Tag Archives: Bert Cunningham

Father’s Day PRaise for Howard

(Standing, l. to r.) Glenn Goldberg, Don Miller, Laurie Bloom, Ken Young, Jeff Morosoff, Wendy O'Neill, (seated, l. to r.) Louise Cassano, Rich Torrenzano, Howard Blankman, Bert Cunningham, and Gary Lewi.

(Standing, l. to r.) Glenn Goldberg, Don Miller, Laurie Bloom, Ken Young, me, Wendy O’Neill, (seated, l. to r.) Louise Cassano, Rich Torrenzano, Howard Blankman, Bert Cunningham, and Gary Lewi.

There we were: 10 public relations practitioners with about 400 years of experience among us, celebrating the life of Howard Blankman, the consummate PR professional. Glenn Goldberg of Parallel Communications Group, freelancer Don Miller, Astoria Bank’s Wendy O’Neill, Louise Cassano of LuCas Communications, Rich Torrenzano of The Torrenzano Group, consultant Bert Cunningham, Gary Lewi of Rubenstein PR, plus Rivkin Radler’s Laurie Bloom and Ken Young of Molloy College (both adjunct Hofstra PR professors) and I paid tribute to the man on his 90th birthday. We shared stories, some very humorous and some poignant, about how much this one individual helped us become PR professionals, too.

Like most PR veterans, Howard took a serpentine route to a public relations career. A Jewish kid who grew up in Amish country, he was a young bandleader, a playwright, and later became a “Tonight Show” writer. He worked on Broadway, wrote and produced plays, and eventually opened a PR firm. Howard shared wonderful stories with fond detail about his fascinating career.

And how appropriate for this event to happen just before Father’s Day, Bert Cunningham noted. “In many respects, Howard has been the career father to a number of PR pros on Long Island,” Bert said. “He also fathered, in 1968, the concept of an independent, full-service PR firm that also used advertising and marketing techniques to support PR. At that time the vast majority of PR was done in-house. The independent outside PR consultant was a fairly new service on Long Island.”

Two decades ago, Howard Blankman was presented with Public Relations Professionals of Long Island‘s Lifetime Achievement Award. Notably, it was Howard who stepped up and fathered PRPLI after the Public Relations Society of America’s Long Island chapter had folded. Gary, Don, Bert, and I would later receive that same award because of Howard’s vision of an organization where Long Island PR pros could network and learn.

Always active, still writing, ever mentoring, still dispensing fatherly advice, Howard Blankman continues to be a vital and admired PR guy. Joining with my mentors and colleagues to celebrate his life was truly a privilege. Your thoughts?

Our unique PRofession

I’ve been asked to reflect on PR as a profession these last few weeks. First, a half-dozen students–four from Hofstra and two from other schools–interviewed me about my career in public relations as part of their class projects. Each one of them asked the usual “what do you like best about PR?” question, but some wanted more introspection about why I shifted from broadcasting to a field I knew little about.

I moved from radio to public relations early on because I relished the idea of a job where I could write, and use extensive communication tools. What I enjoy best about public relations, I told the student interviewers, is how PR know-how can be applied to any field. As if to prove this point, just these past few days I’ve witnessed our newest graduates land PR jobs in very diverse organizations; they’re already working in PR agencies, record companies, entertainment conglomerates, fashion houses, and nonprofits, to name a few.

Receiving PRPLI's Lifetime Acheivement Award from Bert Cunningham (l.)

Receiving PRPLI’s Lifetime Achievement Award from Bert Cunningham in early May

Also, I was recently honored by my colleagues in the Public Relations Professionals of Long Island (PRPLI), a regional trade organization. The group gave me a Lifetime Achievement Award as “an industry leader who has helped shape the public relations landscape on Long Island.” It meant the world to me to receive the award, and it also compelled me to reflect again on public relations as a career choice.

I told the audience at the PRPLI awards dinner that the breadth of the necessary skills makes PR challenging and exciting. “We need to be bloggers, tweeters, and podcasters; photographers, videographers, script writers and producers,” I said. “We have to be event planners, fundraisers, promoters and publicists; and highest on the skill set list: we have to be ethical and effective writers and storytellers, using well-constructed language and appropriate images. There are few professions as diverse, and interesting, and challenging as ours.”

Our unique profession can provide wonderful opportunities, unique life experiences, and great colleagues and friends. While PR isn’t a possible career for everyone, I highly recommend it. Your thoughts?

The PeRil of spin

brian williamsIt was a very tough week for journalism. The untimely deaths of CBS’s Bob Simon and The New York Times’ David Carr shocked their colleagues and followers, as did the announced departure of Jon Stewart from “The Daily Show”. While Stewart always insists he’s just a comedian, there’s no denying his profound influence on how we receive the news.

