Wednesday, May 31, 2006
The internet has changed PR deeply, but it has changed newspapering more. The solutions that editors find will also affect how we do our jobs. We need to pay attention.
The Segway so far is a niche product: It may never be more than a niche product. Lack of responsibility in publicizing the transporter at the beginning may have doomed it.
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Iraq has been a PR disaster for this White House but that doesn't mean in the grand architecture of world affairs this president is completely in the wrong. It is too early to tell. We forget that when Harry Truman led the world in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, he was highly unpopular as well. In fact, he was detested by time he left office, and his popularity came much later. (For the record, I don't think that is going to happen to this president.)
One cannot always keep people happy, and PR doesn't mean everyone is satisfied. It does mean that in a relationship, target audiences know what one is doing whether they like it or not. There is no mistaking one's intent. Sometimes, as happened this weekend to a client, one can infuriate target audiences. The question is whether it is the right thing to do. Does one have a position that is defensible?
The problem this president has is that his position doesn't look defensible and never did. Now he deals with a crisis of his own making. Regrettably, others after him will have to deal with it as well. On the other hand, his point about terrorists is and has been correct. They will stop at nothing to get their way including flying passenger planes and passengers into buildings, blowing up trains and subways and otherwise creating mayhem. Civilization cannot tolerate that for long.
So maybe he did the right thing by going to Iraq. I don't believe that statement, but I do consider it.
Friday, May 26, 2006
Fannie Mae's senior management promoted an image of the company as one of the lowest-risk financial institutions in the world and the "best in class" in terms of risk management, financial reporting, internal financial controls and corporate governance — an image that was false.
The company was apparently built and run on a lie with enough political backing to get away with it. That means embarrassed politicians, media and others will be watching for any misstep for years to come.
Now to the part that angers me. Previous management got away with what it was doing for a long time. It would take hours to count the adoring stories about Fannie Mae until the company hit the wall. In defense of the reporters who wrote this claptrap, they didn't and couldn't know the state of its accounting. So, like Enron, image was everything.
It worked for awhile until it was the next guy's problem.
Thursday, May 25, 2006
From a PR perspective, it's difficult to paint a positive picture when fundamentals are wrong. One can point to growth, but if it costs $3 for every $1 of revenue gained, growth becomes mockery. One can talk about the need for market share, but when there is competitor carving market share next to you, as is happening in satellite radio, investors are skeptical. Eventually, sooner rather than later, there has to be profit, and if quarter after quarter, there isn't, then one has to question the business model.
PR in instances like this becomes a vaudeville routine with straw hat and cane. If one dances fast enough, perhaps investors won't notice that you aren't wearing pants or shoes. Perhaps, it is better to acknowledge that the company isn't a business yet, but will keep trying. That won't calm investors, but it is honest.
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
It turns out the channel access unit (misnamed "cable modem") was dying after six years of service. At the end of its useful life, the technician said. So the graceful 8-inch beige box that stood vertically next to the computer has been replaced with an ugly and squat three-inch black box from RCA that does the same job. As I write, it is blinking merrily.
My wife's problem in addition to outages was a bit different. She couldn't get e-mails with attachments. I had guessed the source of that problem. Her e-mail box was too full, and she needs deep cleaning. This, of course, is a problem when one runs a business. You can't just throw away e-mails. At work, we archive offline, and there are strict limits to what our boxes can hold. Here, the technician routed her e-mail to Microsoft Outlook that has higher storage limits so she can continue to operate.
It all seems simple in hindsight.
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Years ago I taught myself to debug PCs but since networks came along, I 've stopped trying. Systems are too complex. It's time for experts, and even experts can be stumped.
We had an situation recently at work in which a vital piece of software suddenly started to slow down. The techs reloaded it, cleaned it, toyed with it, nothing. They turned their attention to the server. Nothing. They looked at the network. Still nothing. Finally, after days of diddling, they discovered it was a switch failing in the system. It was the last thing one would think of as the problem. After popping in a new switch, the software was back to its old self.
I've got one of those problems.
My wife expects me to know what to do in situations like this because the network is critical for her business. My response is to yell for help and hope to get it fast. The tech is coming today. I don't expect him to fix it the first time, and I'm prepared to swap equipment in and out until something works right.
Wish me luck.
Monday, May 22, 2006
This is the worst kind of PR crisis. One organization's word against another, and because of the security involved, there is almost no way to find out whom to believe. Usually, citizens think the worst first in these situations. Contrary to general opinion, there isn't much of a credibility bank to rely on.
We talk of transparency in situations such as these, but there isn't transparency that works. How does one show reporters that records haven't been extracted from a database? If no-name sources say that the company was among those who turned over data and the sources have been correct about other companies, why distrust them now?
BellSouth could sue for defamation, of course, but that will take years, and the newspaper can and will hide behind confidentiality.
