Monday, February 28, 2005
What I found amusing is that after decades of one-way television programming, producers have learned it is a good thing to build a continuous and interactive relationship with viewers. Programmers now talk about a circle. Something is mentioned on the air, expanded online and then picked up again on the air. The internet lets viewers get involved. (Isn't that amazing?)
PR 101 calls for interaction with publics to build relationships with them. It's nice that TV programmers have discovered this. But to be fair to programmers, since they have stumbled on the obvious, they are moving quickly to exploit it. Here are some of things being tried in Hollywood.
- Placing program outtakes on the web.
- Placing full episodes of programs on the web.
- Creating "webisodes" of programs.
- Placing backstories of characters and locales on the web.
- Mentioning web sites and/or blogs on the air to direct viewers to the web and its interactivity. (This is what nigelblog.com is doing.)
- Placing interviews with actors and others on the web.
Of course, public relations practitioners can use some or all of these techniques to enhance the reputation of clients, products and services. But we knew that, didn't we?
Sunday, February 27, 2005
I had not been on skis for more than 30 years and the one time I was, I had one lesson at Loveland in Colorado then took a lift to the 10,000-foot level where lack of oxygen gave me a dull, throbbing headache as I labored my way down the mountain and eventually walked back to the lodge. To say I knew nothing about skiing is accurate. I had never planned to ski, but my daughter decided she wanted to learn. She went off for group lessons, and I went to a private instructor.
Because I'm a communications person, I was amused by conflicting instructions I received from two French-speaking instructors. They were teaching the same principles but they approached them differently. One wanted my boots latched snugly. The other wanted my boots loose. One wanted me to hold my hands on my knees. The other wanted me to hold them in the air. I kept thinking that there must be a way to teach skiing that delivers principles in one way to speed the process, but then I thought this would not make sense.
People learn differently. The first instructor was into mechanics. The second was into imagery. Frankly, I learned more from the second instructor but that could be the result of practice. (The second instructor said learning to ski was the result of mileage.) In the end, teaching me to ski was a multimedia experience. It emphasized how we as communicators should never rely on one method to send a message. We might be good at publicity, but that is not enough. We might be good at events, but they are too limited. The ski instructors without realizing it provided a case study for any PR campaign.
As for the skiing itself, my daughter learned more quickly than I. She has no fear, while I watched trees, poles and fences and visualized myself smashing into any number of them. I was comfortable at last on a beginner trail when she decided to show me the trails her instructor had taken her on earlier. I noted with alarm that the beginning of one trail had a single black diamond (high degree of difficulty.) She wasn't bothered by that. After all, she had been on the trail earlier. So, we started down the trail then branched off into another. I saw immediately this one was a double black diamond (Tres difficile, I believe the French signboard read.) I was beginning to sweat. Did she see the sign? "No problem, Daddy. Our instructor took us down this trail too."
So we skied through a narrow file between looming trees and came to a wide slope that dropped STRAIGHT DOWN to the lift. Well, not quite straight down but at least 70 degrees. It looked straight down. This was the double black diamond. My daughter stopped and urged me to look at the view. What view? I could see myself rolling over and over to the bottom and left in a heap where the safety patrol would lift me on a sled. O, there was a magnificent scene of the entire Saint Sauveur valley, but who had time for that? My daughter said blithely that we would snowplow down the slope. She had done that earlier, and all I had to do was to take my time. Yup. Sure. She plunged over the lip and began expert and controlled snowplowing. I shuffled after her and watched myself immediately lurch into a three-quarter turn on the slope. My right leg wasn't cooperating and my left leg was taking the burden on the downhill side. It hurt. We stopped two or three times. I could barely stand sideways on the hill. At last, we made it to the bottom, and my daughter mentioned something about how easy it was. I said I wasn't taking that slope again. The next time we took an intermediate trail. Much more my speed.
So now, I am an old man skier. I take comfort in the fact that many on the slopes looked as old as I. But then, they have been skiing since they were four or five. My first instructor was a women in her 50s or 60s who said in broken English that she liked to go "fast, fast, fast." If I can go "slow, slow, slow" and make it down a hill safely, I'll be happy.
