2010 Sabre Awards Dinner

Even in a deep recession, the public relations profession is turning out amazing and meaningful work for clients.

That thought has resonated for me during the last month, since I attended the SABRE awards dinner at the gorgeous Cipriani building across from Grand Central Station in New York City in May. More than 1,000 public relations professionals had gathered for one of the big three awards shows to honor the best campaigns and teams in our industry (the PR Week Awards and Silver Anvil Awards are the other two major national awards).

Paul Holmes, the organizer of the SABRE Awards – which stands for Superior Achievement in Branding and Reputation – set the tone for the evening when he remarked that despite all of the economic troubles that have challenged our industry, the number of entries for SABRE recognition set a record (1,700) and the quality had never been higher.

As Paul noted, public relations has demonstrated that reach and frequency are not enough to create successful outcomes in today’s world. There must be engagement as well, and public relations has taken a leadership position among the communications disciplines in creating engaging, meaningful campaigns. This is particularly true in the realm of social media, which our profession has done a remarkable job of weaving into the overall communications mix.

Over the course of five hours (from the first cocktail to the closing coffee), Aleasha Vuncannon and I had the opportunity to talk with fascinating professionals from around the country, review the lists of finalists for the awards in each category, and enjoy the pageantry of an event as a participant (instead of as a behind-the-scenes organizer, which is our normal role!).

And when our time came, when the finalists for the top campaign in the category of Educational & Cultural Institutions were announced, we were thrilled to hear that our work in partnership with the International Civil Rights Center & Museum had been recognized as the best in our business. We had felt like it was worthy of this recognition. We knew how hard our team had worked and how much had been accomplished. Yet, we still held our breath in anticipation as the winner was announced, because every campaign that had made the finals had strong results.  It felt good to scream when we heard the results.

Here is a brief glimpse into the work that we did for the grand opening of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum:

After the dinner, Aleasha and I walked through Times Square at midnight, dressed in our best clothes, carrying a deceptively heavy trophy and reflecting on the evening (not surprisingly, no one batted an eye at us or thought we were out-of-place in the crazy scene that is Times Square). It feels good to do great work for clients, to create campaigns that generate meaningful results and advance our client’s objectives. We do this work not for awards, but when we strive to be one of the very best agencies in our industry, it is evenings like this that provide the mileposts to let us know that our agency is on the right road.

And the Winner Is…..RLF Communications

RLF Communications, led by its Creative Director Ron Irons, had a big night at the AAF Triad’s Addy Awards on Saturday. More than 150 people representing advertising agencies throughout the Triad attended this annual event honoring the best creative work in the region. Though it was RLF’s first time  entering this competition, it sure wasn’t beginner’s luck that we ended the night with 14 awards – all for  work done on behalf of our client, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.

RLF won the “Best of Show”, the evening’s highest honor, for the following ad:

RLF won a “Judge’s Choice” award (one of two) for the following ad:

In addition, RLF took home eight Gold ADDY awards and four Silver ADDY awards for other creative work on behalf of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. Congratulations to Ron Irons and everyone at RLF Communications for these well-earned honors

Click here to see more creative work for the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.

The Grind

CREDIT: Photo by richelleantipolo via Flickr (CC)

Part of my fitness routine these days is swimming with a Master’s team three mornings a week. At the beginning of the year, I made a simple sounding resolution — stick with the workout from start to finish. But it’s really not that simple.

Swimming, like many things in life, is more mental than physical. Once you are in relatively decent shape, it’s not that hard to swim 3,000 – 3,500 yards each workout. But mentally it is very hard to push through each set and not quit before the last lap. I have a bad habit of not finishing the final 20 laps and slipping out of the pool early.

After nearly four decades of competitive swimming and training, I call it The Grind. A quality workout is important, but there is no substitute for quantity. The Grind is about putting in the time and effort when it would be easy to slack off.

