Category: reputation

How Not To Talk About Drug Prices

Photo by Chris Potter, courtesy of Used under Creative Commons license.
By Mike Kuczkowski


It was, according to Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli, “a great business decision that also benefits all of our stakeholders.”

Not so fast, buddy.

Shkreli was referring to his company’s decision to raise the price of Daraprim, a treatment for toxoplasmosis it had recently acquired, from $13.50 to $750 per pill. Some 60 million Americans carry the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, but most people are unaffected by it. For those with suppressed immune systems, however, like pregnant women or people with AIDS, it can be life threatening.

Turing’s move sparked a rhetorical war on drug prices tailor-made for our social media age. The story, which had been simmering for a couple of weeks in the infectious disease community, was broken by a trade publication Sept. 17. USA Today picked it up on the 18th. The following Sunday, The New York Times wrote about the price increase.

As the media coverage was amplified across social media, people expressed outrage. Shkreli engaged directly in the debate, crossing swords with media and others on Twitter. The 32-year-old tweeted more than 125 messages, many of them brusque and snarky. (He called the editor of one trade publication a “moron;” asked how he slept at night, Shkreli replied “ambien.”)

By Monday, the digerati were salivating at their newfound target: Gawker called Shkreli a “greed villain”; The Daily Beast declared him “Big Pharma’s Biggest A**hole”; a Reddit thread about the story erupted with more than 4,500 comments, including several ill-advised posts from Shkreli; Hillary Clinton tweeted that the price hike was “outrageous.” The S&P biotech index fell 4 percent following Clinton’s tweet.

Describing Turing as “Big Pharma” is misleading. The company was founded in February with three products in its pipeline and one FDA approved product. In August, it acquired Daraprim. Still, the public outrage machine, stoked by Shkreli’s tweets, was in full gear. Shkreli went on Bloomberg TV and CNBC to defend his company’s actions.

Shkreli’s broadcast performance had considerably more depth than his social media outbursts. Despite the occasional uncomfortable smile and body language, Shkreli made a reasonably strong case that the additional revenues Turing would receive from the increased price would benefit patients.

  • Saving people’s lives: We’re talking about a therapy that saves peoples lives, isn’t that worth more than $13.50 per pill?
  • Comparative value: The pricing of the (in some cases) life-saving therapy was in line with other life-saving therapies, such as cancer drugs
  • High costs of doing business: The costs of running a pharmaceutical company, which include manufacturing, distribution and regulatory compliance, are high
  • Investing in new medicines: Half the profits from Turing’s price increase would be used to fund research and development
  • Unmet need: Daraprim is a fairly toxic drug, Shkreli said, meaning there’s an unmet need for new therapies (this claim was disputed by some doctors)
  • Patient assistance: Co-pay relief and patient assistance funds would ensure that patients would not go without their needed medications
  • Patients first: The company would provide additional services for patients ‘beyond the pill’

In many respects, it was a strong performance. But, it did not work. Media were not buying his rationale – the $750 pill was exactly the same as the $13.50 pill – and his earlier combative posture poisoned any chance at redemption.

That same day, in what can only be described as fortuitous timing, Clinton outlined her proposal for prescription drug price reforms, including a copay cap of $250 and moves that would allow the federal Medicare program to directly negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies. This latter move would unquestionably alter the industry’s economics and business model, according to most experts, and runs a strong risk of reducing investment in innovation (though Clinton says it won’t).

Regardless, Turing was definitely experiencing its 15 minutes of fame. For the next two days, “Martin Shkreli” was more popular in Google searches than “Donald Trump.”

On Sept. 23, Shkreli backed down. He took his Twitter account private and announced Turing would lower the price, though he did not say what the new price would be. Clinton’s response, a one-word tweet: Good.

So exactly what went wrong?

Turing never should have raised prices that much to begin with — the business case wasn’t there. But that’s not what made Shkreli our “villain of the week.”

The issue of drug prices appears on its face to be a rational, logical issue. But it’s not. It’s an emotional issue. Specifically, it’s about the confusion, frustration and anger that patients feel at their increasing out-of-pocket costs (which is different, in most cases, from the underlying price of the drug.) This pent-up anger got a release valve with the Turing story, and Shkreli’s lack of empathy ran into that emotional vector like a buzz saw.

That’s instructive because while Turing’s moment under the microscope may be over — or not, depending on the eventual price announced for Daraprim – this won’t be the last time we hear about drug prices as an issue.

This June, at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago, I saw two converging forces.

The first was rooms full of doctors, investors and executives excited by the promise of immuno-oncology treatments (Disclosure: one of my clients is a biotech focused on immunotherapy). These drugs are expensive to produce. Unlike Daraprim, they represent real scientific advances. They are often showing promise in small patient populations, and may work best in combination with other therapies.

The second was concern about the price tag of these regimens, as embodied in a keynote speech by Dr. Leonard Saltz, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “These drugs cost too much,” Saltz said before a room full of oncologists and pharmaceutical industry executives. After the meeting, ASCO and MSKCC unveiled new tools aimed at reining prices in.

Those two forces are going to collide. The industry, particularly small biotechs who are betting their futures on successful regimens with small patient populations, are going to need to price their therapies at a relatively high price point in order to be successful in business. Yet payers and health systems are going to do whatever they can to keep prices down.

What should the industry do? There is a case to be made that the best strategy is to let the rhetoric pass and wait out the calls for reform. And, while the industry’s reputation will continue to suffer with such an approach, it might work.

But there’s also a significant risk that drug prices could become the one thing that Democrats and Republicans can agree on, and not in a way that favors the industry. A major policy move would be predicated on clear public support for such a move, and at the moment the industry is doing little to generate public favor. A recent poll showed that 72 percent of Americans think prescription medicines are unreasonable. Another poll says only 35 percent of Americans have a positive view of the industry. If pharma were a candidate for office, it would be out of the race already.

Here’s an alternative approach that could have worked for Shkreli, and can work for others:

Engage stakeholders: Shkreli and his leadership team should have talked to specialists in infectious disease, patient groups and payers – those “stakeholders” he could have been referring to in his quote at the top of this piece – about why the company needed to restructure pricing on the drug. See what tolerance stakeholders would have for a higher priced drug with the benefits of copay relief, patient assistance and additional research and development around toxoplasmosis.

Listen (and act accordingly): I’m fairly certain that if Turing had laid out its plans to stakeholders, it would have heard clearly that the $750 per pill price tag would spark outrage. That should have prompted a whole set of questions about the strategy itself that would drive better actions: Are we right that there’s a need for a less toxic treatment? Can we shoot for a more modest price increase? Can we show that patients need the services we are adding? What else can we do to support the infectious disease community and be a real partner? (I don’t see how you could ask those questions and not make a different move on pricing than Turing did.)

Be transparent: Don’t wait for the story to break against you. Put out information about pricing and the rationale behind it at the earliest possible stage. The several weeks delay between Daraprim’s price hike and Shkreli’s broadcast interviews explaining it cost Turing significant points in the court of public opinion. If they’d had a sound business case for the pricing, they should have put it out publicly.

Gilead Sciences issued the infographic below as a tweet explaining the pricing of Harvoni, a hepatitis C regimen that combines its existing drug Sovaldi with another compound. Harvoni, which costs more than $90,000 for a course of treatment, cures 94 percent of Hep C cases, saving the costs of liver failure and liver transplants, which can cost $600,000 per patient. It also compares favorably with other combination therapies. Still, Gilead taken heat for the price of the drug. They deserve credit for engaging in the conversation about pricing. (Note: this tweet led to a Motley Fool article titled “How Gilead Sciences Inc. Isn’t Gouging Hepatitis C Patients in 1 Simple Infographic.”)


Reference credible third parties: It’s hard for a pharma CEO to say, “doctors need this” and then be confronted by a journalist who says she just got off the phone with a doctor who says they don’t. No pharma executive trumps a doctor on matters of patient care. If an infectious disease specialist agreed with Shkreli, then it becomes an entirely different conversation. Specialists have a halo of credibility that commands respect and changes the conversation. Even credentialed experts within a company, such as lab scientists or chief medical officers, can serve in that kind of role, though external third parties who have no financial interest in the company are the best.

Act with empathy and compassion: I could rewrite this as “stay off Twitter,” but that’s too glib. Pharmaceutical company leaders need to demonstrate a fundamental understanding of what patients face when they have a serious health condition. That’s the starting point. Don’t start with “profits are essential.” Start with, “We’re working to give patients and physicians what they need.” And when you say that, have the research, insights and actions to back up that claim.

