Leadership Press

BlueBell’s wonderful brand is at risk. Because they don’t understand PR.

3/15/15 Important update: It has now been determined that Blue Bell was not responsible for these deaths.  WSJ article here.  And, in that article “Mr. Marler said he thought Blue Bell had responded appropriately once it knew its products were linked to illnesses and deaths.”

My criticisms of Blue Bell are not relevant now; it seems they have done a laudable job of turning this around, and the news cycle has moved on to other things.

Still, below is a good overview in general of dealing with crisis PR. The original post, below:

Ah, people don’t read this blog and pay the penalty. If the BlueBell people had read How to Not Get Killed in a Press Interview, or my post on Intuit, they would have understood the dangers of not getting ahead of a potentially vicious news cycle.

BlueBell is dealing with a problem, that if not handled correctly right now, will blow up in their faces.  You see, a few of their “novelty” ice creams have been contaminated with Listeria bacteria, and three people have reportedly died.

Died. As in Dead. RIP. That sort of thing. Now, these were people in a hospital, and were likely older and had compromised immune systems. But they still died.

So here’s BlueBell’s response: a quaint post on their front page:


Followed by some bland talk:

For the first time in 108 years, Blue Bell announces a product recall….One of our machines produced a limited amount of frozen snacks with a potential listeria problem….When this was detected all products produced by this machine were withdrawn.  Our Blue Bell team members recovered all involved products in stores and storage…This withdrawal in no way includes our half gallons, quarts, pints, cups, three gallon ice cream or the majority of take-home frozen snack novelties…For more information call 979-836-7977, Monday – Friday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. CST or click here.

The CEO, Paul Kruse, just isn’t handling it right. Look at the tone of some of his remarks to the press:

“They feel that this one production line we use here is what might have caused the problem,” Kruse said. “It’s a complicated piece of machinery, it’s been down for about a month and a half, and what we’re likely going to do with it is throw it out the window, so to speak.”

Mr. Krus, with all due respect, three people have died, apparently because of your company’s mistake.

Where is the “devastated at this loss”, “we have immediately taken action…”, “we have formed a team to directly work on the problem”, etc., etc.

The playbook here is fairly straightforward. The perfection of crisis PR handling was achieved by Johnson & Johnson chairman James Burke, during the Tylenol poisoning tragedy in the 80s.  The case studies are numerous, but the key is:

  • Immediately come clean on everything you know. No obfuscation or corporate speak. No excuses. Plain, simple English. What happened, why it happened. If you don’t know, the answer is “we are aggressively investing this issue”.
  • Apologize and show genuine sorrow over the deaths. Ignore the lawyers, who are telling you not to admit fault. Your brand is at risk.
  • Immediately and actually handle the problem.  Not just “we’re going to throw out this machinary”. Something is wrong in your quality procedures if this machine was even allowed to continue in operation. Bring a reputable quality inspection team to go through a top-to-bottom review of your factory. That kind of thing. And then communicate this aggressively.
  • Detail the steps you are taking to make sure the problem never occurs again
  • Continue an active communication cycle
  • Fill the vacuum with credible information, through the press and through advertising.  “Our state-of-the-art factory”, pictures of people in clean suits working on ice cream, that sort of thing.

I love BlueBell. In fact, on our Sunday evening family dinners at my house, it’s the standard treat we serve. I wish them well.

But PR screwups like these, not handled correctly, can cause more damage than one would imagine.

Mr. Kruse, get your act together. You’re no longer an ice cream maker. You’re a news maker.


Are CMOs insecure?

AsdfasdfasdfasdfasdfasdfAre marketers an insecure bunch? Apparently, that was the impression made on some viewers at yesterday’s Big ReThinkg US Conference.

A good roundup of the conference is at VentureBeat, here.



Windows 93 finally delivers on the promise

AsdfasdfasdfadfYeah, there’s a new version of Windows out, and it’s Windows 93.

And it’s complete, utter awesome madness.

Link here.  



How to hire great people — a deal at twice the price

NofailThis book is free for the next couple of days and is avialable here on Amazon.

If you’re involved in hiring people, I highly recommend this great book by Patrick Valtin, a good friend of mine who is one of the top HR consultants in the world.


Bad stock photos now being done professionally

IStock-Unfinished-Business-1Istock-unfinished-business-hed-2015Ok, I really had a hard time controlling myself on this one. This parody of bad stock photos by Vince Vaughn is classic.

Link here.



business advice Humor security

Focus on the importances. Empower others. Be happy.

UntitledIf you’re heavily stressed as a business leader, the business is running you — not the other way around. Chances are you’re not prioritizing correctly, and you’re not delegating.

I’ve worked with CEOs who put in an insane amount of hours and don’t do any better than CEOs who work a fairly normal schedule (granted, usually 50–60 hours a week).

