Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Credibility Crisis 

The events in Iraq today were meant to embarrass the White House, create a credibility crisis and get Americans to leave the country. Who knows? It might work. Mutilating bodies, dragging them through the streets and hanging them all or in part from a bridge and wires is as savage as one can expect to see from anyone.

That is the message some Iraqis want to send to the world. Not only are we not civilized, we will perform atrocities with abandon to get our way. It's a powerful message and one used by warriors through history. The sheer recklessness through which life is destroyed is designed to shock all who see it. No wonder mobs can be cowed by a few powerful and unscrupulous individuals.

But having seen that kind of savagery, what is the right response? To leave the scene as we did in Somalia, or to stay the course as the White House has vowed to do? This is what Presidents are elected to decide. We know some answers are not workable. The US could respond with equal savagery but all that will do is further rile the people and the protesters will win. The US could cave and leave and the elements of hate will win again. The US can stay the course and watch more soldiers and civilians die. That is not desirable at home and the protesters will win still again. I'm happy I do not have to communicate administration policy now. It is a deadly box from which there is no easy exit.

Old soldiers from the Vietnam conflict can say, "I told you so." But, it isn't the same. There is no world power feeding arms into the country: The weapons used are what have been there for quite some time. However, the hatred is the same, and hatred will find a way to wound even with shovels and hoes.

Make believe you are working in the White House and trying to provide public relations counsel to the President and his advisers. What would you say?

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Cautionary Tale 

Who among us hasn't used change tracking in Microsoft Word? Who hasn't then placed the final document on the Internet in the form of a press release or something else? This is a cautionary tale for all of us. You might not have erased all of those changes stored in a file appended to the original document. That's what this fellow found when he looked at Microsoft's Web site and found changes in several places -- some funny and some not.

It's hard to remember after making final changes to get rid of stored data. One should run a specific software tool to do so. It's here.

Just for fun, see if you can find hidden data on your Web site. It might not be funny when you do.

Monday, March 29, 2004


Why is it clients call with bombshell news late in the afternoon? Why is the news sticky or worse, and there is almost nothing one can do because of a pending lawsuit or charge? These thoughts occurred to me during a recent incident.

I find bombshells interesting as public relations challenges, but often one can only listen. In the early hours of a bombshell, facts are missing, and one should never expose a client or oneself to speculation. It is especially difficult when there are multiple parties, all of whom have different interpretations of events. A client will state a case only to be corrected by another. Suddenly, all advice is moot.

I had an incident in which a client said someone was a former employee. Later, another person at the client said the individual was still employed. That one fact changed the course of our counsel. I had been giving erroneous advice on the assumption the individual had no role in the company. The person who told me the individual was no longer an employee should have known, but he didn't.

Finding facts under pressure isn't easy, especially when media are calling and on deadline. One needs time, and there isn't any. This is as much the reason for a "no comment" as anything else. About all one can do is to correct obvious errors. For example, a reporter might think an entity is a subsidiary, when it isn't, and a person a CEO, when he or she has no management role. One can address that but then, must stop. It is tempting to keep talking -- a fatal lure.

No matter how experienced one gets in handling bombshells, there are embarrassing outcomes lurking even in innocent words one exchanges with a reporter. Bombshells call for high-risk communications. That's what makes them fun.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Interactive Quiz 

The BBC is trying something that, if it works, can change the way TV operates -- from a mass medium to an interactive one. It is a creative idea PR practitioners should watch to see if there are applications. Here is how the news story describes it:

An interactive quiz that allows viewers to take on studio contestants from their homes is to be staged on BBC One (and)... will begin on the evening of Saturday 3 April.

Viewers will be able challenge for a prize of £30,000 or more via interactive TV, the internet or a Java enabled mobile phone.

The programme will be split into two parts - with the first 50 minutes dedicated to whittling down studio teams from four to one and finding a winning team from among the interactive contestants.

The BBC will then whisk a satellite camera to their location, enabling a live head-to-head battle to take part in the second show.

Whoever has the highest score from 20 questions will win the cash prize and be invited to the studio the following week to see if they can continue their winning streak.

If this comes off, it could change TV in wonderful ways. I wish I were living in the UK right about now to see how this experiment unfolds.


There is a wonderful blog devoted to editors that PR practitioners should know. It is here. What I like about the blog is that it takes on issues of language and expression. The latest "grump" concerns whether one should write "gay marriage" or "same-sex marriage" and why. These are not issues I spend time thinking about, so I am glad someone does whom I can consult.

