The ongoing topic of race and its place in public life is raging in the United States, and that discussion is spilling over into Canada as well. While most of the country is discussing how to talk about race and race relations and protests continue to rage in many American cities, one company is taking the conversation in another direction.
Uber Eats recently announced the release of a feature on its platform that allows users to specifically find and support black-owned businesses in the United States and Canada. According to media reports about the release, users will not have to pay delivery fees for orders made from participating black-owned restaurants.
One of the biggest questions that Disney fans have been asking has been answered: “When will the parks reopen, and will they be safe when they do?” Recently, Disney announced that Disney World in Florida will open some parks for business on July 11 and others on July 15. This will be the first time any parks have invited guests since closing in mid-March due to concerns about COVID-19.
Disney CEO Bob Chapek sat down with CNN to discuss how the parks are working to keep guests safe, a very important message for both his company and fans who have missed visiting the parks. Chapek said guests would definitely experience new guidelines, though he said safety was paramount.
Volkswagen is apologizing after a social media ad was called “racist” by some consumers. In the ad, a giant white hand initially shoves a dark-skinned man away from a Volkswagen car. When the man tries to hold his ground, the giant hand flicks him away from the car.
That might have been enough for some to cry foul, but there’s more. According to reports in the Associated Press and other media outlets, the name of the café into which the man is “flicked” translates as “Little Colonist,” and, when the name of the vehicle comes on screen, the initially jumbled letters reportedly, and briefly, spelled out a racial slur.
It has become one of the most iconic performances in sports history: The Flu Game. During the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz, Chicago Bulls megastar Michael Jordan scored 38 points, helping his team take game five in the series 90-88. A tight margin in what would be a hard-fought series. That game helped cement Jordan’s already incredible legacy, as people are still using it as the bar against which all ‘will to win’ is measured.
For decades, basketball fans believed a flu-stricken Jordan led his team to victory through the sheer force of his indomitable will and incredible talent. But, an episode of the popular ESPN docu-series, The Last Dance, tells a different version of the story. At least, in the episode, Jordan does.
On paper, a time when vastly more people are watching streaming media, but the industry itself is still in a building phase, seems like a great time to dive into the market. That said, upstart streaming service Quibi is struggling to connect with consumers and get them to sign up in numbers that will allow the brand to compete with industry heavyweights like Netflix and Disney.
Quibi hit the ground running when the company debuted its streaming service back in April, however, growth, as well as interest in the brand, has not been stellar. Speaking to the New York Times about what has been called an “anemic” launch, founder Jeffrey Katzenberg said the slow start can be attributed in part to COVID-19, but that “we own it.”
Speaking with CNN Business, CEO Meg Whitman was more optimistic, saying: “You have to remember, we’re a new brand with original content, a new tech platform that was built from the ground up… We came into the market with no library, no legacy product… We’re starting from scratch.” The unspoken implication is that the company is doing fine and has tremendous upside potential.
Currently, Quibi has about 1.3 million active users. This is a very small audience when compared to the more than 50 million Disney+ customers and 183 million Netflix streamers. Even those million users may not be a realistic number, as most of them are still well within the 90-day free trial phase.
Whitman, however, is nonplussed, saying she expects growth in this sector to be slow, and that finding the right audience in this market is a challenge. “It’s hard to gain people’s attention, particularly in a pandemic… But I feel really good about where we are…”
While optimism about a young business is healthy, especially when the boss is speaking to consumers, the market is not currently working in Quibi’s favor. With more people at home, streaming services are picking up a lot of new subscribers, and Quibi is struggling to keep pace.
Katzenberg was blunt when speaking about the growth pattern, saying, “Is it the avalanche of people we wanted? No… It’s not up to what we wanted… It’s not close.”
That said, principles and stakeholders are still banking on the uniqueness of their product to see them through in the long run, as long as they can grab the attention of enough streamers. They believe there’s an audience out there for shorter, easily watched content with solid production value.
Critics say the company has more pressing issues, though. First, the fact that Quibi was built for people “on the go.” It is only available on mobile devices and its biggest competitors are all multiplatform, which makes them a more obvious value for consumers, especially those stuck at home for the moment.
The fact that people are not “on the go” as much as they had been or eventually will be hurts the company’s initial market position. Content is another challenge. If people don’t really know what they’re getting, will they be willing to pay for it? That remains to be seen, and Quibi has a serious uphill challenge in the near future as they seek to shift their unique value proposition for an audience with many other options.
Announcing layoffs can be challenging for many different reasons. Fundamentally, no one likes giving or receiving bad news. Beyond that, though, there are more specific reasons why this kind of announcement requires careful consideration of both the messaging and the audiences involved.
