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After six weeks of canned sound bites and verbal gaffes (courtesy of BP’s Tony Hayward) regarding the Gulf Coast oil spill, I’d like to extend a sincere thanks to President Obama for getting real in an interview with the “Today” show’s Matt Lauer.  Obama said he has been talking with Gulf Coast fishermen and various experts about the spill because “they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick.”

While I wouldn’t want a president to deliver the State of the Union laced with profanity, a little candor replaces decorum nicely in some situations.  This oil spill is an enormous mess with no end in sight and Obama’s comment effectively sums up the sentiments of the American people.  Sometimes, the most effective communications are those that legitimize feelings, even if they don’t solve problems.

However, there is a limit to how “real” a president should be: Exhibit A.  (Whoomp! There it is.)

Posted by Katie Denis, Account Executive (@katiefoxdenis)

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

The “Big 3 Detroit Drama” has been fascinating from a PR perspective.  auto-industry-videos

One thing’s for sure – if you throw a historic world economic meltdown, U.S. automakers, the UAW, the U.S. Congress, an incumbent President and a President-Elect, Governors, Mayors and more than six million auto-related employees into a pot and stir ’em up, you get one heck of a PR lesson.

It took a while, but it is beginning to feel like the auto industry has finally gotten organized, considered and decided on its key messages, and activated its communications plan. 

In my local newspaper this a.m. (The Cincinnati Enquirer), I read the “7 Myths About Detroit’s Big 3.”  Not a bad read.

Last evening, I received an email from Tom Eisbrenner, the CEO of a Detroit PR firm (Eisbrenner Public Relations) with whom Vehr Communications is a partner through IPREX.  In addition to sharing an advance of the article referenced above, he provided a direct link to TheEngineOfDemocracy.com, a Web site from the “people of America’s auto industry.”

Wow, it was just a couple of weeks ago when the Big Three honchos flew to D.C. on their corporate jets, appeared not to have details for the $34 billion they sought, and then looked unprepared to defend their request and their means of travel.  We blogged on that a couple weeks ago.

Then, they tried again a few weeks later, drove there in hybrids and sedans, had more specificity to their requests and convinced the House for a more limited ($14 billion) interim solution.  They almost made it to the finish line before the airbags deployed in the Senate.

Now, they are working on the White House, and they’re working it hard.

You may not like it.  Or, you may be for it.  But, you have to admit that the Big Three, the UAW and all related industry sectors are starting to get a message across that is moving and shaping public policy.  They are starting to communicate effectively.  Their strategic communications plan appears to be working. 

As a PR professional, this has been fascinating and instructive to watch.

There are some really incredible examples in the news in recent days and weeks about C-suite executives not appreciating the ramifications of their decisions on corporate reputations.  Lots of PR blog chatter on the same issues, as well.

First, the issue … transparency.  Especially in the case of public companies, what the muckety-mucks do and say matters to the reputation of the company.  As we all know, corporate or brand reputation translates into stock value. 

While there are lawyers and investor relations professionals who know precisely what is required to be disclosed and when, it’s usually a disconnected corporate common sense bone that ends up causing all the ruckus.aig___r350x200

Take the news of AIG’s conference at a resort in Phoenix just two weeks on the heel of being skewered in the media for a conference at a swanky resort in California, all after reporting billions in quarterly losses and accepting billions in favorable government loans.

It was bad enough that the boss didn’t have the brains or courage to say ‘NO’ to the Phoenix event.  It was worse that there apparently was a well-considered, carefully-designed plan in effect to shield AIG’s name from the media.

Well, it didn’t work!  Check out this blistering post from Shel Holtz on his blog.

Chrysler's Nardelli and Ford's Mullaly on Capital Hill (CNN Photo)

Chrysler's Nardelli and Ford's Mullaly (CNN Photo)

Now come the CEOs of GM, Ford and Chrysler.  In the past several days, the “big three” CEOs sat in front of various Congressional committees seeking billions of taxpayer dollars to save their troubled companies.  They were clearly struggling with their pitch, but had key congressional leaders as allies.  Even President-Elect Obama (while not directly engaging) was sending signals that Congress should do something.

Then, some pretty basic media work confirmed that each executive had flown to DC on private corporate jets.  When asked about the incongruity of seeking tax dollars and while spending lavishly on big, fancy corporate jets, they seemed incredulous.  They were unprepared. 