One could describe a leader as someone who establishes and communicates clear goals, gets the right people in place, gets everyone working toward these goals and focuses on what’s important.

Culture is an additional ability of leadership. Culture is less important, actually, than fanatical execution on a clear set of goals. Ping pong tables, beautiful offices — nice — but not vital.

The core is figuring out where you’re going, getting the right people going in the same direction, and focusing on what’s important.

Sounds easy, but it’s an art.  It’s why great CEOs are paid a lot of money and are in high demand, because it doesn’t come intuitively or naturally to a lot of people.  However, it can be learned.

Teaching leadership skills, however, isn’t the purpose of this blog post.  I’m just going to tell you what’s important.

There are just a few things that you have to do really, really well in this business.  If you do those well, everything else follows.

Many years ago, one of my early mentors told me, “if you just focus on creating a great product, support it well and do a good job on PR, you should do just fine.”

Not bad advice.  I’ll expand on it with a bit of my own experience.

Here is the scale of importances in running a product or services business.

1. The product or service.
2. The quality of the product or service.
3. Support/customer service
4. PR and marketing
5. Sales
6. HR
7. Finance/administration/legal

Assign KPIs to each area (you can’t manage what you can’t measure…). At the beginning of every week, go through each of these areas by yourself. And then go through these with your senior staff at your Monday morning staff meeting.

The funny thing is that as an executive, you may find yourself spending a tremendous amount of time keeping people focused on doing the important things. And, you may find yourself burdened down with things that aren’t that important. People add complexity to everything they do.  It’s a natural tendency, but it generally means that they are not confronting what really needs to get done (either because they don’t know, or because they don’t understand something).

If you establish an organization with this set of importances, you’ll increase your chances of doing well.

The mistakes I’ve made are when I’ve reversed the priority — too much emphasis on finance, or sales, etc. The product (or service) is the most important thing to focus on (read my other post, The Product is All). Give the accountants the problem of worrying how to book the revenue. Give the sales and marketing guys the problem of actually getting the revenue.  And get the product guys firmly lined up with what’s needed and wanted from the market, and delivering it.

And lead a less stressful life.


Net Neutrality

UntitledNet Neutrality is a Good Thing (what is pretty mindblowing is how thoroughly the entrenched and very powerful vested interests — the telecommunications and cable lobby — got their posteriors royally kicked).

How it happened I’m not too thrilled about. But the devil is in the details. 

I think the best, most reasoned response comes from the EFF, an organization that you can put a high degree of trust in when it comes to internet policy.

So congratulations, Team Internet. We put the FCC on the right path at last. Reclassification under Title II was a necessary step in order to give the FCC the authority it needed to enact net neutrality rules. But now we face the really hard part: making sure the FCC doesn’t abuse its authority.

Link here.
business advice

The product is all

type-setI loved Bob Lutz’ book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters.  It is a virtual ode to product people.  Lutz is one of the most important people in the history of the American car business, because the supremely ugly American cars we saw back in the 80s were made by committee, but the great cars that we’ve been seeing lately have come from product folks.

It brings to mind a memory as a young marketing manager starting out on my career. I was standing outside with an old geezer of a sales guy while he puffed away on his 50th cigarette of the day. “If the dogs won’t eat the dogfood, it won’t sell. I don’t care how many pretty pictures you put on the packaging”. Sage advice.

The product (or service) really is everything.  It seems like an obvious statement, but it’s of such vast importance that if it’s not made a key importance, you’ll never succeed wildly.

People talk about the magic of Apple.  Why?  Because their products are incredible. Customers don’t know you through your income statement, nor your legal department.  They know you through your products.

The worst sales team in the world is transformed into the “greatest” sales team with a good product.   A weak marketing department is suddenly on fire with a great product.  PR comes easy with a great product.

So what is your product or service?  How do you make it?

Good product development starts with a something that is actually desired and in need.  This does not come about through theorizing.  It comes about through talking to customers and prospective customers.  One of the most successful consumer products of all time came from an in-home visit.

I rarely released a product without doing extensive surveys to understand customer needs and wants.  Pragmatic Marketing, which runs product management and product marketing seminars, has an acronym – NIHITO.  It stands for Nothing Important Happens In The Office.  All this means is that a product manager who is sitting in his office, not talking to customers, is not getting the real story as to what’s actually needed by the customer.

It’s good advice.

Sometimes you have an absolute genius (or you are one yourself) who can think up the most amazing product ideas that are all wildly successful.  Consider yourself lucky if you have a spare Steve Jobs lying around the office.

But the reality is, most companies don’t have geniuses like this.  You need to work for it. You need to talk to the customer.

If you talk to the customer, the product ideas roll out naturally.  If you don’t, you’ll find yourself arguing theoretics in meetings at the home office.  I’ve been there too many times.

