The 4 Things That Will Happen When You Get Sued

There are three reasons people sue, typically. One is that they truly were damaged in some way, either financially, physically or some other way, and they decide to seek compensation for damages. Second, whether you did anything wrong or not, someone has decided they have enough of a case to squeeze money out of you in court, but more than likely through an out-of-court settlement. And third, someone may sue you for the attention.

That attention may serve a purpose, such as helping draw attention to a cause, an event, or a campaign of some kind. In this third scenario, even if the case is thrown out, by virtue of generating publicity for simply filing a claim, they’ve already achieved their objective.

If you or your organization is targeted with a lawsuit, be prepared for the plaintiff’s lawyers for the plaintiff to use some over-the-top PR strategies to put you on the defensive even before your lawyers have the chance to read the complaint.

“We have yet to see the complaint.”

Very often, the plaintiff’s lawyer will share the complaint with the media before or simultaneously with actual court filings. In this situation, there is a good chance the media will have more time to review the filing than you will. In fact, there is a chance that your first indication that a suit was filed is when that first reporter calls you asking for a comment. Where plaintiff’s lawyers gain the most momentum is during this period where they drive media coverage, while you and your legal counsel are still working to obtain an actual copy of the complaint to see what’s in it.

The Complaint Focuses on the Most Sensational and Bizarre Allegations

I once saw a situation where a disgruntled former employee sued his former employer over what he argued were unfair grounds for his firing. The fact that he had a substance abuse problem that affected his job performance was not mentioned in the complaint.

What was mentioned was the company’s “strict in-office bathroom policies.” The complaint characterized the work environment as “hostile” because the plaintiff was regularly questioned for his long absences from his work station. The other major fact excluded from the complaint was that management suspected he was engaging in most of his workday substance abuse activity in the restroom.

Of course, the media could only base its coverage on what it knew, so this case became known as the “bathroom policy lawsuit.” What made it even more difficult for the employer to engage in the media was that it was forced to adhere to its own policy of respecting employees’ and former employees’ privacy on personnel issues, and because the matter was now subject to litigation.

The Media will Believe the Initial Narrative First, You will be on Defensive

Anyone who works in the media, or even consumes it on a regular basis, understands that while in a court of law you may be “innocent until proven guilty,” but in the “court of public opinion” you are more than likely to be considered guilty until proven innocent.

This means you may have to prove a negative, which is often impossible. You may have to defend yourself in the media. So, while in the court, the plaintiff may have to actually prove you did something wrong, in the media, the plaintiff is not so hindered. Whatever they say you did, it is perceived you did it until you can prove otherwise.

The Legal Process Provides a Publicity Timeline

Once the initial filing is made, the legal system has its own built-in timetable, which may include everything from discovery and depositions, to publicly accessible court dates. These public hearings and trials are oftentimes treated as media events by plaintiff’s attorneys, meaning you have to approach the case as though it’s a communications campaign, in addition to a legal case, with a beginning, middle and end.

The most important steps you can take if you are ever faced with a lawsuit is to work closely with your own legal counsel to make sure all of your communications are in support of and in synch with the legal strategy. You must also be fully aware of the systems your organization has had in place and has in place to prevent the very thing your organization is being accused of in the legal complaint. The key is to make sure that even in the event the suit against your organization has some merit, it is the exception and not representative of something deeper, more systemic.

If you have any questions about litigation PR, get in touch. I’d be glad to talk.

With PR Advisors Like These Who Needs Enemies?

If your organization is faced with the real possibility that it could be involved in a crisis centered on a controversial issue or development, the one thing you should be able to do is trust that your PR advisors are on your side.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for some organizations to seek and receive counsel from PR advisors who may not quite have the best interests of the organization in mind. To be clear, we’re not talking about spies or subversive activities. We’re not talking about PR professionals who would intentionally do you harm. We’re not advocating a surrender of professional objectivity and detachment in favor of accepting only the client’s side of the story. And we’re not focused on PR professionals who are pushing the boundaries of PR ethics.

