Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Simple Public Relations Advice You Can Easily Implement in Crisis Situations

In the past three months we have witnessed two massive, highly visible and uncomfortably humiliating public relations blunders: The first one, most obvious and exhaustingly covered by the media, involves Championship-Golfer-Professional-Philanderer Tiger Woods; the second, less obvious but significantly more alarming, involves the flip-flopping by Janet Napolitano on the effectiveness of our nation's airline security measures. While the former is entertaining in a lascivious manner, the latter is life threatening.

Both issues underscore the importance of having a clear and universally understood (at least within the organization) PR plan in place to deal with any crisis. Such a plan is based, simply, on telling the truth early and often.

As these two events have ruthlessly revealed, it's absolutely essential for highly visible public personalities to employ smart, experienced, and professional public relations experts and to let them work. The results of not doing so are embarrassingly public.

Let's address Tiger's situation first. We all know how this tragi-comedy has evolved. But let's go back to the uncertainty surrounding the confusing moments when this story broke. If Tiger himself had simply released a statement to the media (NOT via his website, but through a publicist) that he and Elin had had a domestic dispute and, in his haste to leave the house for "some air", he accidentally backed his Escalade into a tree, the entire story would most likely have had a sympathetic angle for Tiger. We all know how stressful the holidays can be; after all, hasn't each of us fought with family before, during or after Thanksgiving?

A strong, honest and direct statement immediately after the event would have placed Tiger and his team ahead of the story. Once the 24-7-365 media got the smell of blood in the water, the sharks began to tear apart the story and we all know the carnage that ensued. Still, one wonders what the outcome might have been had Tiger and his team told a simple, honest story with which the American public can identify. That would have at least established some sympathy for Tiger.

Before we examine in some depth Janet Napolitano's "the-system-worked-the-system-failed" flip-flopping, let's look at one of the consequences of her confusing media statements. Initially, President Obama (as is his modus operandi) allowed Napolitano to be the administration's lead spokesperson on the terrorist incident aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253. That is, until Napolitano's statements revealed a inexcusable lack of clarity and reflected poorly on the administration's anti-terror stance--especially at a time of year when airline passenger traffic is especially high. Napolitano's confusing public statements (she obviously was not well coached on the appropriate messaging for this situation) forced President Obama to intercede.

Janet Napolitano made her boss look bad. As a PR pro, my job is to make my boss look good. I get him fully briefed and properly coached. I make sure he knows the facts and delivers them calmly. If "mistakes are made", I own them. Not my boss.

While President Obama didn't publicly rebuke Napolitano (as Chris Good clearly explains in his blog at The Atlantic, privately you can bet that he strongly encouraged her to henceforth leave the public statements to him. Need proof? What have you heard from her since the President's very strong and compelling statement a few days ago?

In contrast to Janet Napolitano's confusing statements about which aspect of the system did or did not work, the Obama White House has been aggressive in its press outreach regarding the Northwest Airlines terrorist incident.

The American public doesn't understand that one part of TSA's security measures worked and one didn't. You needn't be a PR pro to understand that the American public doesn't tolerate that kind of wordsmithing. As a PR pro, though, I know the news media doesn't have the time or patience to explain it. All the flying public knows is that a terrorist almost blew up a plane; it was only because the device failed that the plane and its passengers landed safely. A savvy PR professional would have understood that and coached Janet Napolitano on the appropriate media messaging to reassure our flying public.

Skilled Public Relations professionals understand that the best stance to take with the media and our news-saturated citizenry is to tell the truth, tell it early, and tell it often.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Holiday Card Glitterati

As marketers, we know that multiple touches on potential and current customers can both build and strengthen the relationships we have with our customers. Around this time of year, one of those touches is the ubiquitous holiday card.

While many organizations are in light of the current economic downturn opting to send e-cards, my feeling is that these are too fleetingly read and too easily deleted. Far more lasting, durable, and meaningful are the traditional holiday cards-which should in all cases be personalized with a short, appropriate message inside.

In our digital age, a personalized, hand-signed card really resonates. Which is why this year I find myself covered in glitter.

This year, the administrative assistant for the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program bought about 100 glitter-covered cards: From glitterized snowman cards to glitter-encrusted sleighs to glitter-adorned menorahs (glitter is, apparently, appropriate for all religions), I have personalized them all. (In truth, I think she bought the sparkly cards to spite me, but I can't prove it.)

At one point in this morning's marathon glitterfest, I had to scratch an itch on my nose. Then I had to rub my eye. Then I sneezed, scattering the glitter across my desk and body. I am, in a word, awash in glitter. I am as glittery as a schoolgirl, as sparkly as a showman. If it were pitch-black outside, I could serve as a reflecting badge, I'm so glittery. I mean, I could audition for the Rockettes with as much glitter I am currently wearing. I suspect I will be finding glitter on my desk for the next six months, thus providing me with holiday spirit well into 2010.

