Friday, April 28, 2006

Publicity Good and Bad 

There is a grim satisfaction among conservatives about liberals who call for alternative energy sources then oppose them near their dwellings. A scent of hypocrisy hangs in the air. The leader of "NIMBY" (Not in My Backyard) liberals these days appears to be Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. Kennedy has opposed the erection of a wind generation farm off the coast of Cape Cod where he lives. He apparently had killed the first plan, but it appears to be revived.

The problem is that publicity about the whole affair is making Kennedy look bad and the fact that Kennedy engaged in secret negotiations to end the wind farm has blown up in his face.

Many backroom deals are cut in politics at all levels, which is why politicians don't want publicity for them. On the other hand, there are plenty of deals politicians do want known to prove to constituents they are bringing home "the bacon" to their districts. Politicians are shrewd publicists, and it is not common that they are exposed.

Kennedy is now in an embarrassing position. It will be interesting to see how he gets out of it. His claim that it will hurt tourism on the Cape appears to be the first step in a new spin.

While transparency is difficult, it is easier than trying to extricate oneself from publicity like this. And, lest anyone think that I am taking a political position, conservatives have had the same embarrassment happen to them. In fact, this year Republicans in Congress have looked foolish more than once. It is better to be upfront than sneaky no matter which side you are on.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Good News Indeed 

There is one headache PR and communications departments have suffered with since the beginning of modern communications -- classification of photos. So, it was interesting to see the news from Kodak that potentially offers an easy and fast classification system . Now if there was a way for digital fingerprint databasing of images that went along with this... By this, I mean a scheme of sampling zones on a photo like whorls of a fingerprint and classifying the digital sequence of the zones to achieve a unique signature of pixel colors. My guess is that Kodak is far along in this. Ultimately, a PR department should be able to dump its entire archive into a digital database and have it automatically classified for future use. Then, at last, the headache will go away.

That Was Nice 

A marketing firm sent me a pitch a few days ago about a topic that I have no interest in, so I'm not going to comment on it. On the other hand, the firm deserves credit for the pitch that it used -- short, to the point, and friendly. My thanks to them for that. It seems like people are finally learning how to approach bloggers.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Truth and Delusion 

Lest we forget what happens in totalitarian societies, Foreign Affairs has a long article examining the delusions of Saddam Hussein taken directly from interviews and documents found in Iraq after Hussein was toppled. It is clear Hussein had no idea what was happening in his own country, much less the world. No one would tell him the facts of anything because they didn't want to offend him. They knew offending him led to unpleasant outcomes. Hussein, in other words, was no different than any other dictator.

The idea of public relations was and is to circumvent that, to provide a channel to the outside of an organization through which news and facts, both pleasant and unpleasant, reach the leader. It turns out Hussein's top officers and spokespersons were duped themselves about the situation in their own country. They were like a king who resides in his castle and never crosses the moat to look at or listen to the peasants in the countryside just beyond the gates.

Most dictators eventually end in this self-imposed isolation. Only a few use their immense power to benefit others more than themselves.

Hussein had spokespersons. They were political "spinmeisters" for whom rhetorical victory was the measure of success. The Foreign Affairs article is a reminder of what it is that we are supposed to do in PR, and sadly, fail too often to get done.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Home Again 

My colleagues and I landed at La Guardia Airport at 8 pm tonight and I was home by 9 pm in New Jersey. Good time in a car.

There is something about long days out of the office with client work sandwiched between meetings. As one of my colleagues said while we walked from the plane, "Is it Friday?" No such luck.

Monday, April 24, 2006


Blogger is up to its old tricks at this hour, and I'm in and out for the first part of this week. Blogging will be sporadic. Now, if I can just post what I've already written...

Update: It has been hours now, and I'm just able to get blogger to work. It's maddening...

Transparency, Transparency 

There is a reason why reporters and PR practitioners should remain transparent about what they are doing while blogging. It is a matter of credibility, as this Los Angeles Times columnist learned. We can't influence others if we skulk about and try to pretend we are someone else. That is why stealth efforts to influence bloggers and bulletin board participants are so suspect. Be honest enough to let everyone know who you are.

Retreat, Retreat 

Old media can still act like old media and what The New York Times is doing to its regional editions gives this PR practitioner a pause. The Times has declared that everyone in its Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut and Westchester regions will get the same story each week. This is saying that every region is the same in the suburbs, whether or not the region is in the same state. Foolishness. I have to wonder why the Times didn't place its regional news online rather than deciding to put out a section that will be so clearly inadequate.

From a selfish PR perspective, it reduces opportunity. From a news perspective, it isn't. Reduction of news holes is as bad for the PR business as it is for news publishers.