Thursday, February 17, 2005
This thought occurred to me because a while ago, we were helping a client publicize something. Suddenly from nowhere an individual popped up and claimed the client had stolen his ideas. Not only did this fellow make the charge, he sent faxes to the firm's clients and others stating the client was a thief. This, of course, upset the client who immediately called his lawyers. His lawyers researched the topic and concluded the fellow had no case. Moreover the fellow's insistence and faxes had damaged the client's reputation. My client's lawyers sent a stiff letter to the fellow, demanding a retraction and a list of everyone whom the client faxed.
So how did it turn out?
The fellow's lawyer sent a wonderfully written letter that claimed our client's letter was "replete with rhetorical flourishes, overstatement and unsubstantiated claims of damage." He then repeats the charges against my client. However, here's the funny part. The lawyer writes that the two parties could litigate or compete against each other, and it was the lawyer's advice that they compete. Huh, what?
Let's see. The lawyer sends a "Dear Sir, you cur" letter but in the end says let's forget the whole thing. Nifty. You get to have it both ways. I wish we could write like that once in awhile just for the fun of it.
But, we're too civilized.
Years ago, I flirted with the notion of going inside but never did. That was a mistake career-wise. One should have a feel for stresses inside a large organization. The problem was the PR job offered was so limited that it made no sense. At that time in major New York banks (It has since been merged out of existence.), jobs were defined so narrowly, there was little chance for growth.
Agency life is varied. One practices a range of skills and confronts problems calling for different solutions. But, at the end of the day one goes home and leaves a client's problems behind. In the corporate environment, those problems are there day after day. One has to learn the art of coalition building to get things done and to know where internal levers are. The hard work of an internal PR practitioner, it seems to me, is knowledge of the territory and connections one makes. It is through this invisible web that one effects change and creates good communications.
The former colleague is finding he is performing a range of duties that sound more like an agency than a typical corporate department. He writes that he learned a lot while he was in the agency business and that comes from the varied tasks of client service.
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Monday, February 14, 2005
The government now admits that two missing computer disks at the Los Alamos research laboratories, run by the University of California, never existed. Yup, that's right. The witch hunt and $5.8 million fine levied against the University for poor security management was for items that were never created. University of California's reputation was dragged through the mud, and it nearly lost control of the labs. Actually, it did lose control of the labs but the government pays so little to manage them that the new manager backed out.
So, how does the government say, "I'm sorry" to an organization whose reputation it wrecked. It sends a threatening letter and fails to lift the fine.
We have worked with other government contractors who have been hauled before the government for lapses they didn't commit. The same pattern happens repeatedly. Bureaucrats rarely say they are sorry, and they rarely admit they have harmed anyone. They find flimsy excuses to support their positions even when excuses have nothing to do with the original charge.
The sanctimoniousness of government bureaucrats is disheartening. These people believe they are doing the people's business. Hence, anything they do and say must be right.
Be warned. If you work with the government, watch your flanks. Keep public affairs specialists at agencies and on the Hill. That is the only way to survive government witch hunts. Even then, it is difficult.
Sunday, February 13, 2005
The story quotes leaders in the field, all of whom have interesting things to say about the future of PR. Disappointingly, the one firm missing from the article is Ketchum, the company most associated with the hidden payment problem, other than Armstrong Williams. There is a passage at the end of the article, which throws Ketchum's reputation into a harsh light.
"We would assume that the commentator-pundit would disclose," said Lorraine Thelian, Omnicom's head of North American operations in a January interview with PRWeek, a trade publication. "That's an assumption that you make."
"It's not like we were pitching him to other media as a spokesperson," Ms Thelian added, "Whatever he did once that contract was put together, he did on his own."
Since Omnicom made this statement, it and Ketchum have remained silent, a risky tactic given that public relations wisdom traditionally holds that staying quiet during a crisis only prolongs media scrutiny and creates an appearance of culpability.
"They should have come clean right away and not tried to pin all of this on Williams," said Paul A. Argenti, a professor of corporate communications at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. "It's an example of the same kind of bad advice they give their client everyday."
Update: Alice Marie Marshall of Presto Vivace, Inc. found a free copy of the article here. Thanks, Alice.
Thursday, February 10, 2005
For the one or two of you who still might not know what the "Long Tail" refers to, here is an explanation. With the cost of storing data online nearing zero, it doesn't matter whether you place 10 or 10 million songs online for sale to the public, or every book that is in, or even out of, print (as Amazon does.) What happened as companies did this is that they found as much as 50% of their revenue came from sales of works ranked 100,000 or more down the Long Tail of inventory. These were songs and books that would never be carried in music or book store. But the internet reaches the world, and little-known music and books can find niche audiences.