What we are talking about are those whose hearts simply may not be where yours may be – PR advisors who may be happy to get paid to provide PR service to you all within the bounds of ethics, but their sentiments may align a little more closely with your critics. When this happens, you’re likely to get and take advice from someone who has already accepted the premise of your critics’ attacks. Their inherent bias clouds their ability to provide the counsel you need. So much so that your critics’ reality is your PR advisor’s reality. That’s dangerous.

Here are a few hypothetical examples.

Apologize First, Ask Questions Later

A large consulting organization serving a large NGO is under fire by an extreme environmental activist group for having once worked for energy companies. The consulting firm made no secret of this. It listed energy companies as clients on its web site and had complied with all disclosure requirements. However, the critics treated the consulting firm as though by virtue of having worked for energy companies in the past it had done something wrong.

The consulting firm’s PR advisor counseled the firm to first issue an apology for having worked for those firms and to announce that it would be conducting an internal review of its client list to assure it would be more diligent about taking on “controversial” clients in the future.

Takeaways: There’s nothing wrong with consulting firms serving energy firms, so there is no need to apologize. There is no need for an internal review of client lists unless a specific business arrangement or contract warrants it. More importantly, it will undermine your own business if you start to publicly classify clients as “controversial.” This is a reflection that the PR advisor is working under a reality framed by critics. The lesson is, if your organization has done nothing wrong, there is no need to apologize. If your organization has to conduct an internal review to determine if it did something wrong, say so, but wait until the investigation is complete before even considering an apology and corrective action.

Give Your Critics a Forum

A real estate developer has announced it plans to build a new mixed-use development on the outskirts of a mid-sized city. As part of this process, it is compelled to meet with elected officials and local authorities, and appear at public meetings where the development is on the agenda. A group has formed to oppose the development and is waging a campaign based on fabricated claims in the media, on social media, and in public demonstrations.

The opposition organization has built its campaign around allegations that the developer is trying to hide its plans and is not being transparent. The developer’s PR advisor recommends to the company that it host a town meeting to foster dialogue with the community to be more transparent.

Takeaways: First, the PR advisor is coming from a place where it is presumed the developer has not been transparent. While there are appropriate times for town meeting forums, there are many times when a PR advisor recommends hosting a town meeting when all it will achieve is to give your critics a forum for their own agenda-driven campaigns. When you host a town meeting in a contentious situation you are giving your critics a forum to create a made-for-TV event that may give the misleading impression that what you are proposing does not have public support, or ironically, that you are trying to hide something – all because an organized and vocal opposition knows how to hijack such forums for their own purposes. A better approach in this situation, may be to communicate broadly and aggressively through your own channels: Web sites, newsletters, mailers, op-eds and ads, and when it comes to public meetings, consider them, but there are ways to structure them so that your critics cannot commandeer them to shut down real dialogue.

Appease Your Way to Failure

A bank is forced to reduce its philanthropic activity due to a downturn in its business. This means that certain local arts-related organizations will see significant reductions in funding. The bank is now under fire from certain community activists who say the “greedy” bank is putting profit before culture and is working to “destroy the local arts community.” With picketers outside of the bank’s offices, the bank’s PR advisor tells management to engage with the group by having an impromptu face-to-face meeting with the group’s leaders, hoping that they will understand the bank is not putting profits before the arts.

Takeaways: There is a place for engagement, but there are times when what looks like engagement is not. This is one of those times. In this situation, the messaging coming from the bank’s critics is highly strategic, designed play to stereotypes of big business. This signals that the creators of that messaging have no desire for real dialogue which can lead to real understanding. Rather, any event or activity in which they do engage is designed to further amplify that messaging. So, if the bank would take the PR advisor’s recommendations, it would be doing two things. First, it would be giving the community activists an event it can play to further reinforce its theme that that the bank is not “listening to us” or “trying to manipulate us.” Second, if the bank has made a firm decision on its philanthropic support of the arts, such a gesture as an impromptu meeting with this group (handled the wrong way) could give false hope. A strategy of appeasement only lasts so long, then critics are likely to feel misled, and their vocal attacks on the organization will then be proportionately stronger and longer.