There are PR situations out of reach of normal practice. I've been through them: You have too. If BellSouth is correct that it did not produce the data, then one can feel sorry for the predicament the firm is in. On the other hand, if data did come from the firm in one way or another, and BellSouth doesn't know or is not telling the truth, it is digging a deeper hole for itself. One hopes no company would be so foolish.
Friday, May 19, 2006
Of course, the secret behind documents is they rarely have to be perfect. Few reporters quote them in their entirety, and as database documents on the internet, most people aren't able to grasp the subtleties in them.
So why do clients labor so? Time and again, we find they don't know what they want to do and a PR document is the instrument to help them find out. I have touched on this before but a number of events have sparked these thoughts again.
If you are a client, learn this lesson: At some point, move forward. There are instances where one cannot distill the essence of a company's positioning, what a CEO ought to say or a perfect description of a product or service. Internal politics intrude or events and/or structure get in the way. Learn to live with it, and understand that close enough works.
Thursday, May 18, 2006
There is nothing wrong with playing in the lab and seeing what one can make. Eventually someone will stumble on something useful that can be mass manufactured. But, the impression these announcements leave is that nanotechnology has moved farther along than it has.
We see this illusion of promise time and again from science. Think of stem cell research. Think of the "cures" for cancer that might be available someday. Scientists are human and ambitious and in need of funding for work they want to do. Some go too far like the Chinese scientist who claimed a proprietary chip that he had copied or the Korean scientist who claimed cloning success that he had faked.
PR practitioners in universities need to be skeptics. They also need resources that can help them evaluate what professors claim.
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Deer are the worst problem. They eat everything and keeping a garden requires tall netting around every bit of it. A deer-resistant plant means deer only eat it when they are hungry, which they are all of the time.
So, while we have gained a better environment for animals, we live with the consequence of our decisions. There are some folks who understand balance and kill excess deer because it is good for the animals as well as humans. But in towns like ours, there is a "Bambi" crowd that cannot stand the thought of a poor little animal becoming dog food. They also are the ones who buy packaged meat in stores and never get near slaughter houses.
Wildlife has become a public relations issue for cities and counties across the US. In our town, citizens yell at the mayor to do something, but don't kill any creature. The mayor and city council have decided that doing nothing is better because there is no cost-effective way to control the problem other than thinning the herd with hunters. So, we live with the problem, and deer die of hunger each year. And, bear ramble through towns setting off panics. And geese leave their droppings all over lawns. And,...
PR and politics know the irrationality of humans.
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
It's easy to mock misperception and provide a basic lesson in statistics. I won't do that here. Laura Bush is a smart woman. She knows the difference between random number polling and self-selected comments from individuals she meets. What did strike me, however, is that she is doing what every manager should to understand relationships between key audiences and leadership. She's getting to the field and seeing for herself. Even if people she meets are polite to her and hostile to her husband, she is gaining a sense of what is actually occurring.
There is too much reliance on polling as a substitute for human experience. This is an old lesson proven decades ago by Harry Truman in his whistle-stop campaign. Everyone knew Harry had lost the election except Harry who went to bed election eve confident he had won -- and awoke the winner.
One of the hoary management tenets is that the best leadership device is a good pair of shoes. Constant visitation to the field is the only way one escapes tyranny of numbers that look good or bad but may not tell anything close to a truth. Great executives rely on numbers and manage by numbers but constantly check numbers against reality. They understand numbers cannot replace relationships even though one must decide by them.
It's easy in PR to manage by metrics and miss the relationships for which PR is responsible. The higher one rises in PR, the more important it is to remain in touch with employees, customers, vendors and other audiences important to the company. Get out of the office regularly.
Monday, May 15, 2006
Pictorial skills are essential tools for PR practitioners because so much of what we do is explainable by a good photo. Yet, I wonder how many know how to handle a camera and more importantly, the photo processing tools that now exist, such as Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro, a cheaper suite (that I use). This struck me yesterday as I was finishing 31 photos from my daughter's recent Spring concert. In the old days, it would have taken days to crop and color balance what I got done in three hours.
I wonder how many PR courses teach photo skills these days. Most seem to be focused on writing, which is important but insufficient.
I'm curious to know, and I'd like to hear from anyone who is a PR student or recently graduated. The question is: Were you taught how to take and evaluate images for PR work? Or, did your professors assume you knew what to do?
Friday, May 12, 2006
I live in the anonymity of millions. To retrace my life would take time, as it would to track yours. When there are millions to watch, a government needs a vast bureaucracy to do the watching. The government doesn't have that. The US is not a police state, although any country can turn into one.
What we are dealing with is fear -- fear of change. From a PR perspective, the White House has handled it badly -- again. But, one expert on the radio last night noted that what the NSA is doing is an old technique in use since World War II. It's called traffic analysis. One looks at the volume of information passing from point to point and uses that to determine possible change in intent. One does not look at the information itself.
