What Colleges Can Learn From the Borscht Belt Resorts

I took one of those personality tests on Facebook this morning, and it confirmed what I already knew. Based on my responses about the color of a rectangle it concluded I was an optimist.

I grew up among optimists. When things looked bad, my father would say “it will all work out.” My uncle admonished us to “be of good cheer and all that jazz” when times were tough.

Even my grandmother was an optimist, although she talked like a pessimist. She owned stock in the Penn Central railroad at $86/share, but was holding out to sell when it reached $100. We all know what happened to next. By the time she sold her stock was virtually worthless.

Although I am an optimist by nature, things have gone badly for many of the things I am passionate about. The Borscht Belt resorts, where three gourmet meals, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, free golf and skiing, and A-list entertainers were included in the price of the room, have all closed. Deluxe, long-distance passenger trains like the Super Chief and Twentieth Century Limited no longer run, and their successor, Amtrak, limps along from year to year. Conservative synagogues are closing, especially on Long Island, because elderly members are moving away or dying, and not enough young families are replacing them.

Now, because of the coronavirus pandemic, I worry about the future of the field in which I have worked for the past 16 years, higher education. Will parents be willing to send their kids away to colleges and universities where they will live in dormitories, attend classes with hundreds of fellow students, eat in cafeterias and hang out in bars?

Idle Hour on the campus of Dowling University, which closed in 2016. Financial pressures caused by the coronavirus pandemic could force hundreds of other colleges and universities to close or merge. http://www.dowling.edu

Although many institutional leaders are putting on brave faces and saying publicly they plan to reopen in the fall, enrollment could be as much as 20 percent lower, according to a report by the research and marketing firm Simpson Scarborough.

Pain will be felt all around. Many private institutions will be forced to close or merge. Public colleges and universities are likely to face reductions in state aid and be forced to raise tuition.

Higher education’s financial woes are not new. Enrollment has been declining for several years due to changing demographics, i.e. fewer graduating high school seniors in the pipeline. However, many institutions double downed by spending more on marketing and amenities to recruit students, especially those who could afford to pay full tuition.

In some ways, this strategy reminds me of those Catskill resort owners who played “keeping up with the Jones’” with one another during the Borscht Belt’s Golden Age, roughly 1945 – 1965. If, for example, one hotel built an indoor swimming pool and health club, the others followed suit. After all, their guests expected it.

They would borrow to finance these expansions, assuming that their guests and their growing families would keep returning and generate enough income to cover the loan payments. What they were not prepared for were the Three A’s that killed their businesses – assimilation, air conditioning and (lower) airline fares. As hotel owner Max Kellerman said toward to the end of Dirty Dancing: “…it all seems to be ending. You think kids want to come with their parents and take fox-trot lessons? Trips to Europe, that’s what the kids want.”

In my introductory graduate marketing class, I learned about the two core components of a marketing plan: the macro-environment, i.e. those global trends, which you have no control over, and the marketing mix or four P’s – product, place, price and promotion – over which you have total control. Higher education leaders need to understand – and adapt to – the first in order to manage the second.

Product is the most critical. Are the programs your institution offers in line with market needs? Can a liberal arts college thrive in an environment where students are seeking programs that will lead to careers in recession-proof fields? Can you realign your resources to teach in-demand skills?

Product is more than what you teach. It is how you teach it and package it. Many institutions offer only three products: bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctoral degrees. That doesn’t help someone like me who has the first two, has no inclination or desire to pursue the third, yet needs additional training to keep up with new technologies and tactics. I and many of my peers would be interested in having credentials in such skills as social media marketing, grant writing and leadership, but we don’t want to invest time and money to take 30 or more credits.

Colleges and universities will have to change, just as many manufacturers switched to producing masks and other personal protective equipment needed to fight the pandemic.

Place Where will you engage with your students? On-campus? Online? Hybrid? Will you have more than one campus so you can serve commuting students as well as residential?

The shelter-in-place orders that forced campuses around the country to close has thrust distance learning, something many institutions previously ignored, into the spotlight. Many colleges were forced to quickly adapt. Online education has its limitations, however, especially with classes requiring extensive laboratory or studio time. Also, there is no substitution for face time and the friendships that result from sharing experiences on campus with classmates.

Institutions that can come up with innovative solutions that address these issues will become tomorrow’s higher ed leaders.

