Crisis Management 101

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:35 pm

Earlier this year, Anne Zizzo, president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee-based Zizzo Group Advertising and Public Relations, found herself in the middle of her own PR nightmare. Zizzo is a member of the Marquette University Board of Trustees, which decided in May that the school would not change the nickname for its athletic teams from Golden Eagles back to Warriors, which the school used from 1954 to 1993.

Even though the Warriors name remains popular with many MU alumni and supporters, the board decided in May that the school team nickname would instead be changed to "Gold," as in the Marquette Gold.

The public reaction to the name change to Marquette Gold was overwhelmingly negative. Some compared it to Coca-Cola’s decision in the 1980s to switch to New Coke. Alumni and fans who preferred the Warriors nickname were upset it was not coming back. Others were happy with the Golden Eagles name. Few supported the notion of Marquette Gold.

The decision was blasted by radio talk show hosts and many of their listeners. Media coverage of the Gold backlash grabbed newspaper headlines for days. Critics predicted unsupportive alumni would withhold donations to the university.

In the midst of the controversy, Zizzo uttered a now locally infamous quote that added fuel to the firestorm: "This is marketing 101," Zizzo said in that quote, which was circulated throughout the Wisconsin blogosphere and replayed on radio stations. "You’re going to see opinions and attitudes change as the Gold develops and as we put out into the marketplace the future of what Gold is."

Although she was speaking on behalf of the Marquette board of trustees when she made those comments, some of her peers in the public relations industry wondered if the Gold fiasco would be a black eye for Zizzo’s reputation as a PR professional.

Just one week after Marquette officials announced the Gold nickname, the board of trustees reversed course and said that they would establish a new process to select a school nickname because the public reaction to Gold was so overwhelmingly negative. In June, students, alumni, faculty, staff and other MU stakeholders voted to keep the Golden Eagles nickname. They were not allowed to vote for the Warriors name.

"The marketplace was definitely surprised that day (that the Gold nickname was announced), and I think the marketplace was as equally supportive over the course of that week," Zizzo said. "Marquette University was dealing with an issue of trust with their stakeholders, and so when things were resolved a week later, the outpouring of feedback we all received was just as voluminous as the week before. However the entire sentiment had changed."

Marquette has stood by Zizzo. The university and the MU Athletics Department joined the ranks as clients of the Zizzo Group this year.

"From Marquette University’s perspective, they have moved on (from the nickname controversy)," Zizzo said. "On the athletics front at Marquette University, they are in full swing. They are moving forward, and everybody’s fired up about (joining) the Big East (Conference)."

Zizzo’s business apparently has suffered few, if any, ill effects from the Gold public relations crisis. Zizzo said this year was her firm’s best of its 10 years in business.

A re-branding, an employee retention plan and what Zizzo calls a "fearless" marketing approach caused the firm to report $40 million in capitalized billings for 2005, she said.

The Zizzo Group’s vision statement says it is the region’s most fearless, results-driven communications firm.

The company is currently ranked among the top nine largest marketing communications firms in southeastern Wisconsin, Zizzo said.

"I think we are the most established, fastest-growing firm in the region," Zizzo said. "From a vision perspective, in the next five years, we will be one of the three largest agencies in the region."

In five years, Zizzo plans to triple her staff and increase the Zizzo Group’s annual capitalized billings to $120 million.

In 2005 alone, the Zizzo Group increased its employee count by 35 percent and will end the year with 40 employees. In addition, the Zizzo Group moved from 1101 N. Market St. in downtown Milwaukee to the American Society for Quality building at 648 N. Plankinton Ave. earlier this year.

The company also tacked 25 new clients onto its roster this year. Among the new clients in 2005 for both project-based and ongoing work were: Ambassador Hotel; Karl’s Event Rental Centers Inc.; Greater Baltimore Medical Center; Medical University of Ohio in Toledo; Phoenix, Ariz.-based Make-A-Wish Foundation of America; Milwaukee-based Robbins & Lloyd Mortgage Co.; and Hartland-based Pattern Technologies.

"The thing that they all have in common even though they are all from these different sectors is that they are best-in-breed, they are industry trendsetters, they are looked upon as inspirational companies by their competitors and by others in their peer groups and they are committed to the discipline of marketing and tracking their efforts back to results," Zizzo said.

The company does not specialize in specific industries, Zizzo said. Instead, the Zizzo Group looks for clients that are growing at a similar pace as the firm and striving to become the best of the best.

"When clients engage in a marketing firm, they are not necessarily looking for experience specific to their business," Zizzo said. "When we meet with CEOs of organizations relative to marketing, they know that they need to be coming up with and anticipating the next thing in their industry."

One of the Zizzo Group’s core competencies is working with clients to establish a brand platform, Zizzo said. An organization’s brand reflects the organization emotionally, functionally and symbolically, she said.

"The key to successful marketing is really defining the essence of your brand, the essence of your organization and then on the communications side of things, packaging it up in a way that is your one voice," Zizzo said.

Part of the fearless and results-driven brand of the Zizzo Group is its internal staff, constant recruiting and its focus on stability and entrepreneurship, Zizzo said.

"Internally, fearless translates to the entrepreneurial spirit that we encourage folks here to have when they come work at Zizzo," she said. "It’s a filter that we use to screen applicants to get a sense of how they approach their work. Are they curious? Do they come up with new ideas? Are they inclined to dig deep and research and bring other perspectives to a marketing solution?"

Zizzo is determined to continue to project the Zizzo Group to the national and international markets. She has brought a group of directors together for the public relations, media, development, account management, strategic planning and creative divisions of the Zizzo Group who hold a stake in the company’s future as well.

"You look at companies that grow and that are setting the world on fire, and you have to have leadership in place that is aligned," Zizzo said. "The last four years, I have been working very diligently, making sure that for every practice area of the company, we have the right people in place from a values perspective, from an experience perspective, from a vision perspective, from a personality perspective, so that we can collaboratively move the company forward on the same plane."

As the company moves forward, its own brand will continue to evolve, Zizzo said. In Zizzo’s mind, it seems the next five years are not that far off.

There will be risks, but they will be measured, tracked and contribute to the bottom line, Zizzo said.

"Fearless is not reckless," Zizzo said. "Fearless is empowering."

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