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The recent firing of Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod over her suspected racist comments clearly demonstrates the dangers of going into crisis mode before understanding all the facts.

It looked like damning evidence.  A video of Ms. Sherrod delivering a speech at an NAACP banquet, telling a story about her time at a nonprofit organization 24 years ago when she did not help a white farmer as much as she could have.  “I was struggling with the fact that so many black people have lost their farmland, and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land,” Sherrod said in her speech. “So, I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do.”

If the story had stopped there, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack would have been correct in letting her go and the NAACP would have been right to denounce her behavior.  But further context revealed the truth was not as sinister as it appeared.  In fact, Sherrod ended up helping the farmer, and it was that episode that made her realize that there “is no difference between us” and the point was to help people in need of opportunity, regardless of race.  The farmer and his wife even call Sherrod a “friend for life.”

It’s the height of bitter irony that the story that got Sherrod fired was the one that taught her race doesn’t matter.  Secretary Vilsack, at the behest of President Obama, is reconsidering the case and a larger investigation is being conducted.  But is it too late?

There are no winners in this story.  Only an elementary lesson that we seemingly have to learn over and over again.  Obtain and understand ALL the facts.

In Ms. Sherrod’s case, the Agriculture Department failed to do that.  Instead, this incident has become one of those sad stories that reminds us that racial tensions are all but gone.  I won’t address the larger implications of that narrative because, frankly, it’s above my pay grade.  But I will note that there are very real consequences to poor communication.

It is a challenging communications world.  With citizen journalism, the 24-hour news cycle, and social media reporting, stories unfold in real time.  When the plane landed in the Hudson, US Air was criticized for taking 11 minutes to respond.  But it wouldn’t have taken that long to listen to Sherrod’s story and understand its full scope; it may have even been sufficient to put out a statement that the Administration was investigating the incident.

The (well, a) moral of the story: in a crisis, correct always trumps quick.

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive (@katiefoxdenis)

The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

As a long-time iPod and recent iPad owner, as well as an iMac and iPhone admirer (maybe someday…), I’ve always experienced satisfaction with the Apple products I’ve owned. The rare technological glitches I’ve encountered over the years have been immediately rectified by the incredibly qualified staff in the Apple stores. Best of all, I find myself frequently awing an audience with a “watch this!” iPad party trick. Quite frankly, the products are nothing short of phenomenal. Apple products are cool and they make me feel cool.

(Note: Apple’s advertisers, who are without question reading this post, please contact me for my address as you will no doubt wish to send me a free Mac Book Pro to thank me for the plug.)

The newest version of the super-company’s iPhone was championed as a tremendous technological success. Among other cool features, the phone boasts antennae built into the sides of the phone to make room for the battery. Well, that feature was cool, that is until users started to lose reception if they held their phone too tightly or hit a certain spot on the side panels. Lefties had an especially hard time keeping calls (life is so hard for us lefties sometimes).

Enter Apple’s claim that reception issues were the result of “faulty software” which displayed two more signal-service bars than there actually were. While my conspiracy theory cynicism has a hard time digesting this claim, users nonetheless found that the problem is not an AT&T service issue, but a flaw with the iPhone itself. The problem is fixable by covering the antenna outlet with a strip of duct tape. Who wouldn’t want their brand-new iPhone 4 covered in duct tape?

So Apple screwed up. It happens. Any practical observer could guarantee that tried-and-true crisis management techniques could have quickly and efficiently put the issue to bed, and in part, Apple did just that. However, Apple is not a company used to being wrong. And, boy, did it show.

After consumer complaints started to hit the Internet airwaves, Apple went on the defensive. They quickly pulled down negative comments. Users trying to reach Apple message boards found them deleted. I’d liken this to the rarely effective “duck and cover” method of crisis management.

Last Friday, Apple CEO Steve Jobs took the stage to address the iPhone “Anntenagate” scandal. While ensuring that the no-questions-asked return policy would continue until the end of September and offering all iPhone 4 users a phone case (hopefully more aesthetically-pleasing than the duct tape) Jobs utilized a “give it with one hand and take it back with the other” apology.