You Have a Right to Expect Your PR Advisor to be with You in Heart & Mind

The main problem with these kinds of PR advisors is they’re not really sure who they work for. Some live to please the media before their own organizations or clients, and their advice reflects this.

Others see the issues your organization faces through the prism of your critics and not yours. They identify more with your critics than they do with you.

Of course we must do research on all sides of the issue. We can’t accept information on face value from clients any more than we should if the information or claims come from critics. That said, when PR advisors start by accepting the premise of the critics, they’re more likely to accept false assumptions and baseless allegations, and on this they will base their recommendations. This is quicksand for any communications program.

Why Emotional Language is More Powerful than Facts

In more and more situations of late, I have found myself counseling clients that the facts can’t speak for themselves, and that we need to frame facts in the proper context with a little help from emotion. It would seem that in today’s communications environment, one person’s fact is another person’s opinion.

What does seem to break through is anger, fear, joy, surprise, sadness and trust, though some emotions seem to dominate more than others.

ESPN’s Emotional Decision Leads to Overwhelmingly Emotional Reaction

Consider the recent decision ESPN made not to have Asian-American broadcaster Robert Lee call an upcoming University of Virginia football game in September. At the center of the decision was the fact  that Robert Lee, the announcer, shares a name with the late Confederate General Robert E. Lee. That would seem to be all that they have in common.

An ESPN spokesperson told SI.com the rationale was based on what SI.com described as the possibility of “potential mockery that could come from doing the game.”

In a statement, ESPN said, “We collectively made the decision with Robert to switch games as the tragic events in Charlottesville were unfolding, simply because of the coincidence of his name. In that moment it felt right to all parties. It’s a shame that this is even a topic of conversation and we regret that who calls play-by-play for a football game has become an issue.”

Needless to say, the social media backlash was immediate, viral and quite emotional.

Don’t Make Decisions Based on Emotion

Notice that in explaining its decision, ESPN said “in that moment it felt right.” That’s hardly a justification for any decision. In fact, just about every mistake we make as imperfect human beings can be traced back to such a statement.

“In that moment it felt right.”

What this reinforces is that when making decisions, leaders and managers must do so devoid of emotion while maintaining a sense of the emotional impact of those decisions.

Use Emotions to Influence

The ESPN case illustrates how an emotional narrative drove the network to make an ill-advised decision that in the end brought on the network the very thing it was trying to avoid.

If you want to influence somebody, use emotion. Sellers do this every day. Cars are not sold on the basis that they run better than other cars. They are sold because of the emotional statement they make about you. You are successful. You care about the environment. You are fun. The car you choose makes a statement about you.

The same can be said for the kind of beer you buy, the clothes you wear, the vacation destinations you choose. Each decision you make is based at least in part on how that decision makes you feel. Your emotions.

With this in mind, the language you choose to convince others should consider the facts for the sake of credibility (something ESPN should have done), and then communicate in emotional terms. Here are some examples:

Ultimately, both emotions and facts have their place in the decision-making and communications process. The key is to know when and where to rely on facts, and when messages must be delivered at an emotional level to truly connect.

O’Brien Communications conducts research and programs to help clients find the right balance between emotions and facts in the messaging and language they feature in their communications and marketing programs.

Can We Guess Why Some PR and Advertising Firms Like to Complicate the Simple?

On Twitter, I posted up a tweet that got some response and seemingly, a request for elaboration.

The tweet:

Here’s some context. All you have to do is visit the web site of any number of PR firms, and advertising and marketing firms for that matter, and you’ll notice that the firm before you likes to say it does things differently. It does things in ways no other firm has ever done. It has this proprietary method for getting to the root of your problem and delivering “strategic outcomes.” It’s even trademarked a spiffy acronym or name it uses to describe this mysterious process that only this firm and its people can understand.

Of course, all you have to do is hire this firm, and they’ll be glad to explain it to you, but you have to trust them with the big thinking.

The formula is familiar. Take a simple problem, like trying to sell more products, and apply some abstract methodology that most certainly is designed to head-fake you into thinking they really are doing something new. They use invented terminology, fad words like “ideation.” They want to confuse you into thinking they’ve figured out something no one else has. They try to make you think that effective PR, marketing or advertising can be so complex, that’s why you need to hire them.