How does this affect Public Relations. It seems we have to take a longer and larger look at what we do when working with clients. Take, for example, a consumer electronics company. It might make a product that doesn't sell well, and it markets it to just a few countries. As we discovered when we worked for a consumer electronics company, users band together worldwide into their own constituency. A company cannot discontinue a product as easily as it has done in the past when it reached the Long Tail and was no longer that profitable.
Already there have been instances where unknown bands and forgotten books have risen from obscurity to best sellers because an audience found them in the Long Tail and talked them up.
The Long Tail is an economics concept, but it has as much meaning for communications work as it does for business. It's an issue that merits closer study.
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Carly and Walter's PR battle is a business classic that should be analyzed for years and should be a regular part of PR courses. It shows how different views of a company can clash in public and divide target audiences. In the end, it wasn't a matter of whether Carly was a woman CEO or a visionary. It was a matter of whether her plan for HP worked. The board felt it didn't, and in an era of activist boards, that's a death knell for a CEO.
Interestingly, Michael Dell of Dell Computer was clear-eyed about the merger when it occurred. He confidently predicted the merger would fail and that Dell would clean up. That is what happened. It will be awhile before anyone bets against Dell again.
Now the board says it is looking for an experienced operator who can get HP moving. Apparently, they have had enough of vision.
Tuesday, February 08, 2005
The fact is that this stealth approach is reputation theft, pure and simple. If someone has a legitimate gripe, the person should be honest enough to identify himself. But, people aren't honest.
We worked recently with a similar situation having to do with an author. Another author was aggrieved that our author had written about the same topic as the other scribbler. Our author had not read the other fellow's book, however, so there was no chance for plagiarism. There were some similarities in concepts but not in language. No one, least of all the lawyers who compared the two books, could find any semblance of copying from one to the other. The aggrieved author, however, was having none of that. He put up one of his friends to write a bad review on our author's book on Amazon.com. There is no way to get rid of that review. It's there like a sore thumb, and I'm sure it has cost some sales.
On the other hand, I am also aware of authors who write anonymous reviews of their own books on Amazon.com -- a similarly suspect activity.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I asked a friend of mine to review my last book on Amazon.com, but I charged him to write an honest review. If he didn't like the book, he was to say so. He slapped me about some things before giving me a passing grade. (I deserved the slap.) Still, it would be better overall if no one was allowed to be an anonymous critic of any kind. It encourages dishonesty, and people need no encouragement.
As a PR practitioner, you may have already encountered these practices. There is little you can do about them, but they can damage your reputation. Watch out.
For decades now, military contractors and the services have mastered the art of spin to save hardware programs. Most of the time they have been successful. They know what turns the head of a Senator and Congressman. They also have learned how to spread the jobs for any piece of hardware to several Congressional districts so they can count on a block of votes.
We can learn a thing or two by watching them work. Still, I would like to see some of these programs cancelled.
Monday, February 07, 2005
This is not a call for censorship but for common sense. Sex is just one of many things people do. They breathe, eat, sleep, work, marry, bear children, raise families, get sick, die. I guess none of those are as interesting as "tits and ass."
Sexual innuendo is not a factor in corporate PR work. No one would ever counsel a female CEO to dress provocatively for Wall Street analysts. It would not only be a distraction but a profound disservice to the woman. When then do we push sex in beer and auto ads? Or, if we allow such flagrance for women, why not have men parading semi-nude in public as well?
There is hypocrisy here among young, predominantly male creatives for whom sex sells. I would like to think it a phase that will moderate in time. It has been a long time, however.
Marketing PR is not above using pretty women and handsome young men to make points. Corporate PR and brand positioning are a more cerebral. Both, however, should be concentrating on product benefits more than "sex sells," since we are largely in the business of unpaid persuasion.
Am I an old fogey, or is this an issue on which PR should be taking a stand? No one should advocate censorship. There is a First Amendment and the Victorian era showed it doesn't work anyway. But is moderation too much to ask?
The mayor of New York will lose votes no matter where he comes down. Usually politicians kick such issues upstairs. They appoint commissions to study them, and they get the hell away from the complication as fast as they can. The "fig leaf" commission is told to take its time and the hope is the next election will be over before the issue comes to the fore again. Of course, the commission report is filed away in a drawer and never looked at, but it serves the purpose of getting the politician out of a jam. Companies don't always have the luxury of such an out. I have seen corporations appoint investigators to "get to the bottom of the situation," but the investigators never report to the public. More often than not, a company has to take a beating from one side or the other. You can't please everyone. Affirming some relationships means breaking some others.