Friday, March 26, 2004

On Communications Control 

The essay on communications control that I mentioned a couple of days ago is here. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Glad Someone Else Thinks So 

Jupiter Research, one of the first of the Internet consulting firms, has all of its analysts write blogs. It's a great idea because one can follow the thinking of the researchers as they examine their fields. I spotted the following entry for March 26 and was amused. The analyst is saying what I have written for some time -- that marketers are prisoners of habits and cannot break from TV, even though it is no longer a good buy. Here is what Niki Scevak wrote:

A post by fellow Jup blogger David Card got me thinking more about advertising's supposed axiom: the dollars follow the consumer. The reality, as we know, is they don't. Measurement has a little bit to do with it (it doesn't matter if the Internet has a great measurement system if TV et al don't have similarly great systems). But ultimately the responsibility rests with the marketers and the agencies they employ. With history as a guide, they have done an increasingly terrible job. IT managers never get fired for buying IBM, and ad agencies never get fired for recommending TV. People shrug their shoulders and say it will be different in 20 years, but I am not so sure.

This is what I have criticized in PR since the advent of the personal computer in the 1980s. Our field has lagged time and again. We failed miserably with the Web and gave that medium away to others because we like what we do and the way we do it.

Yes, we are networked now and we do things differently than when I entered the field. But we found the future after it was past. I'm not saying PR should chase every new thing offered in media and technology, but we should examine technologies and media like blogs systematically. We should experiment with them to see how they can serve us and our clients.

Sadly, except for a few early adopters, I have never found that to be the case.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Blogging and Reporting 

John Udell, a long-time tech journalist, has written an interesting discussion of how blogging helps him as a reporter.

His uses his blog to announce and validate an idea for an article and to help him find resources to report it. When it comes to finding experts, here is what he has to say about PR people. It isn't flattering:

When a story appears on the editorial calendar, I'm swamped with phone calls and emails from PR folk who want to supply me with analysts, executives, domain experts, and customers. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I sometimes accept these opportunities, and in some cases, I learn from them. It's dangerous, though, to be led down the path of least resistance. So I rely on the blog to find other people who have important things to tell me. As you can imagine, this makes PR folk really nervous. It's their job to try to control my story. It's my job to route around that control, and the blog is a tremendously powerful tool for doing that.

He also uses his blog to talk with vendors whom he requests to correct his views before he commits them to paper. And, he is smart enough to know that when he involves readers, his blog entries promote the story that will eventually appear. After the article is published, he uses the blog for analysis, feedback and enhancement of the original story.

In other words, Udell's blog is an integrated part of his reporting and publishing. It's a great way to work and one PR practitioners could imitate -- especially in internal communications.

One last note. His thoughts about PR and story control interest me because I have just finished an essay on that topic. I shall post it in a day or two for your comment.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Libel by Google 

Here is a disturbing story that PR practitioners should note. It has to do with an accountant who was somehow associated in Google with information that was erroneous and injurious. Worse, he could not get it off the search engine. So, he had to sue for a correction against not only Google but also Yahoo! and America Online to get them to correct their records too.

Search engines can make mistakes, apparently, and when they do, reputations can be injured. While this was an error, there have been deliberate moves to "Google Bomb" lately, especially against the president of the United States. This is done by placing links in several places that refer back to a web page or phrase when certain names are put into the search engine. There is nothing to prevent disgruntled employees from doing the same to a company. For example, a union having a dispute with a company "Google bombs" it with links that take one to a Web page where grievances against the company are listed.

Over time, we should see more of this kind of action rather than less. Keep an eye on it.

Monday, March 22, 2004


I spotted an interesting discussion of statistics on a business blog called Synergy Fest. The site pointed out inconsistencies in logical thinking, especially with probabilities. The entry focuses on Bayesian statistics and raises two cases you are likely to get wrong.

The cases did not impress me so much as the reminder that we should not flaunt numbers without understanding assumptions and facts behind them. That is the problem with factoids. They sound good, but frequently they mislead or are wrong. Few challenge them, however, and they become part of assumptions. No wonder we get off on the wrong track so often.

It is hard work to look at how someone arrived at numbers being used -- hard but necessary work. The quickest way to vet statistics, however, is to look at sample size, whether the sample was random and the percentage of error. That should be standard in PR. We can save the world meaningless junk surveys or stupid interpretations that fall well within a margin of error. Along this line, it is disgraceful how journalists are writing that Kerry is ahead of President Bush by three points or Bush ahead of Kerry when three points mean nothing given the variability of the survey. It's meaningless handicapping.

There is enough bad data in the world to confuse everyone. There is no need to add to it.

Nothing New Under the Sun 

This is a tidbit picked up last week from Marketingwonk. It's just one more example that nothing much is new in our business. Techniques are applied from medium to medium, sometimes with interesting outcomes. Here's the story:

Taking Lives ( A new movie - ed)...is trying something innovative online, with Warner Bros. releasing the first eight minutes of its upcoming "Taking Lives" onto the Internet. The teasing effect harkens back - in more than one way - to the 1920s, when magazines would publish the first chapters of (generally bad) novels.