The world can look at what Martin Shkreli did as a cautionary tale and decide that there is no upside to talking about drug industry pricing. I say, look at what he did wrong and learn from it.

How Not to Handle a Crisis: A DeflateGate Update

Tom Brady, who is implicated in an NFL investigation into whether his team intentionally deflated footballs used in the AFC Championship Game in January. Photo by Keith Allison. Used under Creative Commons license.

By Mike Kuczkowski

In Week 7 of what was a tough 2014 NFL season, Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady was ticked off.

It was halftime, October 16. Patriots v. Jets. At home. New England was up 17-12, in a surprisingly feisty matchup. At the time, the Patriots were 4-2, having endured two tough losses in the first four games of the season. Brady had two touchdown passes in the game already, but he was annoyed at the condition of the footballs he was throwing.

He turned to John Jastremski, Patriots equipment assistant, and told him the footballs “f***g suck.”

Whether that was a flippant comment or the start of a conspiratorial effort to ensure that Patriots footballs were pressurized to below regulations, we still don’t know. We do know that four weeks later, against the Indianapolis Colts, the Colts intercepted a football from Brady that felt “squishy” in their estimation. They tucked that little insight into their proverbial back pocket, waiting to call the Patriots out on it if it ever became useful. (I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: this is the NFL’s Pine Tar incident.)

Fast forward to the AFC Championship Game, January 18. Patriots v. Colts again. Second Quarter, Patriots ahead 14-0. Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson intercepts a deep pass up the middle intended for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Jackson hands the ball over to Colts team officials, who test the ball and find it’s underinflated. They flag it to the NFL, alleging foul play.

And so, Deflategate is born.

This week, the scandal trudges on, with the release of a 243-page report from the law firm the NFL retained to investigate the Colts’ allegations. The DeflateGate crisis erupted the next day, dominated the airwaves in the two weeks before Super Bowl XLIX, and now, it’s back.

It turns out, not surprisingly, there are employees of football teams who spend a lot of time preparing footballs. Breaking in the leather, reducing or increasing the tackiness of the ball. Air pressure, at least for some, is actually a pretty big issue. Clubhouse attendants joke a lot about the fussy demands of quarterbacks. Signed game day jerseys and footballs are given out in gratitude to the men behind the scenes. It’s a big deal.

And, it’s not without drama. Among other disclosures, we can now read the text message exchanges between Jim McNally, Patriots locker room attendant, and Jastremski – the two men responsible for delivering game day footballs that Quarterback Brady would find acceptable – that are as ribald as any of the jokes about Brady’s “balls” published in the midst of the scandal.

In one exchange, October 17 – the day after the Jets game – McNally tells Jastremski that he plans to overinflate footballs, just to get back at Brady for complaining.

“Tom sucks…im going (to) make that next ball a f**in balloon.”

Whether these texts represent a “smoking gun” of conspiracy, or innocent banter between two colleagues is up for debate. (Check Twitter, the debate is happening.) But, it further cements DeflateGate as one of the more ineptly handled crises of recent years.

I opined on Deflategate back in January, and said there were a number of clear missteps by the Patriots and the NFL in their handling of the crisis. In summary, I said the Patriots (and to some degree the NFL):

  • Bungled their disclosure of facts
  • Fumbled the roll-out of information about the incident
  • Offered up extremely amateurish spokespersons
  • Failed to manage the calendar and resolve issues in a timely manner
  • Failed to provide context for the importance of the issue at hand

Let’s add “waiting until early May to release a definitive account of what actually happened” to the list. And, that goes onto the NFL’s ledger. Conveniently after the NFL Draft. They appear to have managed the calendar a bit, shall we say, too deftly.

That said, the report itself is revealing in its facts. Startling in its candor. Along the way, it raises a host of issues that spell trouble for the reigning Super Bowl Champions. Specifically:

  • Jastremski and Brady talked a lot about the condition of game day footballs, and Brady took a personal interest in virtually every aspect of how those footballs were prepared
  • Jastremski and McNally joked a lot about that process
  • McNally, who was responsible for taking the game balls that the referees had approved onto the field, left the officials’ locker room with the footballs without permission, which is a breach of standard operating procedure (Walt Anderson, the head of the officiating crew, said it was the first time in his 19 years as an NFL official that he could not locate the game balls at the start of a game.)
  • Game officials did not accompany McNally and the balls to the field, as is standard practice
  • McNally stopped along the way and took the balls into a bathroom and locked the door for 1 minute and 40 seconds

If any deflating was done, that’s when it happened. (Incidentally, McNally’s nickname, according to the report, was “The Deflator.”)

So the whole DeflateGate controversy probably was not much ado about nothing after all.

Perhaps most significantly, it makes clear that at least at some points in his career, Tom Brady has been very concerned about the issue of the amount of air pressure of his game day footballs.

And as early as 2006, according to reports, Brady was one of several quarterbacks who lobbied for a rules change that would allow visiting teams to have more autonomy in the preparation of game day footballs. In the report, as noted above, he definitely gives staff clear instructions on the condition and the pressure he wants in game day footballs.

The report also explains something I criticized back in January – and suggests a different explanation for the dynamic I observed than I expected.

In head coach Bill Belichick’s Jan. 22 press conference, he said he was “shocked” about news reports of deflated footballs and had no knowledge about the process of preparing game day footballs. He was monotone and came across curmudgeonly, as he often does. Belichick ended it by saying the media should ask Brady about the issue: “Tom’s personal preferences on his footballs are something he can talk about in much better detail and information than I could possibly provide.”

Belichick’s claims of ignorance ran against his reputation as an incredibly detail-oriented control freak. And, his “shocked” quote drew comparisons to Captain Renault’s declaration of innocence about the gambling at Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca.

A few hours later, Brady projected innocence and even bewilderment at the issue. In response to the question “Is Tom Brady a cheater?” Brady replied, “I don’t believe so.” Asked if he knew whether anyone on the Patriots had done anything wrong, he said “I have no knowledge of any wrongdoing.” In addressing how he liked footballs prepared for game day, he said he liked them inflated to 12.5 psi, which is the lowest level permitted by the rules, but that his process in general focused on picking gameday footballs based on their grip, not their inflation level. “It’s not like I ever squeeze the football, I just grip the football.” To many observers, Brady saved the day.

So, yay for Brady and boo (again) for Belichick. Except, the NFL report concludes in fact Belichick did not know anything about the issue. He was being honest and, I think, fairly transparent. Now it looks like Brady is at least stretching the truth, according the facts outlined in the report.

What’s next? Sadly, this report – 14 weeks in the making – doesn’t bring us what we need: Closure.

The report is detailed on the facts, yet equivocal in its conclusions: “(I)t is more probable than not that New England Patriots personnel participated in violations of the Playing Rules and were involved in a deliberate effort to circumvent the rules.”

Now what?

That shouldn’t even be a question. There is no reason this report should have been released without at the same time issuing suspensions or fines. It should be a one-day story. Rip off the Bandaid. Deal with the consequences. Move on.

Instead, it’s as though the report is a trial balloon, intended to gauge the public’s reaction to the facts before the league makes its move.

This shows the biggest problem the NFL has, the lack of a disciplinary structure for issues of this nature. Commissioner Roger Goodell lacks trust, and candidly as the head of the organization he shouldn’t be the one doling out discipline. Someone else, someone credible, even-tempered and with a deep reverence for the integrity of the game needs to have the role of fining and suspending players and teams that violate the rules.

Goodell will eventually address DeflateGate. He may suspend Brady for a game or two, banned the clubhouse employees from the league or fine the team. For now, all we can do is speculate.

Which means more debate on an issue that should already be in the rear-view mirror. Meanwhile, the list of ways in which DeflateGate is a case study in how not to handle a crisis grows longer.

The Reputational Costs of Litigation: Lessons from Pao v. Kleiner Perkins

By Mike Kuczkowski

Silicon Valley is abuzz with Ellen Pao’s gender bias case against venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers.

A former junior partner at KPCB, Pao, 45, alleged that male partners discriminated against female junior partners. Pao, who worked at KPCB for seven and a half years, said she was sexually harassed by a former partner. She claimed the firm retaliated against her by firing her after she filed her lawsuit.

Pao lost on all counts.

Pao’s lawsuit is a case study in the importance of communications to parties in a litigation. Delivering great communications support in the courtroom requires focusing on reputation as an outcome. Depending on what’s at stake, that can be as important as the verdict.

