Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Wells Fargone

Wells Fargo recently took a lot of heat for its employee recognition events originally planned this year in Las Vegas. The Associated Press reported on February 3 that the bank, "...which received $25 billion in taxpayer bailout money, is planning a series of corporate junkets to Las Vegas casinos this month."

John Stumpf, president and CEO, immediately castigated AP for a misleading news story, claiming the events were not junkets for highly paid executives, but "recognition events" for front-line employees such as tellers, personal bankers, technology specialists, credit analysts and other "team members." The company at first defended its event schedule, but faced with a torrent of criticism from Congress, the blogosphere and the general public, eventually canceled its employee recognition events for the balance of this year.

On February8, Wells Fargo took out a full-page ad in the New York Times. In the ad, entitled "The Value of Team Member Recognition," Mr. Stumpf took a whiny tone in blaming the media for the event cancellations, saying that for many employees, it is "the only time in their lives that they're publicly recognized and thanked for a job well done." He went on the say that those employees and the hospitality industry workers were the real losers in this media-inspired outcry. He concluded, "Since we aren't thanking our award winners in person this year, we'll have to do it this way" -- that is, through the ad.

Subsequently, Times columnist Maureen Dowd characterized the Wells Fargo effort as an "inadvertently hilarious full-page ad...to whinge (sic) about the junkets to Las Vegas and elsewhere it was forced to cancel because of public outrage." As to Mr. Stumpf's claim that employee recognition events "energized employees," Ms. Dowd responded, "In this economy, simply having a job should energize them." She speculated that the ad, which may have cost the bank $200,000, might serve as a partial bailout for the newspaper industry.

Two thoughts come to mind. First, Mr. Stumpf should realize it's the perception of these events stacked next to the bailout money that counts. Second, why take out an ad that may have cost $200,000 ostensibly to thank employees? Couldn't Wells Fargo have been more creative? Maybe staging a video or even a virtual event, making use of some 21st Century technology? OK, it isn't Vegas, but with new means of connecting with people, you can do some neat things. The respected communications strategist David Henderson observed, "For any organization to buy a full-page in the NY Times reveals a lack of how people communicate in today's world." I agree. Think a little harder, guys -- maybe even some old-fashioned personal communications as well?

I believe bank (and other industry) employees should be recognized, particularly those that don't get the big bonuses. But this year, just having that job may have to do.

(Full disclosures: 1. My wife worked as a front-line bank employee for 14 years in retail credit (not at Wells Fargo). 2. I've worked with clients in the financial services industry for 30 years. 3. My home mortgage is with Wells Fargo, having originated at PNC and passing through WAMU on its way there. Hope they don't call the loan.)

Thanks to David Henderson for his insight. You'll find him at www.davidhenderson.com.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Lying Down on the Job

I know I'm a lonely voice when it comes to pointing out incorrect word usage in the media, and most people probably find it tiring. I intend to continue. Proper use of the English language is rapidly becoming a "who cares" issue, but I will soldier on. The latest example comes from the halls of power in Washington, D.C., namely the Office of the White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. When asked to comment on the controversy surrounding Illinois Senator Roland Burris, Gibbs replied, in part, that Senator Burris should "take some time this weekend to either correct what has been said and certainly think of what lays in his future." (Quoted from the official White House transcript of the February 20, 2009 Press Briefing; emphasis mine.)

If Mr. Gibbs – generally acknowledged as a skilled professional – wasn't lying down on the job on this one, he'd know that he should have said "what lies in his future." Perhaps the news organizations that quoted him, including the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun, might have used the (sic) convention to denote that they weren't responsible for the mistake. (I won't mention that, in addition, Gibbs should have not used "either" with "and" in that phrase – proper usage would have been "both." Oops, I mentioned it.)

President Obama is greatly concerned about education; maybe he should start with his own Press Secretary's office.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bye, Bye, Pontiac

The New York Times ran an article yesterday chronicling the fading fortunes of GM's Pontiac division, which will now shrink to a "niche" product maker, no longer a separate division. The news inspired several memories.

The first was of my late Uncle Mike, who died on his 92nd birthday in February 2006. Mike was a Pontiac man -- one of those many brand-loyal customers that the domestic auto makers had for so long. I have an old photograph of him posed jauntily with one foot on the front bumper of his Pontiac. The photo's undated, but it appears to be an early 1950s vintage. He would never consider another car make; his last car was a maroon 1992 Bonneville.

One of the biggest regrets of his last years was that several strokes had rendered him unable to drive. He still had the mental wherewithal for it; his mind was sharp (and highly opinionated) virtually up to the day he died.

I found in Mike's effects a receipt for a new 1950 Pontiac coupe from a local dealer. Complete with undercoating, it cost just under $2,000. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that amount translates to about $17,500 in 2009 dollars.)