One wonders about the Times' leadership.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

It Doesn't Take Long 

As has been written here often, it doesn't take long for politicians to adapt new communications techniques. Viral ads are the latest. It puts many of us PR practitioners to shame for being so slow to adapt.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Sorry About Today 

I apologize for the lack of posting today. Blogger went down. I couldn't get on this morning at home or when I got to work. Blogger displayed a message that its engineers were looking into the difficulties, but that doesn't substitute for posting.

I'll try to make up for it next week although I will be on the road again for at least a day.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Bypassing Gatekeepers 

This is an interesting story about movie companies bypassing critics and getting films directly to market. Ignoring a gatekeeper is a PR and marketing decision and a daring one. It is an in-your-face statement to a critic that the critic's opinion doesn't matter. It also, as the article notes, tells professional critics their judgments aren't any better than amateur opinions on internet forums such as this, this and this.

There is merit in having more outlets for critical opinion because there is a chance someone might like what is otherwise a piece of junk. On the other hand, one can't fool readers for too long. For the short-term marketing advantage one gains by shunning established critics, one loses in long-term credibility.

About Right 

This column summarizes the way I read news. It's difficult to get to an end of a story. It takes too much time with 50 more sources to scan and a few hundred more headlines. I worry about it because I know half stories about many things and full stories about a few. The old way of reading a news source, which required patience and an effort to follow a thread from the first paragraph to the last is gone in an era of news aggregation and blogging.

I suppose this means reporters should write shorter stories but some stories aren't easy to explain in short form and good features should carry one through to an end. I can hear the reporter now saying that it is a lack of discipline on the part of the reader -- and I agree. But then, would someone please turn off the news stream until I catch up?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Brief Clarity 

History teaches PR practitioners a great deal. Lately I've been reading a wonderful diary, Mary Chestnut's Civil War, the personal journal of a member of the South Carolina planter class. She knew everyone leading the secession of the South from the Northern states, and she plus a few knowledgeable observers understood the immensity of what the South was doing by going its own way. She saw clearly before the war the outcome, and she hated slavery, as did some others about her. Yet, the firebrands plunged the southern states into conflict that was to ruin that society for more than 100 years.

It struck me that nearly the same thing happened with the current conflict in Iraq. Knowledgeable observers warned the current administration of sectarian violence should Iraq fall, but the firebrands were determined to remove Saddam Hussein. Then, it occurred to me that in nearly all organizations, there is a moment of clarity before major actions when one knows the outcome. Sometimes we know we will succeed. Sometimes we know what we are about to do will not work. But, we feel helpless in the tide of current opinion, so we go along. Eventually, we rationalize ourselves to the organization's point of view. When the end comes, we have forgotten what we knew at the beginning. This appears to have happened to Mary Chestnut as well.

As a PR practitioner, I would like to believe I stand by the facts of a case and that conventional wisdom doesn't affect me much. I know better. When leadership takes a course, I commit to it like everyone else and forget where I stood. Perhaps this is why one should keep a diary or a blog -- to remind oneself of shifting perception. Clarity is often a brief light.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Practice, Practice, Practice 

This kind of demo disaster has happened to Microsoft too many times, especially to Bill Gates. One wonders if executives at Microsoft rehearse before they give public demonstrations of new products. It happens rarely to Steve Jobs but then, he is known for long and detailed practice before launches.

PR practitioners counsel executives constantly to rehearse before appearing in public to speak or give demonstrations. Some do, but many don't. I can recall many years ago showing a CEO how to use a product just seconds before he appeared on the Today Show, and I stood on the sidelines with my insides shaking because I was sure he was going to blow it on national TV. (He didn't, thankfully.)

There is an arrogance among executives about public presentations that they don't need to practice them much, or they don't have time, or they aren't all that important.

News reports of demo disasters like Origami should provide reminders, but few notice. It isn't going to happen to them. That is, until it does.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Perception vs. Perception 

I was helping my neighbor do a repair yesterday. He's a VP of marketing at a large firm in Manhattan, and a bit of a merry fellow. At one point when I was fitting a handmade part into a large patio umbrella I was fixing for him, he commented that it was going to work perfectly. I looked at him and said one should not be so sure. He said in return he was always optimistic about such things. I responded, "That's why you're in marketing, and I'm in PR."

He was right, by the way. The part is apparently working well. But, I walked away and thought about my remark. There was some truth in it, although there are many marketing-oriented PR people who are by nature optimistic. However, most PR people I know have a cautious view. They have seen Murphy's Law in action and cleaned up too many messes to believe life works according to plan. Perhaps that is one reason why former news people do well in PR. News people report less on what works and more on what has failed.