What applies to swimming is equally true for work. We are already seeing that 2010 is the year of The Grind. It requires long hours from virtually every level of an organization to get things done. The economy is improving, but it has not negated the need for perservance and hard work. In fact I believe in this environment those qualities are equally as important as being smart, creative and strategic in our business.

In January, I watched several members of the RLF team grind it out as they prepared for the opening of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. You know your staff is working hard when the security guard tells you that people are working too late.

The opening was a big success, and looking back, we cannot point to what particularly late night or extra effort made the difference. The work and commitment built upon itself, day after day, minute task after minute task. It would have been easy to leave things undone in the belief that small details were not important. But in the end, we know that they are. So we stick it out. We grind it out. And our clients and agency are better off for it.

PR leaders focus on trust at major industry meeting

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I recently attended a rousing discussion at the Critical Issues Forum hosted by the Council of Public Relations Firms in New York City. The Council is the leading industry association for just over 100 of the country’s top public relations agencies (and RLF is proud to be a member) and they convened some 200 agency and corporate communications professionals on the roles and responsibilities of our industry in getting the country back on track. I jotted down a number of comments that struck me as particularly insightful, misguided or just plain intriguing. I’m not the best note-taker so don’t quote me verbatim, but here are some insights shared by some top public relations professionals who participated in panel discussions, and my brief reactions.

  • One of the panelists quoted management guru Peter Drucker that “underneath the world’s problems are a raft of entrepreneurial opportunities.” A great perspective for all of us as we plan ahead for the next 3-5 years.
  • Another panelist commented that “let’s not confuse the fact that people may understand something, but really not care.” So true. If we think about levels of engagement in what we strive for – it is awareness, understanding, caring, acting.
  • One panel member strongly urged taking your communications staff to see Michael Moore’s movie Capitalism. Regardless of how people feel about the politics of it, it is a stark reminder of the gap that exists between corporate America and citizens. Might be something worth doing one afternoon.
  • The panel moderator commented that in an age of so many competing media streams, do we really know what “truth” is? Can PR professionals really make a claim on this front? Truth is influenced by context, and our job is to help give people more context.
  • The head of marketing for General Electric was great. She said their research is pointing to a new reality that people want “experiences not stuff.”  Our client Byron Carlock from CNL Lifestyle Properties has been talking about this emerging trend for years and it is right on the mark

  • David Gergen, former White House advisor, warned corporate America that they are not out of the woods in being held accountable to the public. With more than 10 percent of Americans out of work, a fact that will not change anytime soon, the mood is still fragile and that has implications for communications. He relayed the story about President Obama summoning nine CEO financial services executives to the Oval Office and telling them that he was the only thing that stood between them and the “mob with pitchforks.” Gergen’s point was that while the pitchforks have been put away, the mob didn’t toss them in the river. They are “in the closet, and it will not take too many missteps by corporate leaders for the mob to pull them back out if trust is not restored.”
  • On exactly that point of restoring trust, the head of communications for Morgan Stanley was completely out of touch. Perhaps it was just me, but his comments that “the financial crisis was caused because of irrational behavior” and that bank executives “deserve all of their bonuses despite the public bailout” came across as bitter. On the issue of bonuses, he lambasted another panel member who suggested that banks make contributions to help people in need rather than dole out all of the bonus money to executives. His response was something like “that is a cuckoo way of thinking. It’s like Bono thinking he can solve problems in Africa by just dumping money on the continent.” Does Morgan Stanley really think they have the moral high ground over Bono leading charity efforts in Africa?
  • Margie Kraus, CEO of APCO Worldwide, had one of the best comments of the day for leaders (and PR people). She said that we can all acknowledge that trust in institutions (corporate and political) are at all time lows, and for good reasons. She urged folks to not think this was going to change on its own accord. “If you want to earn back trust with the audiences that matter to you, then stand up and earn it. Find ways to reestablish the social compact.”