However, little dominated the headlines last week more than the six-month suspension of Brian Williams, anchor of NBC Nightly News, TV’s highest-rated news program. After it was found Williams fabricated stories about his experiences when covering the news, he was removed from the anchor chair. He apparently lied about being shot at while aboard a helicopter in Iraq, and may have made up his report about seeing a floating body in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Both events didn’t happen according to witnesses, and Williams apologized for his “conflated” tale.

The highly-respected and popular anchor is now suffering from the peril of spin. Yes, he was on a chopper in Iraq but it was a nearby chopper that received gunfire. Yes, he was in New Orleans after Katrina, but there was little-to-no flooding in the French Quarter. Other allegations of lies and spinning are being investigated by NBC, with some believing there’s more revelations ahead.

My good friend and seasoned PR practitioner Bert Cunningham wrote, “Brian Williams’ primary mission was to tell the news story, not be the news. Same holds true for public relations pros. They need to remember they are telling the stories of (their) brands. They must not become a story through unethical or questionable practices or expressions of personal opinion–via social media, for example–that reflect badly on themselves and those they represent.”

Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank said last week, “Trust is built in drops and lost in buckets.” Squandering trust through spin and deception can ruin friendships, marriages and careers. No individual, business or institution is exempt from truth. In news, in PR and in all walks of life, trust must be earned and maintained. Can Brian Williams ever get it back? Your thoughts?

PR and big data

Bert Cunningham

Bert Cunningham

My friend and PR mentor Bert Cunningham frequently suggests topics for Public Relations Nation. As I’ve done before, I asked Bert to be a guest columnist this week. I’m very happy he’s again providing us with his wise observations.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to one of Professor Morosoff’s PR classes. One of the challenges, and opportunities, discussed was that PR pros need to know how to use Big Data.

A recent New York Times article entitled “How Facebook is Changing the Way its Consumers Use Journalism” underscored the issue. The article described how Facebook’s use of algorithms to drive news to its users is “changing the way its users consume journalism.” In turn, Facebook’s algorithm-driven news feeds impact how news content providers structure their respective print, Internet and digital products, and how advertisers advertise and on what platforms.

It’s still a “bold new world” for traditional news media seeking to survive as the impact of social media and digital apps drive more of the news delivery process. What struck me was how this changes the PR pro’s role.

A cornerstone of PR is media relations. The basic tenet of media relations is to build relationships with reporters, editors and assignment desks. How will Big Data news algorithms change that equation? How does a PR pro build a relationship with an algorithm? I can imagine a Big Data-influenced call to a reporter going something like this: “Hi, Bill. It’s Bert. I have an interesting story for the XYZ non-profit’s annual fundraiser that’s truly unique.” “Really, Bert, sounds interesting. Let me see how non-profit fundraising stories are trending on Facebook’s algorithm…Sorry, way down. Call back when the algorithm is up.”

Extreme? Perhaps. But, here’s the point: The human factor is being taking out of the news business, because of the need to survive. News outlets always had to survive, but there was a wall between the news content side and the advertising side. Those lines are blurring more and more because of social media-driven news feeds. When the human factor goes out of the news business so will the ability of PR pros to build meaningful media relationships.

So what do future PR pros do? How will they cope with Big Data and news feed algorithms? Your thoughts?

PooR response

Bert Cunningham

Bert Cunningham

My good friend and mentor Bert Cunningham had a distinguished public and private sector PR career spanning more than four decades. More recently, Bert taught public relations at Hofstra and occasionally contributes ideas for this blog. He’s guest-written this week’s blog and as always, Bert’s words are timely and wise:  

The outspoken part owner of California Chrome, Steve Coburn, blew the goodwill his horse earned by winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with his post-Belmont Stakes rant. Last week, he doubled down with more sour grapes. He didn’t apologize until the following day, which was too late. Other news stories took center stage by then. And, most importantly, the 20.6 million who viewed the race on TV had moved on.

Here’s the lesson: Coburn didn’t have a PR plan for a loss. He believed his own hype.

Coburn knew going to the Kentucky Derby it was possible fresh horses could be entered in the Belmont if his horse made it that far and that it was possible his horse could lose.

He convinced himself California Chrome could not lose, despite the odds against a win. In any business there is always the possibility that things can go south despite all the hard work and positive PR. That’s why it’s necessary to have a “Plan B.”

The day before the Belmont, June 6th, was the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. It was marked with moving ceremonies in France, New York, and other places around the globe. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the overall commander of the invasion, was ready with a statement in case it failed. After more than a year of planning, build-up and training, Ike was ready in case things went south.

