Sunday, October 25, 2009


Steve Winston

What if every company used Tylenol’s wonderful 1980’s response to the tainting of its products as a model for modern crisis communications?

What if someone in the PR Department at AIG had said, “Wait a minute! Do we really think it’s appropriate to reward the people who drove us into the ditch, and who destroyed the life savings of so many millions of people?”

What is someone in the PR Department at Wells Fargo had said, “Wait a minute! Do we really think it’s appropriate to be planning lavish parties when so many of the people who hold mortgages with us are going under?”

What if more companies didn’t try to be everything to everyone, but just focused on doing the best they could within their niche?

What if most company presidents who did TV commercials – or mea culpas – didn’t come off as stiff, over-rehearsed, under-genuine windbags who could never really empathize with the millions who feel betrayed by them?

What if the insurance and banking executives whose boundless greed helped create the financial crisis…actually had to experience the pain that other folks have experienced because of their folly?

What if companies stopped making claims about their products that they know – full well – aren’t true? (Or, conversely, what if they started making products that actually do live up to their claims?)

What if companies, in their advertising and marketing approaches, started talking more about us – and our needs – rather than themselves?

What if more PR and marketing executives believed that the way for their companies or clients to generate attention was not to should louder than the other guy…but to speak with more substance?

What if they banned celebrity spokespeople from the media…and products had to be hawked only on their actual merits?

What if Super Bowl ads actually spoke about the benefits of their products and services…rather than turn the nation’s most-watched television event into a competition for the most technologically-wizardrous ad?

What if we actually spoke with our publics…instead of to them?

Steve Winston
(954) 575-4089

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I fly by the seat of my pants. Literally.

I love to fly old World War II fighter planes, and to perform aeronautic “combat” maneuvers. I’m not the most experienced pilot. So, sometimes I find myself…flying by the seat of my pants.

Just about everyone in the public relations profession, in this brave new world, finds him/herself flying by the seat of their pants far more often than they’d like. In fact, there are a number of parallels…

The engine jumps to life, 600 ancient horses raring to go. I check the harnesses that feel like a ton on my torso, and I check the ripcord on my parachute.

I’m sitting in a sixty-four-year-old fighter plane from World War II, an AT-6, nicknamed “The Texan” by the cocky young pilots who flew her in combat. The “dashboard” is wood, and the cockpit instruments look like they’re out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. And I’m going to do some stunts, in tandem with Dennis Van Swol, the vastly-more experienced pilot who’s sitting behind me.

As we turn onto the runway, Dennis and I make our final check.

“Mixture is rich,” my headphones cackle as we converse back and forth. “Fuel-air ratio is good. Flaps are set. Pressure looks good...”

“The Texan departing on 8 right,” I call out to other air traffic on the radio. I open up the throttle and we gather speed. The nose is so high in these old planes that you can’t really see the runway. So, in effect, we take off and land by “touch.”

In a moment the ground is falling away, and the big yellow nose with the whirling propeller is pushing us up into a sea of blue. I pull up the landing gear.

As we climb, we begin dipping toward the right and then the left; the view becomes incredible. We head up toward puffy white clouds, and the ride turns bumpy.

“Now we’re going to do a few combat maneuvers,” Dennis says, “so you can get a feel for the aircraft.” With that he goes into a steep climb, and then a dive, and I try to imagine how it must have felt doing that with a Japanese Zero or German Messerschmitt trying to shoot you out of the sky. Then he turns the aircraft on its side, and we rip through the South Florida sky at a 180-degree angle.

Our headphones cackle with communications from all sorts of aircraft; North Palm Beach County Airport has no tower, so it’s up to the pilots to stay in touch with each other. Then we’re above the clouds, and suddenly it’s smooth.

“Now let’s do a roll,” he says. (A roll is a sideways somersault.)

Suddenly sky becomes land and land becomes sky, and clouds flash by as if on rollerblades. My head is below my body, and my hands are holding onto the balky control stick…from below it. We’re completely upside-down. Then we roll over to right ourselves.

Now it’s my turn to solo.