This is nothing new. Management consultants invented the art of taking something simple and basic and complicating it to the point that they can assign hundreds of consultants to a project and bill millions for the work, all to unravel what is sometimes confusion that they themselves created.

In the end, you find yourself back where you started. Sure, the consultant you hired may have delivered on its promise, but was all that jargon and complexity and cost really necessary?

Sometimes certain hiring managers like the idea of paying more for things they don’t understand, and when a consultant is able to break things down too simply, the hiring manager doesn’t have a full appreciation for the sophistication behind that simplicity, and therefore doesn’t perceive the value at play.

This is why some firms seem to think that making the simple sound more complex so as to confuse is their ticket to profit. If you want a red flag, just look for the “™” after their proprietary method that’s probably just a repackaging of what we all do. The only difference is some do it better than others.

I’m in the camp where our primary job is to take complex and sometimes abstract thoughts, concepts and information, and translate it in the most simple terms, terms that everyone can understand and relate to. That’s how we make a difference. No jargon. No new acronyms. Just effective public relations work that breaks through the clutter and connects with people. That’s the true value at play.

What Could be the Most Important Thing to Do in PR Before Labor Day?

Check your lists. Your media lists, your customer lists, your employee database. Check them all. Make sure they’re up to date.

Your analyst list, your vendor list, your influencer lists. Check them all.

Why?

Chances are you’ve been busy. You’ve had a fast start to the year and before you knew it, it was June or July. Then you took vacation. Then your team took vacation, and your bosses and their bosses. You did what you needed to do with who was available and what you had time to do it. Now, here you are about to cross over into Fall, and you just know there is more work in the pipeline. Are you ready?

Everyone will be back from their summer breaks. The kids will be in school, and you will have three-to-four months to get some big things accomplished.

If you work in public relations, there is a god chance the quality and currency of your lists will really matter, and by then, the time it takes to see these lists are up to date can prove to be a problem.

So where to start?

If you have a media database like Cision or Meltwater, take the time to go through your influencer lists. Make sure you have compiled all of the lists you think you may need. Purge those you no longer need. That’s a good start.

What about that employee phone list in your office or on your computer? Is it current?

What about that pile of business cards next to your computer? It’s probably time to input it all into your phone directories on your computer and your mobile phone. And while you do it, take the time to connect with some of those “new” contacts on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.

Speaking of Twitter, do you maintain any lists there or elsewhere on social? If you do, take some time to revisit them and determine if they’re working for you.

Once you get past Labor Day Weekend, the one thing you should not have to worry about is if you have the tools and systems in place to communicate to all of your most important contacts and stakeholders.

It may seem like a mundane task now, but you won’t regret it in a few weeks.

Can You Really Enjoy Working on a Crisis?

In a brief recent exchange with a former crisis communications client of mine, it dawned on me that it may be possible to enjoy a crisis experience. But you can be sure, I won’t let a comment like that sit without proper context.

First – the exchange. I asked him how he was doing. He said, “Couldn’t be better,” and then he mentioned that he had “really enjoyed” working with me.

We all like to hear that from time to time, but his use of the word “enjoy” caught me by surprise.  When we worked together, the nature of the crisis was such that I couldn’t have imagined him enjoying that unwanted experience at any level. I could think of many words he might use to describe that experience, but “enjoy” wasn’t in the top 10.

To be sure, the situation was handled well and things worked out, and now it’s years later and everyone has moved on. Still, it may be worthwhile to explore this issue of whether it’s possible to enjoy a crisis experience. Here are some things to consider:

You’re Not Alone

Once the crisis communications team is established, strategies and decisions are explored as a team. Crisis situations are not a time to posture and position. People who would otherwise hold back in meetings are forced to be more direct and candid. There is a lot on the line. People get real. Good crisis communications teams form and function well due in part as a response to the pressures they face. Once this happens and the team gels, almost every single member of the group starts to feel that he or she is not an island facing this crisis, that they are not heading into uncertain territory by themselves. There is comfort in that.  In some of the crises I’ve experienced, that’s what I remember most.

