Friday, July 30, 2004

Sorry About That 

It has been a day and a half of glitches with the web page (online-pr.com) and the blog.  For some reason, beginning yesterday morning, I couldn't update the Web page.  The message was "server error."  So, I call Verio, the ISP that has been handling online-pr.com since the beginning in 1997 and got the usual "voice mail hell."  The technician was nice enough, but then he put me on hold for 10 minutes, leading me to believe I was shunted.  But no, he returned and said the extensions to the Web site had been corrupted.  He didn't why or how but he had fixed them, and we were live again.

Last night, I went to make an entry into this blog and couldn't reach it.  I got a "page unavailable" notice that continued through the evening into early this morning when it finally popped through about five minutes ago.

The dirty secret of the technological age is that Internet media are great, except when they don't work.  Reliability is an issue, and dependence on others for keeping a system up will always be a concern.  Yet, the networks are too complex for PR practitioners, including myself, to be our own Internet Service Providers, Webmasters, etc. 

That has always been the case.  We have relied on designers, printers and mailers in PR since the beginning and the frustrations they create.  Even when we had these services in-house, they were frustrating.  In fact, they were more so in-house because service was indifferent. 

PR is a team effort and always will be.  (Now I hope I can get this posted.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Thinking It Through 

We've been handed two challenges that we have never done before.  These are fun problems because one has to learn a new field. 

The first challenge is with a specialized kind of services firm and the second has to do with a major problem on the Internet.  The question that both prospects asked is whether anything could be done.  The answer, of course, was yes -- yes, but.  We will have to dive deeply into the topics and work our way out to find keys for approaching them.  By diving deeply, I mean we will do as much secondary research as we can and then, interview clients at length and in detail to see if we can find common threads to merchandise to the media.  Sometimes themes stand out:  Sometimes they are buried deeply and are so uninteresting one has to invent another way to tackle the topic. 

In spite of what teachers may have told you, there are boring issues that few if any media cover.  Surprisingly, one that major business media avoid is accounting.  There are few good business journalists who understand and take pleasure in reporting accounting issues.  O, they like scandal, but they don't like the technical considerations that the Financial Accounting Standards Board tackles and that decide earnings of thousands of public companies.  This is why when I represented accounting firms (twice), I found difficult to get anyone to pay attention.

I hope neither of these two prospects prove to be deadly.  We'll see. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Why Bother? 

Why bother with political conventions?  They are exercises in spin and have no value to citizens watching the process.  Everyone knows who the candidate for president and vice president are.  Everyone knows the convention will paint the candidate as the salvation of the republic, and everyone knows the party will savage the opposition.  Everyone knows, so no one bothers to watch.  The ratings for the first night of the Democratic convention were awful -- below summer reruns. 

So why spend millions of dollars to throw one of these throwbacks of communication?  Worse, why do TV networks and hundreds of reporters and bloggers bother to attend and cover the convention?  There isn't any news. 

Don't get me wrong.  There is need for a party meeting on a regular basis where delegates can talk to each other, imbibe a common  spirit and go home motivated to work for their candidate.  But that doesn't mean a party meeting should be inflicted on citizens who don't care for parties.  (The largest voting block in the US are independents who don't claim a party.)

So what should be done for the majority who avoid the sniping of politics and grenade-throwing that passes for debate?  What kind of public relations would work best for us?  I think Howard Dean found an answer before he self-destructed.  He used "meet-ups" successfully -- small gatherings where people could get together and talk.

We need to go back to relationships, to building face-to-face connections between me and you and common wishes and ideals.  The Democrats are trying that in key states like Ohio, and Republicans are not far behind.  It's nothing other than old-fashioned politics that ward-heelers used to practice in machine-controlled cities like Boston and Chicago.  I recall the only time anyone ever visited me and asked how I was doing was in Chicago where the Democratic machine sent someone around to every house in the neighborhood to check our feelings and our votes.  That was decades ago.

It's time to go back to the future.

Monday, July 26, 2004

How Come? 

The Democratic convention started tonight in Boston, and I've had but a glimpse of it.  However, that fleeting view raised a question for which there is no answer. 

How come politicians, for whom public speaking is a necessity, still cannot speak well? 

I saw a speaker, who shall remain nameless, step on applause lines, get lost in text and otherwise betray an unfamiliarity with a speech that this person must have practiced several times.  Puh-lease.  I might forgive a CEO for not speaking well, but a politician gets to office on an ability to connect with audiences. 

Where are speech trainers when you need them?

Public speaking is something every senior executive should be able to do, and it is sad how few can.  Of US CEOs I have heard recently, only one was compelling. That was Jeff Immelt of General Electric.  He said he knew one speech, but it's good, and he kept his audience. 