I hit the pedal on the extreme right of the wooden floor, forcing the nose down to gather up more speed. The ground seems to fly up toward me. Then I shove her into a climb. With the headphones cackling with Dennis’ voice and other traffic in the area, I grab the stick and pull it towards the right. And there we go…hurtling over the side at two hundred miles an hour. Again my head is suddenly under the rest of my body, with clouds flying by - below me.

I have to fight the stick a bit, as it’s difficult to hold her steady. Suddenly we’re rightside-up again. I ease up on the stick.

A minute later, I decide it’s time for a loop (backwards somersault).

I turn the nose down to pick up some speed. Then I yank it back up and climb straight up. This, by far, is the beginning of the most thrilling moment of the entire flight. A steep climb is murder on the body, and even more murderous on your mind. Normally, in an airplane, your fixed points are the land below you and the sky above and around you. Even though you’re up in the air, there’s a natural order of things, some physiological steering points. But when you’re in a steep climb, suddenly the land is gone, and you’re totally disoriented. Instead of a balance between land and sky, you’re heading straight up into an endless blue vacuum, with no horizon, no beginning, and no end.

I pull the stick toward me, and the old engine whines loudly. The ground disappears as we climb. Then I begin to flip her over, backwards. I feel my body pinned back against my seat, and my head feels like it weighs a thousand pounds (actually, in pilot-speak, I’m experiencing pressure of three “G’s). For a moment, I’m totally disoriented; I’ve lost any “compass point” in the sky or the land. I have no clear idea as to what’s “up” and what’s “down.” I literally cannot hold my head up, because of the pressure. I’m having trouble keeping my eyelids open. Upside-down images of blue and green and white are whooshing past me.

“Yee haw!” I shout out into the headphones, probably way too loudly for poor Dennis.

At that moment, it’s almost a test. You find yourself fighting for control…of the aircraft as well as yourself. And if you don’t remain calm, you’ll become ever more disoriented.

I hold her steady, fighting to keep the stick where it is. Finally, I see the ground floating up toward my face, and I begin to level her off.

“Want to try it again?” he asks.

“Yee haw!” I respond.

Again I point the nose down into a dive to get up some speed, and then pull back on the stick as I struggle to keep my eyes open from the pressure. Again we shoot up into a blue vacuum. Again we start rolling backwards and over our heads. And again I am upside-down, with colors and shapes and textures whooshing by underneath me, with the engines straining and the cockpit shaking. It almost seems like too much for the human brain to handle at once.

But when the land rolls back into view below us as we complete our circle, the feeling is one of incredible exhilaration.

As our radio cackles with transmissions from other aircraft in the area, Dennis says that it’s time to begin our descent. We go into a sideways roll – 180 degrees – and, as we pass through a cloud bank, we see a rainbow. I turn the controls back over to Dennis so I can look at it. We descend rapidly.

“North County Texan on its approach to 8 right,” I tell nearby air traffic.

We hit the runway. And as we slow down, I think of the pilot, sixty-four years ago, who sat in the seat where I’m sitting now.

So…how does this story relate to public relations? Well, the simplistic answer would be that we’re all, now, flying by the seat of our pants. But I think there are more practical correlations, as well…

* Always wear a parachute. And always check the ripcord. In PR terms, be prepared.
Make sure you have what you need in case of an emergency. And rehearse ahead of
time, in your mind, what you’ll do in case of emergency.

* If the ride’s a little bumpy, find a different altitude…think about what you can
do to make it smoother.

* Stay informed about the surrounding “traffic.” About your clients’ industries.
About their “flight plans. About their internal structures.

* Even when you feel like you’re flying upside-down, and things are whirling past
you at the speed of light, stay calm. And think clearly about your next step.

* Don’t be afraid to do loops and rolls…to experiment.

* When you lose your orientation – your “compass points” - don’t panic. Just find
some new ones.

* Sometimes things are not always obvious. So practice the art of taking off and
landing “by touch.”

* Don’t panic at the thought of flying by the seat of your pants. In our profession,
it’s becoming the norm.

And lastly, perhaps, when everyone around you seems to be losing their heads…shout out “Yee haw!” It’s going to be a very interesting ride.

Steve Winston
(954) 575-4089

Friday, October 9, 2009


In a democracy, the media are – ideally – supposed to be reporters of the news – not creators of it.