Never discount anything because it is old.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Early Signs 

We went hiking in the 2000-acre reservation that borders the town in which we live. There were early signs of Spring. Last week's snow was melting rapidly, and mud was everywhere. The waterfall down the hill was running full tilt. Our dog, normally a house animal, was pulling wildly in every direction and getting filthier by the second. He got a bath when he got home.

It has been a long winter. It started with deep snow followed by bitter cold then temperate weather when daffodils began to grow, then two snow storms to let everyone know nature controls events. It is interesting that we invest billions in weather forecasting, but there is little we can do to control weather. All we really do is track weather's vicissitudes.

In many ways, I think business is the same way. I have listened to too many CEOs complain about their companies' stock prices after all the work the CEOs have put in to raise them. In some seasons there is mud, and one can little about it. A CEO I respect once said that he wasn't going to pay that much attention to stock price. He was going to continue to execute. Sooner or later, the stock price would catch up. That is the best attitude to take.

Other than correcting error, there is little one can do to turn around journalists or analysts who don't like a company. It is a matter of performance and time. If company continues to perform and one keeps journalists and analysts apprised of success, sooner or later someone sees light. Forcing the issue as some companies do can backfire or push the companies into unhealthy decisions that harm performance eventually. That is what happened during the Bubble era.

To every season there is a time.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Data Blindness 

The current issue of Forbes Magazine has an article on McDonald's restaurants (3.29.04, McDonald's: The Sizzle is Back.) that is an example of modern management failure.

The previous CEO of the company, Jack M. Greenberg, was let go after a performance that saw the chain plummet in nearly all categories. The current CEO of the company, James R. Cantalupo, is apparently putting things back together.

What struck me about the article is a story that shows how CEOs get derailed. Greenberg was in love with a proposed $1 billion network that would send real-time sales data from 31,000 restaurants to headquarters. His head of US operations tried to tell Greenberg this wasn't sufficient for getting customer feedback. One needed to visit stores and look at their conditions -- the pace of service, the appearance of facilities and food and the attitude of the employees. Greenberg persisted with his system until he was let go: Cantalupo cancelled the project. Cantalupo went to store vistitations with mystery shoppers who check on service, food and attitude. The turnaround, according to the story, was quickly apparent.

The story was not about measurement but data blindness. It is an issue PR deals with constantly. Executives fall in love with numbers but fail to look under them to reality below. One of the finest CEOs I have met spends a large part of his time visiting locales and talking to employees. He understands the limitations of numbers. Unfortunately, other CEOs don't: They get hung up with measurements such as stock price (It must go up.) to the exclusion of operations. Or they build information cockpits in lieu of plant and store visitation.

Long ago it was understood that only the human brain with its multiple sensory capabilities is sufficient to capture the totality of an experience. It is an old lesson easily forgotten in a data-driven age.

PR practitioners, because they deal with relationships, should never be fooled by numbers. Regrettably, they are.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

200 Million 

Nielsen//NetRatings reported that three out of four Americans Have access to the Internet and the online population has passed 200 million in the US for the first time. The service said the number was 204.3 million Americans. That was a nine percent increase from a year ago. Here is the money quote.

"In just a handful of years, online access has managed to gain the type of traction that took other mediums decades to achieve," said Kenneth Cassar, director of strategic analysis, Nielsen//NetRatings.

If you are still not thinking of the Internet in your PR strategies, shame on you.

Don't laugh. I still meet PR practitioners who put together media and promotion plans and fail to remember the Internet. I witness this time and again. Their excuse is that it is another department -- or something along that line. My reaction is amazement. How can we still talk like that in PR?

Some other news from the announcement: Women represent a higher proportion of Web surfers, with eighty-two percent or 34.6 million women between the ages of 35-54 accessing the Internet at home. Men in this age group posted an 80 percent access penetration rate, accounting for nearly 32.4 million surfers.

Remember just a few years ago when it was a medium for young techno-nerds?

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Grinding Down 

Microsoft is seeing its reputation under assault from all sides. It is a powerful company, but even its vast sums of money don't seem to be enough to prevent constant criticism of its two-fisted competitiveness. This is a challenge even the finest PR counselors have trouble handling.

Bad news is everywhere. The EU is about to tell the company to unbundle its operating system. The state of Minnesota is suing the company for monopolistic practices and releasing damaging e-mails that showed how Microsoft has operated since the 1980s.

Hewlett-Packard has decided to sell PCs with the Linux operating system in China --an operating system Microsoft detests. Opensource.org has released an e-mail that purports to show how much Microsoft is contributing to the SCO patent claim against Linux. The story is here. Major vendors have now pledged themselves openly to Linux in defiance of SCO and Microsoft, and magazines like CIO are writing appreciative articles about Linux.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has been embarrassed again and again by lack of security in its software.

