Sunday, October 31, 2004


Scare stories are always good around Halloween but this story is frightening. It is one more reason why companies must guard their reputations online. The idea that one would blackmail a company by sending out child pornography under the company's e-mail address is more than heinous.

What the company did in response to such extortion is the best one can do -- expose it publicly. Tell the world someone is trying to blackmail you and how they are trying to do it. So, if the criminals do send the e-mails, the public will know it didn't come from the company.

Inevitably, there will be upset and outraged customers. To them, the company must apologize and say it is doing everything it can to capture the crooks. The company also needs authorities to acknowledge publicly this is what is happening to offset the damage.

It is chilling to think that criminals will try anything to bring down a company's reputation online. Be warned.

Thursday, October 28, 2004


I've tried not to say too much about the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) in this blog. Why attack an organization that is nominally doing good for the practice of PR? But, if the numbers I read in the Oct. 27 Jack O'Dwyer's Newsletter are accurate, the society is on the edge of irrelevance. O'Dwyer claims that of the 12 biggest PR agencies with 17,400 employees in 2001, there were just 617 members of the PRSA that year and that has dropped to 316 members in the 2004 PRSA Bluebook. That's slightly less than 2% of the employees in the top 12 agencies. You can bet that most of the 2% are juniors and not middle managers or senior executives. If this is true, PRSA has about as much importance to PR as the Democratic Party to the Bush/Cheney reelection bid.

So what is PRSA good for? I was not able to answer that question years ago when I left PRSA and gave up the APR I once possessed. The society had no importance to work I was doing, but I figured it was me. Apparently, it wasn't.

I am fully prepared to talk to anyone from the PRSA who can prove the society is relevant to the PR business, as long as that person can produce facts and figures to back the case. I suspect, as Jack O'Dwyer contends, PRSA serves small agencies and academics who value the APR. The rest of the PR world has gone in a different direction, and PRSA apparently made no effort to keep up or lead.

If true, it is sad. There is room for an effective association of and for PR practitioners. I'm not sure PRSA is that association.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004


It has been written here that there is less work in PR. This story from the AP is an example of what happened. The graduates of 1999 are still struggling to find a place in society five years later. They knew they were wanted until suddenly, they weren't, and there was nowhere to go. The individual in the article was in PR when she lost her job. After years of struggle, she's back in PR, but she needs years to dig herself out of debt.

It was different when I started. There wasn't much work in journalism, where I wanted to be, and pay was terrible. There was work in PR, and pay was enough to live on. I was out of work when I got my first PR job and thankful for what I was given. I lived alone and in a lower middle class neighborhood at a rent I could afford. It was years before I saw a paycheck that allowed me to think about something else -- like better housing. But I didn't have expectations.

It was a pity society misled so many into thinking they were going to do well from the beginning and rise to riches. What happened in California was a Gold Rush and like the original Gold Rush of 1849, it lasted five years until most went bust. I suspect the class of 1999 has a hard-earned conservatism about money and lifestyle. It was and is much needed and not so bad. How many SUVs do we need on the road anyway?

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

PR Headache 

Academic freedom is fiercely held on most university campuses, but not always. There are occasions, as Duke University has learned, that free speech can be a public relations nightmare.

That is what happened when the campus allowed the Palestinian Solidarity Movement to hold a conference (Registration required) on the property. The worldwide Jewish community erupted in rage. Their anger was exacerbated when a Benjamin N. Duke Scholar and senior at the university wrote an editorial in the campus newspaper, The Chronicle, that told the Jewish community to stop complaining among other things. That ignited threats and hate mail that poured down on the young man. The Jewish community then displayed an Israeli bus on campus that had been bombed as part of its protest.

All this happened with a brand new president who had just stepped into Duke's top job a few weeks before. So, now, Mr. President, what do you do to calm alumni and keep contributions from drying up?

This is the kind of PR nightmare no one wants, but the president has to deal with it. It will be full employment for him for awhile. A question that remains is whether he would dare invite the Palestinian group to the campus again. If he wouldn't, then he has another PR problem -- one of academic free speech.

With some issues, one cannot win.

Monday, October 25, 2004


Only in California where love of cars equals love of bean sprouts and environmentalism would you find a story like this. It's hilarious to think the governor could show off an eco-friendly Hummer -- the brutish war machine converted to monster road vehicle. The irony of it seemed to be lost on the AP writer until the last paragraph when he writes these delicious sentences.