Price      With private institutions asking as much as $300,000, all in, for a four-year degree, higher education’s price-value relationship needs to be re-balanced. Charging the same for an online course as one conducted on campus makes no sense since their value is not the same. However, by opening online courses to a larger market and pricing them lower, an institution could generate incremental revenue that could make on-campus tuition more affordable.

Promotion          Prospective students won’t convert to enrolled students unless they can learn about your offer. Marketing communications strategies need to align with that offer and the target audience. This should be reflected in your messaging and how you use different channels including public relations, social media, paid media, digital advertising, and branding to connect.

“The road to recovery lies through change and innovation,” higher education thought leader Ann Kirschner wrote recently on Forbes.com. Higher education is having a “survival of the fittest” moment. Institutions must adapt in order to survive and thrive. Those that can’t or won’t, will wind up like those Catskill resorts that kept rolling the same dice and hoping their luck would change.

Commencement Cannot be Replicated on Zoom

Working commencement was one of my favorite parts of the job during the ten years I was director of public relations for The City College of New York. It bookended my career there. I began work in May 2004, two weeks before commencement. President Bill Clinton was the commencement speaker, and I had to scramble to make sure the local media knew and covered the event. A decade later, I worked my last commencement one month before taking early retirement.

It seemed everyone on campus was consumed by the event. Planning began early in the year. We had numerous meetings that dealt with logistical issues such as seating arrangements, how many tickets graduates would be allowed, and, of course, parking.

In May, the Office of Communications and Marketing was focused on writing speeches and talking points for the president, issuing news releases about commencement and student awards, putting the finishing touches on our “Great Grads” annual salute to members of the graduating class, and making sure every graduate’s name was spelling correctly in the commencement program.

The overriding goal was to make sure the event came off without a hitch. My main responsibility on the day of commencement was to make sure members of the platform party got quickly suited up in cap and gown and had their pictures taken with the president before the procession began. After that, I grabbed my camera and went out to take candid photos attendees: graduates, faculty, alumni, and parents. That was the fun part.

The moment the president instructs you to move the tassel from the right side of your mortarboard to the left and declares you a graduate truly is magical and something to shout about.

I am greatly saddened that because of COVID-19 there will be no commencement at City College or almost every other college in the United States this year. The members of the Class of 2020 have, through no fault of their own, been robbed of this special moment in their lives.

What makes it special? All that work and tears over the previous four years or more have come together to represent something remarkable. The moment the president instructs you to move the tassel from the right side of your mortarboard to the left and declares you a graduate truly is magical and something to shout about.

The students I met and worked with at City College – and the other CUNY colleges – are different from those fortunate enough to attend residential colleges. They are not the children of privilege. Many must juggle their academic careers with work and family responsibilities, all while struggling to make ends meet. They usually came from working class and immigrant families and had a limited support system to fall back upon.

Their peers– classmates, teammates, lab partners and studio members – became their support network. Even though everyone was responsible for their own success, nobody did it alone. Professors, advisors, librarians, and tutors helped them along, as well.

Commencement marks not only individual achievements but a shared success; a moment to be celebrated by all who made it happen. It cannot be replicated. There is no hugging on Zoom. No chance to introduce your parents to the professors who helped to transform your life or the classmates who helped you make it through. No opportunity to get your picture taken with the president or to see your future in the faces of the alumni who returned to mark their 50th, 60th or 70th class reunions.

I hope next year the Class of 2021 will be able to enjoy a proper commencement. At some point in the not too distant future City College and other institutions throughout the country will hopefully be able to give members of the Class of 2020 the send-off they rightfully deserve.

In the Face of the Pandemic, the Message is Empathy

Highlights from my LinkedIn feed:

“Empathy is the new black,” brand strategist Billee Howard stated in a recent post: “There is nothing better for brands to do right now than authentically express their version of ‘I hear you, I understand, and you are not alone.’”

Here is a great example of that from Dunkin Brands, courtesy of marketing executive Paul Fleuranges: Message boards in their doughnut stores exclaim: “Let’s raise a cup to the risk takers, the mask makers, the heroes on the front line and on-line, to the ones who suit-up and never let us down. From all of us at Dunkin’ to all the heroes keeping everyone running we thank you.”

In-store message of support at a Dunkin’ Donuts store.

What I love about this message is its inclusiveness. Everyone who plays a role in the fight against COVID-19, on the front line and the home front, matters. At the same time, this subtly reinforces Dunkin’s brand message, “American runs on Dunkin.”

