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The Road to Hell

GlassrMilton Glaser is one of the most celebrated designers in the world.

He created the "Iđź’—NY" logo, designed the psychedelic Dylan album cover, and founded New York magazine with Clay Felker.

He also came up with a quiz he called "The Road to Hell" that he gave to young designers.  Here it is:

Would you—

  1. Design a package to look larger on the shelf?
  2. Do an ad for a slow-moving, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy?
  3. Design a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it’s been in business for a long time?
  4. Design a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent?
  5. Design an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring?
  6. Design a package for a cereal aimed at children, which has low nutritional value and high sugar content?
  7. Design a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer who employs child labor?
  8. 8. Design a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work?
  9. Design an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public?
  10. Design a brochure piece for an SUV that turned over more frequently than average in emergency conditions and caused the death of 150 people?
  11. Design an ad for a product whose continued use might cause the user’s death?

Glazer thought it important for designers to think about "what we actually do in life." He believed you could get pretty far down the road to hell if you didn't think about the ethical implications of the choices you made, especially the clients you took on.

The same could be said about public relations. So with apologies to Mr. Glaser, here's "The Road to Public Relations Hell":

Would you --

  1. Promote an old product as "new and improved" if the only real difference was the packaging?
  2. Promote a slow-moving, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy?
  3. Position a new vineyard to suggest that it’s been in business for a long time?
  4. Promote a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent?
  5. Do public relations for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring?
  6. Publicize a cereal aimed at children, which has low nutritional value and high sugar content?
  7. Do public relations for a manufacturer who employs child labor?
  8. Promote a diet product that you know doesn’t work?
  9. Represent a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public?
  10. Publicize an SUV that turned over more frequently than average in emergency conditions and caused the death of 150 people?
  11. Promote a product whose continued use might cause the user’s death?

 The point of both tests is to see how close we come to what Glaser considers the "function of art," which in many ways is also the true function of public relations -- to enable people "to understand what is real."

 

 


Where's the pain?

Trusted-brand-370x229A friend commented on my VW post (not here, but over at LinkedIn):

"While VW certainly has a big internal issue and culture to fix," he wrote, "I am predicting that the consumer sentiment will not be harsh or long lasting. After all, GM's culture of secrecy and stupidity (re key systems) resulted in many deaths -- and no PR backlash that appears to have hurt revenue. Same with the airbag fiasco and Honda and Toyota."

Sales figures seem to confirm his perspective: in October, Chevrolet had its best sales in 11 years and GM overall posted its seventh consecutive increase in retail market share. Toyota's October sales also increased 13% over 2014. For its part, Honda broke all October sales records with a 9% increase. Even Volkswagen, which couldn't sell diesel models, eked out a 0.2% sales gain, thanks to hefty discounts.

Where, you might ask, is the pain?

Could be it's masked by the combination of lower fuel costs driving truck and SUV sales, heavy promotions and cheap financing getting people into showrooms, and an improving economy making customers feel better about trading up from the clunker in their driveway.

As Automotive News put it: "The final months of 2015 are expected to see widespread incentives and promotions, especially among luxury brands, and on cars, where consumer demand has been weakest. Buick, for example, is offering $6,000 off select 2015 Regal models that have been on dealer lots the longest."

By one calculation, incentives increased 14% to $3104 per vehicle compared to 2014.  In other words, the industry is riding on pricing.

I worked in an industry that let pricing dominate people's purchase decisions. It was not pretty. The alternative, of course, is to sell on brand values. Another word for "brand" is "trust."

VW, GM, Toyota, and Honda are on the equivalent of opiates to mask the pain of of losing customer trust. They all need to work hard to regain it.

 

 

 

 

 

 


VW tries to win back trust

VwSometime this week, Volkswagen will announce a giveback to customers stung by its manipulation of emission data on its diesel-powered cars.

Affected owners will get two prepaid debit cards, one they can use anywhere, the other at a VW dealership. The cards will reportedly be worth $500 each. Plus, the company will add three years of free roadside assistance. And there will be no strings attached. Customers who accept the cards will still be free to join the inevitable class action law suits that will emerge.

It's all part of a plan to regain public trust.

I dealt with a lot of crises when I was at AT&T (though thankfully none that involved corporate larceny). And I learned the importance of (1) accepting responsibility for the problem, (2) apologizing for it, (3) fixing it, and (4) giving something back. 

Volkswagen is apparently working its way through all those steps.   

I credit my former boss, Marilyn Laurie, for point 4.  She realized that trust had emotional as well as rational elements. When a problem grew to crisis proportions, it was not always due to the size or even the notoriety of the problem.

What makes a problem a crisis is the level of betrayal involved. That's largely an emotional issue that can't be addressed with facts, figures, and engineering diagrams. Trust is not only what people think of you, it's how they feel about you.