Jobs stated that the problem was not unique to the iPhone and cited HTC and RIM (I’m sorry, who?) as smartphones that experience similar malfunctions. While the PR panel on the stage adeptly dodged hardware malfunction questions, Jobs asked rhetorically if we’ve learned to trust Apple after 34 years. He ended by saying, rather petulantly, “I guess it’s just human nature. When you see someone get successful you just want to tear it down.”

I’m sorry, Apple. You may be putting it down, but I ain’t picking it up. You screwed up. But you know what? It could have been okay. Companies make mistakes. After 34 years Apple does have loyal consumers who do trust it and its products. But if you sold a faulty product, step up and take responsibility. Say you’re sorry, fix it, and then be quiet and continue to do what you do so well. This mistake is yours and not the consumers who are trying to “tear you down.” There’s a big lesson in crisis management here, and unfortunately it’s more of a “what not to do.”

Will this define Apple’s reputation?  Of course not. Life is about learning lessons and it looks like Apple learned this one the hard way. So buck up and take it in stride, Apple. After all, I still think you’re pretty cool.

Posted by Lindsay Vehr, Marketing Assistant, 7.20.10

The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

If you’re not one of the 10 million people who watched LeBron James’ announcement special last week you’ve still undoubtedly heard the hoopla surrounding it. The one-hour decision decree, aired on ESPN, was made possible by paid advertisement. Albeit most proceeds went to charity, the program netted nearly 6 million dollars in ad revenue. It should be noted that sponsors like Vitamin Water, McDonalds, State Farm and Microsoft’s Bing all have preexisting endorsement deals with the self-anointed King.

Manufactured primarily by “Lebrontourage” and agent Ari Emmanuel, the decision to air James’ move to the Miami Heat as a television special yields a back story that resembles the making of a Hollywood movie. Whether you champion James’ move to the Heat or were one of many Cavs fans setting his jersey ablaze, the question at the heart of this story remains did ESPN sell out?

The blurring of journalistic lines here is pretty significant. It seems clear that the desire for ratings was placed above news-reporting. Do people care about LeBron’s decision? Absolutely. Is it newsworthy? Of course. Does the production surrounding the announcement further mar the reputation of ESPN as a legitimate sports journalism outlet? Well…yeah. Did ESPN compromise its journalistic integrity while fueling the massive ego of a sports celebrity? (I’ll let you answer that one on your own).

I’ll admit I’m not much of a sport fan. So I’ll leave it to other bloggers to scrutinize the intent behind ESPN’s decision. Regardless of the motivation, the bigger picture leaves one wondering about the future of all journalistic reporting. Is advertiser-fueled programming the wave of the future? According to a recent study published by Ball State University, Americans get only 50% of their information from traditional media. While the world moves increasingly online, are traditional media sources grasping at straws to stay afloat? The line is getting pretty blurry. One can hardly read an actual newspaper without being inundated with advertisements that are run alongside content. What’s next? The State of the Union address with the Golden Arches prominently displayed behind the leader of the free world?

No matter your feelings with regard to LeBron James or ESPN, it’s hard to deny the blatant success it yielded for advertisers everywhere. It’ll be interesting to see what this decision means for the future (and no, I’m not talking about a possible championship win) of advertising’s role in traditional media. Like the Lebron announcement, I guess we’ll all be witnesses.

Posted by Lindsay Vehr, Marketing Assistant, 7.14.10

The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Making messages resonate starts with understanding your audience.  Experience has taught me that people like to see a reflection of themselves – their interests, their lives, their aspirations.  The last one is exceptionally powerful, because it implies the future.

I’ll apply this thesis to something I understand considerably better – television.  Looking specifically at AMC’s Mad Men, there are takeaways that explain why its messages resonate so strongly with viewers.

Frank Rich hit the nail on the head about what makes Mad Men so relevant.  “…it’s our identification with an America that, for all its serious differences with our own, shares our growing anxiety about the prospect of cataclysmic change.  Mad Men is about the dawn of a new era, and we, too, are at such a dawn.  And we are uncertain and worried about what comes next.”