But enough of the hilarity. Although my friends the MIT engineers don't generally acknowledge it, marketers make sacrifices to maintain and sustain the relationships we work so hard to build. Without marketers, the clever engineers would have a much harder time making potential customers aware of their innovative product.

Sending personalized holiday cards is just one way I've worked throughout my tenure in this program to increase awareness of the importance of our endeavor. I know our program supporters, friends and prospects will appreciate receiving a thoughtfully written holiday card.

If my cost is to be glittery, at least I know I'll glow.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Developing MIT Undergraduate Engineers into Leaders: Watch the Video!

As Director of Communications and Outreach for the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program, I've learned over the past 16 months that engineers--like most other professionals--take very seriously the future robustness of their profession. This is particularly germane as the older generation of engineers retires, revealing gaping holes in the knowledge, proficiency and leadership skills of those engineers who would replace them.

I've been told by lifelong engineers that the Gordon-MIT ELP is a truly new approach to teaching leadership to a new generation of engineers, and this video demonstrates how we're doing it.

I love the program because it really looks at how people lead and--similar to my participation many years ago in ROTC and experiences as a young Army officer--the program devises unique ways to help young engineers learn those skills. It's open to all undergraduates in MIT's School of Engineering - that's almost 1000 new students each year.

One part of the program is an "Industry Advisory Board" (IAB). Among the IAB members are Bill Warner of Avid (an Oscar winner who produced this video, and whose energy, creativity and expertise has helped advance the program in many ways), Vanu Bose, of Vanu, Inc, Dan Riccio of Apple Computer, Inc., Sorin Marcovici of Analogic, Victor Tang of IBM, Peter Zeeb of GeoSyntec, Javier de Luis of Aurora Flight Systems, Jean-Marc Soucy of BP, and of course Bernie Gordon, Founder of Analogic.

In my experience, outside boards like the IAB are often lightly involved: Brief'em, feed'em, get'em out the door. Not in the Gordon-MIT ELP: The IAB played an instrumental role in designing the goals, the methods, and even the philosophy of the program. Bernie Gordon actively participates in IAB meetings. The result is productive collaboration of engineering leaders from industry and from MIT. The IAB is heavily involved, and the program benefits at all levels from their active participation.

For students in the program, It's not the usual classroom routine: MIT sophomores enter the Gordon-MIT ELP through MIT's popular UPOP (Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program); after successfully completing UPOP they are eligible to participate in ELPOP (Engineering Leadership Practice Opportunities Program), which offers certain aspects of the Gordon program, but is less intensive.

The program's most intense level of participation is the highly selective GEL (Gordon Engineering Leader) track, which includes weekly Engineering Leadership Labs (ELL--see below); "Internship Plus" opportunities where students get jobs in industry over the summer and obtain meaningful leadership exposure; short courses in "Engineering Innovation and Design," "Engineering Leadership," and others; close mentorship relationships with industry leaders; one-on-one leadership counseling and development, and much more. Both ELPOP and GEL immerse students in leadership training for two years.

A core component of the GEL program are the weekly ELLs. Each lab teaches some element of leadership. Labs are designed by seniors in the program, and are delivered to juniors. It's a great way to delve into leadership - through high-pressure exercises, and later by designing and teaching those exercises. You'll see one example of a recent ELL in the video.

From a personal standpoint, being so closely involved with the design and evolution of the program has really given me a feel for what the program makes possible. I've seen our students evolve as leaders from week to week. I've seen them open their eyes to new ways to getting things done -- sometimes by taking the fastest path, not the hardest or most complex (as MIT students are reputed for doing). I've seen them learn from the staff and from each other. I've seen them understand why basic communications and interpersonal skills are essential, and put their new-found skills to use leading others.

Leadership isn't taught; it's learned. And what better place than MIT for our nation's future engineering leaders to learn the leadership skills that will help to advance engineering innovation and invention.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ten Leadership Tips for Students Considering Studying a STEM Field

As many of you know, not only do I write for myself, but I also write for others--both as part of my job as Director of Communications for the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program and as a freelancing marketing/communications professional (www.the-hired-pen.com).

The Gordon-MIT ELP's Director, MIT Professor Edward Crawley, was recently approached by the authors of the "Professor's Guide" blog for U.S. News and World Report. They contacted him on the basis of an article on the program by Tracy Jan that appeared in the Boston Globe on October 25.

They were interested in sharing with their readers Ed's perspective on the "leadership essentials" for any student considering a career in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) field. Naturally, Ed delegated the task to me, and I had the great good fortune to collaborate with Visiting Lecturer (general design guru and all-around good guy) Blade Kotelly to craft a piece entitled "Ten Tips for Success for Engineering Students."

It was extremely interesting to write an article on leadership tips that to me--having served as an officer in the U.S. Army and spent a considerable amount of time in the law enforcement field--are deeply ingrained and intuitive. If I can help emerging STEM leaders grow more proficient in these so-called "soft skill" areas, then my writing skills will truly have been put to good use.