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Timing Is Everything

KeepCalmStudio.com-Crown-Keep-Calm-And-Manage-The-MediaTiming is everything. In life and particularly in media relations. But when does it cross an ethical line?

Once upon a time, it was considered smart to issue bad news on a Friday afternoon to minimize coverage. But that rule of thumb went the way of print media's dominance. In an always-on, 24-hour news cycle, it hardly makes a difference. 

Nevetheless, faced with a request from the New York Times for information about concussions incurred in mandatory boxing classes at West Point, the Army Surgeon General recommended delay.

"Timing is everything with this stuff," she reportedly told the Army public affairs staff. Delaying the release would give her time to interest other publications in doing more favorable stories about the same subject.

Advocates of greater transparency in government called the incident "disturbing." Reports that the Army Surgeon General had used the same tactic in the past to manipulate news coverage probably didn't allay their concerns.

So is this smart media relations or is it unethical? 

The New York Times, for its part, thinks it "undermines the news media." The whistle blower who brought the story to the paper's attention says he did so because not being open with journalists "damages democracy."

We're with them. 

The kind of behavior described here goes way beyond putting information in context. First, it's unfair to the reporter who requested the information in the first place. But even more importantly, it attempts to create an alternative version of the truth, which undermines a free press and, ultimately, violates the public's right to reason. It's time such behavior stops.

 

 


What Were They Thinking?


Good bad chouceThe question was posed in the headline of a New York Times editorial.  It concerned Volkswagen, accused of rigging auto software to manipulate emission readings and evade regulatory limits.

But it could have just as easily applied to the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals who bought the rights to a drug used to treat a rare but life-threatening infection and promptly jacked the price up from $13.50 a pill to $750.

It could even have applied to Ben Carson, neurosurgeon-turned-presidential-candidate, who said Muslims aren't fit to seek the office.

Carson sought shelter in the current campaign against "political correctness." The ostensible concern, explains the New Yorker's Jelani Cobb, "is that the parameters of polite (or at least non-bigoted) discussion get in the way of truth-telling, leaving us with good feelings and palliative falsehoods."

Of course, as Cobb also points out, there is no necessary relationship between truthfulness and offensiveness. One does not naturally flow from the other. A lot of what passes for political correctness -- e.g., using gender neutral sentence construction, avoiding racist and homophobic slurs, etc. -- is actually an effort to conform our language to more enlightened ethics. Carson's offense was not failing to respect political correctness, but engaging in religious bigotry. 

Similarly, Volkswagen and Turing's behavior represent ethical failures. Some will argue that Turing was simply attempting to price its drug to what the market will bear. The "market" reacted and now the company will adjust. That's how capitalism works.

It will be harder for Volkswagen to cloak itself in the principles of the free market. Even Milton Friedman, outspoken apologist for capitalism, cautioned that, in the pursuit of "shareowner value," companies had to "follow the rules of the road." 

Unfortunately, the only limit most companies put on trying to shape those rules is what they can get away with. And it isn't a long leap from that to trying to circumvent the rules entirely. Especially if you think your basic purpose -- or reason for being -- is to generate profits.

That, alas, is what the people at Volkswagen and Turing who were ultimately responsible for this behavior were thinking. But they misunderstood their purpose. Sure it's to create value, but not just for the people who own the company. They also need to create value for everyone who contributes to their company's successes and bears the risk of its failures.  

That is a company's true ethical purpose. And that's what should guide every capitalist's thinking.

 

 

 

 

 


Web journalism arrives

Journalism.001The Internet ran over journalism. And a lot of people are just waiting for the victim to stop twitching so they can bury it. 

There are plenty of reasons to despair that it was a hit-and-run. Advertising and readers fled print media to go online. Traditional newrooms emptying or shutting down completely. PR people now outnumber reporters 5 to 1 and make 40% more.

Worse, most of what runs on the leading "news" websites are repurposed stories from the remaining legacy media. Endless "listicles" seem to be the web's most signifiant contribution to the trade. Otherwise, partisanship reigns in online echo chambers of conspiracy hounds and smear mongers. Elsewhere the newsweb exhbits a weird fascination with cute pets, ordinary people being stupid, and celebrities behaving badly.

But now a ray of hope has emerged from that dark cloud -- a one-man story factory named Steven Brill partnered with Huffington Post on invesigative journalism worthy of the likes of Upton Sinclair and Seymour Hersh at their best.

