Former Secretary of Defense Declares War

 Former Secretary of Defense Declares War

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Could PR get any worse for the Obama administration after the HealthCare.gov debacle? Last week, former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates released Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, which reads like a secretary declaring war on a sitting president.

Highlights include Gates writing of a meeting on the war in Afghanistan in March 2011. “I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghan president Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his… For him, it’s about getting out.” Similar candor was used to describe Congress and US Vice President Joe Biden.

Why write a scathing memoir about a sitting president and a war in progress? The media’s verdict is that Duty could be retitled Betrayal.  In interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Gates obliquely said, “My objective was to…try and provide a non-partisan look at the kind of issues that have riven our country and riven our government for the last number of years.” Which doesn’t explain the need to do it now as much as another statement: “Why was I so angry all the time? …because getting anything done in Washington was so damnably hard.”

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Candor guarantees media time. While Gates has been criticized for the harshness and timing of his book, he has dominated the media. In a sea of watery apologies from politicians, Gates comes off as a strong and outraged voice. He may inflame, but if nothing else he’s seen the trend of growing impatience with politics and has acted on it. Right or wrong? Immaterial; the answer is, effective. 

 

Walmart Chooses to Show Face Rather Than Lose It

 Walmart Chooses to Show Face Rather Than Lose It

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Walmart showing face.

Thanksgiving in America is a celebration of abundance, but not so for workers at Walmart. Just before the holiday break, petition group MoveOn.Org released a statement about Walmart  setting up a food drive to feed the hungry on Thanksgiving – not for the homeless or a charity bank but for their own workers.

A long-known fact that minimum wage is not a living wage has received special attention in the past year. McDonald’s employee budget sheet would have been laughable had the need for it not been so dire. Employees of fast food restaurants and retail stores are barely able to pay bills, buy food, clothe their families.

Yesterday, TV news magazine CBS Sunday Morning did a segment on “Fight for 15,” a campaign to raise minimum wage to at least $15 (the federal minimum wage starts at $7.25 and is adjusted at the state level). The report noted that “of all the corporations Sunday Morning reached out to, Walmart was the only one that would provide an interview.” While David Tovar, Walmart’s VP of Communications, was only quoted as saying that they “don’t want people to stay in entry-level jobs very long,” the fact that the demonized company allowed an interview was a bold move indeed.

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) to Walmart for showing face toward an ugly accusation.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Silence is not always golden.”Guilty as charged” is the only conclusion the public can, and will, draw from a corporation that turns down a request for interview. Given the way the Sunday Morning segment was edited whether direct questions weren’t asked or weren’t answered is unclear but Walmart main PR point was made: Walmart creates jobs. Not the entire story, to be sure, but the PR task at hand was to remove the demon mask from the corporation. Keep the good face on and there may be reason for all to give thanks.

Mariel Hemingway’s Crazy (But Not Insane) PR Blitz

 Mariel Hemingways Crazy (But Not Insane) PR Blitz

The PR Verdict: “A” (PR Perfect) for Mariel Hemingway.

This past weekend, readers of the New York Times Magazine met a vibrant health nut with an outlook as sunny as her blonde hair. Similarly, viewers of highly-rated news program CBS Sunday Morning watched this same woman bouncing on a trampoline and discussing her family. Neither would be extraordinary except when speaking of Mariel Hemingway, granddaughter of legendary author Ernest Hemingway and heir to grave family misfortune.

In contrast to Mariel Hemingway’s smoothie-making, trampoline-jumping optimism is the legend of the rest of her family. Ernest’s story, ended by his own hand with a shotgun blast, is well known, but only one of many suicides in the Hemingway clan, including Mariel’s sister, supermodel Margaux.

Mariel has made conscious, if somewhat predictable, life course changes: yoga, meditation, a clear eye at the role alcoholism played in her family. She is now the subject of a documentary, aptly titled Running From Crazy. The film premiered to praise at Sundance and will open in theaters November 1.

Hence the media blitz, and a more perfect subject could not be found. At 51, Mariel Hemingway is beautiful, fit, and swiftly becoming that latest darling of buzzphrases, a “lifestyle brand.” She’s a happy surprise in the “whatever happened to” annals of celebrity. She comes from one of the most storied families in America, and she’s more than willing to discuss her family tragedies. However, she’s not airing dirty laundry. Rather, she seems to be saying that if she can survive the Hemingway curse, adversity is something that can be bounced back from. Perhaps on a trampoline.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to Mariel Hemingway.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: While using the PR playbook, rewrite and improve. Some typical PR ops are celebrities making a comeback; celebrities getting healthy; celebrity memoirs; and famous family secrets. Hemingway puts a new and optimistic spin on them. This is a story that could have gone so wrong and yet has gone so right. Instead of being a joke or a bore, Hemingway is the happy ending her grandfather could not have written.

Yet Another Blow for LIVESTRONG

 Yet Another Blow for LIVESTRONG

The PR Verdict: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Lance Armstrong’s cancer charity LIVESTRONG.

As Lance Armstrong entered a public event for the first time since his admission of doping banned him from professional cycling, news show CBS Sunday Morning did a segment on Armstrong’s cancer charity LIVESTRONG. Just as there were questions about whether Armstrong won seven Tours de France without enhancement, some are now asking whether LIVESTRONG is a charity, or an enhanced way to make money.

The first blow to LIVESTRONG was, of course, the doping scandal. Armstrong stepped down from the organization to avoid tainting it, and for a while, that seemed to work. Months later, Nike dropped its lucrative sponsorship deal with the company, saying it couldn’t tacitly approve of Armstrong’s doping and lying by maintaining sponsorship. Still, LIVESTRONG insisted they’d soldier on in their efforts to benefit those stricken with cancer.

And what, exactly, are those benefits? A donor and former LIVESTRONG volunteer is asking, via a lawsuit. The Sunday Morning report revealed that LIVESTRONG no longer invests donated funds into cancer research. A LIVESTRONG spokesperson says they help cancer survivors improve their lives via  free advice and referrals and that 82 cents of every dollar donated goes to help cancer survivors. The report reveals that the figure includes marketing, a “rainy day” fund of $13 million, and executive salaries. Whatever the breakdown, while Armstrong distanced himself from LIVESTRONG, questions of truthfulness haven’t gone far.

THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for LIVESTRONG. Revelations such as this may be the death of this “cancer survivor” organization.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Stay true to your mission, or face possible consequences. Consumers reacted badly to New Coke; how will donors react to the revelation that LIVESTRONG, a cancer fund, does not fund cancer research? This switch in focus came about rather quietly, as has the fact that LIVESTRONG sold their name to a for-profit health and fitness company that runs LIVESTRONG.com, as opposed to LIVESTRONG.org. Among charities, transparency is key to long life and steady funding. When that transparency reveals an inconsistent message, prepare to divert some of those funds to damage control.

To read the CBS Sunday Morning report, click here.