Monday, July 13, 2009

'Get Me on the Cover of Business Week'

This was tough news to wake up to on this Monday morning — Bloomberg reporting that McGraw-Hill is looking to dispose of Business Week magazine. This is another gut punch for those of us in the media business.

Depending on what happens with this disposal, I may have to dispose of a reading I use in my "Fundamentals of Public Relations Writing" class at Temple University.

I teach the students, all budding PR practitioners, a concept of my own formulation that I term the "high hurdle" — which means that if they want to show leadership ability, they must find out what publication their company or client's CEO most desires to be prominently featured in and then pull out all the stops to get their CEO into it. (It needn't necessarily be a publication — it could be a TV show, like CNBC's "Squawk Box" or "The Today Show" or "Oprah," or it might be a high-profile speaking slot, perhaps to the Council on Foreign Relations or the Economics Club of New York or a trade industry keynoter.)

I share with the students a compelling example of the "high hurdle" that comes from the book, Confessions of a PR Man (New American Library, 1988), written by Robert Wood, president of Carl Byoir back in the days when it was one of the PR industry's venerable firms. Listen in on the exchange between Wood and his client Burt Sack, the PR director for Howard Johnson & Co., which took place when the two were reviewing the HoJo PR strategy in the 1960s.

Wood writes: "Burt leaned back in his chair. 'There's one objective that towers over all the others,' he said. 'It's this — Mr. Johnson wants to be on the cover of Business Week.' He was referring to Howard B. Johnson, the founder's son and now the CEO.

"I laughed. 'The cover of Business Week? That's a lot easier said than done.'

" 'Don't laugh, Bob. This is serious. He really wants it.'

"I shrugged. 'Okay, we'll do our best. It isn't impossible. We have had clients on the cover before. But it doesn't happen every week, Burt.'

" 'I know that. But I've got to warn you. No matter what else you do for us, Mr. Johnson will never be completely satisfied until he sees that cover.' "

Thus begins my class's case study of meeting the "high hurdle" and making a client happy. For the record, Bob Wood exercised highest-order media relations skills and got Howard Johnson its cover story.

For most of my three-decade career as a business writer and editor, the cover of Business Week was a plum placement. My lesson in leadership will still be taught to the incoming generation of PR execs, but I'll maybe be retiring this reading now that Business Week is falling down the rabbit hole.

There is an addendum to this case study: The HoJo PR director raises his glass in a post-cover celebratory toast and says to Bob Wood, in all seriousness, "Well, here's to the Time cover we're looking for next." Time cover? Hoo boy. I say no more.