Michael Kempner: Straight Talk in the Digital Age

Michael Kempner MWW Public RelationsWe continue our talks today with another of communications’ thought leaders, Michael Kempner, CEO of MWW Group, one of America’s top 10 PR firms. Once again, Everything PR’s series uncovers key knowledge from another of the most successful public relations gurus, and still more insight into what it takes to be the best.

Kempner sits on as many boards, has as many awards, and to put it bluntly, has his fingers in more pies than any executive I ever heard of. AND, is engaged on Twitter? The man is Chairman of the Financial Relations Board (the nation’s oldest investor relations firm), manages and personally handles accounts for his multiple award winning MWW Group, is Founder and CEO of MIKE Licensing, an Operating Advisor to Pegasus Capital Advisors, Deputy National Finance Chair of the Democratic National Committee, a Board Member of Lighting Science Group, an Advisory Board Member for Vitals.com, a founding board member of North Jersey Community Bank – whew!

Superiority + Humility = Total Success

I have to take a breath. As you can see, just listing this man’s initiatives and accomplishments is a task, but to sum up, Michael Kempner also resides on the boards of; the Nework for Teaching Entrepreneurship, the Center for Food Action, and served as a key financial advisor for both Senator Hillary Clinton’s and President Obama’s election efforts. But before I run out of digital paper here, let’s get to the Q & A. You can see the other “pages” of merits for Michael here (PDF).

EPR – You are super “wired” Michael. To jump into “digital engagement” – is your company’s online presence a reflection of your leadership, or a combination of factors?

Michael K. – To truly answer your question , it’s important to understand that I really can’t separate what I do, how I act, and what MWW Group stands for…as the standard bearer of my organization, I must be authentic and transparent both at work and as an individual. Our brand and and our commitment to digital engagement is deeply rooted in my personal and professional lives.  In essence, if I don’t walk my talk, how can I expect my team, my industry and my clients to follow?  To truly believe in something, you can’t turn it off and on when it suits your personal agenda.  It must be who you are and what you stand for…it must be in your DNA.

We also have a great advantage by being a mid-size, independent firm.  Being one of the largest mid-size firms in the world and only one of handful of large independent firms, we can move quickly and effectively for our clients.  We only serve two masters, our clients and our staff.  By focusing on the only two things that matter, we can infuse true cultural and client service differences.  It’s something our team and our clients live everyday.

And that’s what our culture is all about. We’ve been able to lead the industry in digital engagement because we walk the talk. No matter if an employee works in our award winning Digital Dialogue practice, Consumer Lifestyle, Public Affairs or in Corporate Communications, all of our employees are expected to be digital masters. How else could we recommend these tools to our clients? We believe in them, and can provide them as solutions to our clients, because we use them every day.

Frankly, I see too many of my peers talk engagement, talk digital, talk relevance, but when you truly look at their programs, their actions and their results, it is little more than “pitch candy” used to secure new business. Once the client is gained, the programs do not reflect a belief and understanding of digital media.

EPR – Michael, MWW, you in particular, are interesting case studies for what some call “digitally aware” communications expertness. If I may jump right in to some issues of your particular expertise, our own agency runs across a stumbling block (worldwide) where so many companies would rather employ (for whatever reason) solely “in house” PR. There is evidence (which to a degree you supply) to indicate contrary indications (especially where IR goes), can you elaborate?

Michael K. – Actually, my experience is just the opposite. As public relations becomes a broader and a more critical marketing discipline, companies are accelerating and enhancing their need for outside public relations counsel.  From consumer lifestyle marketing, to corporate communications to social media, firms like MWW Group now serve a much deeper and integrated role for their clients.  Taking on the role of “communications management consultants,” our role continues to expand beyond traditional media relations (even though this remains a critically important role for us) into all areas of a client’s marketing needs.  As public relations firms begin to own the digital space over traditional ad agencies, our role has become central, in many cases eclipsing the role that advertising played in a prior era.

EPR – Following this line, we find that even the best communicators sometimes miss the boat where “integrating” channels is concerned. For the reader, developing engagement strategies “coordinated and optimized” – in other words, investor relations, consumer relations, etc., there are a lot of channels to be congruent over. My question is; “Why do you think so many larger PR & communications firms are lagging behind you and others? Are we talking resistance or resource allocation?

