Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Where's the PR? All I can see is a perfectly maintained propaganda machine. No PR in terms of two-way symmetric. No conversation. It doesn't match my interpretation of PR.
He has a good point, but the idea of using one's native language is to generate two-way symmetric conversation. That, however, is not the same as democracy -- a point often missed when dealing with organizations that have belief sets. In the case of the Roman Catholic Church, as in most religious organizations, beliefs are not a matter of a majority vote. Therefore, conversation is a matter of mutual support rather than negotiation. Still, one could see what the Church is doing as a propaganda machine. Thanks for the comment, Markus.
The public relations came in his address where he proceeded to speak in six languages to each major group there. The Vatican has PR down to a process. Before each mini address, a priest reads the names of groups in the audience from each country in the language of the country. The pope then speaks in that language using an address tailored to the country. Of course, the Italians were the loudest of all. They cheered and waved banners like soccer fans when their organizations were called.
The symbolic effect was clear. The Catholic Church shows its claim of universality during papal audiences and doesn't just state it. The Pope speaks in languages the faithful know best rather than forcing the faithful to translate. I can't think of another world leader who can or does speak in multiple languages regularly. Of course, few world leaders need to address more than peoples of countries they represent. The Catholic Church in its global claim has taken on a multilingual challenge.
It wasn't always this way. In Catholic Church history, popes have made historic PR gaffes, as members of other religions will attest. Further, they stayed with the dead language of Latin far too long because they assumed everyone who was anyone would speak and understand it. Finally, they were for hundreds of years Italo-centric, as if all Roman Catholics needed DNA from somewhere within Italy's borders. Post World War II, they started to understand their mission better and to venture out of Italy and away from the Vatican. The last pope made this a part of his duties. He understood that leaders come to followers and not vice versa.
One can criticize the Popes for taking so long to understand, but it is good to know that after 2000 years, leaders and organizations can still learn something new.
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
I question the long-term PR value of such strikes and not because of inconvenience. Railroad workers were unhappy with a proposed government budget, so they bolted. It's OK to be unhappy but to bolt from an essential transportation service places a country in the same situation that President Reagan faced with the Air Traffic Controllers' union and Harry Truman with railroad workers. Do individuals in services deemed essential have the same right of action as others? In the US, the answer appears to be no. In Italy, the answer appears to be the opposite. From a PR perspective, there appears to be a cultural divide between Italy and the US. Walking out is a bad PR move in the US: I'm not certain what it is in Italy.
In the end, the strike didn't disrupt our vacation plans that much, but it made me curious about why such differences in action are tolerated --- or not -- from country to country. As an American, my view is that unions place themselves in jeopardy if they begin to believe they are more important than the country itself. And, the more they are allowed to get away with acting in a "high-handed" manner, the more they consider such actions a norm rather than an exception. This leads from public to private interest and from PR to arrogance. At some point there are no more public relations but raw self-interest and political power. That is the point at which government should step in and put a stop to it.
Monday, November 21, 2005
Have a Happy Thanksgiving.
Sunday, November 20, 2005
This is part 8 and the conclusion of an extended article reviewing early blog entries and what I have learned from them.
Reputation hinges on credibility and credibility to perceptions on truthfulness. Preserving reputation is at the core of what PR does. Therefore, I watched for instances where reputation has been harmed. Some were personal like an adventure with a cell phone provider (8/20/2003). Some are industry related like the travails of the RIAA (9/11/2003), which I unfairly criticized. Still other blog comments focused on companies having reputational problems, such as Wal-Mart (11/18/2003), Freddie Mac (6/30/2003), airlines (2/26/2003) and Wall Street firms facing $1 billion in penalties for misleading financial analysis (12/20/2003). There were as well embarrassing incidents that sparked comment, such as a Roman Catholic university that had the name of a donor, who is also a convicted felon, on a building (12/23/2002). The issue was when the university could remove the donor’s name without infuriating him but at the same time downplay the fact that it had taken money from a crook. I blogged as well on issues with reputational implications for the Internet. Among these were advertorials masquerading as editorial copy on Web sites (12/04/2002).
I should have written more about reputation than I did. There are numerous instances when companies and individuals have wrecked or boosted their reputations through choice and action. PR practitioners should be aware of them as they work with their own internal and external clients.
Constantin Basturea suggests that I am commenting on too little. He would like to add two more topics to the mix:
* PR Education
* The gap between PR practitioners and academics.
I have commented on PR education but only generally. I am against majors in PR. Some of the best PR practitioners I know come from disciplines other than PR, to include law, newspaper reporting, brain science, etc. What they bring is thorough grounding and credibility in a discipline and content outside of PR that informs PR principles. I have long thought PR training should come after experience in business or in a discipline other than public relations. Further, it should be about a year in length in which mature students are drilled in principles, news writing, presentation, strategy, and a graded hands-on project. It could be done as an online course, an extension program or an on-campus experience. Emphasis would be placed on practical implementation. This does not displace theory or research – far from it. PR is need of better grounding in the sciences and in measurement.
As for the gap between PR practitioners and academics, I am not qualified to speak of the differences at the moment. I no longer teach at a university level. However, many PR programs have former PR practitioners teaching in them and/or leading them. This might mean that the gap is not so great as one might imagine, but it would take a different blogger to handle this topic well.
There is one failure in blogging that I have yet to overcome -- a lack of reader comment. I get some but not nearly as many as Slashdot gets on a slow day. In reflecting on the reasons for few comments, I conclude there might be a combination of three reasons for the low number:
* Few care about what I blog.
