Steve Barrett on PR: 6 degrees of “How the hell do I keep up…?”

Seven months of lockdown have turned even the most placid, measured and calm PR professional into a frazzled mess of contradictory feelings. But the work must go on and the pace of change and information deluge is faster than ever.

NBC's Kristin Welker facilitated a much better presidential debate calmly and authoritatively. (Pic: Getty Images.)
NBC's Kristin Welker facilitated a much better presidential debate calmly and authoritatively. (Pic: Getty Images.)

The news cycle moved at a particularly furious clip this week and it’s tough for a busy PR pro working long hours from the home office to keep up with everything that impinges on their lives.

From agency news to the final knockings of the febrile presidential election campaigns to big brands unveiling their Q3 numbers to tech platform meltdowns to brands navigating difficult situations on social media, here are six items that particularly caught my eye over the past seven days:

WELKER WINS FINAL DEBATE

NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker gained deserved plaudits from both sides of the political divide for her performance in moderating the second and final presidential debate between incumbent Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden.

Her calm, firm, knowledgeable and authoritative style kept the two men largely in check, especially compared to the chaotic first debate, which degenerated into a schoolyard slanging match that was not a good look for anyone, from the candidates to Fox News moderator Chris Wallace to the image of the United States.

Welker and the debate organizers were certainly helped by having recourse to a mute button this time to stop the duo overrunning and shouting over each other, but the threat proved much stronger than the execution and it was only rarely invoked during the 90-minute debate in Nashville.

Legendary news anchor Dan Rather took to Twitter to give a "tip of the Stetson to Kristen Welker" and dubbed her “a consummate pro on a big and difficult stage." Even President Trump, no fan of NBC and the rest of the “fake news,” commented half way through the debate that he thought Welker was doing a fine job.

With 50 million Americans already having voted and most others pretty entrenched in their views of the candidates, it’s unlikely last night’s debate moved the needle in terms of affecting the result of the election. But it was a much better advertisement for American politics and America in general.

TRUMP HIJACKS 60 MINUTES PROGRAM PLAN

As has been the custom for generations during U.S. elections, President Trump was interviewed at the White House by veteran 29-year 60 Minutes journalist Lesley Stahl this week for a bit that is scheduled to appear on the CBS channel this Sunday night.

He became unhappy with Stahl’s line of questioning and cut the interview short, eschewing a preplanned extra segment featuring himself and Vice President Mike Pence.

Trump’s team had been filming the interview separately to the broadcaster, supposedly for White House archives, but the footage was released on Facebook on Thursday in unprecedented fashion, a few hours before the final debate between Trump and challenger Joe Biden and days before the program runs.

Stahl interviewed Pence, on his own, and that footage was also released on Facebook by the White House press team.

The uncut footage is revealing and provides a rare glimpse under the hood of the TV production process. It will be fascinating for viewers (well, certainly for this viewer) to compare and contrast the two versions and see what CBS did with the raw material.

But while I thought the two men were complaining unduly about what were fairly standard questions and nothing they can’t have anticipated beforehand, I have to admit after viewing some of the raw footage I also wasn’t particularly impressed with some of Stahl’s interviewing.

Clearly she is a long-standing and respected journalist of high repute, but I don’t think it is good enough for her to state “I’m not going to fact check you,” as she did at one point. To me that’s saying “I’m not going to do my job.” And she seemed to be lacking in hard facts to respond to Trump’s statements and factually inaccurate claims.

I couldn’t help comparing this interview to the one Trump did with Axios reporter Jonathan Swan in August. Swan had all his facts to hand on multiple issues, pushed back on the president when necessary and interrupted with detailed responses when Trump made inaccurate claims, rather than, for example, Stahl’s “You know that’s not true Mr. President” when Trump claimed to have engineered the greatest U.S. economy in history.

However, the fact remains that the decision by the White House to go rogue and air the interview ahead of broadcast time was a breach of the contract between subject and interviewer and an unwelcome precedent that I hope doesn’t become habitual.

MEGA BRANDS UNVEIL Q3 NUMBERS AND TRENDS

Q3 financials season is in full swing and the normally dry numbers are providing fascinating glimpses into the fortunes of major brands during the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, economic recession and lead-up to a seminal presidential election.

Unilever ramped up its marketing activity in Q3 and says will do so even more in Q4, according to CEO Alan Jope and CFO Graeme Pitkethly on an analyst call to accompany the Anglo-Dutch CPG giant’s latest financials, including a 4.4% increase in sales, reported by our colleagues at Campaign.

So for all those proclaiming the end of the consumer PR boom and a return to the ascendancy of corporate work, maybe it’s worth listening to this high-profile CFO.