So talk to the customer and figure out what they want.  Then document it and use the information when you talk to the people who make the product (the engineers, the developers, whomever is making the product in your company).

In an online world, you can do surveys for nothing.  We used to run surveys for $20k-$30k just per product. Now, services like or Google’s consumer survey service make the cost negligible. Give survey respondents a chance to win a gift card, keep the survey short and sweet (longer surveys lose respondents), create questions that have meaning (don’t ask stupid questions because some guy in the office insisted – ask questions that will give you a real answer) and most importantly, get it out and use the data. There are also tricks, like using Google’s keyword finder to locate what people are looking for online right now.

It sometimes occurs that product developers (or others) don’t believe survey results.   This is normal and I’ve had this problem.  You don’t need to be combative (“I have the survey and you are an idiot for not believing it” doesn’t always work).   Developers really do have good ideas, but the broader point is that the customer cannot be ignored in the process.

There are examples when surveys were a bust.  However, on further analysis, it was because the surveys didn’t get the right answer.  A famous example is the battle between Steve Jobs and the marketing department at Apple.  The marketing folks had surveyed customers about what type of printer they wanted.  They asked for a daisy-wheel printer (for those of you who weren’t around back then, this was basically a typewriter attached to a computer).  Jobs, in his typical fashion, refused to agree and argued that customers would want a laser printer.  He won the argument, and there was the birth of desktop publishing and so much more.

However, the problem is fairly clear.  Reading through the results, the customers were asking for a letter quality printer.  They didn’t know about laser printers, they knew about daisy-wheel printers.  The survey could have been done quite a bit differently with much different results.

Surveys can also take the form of surveying your competition or using secondary research (meaning, outside analysts firms that create research).    Secondary research is often a bit dangerous.  Whole fortunes have been lost following the lead of an outside analyst.  You need to keep your wits about you and try to filter out what’s important.  However, analysts do create a lot of noise and they are worth listening to.  Just use your own common sense.

You can also just use a prototype or a beta to figure out if customers will like the product. A famous story is Dropbox.  The creator, Drew Houston, created a YouTube video of the product, still in prototype form (this is the idea of a Minimally Viable Product).  People loved it.  The rest was history.

Doing surveys to define products is a bit of an art form and takes some practice.  But the key point is – don’t design products in your own little bubble.  Get the customer involved with the product creation process and you’ll win.

business advice venture capital

A term sheet that you can actually read and understand. Hmm…

confused womanEven super-smart guys can get confused over term sheets when raising capital. London-based Passion Capital put in place a term sheet that anyone can understand. You can see it here.


A great C&D response

I’ve had the joy of responding to C&D letters all too many times in the past.  But in this case, the lawyer actually used the word “meanie”.  Love it.



business advice venture capital

Term Sheet Math — When Is Your 66 Percent Really 52 Percent

Good overview of dilution by my friends at Foley.

When negotiating valuation for a financing, an investor may conduct detailed due diligence and then present you with a term sheet that reflects multiples, discounts, comparables, and so forth. In the end, you are negotiating for percentage — how much of the company will the investor get, and how much will you keep? Your investor is focused on maximizing return on investment. You are focused on keeping meaningful upside for your innovation and hard work.

For example, if you raise $5 million on a $10 million pre-money valuation, you will be giving the investor 33 percent of your company. You keep 66 percent. But that 66 percent may not be really be 66 percent even before you take into account any later dilution by subsequent rounds of investors. There are at least three reasons why.

Link here.


How to not get killed in a press interview like Tumblr

UntitledIf you want to see a CEO experience a deer-in-the-headlights moment, watch this video of Tumblr CEO David Karp get killed by a sharp reporter on Squawk Box.

It’s painful. (And his mention of the Bill of Rights, while using wording of the Declaration of Independence… eeesh.)

The fault lay in his prep work, which was shoddy.  Going on a show like Squawk Box is no light thing. This is a show whose whole premise is the art of the argument.

In other words, when you’re going to show up at a gunfight, don’t bring a knife. Bring a gun.

Now, I empathize with him. Many years ago, I was one of a bunch of young VPs at a hot software company (Quarterdeck, now Symantec). Our PR exec was (understandably) very worried about our dealings with the press.  One day, I remember her mentioning that we were going to get media coaching, but didn’t pay much attention to it.

A week later, I had just gotten into my office early in the morning, when the whole room exploded in light. There was a reporter with a cameraman barging into my office.

Now, if you haven’t experienced this kind of attack reporting, it’s very unnerving. So I was immediately on the defensive.

“Mr. Eckelberry,” the reporter said, aggressively. “What is your comment on the fact that your software is being used right now by the government of Bosnia to manage the ethinic killings of thousands of people?”


