Vikram Pandit needs PR 101

Posted: September 21st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Business, Journalism, Video | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

The other night I attended a Q&A; between BusinessWeek editor Steve Adler and Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit. It was part of a series called “Captains of Industry” and I’ve been to some talks with other business leaders in the past. Usually Adler focuses on their personal story and character, rather than on the specifics of the business they run. This can work in interviewees’ interest: they BENEFIT from being candid/controversial/self-deprecating to counter popular perceptions of business leaders as cold and calculating and give wise-older-person guidance to the mostly young professionals who seem to populate the audience.

Now in Pandit’s case, the setup for personal storytelling seems ideal–his unpopularity is stunning, there are tons of young confused would-be financiers in New York hungry for advice, and he’s got a great narrative: an Indian immigrant running an American giant at a time when India is on the rise.

But instead, Pandit flat-out refused to answer questions about himself as a person, almost as though he didn’t understand that it was to answer those questions that he was there. Even Adler seemed flummoxed–I’ve never seen him or anyone actually admit mid-interview that the chat wasn’t going to plan. It didn’t diminish my already considerable esteem for him as a reporter: after all, the questions he asked were much tougher than the drivel Charlie Rose put to Pandit in the fall. Indeed, it somewhat comforted me as a young reporter that even veteran aces get phased sometime by their sources.

Here’s the thing: Pandit had a few decent and interesting things to say about Citi itself, successfully avoiding the ugly truth about the company without outright lying. That made me think he was operating in the persona required of him at a CEO conference call, where hedging is key and ‘no comment’ is sometimes appropriate. He seemed to simply not understand that what this event called for was precisely the opposite. Is that Pandit’s stupidity, or a massive PR fail at Citigroup where someone forgot to brief the boss about what to do? (I’ve seen this problem before–there are many executives who seem not to understand how much they benefit from taking a side, even if its risky, in their answers to questions, and how much more cynical and hostile press coverage gets when they try to please.)

Watch the video and let me know what you think. It’s about an hour long, so if you’re rushed, these are some highlights (not verbatim, I don’t type that fast): Read the rest of this entry »

The Greatest Thing since…the last greatest thing

Posted: October 12th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Business, Culture | Tags: , , | No Comments »

Advertisers have always sold “youth.” Drink this juice, use this lotion, take this little blue pill and stay 17 forever. But this season brings a new twist . Advertisers are reviving old ad campaigns to sell new products: ie buy this and feel like you did when you last heard this jingle.

Exhibit A: “In an Absolut World.” When I was a kid, Absolut had a series of magazine ads with a the tagline Absolut _____. Each ad was a picture of a scene with the Absolut bottle shape embedded somewhere, like a Where’s Waldo. The tagline filled in the blank with a word to describe the scene. “Absolut Brooklyn,” my personal favorite, had the bottles as the arches in the Brooklyn bridge. The photography was pretty stellar, and teens used to collect them like celebrity clippings, but most collectors were underage. Not so good for business. Now we’re all grown up and vodka-drinkers ourselves, so the ads are back: a new series fills in the ____ in the tagline with a place name and gives us a picture that symbolizes the local zeitgeist. In theory, the selling point here is the same as in the old ads, “Drink Absolut and your ____ will be more absolutely ___.” But to me, the ads say “Come have a drink with an old friend, the brand you used to love and can now afford to buy.”

Exhibit B: “Citi Never Sleeps.” Citigroup has this new commercial out “Citi never sleeps.”

If Citi’s agency had invented the line yesterday, it might have worked as a reassuring description of a company watching out for its consumers in a rapidly changing, volatile, even scary business environment. But in actuality, the tagline is a revival of the line “The Citi Never Sleeps,” which Citibank used in the pre-Sandy Weil days to describe itself as financial firm serving Wall Street fat cats and paced to their trading schedule. Hardly the same company. Hardly the same idea. But using the same line today bypasses all the intervening changes to say, “Hey, remember us? We were around when you were getting richer.”

Even deeper down, however, I think the attempt to package nostalgia as a ticket to youth is as much about the ad agencies as it is about the clients they represent. The 1980s, when these campaigns ran, were boom times for the platforms we now deride as “old media.” Revisiting them says “Hey, remember when Madison Avenue mattered?” And whether or not the ads work, dabbling in that nostalgia makes MadAve feel better.