* There aren’t many PR blog readers.
* PR readers are not commenters.
It is possible that topics on which I concentrate result in low readership. During the initial burst of PR blogs, most PR bloggers were speculating on what to do with the medium. I did not join that discussion. The second issue of the number of PR blog readers is difficult to assess. I only know there are many more now than when I started. Still, there might not be enough yet to spark commentary. The last reason I derived from reading PR blogs. I noticed that most lack comments. I will continue to try to stimulate discussion because it is largely through multiple views that tough challenges are elucidated. PR needs more discussion, not less.
Constantin Basturea has a different take on the lack of comment:
…I'm not sure how many PR blog readers are out there; but I think that people are more inclined to leave comments when they disagree with an idea, or if they are able to add something to the discussion….Another reason for the lack of comments might be the fact that PR people -who are not bloggers- are not forthcoming in expressing their opinions and engaging in public discussions about PR. I don't have hard data to back this up, but what I noticed from the statistics about the number of visitors for PR Blog Week (1 and 2) is that a lot of people have visited the weblog and read the articles, although a very small number dared to comment. Not everybody is comfortable with leaving comments on the web yet.So, why aren't more (PR) bloggers commenting, then? Maybe because you're not commenting too often on the issues debated in the PR blogosphere; or maybe because you're not leaving comments on other blogs, or link to them and notify them via trackbacks - which will invite to reciprocation.
I partially agree with Constantin’s view. Where I differ is in his last paragraph where he suggests that I don’t leave comments on other blogs or link to them, etc. I differ in that I am concerned about contributing to a sub-culture of bloggers who speak only to themselves rather than a larger community of practitioners who discuss issues affecting PR. My worry is based on early experience with online discussion dating back to the 1980s – before the web was invented. There was a forum on CompuServe called PRSIG (Public Relations Special Interest Group.) It started off well but over time deteriorated to a small group that eventually withered. (This seems to be the fate of many such groups.) The question is how to stimulate discussion among a broad range of participants. I have no answer for that.
I believe there is a need for commentary that gets outside of PR industry dynamics and looks at issues in the larger world, but then my belief might be a minority view. I will continue to look at topic areas summarized here. This, however, raises an issue. Perhaps with my magpie mind, I am attempting too much. Wouldn’t it better if I blogged just one or two issues rather than 11? Say, credibility and reputation? That is a question I should consider, but on the other hand, as Peter Shinbach pointed out to me, I would defeat the primary purpose of the blog announced at the beginning. There are no easy answers.
Blogging is an education for me. I hope it is for you.
PR strategy is a catchall category for a broad range of blog entries that loosely fit under policy decisions: Much can enter into strategy considerations. This heading covers comments on what organizations were doing, such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) who are fighting file-swapping (1/24/2003), and the disastrous PR they were reaping from their efforts. I discussed AOL Time Warner’s credibility problem (1/30/2003) after the merger with AOL. “What seemed like a good idea is now known as one of the dumber decisions in U.S. business history….And this from the company that publishes Fortune, Business 2.0 and Money magazines.” I noted in amazement American Airlines’ decision to shrink its seat space even more (5/22/2003) when passengers are already livid about air travel. I commented on the PR problems with stock options (7/9/2003). I noted how Google’s brand had fared well even though it is a new company (2/12/2003). I spotlighted Dell Computer’s “rubbing in” its success at time when the rest of the industry tanked (10/03/2002) in order to pressure competitors such as Gateway and Hewlett-Packard. I looked at historical PR successes such as the Rockefeller family’s successful efforts to rehabilitate its name (10/06/2003), and colonists’ “image-mongering” after the battles of Lexington and Concord at the beginning of the Revolutionary War (6/30/2003).
As for PR practitioners, I emphasized the need for practitioners to have credibility with CEOs in order to gain influence in decision-making (3/10/2003) and disclosure (6/18/2003). I noted the role of cultural taboos in PR decision-making (4/28/2003). And, while reflecting on the looting of Baghdad and Basra, I wrote that PR assumes “civility between message senders and message receivers. When civility breaks down, the response is force -- and force is a crude instrument as we have seen in Iraq. It punishes the innocent along with the guilty.” (4/14/2003) Finally, I described some of my experiences in fashioning PR strategy and the complexities of it (1/14/2003).
Blogging about PR strategy was too diffuse and needed greater focus. Looking forward, I will attempt to do that and to define it better than I did.
PR tactics are a grab-bag of things that appeared and caught my attention. They included the use of name recognition in promotion (10/10/2002), and its spurious appeal to authority; the launch of a Barbie doll blog (12/13/2002); the former CEO of IBM’s distaste for reporters (12/30/2002) and why; the significance of search engine page ranking to PR (1/06/2003); an example of a good online newsroom (1/16/2003); the use of military spam (1/20/2002) and Web sites (4/15/2003) in the Iraqi war; the Web as a crisis tool in the space shuttle disaster ( 2/5/2003); a move to inject fans into auto racing (3/20/2003); the use of the Internet to organize protests (1/22/03); the use of Web site newsrooms for story pitching (4/16/2003) and the publicity potential of cheap cell phones with cameras (4/25/2003).
I pointed to examples of good tactics from homemade and goofy, such as bras in a tree (9/26/2003), to civic minded (8/18/2003) and to inspired creativity, such as Ruder Finn’s “Mr. Picassohead” (12/04/2003).