Would you take this company for a client? Yes, you would because Microsoft pays well and has millions of supporters. The problem, however, lies with leadership. Microsoft always intended to dominate PC software. It has done so, but at what cost? Maybe if the company were less cutthroat it would be liked more. But weakness doesn't appear to be either in Bill Gates' or Steve Ballmer's genes.

That just makes the PR problem all the tougher.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

When a Client is Unhappy 

There is nothing one can do when a client is unhappy with a news article. We are experiencing such a situation. A well-known publication did a story on an executive that the executive is steamed about. Really steamed. The trouble is that objective outside observers think the article is balanced and positive.

We're mystified. We know what the executive is unhappy about: We think he is overreacting. However, try and tell that to a client. About all we can do is to focus on a way to avoid the situation in the future. The executive will give interviews, but there are things he doesn't want to talk about. So, we will show the executive how to avoid the topics. They aren't important anyway. Meanwhile, we will try to lift ourselves from the mud and get back into the executive's good graces.

Who ever said this business is easy?

Monday, March 15, 2004

State of the Media 

Journalism.org has released a lengthy report on the state of the media. It is here. The report isolated eight trends that are important to note because they affect how we do our business in PR. Here are the eight:

1. A growing number of news outlets are chasing relatively static or shrinking audiences for news. PR needs to target audiences better through multiple media.

2. Much of the new investment in journalism - much of the information revolution generally - is in disseminating the news, not in collecting it. This helps PR when we help the media do their work.

3. In many parts of the news media, we are increasingly getting the raw elements of news as the end product. This puts a premium on accuracy. PR, more than ever, needs to keep journalists out of trouble.

4. Journalistic standards now vary even inside a single news organization. Companies are trying to reassemble and deliver to advertisers a mass audience for news not in one place, but across different programs, products and platforms. PR should package its news for multiple media as a matter of practice.

5. Without investing in building new audiences, the long-term outlook for many traditional news outlets seems problematic. If there ever was a reason for PR practitioners to learn Web skills, this is it.

6. Convergence seems more inevitable and potentially less threatening to journalists than it may have seemed a few years ago. Convergence is a fact. PR practitioners must accept that as a fundamental part of working with news media.

7. The biggest question may not be technological but economic. How do publishers make the Web pay? It is not a new question but one that is becoming urgent. We should expect to be paying more for online media as time progresses.

8. Those who would manipulate the press and public appear to be gaining leverage over the journalists who cover them. This is good and bad. While we supply more information and get it published, we also risk our reputations as PR practitioners if we are sloppy, overtly biased or too sales oriented. Good PR requires subtlety unless one is a Barnum and Bailey style publicist. Then, anything goes, but one is typecast quickly.

Read the whole summary. It is worth your time.

Popular Misperception 

I'm reading a history of Mozart's last year of life, called "Mozart's Last Year: 1791." The author, H.C. Robbins Landon, went back to archival evidence, original correspondence, newspaper reports and other documentary material to reconstruct Mozart's final days. It's interesting because the man that emerges is vastly different than that of the stage play and movie called Amadeus by Peter Shaffer.

What people think about Mozart today is in no way accurate. He wasn't a wastrel touched by genius, as Shaffer would have it. He wasn't murdered by Salieri. Certainly, Salieri didn't like Mozart but Salieri programmed and conducted Mozart's music in 1791. Mozart was a middle-class householder and composer scrambling to make a living at a time when composers did not have copyright protection on their works. The man was a devoted husband and a shrewd, pragmatic operator. He wrote for instruments he had on hand and voices under contract. His genius emerged in mudane circumstances.

The public would rather believe the myth.

There was a time -- for some PR practitioners, there still is a time -- when accuracy was not essential. It was more important to titillate than stick to facts. In fairness to publicists, accuracy wasn't that important to newspapers either. The great sportswriters of the 1920s and 1930s often made up their copy. It was creative writing with an emphasis on legend.

It is easy to create popular misperception but hard to correct it. That's something to remember in everyday PR work. Getting the story right the first time helps one avoid many hours of repositioning later.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Speechwriting on Spec 

This weekend I felt like an agency that develops a campaign and then tries to find someone to sell it to.

I was asked to write a 20-minute speech for a CEO, but there are a couple of unknowns. I have never written for this CEO before. I don't know his speaking style. I don't know the topics he wants to talk about. I don't know much about the audience he is addressing. Other than that, I'm in control.

Unfortunately, this is not uncommon in PR. We often write on spec. We make something up and hope it is 60% to 75% of what a client might be looking for. We assume there will be changes -- lots of them --, so we qualify everything lest the client accuse us of being dumb.

