Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Interestingly, yesterday a colleague and I began to speculate that things in a certain situation are not what they seem to be. There are little clues now, but they are disturbing. Events have occurred in the marketplace as well that may shape the future of the situation negatively. We're in a good spot in that we know we don't know the full story. We're in a difficult circumstance because we're marketing a story that might be open to criticism.
Right now, we're charging ahead, but we're keeping our eyes open. That's better than being trapped off.
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
If the scientist is guilty, it makes no difference what was said about him. The problem is that no one has proven the scientist guilty. His reputation, however, is in tatters.
There ought to be better ways of handling sensitive information, and editors ought to be more careful about how reporters characterize "persons of interest." There is plenty of room for Free Speech, but there also should be plenty of room for protecting those who are innocent until proven guilty.
From a PR perspective, there is little one can do when government turns against you. The government carries the credibility and communications power, and the government can use or abuse that power. Zealous prosecutors are frequently abusive and worse, they justify their excess by claiming they are doing the public's work.
Sunday, March 26, 2006
I have a soft spot for Hispanics, not because I grew up in California farm country side by side with them. I, as did other high school and college kids of Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley, worked in the fields alongside migrant workers. It was a way to earn money, but it was hard and miserable. No one should look down on anyone who can do stoop labor for 11 hours a day, six days a week in 103-degree Fahrenheit weather. The men I worked with (and they were all men) were ill-educated and probably illiterate, but they knew how to pace themselves and to turn their hands to what needed to be done. Hour after hour with my back screaming in pain I labored to keep up with them. They took pity on me and helped me finish my rows when I fell too far behind. They laughed at me too and taught me all the worst swear words one could utter in Spanish because they thought I wouldn't know the difference. (To tell the truth, I had studied enough to know what they were doing.) But they were good people even with their faults, such as getting drunk on Saturday nights and losing their week's wages.
What bothered me then and now was how farmers treated them. They weren't slaves, but they weren't much better off. If La Migra rounded them up to ship them back to Mexico, the farmers would hire more. In my day, braceros were not provided housing, showers or sanitation. They lived in abandoned shacks near hop fields where I worked. I went home at night, black from the sun and filthy from dust, took a shower and collapsed into bed. They went to their windowless huts and slept on a floor. Yes, they stank, but we all stank after an hour or two. It made no sense then -- and now -- that farmers could not provide better conditions.
What was especially disappointing is that suburbanites a few miles from the fields went to supermarkets to buy fruits and vegetables and never considered the calloused hands that tilled the soil, planted seed, watered and picked produce. They never thought much either about gardeners who mowed their lawns or maids who cleaned their bathrooms.
The stoop laborers, gardeners, maids, dishwashers, cooks and mechanics are now standing and shouting. More power to them. Perhaps it will adjust our relationships with this vital part of the American public.
Friday, March 24, 2006
Thursday, March 23, 2006
I don't like newspapers that cut coverage because they are failing to live up to their name -- newspapers. But to argue that a newspaper needn't worry about profit is off the mark. The question is how to achieve coverage while making a profit. It's an issue to which all the technologies we use today should be bent. Some newspapers are making headway: Others moan about new media.
Maybe he couldn't do it before, and he can now. Or, maybe he didn't want to do it before. It would seem to be too late now, but it is revealing that he can handle himself well in front of a hostile audience. It seems like a lost opportunity for his presidency.
The article starts off plausibly and continues so until near the end when the writer reveals that there was only a .27 correlation between being self-reliant in nursery school and being liberal as an adult. Wha? When I took statistics, if your correlation wasn't in the .8 to .9 neighborhood, you dare not claim anything and even then, teachers hammered that correlation DOES NOT equal causation.
I'll give credit to the writer for revealing that fact, but I won't give the writer credit for authoring the story. There never should have been an article about data so weak.
Yet, we do stuff like this all of the time in PR. One of the regular pieces of junk floated to the world is the internet survey without statistical controls. There is no validity to these instruments and yet, they become the basis of news releases time and again.
No wonder we get little respect. It's about the same level of respect that should be shown to the authors of the original study on nursery children and their political leanings.
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
The CEO is a student of human nature. He understands people make short-hand conclusions about matters then, stop listening. They use the same heuristics we all do in life, so we can wend through complexity without being bogged down by innumerable considerations and decisions. The problem is that unexamined lives really do get locked in over time, which is why we talk about old fogeys hopelessly out of touch with the world. In this case, old fogeys are relatively young reporters. The CEO is a victim of censorship by conventional wisdom.
