Sunday, February 27, 2005

Business Conversations With Lois Whitman And The Guy Who Sees It All

David Silverstein is the CEO of Breakthrough Management Group (BMG), the world's fastest growing Six Sigma* training and consulting firm. BMG clients include Johnson & Johnson, Fidelity Investments, Siemens, Borg-Warner and Qwest Communications.

I have always wanted to do this -- share information that I’ve learned from my many business partners/associates/clients over the last 39 years. But I never had a platform before. Sure, I wrote for business publications and some Internet sites, but I had to fit into their standards.

I get around. I ask questions and touch on topics only close friends would dare to probe.

David was willing to give me the lowdown on corporate America. He visits more companies around the world than most business people. He gets very close to business leaders, hears their woes, and counsels them on business performance and innovations.

He looks like Lance Armstrong, speaks and thinks like Jack Welch, and interrupts business kind of like Jon Stewart does our government.

First sound bite from David: “Most senior executives today are not good strategic planners.” Ouch, do you really mean that? “There is a big difference between being a strategic thinker and a strategic planner. Strategic thinking means, ‘I have great ideas and I can see where to go.’ Strategic planning means, ‘I know how to put them into place to get where I want to go.”

David said most executives are missing core competencies today to be effective. The business landscape is changing so fast because of technology and globalization. Executives, he said, think they are learning every day because they sit in meetings, go to conventions, attend seminars, and read their journals. “That’s information gathering. It is impossible for them to process information they get today based on their education 20 to 30 years ago. They haven’t updated their ability to process the information and develop new skills.”

David’s remedy is to get senior executives back in the classroom. A formal education once in a lifetime is just not enough in today’s world. He feels we all need formal training every 10 years in order to have the skill sets needed to lead. “Fifteen years ago, most of us didn’t have a PC on our desk. Just look how the world has changed.”

In a Jon Stewart ”Moment of Zen,” David chuckles that many leaders still don’t have a PC on their desk and their assistants print out their emails.
For all of you who have never heard of Six Sigma, will never go back to a classroom of any kind, and are happy with the status quo, I got David to tell me eight salient points of business today.

1) Systems Literacy or Systems Thinking -- how to see a business as a complex system where all the parts are intertwined.

2) Processed Thinking

3) Strategic Planning

4) Product and Processed Design

5) Best Practice Discernment -- the ability to discern what is right for you

6) Learn To Think In Terms of Probabilities Versus Certainties

7) Strategic Structural Problem Solving

8) Culture Building By Design, Not Happenstance

I wanted to put David’s jargon to the test. What happened to Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard? Where did she go wrong?

“Carly was a gambler, not a risk taker. As a gambler, Carly played for the upside. It wasn’t her company. What did it really cost her if she failed? There were big financial rewards for her if it all worked out. It could have made her a billionaire. A good risk manager would have seen the imbalances between the upside return the downside risk. In the case of HP buying Compaq, the downside risk was far greater than the upside return. She gambled and lost. The downside was just too overwhelming. Carly was a great strategic thinker, not a great strategic planner. It is all about execution.”

Thanks, David, for your learned thoughts and for sharing them with us for free.

*Six Sigma means something different to every company. For some, Six Sigma is a total management philosophy, for others it is simply a process improvement effort designed to increase productivity and reduce costs. In its most simple sense, Six Sigma is a highly disciplined approach to decision making that helps people focus on improving processes to make them as near perfect as possible. The term “Six Sigma” relates to the number of mathematical defects in a process. Six Sigma practitioners focus on systematically eliminating the defects so they can get as close to “zero defects” as possible. If done properly, Six Sigma ensures that internal processes are running at optimum efficiency.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Spread The Word -- Pay For Play Is Not Reality TV

Just the other day, the New York Times ran a story by Anne Kornblut saying that David M. Walker, Chief of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), issued a widespread warning that Federal Agencies may not produce newscasts promoting administration policies without clearly stating that the government paid for the program. The government is doing something about it, and now it is time for corporate America to say, “No!” to sponsoring phony TV news broadcasts.

“Prepackaged news stories," Walker explained, "can be utilized without violating the law, so long as there is clear disclosure to the television viewing audience that this material was prepared by or in cooperation with the government department or agency."