Though Schwarzenegger arrived at the event in a low-pollution vehicle, he left in a gasoline-powered SUV that typically gets about 15 mpg. Officials said the hydrogen Hummer needs to refuel every 50 miles and there are only about a dozen fueling stations across the state.

The sentences send up the PR event and show it for what it was -- a hokey tip of the hat to clean air that was as unreal as caps on Beverly Hills teeth.

There are some PR stunts that aren't worth doing because no one will believe them. This was one. Anyone who knows about hydrogen fuel-cell cars knows they are at least 20 years off, and there is little liklihood they will ever achieve commercial feasibility. If the governor was going to show a Hummer converted to a real fuel-saving vehicle he should have shown a hybrid-power vehicle that uses batteries and an engine like the Toyota Prius.

Instead, the PR stunt left one laughing at the impracticality of it all.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

The One-day Sale 

A well-known political pollster used to say campaigns are a one-day sale. Everything one works for comes down to less than 24 hours in which people enter a booth and make a choice.

The length and bitterness of the presidential campaign is a cause for wonder in that regard. There is no doubt where I live, for example, that many people dislike the president and support challenger John Kerry. How do I know this? From signs on lawns and stickers on cars. These outnumber the Bush-Cheney signs by a huge amount. In fact, I have yet to enter a community in my New Jersey travels where the reverse is true.

Lawn signs are a public relations tactic with extra force. One has to commit to allow a sign to be posted on a lawn and to keep it there. The voter has made up his or her mind and wants others to go along with the choice. Nieghbors know these people and their word of mouth is public for all to witrness. That, it seems to me, has more force than a billboard or an ad on TV that has been bought and paid for.

In a close election like this one, lawn signs have a force they might not have at other times. A voter can see his or her neighbors' selection and are tempted to go along. I don't pay attention to lawn signs most of the time, but this year is different. They have become clues to which way this deeply divided election will go. My guess is New Jersey will be solidly Kerry. I won't place a bet.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Real life 

We were talking to a client about pending litigation recently when he told us a story. The client knows a white-collar individual who faced indictment. Attorneys for the individual promised the prosecutor they would bring the individual in when the indictment was rendered. They said he posed no flight risk whatsoever, and he was eager to cooperate. The prosecutor listened, but what did the prosecutor do? He rousted the fellow out, handcuffed him and made him do the "perp walk" into the station house.

As I have written before, prosecutors are tough players in PR. They know the image of an accused individual with arms handcuffed behind him is an important message. "We're tough on crime." They leak to the media when it suits them. They are often unfair in how they treat people and yes, unjust. Few individuals who have been indicted and treated this way have recovered reputations after photos in the newspaper and footage on TV. Even if an indicted individual is proven innocent, people think differently.

We asked our client if he was aware of how the prosecutor behind the upcoming indictment handles publicity. He seemed surprised we would bring that up. We explained how real life works, and what could happen. It turns out the individual's company wasn't ready for the impact of an indictment if a prosecutor plays rough. We suggested he needs a plan.

Never underestimate the power of the law to ruin reputations of innocent individuals and companies.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004


We were discussing a case with a potential client yesterday that highlighted why tort lawyers are a craven crowd. This firm makes a chemical, which is labeled a "probable carcinogen." There is no proof it is, and recent studies apparently show no connection between the chemical and cancer. However, that didn't stop a tort lawyer from filing dozens of lawsuits against the company at a plant site because the lawyer claimed the chemical caused an amazing number of illnesses from birth defects to shortness of breath. The lawyer, of course, demanded the company settle before he picked the company's pocket in the courtroom.

The company says the lawyer has no evidence to back his statements, and in the courtroom, under the Daubert principles, the company will be able to throw out the lawyer's junk science. But, the company noted, winning in the courtroom isn't going to do the firm any good with the people in the plant community. They now believe the chemical is at fault. It is another case of being guilty until proven innocent, as happens so frequently with perception. But the company cannot prove innocence with finality because the tort lawyer is using a further bit of cant. This is the argument that just because we don't know the chemical caused the illnesses, it doesn't mean that the chemical didn't cause them. Science just hasn't found the right tests yet. When it does, the chemical will be proven a bad actor. How do you fight that logic? Not easily. So even if the company wins in court, it is placed in a position of defending itself and its chemical forever.