I've never had a conversation with this CEO. I've heard him speak, but I've never seen him give a formal address. I would have preferred to read four or five of his speeches and review them on tape to determine phrases he uses, what he stresses and avoids, his manner of speech -- blunt or nuanced --, his ability to speak from text or from notes.

I was given one of his speeches from a year ago to a different audience and a pile of facts about a topic. So it goes.

I told the client I would write a detailed outline of a speech and get that approved before writing the speech itself. I wrote the detailed outline then changed my mind. The client has never seen one of my speeches and might not understand from an outline what my style is like. So, I turned the outline into a finished speech and sent both the outline and speech to the client.

This speech will not survive in its present format, but I hope it gives the client a sense of direction so the client can say definitively, "We want this but not that." If that happens, I can have the speech done quickly this week. If not, I am faced with the one thing writers fear most -- a client who can't make up his mind -- the "I'll-know-it-when-I-see-it-client." More time and angst are wasted on indecisive clients than just about anything else in PR.

So far, this client has been relatively easy to work with. I don't expect continuous revisions as happens with annual reports, but one never knows.

Wish me luck.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Great PR 

Have you been following the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) race for robotic vehicles? It's an example of a great PR event. Not only is DARPA advancing technology, but it is also getting miles of free publicity for itself and its goals.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

A Pleasure 

I had the pleasure today of sitting in on a teleconference with a client that is skilled in promotions and events. The client does many of them, and it is clear that everyone knows what to do and how to get the job done with a minimum of fuss. And such young people! Yet, they were handling planning and execution for a major national event without fear or hesitation. I was listening to a well-tuned engine.

I noted that the planning document had spelled everything out from lapel pins to commemorative postcards, web page information, b-roll video and facts and figures people would need. There were several people in the room and assignments had been parceled to each. Every person appeared to have done exactly what he or she was supposed to do. The meeting went quickly. The leader checked off items, discussed things that needed decisions, and it was over.

It is rare that I get to work with clients who are so skilled in promotions and events. I learned a lot from listening, and I walked away with admiration toward the client's abilities.

The key lesson is that large-scale events are successful in the details. Little things make the difference between success and failure. This client has learned how to break large events down to small pieces and get details right.

Polar Promotion 

Robert Peary, a much discredited polar explorer today, claimed he was the discoverer of the North Pole in 1909 and was listed as such for much of the 20th Century. In his efforts to raise money for his polar exploits, he used the same language that any sports or event promoter would use today. Here is a paragraph from a history I have been reading called Arctic Grail.

The age of hype was dawning, and Peary was one of its early practitioners. "Of course, you know," he wrote to ( ), "that thousands of people today are using Lipton's Tea who had never heard of Lipton's Tea until they knew of Sir Thomas, through his interest and association with the International Yacht races."

After Peary claimed to reach the Pole -- a claim that has an asterisk today -- he wrote diary notes to himself that are even more in the spirit of modern-day promotion. He was thinking about how to cash in on his forthcoming fame and came up with things to merchandise such as "ivory mounted sledge implements" and "Ivory mounted snowshoes? Think up some ivory articles to be made for the home folks..." Later in the diary, "Present Sextant... to Navy Museum (Annapolis?)." Then, "Have special pair of Peary North Pole" snowshoes made. Raised toe and heel, curved body, lacquered bows, ebony crossbars, silver keel & name plate white gut lacing..."

The man was shameless -- and he got away with it for decades before other explorers and scientists realized he almost certainly lied about his exploit.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Great PR 

Weatherbug a web service that sends local weathercasts to your computer has created a PR program that not only shows what the Web can do but also ties it closely to users. The full story is here.

Essentially, Weatherbug publishes users' photos on the site along with weather news. The site calls this "participatory journalism," but anywhere I've been, it's darn good PR. Readers have a proprietary interest in weather reports they get because they have a hand in producing them. The company's editors pair appropriate pictures from a reader with the latest reports and send them both down the line.

Interestingly, the service got the idea from Hurricane Isabel that hit the East Coast last fall. The service asked readers to send in photos that showed how the storm had affected them, and it got hundreds of submissions. From that, the idea was born. Serendipity is a good thing, or as a company spokesperson said:

Due to the success of the event, we decided to turn this into a regular feature on WeatherBug and made it easy for users to submit & view photos. Now we receive hundreds of photos per day from users all around the country... photos of their families out in the weather, photos of their pets in the weather, sunrises, sunsets, snow sculptures and dozens of other categories.