You can see that Pao tried to claim a reputational victory. In a post-verdict news conference, Pao said “If I’ve helped to level the playing field for women and minorities in venture capital, then the battle was worth it.”

That’s a big “if.” Many commentators agree Pao opened an important debate about the treatment of women in the corporate world. But in the course of her lawsuit, she shined a spotlight on bad behavior on both sides. And she ultimately failed to persuade a jury she had been wronged.

Here are some of the more salacious claims that emerged during testimony:

Claims that Impact Reputation

Ellen Pao Various individual partners at KPCB
–       Kept a “chart of resentments” against her Kleiner colleagues –       Consciously excluded women from a private dinner with Al Gore, saying that they would “kill the buzz.”
–       Had an affair with a married partner – who claimed his wife had left him, which later turned out not to be true – for six months –       Openly discussed their favorite porn stars on a private plane, when Pao was present (that’s according to Pao; another witness disputed this claim)
–       Sent negative emails about colleagues to partners behind the colleagues’ back –       Excluded women from a business ski trip
–       Was paid $200,000 in severance over a period of six months after being fired. –       Gave Pao “The Book of Longing,” a Leonard Cohen book of erotic poetry featuring nude drawings, as a Christmas gift
–       Is married to disgraced ex-hedge fund manager Alphonse “Buddy” Fletcher, who himself has a history of discrimination legal claims. (His personal debt has been offered as a motive for Pao’s legal action.) –       The same male partner who’d had an affair with Pao showed up at the room of another female Kleiner partner wearing only a bathrobe and slippers (He was later fired for this and other harassment.)

These gossipy details will stick with both Pao and her former employer for some time, and may have far-reaching implications. Both parties have the challenge of proving that they are not the versions of themselves on display in the worst days of court.

The Role of Communications

This is why communications should play a vital role in litigation.

In a litigation as high profile as this one, media relations is front and center. A lawsuit is conflict in a capsule, a natural draw to journalists and editors. I’ve been through this dozens of times, both as a journalist and as a PR professional. The legal filings and courtroom activity provide an easy narrative for reporters to follow, as two parties seek resolution of their claims. Day in, day out, reporters will look for a news hook in legal filings, courtroom strategy, testimony and jury deliberations, even if the actual proceedings are as dull as watching paint dry.

Many lawyers use media relations as a tactic to advance their own reputations during lawsuits. I’ve been in a situation where, after a good day in court, lead counsel of a high-profile lawsuit called me to urge the Wall Street Journal to run a prominent piece about the proceedings. I had to explain to him, an accomplished jurist, that that is not how media relations works.

Keys to Good Coverage

If you want good media coverage, you need to look beyond ‘winning’ each day in the media. First, you have to take the time to help reporters understand the process. Meet with them and a member of the legal team in advance of the proceedings. That way, you can brief them on the fundamental claims, the legal issues at stake, the key players and the calendar of events.

Then you need to align with the legal team on the day-in, day-out rhythms of court activity. What’s happening each week, and what do we expect from the other side. All of these details are worked out in advance, but often they are not shared with the communications team. If you can signal to reporters what to expect, you can become a trusted resource to the press, and that in turn will drive the media coverage. Reporters must file a story. That’s what they’re paid for, and in the era of the never-ending news cycle, they are often filing 140-character stories throughout the day. And like many people in many jobs, they appreciate knowing in advance when nothing interesting is going to happen.

In litigation like Pao’s, the attorneys for both sides are seeking to give their client the best representation possible, and to win their case. This invariably involves multiple fine-point decisions about legal strategy and obscure legal arguments. Some of this can get very arcane very quickly. And at times, what is efficient in the courtroom is not effective in the media.

An Approach for Litigation Communications

Once the lawsuit is in front of a jury, the role of the communications team is distinct from the legal team, but valuable. They should:

  • Own the narrative: Distill the essential legal maneuvers and arguments into comprehensible messages and narrative points.
  • Be compelling: Why does this matter? If millions of dollars are at stake, as is often the case in complex civil litigation, there’s most likely a compelling issue of fairness or ownership in play.
  • Make it relatable: Translating the legal issues into something we can all relate to is critical. Ultimately, many disputes ultimately come down to matters of fairness, ownership or righting a wrong. Who can’t identify with that?
  • Align the narrative with the legal strategy: Words matter. You can’t say things to the media that are at odds with what the legal team will say. Mine the legal team’s approach for a narrative and key messages.
  • Be resilient: There are three sides to every lawsuit: One side, the other side and the truth. Consider what the other side is going to say and how they will characterize or rebut your claims.
  • Be a resource: Lots of things that happen in court are complicated. If you can be the person who can explain it to the media, then you can be a valuable resource. And that means, you can get the ear of the media when it matters.
  • Strive for clarity: Lawyers are usually precise about the words they use. However, legal jargon can sometimes displace clear, simple language. Get a copy of Black’s Law Dictionary. Dig in and understand what the legal issues mean, and find the simplest ways to convey them.
  • Use the facts: Lawsuits ultimately involve a set of facts assembled to support an argument. That’s a framework with which communicators should be very familiar.

Reputation v. Litigation: Focus on Outcomes

Legal disputes have an ending, but reputations are enduring. In the end, both matter.

In the wake of the verdict, Pao is casting herself as a crusader for women’s issues. It will be interesting to see if her long-term career moves and activism keep her at the center of that cause, or whether that narrative was merely expedient to justify her actions. Anyone who will bring her on board as an employee (she is currently the interim CEO of the social media site Reddit) will now be aware of her tendencies.

For their part, Kleiner faces serious questions about its culture. Several observers have speculated that the firm may need to restructure. That’s no victory. It’s hard to imagine the lawsuit will improve their recruitment efforts among junior female applicants. Female business leaders may turn elsewhere for finance support.

Now, it’s up to us to decide whether what the firm said in a post-verdict email to reporters is true: “Today’s verdict reaffirms that Ellen Pao’s claims have no legal merit. We are grateful to the jury for its careful examination of the facts. There is no question gender diversity in the workplace is an important issue. KPCB remains committed to supporting women in venture capital and technology both inside our firm and within our industry.”

The lawsuit is over, but both sides lost the battle of reputations. Now the process of rebuilding begins.

Rules for Litigation Communications

By Mike Kuczkowski

The first move for anyone facing a lawsuit is to get a good lawyer.

The second move: get a good communications counselor.

In Pao v. Kleiner Perkins, (see The Reputational Costs of Litigation), both sides put significant resources into communications. Pao lunched with reporters from Reuters and re/code. (Note: registration required for access.) The Wall Street Journal took an in-depth look at crisis communications firm Brunswick’s efforts on behalf of Kleiner Perkins. (Ditto.)

I’ve been on both sides of lawsuits, as a reporter and as communications counsel on high-profile cases for law firms and corporations. Here are some keys to success for anyone who provides communications support for a client facing a lawsuit:

