Staining Through the Scotchguard

Whether the announcement was intended or not, news that 3M has hired former Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe as a lobbyist didn’t particularly help its reputation rebuilding effort. It inadvertently leaves an impression that 3M is more concerned about spinning and coercing it’s a way out of the east metro chemical spill controversy than doing right by affected neighbors. I have no reason to believe that’s the case and generally sense 3M has been a solid corporate citizen, but that may be how it is taken by east metro families.

Playing it cute on the question about Moe’s duties didn’t help. Everyone knows he will be working on the spill issue, so own up to it. What else would the assignment be, tax exemptions for Post-its and O-Cel-Os?

While Moe served Minnesota with distinction in the Legislature and is known as one of the all-time great legislative strategists, using a lower profile lobbyist made more sense from a PR standpoint. In the midst of this controversy, 3M didn’t need headlines about hiring an uber-arm twister. Choosing to hire a political icon like Moe on the very same day a bill was introduced to protect Minnesotans from perfluorochemical contamination virtually guaranteed such headlines would happen. A curious call from a company in danger of being labeled Minnesota Mining Manufacturing and Mopping Up.

 

– Loveland

Dave Mona remembers Molly Ivins

This from Dave Mona, a founder of Mona Meyer McGrath & Gavin, now Weber Shandwick, a WCCO broadcaster and damn fine human being. Benidt saw him a few days ago and asked what’s up. It was this: 

As I mentioned when we visited, I’m working on a book which I hope to get out by the end of the year. I’m approaching some 40 chapters, but the next few months will provide the narrative thread. It features a number of the people I’ve had a chance to work with including Sid Hartman, Halsey Hall, Billy Martin and others. It’s not really a sports book, but I’ll have to fight off that image. I did do a short chapter on what it was like to work with Molly Ivins. She certainly changed the sight and sound of the Tribune newsroom when she arrived. I promised I’d share that chapter with you. Enjoy! Dave.  

Molly Ivins Teaches Us New Words                       

     She was totally unlike any new hire in recent memory. When The Minneapolis Tribune hired someone from “outside the market,” it was a good bet they were talking about Fargo, Des Moines or Madison.

     Molly was from Texas and you couldn’t miss her.   

     She was loud. She didn’t sound like anyone else in the newsroom and she was tall. If she were a basketball player, which legend said she was, she would have been a power forward.   

     Molly taught us all how to swear.     

     She was good at it, and she knew words we’d never heard before.   

     It was difficult for Molly to complete a sentence without swearing. Her favorite word was “sumbitch,” which we learned could be either good or bad. For instance: “That dumb sumbitch was so stupid he could dive off the dock and not find water.” Or, “…you had to admire the way that sumbitch could put words together.”           

     For much of her brief tenure with The Tribune, she was assigned to the police beat. They clearly didn’t know what to make of her, but legend had it that they named a pet pig “Molly” in her honor.           

     There was little factual support for stories about Molly. She became a bit of an instant legend.            

     Stu Baird, the genial City Editor, once claimed that he had gotten a complaint from the police that her language was too salty. He never offered any proof, but there was little reason to doubt it.           

     After graduating from Smith College, getting a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University and spending a year in France, she joined the Tribune in the fall of the year, arriving from Texas without an overcoat.           

     A few weeks later she entered the newsroom in a floor-length reddish orange maxi coat which nicely matched her red hair. As she walked slowly through the newsroom, Frank Premack shouted, “My, God, it looks like a bad paint job on the Foshay Tower!”           

     Molly’s response to one of the most senior members of the newsroom staff was that he perform an impossible anatomical feat upon himself.           

     There were a lot of rumors about Molly. She once admitted to shoving Linda Johnson (the President’s daughter) into a lake at summer camp.           

     When Molly left the Tribune she wrote a magazine article called “The Minneapolis Tribune Is a Stone Wall Drag.” It chronicled her three years at the paper and the reasons so many people left. Today, many of us still have copies of that story, and we were saddened in January 2007 to learn of her death at age 62 from an aggressive form of breast cancer.           

     Her columns were carried in more than 400 newspapers, and her numerous obituaries carried a number of her better quotes.           

     She loved to attack Texas politicians and once wrote of one, “If his IQ slips any lower we’ll have to water him twice a day.”           

     While covering emerging politicians in Texas she began to refer to President George W. Bush alternately as “Shrub” or “Dubya.” Upon his election as President she referred to him as President Billy Bob Forehead. 