Coburn, unfortunately, didn’t take the time to pre-plan a gracious statement just in case. Had he simply acknowledged he was disappointed with the loss, but still believed California Chrome was a champion, he would have gained a great deal of empathy. When the news came out Monday that Chrome was clipped by another horse out of the gate and ran the race injured, the horse would have gained even more sympathy for running a gritty race.

Now, Coburn is viewed as a poor loser who blew his 15 minutes of fame with hot-headed remarks that made him look foolish. He also put his sponsors and others on his team – and it is a team effort – in awkward positions.

Brands cannot survive in the long run with that kind of short-sighted PR strategy. Leaders of organizations, and chief communicators, must understand they carry a huge responsibility to protect reputations in good and bad times. It not only makes good business and PR sense, it’s a moral/ethical imperative.  Your thoughts?

PRomotional tours: a PRoblem?

Professor Marek Fuchs

Professor Marek Fuchs

Like other organizations, colleges and universities depend upon good public relations and marketing campaigns to build and maintain positive images.  A primary goal of such campaigns is to recruit new students, essential to the existence of every academic institution.  As every college student and high school junior knows, colleges spend a lot of money on printed materials, web sites and social media, plus ubiquitous open house events at which visitors see the campus and hear “the spiel.”

My PR pal and adjunct professor at Hofstra University, Bert Cunningham, likes to bring PR stories to my attention.  This week Professor Cunningham shared an article in the Wall Street Journal by Marek Fuchs titled, “Oh, No, Not Another College Tour!” which focuses on (from his perspective) the mistakes colleges and universities typically make during spring’s “open house” season. He believes institutions miss opportunities to answer real questions and concerns, because group tours tend to focus on showcasing the school’s superficial positives such as ample library hours, dining options, the landscaping, and environmental consciousness while being conducted by well-rehearsed, well-scrubbed student guides.

But is this such a bad thing?  If the purpose of an open house is to convince potential students and their parents or guardians of the school’s virtues, then why not put their best foot forward and highlight all things positive?  Fuchs, a writing professor at Sarah Lawrence College, said, “But it does seem that with so much depending on the outcome of their pitch, colleges should put more original effort into the standard-issue, plain (fat-free) vanilla tour.”  He suggests separate tours for parents and students to create a more free exchange of ideas and questions, night tours since so much campus life goes on after hours, anonymous questions so no one holds anything back, and untrained random student tour guides (which is a terrible idea!).

I believe most institutions already encourage the kinds of exchanges Fuchs is recommending.  And parents and potential students should gravitate to those schools which create a comfortable environment for asking questions.  That’s just good PR.  Your thoughts?

PRotecting your brand

Apple CEO Tim Cook

Apple CEO Tim Cook

“It’s the story of two brands, one corporate and one personal, under pressure and public scrutiny–and how one is surviving and winning kudos for being open, candid and smart.  And one is in trouble, severe trouble, by shooting from the lip and being dumb.”

So notes Professor Bert Cunningham, one of the esteemed adjunct public relations professors at Hofstra.  This past week, media coverage focused on Apple, currently the world’s most successful corporation, and how it pays–or doesn’t pay– its taxes.  “The narrative went from being a tax dodger to a corporation that pays billions in taxes and is willing to pay more under a fairer system,” said Professor Cunningham. “Tim Cook is being viewed as a clear thinking, knowledgeable, cool under pressure CEO who WANTED to testify before Congress so the public and legislators would hear Apple’s side of the story.”  And while Time’s Rana Foroohar believes that Apple is just one of many major corporations that “will be pressed to do their part” to pay proper taxes, for now, Tim Cook protected the Apple brand and “successfully went into the lion’s den and had them (members of Congress) eating out of his hand,” noted my colleague.

Pro Golfer Sergio Garcia

Pro Golfer Sergio Garcia

On the other side of the branding coin is Sergio Garcia, who had a recent verbal altercation with Tiger Woods at the Players Championship.  He followed up by telling reporters there were no hard feelings, he’ll have Woods over for dinner, and “we’ll serve fried chicken.”  This seemingly racist comment “may have damaged Garcia’s brand fatally,” according to Professor Cunningham.  Adidas, Garcia’s main sponsor, is considering ending his $5 million a year contract.  Despite a follow-up apology, Garcia has hurt his personal reputation badly, a reputation that was already teetering due to past insensitive remarks and a “hothead” persona.

Public people have a responsibility to their sponsors, customers, fans, and especially to themselves to handle their personal or corporate brands smartly and with care.  It’ll be very interesting to watch both Cook and Garcia in the days ahead.  Your thoughts?

Nike’s PR gaffe: For real?

tiger_nike_ad_1We can agree that good PR cannot be maintained without the consistent, positive performance of the organization or individual a PR person represents.  So did Nike take that maxim a step too far?