Marketers and business owners are getting it: learning how to adapt to this new environment we have been thrust into. It’s not simply enough to express empathy, it needs to be done in a way that ties your story to the bigger picture.

Another great example was supermarket chain Publix’ decision to purchase excess produce and milk from farmers in its service territory and donate it to food banks. The act supports both ends of the food supply chain. It provides cash to farmers that will help them stay in business while getting food to people who need it . Further, it helps the environment by keeping unsold milk and produce from going to waste.

Numerous manufacturers are re-purposing parts of their production lines to produce materials needed in the fight against COVID-19, from face masks to ventilators. Other have created new products or repurposed existing ones to meet needs related to the pandemic.

Marketers and business owners are getting it: learning how to adapt to this new environment we have been thrust into. It’s not simply enough to express empathy, it needs to be done in a way that ties your story to the bigger picture.

Urban Electric Power, a company started by City College of New York engineering faculty to produce rechargeable batteries, is now making hand sanitizer at its Rockland County, NY, factory. Some of its battery electrolyte mixers were repurposed to produce the gel.

Entrepreneur Haytham Elhawary reports his company, Kinetics, which created wearable technology to address ergonomic issues in the workplace, has added a proximity alert to help workers maintain safe social distancing and a contact tracing tool that can identify contacts between workers.

Defeating COVID-19 will require an effort on the scale of World War II; when the United States and allies defeated the Axis Powers by building up their armed forces and putting our industrial might to work producing the weapons and other supplies they needed.

Some day our children and grandchildren might ask “what did you do in the war against coronavirus, Mommy and Daddy?” just as 50-plus years ago we asked our parents and grandparents what they did in the war. We are all in this together, and everyone has a role to play.

No matter what your story is it is part of your brand, and it needs to be told. What’s my story? Helping people to tell theirs.

How Distance Learning Can Disrupt Higher Education

Well into our second month of social distancing, it appears that the tide is beginning to turn in the war against COVID-19.  Here in New York State, the daily death count, hospital utilization rates and number of new cases are all dropping, which is good news. We have “flattened the curve” and people are beginning to talk seriously of reopening our economy.

Many colleges and universities are announcing plans to reopen their campuses for the Fall 2020 semester, which is more good news, although a reoccurrence of the virus could upset those plans. During the shutdown, students continued their studies and completed their degrees remotely thanks to distance learning; their professors adapted to using online tools like Zoom and Google Classroom.

Although distance learning has been around for many years, never before had it been used by so many. It was as if overnight people had to learn to drive instead of taking the train. Education experts have speculated on whether it will permanently transform higher education and raised questions about the value of the four-year residential experience that graduating high school seniors dream of.

City College of New York and other colleges and universities moved classes online after the coronavirus crisis forced them to close their campuses.

A degree from a private, four-year residential college, especially one that accepts only one out of every 10 applicants, has long been considered the gold standard of higher education. But, with tuition rising much faster than the rate of inflation and outpacing wage growth, the price/value equation has been thrown off balance. A four-year degree from an Ivy League school now costs between seven and times as much as one from CUNY. Unless a student has wealthy parents, is able to get a scholarship, or is willing to be saddled with debt, a degree from a private, four-year institution is probably out reach.

Distance learning has become a major force higher education, in part, because it is more affordable. Liberty University, a private, Christian institution that ranks as the largest U.S. university, has 94,000 online students, but only 15,000 registered at its Lynchburg, VA, campus. Gray Associates, a Massachusetts-based consulting firm that tracks student inquiries, reports than in March 2020 inquiries for online programs rose by 10 percent while they fell 16 percent for on-campus programs.

But is it a panacea for students and institutions? Besides lower cost, distance learning offer schedule flexibility, which is a real boon to adult learners and students with full-time jobs and family responsibilities. As it gains credibility more employers will become willing to hire graduates holding online degrees.

Unless a student has wealthy parents, is able to get a scholarship, or is willing to be saddled with debt, a degree from a private, four-year institution is probably out reach.

However, to succeed a student needs to have some technical proficiency as well as reliable access to the Internet. He or she also needs to be self-motivated because there will be no one to check up on their progress. Classes that require extensive lab or studio time will be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate. Additionally, learning without the benefit of being on campus could result in disconnect between student and institution.