I discussed uncertainties of PR work, such as media pitching (8/4/2003), unhappy clients (10/31/2003); when to stay on the record with media (11/05/2003) and how much image manipulation PR practitioners should allow (4/3/2003). I noted that many PR tactics online are not new but transposed from traditional publicity (12/16/2003), and I harped on the issue of usability and online presentation of content (9/11/ 2002, 5/1/2003), an area in which PR practitioners should be actively engaged with Web designers.
There was more on tactics, but what is here is sufficient to grasp the disparate nature of topics and comments. I was wrong not to concentrate on tactics in a more disciplined manner. PR practitioners need examples to follow in their work. Ours is a business where we take good ideas from others and adapt them. No one creates new ideas all of the time. We tend to use old forms in new ways. Going forward, I shall try to be more focused.
The State of the PR Business
PR took a beating with the bursting of the Internet bubble, and it has never quite recovered. The industry was overstaffed and invested too heavily in technology companies that were more figment than fact. There was too much pandering to boost stock prices and too much glorification of CEOs and entrepreneurs.
In surveying the wreckage (1/2/2003), I commented that the business looked as if it had gone back to the “early 1990s when there was no great growth except through purchase of agencies that added incremental revenue to the big firms' bottom lines.” I relayed views of others who were similarly gloomy about the growth of PR (3/05/2003, 11/24/2003) and concerned about the revenue-driven bent of communications conglomerates (7/14/2003, 12/19/2003). I noted the concern that older practitioners have with maintaining quality in big revenue-driven agencies (9/24/2003) and the instability of accounts (11/26/2003). I concluded that productivity would keep agency population counts down because with technology one can do more with fewer people (8/8/2003).
I backed away from watching the state of the PR business because it is hard without official reporting to know what is happening. In this, Jack O’Dwyer is right. Major PR groups and their revenues are buried inside of communications conglomerates and invisible. About all we have learned from quarterly earnings teleconferences with analysts is that some communications conglomerates point to PR agencies as a reason for their declines in revenue. Meanwhile, independent agencies today are too small to define what the PR industry is doing and in-house PR departments are not well documented. When one can’t write accurately, it is better not to write at all.
PR and Crises
Most of the entries in this category pointed to PR crises underway and the challenges facing those dealing with them. One of the first focused on the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) (2/03/2003) when it lost another shuttle and the astronauts in it. NASA once lived in a PR dream with amazing feats and profound discoveries. It has had a hard decline since and seems to lurch from one crisis to another, especially in the manned space program. It is a training ground for crisis counselors. Not even NASA’s amazing PR success with the Mars’ Rovers (1/06/2004) has overcome the negatives. The backside of the Internet bubble also provided fertile crisis examples (2/20/2003) as investors sued everyone and anyone to recover lost dollars. Crisis counselors have found full employment there. Issues like employee problems, such as The New York Times had with Pulitzer prize-winner, Rick Bragg, entered the blog (5/29/2003). I also included incidents such as when dissident employees go public (6/4/2003), and internal mistakes, such as posting sensitive documents on the Web – a situation that happened to public relations giant Fleishman-Hillard (7/11/2003).
I documented how technology affects crises and blogged how cell phone short message services (SMS) were a primary medium for broadcasting alerts about a deadly flu virus in China (4/4/2003). I wrote, “This is important news for PR practitioners. It means crisis news and rumors have another way to sweep through a population before practitioners can respond.”
I related my own experience with crisis and the suddenness of it (4/17/2003), and the fact that nearly every PR practitioner gets into one crisis where everything that can go wrong does (5/15/2003).
Crisis is instructive because PR practitioners and the organizations and individuals they serve learn where values are grounded and how well prepared they are. That is why it is important to highlight crisis as it occurs as a learning experience for practitioners. A failure in my blogging was not following important crises more closely to show response and its effectiveness.
PR and Politics
I try to be apolitical, but I follow politics because many new communications techniques and the toughest communications challenges occur in the political arena. Politics also demonstrate the worst behavior to be found in PR. There is no “I win-You win” in political PR. Rather, it is destroy the opposition, and in so doing, anything goes.
By coincidence, the period covered was an historical time for political public relations. It was the time when President Bush was persuading the US to go to war against Iraq. I noted that Bush and his cabinet were moving too quickly and potentially setting themselves up for a fall (9/23/2002).
In their rush to combat evil with a sword of truth and justice, they have become intemperate. And, being intemperate is as evil as the Inquisition in Medieval Europe. I hope America is resilient, able to take such lack of perception and then, recover common sense. Some days I am not so sure. How does any of this apply to public relations? PR practitioners convinced of their positions set themselves up for a fall… It is axiomatic in PR that one should maintain balance. It is unfortunate that many do not.
I blogged on several occasions that Bush was engaged in high-stakes PR that could threaten his administration if anything went wrong. (1/07/2002, 1/17/2003, 2/10/2003, 2/28/2002). I blogged as well the news events that showed the administration had erred in contentions about Weapons of Mass Destruction wrong and the PR damage it was doing to the administration. (3/12/2003, 3/31/2003, 5/30/2003, 6/17/2003, 7/15/2003, 10/13/2003, 11/04/2003, 12/15/2003, 1/20/2004.) It was easy to see the PR risk President Bush was taking and just as easy to foresee what would happen, if it went bad.
A second historical event took place in 2004 – the presidential election. It was this election that pioneered the acceptance of online media, including political blogging (5/27/2003, 11/20/2003). Howard Dean’s campaign led in nearly all aspects of the developments (1/19/2004) until Dean imploded. It was an exciting time for an observer of PR. I covered a range of communications issues, including PR and campaign financing (5/08/2003), Bill Clinton as unintended bad PR for Democrats (6/5/2003), the front-runner’s curse in the primaries and how the media overly focuses on individuals (8/11/2003).
