Mark J. Carpenter’s Weblog

February 8, 2009

Recession Reporting Reactions

Filed under: Uncategorized — markcarpenter @ 4:34 am
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An old story is told of a farmer who makes a comfortable living selling his produce at his small market. His son grows up, goes to business school, and gets a job at a large company in the big city. One day, the son visits the father and asks, “How’s business?” The old farmer reports that it’s a little slow, but things are going okay. He continues to advertise in the local paper and keep the billboard on the north side of town. The son responds, “Dad, don’t you watch the news? We’re in a recession. If you don’t start cutting back, your business will fail.” The father asks how long this recession has been going on; he hasn’t noticed it at this point. “It’s been months now, Dad. It just hasn’t caught up to you yet. Start making cuts now. And you haven’t raised your prices in years. Now is the time to boost your prices or you’ll never make it through this economic downturn.” The father followed his son’s advice. He took down the billboard. He cut his advertising in half. He boosted his prices by 10 percent. Within three months the produce business was struggling and within six months, it had failed.

The moral to this story, of course, is that the more bad news we listen and respond to, the worse we tend to make things for ourselves. The media’s reporting of the economy includes catastrophic headlines: “massive layoffs,” “skyrocketing unemployment,” “disastrous financial results.” I’ve talked to several companies who have told me they are “cutting back” due to the economy. I ask them if their company is struggling and many say, “Not yet. We’re okay for now, but we’re just being cautious.”

Please understand what I’m not saying. I’m not saying we are free from economic concerns. I’m not saying the bad news doesn’t exist. I am saying by focusing primarily on the huge problems that exist (particularly within certain industries), the news media could be exacerbating those problems.

Imagine this. A company “cuts back” to “be cautious” because of the economy. As a result, they purchase less from suppliers, who are then forced to cut back and potentially raise prices. Then the company’s products become more expensive, so they cut back other places. The supplier may have to lay people off, increasing unemployment. By reacting to negative news instead of their own realities, the company is now making more negative news.

What is the role of PR professionals in these economic times? First, I think this is an excellent time for PR to frame the news coming from your organizations. If you work for a company that has 25,000 employees that decides to lay off 500 people, be sure to frame that for the media as 2 percent of the workforce. That’s not necessarily “massive layoffs.” Yes, it’s hard for the 500 people impacted, but a 2 percent adjustment in the workforce is part of living in a free market environment. Sometimes those adjustments are the right business decision, hard as they may be. If we can help the media keep things in context, we may help reduce the reactionary decisions that make the problem worse instead of better. I’m not saying to put a positive spin on bad news, I’m just saying to help the media keep your news in perspective.

Second, as the representatives to our organizations for our key publics, we need to help our organizations stay focused on the needs of those publics. In tough times, individuals and organizations tend to focus internally, thinking about what we need to help us through tough times. If, however, we can focus on our customers’ needs (and the needs of other key publics), they will turn to us to help meet those needs. That can help a company through tough economic times. Further, if you have helped your key publics weather the storm, when the economy turns up they are more likely to turn to you as their ally moving forward.

Economic times are tough, but we can do things to help our organizations through these times and not further the difficulties by feeding the scare stories (yes, some of them real) that headline the media today.

December 23, 2008

Corporate Christmas Conundrum

Filed under: Uncategorized — markcarpenter @ 5:45 am
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Every year around this time, companies send cards and gifts to clients with holiday wishes. As we put our greeting together, we struggled with a desire to say “Merry Christmas” instead of a more politically correct “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings.” Part of me is rather anti-politically correct. I mean, come on, we’ll be celebrating Christmas this week, not just a generic season. If I were to celebrate a season, it would NOT be winter!
At the same time, I know a couple of my clients are Jewish, so I backed off and we went with “Happy Holidays.” On the other hand, if I got a greeting from a Jewish client or partner that said, “As we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, we want to thank you for your business and wish you continued success,” I would be honored that they thought of me in connection to a celebration that is so important to them.
I have a solution to the political correctness of talking around Christmas as we send year- end greetings. Let’s face it; we’re not sending the greeting because it’s Christmas time, but because it’s around the end of the year. Instead, surprise your U.S. clients by sending a gift or card during the third week of November. Include a message that says, “At this time of year, we think about that for which we are thankful. One of those things is you.” No one can get offended by a Thanksgiving greeting.
If you have international clients, hold off on your greeting until the first week of January. Then send a message like, “As we start a new year, we thank you for your part in our success and wish you the best for a fantastic year.” We all use the same calendar. Even in areas where they celebrate the Chinese New Year, the business calendar is the same as ours. This is an appropriate, inoffensive greeting everywhere.
In addition to avoiding the Christmas conundrum, these options give you the added benefit of standing out from everyone else who sends corporate greetings during December. It takes a little more planning (especially to do the early Thanksgiving option), but it may be a solution to the annual corporate Christmas conundrum.
With that said, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a great 2009.