Do you ever wonder why many people dislike tort lawyers? They are masters of PR and of self-justification. They wrap themselves in the safety of mankind. And, it works. If Kerry wins the presidency, we will have a tort lawyer one step from the highest office. That's something to think about.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004


It is frustrating to have a news leak to the media when one has planned for a big debut. The auto industry for decades has battled spy photographers who make a living out of lensing new models the companies try to hide. They know the loss of surprise and advantage from a leak.

A colleague working on a big announcement recently in another industry suddenly found the story reported in a magazine the day before the press conference. The client was unhappy and my colleague disappointed, but he had been wary of leaks. The organization is porous. It seems as if somebody in the media knows what is happening inside the firm all of the time.

This organization is one of those entities that cannot keep secrets for long. It's like Congress. There are too many reporters prowling corridors, too many gossips, too many self-promoters and too many political enemies getting even. (This is why when I read stories about dark conspiracies in the halls of Washington, I laugh.)

In the end, the only way to keep leaks from happening is to keep the number of persons who know the news to a minimum. Unfortunately, with some news like deals, a lot of people need to know. And one of them is bound to have a big yap.

You can never get rid of leaks. You can only hope to get the news out at the same time the leaker does.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Never volunteer 

Some PR practitioners are asked to serve on community boards as the face of a company. I am beginning to think volunteering like this can be a waste of time -- if one wants to get something done.

My frustration comes from personal experience serving on an advisory board that seems incapable of steering a course, any course. Part of the problem is the board's leadership that fails to keep members focused. The rest of the problem lies with board members themselves who find it difficult to focus for more than few seconds on any one topic before flitting to something else.

What does one gain from serving on boards like this except a healthy disrespect for the human species? Why put up with meandering meetings that start nowhere and end there?

It is unfair to condemn all not-for-profit boards and I won't, but it seems to me that far too many are like this. They are staffed by people who needn't be accountable, so they aren't.

It is easier to deal with a taskmaster than with a wandering board. My suggestion: If you must volunteer, select a board that you can control or join one that is serious about its work. Skip the rest.

Sunday, October 17, 2004


Contrary to what businesspersons say, they don't like change. In fact, they hate it because change means they have to adjust business models, and they might find their companies are no longer competitive. That is why businesspeople enter collusive activities when they can to control industries, such as insurance, as we learned last week. There is a good reason for their behavior. They're human: Humans dislike risk and uncertainty.

Thus, it is interesting that the telemarketing industry discovered change has not been that bad in the last year since the "Do Not Call" registry was put into place. The industry predicted its demise. According to this story, it didn't happen.

PR practitioners should temper remarks espousing the rough and tumble of the marketplace. They usually aren't true. When I hear CEOs praise competition, I'm tempted to gag. They would get rid of it if they could. And if they detect a least hint of unfairness, they are quick to complain. Witness Boeing's recent howls about AirBus and American farmers' screams about foreign growers (name the crop or animal, and you'll find a scream.)

The fact is we compete because we have to. Few like it. Microsoft established a monopoly, so it wouldn't have to compete, then it told everyone how hard it was to win. Computer Associates did the same thing.

In a truly free market, there are many losers and a few winners, many of whom don't play fair. That is why capitalism should never be truly free. Government maintains fair competition, whether players like it or not. The next time you are tempted to write about the glory of change, think twice.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Why monitor 

Some stories beg to be written. This is one.

It seems that BMW, the motorcar company, discovered a certain porno site carried photos of - er - interesting photography sessions that had its autos in the pictures. BMW sent a cease-and-desist notice to the site, which prominently published it on its web page. I'm sure some folks must be sniggering -- and they are not at BMW.

If that isn't reason enough for monitoring the use of your company's product, then try this story happening at the same time. Kellogg, the cereal company, has been giving away electric tooth brushes to young folks to encourage them to brush their teeth. Some one figured out that you can detach the toothbrush handle with the brush and voila!, it becomes a vibrator. Don't ask what it could be used for. I'll leave that to your imagination. And if you have a dirty mind, shame on you.

The point is that you never know what your product or your promotional giveaway can be used for. That's why you monitor the web and blogs every day.


The Presidential campaign in the US got me thinking about conditions in which there is little chance of building relationships across a divide. In this case there are ABBs (Anybody But Bush) and pro-Bush zealots screaming at one another without pretense of objectivity. Passion rules, and common sense doesn't.