Other CEOs I have heard are earnest but unconvincing.  It might be something in the timbre of their voices, their speed, the topics they discuss or phrases they use, but they don't come off. 

Speaking shouldn't be that hard, but for many executives, it is.  I suspect few US executives were ever formally trained in speaking -- and it shows.

Sunday, July 25, 2004


I saw a show repeated last night on CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" that dealt with guerrilla marketing.  You know what this is.  You hire cool 20-somethings and send them into bars or onto the streets to promote drinks or cigarettes or something else without ever telling anyone they are in the employ of a company. 

The purveyors of such marketing say young people don't want to know they are being sold, but they appreciate the sales pitch.  Huh, what?  You can sell me as long as you don't tell me you are selling me?  I suppose that could be true, but I don't believe it.  Eventually, someone wises up and then, he or she is irritated and/or suspicious of anyone who tells them anything.  "You're selling me, right?" 

That is why in PR we call for transparency in who we are and what we do.  We believe credibility depends on truthfulness from the outset. From a purely selfish point of view, maintaining credibility with a customer is an essential element in keeping a long-term relationship with that customer.   

There have been and continue to be PR practitioners who masquerade, and they should be condemned.  I dislike especially those who enter chat rooms and talk up movies and other products without revealing who they are. 

It seems to me, however, that one can do this ethically without crossing a line.  For example, one can ask if anyone has seen the movie.  That, it seems to me, is not promotion.  It is trolling, which some find objectionable.  (For those who do not know trolling, it is a technique of asking questions or making statements to elicit comments.)  To me trolling done rightly is OK because one doesn't betray feelings or promote.  One simply raises a question and listens to comments.  One should be prepared to hear cutting remarks about a topic in which he or she is invested.  That's a chance one takes.  And, if one is asked whether he or she is in the employ of a company, the troller should answer truthfully.

But trolling is a niche of guerrilla marketing that for the most part is unethical.  My guess is that if guerrilla marketing grows to any size at all, there will be a legislative move to force marketers to divulge who they are and what they selling in all instances.  Of course, that would end guerrilla marketing as we know it.  As a PR practitioner, I would applaud that.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Say It Loud, Say It Often 

One of my favorite blogs is Rhetorica.  This site features commentary on "rhetoric, propaganda, and spin of journalism and politics, including analysis of presidential speeches and election campaigns" to quote the author, Andrew R. Cline, Ph.D.   Dr. Cline asks the kinds of questions that PR practitioners should be addressing to clients. 

An entry from July 21 struck me as illuminating at least one PR technique.  Dr. Cline was commenting on an entry at www.campaigndesk.org, another great site, about the "millionaire"tag that keeps being hung on John Kerry and John Edwards.  The point made was that Republicans are careful to keep that theme in front of the media, and the media are reporting it.  Dr. Cline's comment was "Take a memo...In other words, political reporters are a bunch of mindless stenographers."

Well, sometimes they are.  But, it is a key point for PR practitioners to remember.  If you hammer a theme long enough and the theme is tied to facts, the media will pick it up.  There is a value in persistence in selling a message, and the temptation to get bored is one to avoid.  Staying on message is not easy.  It becomes automatic and passionless.  One delivers messages by rote and not by mind.  But, like actors and actresses in a long-running play, one has to find ways to make the same words sound interesting and fresh to a new audience every night. 

There is nothing wrong with saying it loud and saying it often, if what you are saying is based on facts. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Creative Spin 

I never thought the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was creative except in legal argumentation, but this little slide show demonstrates a side of the organization I didn't know. 

It is an example of what might happen if one orders a pizza in an era when companies have collected data on individuals.  The dialogue is long but funny,  and the arrow moving about the mock computer screen provides an air of verisimilitude.  Look too at some of the purchases the poor sap who is ordering pizza has made in the past.  Those are just as funny and embarrassing.

While the ACLU has made its point, it is also an example of spin and not good PR.  The data collection issue is far more complicated than the slide show would make it out to be.  I've had some experience with large databases, and they are hellish to assemble and to maintain.  The problem with the scenario as the ACLU shows it is that data is coming from multiple databases and multiple vendors.  That is never easy to do, and one won't have to worry for some time that it could happen.  The ACLU should have made a note of that.

On the other hand, complexity would have spoiled the point and the fun, so I understand why the ACLU made it look more frightening than it is or would be.