Totally taken by surprise, I gave some mumbled reply, something to the effect that “we can’t be responsible for how our software gets used.”

Then the PR exec walked in and told me I had failed the first part of media coaching. The reporter, who, it turned out, was actually one of the media coaches, was kind about it.  But the rest of the day was spent getting drilled cold on handling the press. And I’ve been working with the press ever since, including stints on national television, radio and various print media. I’ve had varying degrees of success, but at least I know when I’ve made a mistake.

So I had my own “deer-in-the-headlights” moment.

But that doesn’t excuse what happened. His mistake was a) poor preparation and b) poor coaching (which would include heavy amounts of drilling for every type of question asked). In fact, I might look to his PR agency more than I’d blame him.

There are some pointers to remember to avoid getting caught like David Karp.

–  Recognize that the normal rules of communication in a combative situation like this don’t apply. This is a fencing match, not a light dinner conversation with a group of friends in San Francisco.

–  Always have an “island” you can retreat to. This is a safe place, that you know cold. It is a positive response crafted as a response to an uncomfortble situation or a negative attack. Reporter attacks, you don’t know what to do, retreat to the safe place. Great politicians are masters of this. You may disagree with the tactic, but when you’re under the hot lights and a camera, you’ll be grateful to have this advice.

Reporter: “Your product is used in destroying the internet!” Answer: “We condemn any practice that would affect the rights and freedoms of individuals…” and then pivot to the “island”: “Our software is used for productive purposes by millions of people all over the world to create online communities that foster a better life…”

– Use verbal pauses to give you time. When you’re under the spotlight, a second feels like an eternity. But a casual “umm” is not noticed by the viewer. It will give you time to craft your response. It will also make you feel a lot less nervous.

– Don’t get trapped in the reporter’s language. General Norman Schwarzkopf was brilliant with the press. When asked if he was a hawk or a dove, he answered “I am an owl”. Genius response, but then, he was a pro. It takes time to learn how to think on your feet like this.

– Nature abhors a vacuum, so you must have facts to fill the vacuum. This is one thing that is misunderstood by a lot of execs, but it’s incredibly important.

Have facts at your fingertips, and counter negativity with actual information. “I hear you’re working with the NSA to create a backdoor for them to eavesdrop on citizens”.  Answer: “That is incorrect. Our software has gone through a rigorous audit by 17 different security organizations. In fact, there’s a letter I can point you to…”.  You can’t just say “no”. You must fill the vacuum.

–  Crises: If you screw up, take full responsibility, apologize, explain the steps you are doing to make sure it never happens again (and then do those steps).

I’ve had a few crises in my life. I had a news story blow up massively in my face once when it was found that our security software was mis-labeling an innocent component installed on Samsung laptops as malware. This blew up all over the internet, with claims that “Samsung was shipping malware”. Except: They were innocent. I did the only thing I could do — we found out it was a false positive, and I immediately issued a complete mea culpa with a plan on how to fix it.

And in a crisis, don’t ever say “no comment”. Say things like “We are aggressively reviewing the situation and will have a statement as soon as we have all of the facts”. Anything “no comment”.

Realize the court of public opinion is critical, and delays in response are deadly. The lawyers may be advising one thing, but lawyers aren’t trained in PR. Act fast, act decisively, act right, and the crisis will blow over.

Anyway, there is much more to be said about dealing with the media. The key thing to remember is preparation.

Most of the time, dealing with the press can be quite pleasant (especially trade press) and one doesn’t need to be in a hyper-defensive posture. But for those cases when you’re going to be attacked, be ready. As we used to say in the Boy Scouts, “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best”.

David, are you listening?



Apple and the line-extension trap

The phrase “line extension trap” was coined many years ago by marketing gurus Al Ries and Jack Trout to describe the disaster that occurs when a company extends its brand into an unrelated field.

Apple-iMove-Concept-Car-By-Liviu-Tudoran-08And now, reportedly, Apple plans on doing just that, which is… a terrible idea.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the 90s, he spent an enormous amount of time just focusing the company back on its core products. It was a company with so many models, no one could figure out what was wwhat.

And now… it’s exploding outward again. Unfortunately, without a strong central guiding personality, these things typically happen.

One thing I can assure you: If this is true and Apple launches a car, it’s time to sell your Apple stock. It will not go well.

(And in case you’re hopeful, the photo in this blog is actually just a concept by Liviu Tudoran.)


Drip marketing

Drip marketing is part of the Fat Funnel strategy discussed outlined in my other blog post, and it’s not always fully understood. Joe Stych has a great overview here, and you can also read Intro to Lifecycle Emails by Patrick McKenzie here.


Get your design freak on.

UntitledIf you’re a marketer, understanding design trends is vital. That’s why I like this post by on the online design trends for 2015, here.

One thing is clear: It’s all about the imagary.