We told the CEO the only thing we could. To change minds, we would have to present hard data and compelling evidence that invite reporters to think again. And, we would have to go to different reporters. This is frequently the case in PR. One perserves relationships with a beat reporter but builds relationships with other journalists. It's not easy to do, especially in an era of shrinking editorial coverage overall. But, it is necessary if a company is to get its point of view considered openly.
We say reporters provide independent third-party verification of ideas, products and services, and we believe that. But we also know some reporters are unable to grasp issues or not disposed to do so. It's a fact of life in mainstream media: It's a fact of life in new media as well.
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
Here is another issue where PR won't help much. It comes down to economics and law.
A question in public relations and society as well is where to draw the line on human folly. Does everyone have a right to build on barrier islands where one knows rising sea levels and high winds will destroy homes? Does society have a duty to help people rebuild who choose to live below sea level? It is shocking that we even discuss these questions but the power of public opinion is such that we are.
Rationality doesn't rule among humans but habit. This is where I grew up and this is where I'm going to live.
PR can only go so far in face of human perversity and most of the time, it isn't nearly far enough.
Monday, March 20, 2006
For now, the evidence does not support the notion that newspapers have begun a sudden death spiral. The circulation declines and job cuts will probably tally at only about 3% for the year. The industry still posted profit margins of 20%. Measuring print and online together, the readership of many newspapers is higher than ever.
On the other hand, the most sanguine reaction to those changes — that they simply reflect an older medium’s giving way to a newer one, and that citizens will have more choices than ever — strikes us as glib, even naïve.
Even if newspapers are not dying, they and other old media are constricting, and so, it appears, is the amount of resources dedicated to original newsgathering.
There is much more.
New Orleans could become the first US city to go more wireless than wired.
Friday, March 17, 2006
When I got to the office, I checked the Blogger bulletin board and noticed immediately the cries of anger and angst from other bloggers who were getting the same error. I sent a message to Blogger asking what happened. To their credit, they sent a message back quickly and referred me to the status board where there was a notice that a filer had gone down.
Now we're back up.
It wasn't heart-stopping but it was annoying to have readers see an error page without explanation. (Blogger did mount a maintenance page later in the morning, but it took awhile.)
Morning shows always have been loose about credibility. That's how tens of thousands of authors and others hawking products have made it on the air over the decades. PR firms made a good living out of doing this. But there is a limit to how this is done, and news shows should never sacrifice editorial control to advertisers. The worry is that is exactly what is being done.
I don't know about you, but I would be reluctant to send a guest to TV stations doing such "pay for play."
No one is calling in the US debt yet. There doesn't seem to be avoidance of US treasury bonds - yet. The world is loaning the money to the US, but we haven't been put on notice -- yet.
Somehow this country maintains credibility based on its earning power and consumption of world's goods. But when does debt become an international credibility problem? There are global relationships among international bankers that I don't understand. I suppose one could call it the highest form of public relations in that bankers handle among themselves the details of country debt and communicate warnings where needed.
Still, $9 trillion is a huge number and one wonders if we aren't pledging the future of our children to repay, say, down to $1 trillion -- a still incomprehensible sum.
Thursday, March 16, 2006
The challenge is that every underlying document was purpose-built so its focus and tone are different. In the end, all one does really is to lift facts and start over. On occasion, it is possible to take a full sentence, but inevitably, something sticks out and needs changing.
So, it's hour and hour of tinkering. After awhile, you hope the phone rings, and another client needs something fast. That gives you an excuse to drop the writing for awhile. Fortunately, exactly that happened. I was able to arrange an interview on the spur of the moment with a major business magazine.
But all that means is the rest of the white paper is sitting there and waiting for me -- today.
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
This story proves that some companies can go a long way in destroying their reputations and still survive.
That is why environmental issues are now a part of nearly every organization and why corporations like General Electric, are moving quickly to capitalize on the opportunities provided by the global shift. GE is spinning public relations gold for itself as it gets into windmills and more efficient turbines and "green" locomotives. Other companies are not far behind.
But I wonder if we would be as worried were it not for the dramatic thinning of the arctic sea ice. I suspect not because environmental issues are now more than 40 years old, and concern was not as generally expressed as it now.