  1. Know the narrative: A lawsuit has a narrative arc. A good attorney will craft a strong narrative in his or her opening statement that will pay off during days of testimony and in their closing statement. This narrative will convey key messages that are the soul of a case. The communications team needs to understand that narrative before a case begins and how each day will assemble pieces of that story. It is the communications team’s job to reinforce their side’s version of events as it unfolds and to remind reporters what’s really at stake in the courtroom.
  2. Know the briefs: Even before a jury is convened, media coverage of a lawsuit is framed by legal filings and court appearances. Understanding the claims and statements in those briefs is the best way to understand the story media will report. Reviewing a legal filing as it is being filed is critical to being able to answer reporters’ questions.
  3. Know the key players: Who will testify? What will they say? The witnesses in a lawsuit are like the characters in a narrative. It’s important to know who they are, what they will say, and what their testimony will mean to the case.
  4. Understand the trial calendar: Typically, litigators will have a calendar that drives their case including expected witnesses, evidentiary submissions and legal briefs. Knowing that timeline and being open about expectations with members of the media who are covering a trial helps build trust. Trust helps the broader picture of the case from your perspective.
  5. Accept that some days will be better than others. Lawsuits present a fractured, subjective picture of events. Witnesses take the stand and tell a part of a story. This means that any news coverage that reflects the events of a given day will be highly biased, based on the events that unfolded in court. You literally will win some and lose some, but on balance you are better served if you can keep reminding reporters and others following the court case of the bigger picture.
  6. Everything is fair game: I’ve had lots of discussions with reporters and attorneys about this, and there’s no way around it—if it happens in open court, it’s fair game for reporters. Witness the fact that “Buddy Fletcher,” Pao’s husband and a hedge fund manager with a history of discrimination lawsuits, was the most frequently cited paired search term with “Ellen Pao.” The implication is that Pao’s motive was tied to Fletcher’s past behavior of filing suits claiming discrimination. Attorneys often present arguments out of earshot of jury members. However, the attorneys need to recognize that there may be media coverage of what they are trying to get a judge to allow them to say
  7. The jury itself is fair game: As a reporter, I used to hang around the courtroom after verdicts and seek to interview members of a jury to better understand why they voted as they did. These insights are often surprising, and may prove damning as in the case of Pao juror Steve Sammut. Summut has given a number of interviews about the case to several media outlets. Sammut says Kleiner should “be punished” despite being found not guilty of the specific charges.
  8. Set expectations and deliver: There’s an adage about the value of repetition in writing: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them. The same approach applies to litigation communications. Reporters are busy people and their readers have short attention spans. If you can lay out an anticipated timeline for both audiences then highlight the ways in which that timeline is playing out.
  9. Be a resource: There can be pressure, from attorneys or clients, to obfuscate certain facts or try to “spin” what happens in court. Don’t do it. Tell people what happened. Explain it as best you can. Note when a witness said something that was at odds with their deposition Explain why an attorney who has been extremely animated in court felt that a witness’s testimony was inconsistent with the facts. Being a resource for facts will only help you and your client get a fair hearing.
  10. Expect boredom: The courtroom bears little relation to a Perry Mason episode. Even titillating details often become snore-worthy when they are repeated over and over. Most court cases involve days and days of drudgery.
  11. Expect the unusual: Occasionally, there will be moments of actual courtroom drama and when they happen it may well be that the litigation communications team is the only team that truly understands what has happened. Being a resource to reporters to explain what’s going on and why what just happened is important.
  12. Be ready: When a verdict comes in, the machinery of media coverage kicks into action. You have to have a clear plan and you have to be able to move fast to deliver your side of the story.

Throughout all of this, it’s vital that there be a collaborative working relationship between the legal team and the communications team. Together you can navigate the complexities of a lawsuit and execute your roles effectively.

The ‘Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band of All Time’ that Wasn’t — and Why

The Kinks’s songs were often inspired by everyday scenes of British life, like this Waterloo Sunset. Photo by Steve Walker, is licensed under CC BY 2.0
By Mike Kuczkowski

In the early 1960s, a band emerged from Great Britain that would change the very face of rock ‘n’ roll.

Led by a dynamic duo, this band started its career by recording covers of songs by American R&B and blues artists. In the mid-1960s, they began penning their own tunes. Their third single was a jolt to the airwaves, producing a sound that had never been heard before and skyrocketing to the top of the charts.

Over time, the band staggeringly produced a rich catalog marked by melodic songs, evocative lyrics and a wide range of styles. They drew on diverse influences: blues, jazz, folk, country, British dance hall music and show tunes. They introduced Indian music to a Western pop music audience. In 1972, Rolling Stone’s Mike Saunders declared them “none other than the greatest rock and roll band of all time.” Decades later, bands like Oasis and Blur would cite them as a major influence.

I’m not talking about The Beatles, The Who or The Rolling Stones. I’m talking about The Kinks.

Brothers Ray and Dave Davies formed The Kinks in 1963 in the Muswell Hill part of North London, when Ray was 19 and Dave was 16 years old. In 1964, after struggling to get a record deal, they released their third song, the distorted three-chord rock single “You Really Got Me.” Dave Davies achieved the sound by slitting the fabric of his amplifier’s speakers with a razor. A legend was born.

They went on to produce a series of hit songs and strong albums over the next eight years, covering an incredibly wide swath of musical territory.

No one is making the claim that The Kinks are the greatest band in rock and roll history, not even me. But, they were very, very goodbetter than they are remembered today, and their case holds important lessons for marketers and brand leaders about the ways in which a great product can fail.

I rediscovered The Kinks last summer, when their back catalog from the 1960s and 1970s quietly appeared in Apple’s iTunes store without fanfare or promotion, marking the band’s 50th anniversary.

Listening to these albums was eye opening. The hits I knew were as good as I’d remembered, but there were dozens of tracks I’d never heard or barely remembered that were simply brilliant. Why was this band not a dominant part of the musical conversation? The Rolling Stones and The Who sell out stadium shows, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars. The Kinks, who broke up in 1996, don’t even get an artist’s profile in the iTunes store. If they reunited, they would be a theater show at best – no arenas.

What caused The Kinks to wind up in the dust bin of rock and roll?

In his best-seller “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that social epidemics – a proxy for breakout commercial successes – are driven by a combination of factors he terms “connectors”, “mavens” and “salesmen.” His concept is that a small innovation can go “viral” and become a breakout success if it can cultivate people who are well-connected, people who curate new information, and people who are charismatic advocates for that innovation.

Surely The Kinks lacked one or more of these critical factors. Let’s look a bit more closely.

Mavens: They had well-regarded, “maven-ish” advocates, in the form of musical peers like the Who’s Pete Townsend, who declared that Ray Davies should be Britain’s poet laureate, and David Bowie, who says “I’ve never heard a Kinks song I didn’t like.” John Lennon is also said to have been a fan. Upon hearing The Kinks single “Wonderboy,” Lennon reportedly asked the DJ of a London restaurant to play the song over and over again one night. (Davies was no fan of Lennon’s, regarding Lennon as arrogant.)

Connectors: The Kinks had “connectors” in the form of critics, who largely liked the band and its music. While Saunders’ 1972 quote above, in a mixed review of The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies, is a bit of hyperbole, no editor cut it out. Rock critic Robert Christgau described their 1967 song “Waterloo Sunset” as “the most beautiful song in the English language.”

Salesman: They had charismatic “salesman” in Ray Davies himself, who has all the traits one could want in a frontman—hubris, a wild imagination and great stories to tell. Davies was famously truculent with the media, arrogant and irascible at times, but that would only serve to aid the promotion of many other frontmen. Dave Davies, the guitarist and sometimes singer, was also good with a quote. When asked if the band was trying to play heavy metal in the 1980s, the younger Davies replied “It wasn’t called heavy metal when I invented it.

What went wrong?

The Kinks had three problems that I would describe as system barriers.

Market Access: During the critical period of 1965 and 1969, when they were making their best music and bands like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones were feeding and feeding on a music-led culture, The Kinks lacked access to the biggest commercial market in the world, and the market that set the pace for the industry.

In 1965, after a brief American tour in which the band fought on stage and destroyed equipment, the American Federation of Musicians banned The Kinks from touring in America. The strike was not resolved for four years.

The American ban hurt. In 1967, when “Waterloo Sunset” was released, it went to #2 in Britain, but failed to chart in America. Today, Rolling Stone ranks that song #42 on its list of the 500 greatest rock songs of all time. (“You Really Got Me” is #80.)

Timing: The Kinks were often out of step with their times. While The Beatles were experimenting with psychedelica and absurdist lyrics, and hard rock and heavy metal were emerging as dominant forces, Ray Davies was writing about tea, sunsets and sunny afternoons. This focus on the details of everyday life is at the core of indie rock 25 years later, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s it was not popular. One example: In 1971, while The Kinks’ heavy metal descendants were celebrating excess and drug abuse, The Kinks recorded the remarkable lament “Alcohol,” a swinging, New Orleans-style dirge about a man whose life had fallen apart because of his drinking. Years later, when heavy metal was breaking through, The Kinks released the mediocre “Give the People What They Want,” an uninspired attempt at capitalizing on the popularity of the genre they helped create.

Product consistency & availability: The Kinks suffered from two basic “operations” problems. They were often rushed in and out of the studio, and the band often complained that the production quality of its singles was far short of its expectations. You can hear this, particularly in the mid-1960s albums. Kinda Kinks, the band’s second album, was rushed out of the studio in two weeks. (As Ray Davies later said, “a bit more care should have been taken with it… It had better songs on it than the first album, but it wasn’t executed in the right way. It was just far too rushed.”) In 1967, with the release of Something Else by the Kinks, the label rushed out the single “Autumn Almanac” to try to boost flagging sales. It would be the band’s last top 10 single for the next several years. The band also suffered distribution problems. With a series of bad label deals, their back catalog has often not been available. Pye Records – their mid-1960s label – kept few of The Kinks’ original masters, opting to rerecord other artists over their session tapes. When Van Halen hit it big with “You Really Got Me,” The Kinks Greatest Hits was hard to find. One of their most highly regarded albums, 1969’s Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), still isn’t available for download on iTunes or Amazon in the US.

