BLOGS: Wag The Dog

Tuesday, August 25, 2009, 1:16 PM

Tuesday's quick reads: Boeing, Best Buy, and Martin Luther King

1.) Boeing launches PR campaign to protect C-17 cargo plane (Los Angeles Times) -- Boeing Co. and supporters of the C-17 cargo plane launched a multi-front public relations offensive last week, hoping to extend the life of one of Southern California's last major military aircraft factories.

2.) Best Buy's Twelpforce: An army of volunteers (Social Media Business Council) -- Best Buy has joined a growing number of companies using social media for customer service with their Twelpforce — but with a different twist: Employees from all across the company can volunteer to help folks on Twitter with questions, and it’s all aggregated under the single account, @Twelpforce.

3.) Why leaders need stories: A lesson from Don Hewitt (Harvard Business Review) -- Don Hewitt, who died this month and was executive producer of CBS' "60 Minutes", was fond of saying that every child realizes the importance of "tell me a story" — but when we reach adulthood, we forget. Yet Hewitt's absolute commitment to story is something leaders, particularly those with big initiatives to push, should remember.

4.) How to respond to criticism: Learning from Dr. King (Tim Ferriss Blog) -- The of "The Four Hour Work Week" argues that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham City Jail is one of the best case studies in how to deal with criticism he's ever come across.

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Monday, August 17, 2009, 2:44 PM

Monday's quick reads: Michael Vick, reputation management, and errant press releases

1.) Errant press release sparks nightmare for bank (The Wall Street Journal) -- It wasn't the same as shouting "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater, but an apparent text-editing foul-up by banking regulators was about the last thing a small Pittsburgh thrift needed prior to its seizure Friday.

2.) PR advice for Vick: Don't pass on charity (The Philadelphia Inquirer) -- The PR machine is in full tilt for Michael Vick. But the Eagles' newest player needs to do a lot more than appear on television, be photographed with poodles, or express remorse for the dogfighting scandal that sent him to jail, local marketing and public relations professionals say.

3.) Turning bad news into good vibes (PR Newswire) -- During times of economic crisis, organizations struggle to communicate unfavorable news, from lower earnings and shrinking market share, to cuts in service and increases in prices.

4.) Hard-hit schools try public relations push (The Wall Street Journal) -- Public schools in the U.S. have added professional marketing to their back-to-school shopping lists. Financially struggling urban districts are trying to win back students fleeing to charter schools, private schools and suburban districts that offer open enrollment. Administrators say they are working hard to improve academics -- but it can't hurt to burnish their image as well.

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Friday, August 14, 2009, 12:15 PM

Five takeaways from the Vick press conference

NFL scouts are known to scrutinize a player's performance in the 40-yard dash, but Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles just started a reputation management marathon. By signing the controversial quarterback Friday, the Eagles invited a public relations challenge that will require patience, endurance, and a strategy to guide them for more than a year.

Business leaders, take note: Vick's return to the NFL is not just about sports or animal cruelty (though they are rightly preeminent in the debate).

There are also lessons to be learned about communicating controversial news. I listened to the tape of Vick's Friday morning press conference with Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and heard 5 hallmarks of effective communications in a controversy. Regardless of one's views of Vick, his crimes, or the Eagles, anyone who toils in the court of public opinion should observe how a high-profile organization handles the enormous public debate that Vick's signing has ignited.

Here are 5 observations from Friday's press conference:

1. Contrition: No surprise here. Without contrition, any appearance by Vick would have been a failure. The same rule often applies to business executives in a crisis. In my mind, the goal is to find balance between self-defeating indifference and self-defeating blather.

2. Executive accountability: Lurie spoke at length about how he arrived at the decision to sign Vick. Lurie's decision to speak at the press conference (not a given among professional sports team owners) reinforces that the signing is about much more than football. As Lurie stated, Vick "is not being measured by yardage." Executives would be wise to remember that a mid-level spokesman can only carry an organization so far in a crisis. The earlier the executive addresses the matter, the better.

3. Third-person validation: Vick was joined at the press conference by former NFL coach Tony Dungy. Dungy, who is serving as an advisor to Vick during his transition back into society, carries great credibility due to his years working with prison ministries to help ex-offenders become productive citizens upon their release. Businesses are no different. Having credible third-parties or coalitions to advocate on your behalf is always a plus.

4. Perspective: Vick and Lurie acknowledged that the signing will anger large segments of the Philadelphia community. They didn't dismiss their critics concerns; they embraced them. When an organization damages its reputation among important stakeholders, the process of repairing it is not easy. It often begins with an honest assessment of why the crisis occurred.

5. Action: In a crisis, words mean little without a plan to prevent the crisis from happening again. Vick made clear his intentions to help stamp out dog-fighting. Lurie emphasized the Eagles commitment to partnering with the Humane Society. One could argue that becoming an advocate of animal rights now -- when the Eagles showed little interest in such causes in the past -- constitutes pandering. Perhaps, but the alternative - ignoring the root of Vick's failings and the public's anger at his crimes -- would have been far worse.

Friday's press conference was just the first act, but an instructive lesson in how businesses can communicate controversial news. Up next: Vick will appear on CBS's "60 Minutes" Sunday. I'll be watching.

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Help your employees with social media guidelines

*Today's post was first published in The Daily Record.

Special to The Daily Record
August 14, 2009

Ever raised an eyebrow at an employee’s off-color remark at the water cooler? Imagine if that employee walked out in to the street and shouted that same comment through a bullhorn.