There are many such instances throughout the world and people dying because of unbridgeable gaps in places like Iraq, Israel, Palestine and Chechnya. The question is how does one get started building a relationship in situations like this? That is why I have written and posted this essay for your consideration on online-pr.com. I wish I could be optimistic, but realistically, it approaches an impossible mission.

The challenge, it seems to me, as the world heads toward network-centric relationships is how to forge consensus when individuals and groups use the network to sow dissension rather than reasoned argument. The recent paper I posted on network-centric relationships on online-pr.com does not tackle this issue, and it needs to be investigated. A network invites flaming rather than discussion. People feel safe behind semi-anonymity of the written word. Thus, the very tie that joins us sets us apart -- a peculiar outcome that communicators need to accept and deal with.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004


This is not a new story but I am posting it because it shows how far one can go before overstepping while blogging. In this case, it was the President and Chief Operating Officer of Sun Microsystems who ticked off Hewlett-Packard by commenting on HP's strategy. HP sent him a stiff letter telling him to cease and desist. But then Jonathan Schwartz, the President, was practically begging for HP to say something. He said HP's operating system was "dying" and that the company was being left out in the cold as the industry moved away from it.

A cease-and-desist letter doesn't mean that one must stop or that a defamation suit in is the offing. It does mean someone is watching you, and they don't like what you have to say. That means if one is going to keep writing, check facts and grammar closely before publishing. If there is any doubt, leave the comment out.

I wrote here a long time ago that bloggers are not free to say anything they want because laws still apply. This case is a potential example of that.

Monday, October 11, 2004


This is a heartwarming story about an engineer who is more effective in building relationships than most of us. She does it by using old technologies in innovative ways to help the poorest of the poor in Third World countries. Whether it is a new way to make charcoal that avoids overuse of forests or fixing a chlorine metering system with a toilet tank, Amy Smith has found unusual and interesting solutions to help people help themselves.

No wonder she was given a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation Award. Her solutions are as valuable as education programs that nonprofits spend millions to deliver. But she can do it for $20 when it comes to testing water.

She is a more effective PR practitioner than we who call ourselves that. It should be a lesson to stretch outside of skills sets that we know to focus on what people need. PR is less communication than action. It is how we behave as much as what we say about ourselves. Wouldn't you think that some larger engineering companies might have done the same things this woman has done? So far, they haven't. That should tell us something about the difference between real PR and nice-sounding but hollow statements.

Sunday, October 10, 2004


I have long thought that games are good public relations and relationship-building devices when they are well constructed and teach players about issues. Sim City, for example, is a game where one has to constantly watch interactions in growing a city -- the utilities the city needs, roads and traffic, railroads, maintenance, taxation, the opinion of the populace, trade promotion and a host of other factors including where the city is built and how it is laid out. Politicos have played the game to understand better the jobs they have to do.

Now the Republicans in Illinois are getting into PR games and in an enticing way. Look at this site. You can play games around four issues -- medical malpractice reform, education, participation and economic development. Each game has interactions. Change one component and you influence a related component. It comes down to choices you make just like the legislator does in the face of high demand and low funding. I can't think of a better way to show citizens the responsibilities and challenges of being a legislator. We need more games like it.

For example, why can't there be a game that shows choices one makes in protecting the environment. You can protect this land over here but when you do, you take away the rights of that group over there. That's OK but when you do that, they become a political block and make your life more difficult in the future. Every action has a reaction -- some direct and some serendipitous.

I would love to have an opportunity to work on at least one PR game in my career.

Thursday, October 07, 2004


Who is losing the media in Iraq? If you believe this scathing explanation from the Naval Institute Proceedings, it is the military brass themselves because they are making no effort to get along with or even deal with the media.

But who is responsible for this state of affairs? While it is easy to blame the media for failing to get the true story or to accuse journalists of a liberal bias against military operations, this fails to identify the true culprit. The reason the military is losing the war in the media is because it has almost totally failed to engage, and where it has engaged, it has been with a mind-boggling degree of ineptitude. It is a strange circumstance indeed when virtually every senior officer agrees that the media can make or break national policy, but no more than a handful can name the top military journalist for The Washington Post, The New York Times, or The Wall Street Journal. Thousands of officers who spend countless hours learning every facet of their profession do not spend one iota of their time understanding or learning to engage with a strategic force that can make or break their best efforts.