 "America's Most Admired Lawbreaker" is a 15-part narrative about Johnson & Johnson's marketing of the anti-psychotic drug Risperdal for "off-label" ailments like dementia in the elderly and autism in children. 

Brill is a lawyer-turned journalist-turned entrepreneur who founded American Lawyer magazine in  1979 and Court TV in 1989. After that, he turned his attention to other ventures, some of which failed (e.g., Brill's Content) and some of which succeeded (e.g., Journalism Online, sold to R. R. Donnelly for $45 million in 2011). Inbetween, he has written book-length invesigations into everything from America's public schools to its healthcare system.

Brill can type faster than most of us can write. His output is prodigious and its quality is first-rate. When he dives into a subject, he descends to the depths of an unmanned submarine and he turns over rocks embedded in the seabed for millennia.  

I should add here that I have no idea if the accusations he makes about J&J are accurate. But I should also note that the company has settled federal, state, and private suits over its marketing of Risperdal to the tune of more than $2.5 billion. 

But what's remarkable about Brill's story is not only its length, but the way it exploits all the capabilities of the web. This story was carefully constructed with sidebar links to videos, trial transcripts, depositions, and other primary source material that expands on the narrative and gives readers an opportunity to make their own judgments.

It's a devestating chronicle, exactly the opposite of shoveling content online. And an example of what web journalism may one day be. It also represents both a challenge and an opportunity for public relations practitioners. 

The opportunity of course is to use the same techniques to tell an organization's own story. The challenge is what to do when someone else uses them to tell a story about you.

J&J alas may be a case study of the latter. And every public relations practitioner should read and view "America's Most Admired Lawbreaker," not for schandenfreud's sake but as an object lesson in the power of new media.

 

 

 


Beth Comstock

Comstockgreyseat-2The big danger in writing a book that profiles leaders in any field is that they won't be in their current position by the time the book comes out. That's especially true in marketing where the lifespan of the typical CMO is about the same as a fruit fly's.

So I started writing Secrets of the Marketing Masters with some trepidation. Sure enough, by the time the book was published, only one of the six marketers I profiled was still on the job. 

But my book's lonely exception proved my contention that marketing is not about downstream functions like sales or advertising but about satisfying customers' upstream needs, values, and aspirations. It's less about selling something than figuring out what customers need and how to provide it.

Beth Comstock had just become GE's chief marketing officer when I interviewed her more than a decade ago. And that was clearly her philosophy, not only in rhetoric but in practice.

She's not only still at the company, she was just appointed one of four vice chairs reporting to CEO Jeff Immelt.  She's still CMO, but her responsibilities have been broadened to include the entire purview of "Business Innovation." 

This excerpt from Secrets of the Marketing Masters helps explain how it came to be:

In a company with fabled bench strength, [GE CEO Jeff Immelt] made his top public relations executive the company’s first chief marketing officer since Welch had abolished the position 20 years before.  Immelt charged her with driving innovation throughout the company’s ranks. 

At first, her appointment as CMO had people outside the company, as well as some GE lifers, scratching their heads.  The fast-talking 42 year-old had begun her career covering the Virginia state legislature for a local news service, and later moved to GE's NBC, working in media relations in Washington and New York. ... By 1996, Ms. Comstock was NBC's chief spokeswoman, before becoming senior VP-NBC corporate communications. ... About two years later, in August of 1998, perhaps thinking about the imminent launch of his successor, Welch appointed her the company’s vice president of corporate communications.

An autodidact throughout her career, when Immelt broadened Comstock’s responsibilities to include marketing, she gave herself 90 days to figure out what she was supposed to do. She studied best practices at companies from Procter & Gamble to FedEx and 3M. She brought in a raft of marketing gurus and peppered them with questions.  And most importantly, she spent time with the company’s business leaders.

GE’s structure was the other reason people wondered why the company needed a chief marketing officer. Each of the conglomerate’s divisions handled its own marketing and was fiercely independent. Their mantra was “if you tell me what to do, you can also take responsibility for my numbers.”  That’s what had led Welch to eliminate the position in the first place. What would a chief marketing officer do at GE, other than preside over quarterly show-and-tell sessions that led nowhere?  

But Immelt had a little more than that in mind. ... In the fall of 2003, Immelt emerged from a series of long-range strategy sessions with his division leaders and told Comstock he was struck how often the environment and climate change came up in their discussions of emerging trends that would impact their businesses over the next five to ten years.  “I think there’s something there,” he told her, but I don’t know what. See what you can do with it.” 

