Can we drop the fantasy about online “conversations?”

If you ever want to despair for humanity (leaving aside the usual war, famine, mass shootings, and environmental degradation), spend five minutes perusing the comments posted by some readers of Philly.com, the internet platform for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. You’d be hard pressed to find a more depressing collection of ignorance, invective, and insult. It’s a Pandora’s box of ill-will, bordering on hatred, except that the lid has been left off and slime keeps oozing out like an overflowing cesspool.

I don’t mean to pick on the Inquirer and Daily News, nor on the good people of the Philadelphia region, of which I am one (E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles!). Toxic reader comments are common on most online media outlets, not to mention Twitter and Facebook.  Media executives talk about enabling a “conversation” with and among readers. What gets posted, though, is in no way a conversation. It’s more like a drive-by shooting.

At least a few media entities are starting to address the problem, by either ending online comments entirely, or asking readers to submit more traditional letter-to-the-editors, which are curated and then posted–you know, like in the old days. Businesses and organizations that advertise online have a role to play. The dollars spent on online advertising are supporting an environment rife with trolls whose poison reflects negatively on the surrounding content. Just last week, Unilever threatened to pull its advertising from Facebook and Twitter unless these platforms addressed their “toxic” environment.

That’s a step in the right direction. Another would be for online media platforms to stop fooling themselves about online “conversations.” There is no such thing.

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Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan Dive in to Healthcare

The announcement that Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan intend to “disrupt” healthcare has rightly made headlines, with some commentators positively gleeful at the prospect that these highly successful companies will do something–anything!–to upend our nation’s sclerotic and expensive healthcare system.

The key phrase in their joint statement is that they intend to pursue ideas “free from profit making incentives or constraints.” Amazon’s deferral of profits in favor of investment and innovation has made it the behemoth it is today. It will be fascinating to see if this culture of “innovation first” meshes with the more traditionally profit-oriented Berkshire and JP Morgan.

Assuming it does, it will be doubly fascinating to see what this new effort produces to make healthcare 1) more patient-centered, 2) more effective, and 3) less costly. As Messers. Bezos, Buffet, and Dimon admit, healthcare is exceedingly complex. We aren’t talking about selling and delivering widgets any more, or figuring out how much interest to charge for a loan. We’re talking about an industry that is deeply personal and individualistic (on both the patient and physician side), highly regulated, highly political, and with deeply embedded stakeholders who will fight tooth and nail to protect the status quo (as lousy as that status quo is for consumers).

The healthcare industry has crushed many previous efforts by very bright people to improve efficiency and lower cost. Best of luck to these three gentlemen and the team they put together.

They’re going to need it.

 

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Wellynn Group Completes Magee Rehabilitation Market Research Project

The Wellynn Group recently completed a multi-faceted marketing research project on behalf of Magee Rehabilitation. Magee–one of the leading physical rehabilitation facilities in the United States–wanted to understand how different stakeholders perceived Magee marketing and communications, and how Magee can best incorporate changes in communication technologies and platforms over the last ten years in Magee’s marketing efforts.

The Wellynn Group project-managed and facilitated a series of focus groups, with both patients and professionals. TWG also developed and analyzed two online surveys for Magee employees and consumers in the greater Philadelphia area.

Magee’s marketing leadership is using The Wellynn Group’s research and analysis to help guide its marketing planning for 2018 and beyond.

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2017: A Year in the Upside Down (for PR and Crisis Communications)

Whatever one feels about the Trump Presidency and its impact on America, one thing appears to be true: the rules on PR and crisis communications have been seemingly overturned, and seasoned communications executives can be forgiven if they can’t quite grasp what is happening.

Since he began running for office, and since his inauguration, Mr. Trump has been involved in an unending—literally, almost daily—streak of what just a couple of years ago would have been career-ending PR implosions for any politician or businessperson.

Credible accusations of sexual harassment and assault? Check. Insulting and denigrating entire classes of people and cultures? Check. Repeatedly spouting proven untruths (OK, lies)? Check. If Ronald Reagan was the “teflon” president, Donald Trump must be the—well, what’s a better non-stick analogy than teflon?

Crisis communications practice would tell you that any one of these used-to-be-missteps would require a swift apology, acknowledgment of responsibility, and promises to never to let it happen again. Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of those from Mr. Trump. One can complain about this attitude, but one cannot argue with its success. Sure, his approval ratings are at historic lows. But, true to form, he doesn’t seem to care about appearances.