It dawned on me that after all these years in PR, I might have missed a truth at the root of it. I prefer to think of myself as a realist, as someone who looks at life the way it is and not the way I want it to be. My neighbor prefers to look at life the way it could be and to work hard to get it there. Who's right?

In the end, my neighbor is more right than I am because he is better fitted for the spirit that drives companies forward. He's not one who sits in meetings and says, "Yes, but..." He assumes he will win -- and he does more often than not. On the other hand, such people are prone to rationalize failures into success because their perception of events is always turned to the positive. I, on the other hand, fail to see success when it occurs because I'm always worried about the failure.

In the end, it takes both perceptual states to balance communications toward what is more likely to be the truth of events, but that is never easy because we never see things the same way. It requires tolerance and willingness to admit error.

Friday, April 14, 2006

PR-Blog Rule #1? 

A client sent me this post from Jason Calcanis, the CEO of Weblogs Inc., in which Calcanis berated a PR person for asking for a link. He prints the e-mail message from the person, as well as the person's name and company, Redboots Consulting.

The problem is that I'm not sure that Calcanis is right about this. The PR person wasn't being offensive about the request to view a new video. She disclosed her role to prevent confusion. She wasn't pushy.

Yet, Calcanis was unhappy. I've been upset myself over poorly done pitches, but this one wasn't badly done.

It seems to me Mr. Calcanis was being touchy, but then, so are many reporters who dislike PR people. They use any excuse to yell. Bloggers yell in print for all to read, whereas reporters slam the phone in your ear or ignore your e-mail. It's one more stress to adjust to in the PR business.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Describing the Elephant 

Although I have done this many times, the act of interviewing company executives about their firm remains instructive. It is the old Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant, although differences may not be as great. Most organizations are larger than an individual's ability to comprehend them. That is certainly true from a positioning point of view. Even if individuals have worked across a business, their characterizations of a company will differ. Some of this is due to self-interest, some to experience, but most is due to the fact that any company can be positioned in a large number of ways. The challenge is finding the right description and emphasis.

Without an organizing point of view, a company is a body of facts moving in some coordination but without essential meaning. However, the hard part of positioning is not so much arriving at a point of view but getting everyone to agree on what it should be. Positioning is political. It is a consensus that might not be exactly right but is good enough for what a company needs.

From a PR perspective, good enough is usually acceptable. However, there are positionings that are incredible. Most are imposed on the facts with ways obvious to impartial observers, even if insiders cannot see it that way.

A proper positioning doesn't make a firm exciting. It might be just a (FILL-IN-HERE), even if the firm has a solid grip on the marketplace. Positioning is a starting point. From the few words one uses to describe a business come story angles that help one explain its larger meaning.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Back Home 

O'Hare Airport in Chicago must have a curse on it. Once again, with no weather or any other reason than air traffic, there was a hold put on flights into the airport, and we sat again waiting to take off from a Midwestern town to get to Chicago to transfer planes. The great PR coup of any American airline will be to leave and take off on time. Forget food. Forget drinks. Forget comfortable seats. Just get off the ground and land on time.

But, it won't happen. Too much is out of control of the airlines, and frankly, they don't seem to care all that much about passengers anyway.

At least the plane left on time from Chicago back to the New York area, and I didn't get home all that late in the end. I'm happy for that.

Monday, April 10, 2006

On the Road 

I'll be out of the office a couple of days this week and unable to post.

So Much For Transparency 

One of the tenets of PR is to perform services in the open. We tell people who we are and what we do to maintain credibility. Well, so much for transparency, if this BusinessWeek story is to be believed. Apparently, a communications firm in Washington, DC, called Dezenhall Resources, likes to work in deep shadows and perform operations that are ethically suspect. Because the firm works out of the limelight, there is no proof it has done anything it is alleged to have done, but because it is not transparent, there is no proof it hasn't done these things either.

There is confidential PR work and activities we don't normally disclose to the public, but they are not usually activities that bring one into disrepute. Yes, PR practitioners help companies position themselves favorably. Yes, we ghostwrite for executives who may not have the time or capability to do it for themselves. Yes, we work behind the scenes to get companies out of trouble by disclosing facts to reporters and editors. I'm not aware, however, of many -- or any -- PR firms that challenge the tax-exempt status of organizations to win a point.

Some PR practitioners might say it's a good tactic, and they wish they had thought of it. Others will squirm with the ethics of it. I'm squirming. These kinds of tactics are win at any cost, which is why I suppose some corporations like them. But, there is a cost of working that way, and it is the lack of credibility and honesty that ultimately taints persons or organizations that use underhanded techniques. No wonder they like to stay in the shadows.

