem the best thing to do right now is stay below the radar if at all possible. Positive corporate news, it would seem, is more likely to remind analysts you exist and drive your stock down than do the opposite. It makes no sense of course but it’s hard to argue with.
Earlier this year I attended a small VC event at which Jim Collins was giving his fantastic presentation on how to build great and enduring businesses. He did a marvelous job of both reminding the CEOs present of the management disciplines they need to adopt if they are to turn their businesses in to truly great companies. Several months have passed since I heard him speak but I was reminded of this speech when I noticed his ‘Level 5 Leadership’ article is being reprinted in the current HBR. What struck me is that if you look at the current leaders of the major tech players there is some correlation with his central thesis, that great companies have Level 5 leaders but not a complete correlation. Of course this could be a warning bell for the future of those that don’t appear to have Level 5 leaders, or it could be that Jim’s analysis doesn’t really apply to them.
Jim’s research suggests that Level 5 leaders have a common set of traits, namely their ability to build enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will. Now I can’t profess to know the CEOs of the all the major tech firms to the extent where my judgment is 100% accurate but from what I’ve learned over the years and from the insight others have given, I’d say that using media exposure as a guide the following people meet the Level 5 standard:
Sam Palmisano – IBM. Sam does work with the media but it’s clear that he’d rather talk about his company than himself.
Mark Hurd – HP. Has any business publication managed to profile him with his involvement?
Hector Ruiz – AMD. AMD has been slowly but surely gaining ground on Intel while Hector has stayed firmly below the radar
Bill Gates – Microsoft (I know he’s not CEO anymore!). Bill has never loved media attention but accepts its role. As the world’s richest man he can’t escape being on the cover of magazines from time to time
Steve Ballmer – Microsoft. Steve may be gregarious but he’s also not someone to blow his own trumpet.
Paul Otellini – Intel. Since taking over as CEO he has hardly sought out personal publicity
Some may take issue with these choices and I should add that not that all of these are clients. I should add that I’ve not included CEOs such as Steve Jobs, John Chambers, Larry Ellison and Scott McNealy. I don’t know these people but the perception is that these people enjoy the media spotlight which goes against them being so called Level 5 leaders. If my perception is wrong then these guys all definitely count. It is interesting to note that Jim’s Level 5 criteria if used when hiring CEOs would have ruled out hiring someone like Carly Fiorina for the HP role.
If you think about this you arrive at something of a paradox. At one level PR people want their CEOs to do their part to raise awareness of the company and its goals. This often means them sharing some of their personal life with the public to add some human interest to an otherwise dull business story. If they do this too much then they become celebrity CEOs and by Jim’s definition, this would suggest they are falling short of being Level 5 leaders. So the logical conclusion you arrive at is that we can do all our clients a favor and make sure our CEOs stay out of the media.
Or should we? I’d love to see what other PR people think on this subject?