What lessons do these issues hold for marketers?

First, it’s critical to understand the environment, and have a strategy that is right for that environment. Getting locked out of the US market at the peak of their creativity was a huge blow to The Kinks’ success. In 1970, the UK was an aging market of 55.6 million people. The US, by contrast, was a youth-oriented market of 207 million. When singles began to chart in the UK but not break through in America, it should have been a single that The Kinks’ lack of presence in America was dragging them down. Yet the ban was not resolved until after the release of The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. By that time, audiences and promoters weren’t interested in The Kinks anymore. Dates were cancelled. The tour was a flop.

Second, operational excellence plays a crucial role in establishing and maintaining a brand’s reputation and its commercial success. When Pye Records rushed out Kinda Kinks, I’m sure it had very good intentions of capitalizing on a strong run of hits. But when the quality of the recording did not hold up, it undermined the band’s long-term legacy. If you compare contemporary recordings by The Beatles, like Help, with Kinda Kinks, there’s simply no comparison.

Finally, marketing strategy must reflect the qualities of the underlying product. When The Kinks were producing more introspective and personal songs, the promotion of the albums remained locked in to boastful claims of the group’s greatness. Notably, a radio spot for Muswell Hillbillies included in this year’s rerelease, quotes critics positive reviews heralding it as, in the words of one reviewer “The Album of the Year.” In fact, the album was completely out of step with its times – in a good way. But this was the year of The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, The Who’s Who’s Next, Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV, and The Doors’ LA Woman — big, loud albums completely at odds with the intimacy of Muswell Hillbillies. Frankly, they still don’t appear to understand this. The band’s official web site dates to 2011, it celebrates “32 years of greatness,” referring to the band’s 1964 to 1996 span. There are only three albums on the band’s YouTube channel.

It’s not like The Kinks were a complete flop. Four of their records went gold, and they had five top 10 US singles. And they left a fantastic legacy. There is a direct line between the raw three-chord rock of “You Really Got Me” and the pnk movement. “Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy” sounds like the British New Wave, 10 years too soon. “Lola” was an utterly unique hit single. The distorted sounds of “All Day and All of the Night” and “I Need You” presaged the hard rock of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

One thing is clear, the factors that inhibited the success of The Kinks would not have had the same impact today. In an era when U2 can reach 500 million iTunes subscribers with the touch of a button, The Kinks would not have been shut out of America by a touring ban. I think their more narrative-driven albums would have found a larger audience. In today’s music world, I suspect strongly they would have made the charts more often, and with more staying power.

Luckily, it’s not too late. You can still listen to Face to Face, Something Else by the Kinks, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround and Muswell Hillbillies. If you do, you too will wonder why this band isn’t at the top tier of the conversation of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time.

Crisis Scorecard: ESPN and the NFL

By Mike Kuczkowski

That ESPN and the NFL each face criticism for their handling of employee discipline underscores the unpredictable nature of the modern crisis, and how important performance in the face of unexpected events has become the measure of crisis response.

The league has botched a series of incidents of domestic violence and child abuse involving its players. Most notably, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had to backpedal aggressively in the wake of criticism of his suspension of star Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. This was after the Website TMZ posted a video showing Rice punch his then-fiancee, now wife, in an elevator at an Atlantic City casino and knock her unconscious.

Rice, who was initially given a two-week suspension, was suspended “indefinitely” by Goodell, who later admitted, “I got it wrong.”

The Rice incident involves a rather lengthy set of facts here, though they are important in terms of understanding how things went so wildly awry. (SB Nation has a helpful timeline.)

To my mind, there are five critical factors at play:

  • Objectivity: Goodell played two roles in this case and neither one well. He both questioned Rice, during a meeting in June, and judged him, issuing a suspension in July. These are two distinct roles. The first, which focuses on fact-gathering, requires a dogged determination to sort out complex issues. For an organization like the NFL, it’s not enough to leave the fact-gathering to the criminal justice system. It must have its own objective standards of professional behavior, and apply the facts of a case to those standards. After all, professional football players are not average people. They are invariably multi-millionaires whose conduct reflects on their teams and the league itself, as the current case shows.
  • Fairness: Someone, ideally someone not on the fact-gathering team, needs to sit in judgment, weighing both the facts of the case and key issues that are outside of the core facts of the case. (e.g., first-time offense, violent nature of the offense, etc.) To many, Goodell’s two-week suspension immediately felt too light. An indefinite suspension now seems arbitrary, like he’s pandering to the critics. This is a hard decision to get right, which is why it rests with the league’s highest official.
  • Transparency: We live in an age of transparency. There can no longer be any expectation that facts or evidence in a case like this will not ultimately be made available to the general public. Technologically, it’s too easy to transport or transfer data and broadcast it to the world, as TMZ did in broadcasting the video from inside the elevator. There are also too many eyes on situations like this. Twenty years ago, the media list on a case like this would have included the Baltimore Sun, the Associated Press, Sports Illustrated and ESPN. Now there are dozens of blogs focused on sports and entertainment news, each of which are pressing for a scoop. The instantaneous sharing of news via social networks stokes the public outrage on issues like this, immediately resetting the news agenda to put new revelations at the top of the heap. Organizations may still take steps to try to ensure confidentiality, but they should prepare for sunlight.
  • Sensitivity to Context: This is probably the most nuanced aspect of this, but it bears mentioning — crisis managers need a sixth sense about how events connect to broader cultural and societal issues and can become exponentially larger crises. Domestic violence has always been a huge concern, but we are living in a cultural moment in which women, quite rightly, are fighting bias and prejudice in multiple contexts. Between Mulalla’s Nobel Peace Prize and “Lean In,” Goodell’s initial ruling feels obliviously and wildly anachoristic, in a “Mad Men” kind of way. It’s as though he looked at Rice, who generally had a good reputation as a community-minded player, and his wife, who was also urging leniency, and did what felt right to him, which was wrong under any circumstance or any time. In the current context, the issue was bound to spark considerably wider scrutiny.
  • Accountability: Everyone needs to be prepared to be accountable for their actions. In this case, it seems like multiple parties failed the test. Rice’s lawyers, who described this as a “very minor incident” should face questions about that description. Atlantic City police, who charged him with a misdemeanor and released him and his fiancée together within hours of the incident, face their own questions. It’s legitimate to question whether prosecutors, who agreed to allow Rice into a pre-trial program normally reserved for non-violent offenders, followed their own rules. Rice, whose actions clearly jeopardized the reputation of his team and the NFL, must be appropriately held accountable. And, Goodell now must answer to owners and fans for his initially too-weak punishment of Rice, and for — by his own admission — getting it wrong.

This same set of standards could be applied to ESPN:

  • Objectivity: There’s not much question as to what Simmons said, millions of people listened to the podcast. But, there are plenty of questions as to what in his statement, which was simply a rant, violated editorial standards. Here’s the key excerpt:

Goodell, if he didn’t know what was on that tape, he’s a liar. I’m just saying it. He is lying. I think that dude is lying. If you put him up on a lie detector test that guy would fail. For all these people to pretend they didn’t know is such f***ing bulls***. It really is. It’s such f***ing bulls***. And for him to go in that press conference and pretend otherwise, I was so insulted. I really was.

 I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I’m in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell. Because if one person says that to me, I’m going public. You leave me alone. The Commissioner’s a liar and I get to talk about that on my podcast. Please, call me and say I’m in trouble. I dare you.

An objective person would have a hard time interpreting Simmons’ comments about Goodell as anything other than a strongly held opinion, perhaps an irresponsible one, but definitely within First Amendment boundaries of free speech. Odds are, as many critics have speculated and ESPN’s own ombudsman admits, there is a piece of insubordination in Simmons’ commentary — the “I dare you” part — that prompted action, which, in my opinion, is not terribly objective.