Sunday, February 06, 2005
Today, we have bloggers yammering about community journalism, and PR practitioners hammering the uses of blogging in corporate communications. But, there is little progress. There are many blogs, but they are a fraction of total internet users. In the end, there is no need for all those journals. And, use of blogs in PR lags where it should be.
In the decades that I have worked with technologies, there has rarely been a time when people flocked to an invention. Even PCs had a slow gearup.
It takes a long time to overcome a consumer's fundamental question, "What's in it for me?" I have scars from trying to introduce technology to co-workers who didn't see how it would benefit them. Months later, they grasped the concept, but by then I had all but given up.
Actually, I did give up. I don't teach technology much anymore. Today, I use technologies that make sense for me, and let others catch up as they will. It might seem selfish, but it works better for everyone.
Thursday, February 03, 2005
I've persuaded my company to adopt the blog. Oddly enough, it has not been an uphill battle. I joined a testing division of a top semiconductor manufacturing firm, where the new manager was faced with the task of making broad-sweeping changes to move the group from lowest in class to highest performing in a single quarter. Effective communications was a key player in creating a group morale that could sustain those goals; and I think that I've learned some things about corporate communications from being in the trenches here.
My manager sought opportunities to present factual messages, but with only a quarterly opportunity to hold court amongst all shifts, it made more sense to seek greener pastures. So I dusted off the abandoned news portal. This quickly dispensed with a constant daily barrage of e-mail bulletins that merely got deleted when information overload levels got breached. The blog from the manager, on top of that, was not a hard sell when he took into account how the same population could be reached at any given time.
We're still in a nascent stage with the project, but the results have been tremendous, namely, the gratitude from the staff for having clear communications channels, and access to the boss once again.
This is an interesting story, and I would much like to correspond with the individual who contributed it to thank him as well as to find out more about the communications challenge he is addressing.
If there are more stories out there, let's hear them. I am particularly interested in your tactical suggestions for how to make blogging work well in difficult environments.
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
Unemployment news from Germany is serious. It is the highest since 1933. The European Union has admitted its efforts to grow have been derailed by unemployment, and it is now trying to stimulate job growth. Europeans themselves are down about the cross-border economy built painstakingly over decades of effort.
The worrisome part of sluggishness is that it fosters radicalism, and we don't need more of that. It also fosters attacks on free speech, an essential element in public relations just as it is in journalism. To that point, it is discouraging to read that the young in the US don't understand the necessity of the First Amendment. If anything, free speech is more important in times of turmoil than in times of peace. (That said, free speech is often abridged during war, and one could make a case that the US is at war.)
Public relations doesn't move independently from the economies in which it is embedded. As long as Europe is sluggish, it will impact the industry there as it has impacted other EU markets. And, it doesn't appear this time that the US can be the engine that lifts the EU from its torpor.
I have felt for several years that after the Bubble burst, the US would be in for a prolonged period of flat growth. We've done better than that, but no one is ebullient. That, as much as anything else, is holding the country back. It might well be the same for the EU.
Tuesday, February 01, 2005
That's why I am eager to see this movie, which just won the major documentary honor at the Sundance Film Festival. It tells the story of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 through the eyes of a Canadian general who headed the UN Peacekeeper force and witnessed the killing. According to what I have read so far, the monstrousness of the slaughter -- 800,000 people in 100 days -- destroyed him emotionally because he was not authorized to use his troops to stop it nor could he get the world to pay attention. As we know now, Rwanda belongs alongside the Holocaust for the evil let loose upon the earth.
It is unlikely any one of us will see such hate and horror in our careers, but we must remember that the ability and willingness to commit wickedness hides in the hearts of humans. Its expression in a "civilized" world might be backstabbing and duplicity, but it is evil and lives are injured, sometimes permanently.
At no point in our careers as PR practitioners should we appease one who is destructive. It doesn't matter if this person is a boss or CEO or client. There is a limit that we should never dare to cross in maintaining relationships. In the case of the ex-general, the limit was destroyed by blood lust rarely seen in our day.
It happened just 10 years ago and will happen again.