November 7, 2008

How Soon Is Too Soon?

Filed under: Uncategorized — markcarpenter @ 6:25 pm
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Every year as I turn the calendar to November the same question arises: how soon is too soon to start playing Christmas music? One local radio station starts playing holiday tunes full time on Nov. 1. Maybe it’s the warmer October weather we’ve had this year, but that seems premature to me. And I’m a Christmas music lover! Even a good thing released too soon can seem inappropriate or out of place.

A student recently asked for some advice on when to contact the media about an event she is helping promote for a nonprofit organization. One question was how long before the event to contact the media to ensure coverage. This is the public relations version of playing Christmas music. You want to provide the information in enough time to get the media in the mood, but not so far in advance that the news is stale by the time the event roles around.

So, what is the right timing? The answer is one of my most common when it comes to public relations decisions: it depends. I start with the general rule of one week prior to the event, which gives the media adequate time to get the event on its editorial calendar (assuming we’re talking about daily newspapers or local television). It also gives you time to follow up on phone messages if you can’t reach the media contacts on the first try.

From there, you may have other factors that increase or decrease the lead time in which you want to contact the media. If your event has an element of surprise that you don’t want leaked in advance, maybe you wait until a day or two before the event. Of course, then it better be big enough news to make the news media push other things aside.

What do you think? What is the right timing to contact the media for an event? How soon is too soon, and how soon is too late?

July 9, 2008

AP Style: Standard or Passe?

Filed under: Uncategorized — markcarpenter @ 4:16 am
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I’ve written in and taught AP style for more than two decades. But the more I read, the more I wonder if this standard is becoming less of a standard. The companies I’ve worked for in public relations have all used AP style as the baseline for press-related documents. Some of them have created their own style books, which invariably start with “Our standard style is Associated Press style, with the following exceptions.” The company then states its own exceptions from “the standard.”

Publications almost always used AP style (if they aren’t the New York Times, that is). But I’m reading more and more material – including publications – that don’t follow AP style on some of the fundamental style issues, such as state abbreviations, commas in a series, and the use of Internet, e-mail and Web site.

I also hear reports from former students that style issues matter little to many clients and organizations today. Maybe the leadership has grown up in the electronic communications era enough to feel more flexible now on some of those style questions, particularly around electronic communication (Internet, e-mail and Web site, for example).

I’d like your perspective. What do you see from your clients and your organizations? Are they sticklers for style? If so, is it AP style? If not AP style, what is it? If the standards are loose, how do you maintain consistency? Put your thoughts in a comment. I’m sure others will be interested in knowing what’s happening with other companies.

June 27, 2008

Shadow Effect: When You Look Bad Because of Others

Filed under: Uncategorized — markcarpenter @ 3:20 am
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Sometimes, through no fault of your own, your organization’s reputation can suffer. For example, what if you worked for a reputable, conservative mortgage lender or bank when news reports of mortgage companies failing start hitting the market? How should a toy manufacturer respond when reports of lead-poisoning in toys made in China come to light?

I got an e-mail today from a former student, Ashley McKell, who is completing an internship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She sent me the link to an on-line media packet aimed to reduce confusion between the Church of Jesus Christ and the FLDS Church, which has been in the national news spotlight because of the allegations of child abuse acted upon by Texas law enforcement agencies. Check out the packaged here.

This is a great example of how to respond in these situations when the dark shadow of another’s actions taint your organization or confuse people about your role or mission. Here are some key principles to keep in mind:

1) Research before reacting: Note the research that was done to confirm that the confusion was real and not imagined. This gives the claim of misunderstanding credibility instead of appearing reactionary.

2) Focus on your positives: Instead of pointing out all the things that the FLDS Church is or isn’t, the Church of Jesus Christ packet focuses on their own beliefs: Elder Quentin Cook is quoted as saying, “We’d much rather be talking about who we are than who we aren’t.” Perfect direction.

3) Use credible opinion leaders: The Church of Jesus Christ includes in the packet videos of church members from Texas to show what they are a like. The effect is to clearly demonstrate the difference between the FLDS representatives seen in news reports. But again, the way it is done emphasizes what members or the Church of Jesus Christ are like instead of pointing toward FLDS members for contrast.

4) Go directly to those who make mistakes: The packet is a great tool to drop in the lap (or the in box) of anyone in the media who reinforces the confusion identified in the survey. The packet is clear, direct and high quality, so it’s an easy task to put it in front of people.

If you ever face the situation of the “shadow effect,” this is a great pattern to follow.