Of course, there are legitimate explanations for CEO private travel.  That’s not the point.  Somehow the corporate commone sense bone was disconnected on this one.  They should have either been prepared (or their people should have been prepared) or they should have flown commercial, at least just this once.

Reputations are tricky things.  They can take years to shape, form and build, and just minutes to damage or destroy.

Transparency is about valuing and respecting relationships.  Strategic communications is about developing, strengthening and building relationships.  Most of this is all about corporate commone sense.

Post by Nick Vehr – 11.21.08

I was gobama-posteretting ready to post this morning about matters of interest for professional communicators – crisis communications, branding, use of social media, you know, that kind of stuff.

Then I read this article in this a.m.’s NYT (“How Obama tapped into social networks power” – David Carr), and I just had write about politics again. 

Well, sort of.  It’s still about what we do as communicators … how we use tools available to us to develop and manage reputations, build and strengthen relationships, all to deliver results that matter. 

Importantly, it’s also about how social media will help, and can hurt, just how we do that.  The Obama/Biden campaign was a tutorial, an open classroom, for all of us.  The article raises the specter that an Obama presidency may be another tutorial as well, but of a different sort.

Read this article.  We all know that the Obama/Biden campaign used social media to forever change presidential campaign politics.  It is expected that President Obama intends to use social media to govern as well.  

As we all know, relationships in today’s online world require nurturing, attention and speed.  Today’s online crowd can turn quickly on President Obama if promised change doesn’t come fast enough, at least fast enough for impatient online enthusiasts who signed on to the Obama/Biden campaign juggernaut.

“The mob, flush with victory, is at hand, but instead of pitchforks and lanterns, they have broadband and YouTube.  Like every other presidency, the Obama administration will have its battle with the media, but that may seem like patty-cake if it runs afoul of the self-publishing, self-organizing democracy it helped create – say, by delaying health care legislation or breaking a promise on taxes … That’s the thing about pipes today: they run both ways.”

In closing, and with deference to the Pogo cartoon of an earlier, pre-Internet era, “Yes, we have met Big Brother, the one who is always watching.  And Big Brother is us.”

NOTE:  After reading the NYT this morning, I sat down this afternoon with today’s WSJ.  In L. Gordon Crovitz’s Information Age column (“Can We Trust Anyone Over 30?”), he made essentially the same point as David Carr in the NYT article referenced above.  Among other insights, he adds, “…young people’s expectations also reflect digital values, which can include fast rejection of anything that smacks of spin or hypocrisy.”

This is all going to be fun, and educational, to watch.

President-Elect Barack Obama in CHicago's Grant Park Tuesday evening

President-Elect Barack Obama in Chicago at Grant Park

Dramatic history was written by American voters last evening.  President-Elect Barack Obama represents so many firsts.

In the context of this blog, with its focus on local, national and global trends that influence the communications profession, one merits particular mention.

Prez-Elect Obama is the world’s first new media U.S. President. 

No one may ever know how many tweets were twittered last night (just as interesting is that we now use words like “tweet” and “twitter” without giggling uncontrollably.)

The “Flat World” proclaimed by Tom Friedman in his 2005 best-seller became even flatter last evening as network, cable and online news broadcast live reactions from all corners of the globe. 

By 8 am Wednesday morning, 536 videos were posted on YouTube of President-Elect Obama in Grant Park last evening with thousands upon thousands of views.

That things have changed forever in U.S. Presidential campaigns is assured.  How big the change is an open question; another is how new media’s influence on the Obama campaign’s voter education and activation strategies and tactics will influence consumer and business strategic communications applications.

Consider just these few applications and let your mind wander a bit:

  • One Million Strong for Barack on Facebook has nearly 1 million members
  • My.barackobama.com (campaign Web site) enables visitors to join a local group, find an event, donate or blog.  It also lists, under the “Obama Everywhere” header, social media connections to: Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, Digg, Twitter, Eventful, LinkedIn, BlackPlanet, Faithbase, Eons, Glee, MiGente, MyBatanga, AsianAve and DNC PartyBuilder. (Phew!)
  • This article also talks about how the Obama campaign used embedded advertising in EA Sports video games to geotarget specific swing states (Colorado, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and others).
  • The Obama campaign even offered a specific application for the IPhone designed to enable campaign organization and information-sharing to maximize turnout and motivate volunteers.

There is so much to learn.  Applications will only be limited by imagination and creativity.