Michael K. – A big reason for that is we don’t just see ourselves as traditional “PR” professionals, but rather as “communication management consultants”. That allows us to remain tactic neutral. As communication management consultants, we can look across the whole spectrum of traditional and digital media, analyze all of a clients influencers and stakeholders, and bring a targeted range of solutions to meet the client’s needs

The reason we can be discipline and tactic neutral is that we have deep expertise and practice groups across a wide range of strategies and tactics.  By truly understanding a client’s business objectives, we can create communications programs that meet tangible business objectives and not just push public relations tactics. Many peer firms talk about the importance of practices like digital, but when you pull back the curtain, few have actually embraced it. I believe this happens because of a number of factors, but the primary driver largely comes from so many public relations firms being stuck in an old business model.   And much of this is fueled by the ownership of a holding company where quarterly revenue drives stifle innovation and create disincentives for change. This is just one of many areas where being independent is a huge advantage.

EPR – An article about leadership and trust, on your company’s Return on Reputation blog, interested me greatly Michael. The article touches on what many might consider a “novel” aspect of a company’s brand, trust within companies and organizations – this implies a logical yet somehow overlooked these days commodity – core values reflecting outwards. Do you think business is scheduled for a paradigm shift (maybe backwards) to a better “internal values” architecture? (special note: it is exceptionally worthwhile for the reader to uptake these articles)

Michael K. – Most companies today understand that trust with their key stakeholders is the critical to their success and must be the foundation for all of their actions.  How they turn those beliefs into action is often the difference between those organizations that are successful and those that are not.  But, today trust is not enough.  Just a few years ago, trust used to be the only thing that mattered for a brand. It was an end goal, something companies aspired to. Today, trust must be earned every day; it’s only one part of the equation.  Today, while trust must be at the core of all you do, it is really about relevance.   You need to make your brand human; you need to establish intimacy with your audiences.  Put simply, trust plus relevance can equal action. Trust is what gets you permission to participate in the conversation, but without relevance, no one is listening. What matters now is mattering more than the competition.  Only with that combination of trust and relevance can you create a relationship and drive people to act.

EPR – It should be no secret (or surprise) that MWW is partnered with Social Media Week for the upcoming event next month. The world of business and the public obviously want to know “what’s next” Michael. Can you preview us as to what you will offer, your insight?

Michael K. – Social Media Week embodies everything we’re about as a firm – not just talking the talk about the digital space, but really digging deeper into what it means to be relevant in this new media landscape. So it was a natural partnership between our firm and Social Media Week to really raise the bar on what Social Media Week could be and how it could help companies and brands steer their efforts to be more relevant than the competition. One of the interesting things we did was look back on the top ten social media events that shook the world – from the Wikileaks scandal to how we react to natural disasters – and I think it really captures just how social media is changing society and our daily lives.

EPR –  This event seems to me to have very dramatic ramifications Michael. Just looking at the sponsor list, the event schedule, the online aspects, etc., my feeling is, we are about to see a bit of the illusive “Web 3.0” where this conversation is concerned. Am I wrong? Is there something super dynamic on the horizon?

Michael K. – While it’s too early to say if we have entered Web 3.0. or not, it is clear that the web continues to evolve at a dizzying pace…creating incredible opportunity and some level of confusion all at the same time. Today, it’s not about who’s sharing the content, it’s about understanding how that content relates to each other, what content to produce and how, and how it’s propagated across a network.  Most importantly, it’s about knowing how to program or architect that network to get the results you need and desire.

MWW has dedicated significant resources into insights and analytics that will help our clients better understand how their content is shared to create relevancy and build trust across the network.  It’s something we call “Network PR.” People are already talking about your brand or issue…with our without you.  So, it’s about understanding how those networks interact and how you can strategically architect and re-architect those networks to ensure influencers and stakeholders are effectively and continually engaged.

EPR –  Shifting to our focus on “the character of success” all the other leaders have talked a bit about their ideologies where client rosters are concerned. Most draw the line on controversial clients somewhere before Libya’s Gadaffi, where does MWW (you) draw the line in the sand?

Michael K. – In order to become a top-10 global mid-size agency, we follow four simple rules:

  1. Challenge yourself everyday to be more than you ever thought you could be
  2. Aim High and deliver for your clients, your career, your firm and your community
  3. If it makes sense, do it
  4. When making a decision, ask yourself: is it the right thing to do?