  • Fairness: Is a three-week suspension of a commentator for making a provocative but “within the realm of possibility” statement fair? I know of no comparable suspension in history. The immediate comparison was to Rice himself, whose initial suspension for domestic abuse was shorter. But commentators are another animal altogether. In 2007, Imus was suspended for two weeks after remarks so racist I don’t feel comfortable reprinting them here. ESPN has suspended people before for things like having affairs with production assistants, sexual harassment or racist or insensitive on-air remarks. The Simmons incident doesn’t have any of those elements. Candidly, I struggle to find a benchmark for comparison, which is troubling.
  • Transparency: Score a point for ESPN. They explained themselves and ESPN’s ombudsman Robert Lipsyte wrote a lengthy column about it, bringing his own perspective to the issue and saying he thought it was the right thing to do. Lipsyte raises a question that I believe is a legitimate concern – who is responsible for reviewing podcasts and columns before they are posted, and are they really in a position to push back on a ‘franchise player’ like Simmons. An excellent question, but one that should be directed at ESPN more than Simmons. After all, ESPN determines what kind of organization supports Simmons.
  • Sensitivity to Context: Again, Simmons has been on the right side of this issue. He’s been one of the set of people willing to say that Goodell got it wrong and willing to put people on his podcast who represented women’s point of view of the situation. Silencing that kind of a voice, while expedient in the context of a multibillion dollar broadcasting relationships, is dangerous.
  • Accountability: Ultimately, ESPN is not really accountable to the public in the same way the NFL is, although it probably should be. Most of the tools of accountability that would normally be used with a broadcaster, such as an FCC action, don’t yet apply to podcasts and digital sites. And it’s a general rule that unduly harsh discipline is less likely to bring an organization down than unduly lenient discipline. People can come to Simmons’ defense on Twitter, but obviously that didn’t change ESPN’s mind.

So ESPN comes out slightly ahead in this analysis than the NFL. But only slightly.

Jeter’s Final Curtain

By Mike Kuczkowski

Derek Jeter has done a lot of amazing things on a baseball diamond. He’s amassed more than 3,450 hits, the sixth most of all time. He’s played more games and has more hits at shortstop than anyone, ever. And, he has won five World Series rings, most among active players.

With Jeter, though, it’s not so much about what he’s accomplished, but about how he’s accomplished it. Diving into the stands face first at full speed to catch a foul ball. Flipping a relay throw to nab the A’s Jeremy Giambi at the plate in the playoffs. And above all, a workmanlike approach to playing day-in, day-out for the most storied franchise in American sports. These intangibles, more than his box scores, have made him an icon. And, a new 90-second spot by Gatorade captures a lot of what I’d describe as Jeter’s ‘brand essence.’

The piece opens with a long shot of New York City, the skyscrapers, bridges and tabloids, and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” playing in the background. (“And now, the end is near…”)

Close up of Jeter, being driven to a game. “You know what, I’ll walk from here,” he says and hoofs it to the stadium.

Girls squeal as he walks past. He high-fives kids on a playground. He is at ease waving at construction workers and autographing his photo at Stan’s Sports Bar across the street from Yankee Stadium. (“I’ve been wanting you to come in here since 1998, at least,” says Stan; “You never invited me,” quips Jeter. “Well you’re here now, thank God,” Stan replies.)

He helps an older woman with her cell phone, wades into the crowd in front of Yankee Stadium, is mobbed and signs autographs. Then, silently, he scans the retired numbers in Monument Field and dons his uniform in the clubhouse. Finally, after tapping a sign that reads “I want to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee” (A quote from Joe DiMaggio, another Yankee legend), #2 ascends the clubhouse stairs, onto the field, where he tips his cap to the cheering crowd.

Jeter is giving us a master class in brand expression. Here are some lessons:

  • Know Your Brand: Jeter is a winner, and in interviews he often talks about that as the only thing that matters. But, winning in and of itself is not a brand value for Jeter. His brand is about effort, consistency, clutch performance and a team orientation. And in that way, his brand is built of things that we can all aspire to, even if we lack elite talent. This piece shows his accessibility, his grace, his humor and his appreciation for what baseball means for fans.
  • Know Your Mythology: There’s a shot in the video of a young boy on the steps of Yankee Stadium screaming and jumping up and down, clutching what we presume is a Jeter-signed baseball. It’s a timeless image. In an age where our sports heroes’ behavior seems somewhere between flawed and deplorable, it’s great to reconnect with the mythology of a sports icon and a kid.  The black-and-white execution makes it timeless, subtly reinforcing that cue.
  • Take Ownership: Sometimes, a brand leader just needs to take the reins. Jeter was in the driver’s seat of this creatively. According to AdWeek, it was Jeter’s idea to create a video of him thanking Yankees fans. While Gatorade roped off the blocks around the stadium for this spot, the creative director says they “just kind of let Jeter go,” which comes through in the piece. Jeter also wrote the copy for a print ad that will run this weekend (“Your grit fueled my will… you helped make me who I am”), while this spot is airing on broadcast outlets. And, perhaps most importantly, he chose the song.
  • Leverage Symbols: Speaking of which, “My Way” is a brilliant choice. Any Yankees fan knows that when the Yankees win, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blares over the PA system. I remember taking my wife to a Yankee playoff game in 2000. When Sinatra sang, “I want to be a part of it,” it expressed exactly what it felt like to be in that ballpark with 50,000 other New Yorkers. By using another Sinatra song as the soundtrack for this piece, Jeter links directly back to that symbol, striking a perfect note. As does the DiMaggio reference.
  • Be Authentic: Jeter is a multi-millionaire, model-dating sports icon, but he also has an innate ability to connect with people. It’s the strongest aspect of this piece. Jeter does not seem aloof; he seems accessible. His interactions with fans don’t seem forced, they seem real.  

It’s worth noting that there is not a single highlight-reel moment of Jeter on the field in this piece. No home runs. No All-Star games. No double plays. Just a thank you to the fans.

Well done, Gatorade. And, of course, well done Jeter. Nailed it.

Orangefiery Memo | Open Letter To Tim Cook


DATE:       August 19, 2014

TO:             Tim Cook, CEO, Apple

FROM:     Mike Kuczkowski

RE:             Apple Communications Leadership

Much has changed since Apple hired its last communications leader in 1996. We thought we’d offer some thoughts about the communications function and the role of chief communications officer, as you head up a search for the successor to Katie Cotton, who retired at the end of May.

Admittedly, we don’t know much about Apple’s communications. We know Ms. Cotton was highly respected and regarded as a gate-keeper of Apple news and the Apple brand. We know the company has not used agencies, has a strong internal team, has been highly secretive (note: paywall) about company developments and discourages employees from speaking publicly about the company. We also know Apple has been a tremendously successful company, particularly in the period of 1997 to present. It tops the league in rankings of brand value and corporate reputation. And, it cares deeply about the clarity and quality of its communications. All of which begs the question: Why change? Fair enough, we’ll try to address that along the way.

What’s new

Communications has always been a critical business function, but the explosion of information, technology, connectivity and communications channels in the past 15 years has made it far more complex.

Here are the biggest trends:

  • The media environment today is always on and global, so the notion of a news cycle no longer exists.
  • The ease of online publishing means that stakeholders have powerful ways to communicate and advance their personal agendas without the traditional media’s editorial filter.
  • The rise of social networks means that news moves faster than ever.
  • And the nature of influence, by virtue of all these factors, has changed, though few people can say precisely how.

For Apple, this creates competing tensions. On the one hand, you increasingly need communications people with highly specialized skills that can master the nuances of engagement in all these channels. On the other hand, you need someone who can connect all the dots. It’s all one brand. It’s all one voice. For better, or worse.


Communications strategy must align with business strategy. We don’t know your business strategy intimately, so here are our assumptions:

  1. Apple will continue to bring new products to market in new categories while improving products in existing categories, consistent with its track record of innovation. We don’t care if it’s an iWatch, iHealth, iTV or an iCar… (actually, we’d really like an iCar). But we assume that in general you will continue to disrupt new categories with remarkable products.
  1. Apple will continue to face considerable scrutiny for anti-competitive behavior, IP and trade practices, Foxconn and labor practices, tax policies, collusion with other technology companies on hiring practices and environmental issues.
  1. You are leading Apple through a subtle but significant shift, empowering developers to collaborate more within its operating ecosystem and breaking down traditional barriers to openness in the context of its products.


Based on these assumptions, and the changes in communications and the marketplace, we offer the following recommendations for your lead communicator and the function overall:

1)     Corporate storytelling: You need someone who can articulate and advance Apple’s corporate story in multiple ways and across multiple channels. You clearly understand this, based on the more narrative approach you’ve recently taken to product marketing communications (e.g., ‘Stickers’). This doesn’t mean you should hire a children’s book author as your lead communicator, but you should hire someone with the ability to convey powerful, simple, clear stories about the company moving forward.