Bravo, Mr. Walker for letting Americans know that twice in the last two years, agencies of the federal government have been caught distributing prepackaged television programs that used paid spokesmen acting as newscasters and, in violation of federal law, failed to disclose the administration's role in developing and financing them. What this means is that Federal Agencies produced a TV show that looked like a news program but was actually a pre-paid video news release that was distributed to stations across the country. The two cases referred to by the GAO concerned the new Medicare law and an anti-drug campaign by the Bush administration. Now who is going to police Corporate America?

More and more, PR agencies and the clients themselves are looking for a quick fix to their publicity programs by paying anywhere from $25,000 to $150,000 to be a part of a phony TV newscast or a bogus TV feature that will provide significant exposure to their products or services. These productions are not done by legit editorial people who get paid by the networks to have unbiased opinions but rather by video production houses that know how to mimic the real thing. Many times the video production studios will even hire the likes of Morley Safer or Michael Douglas to act as hosts of their shows... I often wonder if these notables realize that appearing in one of these fake programs could mean the kiss of death to their careers.

These practices have been around for years and the phone calls from the 561 area code -- where a lot of these corporate video production companies reside -- seem to be creeping up more and more. Every day I get a call from a 561 area code video production company telling me that one of my clients is being considered for a feature story on hot new products for a holiday gift-giving segments. I get a good laugh when they twist the words about being considered. Instead of just coming right out and saying that for X amount of money the product will get top billing, the production houses pretend that there is an editorial consideration.

Boy, are they slick. Their pitch almost sounds like the real thing. Very tempting. But this old war horse has seen it all and pre-paid programs are no substitution for the real thing. Shame on PR agencies who try to pass this off to clients as true editorial placements, and shame on corporations who are so desperate for editorial coverage that they will pay their way to try to fool the American public.

I am happy to report that the American viewing public gets the last laugh. Most of the pre-paid TV news and feature stories never see prime time no matter how much the video production companies swear they have major viewing audiences. Most of their programs run in the middle of the night, in cities no one has ever heard of -- or in a lot of cases they do not run at all. There is a happy side to this that could satisfy their egos: Sad sack corporations or desperate PR agencies can pretend that they received quality coverage because they are furnished with DVDs of the program, which they can show to shareholders and/or clients. All they have to say is, “Here is a copy of that program that I told you we were featured on.”

Spread the word: “It is not real!”

Sunday, February 13, 2005

A Friendlier New York Is No Surprise To This Native

How can you be in PR -- based in New York, no less -- without commenting on "The Gates" in Central Park? I want to tell you what I think, considering I’ve been in public relations for almost 30 years representing anyone and anything from painters, authors and start ups to large corporations that rank in the top 10 in the world. I am also a New Yorker who grew up in Queens for my first 26 years, and have been right here in Manhattan for longer than that.

Anything that gets New Yorkers to smile at each other and talk about the abstract is a good thing – not to mention something that brings in the bridge and tunnel crowd on a weekend when they could be snuggled at home in front of the boob tube while their fireplace crackles away. I love it when you walk down the street and people smile at you, wave if you’re walking the same kind of dog, or go out of their way to hold the door for you. It just makes me feel so good.

Friendly gestures are really what New York is all about. It never amazes me when people visiting from other cities tell me how friendly New Yawkers are. I get a personal thrill when I see people from all walks of life -- tall, short, fat, thin, old and young -- helping each other out on the simple things in life. It was much more evident right after 9/11 when everyone in and around New York united against the enemy, the terrorists. Every cabbie, doorman, truck driver and traffic cop set the tone by wishing you well, bidding you good day, and giving you an acknowledging nod of “we are one” that made this place so special. Now, a few years later, we still have some of that, but people get caught up in their own preoccupations that make cheeriness something difficult to sustain on a regular basis.

Yesterday, I felt some of that underlining unification as thousands upon thousands of people came out to see “The Gates,” which are comprised of 7,500, 16-foot tall gates that hold panels of orange-colored pleated nylon swaying along the 23 miles of walkway in Central Park. The streets surrounding the park, as well as the walkways themselves, were jam-packed with diverse groups of people sharing comments on the artwork, their journey into New York, where they were going to eat, what they were going to buy the kids, and what else of value was to see near or around the area. People who never would have talked to each other found a common ground for discussion.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude call "The Gates" as much a public happening as it is a vast environmental sculpture and a feat of engineering. It has required more than 1 million square feet of vinyl and 5,300 tons of steel throughout the park at a cost of $20 million that they financed themselves. The artists love the fact that the crowds are talking about the art and talking to each other.