From a societal point of view, the concern is that every political or business leader would adopt this practice. The end result would not be pretty, as bad behavior would have zero consequences. That’s not how societies improve.

The good news, so far, is that other political and business leaders do not yet appear to have followed Mr. Trump’s lead in this particular attitude. Nor are their personal brands so seemingly immune from self-reflection or responsibility. If the president has no sense of restraint, it appears most of the rest of the nation still does.

Even if it seems we’re in the Upside Down, most of us are still right side up.

 

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Corporate America Knows Diversity and Inclusion are Good for Business

While the Administration tries to bar refugees, starts planning a wall, and ponders rolling back civil rights for our LGBTQ citizens, Corporate America seems to understand that diversity and inclusion are good for business.

How else to interpret the preponderance of Super Bowl ads that sought to attract our dollars by extolling the ambition of immigrants (Budweiser); the perseverance of refugees (84 Lumber); and “acceptance” (AirB&B).

These aren’t charities: they are hard-boiled, for profit corporations that have studied American consumers carefully and determined that the money is in social progressivism.

Wonder if anyone in Congress and the White House is picking up on that message.

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Avoiding Unforced Errors

This is a repost of something we shared in 2013. With the 15th anniversary of 9/11 a few days away, it’s a good time to think about avoiding the unforced errors that even sophisticated marketers can make.

The Etiquette of 9/11 Marketing

With the anniversary of September 11, 2001 upon the nation once again, it is interesting to see how commemorations of the tragedy have evolved. The intervening years seem to have softened, somewhat, the intensity of national emotion and  even the amount of organized and institutional attention devoted to the attacks. Still, social media is flooded with users’ thoughts, prayers, and images.

Within this environment, many businesses have also recognized–sometimes at considerable advertising cost–the events of 9/11/01. Most of them have, very appropriately, limited their statements to expressions of sorrow, remembrance, and appreciation for first responders and the nation’s military men and women whose sacrifices today are directly related to what happened on that September morning 12 years ago.

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Wrong on so many levels.

This shouldn’t be a difficult communications or branding assignment for a business. Yet, incredibly, a number of otherwise sophisticated corporations (like AT&T, right), have fallen flat on their faces.

In the interest of helping out any dim-witted corporations out there, here’s an easy guide:

  • ACCEPTABLE 9/11 RECOGNITIONS: Those that acknowledge lives lost, sacrifices made, and the service of first responders and the military. Additional messages about the desirability of peace are acceptable. Graphics should be simple, tasteful, and respectful. Using the company logo is OK, but drop any tag line that could be misconstrued (can you imagine: “McDonalds Remembers 9/11. ‘I’m Lovin’ It'”).
  • UNACCEPTABLE 9/11 RECOGNITIONS: Anything that explicitly or implicitly promotes your product or service, or suggests that people spend money as way of honoring the lives lost on that day.
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Um…no.

This offer from a golf club in Wisconsin is an example of what not to do. They subsequently apologized, but, honestly, what were they thinking?

The United States is still working through the implications and consequences of 9/11. It will be fascinating to see how the nation marks the anniversary in 25 or 50 years. Businesses would be well-advised to focus their marketing efforts on September 12 and beyond.

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It’s Not About Plagiarism

Let’s get this out of the way: the kerfuffle over Melania Trump’s speech is silly and we should all move along.

But what is instructive is how an organization, in this case the Trump Campaign, managed, or more accurately, mismanaged, it’s communications over the last two-and-a-half days. A solid communications team with a solid crisis communications plan could have nipped this controversy in the bud within a couple hours. How?

Well, first an organization needs a crisis communications plan. Among other elements, the plan would include a list of possible crisis scenarios that might hit a political campaign. Charges of plagiarism would naturally appear on that list, since a number of prominent politicians have been dinged with this charge over the years. This was a completely predictable situation (even though with a professional writing team, it would be unlikely).

Second, the plan would develop in advance quick responses to a plagiarism charge that could be shared with news media within minutes. These responses might include describing how speeches for the campaign are written; commitments to originality,  authenticity, and accountability; a promise to investigate and identify any issues promptly;  and a promise to avoid similar problems in the future.

Instead, we got almost 72 hours of circular firing squad, as Trump aides trotted out an ever-shifting series of explanations, deflections, and denials, none of which served the goal of getting the story off of home pages or social media feeds. By the time an underling publicly took responsibility, the story had been cemented in the public consciousness and will likely follow the campaign for some time. (As my beer guy said to me yesterday as I was buying a case, “Is there anyone who actually believes she wrote that speech?”)