In tough times, tough leaders communicate

I recently attended the annual employee meeting at one of our client companies. Although I had no formal role in the process (their internal communications team does a great job organizing every facet of the event), I have been fortunate to attend the past five annual meetings. This year’s meeting – although smaller and more low key – may have easily been the best. The executives in this company focused on the core issues that employees are focused on in these turbulent times. With clear, compelling speeches and examples, they laid out the case that:

  • The company was on the right track to navigate difficult financial times, and that there is  a clear path forward that will allow the company, and its employees, to be successful.
  • The leadership of the company is committed and capable. At a time when corporate leaders are either being publicly ridiculed or jailed, it was critical for employees to see that their executive team is up to the task at hand.
  • Employees are the bedrock of the company’s values and vision. The capstone of the annual meeting was an awards presentation (complete with crystal trophies and $1,000 checks) that celebrated teamwork, innovation, leadership and community service.

Our client, like virtually every company in the U.S., has faced many tough challenges in recent months. But the character that was shown in how company leaders address those issues and lay out a vision for the future goes a long way to ensuring that its employees are committed to tackling the challenges ahead.

Beware Scooter Hypocrisy…


A year ago, I sold my beloved Lexus GS 300 and bought a scooter. It is Carolina blue, gets 75 miles per gallon and can exceed the speed limit on my short one mile commute to work.

Most people thought I was nuts when I made the switch. My wife was skeptical about our ability to “share” a car.   The RLF staff took up an office pool to see how long it would last. Clients lobbed in calls to laugh when the temperature was in the teens.  But some 750 miles later, the scooter is still my primary form of transportation (although RLF employees have learned to hide their car keys when I look like I am running late to a meeting.)

Many people ask if I sold my car because of a commitment to “go green.” As much as I would like to claim that mantle, I have resisted the urge.  Yes, there have been environmental benefits, but I cannot claim to be a leading edge environmentalist. I don’t recycle very well. I waste energy in many ways. And I’m virtually positive that I will own a car again in the future, and it may or may not be a fuel efficient vehicle (although no car can have worse gas mileage than our current Jeep).

The point is, I do not want to hold myself up to a standard that is not true to who I am or motivates my actions. Over the long run, my reputation and credibility will be damaged.

That is the advice we give clients who want to get credit for their environmental friendliness. Companies should absolutely get credit for environmental efforts, but there are short and long-term consequences to overstating ones actions. Charges of greenwashing (the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue) are difficult and messy to fight.

So, as I embark on my second year of scooter life, I want to thank my wife, staff and Avis Rental Car for helping keep me on the road when I need more than 2 wheels.

Public Relations is More than Negative vs. Positive Publicity

I’m going to violate our Orange Slices policy of not commenting on how companies handle public relations and media relations. In reading this morning’s Wall Street Journal, I was stunned to read the comments [subscription required] by Bayer CropScience CEO Bill Buckner regarding a tragic explosion at one of its chemical plants in 2008. Buckner is quoted as acknowledging that his company’s response efforts created “confusion and concern” because the company had tried to keep details of the explosion confidential out of a desire to “limit negative publicity.”

Note: If you cannot get to the WSJ article through the link above, you may be able to access it by searching for “bayer wall street journal” and then clicking on the first link, which apparently bypasses the newspaper’s pay wall.

I thought we had moved past the time when corporate CEOs think that they can hide or obscure information simply because they want it that way. That is difficult to do in the best of circumstances. It is virtually impossible to do when your building explodes, fireballs shoot hundreds of feet in the air, two employees are killed and rescue workers are injured. And it did not go unnoted that the chemical the plant produced was the same chemical that leaked from the Union Carbide plant in India that killed 4,000 people in 1984.

However, for our profession, the real issue is not the misguided desire to “limit negative publicity.” It is the continued misunderstanding and misperception that public relations is about good or negative publicity. Public relations is about managing communications with stakeholders who can help or hurt an organization’s mission by what they think, believe, say and do. It is an interactive process and it is an open process that builds trust, understanding and credibility. When the CEO of a major company talks about limiting information and obscuring details so that it could better shape the “public debate,” then we know our profession still has a long way to go in making our voice heard at the management table.