New York is all about getting things you can’t get anyplace else. I like the idea that we should be the city of smiles and congeniality. It is good PR for the city and it makes us feel good too.

Read what the NY Post has to say.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Trump fails to recognize the miracles of PR

I just opened the January 31st issue of PR Week to page 13, and after seeing a big picture of NY Mets superstar Mike Piazza signing autographs on boxes of Proctor & Gamble’s Crest Vanilla Mint Toothpaste for Team Apex on last season’s The Apprentice, I am angry all over again. What angers me so much is that the team lost the task even though they managed – in a very short period of time – to secure a major personality who agreed to brush his teeth at the public launch of this brand in front of a chanting crowd in Manhattan’s Union Square Park. Not only did he brush his teeth, he said out loud for the camera crews, newspaper reporters, and bloggers like to me to hear that he has been using Crest toothpaste all his life, never had a cavity, and liked the taste of this new toothpaste. He then greeted the thousands of fans who gathered around, signed autographs on promotional fliers and boxes of toothpaste that were given out at the event.

You just can’t put a dollar amount on this kind of publicity that is still making print and broadcast news months and months after the event took place. I want to remind everyone that Mike Piazza is not a full time pitchman for Crest nor does he get paid millions of dollars for endorsing the toothpaste. This was a one-shot deal for $20,000. Most celebs with his cache won’t even cross the street for that little money. I might add, many seasoned marketers that I meet in the business wouldn’t know how to hook Piazza without a big check and wouldn’t even be able to create such a great hook for the launch.

It was a genius marketing idea that even Team Apex had no idea would blossom this way. Yet, they had a strategy in mind and developed a concept in such a way that it allowed miracles to happen. That, my friends, is what great marketing is all about. Not to recognize this coup on prime time TV, and not to underscore the value it brought to Crest’s Vanilla Mint Toothpaste forever and ever, is just as dumb as marrying the woman who publicly told your wife on the slopes of Vail that you had been sleeping with her for years and the sex was the best she ever had. Just what are you thinking, Mr. Trump?

You bill yourself as Mr. PR, the comeback kid who just keeps getting richer and richer. Every idea of yours, every piece of property you develop, every woman you marry is supposed to be the pinnacle of greatness. How much did all of that cost you? Certainly not as little as the $5,000 Apex went over in the $50,000 budget you established to create a buzz for the new toothpaste. Yes, that is 10 per cent overdraw, but give me a break. You awarded the other team, Mosaic, with dinner on the Queen Mary 2 because they stayed within the budget.

I bet if you asked most of your viewers what the Mosaic team did to earn that reward, most would not remember. Let me recall the winning concept for all of my readers who can’t remember either. Mosaic gave away three $5,000 prizes in a circus-like atmosphere populated with fire-eaters, stilt-walkers and jugglers. Yes a crowd gathered, in Washington Square Park, but not nearly as many who jammed in to meet and greet with Mike Piazza. I dare you to ask any of the park goers that day what the event was for and they wouldn’t have a clue.

Let’s review why the Apex team went over budget. Some no name printer bullied them into over-time charges for printing the promotional flyers for the rush job. Apex asked the printer for a price when they commissioned the work, but the printer said he wasn’t sure. If the Apex team handled their finances in Trump-style they would have told the printer to take a hike on some of the inflated costs and stayed within budget. That is the real world, Mr. Trump, and you should know it because you created it and that is exactly the way you do business.

When I wrote a letter to George Ross (the corpse who sits beside you on each episode) complaining about Apex’s raw deal, he wrote back tersely that they went over budget and that was that. I am going to Google Mr. Ross to see if he ever had an entrepreneurial job, or is he just talented as your “yes” man? And to the two P&G executives who appeared on that segment of The Apprentice and who agreed with your decision, I say, “Thank your lucky stars that you can hide under the P&G brand.”