2)     Integration: Your leader needs to be able to integrate your stories to Wall Street and Main Street, and beyond. As the silos between audiences have broken down, people expect to see how it all ties together. You can’t have a story about sapphire iPhone screens and not anticipate some reactions – even ill-advised ones – from outsiders, for example. Your communications leader must be exceptionally strong at this and at identifying areas where you are at risk of delivering potentially dissonant messages to developers, suppliers or consumers. Again, the notion of a singular voice and brand will be brought to life by your communications function, and it’s critical that your leader be adept at this.

3)     Systems thinking: The world of communications moves so fast today, it is virtually impossible to maintain a centralized command-and-control approach. (And we say that while maintaining that there is nothing wrong with pushing for confidentiality and secrecy in product planning cycles.) Think of your communications infrastructure as a network. Most of the action — the interface with the outside world – happens at the nodes, rather than at the center. You need a communications leader who can empower the system of communications – whether through internal communicators, leaders, agencies or a combination of all three – and get great results. This will require substantial amounts of centralized planning, training and performance enhancement. This means you’ll also need someone who’s highly collaborative and willing to invest in talent development.

4)     Multi-channel skills: Don’t just hire someone who’s good at media relations. Hire someone – and surround them with a team – who can think about how to leverage all the potential channels in which you can tell your story. You also need to activate corporate embassies on Twitter and Facebook. Apple has the power to be a social business success story, but it can’t be if it’s not active in the social media space.

5)     Research capabilities: Your communications group should be constantly absorbing qualitative and quantitative data about your audiences, looking for insights and advising the organization about its actions. There’s so much data now about, well… everything. Your communications team should be facile with data, ask smart questions, and be able to find meaning in the numbers.

6)     Two-way orientation: Related to the research point above and the accountability point below, communications at its best is a two-way function, delivering insights to the organization while also representing the organization to the outside world. This is both art and a science. But if the proper channels are established internally to turn insights into actions, the communications team can be a powerful partner on key strategic (public) issues.

7)     Transparency: This is one of the few strategic choices companies can make from a communications perspective to build and maintain trust. Historically, you’ve gone the opposite way. There’s no obligation to be transparent about upcoming product releases. Until you launch something, it’s not news. But you can and should drive greater transparency around your environmental footprint, labor practices, privacy policies and other issues.

8)     Accountability: The public relations industry is a mess when it comes to measurement, but the function itself should be measurable and accountable to leadership. There’s a huge lexicon gap between marketing and public relations, but with all the data we’re now gathering about people, their behaviors, and what influences them, we should be able to do more to understand the impact that effective messages/narratives and smart, strategic deployment of those messages can have on stakeholders.

That’s it. Eight points. We thought there might be more. We wish you tremendous success finding that leader and building the infrastructure and the team. [1]

[1] Full disclosure: We have been Apple customers since 1989, when we bought our first Apple Macintosh SE. We’ve followed the company closely, and currently own two iMacs, a Macbook Pro, three iPhones, an iPad an iPod, as well as multiple peripherals and more iTunes songs and movies than we care to admit. We may sound critical, but we want you to succeed.


The Least-Heralded Greatest Actor of His Generation

Photo Credit: Andrea Raffin /

Did the Media Hype Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Life at his Death, or Did It Miss The Story?

By Mike Kuczkowski


There he is, as vital as ever, impossibly alive in character: Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a John LeCarré spymaster in “A Most Wanted Man.” Another great Hoffman performance, punctuating our loss of his presence in cinema.

In February, when I heard Hoffman had died, I experienced that odd range of emotions reserved for those who have touched us but with whom we have no personal relationship. Surprise. Shock. Sadness. A sense of loss. A sense that something pained and vulnerable must have been behind those pained and vulnerable characters he played with such consistent excellence on the big screen.

I recalled his turns as the bratty snitch in “Scent of A Woman.” And as Ben Stiller’s gross sidekick in “Along Came Polly.” And Scotty J., Lester Bangs, Father Flynn, Capote, The Master… a long line of characters, all of whom were made more remarkable by the craft Hoffman brought to the roles.

Then came the claim “the greatest actor of his generation.”  Was he? Maybe so. He was a fine actor, no question about it. But the greatest of his generation? I really didn’t know.

As someone who sees a fair number of movies each year and consumes even more movie reviews and film industry media coverage, I felt like I should have known the answer to that question. Had I missed the memo from the critics, or was this something that was just unsaid before his too-early passing. And, if it was the latter, how does that square with our relentless, 24/7, gossip-tinged media coverage of Hollywood, in which the least significant celebrity sighting can get top billing from

Rating a Generation

Let’s break it down. The first step is to define what constitutes Hoffman’s ”generation” of actors. This is trickier than it might appear. He’s clearly not part of the Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino cohort, all of whom are 70+. Is he in the same generation as George Clooney? Or Leonardo DiCaprio? If so, how does he compare?

I looked at the 66 actors who have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Performance as an Actor in a Leading Role from 1997. Of those, 21 actors are between the ages of 39 and 50. Let’s say that’s Hoffman’s “generation.” (Clooney, at 53, misses the cut.)

Using data from, I looked at how many awards these actors have been nominated for and won. I created a metric, which I’ll call “Awardscore.” The Awardscore gives each star 10 points for an Oscar win – whether in a supporting or leading role – and five for an acting Oscar nomination. Wins and nominations for less prestigious awards were given two and one points, respectively.

The results (see chart below) make a strong case that Philip Seymour Hoffman was indeed the greatest, or at least the most decorated, actor of his generation.

Best Actors of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Generation

Actor Age Noms Wins Oscar Noms Oscar Wins Awardscore
Philip Seymour Hoffman 46 64 88 4 1 270
Javier Bardem 45 53 91 3 1 260
Leonardo DiCaprio 39 122 50 4 0 242
Brad Pitt 50 84 54 3 0 207
Johnny Depp 51 80 54 3 0 203
Heath Ledger 35 36 71 2 1 198
Will Smith 46 87 48 2 0 193
Christian Bale 40 56 58 2 1 192
Jamie Foxx 46 58 49 2 1 176
Russell Crowe 50 52 43 3 1 163
Matt Damon 43 80 33 2 0 156
Chiwetel Ejiofor 37 52 47 1 0 151
Joaquin Phoenix 40 70 32 3 0 149
Robert Downey Jr. 49 69 33 2 0 145
Nicolas Cage 50 45 39 2 1 143
Don Cheadle 50 77 30 1 0 142
Matthew McConaughey 45 38 40 1 1 133

SOURCE: Orangefiery analysis of data from, search conducted Aug. 4, 2014, updated Aug. 23.

I also looked at Metascore, from the review aggregator site “Metacritic.” On this metric, which measures the quality of the films in which he appeared, Hoffman again outperformed his peers with a lifetime Metascore of 67, five points ahead of Bardem, Damon and Renner, who lead the rest of the pack. Given the volume and range of films in which he appeared, from “Almost Famous” to the forgettable “Patch Adams,” I was surprised that his lead was so pronounced. He’s a full 11 points above the average, 20% better than the mean. This suggests Hoffman took the films he was in and made them better.

Assessing the Critics

So, there is a strong case that Hoffman was his generation’s greatest actor. Which leads to my last question: Was this something unsaid, or something I had missed?

The Factiva media database shows were 338 articles published between January 1, 2000 and January 31, 2014 using the phrase “greatest actor of his generation”. Of those, most referred to Sir Laurence Olivier (20+), Marlon Brando (20+ times, mostly focused on his death in 2004), Robert DeNiro (15), Sean Penn (12) and Daniel Day-Lewis (8). (Note: Day-Lewis, at 57, has a very strong claim to being today’s greatest actor with five Oscar nominations and a record three wins and an Awardscore of 332 in just 29 credited roles).

Of Hoffman’s contemporaries, DiCaprio was mentioned eight times. Robert Downey Jr. also had eight articles mention him with that phrase, often immediately contrasted with his drug problems. Russell Crowe received five mentions, including two lengthy examinations of his career in his native Australian press. Ryan Gosling was associated with the phrase four times. Ed Norton and Kevin Spacey, three each.

Hoffman was mentioned in four articles, always in passing. Once by Sean Penn, in an interview with Piers Morgan (Morgan replied, “Really?”). Once James Corden, in his 2012 Tony Award acceptance speech (Hoffman had been nominated for his performance in “Death of a Salesman.”) New York Times critic A.O. Scott mentions Hoffman as the second-greatest working actor, behind Day-Lewis, in a 2013 Oscar preview with Charlie Rose. No in-depth appreciation, no feature piece on his body of work in a major publication. It’s as though he was appreciated by his peers as a great actor, but the media just wasn’t interested.