Some of the best PR ideas come from accidental and incidental occurrences. Even more importantly, Weatherbug is showing PR practitioners how to get the public involved in building a relationship between a company and its customers.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

The Future of Advertising 

This blog is devoted to PR but when a good articles come along, I break my rule. iMedia Connection has just finished running a three-part interview with Joe Cappo, the now-retired advertising columnist from Advertising Age, who is an expert on the field and its future. Joe was flacking his new book (The Future of Advertising: New Media, New Clients, New Consumers in the Post-Television Age), but the insights he delivers in the interviews are worth reading since most PR agencies are owned by advertising agencies. You can read the interviews here, here and here.

One point he made in the second part of the three-part interview is a point I have been making for 10 years. Here is what Joe said:

...if you believe in the principles of integrated marketing communications, the message does not start with the client. The message starts with the audience. So in a perfect world, you would say, ‘I’m going to advertise on the Man Show.’ You create a commercial for me to run on the’Man Show, which sure as heck is going to be different than the commercial that runs on Oxygen Channel, even though it might be the same product... We went from mass media to class media, and we’re moving very rapidly to individual media. If you take TiVo, for example, you can create a profile of a person just the way they have their TiVo programmed, and that’s what TiVo is doing. TiVo is now talking to advertisers about communicating with people, based on the types of programming they watch because that says a lot about the people, and we’re in that era.

What gets me about most of you or business is that you’re not really taking great advantage of the individual identification nature of the Web, and many of you think of yourselves as mass communicators, and you should be thinking of yourselves as individual communicators.

I didn't say it the way Joe does. I said and still say mass media is only mass to the sender. It is never mass to the receiver. Individuals process messages uniquely. One can send barrels of messages in the form of advertising, publicity, e-mail, promotions, events or direct mail pieces. But all these messages are processed by discrete individuals with personal needs and wants.

Joe is looking at the devolution of a mass media structure that has driven the country since the rise of radio. (Yes, it was that long ago.) But, there is a question whether anyone should have believed the notion of "mass media." In my book of 10 years ago that dealt with media integration, I thought I had destroyed that idea forever. Yet, schools still have mass media courses and emphasize principles of mass media to gullible students who surf the ultimate medium for individuals -- the Internet.

Change is hard.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Opposing Thought 

Trevor Cook, an Australian blogger has taken up the challenge and critiqued my paper on the Limits of PR. His critique is here. I won't attempt to summarize the entire paper. It is worth your time to read it all. But he makes two points that go to the heart of my argument. He challenges the proposition that "business is amoral." He writes:

Some people would like to think this is true, but it is not the view of the vast majority of citizens. As Horton strongly suggests in the second half of his essay, people apply moral judgments to corporations in the same way as they do to individuals. Legal constraints are perceived by most of us as moral limits in extremis, what we consider reasonable behaviour lies well within the boundaries set by laws and governments.

Later, he equates reputation and morality and writes:

In fact, reputation is a moral concept. Your reputation is the assessment your stakeholders make about the likelihood that you will meet acceptable moral standards in the future.

Business is indeed amoral for if it wasn't, how could organizations purveying pornography, prostitution, heroin and opium continue to exist, even in the face of governments trying to control or shut them down? Business has a simple ethic -- completion of economic transactions. In defense of Trevor's point of view, there are many businesses that choose not to engage in illicit activity and are deeply moral organizations that worry about their reputations. But this is a choice. It is not a fundamental requirement to complete economic transactions.

The hard part for PR practitioners to bear is that morality is relative. To a cocaine user, the ethic is that the street dealer delivers the product promised for the price agreed. To a company like Johnson & Johnson, the ethic goes to the welfare of the individual and society at large. But both are in business.

How relative is business? Here is an excerpt from a story from the March 8 Wall Street Journal about a radio "shock jock" called Howard Stern. Stern is well known for being offensive in his remarks on the air, and he was just silenced in several markets for a nasty and racially charged joke.

Wall Street Journal (March 8, 2004) Howard Stern is in hot water again, but the shock jock's advertisers are standing by their man.... Advertisers say they are sticking with Mr. Stern because his show attracts an important audience: young men...."Controversy exists on all programming -- it depends on what you consider controversial," says John Cowan, vice president of media for diet aid TrimSpa, which advertises regularly on Mr. Stern's show.

Not only that, the Public Relations Society of America has protested Federal Communications Commission fines against radio stations that allow offensive material onto the air.

One community's moral outrage is another's joke or acceptable behavior. Hence, I used the term "community standards" to define the relative moral situation in which business and PR works.

I want to thank Trevor for taking up the challenge, and I invite further argumentation on this topic. It is important.

Added Thought 

I guess I'm nervous about what people might think of me for stating that morality is relative and business is amoral. I'm told I have a moral approach in the way I do business. But, that doesn't change the case, it seems to me. There are plenty of practitioners who are relative in their decisions and justify speech and action I personally find offensive. But, they practice PR, whether I like it or not and whether I care for their reputations or not. In PR, as in all business, one chooses the ethical level at which one works. There is room for saints and charlatans. Attempts to police the field have failed repeatedly in the U.S., and because there is a First Amendment right of free speech, they will continue to fail.