Still, it is an interesting job of spin, and one PR practitioners could take a tip or two from.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

NIMBY Redux 

It wasn't long ago that California suffered a major electricity crisis.  The state ran short of power because it could not import any from areas that needed it for themselves.  The state vowed it would build more power plants and power lines to make sure the shortage would never happen again.
I picked up a story a day or two ago that shows "NOT-IN-MY-BACKYARD" is alive and well in California.  In spite of all the public relations, government regulation and persuasion, homeowners still don't want power lines near them. 
The complaint is bogus as far as science is concerned.  It is a claim that one can get sick from living in magnetic fields near power lines.  Homeowners are protesting a 230,000-volt line to be built near San Francisco.  But that is not all.  Homeowners on all routes for new power lines in Northern and Southern California are protesting angrily.  "Put them anywhere, but not near me."  The problem is that there aren't many other places to put them economically.
There is no public relations solution for this kind of fear and parochialism.  Appealing to greater good is lost completely on someone who has a power line soaring feet from his or her property.  The state has to do what it did.  It approved the lines over protest. 
There are limits to all communications.  Sometimes you have to act.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Up for an Ignoble 

Each year before the Nobel prizes are awarded, there is a mock ceremony bestowing Ignoble prizes for dubious research.  I have a candidate for this year.  It comes from a New Scientist story, and it falls under the "Duh" category. 
Any PR practitioner could have told the scientist the answer he laboriously reached.  
Are you ready?  Here is the conclusion of recent research:
Computer glitches would be a lot less annoying if the machines were programmed to acknowledge errors gracefully when something goes wrong, instead of merely flashing up a brusque "you goofed" message. The trick, according to a researcher who has analyzed users' responses to their computers, is to make operating systems and software more "civilised"by saying sorry more often. That way people won't feel they are stupid or at fault, so they become less apprehensive about using computers, and perhaps more productive and creative.
Wow!  A Taiwanese scientist conducted a large user study to come to this conclusion.  What will scientists discover next --  if you maintain relationships with key publics you are likely to have a better organization overall?

Sunday, July 18, 2004

A Couple of Things 

I've just posted a new paper for your consideration in the white papers section of online-pr.com.  It is here.   The topic is uncontrollable crisis.  There are crises that one has everyday, and then, there are crises that are so sudden and severe a CEO has to worry about the future of the company.  In uncontrollable crisis, there is little or nothing one can do in communications.  It is a case of hanging on, doing the best one can and repairing damage when it is over -- if the organization survives. 
I got to thinking about this topic because a client recently suffered through such a disaster.  The client has come out OK, but no one would want to go through the experience again.   Take a look at the paper: Let me know what you think.
Along this line, I have been thinking about cynicism.  We are in a period culturally when altruism is held in suspicion, especially in the political world.  I am working on a paper focusing on sour attitude and what PR practitioners can do about it, if anything.  It may be that cynicism is healthy.  That is an open question.  I'll publish that paper soon, and you can have a crack at it too. 
I don't expect everyone, or even anyone, to agree with articles in the "white papers" section of online-pr.com.  It would be nice if the papers could spark arguments.  Along that line, Global PR Blog Week 1.0 was tremendously successful.   A hearty thank you to all who put it together.  It would be nice to have more get-togethers like it.  

Thursday, July 15, 2004

The Little Correction 

Why is it the news media place allegations in banner headlines on front pages and corrections in little boxes inside a newspaper or magazine?  No one likes to fess up to an error, but if journalists want to maintain credibility, they need to state loudly and boldly where and when they have gone wrong. 
This rant is brought to you courtesy of an episode that afflicted a client recently.  The government investigated the client for something the client didn't do.  The client had proof of its innocence.  That made no difference: The government wanted to make an example of someone.  There were big stories with fat headlines that trumpeted the company was under investigation.   The company's stock tanked as investors fled.  Less than two months later the government sent the company a letter saying  it had no further interest in the case.  The government, of course, did not make the letter public, which it should have done.  The company had to send out a press release.  The resulting AP story was barely a paragraph buried deeply inside the paper.
Size matters in public relations.  Big headlines and lead TV stories crush individuals and companies.  When they are wrong, journalists owe it to people they hurt to correct the mistake prominently.  Of course, they don't.  One positive turn of events is beginning to rectify this situation.  Bloggers are prominently posting corrections then discussing them loudly to make sure everyone knows The New York Times or Washington Post erred.  I  hope they extend their truth hunting beyond the political world and into business were there are plenty of mistakes that never get acknowledged or corrected. 
Since I'm in a ranting mode, I will scream about one other thing.  Government agencies rarely give anyone a clean bill of health.  The agency that investigated the client said it had no further interest in the situation, but it had some concerns that it wanted answered.  That was a way for agency personnel to rescue some self-respect for an investigation that shouldn't have been done in the first place.  Whatever happened to a simple,   "You didn't do it, and we are completely satisfied?" Arse-covering is endemic and discouraging. 
On the other hand, that means work for PR practitioners to help clients dig out of holes the clients never created in the first place. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Blogging in a Crisis 