A third historical event also occurred in that period. The governor of California was voted out of office in a special election and a former movie actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, voted in. Having been born and raised in California, communications issues arising from that campaign also found their way into the blog (8/29/2003, 10/22/2003).
I documented other political communications issues as well, but the temptation is to write too much. I have backed away since from political PR. Perhaps, I should return. Battles between opposing forces haven’t lessened.
New Communications Technologies
Technology is changing communications and PR. Old PR ideas still work, but we need to adapt them. New ideas present challenges we could not have anticipated. The first technology entry on (10/08/02) dealt with a topic that is now changing Hollywood economics – digital video.
I was surprised then to read in Monday's Los Angeles Times that 30 percent of the prime-time shows are being shot in digital video this year -- over the objections of cinematographers. Discovery Channel switched 50 crews from film to video. The reason? Cost. Even a skinny two percent savings is enough to drive change, which says a lot about Hollywood economics. The purpose of telling this story … is to illustrate how digital sweeps everything before it, including the original form of movie making. As PR practitioners, we need to be sensitive to changes that can help us work better, faster and cheaper.
By (12/10/2002), I noted a prediction that camera-equipped cell phones would change journalism. I remarked on the speed online journalism’s entry into the mainstream (1/09/2003), as well as another attempt at electronic paper (5/12/2003). The penetration of broadband (5/23/2003) and the rise of IP telephony (6/10/2003) are topics I have returned to because both change how practitioners operate. The pain of adapting to new technologies also found its way into the blog (1/05/2004) when I used a personal example of shifting to digital photography and the equipment it required. Finally, I rocked my hobbyhorse and deplored the reluctance of PR practitioners to adapt to new technologies (9/25/2003) – a long-time issue dating to the rise of personal computers.
Knowledge of communications technology is an important part of PR practitioners’ learning. Practitioners who do not adapt put themselves at risk: Those who do demonstrate the flexibility needed in a new communications world. For that reason, it is an area I will continue to cover.
Objectivity and ethics
We see too many examples of ethically challenged CEOs, officials, reporters and PR people who twist facts. We observe reporters, editors and PR practitioners fail to check facts before publishing them.
Each time there is a failure in which PR is involved, it diminishes the PR discipline. Unfortunately, more failures than successes get into the news, so PR always seems on the defensive (4/29/2003) about objectivity and ethics. It doesn’t help that traditional media dislike PR practitioners, nor does it help that traditional media themselves have become less strict about facts and more liberal about interpreting facts or rendering opinions. Advocacy journalism -- especially with blogs – has skyrocketed and influenced the most recent Presidential campaign. The editorial era in which we work hearkens back to stand-offs between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians under George Washington. Objectivity and ethics have taken a pummeling, but they are at the core of credibility and reputation.
This is why on (9/26/2002), I wrote of my concern over reporters writing blogs, and why PR practitioners should be worried as well.
I do not believe any reporter committed to objective reporting of events should have a blog for venting unedited opinion. And, that reporter definitely should not be allowed to blog opinions on events he or she is reporting as a part of a regular journalism job. The loss of credibility would be too great. Imagine a journalist writing a story in a newspaper on the mayor then typing in his blog that the "mayor is a dork." The same holds true for PR practitioners. You cannot blog in isolation. What you say in a blog reflects on your work. It can compromise your reputation for accuracy and straight dealing. Blogs are public statements. What you write in an online diary is open to all. Be consistent with yourself. Never say in a blog what you would not write elsewhere.
Spin concerns me (6/16/2003, 10/16/2002) and the compulsion some practitioners have for practicing truth-shading. It gives PR a bad name. Objectivity, what it means and how one should deal with a principle that can never fully be reached, is a topic PR dares not dismiss (10/18/2002, 7/21/2003). I believe one must strive for impartiality even though it is impossible to reach. Others don’t.
The question of objectivity is an issue in newsrooms and among PR people. The cynical view is no one can truly be objective so why bother? That view ends in credibility problems quickly. An extreme view is that one can be objective like Joe Friday in Dragnet who asked for "Just the facts, Mam." We know that isn't right either because every human has a set of mental filters built on a wide range of factors -- education, experience, biases, environment and more --, and there is a need to set facts into context so one can understand their relevance.
Allied to considerations of objectivity and ethics is the need for free-ranging discussion of ideas in PR, as well as a humility and openness to new concepts (12/09/2002, 3/18/2003) rather than getting trapped into behavior, a common failure among communicators and marketers (1/16/2004). It is a sad fact that communicators can box themselves in and never see what they miss.
Because objectivity and ethics are inflammatory and issues that can damage PR, they need to be discussed regularly and more deeply than I have done. Unfortunately, examples of practitioners’ ethical behavior rarely find their way into news stories, but I believe there are more good examples than bad. Here is where I would like to hear from PR practitioners who deal with these issues day-in and day-out. Further, it is past time for PR executives to get out front on ethical issues and to take a stand that pushes back against a “sleaze-ball” image when it is justified to do so. (Regrettably, some of the largest PR agencies have been involved in ethical misbehavior and have little credibility, nor do their executives seem inclined to speak.)