The bottom line: Distance learning improves access for adult learners and makes college more affordable, however, graduation rates lag behind traditional programs. That gives institutions that rely on traditional campus-based learning an opportunity to rightfully stress student success in their marketing.

Online programs need to improve student support services and help students connect with faculty and their peers in order to improve graduation rates. Also, they should offer individualized programs that enable students to take a mix of on-campus and online classes.

Distance learning can improve access and enable more students to benefit from higher education’s transformative power. But, unless it empowers nontraditional students to succeed its value will be limited. Those institutions that can make it work will enhance their stature and make greater contributions to society.

10 Ways to Stay in Front of Customers During the Coronavirus Crisis

Out of sight, out of mind. That is what happens when the people you usually do business with don’t hear from you for a while. You cannot afford to lose their patronage. How do you stay in front of your customers and prospects when, it seems, the economy has been put into a coma? Here are 10 ideas businesses and other enterprises of all sizes can adopt to their situations:

Yes, We’re Open             If your business has been classified “essential,” make sure your customers know it. Send out an email with particulars such as store hours and what people can expect when they come to your place of business. How can people order in advance? Can they get delivery? What is the charge? Consumers will also want to know your staff is wearing masks and gloves and what you are doing to keep the store COVID-free. Share the information via social media and place it prominently on your website, too.

Working from Home      If your business is operating remotely, people need to know how to reach you. By email? Are office phones set up to roll over to employees’ cell phones or land lines? Make it easy for people to find this information. Use email, social media, and your company to get key contact information formation in front of your customers. Have sales reps and managers send personalized messages to clients and vendors. You can prepare talking points or sample messages and use bulk email to make it easier for them to get this done. Better yet, give them a call to see how they are doing and let them know you look forward to seeing them when conditions return to normal.

Update, update, update               We are in a fluid situation. Conditions change with little notice, and business have to adapt, e.g. change store hours, curtail services, stop accepting cash, etc. When these changes occur, make sure your customers know. Our local Trader Joe’s instituted early seniors-only hours but didn’t let people know they changed them. I wasn’t happy to arrive shortly after 9 a.m. and see dozens of shoppers ahead of me waiting to go in. Updates are another opportunity to provide important information via email, social media, and your website to your customers. You could be setting yourself up for bad feelings if you don’t.

Provide helpful information        The need for information to help people cope with the coronavirus crisis is great. However, many organizations are providing nonessential information that just becomes part of the noise, and that can harm your brand. It is OK to be concerned with people’s health and safety and to look forward to the return of normal conditions, but that should not be the lead on your 10th message. Help your customers find help with problems they usually come to you for. For example, a garden center could provide tips on lawn care, how to build a composter, etc. A travel agent could provide guidance for cancellations of airline and train tickets and cruises.

Join the conversation     Social media is a great environment for establishing one’s status as a thought leader or expert. However, you cannot simply start spouting opinions and expect to become an Internet star overnight. Focus topics of interest to your target market. Follow the conversation and identify opinion leaders. Then start by commenting on threads where you have something to say of value and interest to your market. You can gauge your effectiveness by seeing how many likes, shares, retweets, and new followers you get. Then, when you have established credibility, you can post on subjects that showcase your expertise. Whether it is Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook, the same formula applies.

Get quoted         Even though traditional media, especially newspapers, have fallen on hard times, people still turn to them for credible news and information. A mention or quote in a story could get your name (brand) in front of thousands, or even millions, of people. Journalists are always on the lookout for people with etwxpertise on topics they are covering. Even if you don’t have a publicist on retainer, you can get your name out there though services like HARO (Help a Reporter Out). Don’t expect to be quoted in The New York Times your first time out. Focus your efforts, instead, or your local market or industry. You can follow journalists in your niche on Twitter and comment on their posts to cultivate relationships.

Meet real needs              Having to shelter in place has disrupted the lives of people around the world, and they need help to adapt to this new reality. A restauranteur could post videos on YouTube showing how to make tasty meals with ingredients likely to be found in the pantry or freezer. Some manufacturers have repurposed their facilities to produce vitally needed health supplies as facemasks or hand sanitizers. Discovery Education created a parents’ tool kit to support homebound students. That is a great idea to reinforce their brand while supporting the common good.

Hold online webinars     Share useful information online in this live interactive format. With many people unable to work, they have more time on their hands, so an informative program could be a productive activity that helps them stay current. Apps like Zoom and Blue Jeans make this fairly easy to do. My synagogue is holding morning and evening service this way. Rebecca Fannin, editor and founder of Silicon Dragon, is reinforcing her brand by holding Q&A webinars with venture capitalists. If you can speak before a target group like online reputation expert Juan Vides did recently, so much the better.