Some clients have fact books, as this one does, but fact books are often not suitable for grasping the culture of an organization. It requires digging to get under the surface and to understand how a business operates below. The goal of digging is to ask smart questions to show we have done our homework and for the client to know there is no need to explain everything to us. Dealing with clueless PR people is a frustration clients can do without. Smart digging also fosters better conversations. One can more quickly isolate concerns that bedevil clients and get them to open up. It's only when clients do that does one find what the real challenges are.
Anyway, I'm awash in data on this client right now to the point where friends and others are tired of hearing about it. I guess that means it's time to take the next step.
Monday, March 13, 2006
At issue is transparency. Just how transparent should companies be with an omnipresent eye about them comprised of millions of lesser eyes -- employee-bloggers and e-mailers, fans, critics, reporters and ordinary citizens? The answer is not easy for there are secrets that must be maintained by law until made public to all at the same time. There are personnel decisions that require secrecy for the protection of individuals and careers. There are proprietary processes and inventions that are difficult to patent but confer competitive advantage. And, there are embarrassments CEOs and boards would prefer not to air in public.
In client work, we are privy to secrets, but we are more fearful that news will escape before its time. If we know there will be a major announcement, we advise clients to move quickly now. News tends to slip sideways into the public domain. Someone whispers to someone who mentions it to someone and suddenly, it's out. It was easier when one had to worry about five or six reporters.
We predict a lessening of efforts to create broad impact with coordinated news releases and more rushing to the media, simply because we will be forced to do so.
But, there will still be secrets because organizations cannot be totally transparent. Some issues are better handed behind closed doors.
Friday, March 10, 2006
Thursday, March 09, 2006
There is still a long way to go to get people to stop smoking.
The amazing part of it is that American society shuns smokers. They can't smoke in restaurants, in office buildings, in transportation terminals and in some places, anywhere indoors. They are bombarded with messages telling them that smoking is bad. Parents yammer at them, wives and girlfriends, children, doctors and bosses and advertisers offering nicotine patches. The price of cigarettes has skyrocketed.
They still smoke.
In their defense, smokers are addicted, but even so, all forms of communications have yet to help millions stop. It is hard to change behavior and always will be, and a little communication is never enough.
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
It would be easy to see a number of US newspapers going this way -- especially weeklies.
It will be interesting to see how Urban Honking develops.
Update: A reader has sent in another site that does much the same thing for Minneapolis-St. Paul. The idea is around. I overlooked it.
UPDATE: Here is The New York Times article that appeared this morning on the subject. From what I read, it appears the person from Edelman PR who is contacting people on behalf of Wal-Mart has handled the issue sensitively and done nothing unethical. Frankly, I think the article is a bit specious and "the pot calling the kettle black." If every newspaper were forced to disclose the material it received from PR people, news columns would be filled with attributions. PR is a resource to reporters. The key is that PR information should be accurate and without "spin." I see no obligation on the part of bloggers to inform readers in every instance where they source information.
Monday, March 06, 2006
For example, I continue to misjudge the usage of the internet in the US. On Friday, I was asked how much penetration there is, and I guessed close to 85-90%. Well, no. It's 70%. I have to ask myself what the missing 30% are doing, and how one reaches them. My guess is the 30% are not easily reachable, even with traditional publicity techniques. Then, of course, the question arises whether we need to reach the missing. My guess is that for many messages, it is unimportant to do so, but for others, such as health and safety issues, it is critical. I'm not sure what I would answer if a governmental health agency asked how to get to populations missing from US media coverage. It would be an interesting media study to do.
Friday, March 03, 2006
Thursday, March 02, 2006
One mistake some practitioners make is to launch directly into client interviews without this "secondary" research in depth. It becomes apparent the practitioner doesn't know much and that leads to an early loss of confidence.
The most important element a practitioner brings to any new relationship is a smart question: Smart questions are gained through preparation, but not only preparation. The second step of prep is the hardest. That is digesting data into key points that explain the client and suggest topics for discussion.
The challenge of digesting is knowing what to take from boxes of documents -- and what to discard. I've never found a precise way of doing this. Usually I look for facts that explain the client and market in greater detail, but that is not all. I also look for statements of opinion that reveal how a client thinks. If I can give back to the client in my own words what the client thinks about the company, competitors and the marketplace, I've done a successful job. If not, prep has been only modestly successful.
I've got days more work to do on these clients, and I'll be depressed about the middle of the task because I usually conclude I will never understand them -- until I do.