This is posted in different location -- Global PR Blog Week 1.0. There is some mighty good reading there along with intelligent argument. Take a look and add your comments as well.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

On Air 

A friend of mine badgered me for months to help him with a TV show that he was doing on community cable. For those of you who don't know community cable, it is an access channel that a cable TV company has to provide a local community for the community to use -- broadcasting high school football games, city council meetings, public service shows, etc. My friend is devoted to reading and a member of a book club, so he started a show that focuses on books and authors. He wanted me to be the host because too many years ago I worked on local television.

The last thing I wanted to be was the host of a community cable show. But my friend is persistent, and he got me to agree to do one show -- just one show, only one show. Silly me. I did one show then another and now I'm on my fourth or fifth. I have forgotten the total.

But there was something I began to notice from hosting these shows. They are a great way to rehabilitate my on-air skills, which have grown rusty. Each show has presented a challenge that I had forgotten as a media trainer -- keeping the guest talking. As you might expect on a community show, we get guests who have never been on TV, are nervous and given to stopping in mid-sentence. There is a skill in relaxing them and keeping them going. That skill applies directly to my work in media training clients. Why the heck didn't I think of that before?

So now, it looks like I might be the permanent host for the show -- a position that I don't want but will take. Call it training.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Be Careful 

Global PR Blog Week 1.0 is underway and has thought-provoking reading. But in the midst of skimming articles, a queasiness began to fill my stomach. Where had I seen rhetoric like this before? It came to me that I had seen it at least three times -- when PCs were introduced, with the rise of the Internet and now with blogging.

There is too much enthusiasm for what blogging can do. It is like discovering a new world and dreaming of what the land can be before one finds it has poisonous snakes and deadly spiders. Certainly there should be enthusiasm for blogging. It is a low-cost, widespread communications tool that gives millions an opportunity to express themselves. But it is not a revolution in communications. For one thing, if everyone is blogging, who is reading and listening? The noise would be deafening and good ideas potentially driven out by bad ones.

Ultimately, blogging needs an editorial process like journalism. It needs an objective eye overseeing it and asking if the story is complete and accurate, the opinion thought out and the grammar and spelling correct. I have never agreed with journalists who maintain that blogging frees them from editing. Their blogs should be edited right along with their copy because whether they like it or not, what they say in blogs reflects on journalism and the media they work for.

Please put down the stones and put away the faggots. You can burn me later for heresy.

I believe there is room for unedited opinion and reporting in blogging, but after the first few successful libel trials, there will be less.

Now you can light the fire...

Sunday, July 11, 2004


The Senate report on intelligence failures in Iraq partially blamed "groupthink" for an inability to make correct assessments about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

Over the years, I've written about groupthink. It was a topic in my first book 10 years ago and the case then was Kennedy White House failures while invading Cuba.

Groupthink should be of profound concern to PR practitioners. It is at the root of many poor and inappropriate communications.

Essentially, a group falls over time into an assumption pattern that dictates how it assesses events and makes decisions. Saddam Hussein had used WMD against the Kurds and once upon a time was known to be assembling equipment for nuclear weapons. Even though it was 10 years past, it was easy to believe he had not changed his stripes. Inspections proceeded on that assumption. When inspectors could not find weapons before the war, it was because Saddam was moving or hiding them. When CIA analysts talked to defectors, comments about WMD bolstered their estimates of the number Saddam had.

I am not trying to absolve the Bush Administration but nearly everyone in Congress, the Pentagon, the CIA, the White House and Western Europe believed Hussein possessed WMD. The question was how many and whether he posed an imminent threat. The idea that he might not have them was deemed incredible. In other words, the Western World fell into groupthink.

This can happen to companies too -- and does. I have been in situations where we knew the answer. There was no question. The problem was that it wasn't the answer. Psychologists have warned for years that someone in a group needs to question assumptions thoroughly. It cannot be just anyone. Secretary of State Colin Powell held out for several months before he subscribed to the WMD thesis. Colin Powell, however, did not have the president's ear on the issue of WMD. It was a matter of intelligence agencies and the White House convincing an obstinate holdout to get with the program.

So who should tell a CEO he might be dead wrong and his assumptions incorrect? In communications, PR counselors should have the courage to speak up and if they don't, they shouldn't be in the job. Even so, that doesn't mean that counselors will have the CEO's ear or that they can break through groupthink. The fact is that most of the time they don't and they can't. Still we should try.