June 3, 2008

Sports and Grammar Don’t Mix

Filed under: Uncategorized — markcarpenter @ 2:27 am
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It’s tough to be a sports fan. Not only do I get hooked into the NBA playoff coverage and then my Utah Jazz lose in the second round, but it grates on my nerves to listen to the poor grammar on the broadcasts. I can excuse most of the players’ errors – partially because there are so many of them and partially because I know they don’t get paid to string together a coherent sentence. But the announcers DO get paid to speak intelligently, and their sloppy grammar makes listening to them like listening to fingers scraping a chalkboard (those who grew up in the white board era, please forgive the dated analogy).

Here are just a few examples from the NBA playoff broadcasts. I’ve left off team names and attributions to avoid pointing the finger at anyone in particular. The problem is so rampant that I don’t want to start naming names.

“They just need to play more aggressive.” Argh! The adverb is aggressively! You’re okay if you use aggressive as an adjective in a sentence like “They need to play more aggressive defense.” But please, know when the word is modifying a noun, when it’s modifying a verb, and the difference!

(This from an interview with a player) “Is there other things you’re doing to help?” This is third grade noun/verb agreement! “Things” denotes a plural, so the question has to be “ARE there other things you’re doing to help?” No wonder the players don’t speak well; their interviewers who should know better don’t!

“He’s the one that can make a difference in this series.” NO. He’s the one WHO can make a difference. If you’re talking about a person, use who or whom; if you’re talking about a thing use “that.”

“The franchise is in the playoffs for their first time in a decade.” Argh! The franchise is an “it” not a “they.”

This is why I listen to basketball with the sound off sometimes. That grating squeak of the fingernails is just too much sometimes!

Oh, and in case you missed it, there’s a funny article in the May 21, 2008, issue of the Chicago Tribune about two Dartmouth College grads who are going around the country fixing poor grammar and typos on store signs. Fun read; click on the link to check it out.

May 9, 2008

Changing Times: Past, Present, Future

Filed under: Uncategorized — markcarpenter @ 3:04 am
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I’ve wondered as I’ve walked across college campuses what it would be like to travel through time and see what the future will bring. If I had stepped into a time machine while I was in college in the 1980s and dropped in on a campus today, I would have had a hard time figuring out why everyone had at least one ear plug in and why some of them seemed to be talking to themselves. I also would have been shocked at the portable computers so many students have, since computers were just moving out of the room-size models to desktop versions – and hardly anyone had one for home use yet.

Another place to look at technology transitions is in trade shows. When I started working in high tech PR 13 years ago, the big trade show was Comdex in Las Vegas. It was all things technology and filled the Las Vegas Convention Center. Since then, Comdex has disappeared. Now the technology trade show landscape is dotted with specialty shows that focus on niche markets. For example, the Blogging for Business Conference set for June 6 in Salt Lake City. (Full disclosure: My friends at Politis Communications pointed me toward this conference and asked for a mention; it still makes my point very well.) This event is targeted to marketers who want to use blogs effectively to promote their business. Who would have thought of that as recently as five years ago? Emerging technologies like blogs carry two challenges. First, to learn the technology, what it does, and how it does it. Second, to translate the capabilities into positive bottom line impact for a business. If you’re interested in this conference, click on the graphic for more info or to register.

I think you’ll see more of these new-media conferences emerging. Then 10 years from now, they’ll be commonplace. The real question is: what’s next?

April 13, 2008

Airline Bungles Its Blunder: How American Made A Problem Worse

Filed under: Uncategorized — markcarpenter @ 10:34 pm
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I’m sitting in the Chicago airport reflecting on another airline blunder I got caught in. If you’ve watched the news at all, you know that American Airlines cancelled thousands of flights last week in order to catch up on some routine maintenance of some planes. I was scheduled to fly on American from Salt Lake City to Chicago on Thursday with my son’s high school band and orchestra tour. The group was scheduled on three different flights, two on American and one on Northwestern. Wednesday morning, American announced that the early flight we were on was cancelled. The tour group scrambled to reschedule people on three other flights getting to Chicago within a day of the original schedule. Then a few hours later, American cancelled the other flight for our group, sending us into scramble mode again. The end result for our group was that instead of all of us arriving in Chicago within a few hours of each other on Thursday afternoon, students were spread across seven flights arriving from Thursday afternoon to late Friday night. I got to escort a group of 13 teenagers from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles and on a red-eye to Chicago arriving at 5 a.m. on Friday. I’m still a little bleary eyed.