Bonds are Formed in Adversity

Nothing builds the strong bonds of camaraderie like facing adversity together. Soldiers come back from battle with “brothers” and “sisters” they never even knew before they entered battle together. That sort of dynamic, though not life or death in many crisis communications scenarios, feeds the nurturing of strong bonds that can be formed through a crisis.

A Sense of Humor Doesn’t Hurt

I’ve found that there are times when a well-timed quip or comment can ease the tension in the room when certain sensitive issues and subjects are at the center of discussion and it just feels too intense. Keep in mind, though, ill-timed comments can totally backfire. Be careful with humor, especially in crisis situations when people are already on edge and it doesn’t take much to light someone’s fuse. Still, if you have the right perspective and know how to ease the tension in the right way at the right time, you not only will play a vital role on the crisis team, but you really will contribute to creating an experience that someone someday may remember as having had its encouraging moments.

Doing the Right Thing Gives Peace of Mind

In almost every crisis situation I’ve seen, generally speaking, I’ve found people want to do the right thing. The types of obstacles that may complicate decision-making could be legal, regulatory or business-driven. Still, the job of a crisis communicator is to help management teams do what they know they must, while staying true to all of their other business and legal obligations. In simplistic terms, you may find that doing right by one stakeholder group can have a potentially negative impact on another, so you have to help the organization find balance. Through it all, the communicator must be a calming force, serving as counselor, sounding board, hand-holder, and sometimes the honest bearer of bad news. In the end this can give clients peace of mind and sometimes the confidence needed to make tough but sound decisions. Later, they see their crisis communicators as invaluable catalysts in that process.

You’ll Laugh Later

Every crisis is a story in itself, and it is often the mother of countless other stories. Like the time I was misquoted in a news article and a fellow crisis team member decided to prank-call me immediately after, pretending to be an angry shareholder. Funny.

Or, the time a group of us were hashing out a statement in a hotel room on deadline. Someone moved a very hot floor lamp over to where we were working. Unbeknownst to all of us, it was right under a sprinkler head and sensor. Luckily, the heat only triggered flashing lights and sirens, not water. The visual still etched in my memory is two members of that team trying in vain under flashing strobe lights to use a hotel couch as a launching pad to jump up to hit the sprinkler’s kill switch.

Some of the funniest stories I have from working in public relations emerged from crisis situations. I think it’s because of the natural tension that serves as the backdrop for the scene, which only makes the unexpected that much more compelling of a story later.

So, can you enjoy a crisis?

Answer: No one enjoys what causes a crisis or the fact that an organization is in crisis. All too often some stories emerge from crisis situations can break your heart.

But it is this understanding that makes the good things we see, hear and experience that much more meaningful when we look back. It’s the relationships and sometimes the friendships we sometimes form with people – facing adversity together and doing our jobs in good conscience – that we come to treasure.

Ultimately, yes, we can look back and find there truly were some things we did enjoy.

This May Make You Think Twice Next Time Someone Tells You that You’re Over-qualified

You may have been wondering about this for a while. But if you’ve been told you’re over-qualified for a particular position, here is what certain hiring managers may really be telling you.

They think you’re too old.

Yes, the EEOC has regulations against age discrimination, but it still happens on occasion. One way this happens is when an untrustworthy hiring manager tells you that you’re over-qualified, increasing the likelihood that the job goes to someone younger.

They don’t trust that you’ll adapt to new ways, new technologies.

All too often, this concern is valid, but it’s a faulty generalization on the employer’s part. If you’re in the business of communications and you haven’t kept up with the latest communications tech, you reinforce their concerns. If you want to stay relevant, then stay abreast of changing operating processes, systems and communications technologies.

The manager feels threatened by you.

Not many managers like to be upstaged or second-guessed by a subordinate, even those who pride themselves on surrounding themselves with the best people. Some managers don’t like to hire potential rivals who could serve as natural leaders within the work group, and possibly serve as an easy replacement should the manager not perform.

You’re perceived as too expensive.