There doesn’t seem to be much genuine (and unbiased) reporting of “news” anymore – because, these days, “news” seems to be defined by the political stance of the organization that’s reporting it. Broadcast “journalism” – especially on cable - is becoming just another forum in which self-righteous “reporters” create their own news from their own viewpoints, and then push it on their audiences…who are tuning in precisely because that particular station is reporting only the “news” they want to hear.

I see television stations becoming shills for whatever political party - and political positions - their corporate owners favor. (I mean, really, folks, no matter what your political leanings, should the word "News" really be used after the word "Fox"???) I see local TV anchors and reporters becoming "personalities" rather than serious journalists. And I see an unending procession of beautiful people - who are not necessarily serious journalists - parading across my screen during just about any news program I watch. And self-proclaimed journalists – actually shills for one party or another – have actually become media stars.

Popular tastes being what they are in this country, the few broadcast media that are still objective – such as CNN - are experiencing pressure to become more opinionated, more “showtime,” more hip.

As for the print media, I see more and more reporters becoming, basically, "local" reporters, or "consumer" "local" and "consumer" have become a mantra that's repeated ad nauseum by newspapers trying clumsily to adapt to a new world. I see journalists, who may have been correspondents or investigative reporters previously, now going "local"...or, often, becoming social network stars with huge online followings.

I'm one of those people who believes that a dearth of serious journalism - and journalists - is a grave threat to democracy. I just want to hear the news. I just want straight, objective, unbiased reporting of the news. Then I’ll make up my own mind as to where I stand on an issue. I don’t need to be shouted at.

Obviously, many of the news “models” in our country are changing; and based on the fact that many of their structures are unsustainable in this new world, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I just hope that we don’t change into news models that are based purely on political agendas. Because that is the antithesis of those in a democracy.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


One of the reasons for the collapse of the American auto industry is its PR people.

Why? Very simple. Public relations professionals for the various auto companies are in a prime position to impress upon the bigwigs that lackluster design leads to lackluster sales. But they haven’t done so. They haven’t used their influence and their strength as communicators to impress upon their superiors that more of the same is not enough. They’ve abdicated their responsibility to tell their superiors that re-designing inferior products doesn’t make them better – it only foments the inferiority.

I’ve thought about it for years. And, finally, this week – in an airplane over the Gulf of Mexico – it hit me. The key is body design.

Apparently, PR people – who understand the consumer far better than the old guys in the corner offices or the nerds in Engineering - are not asked (enough) for their opinions about what the consumer might want. Why haven’t the American auto companies allowed them an opinion before the cars are produced? And why haven’t these PR people demanded it?

European cars – like the ones I’ve driven – seem to maintain classic body styles over the years. To me, it seems that most of the changes they make are only meant to enhance the profile of the car, rather than to change it. I drive a Swedish car (a Volvo). Before that, I drove a German car. And before that I drove another Swedish car.

The basic body styles of these cars don’t seem to change that radically; for example, the distinctive shape of the Saab, which I drove seven years ago, is still pretty much the same distinctive shape. (Most American consumers – besides me - don’t seem to like the Saab’s distinctive shape, either; but that’s another story.)

Yes, every few years these European cars get updated lights or front grills or touches here and there. But the basic (and often classic) profile stays the same. And that helps create – and nourish – the brand.

American cars, it seems to me, are built to be sleek; European cars, on the other hand, are built to be stylish. And, in case the American car companies – whose survival is still in question – haven’t noticed, American consumers (particularly those on either coast) obviously prefer stylish over sleek.

Chrysler, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be concerned with sleek or stylish; they have virtually no new models coming out over the next year or so (despite the billions in bailout money they took). Why aren’t the company’s public relations people pushing for a more energetic response to this crisis? They’re probably going to lose their jobs soon, anyway.

NEWS FLASH TO AMERICAN AUTO COMPANIES: The American people have spoken - loud and clear - for the past decade. They prefer classic auto design and a profile that helps create a “brand” over a lot of constant re-designs of mediocre products.

And, because of the current crisis faced by American car companies, PR people will never be better positioned to drive this point home.