A problem for PR is that there is rarely a bright line between what is clearly right and wrong. Practitioners use their own ethical sense to know where and when to stop. Some practitioners have poorly developed ethical sensitivities -- or none at all. Winning is the only thing that counts. These kind seem drawn to politics and Washington DC.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Blogging Abuse 

My friend, Peter Shinbach, brought this to my attention a couple of days ago -- the need for bloggers to check before publishing rumors. Well, of course. But, the important point that wasn't discussed is that less-than-ethical bloggers have and will turn inaccuracy to advantage. Pump or short stock. Start rumors. Make money. That has been the case on stock bulletin boards for at least a decade. Don't expect anything different in blogging.

A blogger builds personal credibility in how he or she reports over time and entries. A blogger loses credibility when sloppiness impugns credibility. I believe we call that PR 101.

Protected Status 

This article comes under the heading of "Dream on." It advocates hard-hitting sports journalism because sports are big business. The article is smart enough to discuss the problems with that idea, but it fails to note that sports writing historically has been imaginative (read, "inaccurate") and opinionated ("He shoulda caught the ball.")

Sports figures have a semi-protected status unlike other professionals. They expect -- and get -- much adoration because they have fans who swoon over them. Some behave well: Many behave badly. Sportswriters ignored the drunken parties of heroes such as Mickey Mantle. They were just boys having fun.

Sportswriting has changed some in recent decades and the "purple prose" emanating from typewriters in press boxes is gone. The business hasn't moved into hard-hitting journalism and probably won't for reasons the article enumerates.

Put another way, sports publicists live in a different world from the rest of us. On the other hand, publicists have stresses that are peculiarly their own and make for short careers working for teams. Win some: Lose some.

Back to the Bad Old Days 

There was a time when publicists plied journalists with goods, food and drink -- by the case. At Christmas, reporters expected -- and got -- a year's supply of various "gimmees." Watergate put a stop to much of that. Editors realized the perception of independence -- if not the reality -- was compromised when reporters took too much from sources. Some reporters and publicists apparently have gone back in time. That's not a good, and it should stop.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Riding the Storm 

You have probably read over the last two weeks about the Duke University lacrosse team that has been charged with sexual assault and the result of those charges on the university. It got worse yesterday, and the president of Duke, Richard Brodhead, has done the only thing he could. Brodhead has tried to respond since the beginning of the scandal, but he's in a difficult position. As of this hour, DNA samples from team members have not been processed, and it is the word of victim against the word of the players. To have moved too quickly might have condemned the innocent. To have kept silent would have left the university in a terrible relationship with internal and external publics.

Brodhead hasn't kept up with the news headlines in terms of informing alumni of what happened, but he has tried. He sent this e-mail to alumni last week.

Dear Duke Alumni,
Many of you will have heard by now news accounts about allegations against the Duke lacrosse team, which the captains of the team deny. Yesterday evening, Director of Athletics Joe Alleva and I met with members of the news media to discuss the situation. My statement announcing the suspension of lacrosse games and a supplementary statement amplifying on a question from the press conference are available on a special website:
http://www.dukenews.duke.edu/mmedia/features/lacrosse_incident/. I invite you to read them so that you will be better informed about what is happening at Duke.
It's understandable to feel badly when terrible things may have happened at a place you love, and I've heard from many of you who have expressed sadness, anger, outrage, and frustration about the lacrosse situation. Let me also say that as painful as these times are, the test of a school is not preventing bad things from ever happening, but in addressing them in an honest and forthright way. In my meetings with students, faculty, and administrators, I believe Duke is doing just that. I urge you to keep informed of developments by checking the website as the days go by.

Sincerely yours,
Richard H. Brodhead

Brodhead's action yesterday shows he means what he says in terms of addressing bad things in an "honest and forthright way." No one is going to emerge from this incident without scars, but the university appears to be riding the storm.

True public relations, however, will be to fix the situation that allowed this to happen in the first place. Team members apparently were unsupervised for years and allowed to slip into ugly habits. The university would be in a better position had it done something about that before the incident.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Not a Good Way To Handle PR 

Who knows what happened between Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and a Capitol law enforcement officer? The way McKinney handled the incident doesn't smack of smart PR. McKinney immediately called a press conference and claimed racism with a group of African-American clergy and lawmakers behind her in support. Apparently she took no questions from the media. She gave no explanations for why she had failed to wear her identifying badge, for why she had failed to stop when asked and for why she struck the law enforcement officer.