I spent little time on communications skills. Others do that better, and too much is repetition. Good writing starts with good thinking: Organized presentation comes from an organized mind. Laborious discussions of press release writing are just that. But, there are skill sets that practitioners might not consider and are useful, or essential, to have. Among these are reading aloud (2/7/2002, 10/27/2003), a skill needed for prepared speeches; the ability to read balance sheets and income statements (2/27/2003) and experience in disciplines other than PR (1/24/2003). I also wrote practitioners should practice a handicraft (5/5/2003) to remind them that “things are never as easy as we think they are.” Practitioners who set up events and other physical activities know what I am writing about.
What should I be blogging about communications skills? More than I have. I need to observe more closely the talents that new technologies require. I do believe that either PR practitioners learn them or limit their usefulness. PR practitioners are “Swiss Army Knives.” We have many blades, scissors, files and corkscrews that we can bring to communications challenges to resolve them. When we have just one blade, we can hone it to a razor’s edge, but there might not be a need for it.
Limits of PR
The limits of PR begin with a question. Must you have a PR department or PR practitioner in an organization? The answer is no. Many organizations and individuals conduct their own PR. This was a point made early on (9/16/2002). A second and fundamental limitation of the business is that no one quite knows even yet what PR is. As I wrote on (4/2/2003), “I have been responding to questions from visitors since this site (www.online-pr.com) opened in 1997… What is the most common question I get? ‘What is Public Relations?’” I returned to the topic on (6/13/2003) with the following comment, “I used to get upset that no one understands our business. Even my father and mother never caught on. I would explain my day to them, and they would give me the vague response, ‘That's nice.’ I would overhear them tell others that I worked in advertising.”
I cited in the blog examples of PR that failed, such as the publicity campaign for the Segway two-wheeled transporter (4/8/2003, 10/02/2003). I noted that public relations alone cannot save brand names (9/29/2003). I highlighted examples of where people will not listen to what one has to say no matter how strongly one says it and even if it is in their best interests. This was the topic of a (10/29/2003) entry, “I am reminded of this because brush fires in California have destroyed more than 1,100 homes and more than 14 lives. These are people who refused to listen. For decades, authorities have advised against building homes in or near dense brush in Southern California mountains. People ignored the advice and built anyway.”
Why pay attention to the limits of PR? There is an unhealthy tendency to claim too much for PR, just as there is for other disciplines. Part of the PR’s zealousness in justifying itself comes from a feeling that PR is ignored – and it is. PR is bypassed often in favor of a Chief Marketing Officer, General Counsel or investment banker.
Here I wrote originally the following sentence:
I believe I should continue to examine PR’s limits, but with a deeper focus on the relationships between communications, economics and organizations.
This earned a well-deserved rebuke from Mr. Shinbach:
I think this is akin to having a mission statement “I will continue to shout into the wind.” Rather, I think you should consider taking a couple of steps back and not examine PR’s limits but examine just what PR is. Define it. Nobody else is, at least in relevant terms (puff words like “relationships” are OK for dating sites and marriage counselors but not something that claims to be somehow related to business). Let’s face it, PR is disparaged as spin, press relations and just-plain-bullshit (see the former FEMA director’s e-mails to & from his PR person during the Katrina disaster. She advised him on his clothing, not his message… I think your time would be well spent exploring a definition of PR that would be acceptable and relevant to important people like CEOs, journalists and your parents. In other words, rather than examining a negative (i.e., PR’s limitations), why not examine a positive (i.e., what is PR?)?
Blogs and Blogging
My first entry on the topic of blogs and blogging (2/21/2003) was a response to a journalist’s complaint that bloggers were nothing more than "free-ranging opinionators." My response was that my blogging was an attempt to elucidate concerns that public relations practitioners deal with. I wrote, “We forget perceptions drive great issues, and there are lessons for good and ill in how perceptions are handled.” From that beginning, I noted PR uses of blogging, such as its growing application in movie and product publicity (2/25/2003 and 3/06/2003). I commented as well on the low-cost of blogging and why inexpensive publishing was influencing and driving change in traditional media (6/3/2003). This evolved into issues such as what is off-limits when dealing with bloggers (6/9/2003), the need for corporate blogging policies (10/03/2003) and whether to pitch story ideas to blog writers (9/4/2003.) I took issue with a notion that bloggers, especially reporters who blog, should be free to say what they want (9/23/2003), and I openly mocked journalism schools that teach blogging as course content (10/16/2003). I noted an early example of blog spamming (10/28/2003) that has become a bane of bloggers and the fact that blogging changes one’s relationships with colleagues -- sometimes for the good and sometimes not (1/27/2004.)
What did I leave out? Plenty. I didn’t foresee the incredible growth of the medium although because of its low cost, I had inklings. My concerns now are that blogging is too popular. With 20 million or more blogs catalogued on Technorati, the usefulness of the medium is being buried. Here my friend and colleague, Peter Shinbach, and I differ. He points to the strong role that blogs have gained in the political arena and makes the point that:
“their usefulness, I propose, is not related to their size but to their individual reputations for providing trustworthy, relevant information & opinions to the relatively small number of people who find value in each of them. They are a combination of highly targeted marketing and Negroponte’s “The Daily Me.” So, no, I don’t think their usefulness is being buried. To the contrary, I think their usefulness is being elevated but not as something that can be counted.”
While I agree with Peter’s view, most blogs including blogs used for PR purposes, it seems to me, will not achieve individual reputations that make them useful. It requires hard and sustained work and creativity to find and/or generate content that readers find interesting and to which they return regularly, even in small numbers. When there were a few web sites at the beginning of the internet revolution, everyone flocked to see them. By time there were 1,000 web sites, only a few gained attention. Now, with hundreds of millions of web sites, most are identified only if indexed in Google. Web site marketing to gain attention is a well-developed craft. So too, blogs have difficulty rising out of the noise that millions have created. Peter is right in that some have succeeded and others will, but it is more difficult than it was.