Even if you’re willing to take a pay cut in order to get the job, as a veteran professional there is a good chance your health benefits and other non-monetary forms of compensation will be important to you. And there is an increased likelihood that you will use those benefits which younger staffers often ignore. In the end, when you take into consideration these sorts of hidden costs, seasoned employees can tend to be more expensive than younger ones.

You may not buy what they are selling.

So, you’ve been through a couple of reorganizations already. You’ve experienced change, and maybe you’ve even led a change-management program or two. Your experience has taught you what works and what doesn’t. Now you’re talking to a potential employer that prides itself on a “new approach” to doing things. It’s not that you won’t take it where it needs to go. You may even be able and willing to perfect it in your own role. But if you’re in the least bit skeptical and it shows, don’t expect to get the job.

Chemistry with younger coworkers could be an issue.

Even if you are willing to come to work every day with an open mind and a complete commitment to finding common ground with your younger coworkers, there is a chance they may not feel the same way. Some may want their coworkers to be friends away from work, too, since work is as much a social experience as a professional one. They may want to work with people who are like them, in the same life stages, have the same questions they have, and have the same worldview. Unfortunate as it is, even some of the most inclusive workplaces still have a way to go in creating cohesive work environments that cross generations.

Usually when someone tells you that you are over-qualified for a particular position, they will explain that their fear is that once something more to your level of qualifications comes a long you’ll bolt for greener pastures. While there are cases where this is true, given the relatively large talent pool of “over-qualified” candidates on the market at the moment, there’s a good chance their concern is not warranted or genuine.

If you happen to be someone who has been told you are over-qualified, perhaps one of the best strategies to consider is niching yourself as someone seeking to scale back in your career and focus on your core strengths and duties you’ve grown to love over the years. And then make sure that in this context, you have a preemptive message on each of the six possible concerns cited in this post.

As a consultant, I rarely encounter the issue of “over-qualification” directly, but I see how it affects others almost every day in my work.

You may also find some good resources on CareerBuilder.com, Indeed.com, Monster.com,  and GlassDoor.com.

So, what are your “over-qualification” stories? I’d love to hear

This is One Reason Why I Don’t Respond to Every RFP I Get

I respectfully declined to participate in a couple Request-for-Proposals (RFPs) recently, telling them I wasn’t the best fit. This was true but perhaps I was being diplomatic as well. If I were brutally honest, I probably would have told them that the reason I didn’t respond was that even if I did win the work, I didn’t trust them or the process.

Let me be clear. I do selectively respond to RFPs, and I have participated in many professionally managed RFP processes. But all too often, the playing field feels a bit tilted.

It would be easy for me to get into my rationale, but maybe a better way is to take a composite dubious RFP and give it the “in other words” treatment. Here goes:

Overview:

The Acme Organization is seeking to engage a communications agency to create and implement a communications plan that will generate sales leads and corresponding market share to become the #1 player in the marketplace in the coming year.

In other words, we haven’t found a way to raise awareness, generate sales leads and increase market share to this point, so now we are ready to try PR. With that in mind, if PR doesn’t solve our problems, and if our past patterns of poor organizational performance continue we can now blame PR.

About Acme Organization:

Acme is a privately held firm located in the hometown of its founder somewhere in the Midwest, far away from any major media centers. The company was founded over 100 years ago and has primarily grown on the good reputation of its work.

In other words, we have insulated ourselves from the national business and trade media and other stakeholders for decades. PR would represent a complete philosophical and cultural shift for us. Change is never easy.

Scope of Work:

Proposals should include the following items:

Background/Experience:

A statement of your firm’s background and experience that will include biographies of key personnel assigned to the project; the organizational structure, including in-house staff and external consultants or resources to be used.

In other words, we want to know you will not delegate this program to junior staff. And, since anyone on the team could be a potential liability we don’t want to be blindsided. At the same time, we know that your sharing of the inner workings of your firm will also give us the added benefit to micromanage when the situation calls for it.

Case Studies:

Three-four examples that demonstrate your success in planning a similar communications program. Your case study should include sample creative work. It should also include, problem, strategy, solution, action steps, and budget.

In other words, show us similar work you have done in the past so we know you aren’t lying about your experience, but also so that we have some good reference material for ourselves and our team going forward.