He favored the Bonneville, a wide-track "heavy" design. In a brochure for its 1970 models (also among Mike's possessions), Pontiac claimed that its decision to name the car "after a gruesome stretch of salt" came from the "brand-new, 455-cubic-inch, 360-hp V-8." Mike did a lot of driving to work on construction sites and he wanted power and comfort; it would be just a few years before gas mileage would become a concern. He had a Pontiac Parisienne at one time. The Parisienne was the model name of the Bonneville in Canada, but was also sold in the U.S. for a short time in the 1980s. I thought that the Parisienne name was a bit too elegant for Mike's tough-guy pipefitter image; he went back to the Salt Car.

Pontiac also built its fame on "muscle cars," like the GTO, which brought back a more personal memory. It's one of the two cars I've been in (as a passenger) that was going 100 miles an hour. The other was a Road Runner. Gee, I'm glad I'm still here!

My final impression of Pontiac is emblematic of the brand's downfall. A few years ago, I was waiting at a stoplight near a local Pontiac dealership when I glanced over at the lot. I saw what I first thought was one of those "gag" cars -- it reminded me of Chevy Chase's Family Truckster wagon in Vacation -- right down to the pea-green color. It wasn't until I saw another of these grotesque creations on the street that I realized it was a Pontiac Aztek -- an ill-fated attempt at an SUV-crossover-whatever that earned it a place on many "ugliest car" lists. It had the honor, according to the Times article, of earning the top spot in an ugly car listing by the Daily Telegraph of Britain. It's a long way from Pontiac's 1980s marketing slogan: We Build Excitement.

So Pontiac fades to insignificance. I can hear Uncle Mike sighing.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

C'mon, Admit It. It's Wrong.

Here's another follow-up to my observations last week on the dying art of copy editing in online media. In a column yesterday in USA Today entitled "Will Christians lose 'clout' in the Obama years?", writer Cathy Lynn Grossman observed, "That was the ChristianityToday.com online quick question poll yesterday. Such Internet polls are unscientific, but, common on, admit it, they're fun." (Emphasis mine.)

Much as I'd like to "common on," it's another case of sloppy editing that relied on a spell checker program's substitution because it didn't recognize the colloquialism "c'mon." Doesn't anyone read the final copy before posting? I suppose not -- or worse, someone read it and found nothing wrong.

I emailed Reader Editor Brent Jones, listed as the contact to report "corrections and clarifications." So far, no response from Mr. Jones. C'mon, Brent, admit it; it's wrong.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Photo Op: Winter Blues

Every season has its beauty; winter has its own particular hues. This "blue view" is of the lake at Merli-Sarnoski Park in Northeastern PA. Near the center in the distance is the swimming beach; nobody there on this day!

Unruly Tenants

Here's a quick follow up to my post of yesterday about incorrect word usage. In an email yesterday to supporters, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said, "On the campaign trail, Obama insisted that groups who seek government grants couldn't disqualify an applicant for a social service role if their beliefs are incompatible with the organization's tenants" (emphasis mine). The message might resonate a bit more if he said "tenets," which Merriam-Webster says is "a principle, belief, or doctrine generally held to be true; especially: one held in common by members of an organization, movement, or profession."

Then again, maybe he didn't want to take the chance on getting "principle" right. As Casey Stengel once said, referring to the 1962 New York Mets, the ultimate sports metaphor for futility until this season's Detroit Lions, "Doesn't anybody here know how to play this game?"

Casey, you may be right.

Update: In reviewing today's news, I came across a MediaPost Online Media Daily story headlined "Brick-And-Mortar Retailers Loosing Search Battle." I guess they're implying that traditional retailers aren't tight with their customers, rather than losing ground by not paying attention to search marketing.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Well-Healed Press Core Principal

I know correct spelling and usage is a long-lost art, but it's getting out of hand.

Last week, I read a post on MediaPost’s Raw blog on trends in social media that concluded with the observation that “all media is becoming social, which seems to demonstrate the threat and opportunity to well healed media firms.” I’m hoping those media firms aren’t too sick to realize that it should be “well-heeled,” as in prosperous.

Today, I came across an item on the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) web site on the ethics of Twitter usage. I was only too happy to learn that when certain White House reporters tweet during briefings, the result can be that “…by the time the rest of the members of the press core file their stories, the news is already dated.” Perhaps the core of the White House press corps might want to know that. I hereby request that a larger portion of my PRSA dues be devoted to more careful web editing.

At the top of my list, however, is the evaluation copy of the Thomson/Wadsworth textbook “Creative Strategy in Advertising,” 9th edition I received last year. The back cover blurb began “Focusing on the fundamental principal that good advertising always starts with an understanding of people…” My evaluation would be that a fundamental principle of good textbook writing is proper usage and the editors should be sent to the principal. And we expect our students to get it right?

I know, I know. It’s a world of spontaneous communication, powered by tweets and status updates. (Forget emails; that’s so 20th Century.) There’s no time to be right; just blurt it out. I may be disorganized (just ask my wife), but I still think there’s some value in getting your words right.

Back to work; I’m not well-heeled enough to ignore the principle that he who does not work does not eat. Just ask the press corps.

P.S. To their credit, the web editors at PRSA corrected the “press core” reference within minutes of my comment. Hats off!