Always Be Closing           Marketing is about more than building awareness and making people feel warming and fuzzy about your brand. There are mouths to feed and bills to pay so you need to make some sales to keep the doors open, even if it is the door to your home office. Come up with special offers get prospects off the fence and make sure you get the word out. Enable people who normally come into the store to easily make large purchases remotely, as my favorite appliance store, Home Appliance, did. Make sure to get the word out. If you have read this far, you know the drill by now. And, if you need a hand with any of this, just get in touch: esimon@optimum.net or 516-524-6804.

Will next year’s Seder be Zoomed?

Why is this night different from all others? Jewish children have asked this question at the Passover Seder for centuries. Now, it is relevant to everyone. Coronavirus has upended our lives in ways unimaginable a few weeks ago. Businesses and schools are closed, and millions have suddenly become unemployed. People who have jobs are working from home. Restaurants are open, but they do take-out and delivery orders only. We wait on line to go into grocery stores, and we better be wearing a mask when we go out.

seder plate
A Seder plate with the six symbols of the Seder.

The Passover Seder is normally one of the most festive occasions on the Jewish calendar. In most years, families and friends gather for the retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt; in some homes 20 or more guests are at the table. We consume four cups of wine and enjoy a hearty meal of traditional Jewish fare such as gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, roast chicken, and brisket as we rejoice and kibbitz the night away.

This year is different. Why? Because we are practicing social distancing and it is risky for people to travel. When we show up, we do not know whether the virus is lurking for us or we are bringing it into the house.

So, we have a choice: stay home and have solo Seders or use technologies such as Zoom, Skype or Google Hangout to gather remotely with family and friends in far flung places. That is what we did. My daughter, who lives in Boston, arranged for us to video-conference with her and my mother and aunt, who live in Florida.

Right now, these virtual gatherings are fun, but what happens when the novelty wears off? Will people go back to more conventional ways to communicate when the quarantine is lifted, and social distancing becomes a thing of the past?

Videoconferencing services are changing the way we work, worship, and socialize. My employer now holds weekly staff meetings remotely, with everyone sitting in their living rooms or home offices. One of our graduate students just did a remote defense of her PhD thesis from her apartment. We have just adopted a messaging service called Slack. What happened to the mobile phone and texting?

Colleges and schools have rapidly adapted to the changes thrust upon them. Within a week of ending on-campus classes, City University of New York made the shift to online education so its hundreds of thousand students could continue their studies. My daughter, who teaches middle school language arts at a charter school prepares lessons at home and uploads them to a file server so students can access them.

Even religious life has changed, and not just the virtual Seder. My synagogue holds morning and evening services via Zoom. They were not the first. A few weeks ago, my cousin, who lives in Minnesota, invited family members to join a minyan (prayer service) for the anniversary of her mother’s passing. I worshiped with family from around the country, including my mother, who now participates in online services from that synagogue every day. Churches and mosques are also holding online services.

A week ago, my cousin participated virtual get together with family on the other side to celebrate her other aunt’s 96th birthday. At least a dozen people joined the event.

Right now, these virtual gatherings are fun, but what happens when the novelty wears off? Will people go back to more conventional ways to communicate when the quarantine is lifted, and social distancing becomes a thing of the past?

Even though technology is enabling people to communicate in ways not available before, I do not think it is a substitute for direct contact, either in person or via the telephone. That is why some industries still have conferences and annual meetings that draw thousands from around the country and the world.

Just like cable television and Facebook before it, videoconferencing will become part of our lives, provided we make the sessions interesting and integrate it with other technologies. I look forward to seeing what is in store over the next five years, if only we can stay healthy.

Planning for the Unthinkable

COVID-19 has made crisis managers of all of us, 24/7, as organizations make decisions that impact customers, employees, suppliers, investors and other stakeholders. The word has to get out: How will the business operate? Will it have to close? Will workers lose their jobs? What precautions is it taking to protect the public? Not only do stakeholders need to know, but the way in which an organization responds and communicates what it is doing can affect its brand image.

Coming up with a workable strategy when it seems people are shooting at you from all sides is overwhelming and disheartening. The stress can set off tempers and strain relationships, especially if people do not have clear, defined roles and a strong chain of command.