Uncertainty and worry have marked the news of the day.  In just the last decade, we’ve been rocked by changes, from 9/11 to the recession, and it is clear that moving forward, America will be markedly different.  Watching the Mad Men generation approach a period of significant change, there is something comfortable, sensible and satisfying about knowing the outcome.  The writers have perfectly defined their audience’s psyche and have tapped into it brilliantly.

But before you decide that all messages should involve fedoras, afternoon gimlets and infidelity, beware of audience fatigue and cultural shift (Wall Street 2 isn’t going to be about the hedonistic lives of bankers) and always be looking ahead of trends (no, not vampires).

After all, as Don Draper said, “Nostalgia is delicate, but potent.”

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive (@katiefoxdenis)
The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

I’m a teacher working on my Master’s degree and happen to spend my summers as a marketing assistant. This means two things: first, I’m a busy girl. Second, when it comes to shopping, I’m looking for a deal (graduate school does not, despite many inquiries on my part, pay for itself). But as someone who spends her career investing in the future by educating children, I’d also like to know I’m investing my money in companies, brands and products that are making the world a better place. Finding a deal has to do with cost, sure, but also knowing my money is being used for good.

During the height of the Gulf Coast oil spill news coverage, P&G re-launched a cause marketing campaign to promote the role of Dawn dish soap to help preserve wildlife. Aside from the images of helplessly adorable animals being saved by the product (works every time), a bottle of Dawn dish soap with the image of an otter now sits beneath my sink for another reason. I saw a horrible environmental tragedy unfolding hundreds of miles away and wanted to help. Lack of time and funds truncated my immediate and emotionally-fueled decision to head down there and take care of things myself, but P&G’s campaign offered me that opportunity in a quick, easy and affordable way. By purchasing some Dawn dish soap I felt good and knew they were doing some good- isn’t that what cause marketing is all about?

Undoubtedly, P&G is good at social responsibility. As a teacher and a consumer, that’s important to me. Starbucks, Chipolte, and Whole Foods are places that are also doing a lot of good- and making a lot of MY money. In today’s busy world, I want to know companies care. I want to know they’re committed to making a difference and I want to know there are people behind my brands. I may not be able to head down to the coast and lend a hand, but I may have actually found a way to heal the world by shopping. And that is a very good thing.

Posted by Lindsay Vehr, Marketing Assistant, 7.7.10

The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.

So we all have our little guilty pleasures that we are embarrassed to discuss with others. Mine just happens to be The Bachelorette/Bachelor franchise. Swallowing my embarrassment, I need to discuss the actions of one contestant from this past week’s episode.

In case you missed it, it was drama packed, and no, it didn’t occur with “the most dramatic rose ceremony yet.” It was uncovered that contestant Justin indeed had a girlfriend, a big “no no” in The Bachelorette world. While all the men were lounging in their hotel room, Bachelorette Ali entered and cornered Justin regarding these accusations. His response…he fled. There was no communication. He gathered his belongings and ran out the door. With Ali on his tail, he jumped bushes and leapt over fountains, all with a cast on his right foot. He looked ridiculous. Ali’s comment: “You’re going to regret this Justin.”  My interpretation… he’s not going to regret hurting Ali’s feelings or even coming on the show, but rather choices and behaviors during this “crisis.”

Why didn’t he have a speech in place? Did he not think he would be discovered? Why didn’t he know what to say or what to do when the inevitable occurred? Even worse, this is not the first instance of a coupled contestant. (Remember Wes from Bachelorette Jillian Harris’s season?)

Even from reality television, we can learn a few things about what and what not to do in the moment of a crisis. It is important to have a plan in place, even if there is no crisis on the horizon.  Knowing what to say and how to act in the heat of the moment will help your reputation in the long haul.

My comment? I hope Frank behaves more like a man and takes notes from Justin’s mistakes when he too allegedly reveals he has a girlfriend.

Posted by Amy Jones, Account Manager, 7.1.10

The views expressed in this post are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Vehr Communications, LLC.