     To Ivins, Arnold Schwarzenegger was “a condom filled with walnuts.”           

     Writing about Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair, she referred to his character as “weaker than bus station chili.”           

     Molly was one of the great characters to grace this region, and she left us far too soon.                                               

                                                                                ######                       

An Open Letter to Nancy Barnes

Dear Nancy,

Good interview in Sunday’s paper (Opinion Exchange, page 2).  Your answers to Kate Parry’s questions were thoughtful and encouraging, and good responses to the many questions people have about the future direction of our local paper, The Star Tribune.  I only hope they weren’t overly optimistic.

Of all the executive editors the paper has had over the past 10 to 15 years, I’m thinking that you may be among the best qualified to bring a clear-eyed view of the business, as well as the profession of journalism. 

From a journalistic point of view, for example, I was delighted to hear that you have an interest in local news.  We’ve lived through some jarring years of goofiness – strange, sometimes hilarious titles for editors and plenty of amorphous beat assignments, the kind that allowed reporters to slide into a tenured professor mode, allowing them to largely avoid the day-to-day machinations of government, our schools, the university system and the business community.  So the hint that you may be moving the franchise in a more traditional direction is heartening.  I was also interested in your thoughts about multi-media coverage, which acknowledges that up-and-coming generations simply don’t read newspapers – and probably never will.

It’s when we get to the business side of the equation that I worry.  Your MBA notwithstanding, I’m not sure I’m ready to buy the view that the Star Tribune’s new owners are Swell Business Guys who need a “thriving, healthy and growing paper” in order to make money. Private equity firms can, but don’t always make money that way.  The moniker often applied to their line of work is: “strip it, flip it.”  And there’s enough spoor pointing to that scenario to be worrisome.   

First, if nothing else, the Strib is a paper that generates a great deal of free cash flow, important here because FCF services debt, and if there’s one thing private equity firms are all about, it’s debt – and making those monthly mortgage payments.  With interest rates edging up, and circulation and ad revenues (particularly classifieds) edging down, I worry mightily that all the lofty talk about a strong and growing newspaper will end up being just that – talk.  It brings to mind a story, however apocryphal, about a particularly penurious owner of the Worthington Daily Globe who, some years back, reportedly took to monitoring toilet paper use in the johns.

I also worry about things like news hole. The paper feels skinnier and skinnier – especially the business section, a preserve near and dear to my heart.  Couple that with a design style that occasionally eats up half to two-thirds of a cover with some silly graphic, and it means that stories, particularly enterprise stories, are both shorter and rarer. Now clip back on your staff a bit – whether through voluntary buyouts or forced layoffs.  Oh, and also require the reporters left to feed the web on a 24-7 basis, generate video, audio, cell phone alerts or whatever, and suddenly a serious, responsible newspaper becomes ever so much Styrofoam packing for ad content.

I wouldn’t be so worried about all this if we weren’t already facing a severely weakened Pioneer Press, a situation that places even more of a burden on the Star Tribune to set a high standard for coverage, commentary and, when necessary, combativeness.

All this brings to mind a column Garrison Keillor wrote many years ago, pulling for Bill Clinton when he first took office. As he wrote then, I feel like the outfielder on a little league baseball team on a hot July afternoon, crouched in position as the pitcher winds up. “Hum-babe, easy out, you can get ‘em, just three pitches. Hum-babe.”  I’m rootin’ for you, Nancy, and all those other people in that newsroom who will be trying to pull this off.  But I can’t help but worry that we have David Ortiz at the plate here.

Carideo

3M Too Cautious in Crisis?

“3M peed in the pool and they have to fix it,” a resident of Oakdale, a St. Paul suburb, told Star Tribune reporters Dick Meryhew and Mary Lynn Smith.

Is there a health problem with drinking water in St. Paul’s suburbs? Perhaps. But 3M certainly has a reputation problem that’s spreading like their chemical plume in the groundwater. How are they doing at handling it? Is it getting away from them? What do you think? What should 3M be doing and saying?

 

It seems to me that 3M is playing it too safe – not a surprise for a cautious company. 3M, from what I can read, is sticking to a “the chemicals aren’t harmful” basic message. An important point – but will it be accurate over time? And isn’t there more to say?