Solution:

Describe how you will approach development of a communications plan for Acme, the systems and tools you will use, and your timeline for developing and implementing the plan.

In other words, while we are asking you to propose development of a communications program as part of your paid assignment, we really want you to do the bulk of that now, customized for free with no assurances that you will be compensated for any of your original thinking.

Budget:

Detail the number of hours and hourly rate for team members assigned to the project over its duration, and any related out-of-pocket costs. Identify any subcontractors and the kinds of service to be provided. Detail design and development costs for any print, television or digital media.

In other words, we know you can’t give us the budget numbers in the specificity we have detailed without creating a comprehensive communications approach in blind faith on your part. This budget and the accompanying program provided on spec will serve as a good reference for us and the firm we select.

Criteria for Selection:

Our decision will be based on the qualifications and experience of your firm, the program design and/or solution you offer, and cost.

In other words, we may already have someone in mind who has the qualifications and experience we desire at the cost we want, but this RFP process could be an exercise just to make it look fair. Or, we really may be doing our best to be fair, but at the end of the day, we’re asking you to spend countless hours away from your paying clients to impress us. For our part, we will make no assurances that we will select you, compensate you, or not “borrow” some of the original thinking (the kind clients normally pay fair value for) included in your proposal.

On Memorial Day, There is Only One Brand

The following blog post originally appeared on “PR, Pure & Simple,” on May 25, 2012:

One of the strongest brands we have in America is the flag.  Red and white stripes.  Fifty white stars against a blue field.  Like so many in our country, I never get tired of seeing it.

Of course, it means different things to different people, but in many respects, it represents the same things to most people.  Freedom is probably the one idea that most readily comes to mind.

Can you imagine what that flag looks like to the families awaiting the safe return of military men and women coming home from overseas?  Or what a World War II veteran thinks about when he stands for the National Anthem and faces the stars and stripes at a baseball game?

I read an article recently about a group of freshly naturalized U.S. citizens and in the accompanying photo, each with a smile on his or her face, proudly held a small red, white and blue flag.  I wondered what that flag meant to them.

A few years ago, I wrote a family history and not surprisingly, I learned that my ancestors were drawn to America for the freedom to live a life less restrictive than in the countries they left.  America was and still is viewed as a land of opportunity, but that would not be possible without the freedoms we enjoy and that are guaranteed by our democratic system.

These thoughts are all abstract unless you or someone you know put something on the line to protect our system of freedoms and democracy.

Before I was born, my father and his brothers enlisted in the U.S. Army and Navy.  They were deployed in locations around the world to face enemies in the Pacific and Europe.

One uncle told me the story of how he was left for dead in what was later called the Battle of the Bulge.  For three days he laid in the cold, hoping someone would help him.  He wasn’t much for detail when he told his story, but it gave me the impression he went through quite a bit that winter.  The flag meant something to him.

During Viet Nam, I was too young to serve, but I remember the older boys in the neighborhood would often come back on leave, wearing their sharp Marine, Navy or Army uniforms.  At that point, they were proud of who they were and what they represented.  At first you’d see larger groups of them together at the corner store in their uniforms, laughing and joking and catching up.  But after a while, the groups got smaller.  I remember a more muted tone here and there when we’d find out that one of our neighborhood boys wasn’t coming home.

As an altar boy, I served several funerals of vets and was always transfixed with the precise and ritualistic manner with which the flag was so reverently handled and presented to surviving family members.

More recently, we all have had the opportunity to know and see our family members, friends and neighbors go off to places like Afghanistan and Iraq.  And whether our experience is personal or if we just learn about it through old and new media, the sacrifices they make for our freedoms are all too real and all too current.

Memorial Day is commonly thought of as the first three-day weekend of summer and its unofficial kick-off. We celebrate with picnics and parades, usually.  Another Memorial Day tradition for many is to visit a cemetery where a loved one is memorialized with fresh flowers, and if the loved one is a vet, a bright new U.S. flag.