You may not like it, but that's the way it is.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Passive Voice 

Coincidentally, my wife and I are editing manuscripts from two academic institutions. We arrived at two conclusions during our work. Academics don't: 1. Write well. 2. Use active voice.

My wife has been tangling with the first conclusion more than I. She is working with a manuscript from a college, some of which she says is incomprehensible. I have been editing the manuscript of a not-for-profit school that is largely understandable. We both have had problems with academics using passive voice, however. There seems to be inbred discomfort among academics to say anything without hedging, hence, the passive voice. Unfortunately, when one writes to persuade others, nuanced writing is ineffective. Say what you have to say. If you are not comfortable saying it clearly and understandably, then don't say it all.

I have a relation who has spent a career teaching students to write. Hers is apparently a year-long exercise -- and this is for business memos and correspondence. I have argued with her that teaching others to write should not be so complicated. It starts with thinking, not with writing, however. A clear thinker should be a clear writer, or can learn to be a clear writer quickly. Lousy writing comes from turgid thinking more than from bad grammatical mechanics.

When I see bad PR writing -- and I have seen a lot of it --, I find time and again that the individual had not worked out what he or she wanted to say. I hammer on the need to outline one's thoughts -- to make A fit logically to B and B to C and ultimately, to Z. But no, poor writers would rather find thoughts in verbiage spilled onto a page.

Now, don't get me wrong. I counsel writers who are blocked to write randomly at first to get something on paper. I then tell them to outline what they have written. This is different, however, from those who continue to write, hoping they will find right words. Writing in PR is not a creative effort. It is logical persuasion that moves readers swiftly and comfortably from point A to point Z.

Academic writing should be the same. Too often, it isn't.

New Paper 

Just to let you know I have mounted a new paper on online-pr.com. It is here. The paper discusses the difficulties of corporate communications within traditional organizational structure. It attempts to explain why many corporate communications departments seem not to have much sway beyond a limited range of activities.

Let me know what you think.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Mass Customization 

There is an important essay in Online Journalism Review that you should read. Go there now. It will take about 20 minutes to get through it. When you're done, come back for the rest of this thought.

Two trends in the newspaper and online business the writer discusses are of interest: 1. Mass customization of news. 2. Convergence of a newspaper's Web page with the printed product.

The implications for the PR business are deep, especially for measurement. How can we say we have reached the right audience if newspapers are digitally printed in customized sets of 10? My New York Times is not Your New York Times. My Wall Street Journal is just one of 5,000 editions of the The Wall Street Journal printed today. How will we know when Web and newspaper converge where news appeared and who saw it?

We have assumed in PR measurement the existence of a consistent product to measure. If this fellow is right, and he has the background to make his case, then we will no longer have a consistent product. How do we achieve awareness with customized news? Interestingly, this won't affect advertising as much because the newspaper will be sold in blocks large enough to satisfy marketers. It needn't be sold in blocks that satisfy PR practitioners, however.

There are two ways to respond to this future -- if it comes true. 1. It is an opportunity to target news precisely as media monitoring comes to the fore. That is, we will isolate specific groups of readers then monitor specific newspaper editions to make sure we have reached them 2. It will harm "Big Hit" PR, placing a story that reaches tens of thousands of readers at a time. Loss of standardized news and broad awareness will be a worry for those who believe in mass media.

I'm not sure I accept completely this fellow's point of view. Some of what he says will come true, but will it go all the way into customization? I suspect there will be several dozen versions of a daily newspaper. (After all, Time magazine has been doing this since the 1980s. ) I don't think, however, the daily newspaper will reach several hundred versions, even if it is technologically possible. Why? Because I think editors will continue to define a general set of news they believe all readers should know. The author recognizes this. He says:

No newspaper publisher needs to hand total customization to the readers. Instead, he or she can let their editor and readers share that control. The editor can ensure that each reader receives the prime stories and bulletins that the editor thinks all readers need to see. Meanwhile, each reader can customize their edition with whatever other subjects they want to receive from the newspaper's cornucopia of content.

My guess is editors will find more news to be standard rather than less. But still, the question remains. How will the PR industry respond when the day comes? It is not too early to start thinking about it.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Color Me White 

A couple of days ago, I happened on this story in Internet Retailer. It is a discussion of the use of white backgrounds on online retail sites. It seems customers feel white loads faster, and white is better for displaying some types of goods.

I find this interesting because white was the background color I chose when I started online-pr.com back in 1997, and I have never changed it. I selected white because it made type more readable, and it is fast. Online-pr.com was and is built for speed. I originally designed it when dial-up modems were running at 28.8 Kbps, and I tried to have every page load in 15 seconds or less. This was hard because I had to sacrifice a lot to get it to work. But, the design loads instantly.