A similar search for the phrase “best actor of his generation” yielded 278 articles. Many more mentions for Norton, Crowe, Spacey, DiCaprio. New mentions of Johnny Depp and Joaquin Phoenix. Hoffman? Not a single one.

Perhaps the most prescient, if not ironic, piece of coverage is a 2012 New York Times blog that asked the question, “Is Mark Wahlberg the Greatest Actor of His Generation?” The piece explores how many Oscar-worthy roles Wahlberg had, compared with the likes of Matt Damon, DiCaprio, Paul Giamatti and (describing him as the “big gun”) Hoffman. Tongue firmly in cheek, author Adam Sternbergh says “raise your hand if you thought the Greatest Actor of His Generation title bout would come down to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mark Wahlberg.” Huh.

So there it is, like a needle in a haystack. The clearest declaration that Hoffman was the best of his time came at 4:12 pm on February 2, 2014, when The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson declared, “Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Greatest Actor of His Generation.” Just less than 6 hours after the Wall Street Journal broke the news that Hoffman had died in his Manhattan apartment. After that, 17 additional unique pieces echoed the sentiment. Suddenly, a critical consensus had formed.

Parting Thoughts

So, yes, Hoffman was one of the greatest actors of his generation. And, no, we didn’t say so while he might have heard us. One wonders if it would have made a difference. To Hoffman, and equally to us. I suppose it’s an unfortunate human tendency, to save the kindest words and most meaningful critical appraisals for obituaries.

It’s also easy, but accurate, to say that media coverage of an actor’s untimely death represents us at our worst. The media said so little when it might have mattered, and then pried so much when tragedy struck. It’s a phenomenon best described by the singer-songwriter Marc Mulcahy in “Where’s the Indifference Now?” — a song inspired by media coverage surrounding the death of Heath Ledger:

Get a picture of his girlfriend crying

Flowers strewn around the entrance

His parents are asking for some time to grieve

Even better can’t just everybody leave

Still, it does make me feel as though we could do better when it comes to appreciating the cumulative contributions being made by our great artists. Some stars, like Crowe or Downey Jr., seem to attract media star treatment, perhaps because they are bold enough to declare their ambitions aloud. Others gain coverage for their striking handsomeness, if not their public trials and travails. Perhaps Hoffman was overlooked because he was not as attractive, generally, as others on this list. One way or the other, we missed a big story.

One thing I would urge the media to do: assign a major piece on Javier Bardem. He wasn’t mentioned a single time with the phrase “greatest actor of his generation.” And with Hoffman gone, there’s a compelling case that he is.

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Return Of The King: How LeBron James Nailed ‘Decision 2.0’

Photo credit: Keith Allison, via Creative Commons

By Mike Kuczkowski

Since entering the NBA 11 years ago, LeBron James has been described as the heir to Michael Jordan – big shoes to fill, given that Jordan is widely recognized as the greatest player of all time. And James has fulfilled much of the promise. Like Jordan, James possesses tremendous physical gifts, is incredibly competitive and has dominated his era. Each has been described as a basketball genius.

When it comes to managing his personal brand, though, James has been a middling playmaker. While he showed leadership during the Donald Sterling scandal this year, he was also criticized for lacking heart when he exited Game 1 of the NBA Finals due to cramps (fairly or not). Despite his impressive record of achievements, James the basketball star is not beloved.

Much of this dynamic can be traced back to “The Decision,” the televised interview with journalist Jim Gray on July 8, 2010 in which James announced he was leaving his hometown team Cleveland Cavaliers and would “take his talents to South Beach” and the Miami Heat.

The outcry was immediate and vitriolic. Cleveland fans burned his jersey. Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert wrote a public letter calling it a “cowardly betrayal” – in comic sans font, no less.

Watching that live broadcast on ESPN – along with 13 million people – was painful. Gray, generally a fine journalist, did a horrible job, asking a series of questions about James’ thought process while delaying the news about his actual choice. When Gray finally asked him the key question, James stared impassively ahead and talked about how joining The Heat would allow him to win. He appeared self-centered and heartless.

In short, The Decision was a disaster.

One way to understand the impact this had on James’ brand is by looking at James’ “N-score”, a measure of marketability created by Nielsen in partnership with E-Poll. The metric looks at a combination of awareness, likeability and influence to assess how successful an athlete would be as a brand pitchman (or woman).

The chart below shows the 2011 rankings of the top 10 most influential athletes in all sports.

2011 Most Influential Athletes

Athlete Influence Awareness Like Dislike N Score
Shaquille O’Neal 21 71 45 4 334
Peyton Manning 20 49 54 5 262
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 22 40 45 3 217
Michael Phelps 21 49 47 4 214
Troy Polamalu 21 23 64 3 165
Jeff Gordon 20 39 35 7 144
Tom Brady 23 35 40 11 131
LeBron James 20 42 33 15 131
Jimmie Johnson 25 20 47 6 72
Tim Tebow 20 19 44 13 41

SOURCE:, last accessed July 21, 2014

To be certain, James was still an elite brand. But in 2010, pre-“Decision”, James’ N-score was 261. Of note, James’s had the highest “dislikes/dislikes a lot” score in the top 10 – suggesting he was a polarizing figure. His 33:15 ratio of likes to dislikes stands in sharp contrast to someone like Troy Polamalu, whose 64:3 ratio represents a squeaky-clean likeability.

Fast forward to July 2014. James again stunned the world by leaving his team – this returning to Cleveland. From a communications perspective, this announcement was nothing but net.

I can see seven factors about Decision 2.0 that bode well for James’ brand and reputation:

1/ The Opt-Out: James didn’t wait; he opted out of his Miami Heat contract on July 1. He was businesslike about it. He said nothing bitter about the team, despite its stunning 5-game loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. No acrimony, no ultimatums – just business. Most observers said they thought this was a non-event, and James would return to Miami, tamping down the hype cycle.

2/ The Process: James empowered his agent to meet with teams, took their measure and didn’t tip his hand. No circus act. No wild road show. The process was professional.

3/ The Silence: The King’s camp didn’t leak, which is remarkable in this rumor-mill-driven media age. There were very few rumors – speculation about Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s jet being seen in Miami, moving trucks, that sort of thing – but generally, James and his people were disciplined.

4/ The Reconciliation: On July 6, the Cavaliers removed Dan Gilbert’s comic sans letter from the team’s Web site. We now know this was because that same day, James and Gilbert met and exchanged apologies. The act paved the way for James’ return.

5/ The Announcement: James surprised everyone by announcing his intention to return to Cleveland via an open letter on Sports Illustrated’s web site. No press conference, no party. By using a print medium, he controlled the narrative out of the gate, again with admirable discipline. And, he went directly to the fans first before any leaks could trump his message, showing he understands they are his most important stakeholders.

6/ The Message: James’ decision creates a potential redemption narrative for him. By using a first-person narrative approach to announce the news, James humanized himself and his choice. This was brilliant. We will judge him by his love of Northeastern Ohio and his desire to bring a title back to his birthplace. (Note: while he again used the word “I” plenty, the spirit of his remarks was team-oriented.) His statement acknowledged past mistakes and forgave past slights. It was authentic, classy and clear.

7/ The Messenger: Lee Jenkins did not play circus showman to the James sideshow, as Gray did in 2010. While playing the “as told to” card was uncharacteristic, it worked. Jenkins also penned an in-depth cover story analyzing the move and explaining how the first-person breaking news happened. Props for transparency.

[Note to digiratis: The mainstream media still have plenty of clout and cred, especially to drive a news cycle; Note to old-school media types: The news broke via SI’s Twitter feed.]

King James’ homecoming will salve a lot of wounds from 2010. If he can deliver Cleveland its first pro sports championship in 50 years, all will be forgotten. Still, we don’t even know how long he’ll stay.

One thing we do know: James has learned how to make a decision with authenticity, clarity and conviction. If he and his advisors continue to manage his personal brand deftly, I expect his reputation will continue to improve in the months and years ahead.

A final note re: the aforementioned comparisons to Michael Jordan: However close to His Airness James may come on the basketball court, he has a huge gap to close in terms of his personal brand. In 2011, when James’ N-score was 133, Jordan’s was a whopping 553.

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