American Airlines exhibited one of the common business problems I see today – and one that public relations professionals have to manage in crisis mode. The problem was not WHAT they did. The maintenance of airplanes is important; I support it wholeheartedly. The problem was in HOW they did it. By announcing flight cancellations within hours of scheduled flight times, American left thousands of people across the country stranded in airports and scrambling for flights on other carriers. If they had announced the flight cancellations a day or two in advance of the scheduled flights, people would have had more alternatives for travel plans.

Sometimes business leaders make tough decisions with an attitude of “well, this has to be done” mentality. While that is often true about WHAT has to be done, HOW it is done is equally – and sometimes more – important to key publics. The approach American took shows a distinct lack of interest in their travelers’ needs. It’s just a business decision that “has to be done.” If more consideration was given to the impact on travelers, maybe the implementation would have been different. What might have happened (yes, this is pure speculation) if American Airlines had given customers three or four days notice that flights would have been cancelled. Sure, people would have been put out. Sure people would have complained. Sure, people would have been scrambling to change travel. But they wouldn’t have been doing it while stuck in an airport.

The capper for me was when I was checking in on my re-arranged United Airlines flight to Chicago by way of Los Angeles. United personnel needed a code from American to finalize my reservation. But because American cancelled all its flights out of Salt Lake City, all American employees went home, so there was no one there to help with my ticket. Again, it doesn’t seem they were thinking of the customer.

Lest this become just a diatribe against American Airlines, make this application in your public relations roles. When tough business decisions have to be made, be the one who raises the question, “Which of our key publics is impacted, and how can we minimize that impact?” By doing so, you can make the tough decisions with reduced impact on your organization’s reputation.

As a post script, I just got back to Salt Lake City – but my luggage didn’t. American Airlines left my luggage in Chicago. When we asked about it, they immediately were able to tell me the bag was still in Chicago, but they weren’t able to tell me why it didn’t get on the plane. Hmm. I’m seeing an uncomfortable trend in the treatment of customers.

PR’s Role In a “PR Problem”

Filed under: Uncategorized — markcarpenter @ 5:17 am
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I’ve long held the view that when someone says a company has “a PR problem,” it isn’t so much a problem with the company’s public relations function as it is a problem with decisions the company’s leadership has made. When these leadership problems surface, it becomes a “public relations problem” because too often the public relations team is called in to repair damaged reputations.

Adam Denison, a former BYU student now working on GM’s new media initiatives, wrote a great post about this recently. I recommend it to anyone in public relations/corporate communications. Check out Adam’s blog.

The fact that public relations professionals get dumped into the role of “damage control” is one of the biggest reasons we should focus on proactively counseling management on ethics and business practices. We can provide a view of the overall reputation of the company that may get overlooked. How many crises would be averted (or at least minimized) if business and civic leaders received respected counsel from respected communications professionals before the “public relations problem” emerged. We owe it to our employers and clients to be (or become) the respected counsel that helps prevent “public relations problems” in the first place.

April 2, 2008

Nurture Key Relationships

Filed under: Uncategorized — markcarpenter @ 5:18 am
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Early in the rehearsals for the play I’m in (I know you’re probably getting sick of stories from the play, but it’s almost over – and this has a point, too), I went out of my way to befriend two cast members, Ariana and Faith. Why these two? Ariana, 7, and Faith, 10, play Tootie and Agnes, respectively, the two youngest daughters of my character in the play. While waiting off stage between scenes, I took time to talk to and play with these two girls because I wanted to make sure that when I was on stage with those them, they were comfortable with me. I wanted the audience to see that we weren’t strangers pretending to be family – even though that’s what acting is. The good news is that it worked. During the early performances I had a couple of people mention that the kids seemed really comfortable with me.

In a communications career the same principle applies. Much of the work we do is only as effective as the relationships we have. You don’t want to be creating those relationships in the moment you need them any more than I wanted to establish a relationship with my young actors just before opening night. You don’t want to call an editor to introduce yourself when you’re announcing a new product or trying to manage a crisis. You want that relationship in place before those crucial moments arise.

One of the most important relationships you want to develop when working in a corporation is the executive assistant to the CEO or president. Why? These people are internal gatekeepers. You will need access to the organization’s leader, so you want to know the person who allows access to the leader. Then when you really need to talk to the CEO, you have a trusting relationship with the person who can slip you in between appointments or interrupt a meeting.

Identify in advance which relationships are important or may be important to you, then cultivate those relationships before you need them. One caution: don’t develop these relationships solely with the attitude of “I may need to use this person sometime.” Develop the relationships because it’s good to know people. I would have enjoyed getting to know my little friends from the play even if I didn’t need an on-stage relationship with them and have had some fun with other children who are in the play, too.

Oh, and as a final reminder, you only have three more chances to see me in “Meet Me In St. Louis” in Draper (🙂Me with Ariana (left) and Faith on the set of \

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