 

The background: Chemicals called perfluorochemicals (PFCs) that 3M used in manufacturing for 50 years have shown up in the groundwater, soil and wells in the eastern metro area. PFCs are normally in people’s blood, in minute amounts. Large amounts, some health officials say, can cause cancer in lab animals. There’s no evidence yet of harm to people, but there are no studies of long-term effects. People in the eastern metro are worried, and many are drinking bottled water. 3M – a revered corporate citizen for decades – is being sued and is showing up in media stories about polluted wells and unhappy residents. This is tough stuff.

 

3M has a lot of credit in the goodwill bank here. Lots of jobs. Lots of taxes. Lots of support to arts and philanthropy. A good home-grown global company. But this spreading crisis could break the bank.

In media stories, this is 3M’s position on the PFC pollution: “In over 30 years of monitoring the health of our production employees, we have not seen any adverse health effects to our employees or to anyone from these materials,” spokesperson Bill Nelson told Minnesota Public Radio.

They could sound a little more human, a little more concerned. What if they said, “Clean water is a precious Minnesota resource, and as a century-old Minnesota company, we are of course concerned with preserving clean water. We are carefully investigating the source and effects of the PFCs and we’re working with health and environment officials to find out what should be done to protect the water we all depend on.”

3M lawyers are, probably, telling the communication people not to say much — certainly nothing about guilt or being sorry. Most lawyers want their companies to say too little, while most communications people want their companies to say too much. Both the current and future reputation and legal position of the company need to be protected. Legal and communication counsel must determine together what can be said that is straight and doesn’t give the shop away to plaintiff’s attorneys.

 

But wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear something like this: “Look, this stuff was approved for use, we believed we disposed of it safely, and there’s nothing showing it’s harmful now. But it’s leaking into our water and we’re going to find out what’s going on and fix anything we should fix.”

What do you think?
Austin’s buying a round – tell us your advice.

-Benidt

Whose Side Are You On Anyway?

 And then there is the issue that great philosophers have debated through the ages.  After they wrestled with “who am I,” “the meaning of life,” and “the chicken or the egg”, they dared to tackle the most baffling question of all: 

What the hell is a PR person’s role anyway?   

  • Company Gal?  Some great thinkers said with great certainty that the media relations representative should be the organization’s unflagging advocate, the Company Gal or Guy!  
  • Reporter’s Pet?  Others argued with equal vim and vigor that media relations people should be the reporter’s advocate and assistant, the Reporters’ Pet! 

This great thinker’s answer?  The true role of the PR flack is…drum roll please…to marry the organization’s needs with reporters’ needs. 

I know, I know.  Balance is boooooring.   

But the problem with the pure Company Gal model is that no organization can effectively tell its story if it doesn’t understand and accommodate reporters’ legitimate needs. 

To do their job, reporters need prompt, brief, relevant, entertaining, interesting and truthful information.    If you don’t pay attention to these reporters’ needs, the organization’s story will go untold, undertold or incorrectly told.  So, the flack does often need to fight for reporters’ requests within the organization, and that is why employers often wonder whose side we are on. 

The problem with the pure Reporter’s Pet model is that organizations can’t effectively tell their story if their legitimate organizational needs aren’t met.    If accommodating reporters’ need for speed and spice results in responses that are false, incomplete, unsupportable, unethical, inane or illegal, the organization can encounter problems a helluva lot more damaging than a bad news story.  So, sometimes the flack does need to slow things down, limit access, build internal consensus and triple check before they respond, and that’s why reporters love to hate us. 

Media relations people have to strike a balance between pissing off people who keep their families fed and pissing off people who ultimately win most arguments because they buy ink by the barrel.  In the process, the good ones end up making both sides merely frustrated rather than furious.   

So, if I have to choose between a PR guy who is loved in his employers’ boardroom versus one who is loved in newsrooms, I don’t want either.  Belovedness is a red flag in the media relations world.  To do their job right, media relations people need to get love from their mommies, not reporters or employers.  – Loveland

Pros and cons of shooting off your mouth

 

Let’s hear it for intemperate comments.

Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels says “burn North High School down” because he’s unhappy with the quality of public schools, and people are riled up. What comes of it? A debate on the value of public education and how it should be supported and funded, and Anna Nicole’s terminal vapidness gets elbowed aside for awhile by an important issue.