What is needed is deeper investigation into blogs’ effectiveness – what works and what doesn’t Others do that better than I, but if I stumble on interesting projects, I will note them. I will also continue to note changes to blogging that threaten its viability such as phony blogs (splogs) used by spammers to boost access to their ads.
Changes in Journalism and Its Effects on PR
Traditional journalism has been shaken to the core. Factors in the shift include the rise of online journalism, declines in circulation and viewership, the influence of bloggers on political agenda, an increase in transparency over the way reporters work and the impact of technologies on publishing in general. These factors and more contribute to changes in how PR practitioners relate to reporters.
The shifts concerned me from the beginning (9/19/2002), along with outcomes such as continued shrinkage of news holes (1/15/2003 and 6/11/2003), the slow recognition among traditional publishers of the impacts of technology (2/4/2003) and the impact of major news on the use of online media. (2/11/03). I followed as well attempts of traditional media to fight back online (3/27/2003 and 7/2/2003), their successes (5/20/2003) and failures (4/9/2003, 3/24/2003) and first steps of traditional media into blogging (3/25/2003, 10/09/2003). I also noted the rise of community news sites that change how local news is handled (7/17/2003, 10/07/2003), the multiplicity of skill sets and media that reporters now bring to their work (8/5/2003, 10/01/2003) and how these impact PR. Finally, I cited examples of disgraceful media behavior that impacts PR practitioners and demeans credibility (10/17/2003, 11/21/2003).
PR is still absorbing rapid-fire changes in traditional media. At this point, it appears that most practitioners continue working with traditional media because traditional media still have greater credibility and reach. This can’t last much longer because alternative media are maturing, and members of traditional media are publishing in nontraditional ways, such as blogging, in addition to convergence appearances in newspaper columns, on the Web or on the air. Here again, Peter Shinbach has a different view:
They (practitioners – ed.) continue working with traditional media because that’s what they are comfortable with and know how to do; because that’s what their clients demand & expect (what I call “living down to your client’s expectations); and because new media as a whole are not trusted for a variety of reasons.
Peter’s observations are largely correct, but practitioners will follow traditional media as the media transform for reasons he cites – client demand and expectations. Further, reporters from traditional media with whom practitioners work, such as Dan Gillmor, are moving into blogs and alternative media, and practitioners maintain contact with them.
Change is accelerating, not slowing. This means I should continue to pay close attention to it, but I should focus more on how PR practitioners respond to change. I am optimistic that media convergence and universal distribution of information offer plentiful opportunities for PR practitioners to get messages out. More media means more opportunities, not less. It is a matter of learning how to operate in a new environment.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
Blog entries between Sept. 9, 2002 when I launched Online Public Relations Thoughts and Jan. 26, 2004 when the blog moved here fell under 12 headings, arranged below by alphabetical order:
Blogs and blogging. Although I vowed not to spend much time writing about blogging, I jotted about the medium some of the time.
Changes in Journalism and its effects on PR. Because so much of public relations continues to be tied to working with reporters and editors, changes in traditional media are of deep concern to practitioners.
Communications Skills. Skill sets dictate what we can do well.
Limits of PR. Public relations is a set of tools and a discipline. It solves some problems. It does not solve all problems. It is worth looking at its limits.
New Communications Technologies. PR should track the rise and use of technologies that change communications and PR application.
Objectivity and ethics. PR practitioners bump into fact, fiction and ethics constantly. There have been notable failures where individuals and organizations have scammed the public, and PR practitioners were involved in nearly every one. At issue is what PR practitioners should do when there is a choice between facts and spinning.
PR and crises. In a crisis, one finds what PR is – and isn’t.
PR and politics. Politicians are masters of PR. We can learn a great deal from them about the best and worst ways to persuade publics.
PR Strategy. Communications choices are at the heart of PR strategy. PR should track wise and dumb decisions as a learning experience.
PR Tactics. What we do and how are critical topics. There are no formulae for much of PR work. There are judgment calls.
Reputation and credibility. They are at the heart of what public relations protects and fosters.
State of the PR business. PR took a beating after the Internet bubble burst.
Yes, I am surprised by how much ground I covered. I had no idea.
This blog entry is the first of an extended series that reviews several hundred past blog entries with an eye to isolating themes and perhaps, to identify new directions going forward. It covers the period between Sept. 9, 2002 when I launched Online Public Relations Thoughts and Jan. 26, 2004 when the blog moved here. Few PR people read blogs then, and almost no one followed a PR blog. (There weren’t many.) The archives for the old address are here.
I started Online Public Relations Thoughts for two reasons – to refresh www.online-pr.com with daily entries and to provide ideas for PR practitioners as well as to educate myself in PR and stay current.
The second reason overtook the first, and the blog today is focused on finding, understanding and explaining PR and communications strategies, tactics, technology changes, limitations, impacts on credibility and reputation among other topics. From the first, I had little desire to write about blogging. This might have been an oversight. However, I felt, and still feel, that PR bloggers who write at length about blogging are excessive. Blogging is a tool: It is useful for some practitioners and not for others.