A month or so ago, I changed the masthead for a day to a new design that I hoped would freshen the site, but it bogged the home page so badly, I removed it and went back to a design close to the old one.

I have learned over the years that usability is the most important part of a Web site. You don't see many flash openings anymore. That was a fad that passed away mercifully. You see design now that is less and less complicated. That is a triumph of function over useless form. I'm in favor of the new and simpler approach to Web page design.

This is not to say I love the design of online-pr.com. It is clearly the work of an amateur who could have done better. I've messed with the site for years trying to make it present better and stay as quick as it is. So far, I haven't succeeded. Maybe some day.

Look at your organization's site and ask the following questions:

1. How fast does it load?
2. Can users find where to go without hunting through the home page?
3. Is there decoration that you can cut out of the page and still have it work and present well.
4. Can you omit needless words and design?

Call this the "Strunk and White" guide to Web style.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004


A colleague sent this story from Adage.com, the web site of Advertising Age. Jonah Bloom faults PR agencies for talking too much about reputation and relationships and too little about marketing and selling.

Bloom is right that industry cant is confusing, but I don't think he is correct about the marketing part of the issue. It has been my observation that major agencies these days make their living from marketing PR. What is threatened is corporate communications, and by corporate communications, I mean working primarily with business media that require financial sophistication.

If my limited view of the field is correct, corporate communications departments in major agencies have been cut severely. Major agencies are relying on squads of inexperienced and low-paid juniors to do execution work that marketing prefers.

Before you throw bricks at me, I admit I might be wrong, but what I have been told and seen seems to trend this way. Part of this comes from agency management. PR firms are more revenue-driven than ever. The notion of serving clients first and building accounts over time is laughable. One must sell, sell, sell anything that comes through the door and if one doesn't, then it is off with the person's head.

If you think I'm wrong about this, consider the story I heard tonight. A major agency has a group of offices in a sector of the world that are losing money. The agency hired a fellow to go there at a salary of $300,000 a year to turn the offices around. I'm told the fellow doesn't have the option of shutting offices down. Rather, he has to sell new business to build offices up. How dumb is that? It seems to me he should be allowed to cut costs as quickly as possible then build revenue organically. Instead, I'll bet he'll be pitching business frantically and selling anyone who moves and can write a check. He might build offices, but he's also going to have business that will fly as quickly as it came in. And, if he fails, I'll bet he's fired in two years.

The problem is more than marketing of PR agencies. The problem lies at the core of the business itself.

A Suggestion 

You might have read the recent Wired story about online film critics still being ignored by publicists. Rather than shaking my head again about PR's inability to use the Web well, I've got a suggestion for anyone dealing with online media.

If an online medium can prove it has a discrete number of visitors that match a traditional medium, include the medium in activities to the same level you would a traditional medium. That's simple, isn't it?

I hope we stop seeing stories like this soon. It's an embarrassment to PR, especially when stories like this show how committed online film fans can be. But then, anyone who observed how online fans reacted to Lord of the Rings would have known the power and impact of the Internet.

Monday, March 01, 2004

The Limits of PR 

The essay on The Limits of PR is now mounted and available. Two readers have told me they felt it has something to offer. I'll let you make up your own mind. To summarize the article, it is an attempt to define how far PR practitioners can go in free speech before they cross a line into illegality or inappropriate speech. As you might guess, the article was sparked by Janet Jackson's assisted breast exposure at the Super Bowl.

You might argue with the conclusion of the article, but if you do, I want to hear from you. I promise to represent your views accurately. You can reach me here.

Common Sense 

A colleague sent me an article from Ragan Communications' PR Reporter that advises organizations to make the "About Us" section of a Web page worth reading. The article notes that few organizations seem to handle that section well, and it cited a usability study from Nielsen Norman Group to prove its point.

It's common sense to tell people who you are, but unfortunately, many Web masters and organizations seem to lack it. I have a policy on online-pr.com of not listing any site that does not have an "About Us" section that I can check for accuracy. I turned down a site last week because of that. The site's information looked useful, but I don't know who put it up and what the individual intends.

Online-pr.com also states its purpose on the home page under the page title so no one can mistake what the site is for. It has done this since the beginning. Again, it is common sense. Why force someone to look around your site? If it is not what they need, let them go quickly to the right destination. It is polite to do that, and it builds credibility with your visitor.

These things are common courtesy as much as common sense.

Academy Awards - Three Minutes 

I missed the Academy Awards last night and read about them this morning. Given the three minutes to read the news article, I figure it saved me about two hours and 57 minutes of time. This annual self-publicity program of awards is one bit of PR I can do without.

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