Before we begin learning, though, maybe we should take a few seconds in our quickly moving and very connected flat world to simply appreciate the history made last evening.

Senators Obama and McCain at a recent debate

Senators Obama and McCain at a recent debate

We’re almost there!  It’s almost over!  One week to go!  Phew!!!

In the context of what communications professionals consider, how have these two candidates delivered on the brands they have worked so hard, spent so much and taken so long to develop?  More specifically, how have they broken the promise of these carefully crafted brands?

Well, of course, books may be written on this single topic and this post shares simply one view.

A “brand” is really a promise.  It’s a promise that when you make that “purchase decision” you’ll be rewarded with things important to you. 

Of course, the nature of a promise implies the forming of a relationship, the making of an emotional commitment.  The worst thing that can happen to any relationship (to any promise), is that it is violated, broken, that someone did not live up to the promise made.

From my perspective, each presidential candidate has built their core brand equity around change.  Not surprising for an election with no incumbent, an unpopular two-term President, a Nation at war and, recently, historic and dramatic financial and economic turmoil.

Each candidate has added some context to their change promise.  For Senator Obama, it is change with better judgement, with a disdain for politics as usual and a promise of a new way of business in Washington.  For Senator McCain, it is change with the right experience, with the integrity and independence to take on Washington and his own party. 

Each has demonstrated discipline in reinforcing their change equities but, of course, each has also strayed away.  You may have your own list of broken brand promises for the Presidential candidates.  Here is mine:

For Senator Obama: His campaign’s promise to accept public financing after the primary and later refusal to do so.  It felt to me like a promise broken, a reversal, the same old, same old from a D.C. politician.  That said, it also feels like inside baseball and probably won’t have much of an impact on the ultimate “purchase decision” next week.

For Senator McCain: His campaign’s tireless efforts (from the stump, in paid advertising, campaign literature, robo-calls, etc.) to connect Senator Obama to William Ayers with references to Ayers’ association with the Weather Underground and their radicalism in the 60s.  To me this feels dirty or unseemly … un-McCain-like.  I think it challenges McCain’s claim, his promise, of integrity.  It just felt like the worst of the bare-knuckle politics that people seem to disdain but which, admittedly, may actually work. 

Each candidate’s V.P. running mates have also stretched the credibility of their own carefully crafted brand identities.  While Tina Fey may have helped reinforce Governor Palin’s “hockey Mom” appeal, a $150,000 shopping spree at Nieman Marcus and other high-end shops did anything but.  Senator Biden’s claim that FDR appealed to American on TV when the stock market crashed in 1929, despite the fact that FDR wasn’t President in 1929 and TV didn’t exist, did little to add to his credibility. 

Would love to hear other’s thoughts on broken brand promises in the 2008 Presidential Election.  At the same time, save us all any partisan rants and please approach this discussion as professional communicators.

Is it democratic heresy to wonder aloud if televised debates in our country’s Presidential race really matter? 

Last night’s Obama/McCain debate was a major political and historic event.  So, of course, these things matter.  Ever since the “five-o’clock shadow” Nixon v. the “fresh as a rose” Kennedy debate more than 35 years ago, conventional thinking is that these televised events actually help American’s choose who they want as their next President.  Recently, I wonder.

Is it the debate itself that infleunces the ultimate “purchase decision” in politics – the vote?  Or, is it the post-debate, pervasive-to-the-point-of-invasive, 24/7, multi-channel, analysis and dissection that really matters?  Which has greater influence on the most potential voters – the debate itself between political party nominated candidates, or the after-debate “debate” among anchors, commentators, analysts, experts, specialists, bloggers, and more?

My thought:  Of course these debates still matter!  They matter so much precisely because of the post-debate, pervasive-to-the-point-of-invasive, 24/7, multi-channel, analysis and dissection.  It’s now part of the game. 

We may lament the fact that our Presidential contests since the 60s increasingly place form over substance and that emerging technologies are the reason why.  But, we also know that data-sharing and impression-making happens nearly instantaneously these days and is no longer filtered through traditional media.

Form over substance is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as substance is still there.  Nearly every past President remarks at how shallow and substance-lacking Presidential contests have become.  Without question, though, this year’s candidates and earlier Presidents have all, in their own ways, been experienced, serious and substantive leaders.

So, I think these televised debates do still matter so long as the candidates understand how to take advantage during the show of the after-show that may matter even more.

At Vehr Communications, and through our blog Vr3, we think about these things and hope you do as well.