McKinney might be correct. It could have been racism, but on the other hand she didn't place herself in the best of circumstances. She is using an old publicity trick of making charges loudly to spin an incident her way. If she succeeds, she will have gained a free pass for suspect behavior and the enmity of law enforcement officers who apparently were doing their job -- albeit badly. She will also have projected an image of privilege that doesn't sit well. But, on the other hand, Senators and Representatives have for the 200+ years of this country been able to slip by laws that apply to other citizens because of privilege.

What's bothersome about the incident from a PR perspective is the habit of escalating any and everything to discrimination. Many groups do it. Charges of anti-Semitism, anti-Hispanic, anti-Asian are thrown about too freely and with too little evidence on too many occasions. It plays well with supporters, but after awhile, it is the boy calling wolf once too often. People stop listening and pay little attention to real incidents of racism that need remedial treatment.

Good PR is built first on facts and secondly, on persuasive techniques. The Congresswoman might wish to learn that.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Too Big to Fail? 

The continued slide of General Motors is a reminder that no company is too big to fail, no matter how grand it is or was. Shelley's poem, Ozymandias, rings in memory when such failures occur.

GM is an iconic company, a symbol of American manufacturing and marketing might, even more than Ford. Both are plummeting, and Detroit will never be the same again. Being a PR person, I wonder how one positions a business at times like this. Optimism is pointing to good outcomes of Chapter 11 rather than liquidation. The union won't accept many more cutbacks without kicking and screaming and possibly, a ruinous strike. The salaried workforce is being fired in droves. Sales continue to decline to the real market share rather than the inflated share driven by constant incentives.

I suppose the PR staff at GM maintains faith that the company will survive, although it will be smaller and less influential. But, going to work each day can't be fun unless one likes crisis communications. A further consideration for the PR practitioner is where to go, if he or she did leave. GM's troubles are radiating through the town and auto industry.

Six years ago the same collapse happened in Silicon Valley. The Valley survived although in a different shape than it was. General Motors is facing its moment of economic truth. The outcome will be interesting, no matter what occurs.

Monday, April 03, 2006

When PR Goes Too Far 

This opinion piece from yesterday's The New York Times contains a lesson for CEOs and PR practitioners alike. There is a time when public relations can go too far. In this case, the desire to build a relationship with the United Auto Workers went too far at General Motors and is contributing to the decline of the firm. The writer notes that Caterpillar's hard-fought battle with the union in the 1980s and 1990s positioned that equipment maker for the future. General Motors bought labor peace with concessions that are ruining the firm.

The lesson is a valuable because it is easy to forget what one should be doing in an effort to make numbers for the present, as GM did. After all, economists and accountants tell you that money now is better than money in the future. But, like all cliches, it is only partly true. GM and Ford, for that matter, both forgot that productivity now and in the future were essential when there is a competitor that is more efficient as Toyota was and is.

There are other instances in which in retrospect one wonders why managers made the decisions they did. It's too easy to criticize in hindsight, as Harry Truman noted often enough, so I won't add my small voice to those piling on GM's managers. But, I won't forget the lesson.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Basics 

To paraphrase (badly) the frustrated manager of the minor league team in the movie, Bull Durham, baseball is simple. You throw the ball. You catch the ball. You hit the ball. I wish the same could be said for airlines. You take off on time. You land on time.

Instead, airlines continue to battle bad PR for their terrible service, and they don't seem able to get out of the mire in which they have immersed themselves.

Our travel on Friday last was typical. We were flying through Chicago where O'Hare was backed up because of bad weather (again). That was understandable. But the airline, which shall remain nameless, herded us onto a small Embraer commuter jet, pulled away from the gate and parked on the tarmac for more than an hour waiting for clearance. We should have stayed in the terminal for all that sitting in a cramped jet did for us. When we took off, the ride was bumpy but not terrible, but O'Hare was a nightmare. There was no plane to bring us back to Newark when we got on the ground. There wouldn't be a plane for another hour and a half. O, a plane did pull up to our gate and let passengers off but then, it went out of service, we were sent to the next gate down where there was no plane and we waited again. And waited. And waited.

What I noticed about this exercise in futility is that passengers are becoming inured. Most sat in their chairs mutely. Only one man began swearing loudly. American flyers are where airlines want them to be -- sheep to be led passively about.

What the airlines are forgetting is that sheep will turn into tigers if and when they get a chance to take off on time and land on time. They will patronize the airline that goes back to basics and avoids excuses. Increasingly, I believe American airlines have shattered their relationships with the public and for many, there is no way to retrieve trust.

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