The recent announcement made by United Airlines of a coming layoff offers a real-world example of this challenge. In a memo sent out to approximately 11,500 workers and shared with the media, United Airlines head of human resources, Kate Gebo, announced that the airline would reduce hours and staffing in the coming months, layoffs that could also include the company’s administrative team.
The announcement included the caveat that these moves would be made after funding from the CARES Act is no longer available to keep the company afloat. This factor somewhat complicates this communication, because it is unclear if there will or will not be any further help from the government.
What is clearer in the message is that the company expects air travel passenger demand to continue to be drastically reduced, and that United expects it will take some time, perhaps years, for demand to return to pre-COVID levels. That, company leadership says, means growing smaller for the long-term.
These are not the only details in the announcement. Additional communication was specifically focused on non-union employees who were told they would be required to take 20 unpaid days off and that some would be required to transition to a four-day work week.
When asked about the reasons behind these changes, a company spokesperson said they had no choice given the economic circumstances. “Travel demand is essentially zero for the foreseeable future… Even with federal assistance that covers a portion of our payroll expense, we anticipate spending billions more than we take in… For the next several months. That is not sustainable.”
Many company employees are currently on voluntary leave, and United has presented some offers for voluntary contract buyouts. Meanwhile, the company is facing a lawsuit from some union workers, who want to block the reduction in work hours. The suit alleges the choices being forced on employees by the company violates the CARES Act.
Through all of this, the company has continued regular direct communication with employees, offering a series of company memos explaining how things were and what company executives had decided to do about it. While the news is difficult to hear, the communication is clear, allowing workers at every level to make decisions with the facts in front of them.
As the powers that be ponder how to reopen Broadway, a ballerina not far away is busy making sure the show goes on, even if it means broadcasting from homes across the world. Working with Joseph Phillips, Misty Copeland is the innovator behind “Swans for Relief,” an organization working to raise funds for dancers all across the world who are out of work due to COVID-19 related shutdowns.
Copeland told the Associated Press the effort is a way to “bring the dance world together” in order to make a bigger impact as a group. “I started reaching out to my friends, and everyone I was reaching out to was like ‘Yes, I’m in!’”
This agreement led to a joint production for a virtual audience and led to a partnership with the Entertainment Industry Foundation to “help ballet dancers maintain living expenses.”
To show the strength of what might be possible, Copeland brought together 32 colleagues from across the globe, with dancers representing at least nine different countries performing the “Dying Swan.”
Copeland said one of her secondary goals with this effort was to begin a conversation about how the ballet world interacts with its fans. “We needed (to) reset, step back, and reassess how we do things… It’s about time we learn how to exist in this virtual world for the ballet community… figuring out new ways of bringing theater to people… reaching more people.”
For Copeland, one of the first steps in creating this conversation is showing how it can be done. She hopes to develop a better and greater idea from that seed, with help from other performers and producers.
This conversation about effective communication and new ways to connect with an audience runs parallel to a debate currently in process where producers and performers connected with Broadway are deciding when and how to reopen theaters. The parallel narratives create urgency for both groups to generate ideas and put them in front of an audience.
While there may be some friction and divergence between these ideas, that doesn’t necessarily mean the two efforts are in opposition with each other or that the narratives from one group necessarily contradict those from the other group. Effective communication around these efforts and to these audiences, for which there is significant crossover, is a vital component of how success in these endeavors will be developed and measured.
Copeland has an active and enthusiastic audience now. It will be interesting to watch how she promotes her vision going forward.
As some in sports media have begun to talk about baseball and hockey coming back this year, there are others who are openly wondering if football will start on time. At present, most teams have not made any kind of announcement for or against the idea. Some have opted to cancel offseason workouts, however, and the New Orleans Saints are one of the latest.
The Saints made the announcement that their offseason program would not be happening, and that players would be expected to workout at home and come to camp ready, whenever camp might be. Both GM Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton told the players to expect their coaching staff to maintain “regular communication” with players through spring and summer.
Part of that communication was a positive and empathetic message from Payton to his players: “Pay attention to your family. Pay attention to keeping yourself and your family safe. Abide by the orders of each of the states that you’re in. We’ll handle the rest of it… Get yourself in shape, and then, when we’re able to get together, we’ll move on and have a great training camp and a great season…”
With this message, Payton was able to get his key message across, that he expected the players to be ready to go when called upon, while still defining priorities for the team and the brand. Take care of yourselves and your families.
Looking at that message, we see a leader who is on message, as well as speaking in a way that draws people in and creates buy-in. In a time of crisis, there is a risk of losing loyalty if a message tells people what they should do rather than addresses their feelings or concerns. Payton knows his team won’t make any kind of run if there’s mistrust and division. He also knows that players won’t play for a coach they don’t believe in.