Believe it or not, that happens every day on social media networks, where an employee’s musings can be read by thousands of people, often times with great consequences for an employer.

Case in point: In January, an executive from Ketchum Public Relations posted insulting comments about the city of Memphis on Twitter. The problem? He was in Memphis at the time and was hours away from pitching FedEx for new business.

FedEx caught wind of the comments and publicly denounced the executive, putting one of the world’s largest PR firms in the unenviable position of apologizing for its own PR gaffe.

Yet for every gaffe, there are countless examples of companies and employees using social media to improve their brands and best practices. So how do you, a manager, weigh the promise of social media with the perils it presents as a soapbox for anyone with Internet access?

Guidelines are key

The answer may lie in drafting guidelines for your employees. It’s no different than your company standards of conduct, and leading companies are now channeling their employees’ use of social media through clearly stated policies. Here are some tips to get you started:

Educate: Many of your employees have never used social media. So give them a primer. Host a presentation to educate them on common social media tools — Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook — and how they are changing the workplace and our lives.

When your employees understand the challenges and opportunities presented by social media, they’re more likely to see the value in a company policy.

Build guardrails: To help guide your team, define acceptable conduct in social media communities. For example, it’s appropriate to use social media to inform the public about your product or to correct inaccurate information about your company. It’s not appropriate to argue with customers on blogs or post content that reflects poorly on the employee or the company.

Call it the newspaper test: Your employees shouldn’t write anything online they wouldn’t want to read in tomorrow’s newspaper.

Be supportive: Encourage your team to explore social media. They’ll open new doors to professional development and strengthen your company’s marketing and reputation management efforts. They’ll put a human face on your company in an era when too many companies are perceived as cold and indifferent.

Designate a group of social media-savvy employees, starting with your communications and legal teams, to mentor your work force along the way.

Trust and Responsibility: The best corporate social media policies are built on trust and responsibility. Cisco, IBM, Yahoo!, and Intel have adopted policies that trust their employees to use social media in a productive manner while emphasizing that employees are personally responsible for what they publish.

Show them the way

Be transparent: Employees should be honest about their identity when participating in online conversations. To do otherwise is to invite needless risk.

Ask John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods. He sparked controversy in 2007 by criticizing a rival, Wild Oats Markets, under a fake name on online message boards. Even worse, he denied his true identity when confronted by online communities.

The misstep generated weeks of embarrassing headlines for Whole Foods and even caught the eye of the Federal Trade Commission.

Address “off the clock” activities: Employees don’t want their bosses dictating what they can and can’t publish online from the privacy of their own home. But addressing online activities outside the workplace is not without precedent if a company’s business interests are at risk.

Why? Because customers, investors and reporters can view most online commentary and photos. If a reporter sees a controversial comment from your employee on Twitter, the fact that it was published from a home computer doesn’t undo the damage to your company. Once again, the newspaper test applies.

Be realistic: You’ll never control everything your employees do online, nor should you want to. Remember, the goal is not to shut down an employee’s access to the information superhighway. It is to build guardrails that keep your team and your company from skidding off the freeway.

I am a firm believer in social media’s capacity to empower companies and their employees, and it’s only a matter of time before most of the work force has joined the online conversation. Whether they use it the right way or the wrong way is in no small part up to the executives who lead them.

Show them the way, and chances are good they’ll reward you.

Henry Fawell is a communications consultant for Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice PLLC in Baltimore and was press secretary for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. His column appears monthly, and his e-mail address is

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Thursday, August 13, 2009, 10:55 AM

Survey: Companies fear social media liability

A well-timed survey from Russell Herder underscores that many businesses have failed to adopt social media policies in the workplace. According to the survey, more than 1 in 3 executives have no policy for employee use of sites like Twitter or blogs, yet nearly half of those executives fear social media use could damage the company's reputation. To view the full results, click here.

The survey is well-timed because Womble Carlyle is publishing a column on this subject tomorrow in The Daily Record. We'll outline a few steps executives can take if they are interested in channeling their workforce's use of social media through a clearly-stated policy. Stay tuned. We'll post the column on this blog tomorrow.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009, 11:11 AM

Tuesday's quick reads: car dealers & soda companies talk PR; word of mouth marketing takes off

1.) For Twitter, a tweet in time can avert a PR mess (The Wall Street Journal) -- A growing number of businesses are tracking social-media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter to gauge consumer sentiment and avert potential public-relations problems. Ford, PepsiCo, and Southwest Airlines, among others, are deploying software and assigning employees to monitor Internet postings and blogs. They're also assigning senior leaders to craft corporate strategies for social media.

2.) Car dealerships say PR push helped save them (The Chicago Tribune) -- Thomas McCaslin might never know for sure why General Motors called two weeks ago to say his 80-year-old dealership in the heart of Nebraska cattle country wouldn't close after all. He has a feeling that a hamburger cookout and an old-fashioned brand of political lobbying had something to do with it.

3.) Word of mouth marketing hits $1.5 billion (AdWeek) -- Now that's a lot of chatter. Spending behind word-of-mouth marketing hit $1.54 billion last year, according to PQ Media.

4.) How to pitch USA Today's bloggers (Ragan) -- USA Today’s blogs serve a triple purpose, says Chet Czarniak, the paper’s online managing editor. “They’re for surveillance—connecting the readers to the story,” and ensuring online readers can dig deeper into news, Czarniak explains. Second, blogs are for “getting ahead of a story,” or breaking news in a way that’s not practical or fast enough for print or elsewhere online.

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