To Comstock, taking on environmental issues seemed like a big leap for a company that had spent much of the previous decade refusing to excavate toxic chemicals it had dumped into the Hudson River (which was legal when GE did it).  What was widely perceived as the company’s “arrogance” had made it one of the environmental movement’s favorite targets.    

But she dutifully began an 18-month investigation of the issue, bringing in some of GE’s biggest customers for what she billed as “discovery sessions” with the company’s top leaders. In the course of the two-day sessions, 35 customers at a time, in industries such as energy, aviation or water debated market and technology trends with senior GE executives, including Immelt.  In effect, they were asked to imagine life in 2015—and the products they would need from GE.

Comstock and the other GE executives took away a clear message: rising fuel costs, ever tighter environmental regulations and growing consumer expectations will translate into demand for cleaner technologies across all of the company’s infrastructure businesses, which represented nearly 90 percent of revenue. ...

The company’s “ecomagination” campaign grew out of these sessions.  But Comstock hesitated to move too quickly.  Instead she began a year long “listening tour” among employees, customers, investors, activists and public officials. The basic idea had come from customers, but they cautioned the company not to get too far ahead of them, especially in talking to public officials.  Not too surprisingly, the other constituencies were all somewhat skeptical, especially the company’s own employees. 

“Our internal audience was the toughest,” Comstock remembers.  “They were worried it was just a PR campaign, that it wasn’t real. Some doubted we could deliver.  And they were all aware of the company’s very public battle to keep from removing PCBs from the Hudson River.”  To Comstock, this was a make or break issue.  “If employees don’t buy in, customers won’t either,” she says. “Marketing is all about culture — internally and externally. You can’t create something that sticks unless you get into the culture.” 

Skepticism was not limited to lunchbox toting rank-and-file employees.  Immelt told Vanity Fair magazine that by his count eight out of ten of the company’s senior executives “were against the plan” when they first heard about it in December of 2004. Comstock remembers the boardroom presentation as an audience of frowns that got deeper with every PowerPoint slide.  Over the following months, Immelt and Comstock laid out the argument for the program.  The company had already invested in it – as the number one producer of power-plant equipment, airplane engines and locomotives, it had little choice. 

Years of R&D had already given it the most efficient large-scale energy technologies on the market.  ... With the exception of the Hudson River controversy, GE actually has a good record on environmental performance.  Yale University's Center for Environmental Law and Policy gave the company plaudits for setting high standards and for holding managers accountable for meeting them. Finally, clean energy was vital in the overseas markets GE had already targeted for 60 percent of its growth and where major customers were subject to the Kyoto Protocol. 

Immelt summed up his pitch in a slogan that may have sealed the deal internally, as well as among other skeptical constituencies – “Green is green,” he says.  One thing GE employees do understand is the company’s relentless focus on revenue and profit.  “Ecomagination” was not being adopted because it was trendy, or even the moral thing to do.  It was about making money by giving customers what they need.

Immelt himself launched the “ecomagination” campaign in mid-2005, repeating his “green is green” slogan during simultaneous news conferences in Washington, DC, Brussels and Tokyo. Comstock says it resonated even more powerfully than she expected.  There were a few critics who sniffed “greenwash,” but by and large the environmental community took a wait and see attitude.  Immelt’s decision to negotiate an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the Hudson River obviously contributed to the cease-fire. 

But the campaign also rang true to most people.  The case histories were modest and believable.  GE salespeople were armed with “score-cards” that told customers in dollars and cents exactly what the lower emissions and higher fuel efficiency of a new GE product meant to them in fuel savings. And, in typical GE fashion, the company integrated the campaign into its business processes ... with targets and metrics to track progress.  Overall, GE set a very public goal to increase revenue from clean energy products from about $10 billion in 2005 to $20 billion in 2010. 

GE beat that goal. By the middle of 2014, the Harvard Business Review was able to declare, "The company has reaped $160 billion from the program since 2005. These revenues grew twice as fast as total company sales, providing a critical crutch in the post-financial-meltdown years (GE gets about half its business from financial services)."

And that is why Beth Comstock was made vice chair of GE. 

By the way, Secrets of the Marketing Masters was just published in Mandarin. Somewhere in China some young marketer is looking at Beth Comstock as a model to imitate. Not a bad idea for us all.