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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Just Listen, Again

We posted this last August, the 50th anniversary of the speech itself, and it is fit to post it again, upon the holiday marking Dr. King’s life.

Just Listen

The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” has generated much commentary about the speech, Dr. King’s place in American history, the current state of civil and racial equality in America, and other important issues. Most of this commentary is  best ignored, especially when we are fortunate enough to be able to see and hear Dr. King deliver the speech himself and can do so without the self-serving commentary and “insights” of the nation’s chattering class.

Do yourself a favor and take 15 minutes to listen to Dr. King’s speech from beginning to end. It is a rich and rewarding experience, that not only perfectly captures an historical moment, but also demonstrates how bereft our nation is of leaders–in government or business–of such eloquence and vision. Twitter is a shallow pool indeed, compared to the ocean of meaning and passion that Dr. King delivered 50 years ago.

Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream” Speech

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No E-ZPass On This One

Chris Christie

“Who’s got change for the bridge?”

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey is providing a lesson—probably unintended—in crisis communications. You can read the details here, but the short version is—alleged, of course—that persons in the governor’s office ordered the closing of lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Ft. Lee, New Jersey, as retribution on the town’s Democratic mayor who declined to endorse Christie’s re-election last fall. The resulting four days of gridlock in Ft. Lee caused massive commuter headaches, prevented kids from getting to school on time, and (again, allegedly) delayed at least a few ambulances from getting patients to the hospital.

Assuming the allegations are true, they are bad enough for Christie. But the events in question happened back in September of 2013, and rumors of the governor’s involvement began to arise in October. Here we are almost three months later and the story has erupted into a full-blown scandal that is still unfolding. You know you’re in trouble when people start asking: “What did Gov. Christie know and when did he know it?”

So how might have Christie responded differently?  There are three tenets of crisis communications that—had the Governor followed them—might have averted or at least ameliorated this scandal:

  1. Tell the truth—always;
  2. Get out as much information as you can as fast as you can—including information that might be negative for you; and
  3. Take responsibility—which is different from taking the blame or admitting fault.

As for #1, emails and texts now being released suggest that Christie and his staff simply were not being truthful. Worse, Christie’s office damaged its credibility with some cockamamie story about a traffic study. (Helpful hint: if you’re going to lie, don’t make up a lie that could be picked apart by a college journalism student.) As for #2, the Governor’s office had to be subpoenaed to release those staff emails and texts. The slow drip of revelations also lengthens the story. As for #3, Christie is claiming he only learned of these issues yesterday (see #1) and that it was his underlings who did it.

How different the narrative today would be if Christie, back in November, had announced: “In investigating rumors about the GWB lane closings, it came to my attention that several of my key staff behaved inappropriately and without my authority. I am sorry for the inconvenience caused to the people of Ft. Lee. It’s my job to make sure my staff work for the best interests of the people of the State of New Jersey. I have asked the staff involved to tender their resignations.”

That would have been a tough press conference, to be sure, but the story would have been about Christie rooting out rogue staff and putting the public’s interest ahead of his own political goals.  Instead, the media is feasting on a narrative about a political bully trying to punish any opposition, now matter how insignificant.

Just like it does for daily commuters, the George Washington Bridge is taking a toll on Gov. Christie.

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That Was the Year That Was

An overview of posts and visits to The Wellynn Group web site. Thanks to all those who visited. If you’d like to connect in person, give us a call. We are friendly and don’t bite.

More to come in 2014!

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Memo to newspapers: shut up, already

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An obsolete distribution system.

I love newspapers as much as the next guy—in fact, probably more than the next guy. Most people don’t regularly read a newspaper; I get two thrown on my driveway every morning and still get a secret thrill taking them out of their plastic bag and unfolding them to reveal the headlines. I regularly visit a variety of newspaper web sites, and follow many journalists online and on social media.