The flap — some of it silly, some substantive — has lasted over a month. There’s been anguish and anger. The best result of all this was North High students getting back in Samuels’ face last week and standing up for their school. You gotta love it, young people provoked into getting rowdy in a good cause – “I’m not here to be knocked down. I’m proud of myself and proud of my school,” Courtney Bell told Samuels (who thanked her for speaking up).

Samuels is complex, and his views are hard to categorize. He’s pissed off people of all races and all political persuasions. But he’s thoughtful and he cares, even if his language puts both of those points in doubt sometimes.

“Can anyone who speaks forcefully, and without regard for image-management, get a chance in our culture of cheap outrage?” asks Adam Platt, the editor of the very good Samuels profile by David Brauer in February’s Mpls St. Paul magazine. The negative sound bite has, for many people, overwhelmed the context and the seriousness with which Samuels does – and all of us should – take the issue.

But Samuels calls it like he sees it, tells it like it is. Not everybody’s going to like it – I disagree with some of what Samuels says – and the tough brash language may keep some people from hearing him. But he just might wake some people up, too.

Platt’s thoughtful reflection on the article and the heat it’s generated, and a link to Brauer’s story, are at:

http://www.mspmag.com/features/features/63803.asp

-Benidt

The Special Relationship

Buy a round for a table of PR types and throw the raw meat into the tank:

“What drives you crazy about reporters?”

Stand back.

Funny thing is, you get the same reaction from a table full of reporters when asked about PR types.

Welcome to the love/hate relationship between flacks and hacks. In truth, we need each other and we drive each other crazy in equal measure. The relationship is powerful and intimate; I’ve had periods in my life when day-in and day-out I’ve had longer, more intense conversations with the beat reporter at the Star-Tribune than my wife. I’ve yelled, cursed and hung up; I’ve been yelled at, cursed and hung up on.

On the surface, most reporters profess to not care much for PR types, with the level of antipathy ranging from mild annoyance to active, seething hatred. Their gripes about us tend to be in one of four categories:

1. We’re incompetent and powerless.
2. We’re competent and powerless.
3. We’re incompetent and have some power.
4. We’re competent and have some power.

#1, #2 and #3 are why our business sometimes deserves the bad rap it gets…

#1 is the “Buffy/Biff” stereotype of the 20-something who robo-pitches/responds and doesn’t know – or care – about anything not on the script or the attached Q&A. Journalists hate these folks because they’re numerous time wasters. Eventually this function will be replaced by a robot (and has been to some extent already by the web).

#2 works for a company/client who doesn’t trust them or take their advice so they’re always operating on bad information or playing clean up, spending capital to fix messes that probably could have been avoided if they had been sitting at the table when something stupid got decided. Journalists learn that these people can’t help them much so they quickly become irrelevant. Most of these people eventually find other, hopefully better, jobs or quit trying to play Atlas.

#3 is somebody who actually has the ear of the CEO or the leadership team and doesn’t know what to do with it. The stereotype is the guy who has been at a company forever, know everything and everybody but probably don’t actually know much about the practice of communications (to say nothing of what’s happened culturally and technologically in the last 20 years). He has two stock responses to every situation – “no comment” and “call the editor.” Journalists use these people without them ever knowing what hit them – they’re easy pickings.

#4 is where all of us PR types should want to be – the “trusted advisor” model we talk about. My theory is that if you play this role with decency, civility and a bit of self-deprecating humor about yourself and your company, journalists may not always like you, but they will respect you and – more importantly – work with you. They know you have information and access that is valuable and that your clients/company leadership supports you.

When journalists don’t like this type of PR practitioner, it’s because we insist on “interfering” (translation “participating”) in the telling of our company’s/client’s story and this can make more work for lazy/imperious/agenda-pushing reporters. #4s have opinions, points of view, we push back on premises, sources, causality, news judgment and more. We reward good behavior and punish bad. We’re willing to be proactive and aggressive, to use all the resources at our disposal to fight back against reporting that is not in our company’s/client’s interests and to be forceful advocates of what advances those interests. That’s our job, IMHO, whether we are doing consumer events to help introduce a new product, doing litigation or crisis support or helping a company navigate the process of building a new manufacturing plant in a community.

Notice I didn’t say our job is to ensure “fair” coverage; that’s the media’s job in this culture and under the rules the media claim to uphold. Our job is to be the best possible advocates for our companies and clients within the bounds of ethical, honest behavior.

So, I’m buying a round for the house…what really drives YOU crazy about reporters or PR people?

– Austin