When AT&T's telephone network went down for several hours, we immediately took responsibility, apologized publicly, fixed it quickly, and then gave our customers discounted calling on Valentine's Day. That last bit was Marilyn's idea and it became part of our response to any major crisis.

Note: Sometimes "giving back" means publicly punishing those responsible, especially if they knew what they were doing was wrong. Before this is over, Volkswagen will have to do some of that too.

 

 

 


How PR can get a seat at the table

Table.001Corporate public relations people want nothing more than a seat at the table where decisions are made. But their path to that station is increasingly unclear.

Shannon Bowen, a professor at the University of South Carolina, warned back in 2009 that "a fight for the soul of public relations" would ultimately lead to its splintering.  

She characterized the battle as "advocacy versus counseling" and suggested it was being fought "both in the academic discipline and in the industry."

If so, I was a non-combatant for my more than 30 years as a practitioner. I had both responsibilities at AT&T. Of course, I worked at Arthur Page's desk, and his philosophy so imbued the company in those days, it was understood the head of public relations would report to the CEO and participate in the company's top councils, what academics call "the dominant coalition." 

I was certainly expected to be a vociferous advocate on the company's behalf in the marketplace and the corridors of power. But I was also supposed to provide objective counsel to its leaders on both what we did as well as what we said.

Since retiring in 2003, I've learned how unique that was. In fact, the person who succeeded me quickly discovered the new CEO she inherited didn't see it that way at all. She soon left, and her successors have reported to marketing ever since. Across industry, about two thirds of public relations organizations report to someone other than the CEO.

That doesn't mean they never offer counsel on their company's policies and practices. But it does suggest their internal clients are more likely to see them as hired guns paid to advocate on their behalf, not to advise them on what to do.

Bowen suggested this state of affairs would result in the splintering of public relations into separate disciplines. Those who see themselves as advocates would retain the public relations moniker; those who fancy themselves counselors would rechristen themselves as commmuications or public affairs officers. 

It seems to me that's exactly what happened. But it wasn't inevitable -- it is possible to be both an honest advocate and an objective counselor. 

Bowen suggested what could bridge the two disciplines:  

"Clearly, those who see themselves as counselors to senior management need academic study of moral philosophy before they are thrust into ethical decision-making in jobs with frequent ethical dilemmas.

"Those who see themselves as pure advocates also need to study ethics because they are both the first and last line of ethical decision-making in their relations with publics."

Most importantly, an in-depth understanding of ethics -- along with deep business knowledge -- could be a practitioner's ticket to a seat at the decision-making table.

Yet, according to one study, seven years after a commission of academics and practitioners recommended more attention be paid to the study of ethics in public relations programs "few programs require an ethics course or even recommend one as an elective." Instead, most "embed" ethical considerations into other courses through "case studies, simulations, and small group discussions."

As the study notes, that makes it "difficult to assess ethical knowledge." And since what isn't measured is seldom done, many practitioners leave school without the ticket to that proverbial seat at the table.

 

 

 

 

 

 


The ethics of nudging


NudgePublic relations people are widely considered "nudges," i.e., those who encourage others to do something. (This is opposed to "noodges" which Merriam Webster defines as "pests" but that's for a different posting.)

Nudges, as it happens, are practitioners of the highest form of behavioral science. 

Daniel Khaneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for driving a stake through the heart of homo economicus, the imaginary human being who only made rational decisions. Although a psychologist by training he was midwife to the new field of behavioral economics.

Economists may have been late to the party, but public relations practitioners have long understood human thinking and behavior are shaped by cognitive illusions, unconscious urges, and hidden biases.

Edward Bernays, for example, consulted psychoanalysts in preparing public relations campaigns for clients ranging from American Tobacco to United Fruit. (In the first instance, he was advised that cigarettes are a symbol of male power, i.e., the penis, and proceeded to attach smoking to the suffragette movement.)

Behavioral_scienceWhether Bernays's success was due to psychoanalytic insight or a good nose for publicity is arguable, but there's little question understanding how the mind works can help increase an message's persuasiveness. For example, create the illusion of scarcity ("Only four seats left at this price.") and people feel pressure to click the "buy" button. We know more about human decision making today than ever before.

Richar Thaler and Cass Sunstein wrote a book called Nudge to show how the government and other institutions can capitalize on these behavioral insights to "improve decisions about health, wealth, and happiness." For example, "A school cafeteria might try to nudge kids toward good diets by putting the healthiest foods at front." 

But recognizing that these techniques can be used for bad as well as good -- and perhaps outraged by his personal experience being nudged by airlines and publishers -- Thaler recently set forth three rules of ethical nudging: 

â–  All nudging should be transparent and never misleading.

â–  It should be as easy as possible to opt out of the nudge, preferably with as little as one mouse click.

â–  There should be good reason to believe that the behavior being encouraged will improve the welfare of those being nudged. 

That last point in particular is a good reminder of our ethical responsibility as public relations practitioners.