Hey, maybe that won’t make any difference. If nothing else, the Trump campaign has proved itself immune from self-inflicted wounds.

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OK, Who’s the Time Traveler?

Having just finished reading Stephen King’s “11/22/63,” I wonder if someone recently went back in time and changed some big historic event. How else to explain the seemingly topsy-turvy political world in which we find ourselves?

In King’s novel (spoiler alert!), the hero prevents JFK’s assassination, but returns to the present to find that saving the president in 1963 had resulted in 50 years of race riots, nuclear wars, economic collapse, and Canada annexing New England. The novel’s hero returns to the past to “reset” history on its proper course. (No word if New Englanders regretted losing their ready access to a decent healthcare system.)

So what historic event got changed that could explain why the current US presidential election seems to be the product of some alternate universe? A major political party upended and at war with itself, puerile behavior by candidates who are nominally adults,  school-yard taunts that would make a fourth-grader blush, omens of protest and violence at the conventions. We’re more than a year into the campaign and most voters probably can’t identify the policy positions between which they are supposed to choose. But we know what “small hands” means.

Is this reality? Can the smart aleck who must have changed something in the past please return there to reset things on their proper course? I’d like my normal presidential campaign back. You know, the one where we get to pick between two well-qualified, mature, dignified, empathetic leaders.

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No Guarantees

Rest in peace, James Brady.

I met him on April 4, 1991, and the only reason I know that so specifically is because that became an important date in Pennsylvania history and the source of a PR cautionary tale I tell clients. At the time, I worked for Graduate Health System and we had scheduled that day the opening ceremony for a new physical rehab unit at Mt. Sinai Hospital. We had arranged for Mr. Brady and his wife, Sarah, to be special guests at the debut of the new unit, since Brady had undergone successful physical rehab after taking a bullet in the head for Ronald Reagan. Plus, we were certain his presence would generate media coverage for the unit and the hospital. It was scheduled for about 4pm that day.

The time came, the ribbon was cut, and the Brady spoke–but not a single reporter or TV camera showed up, despite our previous arrangements with our media contacts. This was all before cell phones, and so we went back to our offices to make some calls and find out why the heck no one from the media had shown. The reason: Sen. John Heinz’s airplane had crashed over the Merion Elementary School a couple of hours before, killing the senator and several other people including children at the school. The biggest news story of the year trumped a ribbon cutting, and it wouldn’t have mattered if we’d had Reagan himself there.

So this is the story I always tell clients who want media coverage: there are no guarantees, no matter how compelling your story might be or how well you’ve pitched it. That’s life.

And as a footnote (and pure coincidence), a few hours before the plane crash, the PR director at Lankenau Hospital quit her job and left the building. Heinz and the other crash victims were brought to Lankenau. With no PR person on staff, the hospital executives capably muddled through the resulting media crush, but they knew they had to hire a replacement. That turned out to be me, and I spent the next 16 years working for Lankenau and Main Line Health.

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Just PR? Then Let’s Have More PR

CVS Pharmacy made national news with its announcement that it would phase out tobacco sales at its pharmacies by October. Selling tobacco is inconsistent with the chain’s mission of improving the health of its customers, according to the CEO. The decision will cost CVS an estimated $2 billion in revenue (though that’s compared to more than $120 billion in total revenue in 2012).

Public reaction to the announcement has been generally positive, though a significant number of comments suggest that the move is “just PR” and that CVS will continue to sell sugary drinks, fat and salt-filled snacks, and other food items that contribute to the nation’s epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic ills.

That may be true, but critics are missing the point if they dismiss what CVS has done as “just PR.” As a PR move, it’s brilliant: it’s brought positive national attention to CVS, and immediately differentiated the company from other pharmacies and convenience retailers. In the overall context of the nation’s serious health challenges, CVS’s move may be mostly symbolic, but symbols are important. They create awareness and perceptions among consumers.

When Pope Francis washed the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday, some critics grumbled that he was being overly praised for a mere gesture while not making any substantive changes to Church doctrine. Savvier Church observers, however, understood the value of symbolism. “If it’s just for show, I say keep showing it,” said one.

Smart companies and organizations understand that PR supports their strategic business goals. Sometimes those goals are simply to draw positive attention, build awareness, and distinguish your company from competitors. We’d say CVS has played it perfectly.

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