Thursday, July 08, 2004


A short while ago I noted that one can no longer keep secrets with the Internet. The proof of that statement continues to come in. The latest example has to do with the announcement of Sen. John Edwards as Sen. John Kerry's vice presidential running mate.

Which news outlet broke the tightly kept secret first? None. It was a Pennsylvania airline mechanic who popped the secret online before other news media got wind of Kerry's choice. The mechanic saw a Boeing 757 parked in a hangar and covered with paper and masking tape and bearing the logo "Kerry-Edwards." He posted his sighting onto an aviation Web site -- USaviation.com.

It wasn't until eight hours later that NBC News broke the story in the traditional media.

I say again: You can't keep secrets with the Internet. There are too many eyes and ears in the world, all with online access. Most PR counselors understand this but others don't. Openness is not a nice thing to have. It is essential because even if you aren't open, others will broadcast your secrets.

I'll give Kerry credit that he nearly got away with a surprise announcement, but the fact that he held the decision tightly and it still leaked should be an object lesson.

You can't keep secrets with the Internet.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Fighting Back 

What should you do? When a politician makes an irresponsible statement about your company, should you slam the politician, make a statement about the facts or ignore the fellow? The answer is not easy because politicians are like the media. They can summon barrels of ink quickly through a few phone calls to reporters.

On the other hand, when a politician makes a statement that is clearly false and designed for impact only, should one take it lying down? There is no obligation to speak, but perhaps one should. Yet by speaking, one gives a politician a currency the fellow might not get otherwise. It gives the politician a chance to repeat charges. Of course, unless charges are as serious as those that Joe McCarthy made in the Senate about Communist sympathizers, it is unlikely the media will scramble to prove the politician wrong. Truth squads used in election campaigns may not work well, it seems to me.

So what should a company do? If the CEO is bellicose, answer a charge with a charge. If the CEO recognizes the statement for what it is -- political folderol - ignore it. If the statement is slanderous and can be proved so, refute the politician point by point and bury the fellow under facts. It seems to me one should state evidence first and then give a quote. It should be along the line of Fact A, Fact B and Fact C and then, "If politician X had done the least bit of homework, he would have known these facts. They are all on our web site."

Noise doesn't always help one's case. But then, political campaigners might dispute me, and they know their business better than I do.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Road Notes 

Before I get back to the office, here are road notes. The Blackberry e-mail device was the most consistent tool I had on the road, even including locations that were inaccessible to the cell phone. The cell phone was nearly a useless tool on some days and had a nasty habit of remaining in roaming mode when it was supposed to be in full service. It had an equally nasty habit of referring calls to my voice mail and then ringing me from there. That trick messed up a teleconference I was supposed to participate in. The service provider is Verizon, in case you are interested, and I will call Verizon in the morning to find out what is happening.

I found that I am not much on typing on a Blackberry because the keyboards need a microscope to see. No wonder Blackberry users make typos and use bad formatting. On the other hand, the Blackberry kept me in touch with the office in ways the cell phone could not. I'm going to keep the Blackberry this time around. I had a Blackberry two years ago that I turned in after six months because it was useless for me then.

I adopt new technologies reluctantly. I believe one tool should do as many things as possible in order to cut down on expense and to maximize efficiency. I have opposed gadgeteers for my entire time in technology. Folks with laptops, desktop PCs, PDAs, cell phones and Blackberries have too much stuff around them to keep work straight. The best solution is one or two tools at most that do everything one needs and are integrated with one another to avoid transferring of data back and forth.

Technology should make you more productive. If it doesn't, get rid of it.

How Much Spam? 

In 10 days on the road, I received more than 2,400 spams. How do I know? My spam filter did not work with the Blackberry, and I had all of them sitting in the e-mail box when I returned. I don't know about you, but 240 spams a day is a bit much in my estimation. I understand the Supreme Court feels it must protect the right of free speech in the US and it believes that filters can do something about spam. I think the court is not being practical. Who pays for all the spam I am getting? As you well know, it is you and you and you and me. Why should I have to pay for something I don't want and why do I have to be the recipient of missives I despise? There is a right of free speech, which I defend to the utmost, but there is also a right not to listen to free speech, which I also defend. If I don't want spam, I shouldn't have to get it. It's that simple and it is not an abridgment of free speech.

I am in favor of a system that charges for e-mail. It is the quickest way to put the sleaziest operators out of business and it doesn't harm free speech just like paying for a newspaper doesn't transgress free speech.

We need solutions -- the sooner the better.

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