That is why advance planning is critical. But, how does one plan for something they never anticipated or experienced before? Ask yourself ‘what would happen if ______________ occurs’ and try to come up with scenarios. With 20/20 hindsight we now know a pandemic would cause store closings, employees having to work from home, mass layoffs, supply chain disruptions, cash flow crises and more.

These situations also happen in other events that can be anticipated and planned for such as natural disasters, man-made catastrophes and strikes. A plane crash or mass shooting could tax the resources of a local hospital, but the hospital probably has a contingency plan ready just in case and has trained its staff how respond if one occurs. The applicable techniques for handling one kind of crisis usually can be deployed in others. With coronavirus, what is different is the scope of the event.

My former colleague at City College, Michael Rogovin, has prepared an excellent outline of the five steps to be followed in disaster planning. The article provides a useful framework for developing a contingency plan to respond to any kind of disaster. Effective communication, he states, is second in importance only to having first responders secure the safety of people.

No two disasters are alike, and the maxim “expected the unexpected” certainly applies to disaster planning and crisis management. However, if you plan ahead, test your plan and use it to navigate through the turbulence, your chances of success increase substantially. The resources you need will be at the ready, your team members will know their roles and how to carry them out, and you will be prepared to communicate with your stakeholders.

Helping Customers, Employees Cope with Crisis Can Boost Your Brand

Corornavirus has the world by the throat. Here in the United States, everything from Major League Baseball to Mah Jongg night at my synagogue has shut down.

People are self-quarantining and practicing “social distancing.” They go out only to take care of necessities, like buying groceries…if they can find them in the stores.

Nobody is talking much about anything else. Almost every day I get coronavirus updates from the president of the college where I work, the supervisor of the town in which I live and the president of the synagogue where I pray.

Chinese_word_for_crisis.svgPeople need people need current – and factual – information to know what they should be doing and not doing. This information is absolutely vital, and your customers want to know how you are responding to the crisis.

John F. Kennedy said in his campaign speeches: “In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity. The coronavirus crisis can be an opportunity for savvy marketers and communicators to bolster their brands.

You could share ideas and other useful information to help people adapt to life with little or no social contact. Tips on topics like working at home productively and family activities to counter boredom can provide good content for social media channels like LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube.

Thanks to technologies that didn’t exist not too long ago, people can work from home, take classes on line and stream a wide range of entertainment. choices. Networking groups and houses of worship are using videoconferencing for virtual meetings and services.

Here are some examples of organizations that are reinforcing their brand identity and generating good will by taking advantage of these technologies to making their services available:

  • New York’s Metropolitan Opera provided a free stream of its current production of “La Boheme.”
  • Zoom Video, the videoconferencing company, is making its services available free of charge to K-12 schools. (Its stock closed up 6.85 percent March 18 while the NASDAQ lost 4.7 percent.).
  • CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism is marketing continuing education webinars to communications professionals who want to use their downtime productively.

Have you or the organization you work for come up with innovative ways to respond to the crisis or help people cope with it? If you are doing something truly novel, it could be newsworthy and possibly generate favorable publicity. As part of their coverage of coronavirus, journalists are looking to report stories about how people are adapting to the new reality.

Past crises such as World War II and 9-11 produced a “we are in this together” spirit. The fight to contain coronavirus and get the economy back on track must do this, as well. Communicators can create value by sharing how their employers and clients are playing their role in the fight and, at the same time, helping their customers, employees and other stakeholders play theirs.

Bloomberg’s fall, Biden’s rise show why earned media matters

“You’re riding high in April, shot down in May,”- Frank Sinatra, “That’s Life.”

Look no further than the Democratic primary for proof, albeit in February and March.

Michael Bloomberg, the multi-billionaire entrepreneur and former New York City mayor,  reportedly spent nearly a half billion dollars on media in his quest for the presidency. His ads were good, and I liked his positions on the issues so I decided to support him.

I went to the opening of his Long Island campaign office. It was packed and there was campaign swag and free food galore.

Bloomberg office opening
Opening day at Mike Bloomberg’s Long Island field office.

But soon after, we learned he didn’t have the right stuff. His performance in his first debate was a disaster. The other candidates went after him over his support for stop-and-frisk policing as mayor and his conduct toward some of Bloomberg’s female employees. On Super Tuesday (March 3), the only primary he won was American Samoa. The next day he dropped out.