This might seem harsh but the writer who was embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq has a point. He has been on the wrong side of Public Affairs Officers too many times and he's tired of it. I find his rant unfortunate because one of the best PR people I know is a former Air Force Public Affairs Officer. He's a pro in every way and someone I look up to. Maybe he is an exception.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

'Bout Time 

This story is interesting -- not because it's about PR. It isn't. It is about a lack of security in the nation's control systems for utilities and manufacturing. What is interesting is that four years ago a former client told me exactly the same thing. He raised a warning and told me to talk to the head of systems at SoCal Edison in Los Angeles. Sure enough, the warning was confirmed. But we had no proof. And we had no great interest either on the part of the media. Homeland security was not such a big concern at the time.

Four years later, it is a story. Has anything changed in that time? Well, there is proof of hacking in utility systems, and there are viruses. But the vulnerabilities existed four years ago as they do today.

Every story seems to have its time, and this not the first occasion in my career that I couldn't get reporters to pay attention to a good and urgent story. It has happened time and again. Journalists are no different than anyone else. They read the same news sources, and they watch the same electronic media. It is difficult to get them to see a step ahead, especially when there is no study or factual source to point to.

I'm glad the story is out at last, but I am unhappy that my client did not get to break it. That's PR for you.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Tough Relations 

This story is a reminder that public relations can be tough relations. One not only does not go along with the public, but one imposes demands and expects the public to live up to them. This is a stance one takes in such things as union negotiations, for example. The company shows a firm outer face while negotiating. Any sign of weakness only encourages strikers to stay out longer. On the other hand, the union shows a firm hand as well to communicate to the company that the business does not have the upper hand. Public relations is a face-off between wrestlers in a ring -- each growling and gnashing his teeth.

In the case of public housing projects, one has only to see the old projects to understand how bad they were and how dangerous. Chicago is determined to change from the past and hence, its demand that everyone work. Cabrini Green is a hellish place: It has been for decades. There were periods of running gunfights in broad daylight and open drug dealing everywhere. There were murders, rapes and robberies, and no one was safe even in one's own apartment. It is a mark of Chicago's concern that it is imposing rules on the residents of the new North Town Village homes. It doesn't want to repeat the Cabrini Green experience: Most of the occupants don't either. Of course, there are those who raise concerns about what these people can do, but I hope Chicago sticks with the demand. Sometimes the only way to get one to respect oneself is to force the issue.

Monday, October 04, 2004


There is one lesson every PR practitioner should learn and rehearse throughout his or her career. It is this: Progress requires clear objectives. Obvious? No, it isn't. Time and again, I have witnessed clients who don't know what they want to do or who charge off into directions that make little sense.

I'm ranting because I sat through a lengthy board meeting last night at a nonprofit organization where it happened again. A committee had been meeting for a year on a task -- a year! --, and it showed up at the board meeting to propose what it was going to do without a clear statement of its objective. Predictably, the board erupted into factions with one group calling for this position and another for that and a third for something else. After an hour of wrangling, one member was fed up and gave us an earful. The fellow was right, and we deserved his broadside.

How the heck can a committee go for a year without clear objectives? That question baffles me. The first question any group should ask is "What are we doing here? What is our mission and objective?" If that isn't clear, stop everything until it is.

I feel sorry for the committee members, but there is a hint of progress. The board determined that we will meet again soon and discuss options. We won't leave the room until we have a specific direction for the committee -- a direction to which we commit.

It would have been nice had we done that a year ago.

(Sorry for the late posting today. Blogger was upchucking again last night and this a.m.)

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Ready Access 

Anyone who deals with America's health care system can tell you horror stories. But, one service seems to be working, and it builds good relationships with patients. That service is Ready Access -- a place where one can go at any time of the day and most of the night and get medical help. Ready Access reduces the burden on emergency rooms and allows patients of health care groups to visit doctors they are likely to know.

Ready Access weighs on medical groups because it must be staffed and available, but the difference in public relations is enormous. I have been fighting an infection for days now and on Saturday, after another bout of coughing, hacking, sneezing and wheezing, my wife determined she wasn't going to put up with me any longer. She told me to go to Ready Access NOW. So I went. There isn't patient chitchat in a service that handles symptoms in bulk. But, the doctor was efficient, quick and apparently accurate in his diagnosis of the problem. In less than 10 minutes, he had me in and out with two prescriptions in my hand. So, he might not be the kindly General Practitioner of old, but his bedside manner was good enough for me. I just needed relief.

Good PR comes in many forms. It needn't always be a smiling face and friendly manner. That's something we shouldn't forget.

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