This past week, Tiger Woods reclaimed his standing at the top of the golf world by winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando.  It was December 2009 when we learned about his extramarital affairs, an admission resulting in the loss of lucrative endorsement deals, the suspension of his golfing career, and the end of his marriage and his squeeky-clean reputation.  He repeatedly apologized for his actions, went through therapy and began to compete again.  Two years ago Woods hit rock-bottom, ranked 58th in the world.

So after re-taking the number one position, Nike–which has retained its relationship with Tiger Woods throughout his crises–ran an ad on Facebook and Twitter that declared: “Winning Takes Care Of Everything.” But some media folks didn’t care for the message.  My good friend and mentor Bert Cunningham pointed to the lead sentence in a New York Post sports section story on the ad which read: “Tiger Woods and Nike opened themselves up to an industrialized can of social media whoop-ass…”.  Bert noted, “Interesting how Tiger was the comeback kid on all the sports news Monday night.  By Tuesday afternoon he was a polarizing figure again.” Attention to the ad and its subsequent controversy quickly spread throughout all the major–and minor–media outlets.  The underlying message might as well have been, “We can forget the mess you left behind now that you’re on top of the game again!”

Was Nike’s ad an error in judgement?  Were any of the negative public relations ramifications considered by Nike or Tiger Woods?  Or is this a manufactured controversy; maybe the ad ran just to create the hype and buzz.  If this was the case, it worked.  To my knowledge, no one in either camp has commented on the ad, so clearly neither thought there was a need for damage control.  Perhaps Woods and Nike got what they wanted out of this little “controversy.”  Your thoughts?

PRotecting our schools

NRA's Wayne LaPierre

NRA’s Wayne LaPierre

Using fear to draw an emotional response is a well-worn tactic.  That’s what the NRA did in the wake of Sandy Hook.  It moved the national conversation from tougher gun control laws to arming every school in America. “We care about our money, so we protect our banks with armed guards,” exclaimed NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LePierre in last week’s press conference. “American airports, office buildings, power plants, courthouses — even sports stadiums — are all protected by armed security. We care about the president, so we protect him with armed Secret Service agents…Yet when it comes to the most beloved, innocent and vulnerable members of the American family — our children — we as a society leave them utterly defenseless, and the monsters and predators of this world know it and exploit it.”

My friend and mentor Bert Cunningham posted a comment to Public Relations Nation, framing the PR aspects: “With Sandy Hook victims still being buried, the NRA responded to the Sandy Hook killings saying: to stop gun slaughter in schools, more guns are needed. To those who are not gun advocates, it sounded arrogant and insane…But PR pros and students need to visit http://www.NRA.org and read (yesterday’s) complete press statement and related postings.

“There’s a Mein Kampf-like logic to the NRA’s message,” Bert continued. “It not only speaks to its members, their bread and butter, it also speaks to those less emotional about Sandy Hook or informed about gun violence in general.  And that’s how they plan to speak past renewed calls for greater control of guns and gun use in America.  With the NRA’s aggressive ‘our way is the best way to protect you’ PR strategy now clear, the question is: How will those who seek change advance PR messaging and solutions in a sustained way to overcome it?”

The NRA might have opted for a toned-down response and asked for a seat at Vice President Biden’s table as he leads the president’s new task force on gun control.  Instead, the NRA’s vividly emotional approach cleverly moved the conversation.  Bert and I, and our colleagues and students, will be watching how gun control advocates work to move it back.  Your thoughts?

A must-read on PR blunders

Steve Adubato’s fabulous book, “What Were They Thinking? Crisis Communication: The Good, the Bad and the Totally Clueless,” is incomplete. In fact, since its 2008 publication, this extraordinarily readable and informative primer on 22 crisis case studies, the world has witnessed countless PR blunders, not the least of which were Penn State’s pedophilia scandal and BP’s Gulf region oil spill.

These major events aren’t in the book.  But some infamous cases of awful events and their subsequent public relations disasters are.  The Exxon Valdez case is there.  So are Virginia Tech, the Glen Ridge and Duke University rape cases, and the Hurricane Katrina/FEMA mess.  A few professional scandals include the Don Imus “nappy-headed ho” incident, the Dick Cheney hunting accident and a chapter on Bill O’Reilly’s mouth. PR crisis success stories are in Adubato’s book as well, such as Prudential’s terror threat and the always heralded handling of the Johnson & Johnson/Tylenol scare.

My good friend, PR mentor and now teaching colleague Bert Cunningham turned me on to “What Were They Thinking.” If you’re a PR veteran, a newbie or just want a good read, pick it up and learn from other people’s mistakes.  I’m hoping for a revised edition, packed with some of the many PR messes and successes of the last for years.  I wonder which of them Adubato would include.  Your thoughts?

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