This principle has some relevance to nearly every brand or organization. People, whether they are members of a team, an audience, or a market cohort, want to be connected and appreciated, not taken for granted. Leaders and marketers can do a lot of heavy lifting with short, simple communication that is primarily connective.
Case in point, Payton didn’t have to say a lot to say what he needed to say in a way that connected with his players and their families at a time when many people are worried, scared, and wondering what might happen next. Once they were connected with his message, Payton offered clear expectations, as well as a long-term vision everyone on the team could get behind.
Last week the world of sports rejoiced at the news that, someday soon, Major League Baseball might re-start. But it didn’t take much time for the other side of the argument to surface. From a sports PR perspective, the weeks and months prior to the announcement that MLB Spring Training was canceled, and that the season would be postponed, were dominated by news of the sign stealing scandal. The Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox were called out, and several players and coaches were specifically named as willing participants, in what some commentators in the sports media called one of the worst professional sports scandals in decades.
Now, just as fans were getting accustomed to the idea of baseball making a comeback, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced the penalties the league is leveling against the Red Sox. Saying that the team’s infractions were less severe than those of the Astros, the penalties he announced were also less severe. Boston lost a second-round pick in the next amateur draft, and former manager Alex Cora was suspended through the 2020 postseason. In addition, Red Sox replace system operator JT Watkins was suspended without pay through this year’s postseason for “violating the prohibition on in-game use of video to revise sign sequences…”
Speaking directly about his decisions, Manfred said: “Unlike the Astros conduct, in which players communicated to the batter from the dugout area in real time the precise pitch about to be thrown, Watkins’ conduct by its very nature was far more limited in scope and impact…”
Watkins, who came up through the Red Sox system, playing until 2015, initially denied the allegations against him. Manfed disagreed, calling Watkins a “key participant” in the infractions. Watkins has said nothing else since Manfred made his announcement. Personally, Watkins will have some ground to make up to win back his reputation, however, the team as a whole came through fairly unscathed.
One of the biggest questions when the news of how pervasive the sign stealing scandal went came out, was which teams would be tainted by the news. Would the Red Sox see their championship run attached to an asterisk with the label “cheater” associated with it? At present, that doesn’t look like it will be the case, at least for most fans. They understand the relatively limited nature of this infraction, especially compared to what the Astros had been accused of.
However, “less ground to make up” is not “no ground to make up,” and that means the Red Sox will have to answer some questions, win back some doubters, and put up with connections to the cheating scandal for some time yet.
Even without a marquee live program like Game of Thrones to bank on, HBO is gambling that customers are ready to officially cut the cord and pay them directly to stream their content. The premium cable network recently announced a release date for its HBO Max streaming service on May 27. Given that, at $14.99 a month, the price tag is more expensive than competitors like Disney+, Hulu, and Netflix, it’s clear the brand believes it still has enough to entice viewers.
So, what can streamers expect from HBO’s new service? Early press reports offer a varied lineup of WarnerMedia brands including Friends, Looney Tunes, Sesame Street, as well as new “Max Original” series for both adults and kids.
Some viewers are asking if that’s all. WarnerMedia says “no.” In fact, the company recently told the press AT&T, which it owns, is planning to invest about $2 billion in programming and promotions for HBO Max over the next two years. WarnerMedia Chairman Robert Greenblatt, told the press: “Our number one goal is having extraordinary content for everyone in the family, and the HBO Max programming mix we are so excited to unveil on May 27 will bear this out…”
With the coronavirus forcing millions to stay at home, streaming demand is way up, which means this may be a great time to get into the market. But finding market space will be a challenge. Netflix stock is through the roof, and Disney+ plus is seeing a major surge in subscribers. HBO clearly believes they can compete with these streaming titans head to head. Greenblatt said: “The all-star teams behind every aspect of HBO Max will deliver a platform and a robust slate of content that is varied, of the highest quality, and second to none…”
That’s a strong, positive message that, ultimately, will be left up to the streaming consumer. The big question right now, is what will HBO use to entice people to give the service a try? Will they give them a trial period for a free or reduced price, or are they banking on big-name programs to get people to switch over?
At this point, the jury is still out on that one. The company has about a month to bring out the big guns and show consumers the “varied high-quality” content on offer for nearly fifteen bucks a month. There’s no doubt people are willing to pay for streaming content, as long as it’s high quality, but it will need to be as good or better than what’s already out there.
One factor HBO is banking on is exclusivity. The company has already said some programming, even classic sitcoms, will stream exclusively on HBO Max, even those that have previously been available on other platforms. That could be a big win for the company, if viewers find a show they care enough about. So, how will they approach this PR challenge? Time will tell, and the clock is ticking.