I also did not attempt, to cover PR industry news – personnel changes, account wins and losses, association activities, etc. Trade publications such as PR Week and O’Dwyer’s Public Relations News do that better. Instead, I looked at larger PR issues because there is a need for observation that is often called a less-than-flattering name of “thumb sucking.” PR needs more “big think,” that combines with implementation. Practitioners are confined too often in byways of tactics.
Skimming old entries is a trip down memory lane, especially since I committed myself to writing five days a week. But, the result of frequent expression is a record of learning. Therefore, this summary might be of greater value to me than to you.
My thanks to Constantin Basturea, Peter Shinbach and Shade Vaughn for reviewing this study and adding their comments. Constantin Basturea (http://blog.basturea.com/) has pushed this slow learner into technological advances to which I had given scant attention. (This is an embarrassing admission from one who was once called a “geek.”) Long-time colleague, Peter Shinbach, is kind enough to bring me to earth when I sail too far into the heavens. Co-worker and colleague, Shade Vaughn, has read all of my essays and white papers and offered his insights. Shade is the one who suggested that I publish this as blog entries, which I am doing.
I will use several blog entries to publish the paper. There is too much to read if it were published as one. Each entry will be numbered serially in the headline to help you follow along.
I hope this review of what I have blogged might spur other bloggers to review their entries as well. They will be surprised at what they have learned since they started blogging.
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
Bush's plunge is a reminder to be careful about how you think and talk about reputation. There is no "reputation or goodwill bank" into which you make deposits. People may stay with you for awhile if you have troubles, but there is no guarantee, especially if an issue is controversial. One can lose reputation in an instant. Still, there is merit in pursuing good behavior because there is less likelihood that bad behavior will be tolerated or overlooked. If anything, that is the goodwill bank a company builds -- the proper actions of employees.
I'm sure President Bush wishes he could do some things over, but there is no going back. It seems to me that his anger toward his critics is misdirected. The public doesn't appear to be listening. Frankly, I don't know what he can do. This terrible period should pass, and he might regain some momentum, but he will never again be at the popularity levels he once had. Once lost...
If I were a SonyBMG PR person, I would bang my head against a wall to relieve tension. This is a classic case of EVERYTHING going wrong. Even the fix was bad. Then, the news that the company's software had apparently reached 560,000 servers on the internet created a nightmare scenario of an infection that was silently radiating through the online universe.
Brian called to ask what I thought of the situation. (I had e-mailed him on another matter.) I told him my thoughts had been blogged for a week, and he is welcome to use them. Curiously, he thought the crisis had been created by PR people. I told him it was highly unlikely because most PR people have never heard of a "root kit." It almost certainly was an engineering decision coordinated with the legal department in defense of the company's copyrights. When the crisis broke, it appears to me that PR was nowhere to be found in the first few days. Otherwise, the bumbling decisions and statements might well have been moderated. Of course, this is opinion because I don't know anyone at SonyBMG, but it would be interesting to know how involved the PR department was from the outset.
At some point the bad news has to end. It can't continue forever. But right now...
Monday, November 14, 2005
Sunday, November 13, 2005
There has been no clear answer yet for how to do this, and iTunes aside, there doesn't seem to be a way to keep people from using music for free to the detriment of artists who create it and companies that sell it.
This is an amazingly difficult PR problem because music listeners do not seem to have a moral sense about borrowing music they want to hear. I have no idea what the music companies can or will do. Nothing has worked well. It would seem that the days of big-budget records and heavy promotion are over. With the long tail of the internet that allows listeners to reach into the depths of available recorded music, there is no ability to control demand and little ability to build artists as record companies did just a few years ago.
Working in music publicity today must be one of the more difficult jobs.
Friday, November 11, 2005
The question is how much longer the firm will hang on before it is forced to retreat and use another Digital Rights Management software protection package. The next question internally should be how the firm got into this trouble and then, how the firm will stay out of it in the future. The first question will be easy to answer. The second might not be. SonyBMG wants a software that cannot be disabled by users who want to share its copyrighted music. But, as the music industry has learned, there are brilliant people in the world who seem able to crack any software controls music companies have built.
There doesn't appear to be a clear PR or copy protection strategy going forward, which might be why the company has not responded more quickly to criticism. Secondly, the level of complexity may be beyond the skills of Sony's PR practitioners and resting in the hands of engineers and lawyers who have decided to hang on. That is not a good combination.
I can stand back and hypothesize, but I feel for the PR practitioners in the middle of all this, especially if there are no obvious solutions.
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
Monday, November 07, 2005
The story is technical: I'll try to keep it simple. The full tale is here.
SonyBMG in an effort to keep its music CDs from being copied downloaded software into the computer of every person who played a SonyBMG CD in his computer. The problem is that the software includes a piece of code that is vile. It is called a "root kit" and a "root kit" allows a hacker to take over a machine. Worse, the "root kit" grafts itself to the operating system of a computer then deliberately hides its existence, so no one knows it is there. A security expert who had played a SonyBMG CD was working with his machine and stumbled on the presence of "root kit" code. He had to work for some time to verify that it was a "root kit" and that it had come from SonyBMG. He then went to his blog and spelled out everything that SonyBMG had done. The news exploded in the tech world. Stories and opinions showed here and here and here and here then dozens more indexed here in Technorati. SonyBMG tried to backtrack by announcing a patch that would make the software visible, but that hasn't stopped the criticism.
What should SonyBMG have done? A reasonable individual would not blame SonyBMG for protecting its music in spite of controversy over sharing and copyright. But, SonyBMG should have realized that any attempt to hide code wasn't going to work. Transparency is best when critics are gunning for you. Secondly, SonyBMG should have realized that a patch wasn't going to do the trick once the story broke. It tried to respond quickly to quell criticism, but it used a popgun when it needed a cannon.