That last rule applies to the clients we sign and the work that we do. We take a ”look in the mirror”  test.  Can we look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about the work we’re doing? If yes, then it makes sense, and we do it. If not, we don’t. It’s that simple. That doesn’t mean we shy away from controversy or controversial clients…but we are true to our core beliefs about who we are and what we stand for, and that’s where we draw the line.

EPR – Can you talk a bit about your heroes or mentors? Who influenced you the most, exemplified what success means?

Michael K. – I’m a big history buff, so I’m always drawing inspiration from great historical business leaders and presidents. At the top of the list are Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln who both changed the course of our nation in profound ways through a combination of great principal, policy and prose.  And, although he never had the chance to be president, I always admired Robert Kennedy and his vision for social change and his ability to stir the soul of America.

In the end, I am most impressed by people who stand for and exercise principled leadership, no matter the consequences.  That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t compromise…in fact, many of the world’s greatest successes have come as a result of comprise (ie. The Constitution), but even in compromise, leaders stand firm in the principals they believe. 

Outside of politics, I grew up watching Ron Santo play for my beloved Chicago Cubs in the 1960s. Despite battling terrible diabetes and ultimately losing both legs to amputation, he loved the life he was given. No self pity, just real joy and a love for his Chicago Cubs.

EPR – I just thought of a question I have not asked of the top communicators in the world, and one you may be uniquely qualified to answer. Do you, do highly successful industry leaders, have a “vision” or fantasy success goal? What I mean is, what is the perfect legacy for Michael W. Kempner?

Michael K. – Twenty-five years ago, I set out to build a great company…a place where people love to work, challenge themselves to be the best they can be, and do great work for our clients. It took us a few years of learning, but I believe we’ve forged a culture of mutual respect and support, where people truly love the work they do. That’s been a dream fulfilled for me. I wanted MWW to be a place that gave people a chance to make a great living, but also use their talents to do more…understanding that a job is much more than a place to get a paycheck…that  your career and company says much about you as a person and help create important self worth.

At the end of the day, do we feel good about what we accomplished?  Did we do the best and most strategic work possible for our clients?  Did we deliver on their important goals?  And did we do something worthwhile for the world as well?

That’s something I’m focused on now and for the future of our company. Whether it’s our pro bono work for many non-profits and NGOs, our MWW Green initiatives, our support for local charities, or my own work for the White House Council on Community Solutions, I want to use our position to do more than just great PR, but to make an impact on our communities, our industry, and in a small way, our world. That’s the legacy I want to leave.

EPR – Lastly, anyone reading this will be looking for the grain of truth, the leg up on their own business or career Michael. What is the very best you can suggest to any reading this far?

Michael K.– At the risk of being cliché, the best advice I can give is summed up in a quote by the American pastor Robert Schuler that says “What would you attempt to do if you could not fail?” Too often people are encumbered by what they can’t do, rather than being empowered by what they can do. Don’t be afraid of what others might think. Take a risk. Or as we say at MWW, aim high and deliver.


Michael Kempner PR MWW

Michael Kempner and The Power of Optimism

Michael Kempner is impressive. I Tweeted him to ask for this interview, and BadaBOOM! – he accepted straightaway. The thing is, I never expected him to be online! This “wired” phenomenon becomes a bit less amazing the farther we go with social connectedness, to be honest. But, for evangelists of the digital experience like me, it still says something when the top drawer movers and shakers are “here” – and some others of their contemporaries are – in effect – out to lunch digitally. That said, let me drive home the nail here, it is unlikely that any CEO can use “busy” as an excuse for not interacting on the web.

I want to say one last thing here. When Michael emailed me about this interview, he thanked me for giving him the opportunity. Now I don’t know if you noticed, but Everything PR News is not the New York Times just yet. Kemper really impresses me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is his admiration of baseball great Ron Santo. Santo was the embodiment of courage and eternal optimism. Blessed, and some would say cursed, by lifelong adversity brought on by illness. Our heroes are crucial – a part of our personal brand – if you will. Just before his 70th birthday, Ron Santo was asked about broadcasting for the Cubs, about the Baseball Hall of Fame, about his attitude, his current illness then, Santo replied:

“Even when the cancer came, I wasn’t worried because I got through so many operations — open-heart surgery, two legs. I’ll be all right.”

The humility and excellence of Santo, as Kempner’s hero, says a great deal about the CEO of MWW Group. From my point of view, I envision such people as sleeping very well at night, confident in their achievements – yet understanding perfectly well the nature of success. No Michael, Thank You for taking your time.

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