“We are investing heavily in marketing, let's be clear, to support our brand campaigns,” he said, adding “in Q3 there was a big step forward against Q3 of 2019, a big step up in [brand and marketing investment], and we will spend even more of an absolute step up in the fourth quarter that is coming up," he said. "We'll continue to do that because we've got great assets, great innovations to invest behind.”

Pitkethly argued that increased spend was justified because “the effectiveness of what we spend on our brands is more effective than anyone else." Unilever’s principal PR partner is Edelman and some of its eye-catching work was heavily honored at last week’s PRWeek Purpose Awards.

Unilever’s big rival, Procter & Gamble, also posted impressive results, Q1 for the Cincinnati based behemoth as its financial year runs on a different schedule to calendar year. Organic sales were up 9% year over year in Q1 globally and 16% in the U.S. Its homecare category was up a staggering 30%.

Coca-Cola made the bold decision to suspend all marketing spend early in the pandemic but its Q3 financials this week indicated a return to investment. While Q3 marketing spend was down 30% year over year, Campaign also reported that the soft-drinks manufacturer said there was a “sequential improvement” of about 65% on Q2’s level of spend.

“I'd expect Q4, based on what we're seeing around the world, for us to continue to have targeted investments in those markets where it makes sense to do so,” said CEO James Quincey.

IPG'S MICHAEL ROTH TO STEP DOWN

The succession plan at Interpublic Group around CEO Michael Roth has been a source of speculation for some years now and finally came to a head this week alongside the marketing services company’s Q3 financial results, when it was announced Roth would become executive chairman on January 1 to be replaced by IPG COO Philippe Krakowsky.

I must admit that when IPG ad giant McCann Worldgroup CEO Harris Diamond announced last week he was retiring at the end of the year I wondered whether this was the precursor to a resolution of the CEO succession.

Diamond had been mentioned as a possible successor to Roth 2-3 years ago, having so expertly turned around the fortunes at one of the jewels in the crown of IPG’s agency network. But the runes have been pointing in the direction of Krakowsky for some time now and it is no surprise that the two Brooklynites are heading into the sunset at around the same time.

As former CEO of Weber Shandwick and PR agency umbrella group CMG, Diamond is well known to PRWeek readers and was inducted to our Hall of Fame in 2018. It will be interesting to see if he calls it a day and enjoys retirement or seeks new challenges elsewhere after a break.

Roth will be a tough act to follow and has been a firm hand on the tiller at IPG, steering it through tough times into prosperity and acting as genuine advocate for diversity across the organization, as he explained in an interview with Weber CEO Gail Heimann at our PRDecoded conference last week.

Separately, like most agencies IPG's PR firms struggled year over year in Q3, down mid-single-digits according to CMG CEO Andy Polansky. But they have certainly been on a tear recently, with Weber winning a potential $50 million CDC contract, Current picking up the Subway global AOR account and Golin snagging several high-profile pieces of work including General Mills, Johnson & Johnson skincare, CDC's Center for Global Health, Micron as lead for a cross-agency IPG team and Southern Comfort via its creative agency subsidiary Brooklyn Brothers.

The only blot on the landscape was Golin losing its $6 million anti-smoking assignment and subsequent appeal for California's Department of Public Health.

QUIBI BITES THE DUST

Plagued by trying to establish itself during a major health pandemic, short-form mobile content streaming platform Quibi always seemed an ill-fated venture to me.

It was long on hype around the “Hollywood meets Silicon Valley” superstar management team and amount of investment dollars raised, but short on real substance and audience demand.

After weeks of ominous drumbeats of negativity it was no surprise when founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and CEO Meg Whitman threw in the towel this week in what they said was a bid to return as much capital to investors as possible.

Investors are certainly not happy and they want their money back, but that’s not really how this speculate to accumulate thing works, is it? For me, it was a tale of hubris and an inability to communicate exactly what the product offer was and how it would resonate with consumers, at a time when, to be fair, people are desperate for compelling content to fill their lockdown hours.

Sure, the short-form concept wasn’t helped by the disappearance of commuters and long-form platforms have dominated during lockdown, but that hasn’t stopped the rise of TikTok, Triller and Reels. It just never found its audience, despite heavy promotional spending, and couldn’t catch on enough to grow organically.

Whatever its downsides, spare a thought for the many hard-working content producers who invested their hearts and souls in the venture and will now be seeking work in a major economic recession.

WHO’S ZOOMIN’ WHO

Please, please, please, whatever you do, don’t take your laptop into the bathroom on work Zoom calls. It’s never appropriate and it’s certainly not funny, under any circumstances.

Stay safe and well out there – and have a good week.

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