What should SonyBMG do now? It has two choices. The first is to watch CD sales to see if there is any impact from the protest. If there isn't, it might be able to proceed carefully and get back on track. If there is a decline in CD sales, it faces the second choice. This is getting rid of the software and going to something else that is identified and explained.
Since SonyBMG apparently bought the software from an outside vendor, it is possible that most people inside SonyBMG did not know about the "root kit." I am certain the PR department wasn't aware of it. But, there you have it. In the matter of a day, the company faced a worldwide crisis. The blogosphere struck -- hard.
Sunday, November 06, 2005
A national police spokesman, Patrick Hamon, said there appeared to be no coordination among gangs. But he said youths were communicating by cell phone text messages or e-mails _ arranging meetings and warning each other about police operations.
This kind of sub-rosa communication was pioneered in France more than 20 years ago with the Minitel system -- an early e-mail before the internet. French university students back then coordinated demonstrations in multiple cities by Minitel. Today's rioting youth learned well from their elders.
Thursday, November 03, 2005
I'm sure there was gnashing of teeth in the Dell camp.
Wednesday, November 02, 2005
Did you see the editorial in today's NY Times about unleashing the Internet for political advertising and the like without regulation? Maybe you could find something more for us that gives the details along with a couple of pros and cons, yours in particular. Thanks.
It's hard to turn down a request like that. So, Don, here is what I found. The Act is HR 1606, which you can find by going here. The whole of the Act is a one-sentence modification of the Federal Election Campaign (FEC) Act of 1971 (2 U.S.C. 431(22)), and it was submitted on April 13, 2005. HR 1606 has an identical twin in HR 1605 and in Senate Act S. 678 submitted by Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid on March 17, 2005. The original intent of HR 1606 was to protect political bloggers, which includes PR political bloggers, from being regulated by the FEC.
The New York Times was harrumphing because HR 1606 was being brought up for vote in the House, and the Times considers it an end-run to allow campaign financing through the Internet rather than blogger protection. It also turns out that Reps. Christopher Shays and Marty Meehan had sent a letter to House members asking them to dump HR 1606 and to replace it with a proposal of their own that would protect bloggers but keep the FEC in place. In addition, the Washington Post had opposed HR 1606 in an editorial on Oct. 11, 2005, and members of Congress have spoken against it. You can find all this here, on the web site of an organization founded by Fred Wertheimer.
As of this hour, I don't know the fate of the bill and whether it was brought up.
Pros and Cons. I am not a campaign nor election expert. Bloggers' free speech needs to be protected. Whether or not this Act does so or is a "bill to protect political bagmen" as the Times says, is beyond me. All I know is what I see, and it has to do with campaign financing in general. It seems that campaign financing laws have made democracy safe for billionaires who can self-finance elections. We have a billionaire buying his reelection in New York City right now. We have two mere centimillionaires trying to buy the governorship of New Jersey. I feel sorry for the poor bastards who are only worth 20-or-so million. The rest of us need not apply.
Is there a public relations issue? Yes, there is in New Jersey. There is an undercurrent of resentment that men of extreme wealth seem to get their way because they are willing to dig and dig again into their own pockets. None of this has to do with HR 1606.
If you want to follow the bill, there are a number of bloggers writing about it. Go here. And, you can enter HR 1606 into Google's news search to get the latest stories.
UPDATE: The bill was defeated. Go here for the story.
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
Why should PR practitioners worry about newspapers? Because newspapers still have the largest reportorial staffs, other than wire services. And newspapers, despite recent lapses in accuracy, are still better at reporting.
It is likely, as we have written before, that smaller papers will end up as online only with community journalism at their core. Larger papers won't operate that way, but they need to find an economic model that works or shrink their news holes, which won't help their circulation or viability.
I can't say I'm sorry that newspapers are having so much trouble. They needed to be shaken loose from tradition. They need to rethink their purpose and what their readers want.
While it's good public relations to acknowledge that news organizations must "stay committed to reporting news that is 'credible, valuable, and trustworthy,'" it's more difficult to stop playing anonymous-sources and "spin" games that got the paper into trouble.
What happened to the Times is an object lesson to PR practitioners. There are ugly consequences from twisting truth. Sooner or later it wrecks organizations and those that depend on them. Yet, time and again, CEOs will ask us to put a better a face on this little incident, then that one and yet another one. We find ourselves over time wondering if we can tell the truth. "Spinning" is easy, and often, we don't see the wreckage we create -- until too late.
The Delta was abused from the beginning of Americans' tenure in the region -- as early as the 1850s when farmers began to dike it and use the peat land for agriculture. This went on for better than 120 years when Southern California began to use the Delta as a water bypass when shipping the liquid down from the north of the state. A combination of abuses has sent the region into decline. Land is sinking, water becoming saline from intrusion of San Francisco Bay, dikes crumbling. Yet, environmentalism can only go so far because Southern California MUST HAVE water, etc.
The irony, of course, is that Southern California is a hotbed of environmentalists who enjoy swimming pools while fighting to save whales and pushing for cleaner air. One has to laugh when confronting situations like this.
It seems to me, though, that PR practitioners should use glaring examples of expediency against those who push organizations too far toward correctness. It is easy to criticize but difficult to implement as the fate of the Delta demonstrates. Real solutions take time and negotiation among many interests. We should never be afraid to point that out to those who believe CEOs can wave their hands and make everything work better.