There’s an old adage in marketing: Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.

Joe Biden is the flip side of this coin. An early front-runner, he stumbled in the debates and made some guffaws that led pundits to wonder whether the former Vice President was losing some of his mental faculties. He had little to spend on media and didn’t even have field offices in some of the Super Tuesday states.

However, a few days before Super Tuesday, Biden won the South Carolina primary in a landslide with 48.7 percent of the vote. He bested second place finisher Bernie Sanders by almost 19 points.

Although the Palmetto State was a “firewall” that he had – and was likely – to win, the Biden vote greatly exceeded expectations. That was partly due to an endorsement from powerful South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, which generated much favorable earned media.

The primary win garnered more positive press. So did the endorsements he received after the primary  from Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klochubar and Beto O’Rourke.

Biden sailed into Super Tuesday with a strong tailwind of favorable coverage. He won ten of the 14 states that held their primaries that day and built a comfortable lead over front-runner Sanders. The wins generated even more positive earned media, and Biden took five of the six primaries held the following week.

In less than a week, Joe Biden changed the conversation about himself and the race for President. His story offers testimony to the power of earned media and why it is a better investment than advertising.

It doesn’t come free, though. Biden built relations with different constituencies over decades by listening to and addressing their concerns. As Rep. Clyburn said in making his endorsement, “We know Joe. But, most importantly, Joe knows us.” And, bad press or negative social media posts damages reputations.

Public relations is just that: building and managing relations with the public. It should be part of every business or not-for-profit’s marketing strategy.

Media Companies Revive Old Cable Strategy for Digital Age

I usually go to my local hospital, South Nassau Communities, to visit a sick friend, use the emergency room or have a procedure. So, it was a pleasant change to attend the Fair Media Council’s Future of Communications Summer Boot Camp, held Friday, July 26, in South Nassau’s conference center.

It was a morning of networking with other communicators and listening to experts discuss the changing media landscape and how their organizations are responding. What struck me was how media companies are adapting strategies used during the cable TV boom to the new technologies.

Steve Rubel, Edelman’s chief media ecology officer, described how usage of digital media has evolved from browsing, searching and social to a new phase he calls direct. “People are picking three to five brands they have relationships with and are willing to pay for,” he said, adding that media companies need to “super serve” these audiences in order to get people to pay through their time.

“Be focused on loyalty to and sustainability of the business,” he said. “You can’t be all things to all people, but you can serve niches.”

Sound familiar? I covered the cable TV industry in the 1980s. Back then, cable companies were building out systems in the suburbs and large cities, and programmers were taking on the big three broadcast networks by launching new all-sports, all-news and all music channels.

The strategy worked. Within a few years, more than half of all U.S. households were hooked up and the fledgling cable networks started making money.

Rubel said media companies could succeed in niches with original content, targeting vertical market, promoting their expertise and having impact in the greater community (moving markets, changing behaviors). Opportunities could be found by targeting three P’s: Purpose (parenting, the environment), Passion (hobbies, sports) or Profession, he added.

What is different today is that a media company cannot rely on one medium alone to develop an audience. They, as well as marketers, must develop multi-platform strategies so they can meet the consumer where he or she can be found in a format that appeals to them.

“TV stations are becoming multimedia,” said Manoj Shamdasani, vice president, news development, at News 12 Networks. “We no longer have a pay wall except for our live feed. We are using all means to get people to News 12.”

Toward that aim, News 12 uses: linear channels that just provide traffic and weather; native media, which includes mobile phone apps; social media; over-the-top (OTT) media streaming services like Roku and Amazon Fire; third-party distributors, and podcasts.

Long Island’s PBS affiliate, WLIW-TV, recently launched a narrowcast service called “All Arts” that offers both new national and local arts programming plus older programs from PBS brands such as “Great Performances” and “American Masters.” Its distribution system includes OTT services, a separate website, social media, a newsletter and an app.

“We have to be everywhere to reach our audience,” said Diane Masciale, WLIW/WNET vice president and general manager. “Everything has to have a home on one of our platforms.” For example, viewers 65+ tend to watch on broadcast while the 35-55 age group favors OTT services and apps.

Social media sites appeal to different demographic groups, as well, she said. YouTube does best for the 18-24 age group, Instagram for the 25-34 demo and Facebook for older views.

“The principals are not different from vertical programming on narrowcast channels,” she added. “Everything old is new again.”

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