That’s a tradition I picked up just a few years ago when my own Army veteran father died.  Yesterday, I visited his final resting place and that of so many other vets.  A neatly trimmed field of red, white and blue flags.  Not a sorrowful place on a weekend like this.  A place of honor and respect where the flag  reminds us of so many who served and who risked their lives to protect our American way of life.

The flag is an iconic brand not because of what it looks like but because of what it represents to those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for it.  The act of remembering is why we call it Memorial Day.  Can there be anything more powerful than that?

For information on Memorial Day commemorations and certain organizations marking the day in its true spirit:

Finding a PR Lesson in the Halls of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum first opened in September 1995 in Downtown Cleveland, and it took me until just recently to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to visit it. The visit was as much underwhelming as mesmerizing, which is why it may be worth looking at it from a public relations perspective.

While some major renovations are planned for later this year, I’m not sure they will be the medicine the Hall of Fame may need.  Let me explain.

The building is a museum in the 1980s sense of the word, obviously conceived before the Internet, before smart phones, Google, YouTube, and of course, all social media. The elaborate and largely primitive displays have long been outdone by that smart phone in your pocket.

The notion of standing at a kiosk to watch a bunch of dated documentary-style vignettes and use touch-screen to read factoids is dull. There has to be a better way to connect visitors to rock and roll.

I can only imagine what a Disney Imagineer would think when he or she walks through this museum, or what one might do, if given the budget and resources, to change this place.  I’m thinking interactive holograms, animation, experiential exhibits, surround screens and surround sound, and that’s just a start.  No one should come away from this museum underwhelmed.

The other notable omission was an actual “Hall” of Fame, where we can see something representing every inductee since the Hall of Fame was created.  Roughly 60 miles to the south of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where the busts of every NFL inductee sits in a room that has an almost church-like feel.  To be sure, we wouldn’t expect the same atmosphere at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but in fairness to the inductees, there should be a place for visitors to note and reflect on what each and every inductee’s contribution to music has been.

Why It’s Worth the Trip

But enough of the critique. The power of this museum and why it is still worth the trip is what this museum has that no other place in the world has, and that’s the stuff.

Regardless of which is your favorite music genre or no matter what your age, you will find at least one thing that just transfixes you and takes you back to a time in your life. It will make you wonder what life would have been like without this contribution to rock and roll.  Not only for you, but maybe for our culture.

For me, there were a couple of things. One was Johnny Cash’s desk, sitting humbly in the middle of a hallway, behind glass, yet no more than 18 inches from me. It looked and felt accessible. This was where the legend wrote, and presumably created some of his best work, and maybe made a few of his worst mistakes.  It’s like it is just waiting for him to come back into the room in a few minutes.

Or, there is the actual Mellotron organ, a very primitive synthesizer, the Beatles used to create that eerie sound on the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and others. That sound has been imitated by others in many genres ever since.

Just like Cash’s desk, the Mellotron sits simply under glass, in the middle of foot traffic, and maybe 12 inches or so from us. No fancy lights glorifying it. No ropes to keep us away. Just there, waiting to be played…again. I couldn’t help but think of the stories this thing could tell of Lennon and McCartney hovering over it, experimenting to bring their own musical vision to life.

The simplicity IS the power of some of these exhibits.

If there is a common thread throughout the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame –  and I’m not sure this is intentional – it is how simple and primitive were the tools, the instruments, and the outfits that legendary performers used and wore as they created something entirely new to become cultural icons. This speaks completely to their own talents.

Innovation.

It’s the theme of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. No matter what the time period or genre, Rock and Roll has always been about pushing the envelope, doing something that has not been done before. This hall is all about the innovators.

The lesson for the rest of us is that it’s not about the tools, the “accepted” or traditional formula for success, the trappings, or the timing.

Ultimately, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame pays homage to those individuals who were compelled to be who they were regardless of what other people thought of their chances for success. It fittingly salutes those who put passion before pragmatism. And it shows us that no matter what your goal and your limited resources, if you have a dream and the right amount of creative drive, you can fulfill it.

My PR Take

If most of these legends asked the public to tell them at the time what kind of music to create, there would never have been rock and roll. Sometimes, it has to start with you, the honesty that’s in your message, and your own understanding on how to use your medium to the fullest.