One of the things you learn in reading newspapers and following journalists—besides current events—is that the newspaper business is terrible, horrible, lousy, bad, and just no good. Circulation is down, readership is down, editorial staffs are down, and advertising revenue is down. Journalists and photographers are underpaid, underappreciated, and treated shabbily by their rapacious corporate bosses. Even the physical size of papers is shrinking—fewer pages are printed and those pages are actually smaller than they used to be. The travails of the newspaper industry are a constant refrain—in newspapers.

But here’s the thing, dear newspapers: enough already. I know you care deeply about how awful the business is. I care too, both because I love newspapers and a vibrant, robust media is vital to our democracy. The problem is, most people don’t care. All those people who don’t read newspapers anymore? They have their own problems, and don’t care about how badly you’re being treated or how wonderful things were before the Internet. News flash: nobody’s going to stop using the Internet.

The newspaper industry desperately needs a new narrative—one that can emphasize its role in democracy, its role in checking the abuse of political or corporate power, its commitment to bettering society.

What the industry does not need is its pathological obsession with an obsolete distribution system. I wish I knew what the new model should be. All I know is, while we still need news, we just don’t need paper.

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The Gettysburg Powerpoint

Here at The Wellynn Group, we are big fans of Abraham Lincoln. Since today is the 150th anniversary of The Gettysburg Address–the greatest speech in American history–we thought we would share this classic version of the Address, developed by Peter Norvig, a renowned computer scientist. At the time he developed this, Mr. Norvig was working at NASA; today he is Director of Research for Google.

The Gettysburg Address Powerpoint

Norvig captures perfectly the inanity of most Powerpoint presentations, and demonstrates that oftentimes the use of  technology merely covers up the fact that the speaker really doesn’t have much of interest to say. Admit it: don’t your eyes (and your mind) tend to glaze over the moment someone says “I have a PowerPoint…?”

All President Lincoln had were words–and just 272 of them–and his voice. No design templates, no Helvetica font, no Excel spreadsheets with numbers so tiny no one can see them. No fumbling around with a remote or a laser pointer.  And here we are 150 years later, still reading them, analyzing them, debating them.

We’d say he got the point across with tremendous power.

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I Feel You

Scrape away all the market research, product development, advertising, social media, and big data mining, and successful marketing boils down to this: empathy—the ability to understand and respond to the feelings of others.

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A dark stain in American history, or a badge of honor?

Empathy is why Kodak didn’t sell film, it sold “moments” (back when it sold anything), or why Apple—which did not invent the computer, the mp3 player, or the cell phone—sells tens of millions of each by understanding how people feel about great design and the desire for the next cool gadget.

A business that does not see things from customers’ points of view, or that can’t articulate customers’ needs or problems—and solve them—will not be in business very long. The need for empathy extends not only to a company’s customers, but to all of its stakeholders: employees, local communities, and elected officials, just to name a few. The challenge for businesses is this–needs change over time and the point of view of one stakeholder group can sometimes conflict with the needs of another.

Which brings us to a certain professional football team based in Washington, DC with a name that to some recalls a dark stain in American history and to others recalls proud tradition and a “badge of honor,” according to team owner Daniel Snyder.  Certainly 80 years with a team name does represent tradition, but professional sports teams change names (and cities) all the time and the turnstiles keep turning. In fact, the Washington football team used to represent Boston and used to be called the Braves. New traditions replace old traditions.

On the other hand, words change their meaning over time, and words that were once considered innocuous are rightly shunned today. During World War II, American newspaper headlines routinely declared what the “Japs” were up to. Just a few decades ago, “mongoloid” was commonly used to identify people with Down Syndrome.  Efforts to discourage the use of “retard” are still underway.  In this context, it seems silly, at best, to watch Daniel Snyder twist himself into knots defending a word that was originally conceived for the sole purpose of dehumanizing Native Americans.

A little empathy is in order. It’s time for Washington to pick a new name. Perhaps Mr. Snyder and the NFL can ameliorate the end of one tradition with the mountains of cash generated through new merchandise sales and marketing opportunities. Everyone understands that point of view.

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