Learning and Leaving From Brussels

By Monty Hagler
Let’s start with the end.
There are remarkably few reminders of the March terror attacks in Brussels until you depart for the recently reopened airport three hours in advance of the flight home, laden with Belgian chocolates. Traffic jams and merges into a single lane on the approach, allowing soldiers at multiple check points to peer into vehicles as they slowly move forward. Taxis drop passengers 400 yards from the terminal. Hundreds of people drag their bags towards the base of the parking deck. Then up you climb, circling the spiraling car ramp in loops that make you breathe like the 30-minute mark in spin class.
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Happy Birthday RLF

Today is RLF’s four-year anniversary. No fooling. It has been a fun, wild, white-knuckle ride that has only just begun to take us down the road we decided to explore in 2007. 

There are many things I am proud of — the outstanding work of our employees, our contributions to our professional and civic communities, our ability to navigate tough economic times, the national recognition and the successful campaigns we’ve been part of. There are even more things that I am thankful for – clients who have entrusted us with their brands and reputations, employees who have left secure jobs to help build our young agency, friends and family who have provided steadfast counsel and support.
We have evolved significantly in just four years. We’ve added global capabilities and depth with our partnership in the Worldcom Public Relations Group, the oldest and strongest of the global networks. We now have more than 110 partners in the United States and around the world that we can (and already have) call upon for expertise, advice and assistance to better serve our clients. We have also significantly expanded our creative and production capabilities to meet client needs. 

Along the way, we’ve never wavered from the core principles that gave us the courage (and audacity) to think we could build a better agency. Those principles include:
– Clients always define success.
– Only good surprises.
– Work with clients who are industry leaders, or who seek to become one.
– Be dedicated to Ideas, Strategy and Service.
To all those who have supported, encouraged, referred, cajoled or counseled us to help us get better and stronger – Thank You.

RLF Communications Named Finalist for Prestigious PRWeek Award

When RLF Communications undertook the assignment to promote the International Civil Rights Center & Museum’s historic Feb. 1, 2010 opening, our objective was to capture national recognition for a civil rights landmark. We were extremely pleased with the campaign’s results and honored PRWeek has named it
one of the year’s top five promotional campaigns. RLF Named 2011 PRWeek Award Finalist
The list of PRWeekAward finalists represents some of the biggest and best public relations companies in the world (Fleishman-Hillard, Golin Harris, MS&L, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide) advocating causes both serious (bringing clean water to 1 billion people, celebrating the Boy Scouts of America’s 100th anniversary) and fun (Pop Tarts in Times Square and Christmas Caroling to Celebrate the Holidays). It will be a pleasure to share the stage with these agencies and their clients at the awards ceremony in March. We also look forward to celebrating with our Worldcom Public Relations Group partners who are finalists in other categories, such as Padilla Speer Beardsley and Marina Maher Communications.
To learn more about the PRWeek Awards, and the list of 2011 finalists, click here. And if you haven’t made plans
to visit the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, we hope you will journey to North Carolina soon to see this
national treasure and visit the RLF office just a few blocks away.

International Civil Rights Center & Museum
Feb. 1, 2010 Grand Opening of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum shortlisted for 2011 PRWeek Award - Promotional Event of the Year.

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.”

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.