We do that everyday on the internet with click counts and cookies.
What this episode confirms is that when PR goes bad with an organization, it tends to get worse, not better. There is almost no way to stop piling on. This administration looks hopelessly incompetent. It's not. My guess is that it will be judged average to slightly below average in years to come. But, from a public perspective today, it is far worse. And, it's amazing how quickly the public turned. Presidents tend not to be historians (except Harry Truman), but they should be. If I fault the president for any one thing, it is that he should have seen this coming. Maybe he did, and he felt powerless to stop the tide of opinion. We won't know for years to come until after historians have plowed through the millions of records and recollections.
Still, from a PR perspective, can it get any worse?
Thursday, May 11, 2006
FEMALE-NAME CHAT USERS GET 25 TIMES MORE MALICIOUS MESSAGES
COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- A study by the University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering found that chat room participants with female user names received 25 times more threatening and/or sexually explicit private messages than those with male or ambiguous user names.
Female user names, on average, received 163 malicious private messages a day in the study, conducted by Michel Cukier, assistant professor in the Center for Risk and Reliability in the Clark School's Department of Mechanical Engineering, and an affiliate of the university's Institute for Systems Research, and sophomore computer engineering student Robert Meyer.
The study focused on internet relay chat or IRC chat rooms, which are among the most popular chat services but offer widely varying levels of user security. The researchers logged into various chat rooms under female, male and ambiguous user names, counted the number of times they were contacted and tracked the contents of those messages.
The entire study is here.
What this tells me is that as PR practitioners we should never assume people will act differently on the internet. We have long known people are more argumentative when they have a screen of anonymity between themselves and others. Some also tend to sexual harassment.
The lesson here is that anonymity is a necessary for all sides, and safe names are those without gender reference.
Human nature doesn't change.
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Fear has changed the public's relationship with society. We no longer take comfort in knowing that US culture is essentially safe. Children aren't allowed to do things we did when growing up.
It seems to me there is need for some sort of adjustment. We can't return to the way things were because we were blind to the dangers. But we also can't allow fear to drive our lives. That is why stories like this don't help much. Of course, there is no way we could stop terrorists from using robot airplanes to deliver explosives. There is no way we can stop them from delivering a shipping container full of nuclear waste and blowing it up in the middle of Manhattan.
But a public relations campaign will not make people feel safer or help them adjust to the realistic probabilities of terroristic action. We can't shout from the rooftops, "Feel better." People will feel worse.
So how does one attack deep and largely hidden fear? I don't know. My answer at the moment is that one can't except through pointing out the amount of time that has passed since the last attack. But, even doing that is likely to make people fearful that it is time for another.
It is a public relations challenge for which there is no answer.
Tuesday, May 09, 2006
Why bring this up to PR practitioners? Because there are PR metrics that make no sense. They look good on paper, but they don't tell one anything. Take, for example, clip counts. Some clients still demand to know how many clips they are getting without reference to the quality of the clip and what the clip says. They forget that one right story in the right place is worth much more than envelopes full of squibs. This is particularly true in an era of media transformation when newspaper circulations continue to drop.
The ultimate PR metric is awareness and perception change among target publics. That requires something more than media metrics but few have ever wanted to pay for finding this information out. So, they resort to other measures and usage windage to make a guess.
I have long felt sorry for professors whom students dislike but are effective teachers nonetheless. I remember one fellow who taught statistics at business school. The students detested him because of his accent and his way of explaining how to look at numbers. I by then had completed four courses in stat and was bored by the same lame way it was taught. This fellow struck me as a professor who understood statistics more than most and was pointing to common-sense ways to think about them. He was the best statistics teacher I ever had. Yet, he sat at the bottom of student rankings.
It is hard to remember that the only good measurement is what counts in the end.
Memo to PR practitioners and speechwriters... Check everything. Don't rely on memory or on your colleagues. The internet is pitiless in catching errors made by public figures.
Monday, May 08, 2006
Fact checking is routine in US news offices — and after New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was discovered to have concocted countrywide stories from his Brooklyn apartment, it's no surprise to discover that this is even more rigorous.
Tanith Carey, who started as US editor for the Daily Mirror, says it's the biggest adjustment she had to make when entering the American workplace.
"The amount of checking and re-checking of stories that goes on to make sure every single fact is 100 per cent accurate is something they take that very, very seriously on US publications," she says. In magazines it's not unusual for reporters to file full transcripts with complete sourcing, which story editors then write up and research departments check."
Excuse me, but I thought thorough fact-checking was a norm and not an exception.
On the other hand, there are differences between sallies of UK journalists that are more opinion than fact and a less lurid US brand of reporting.
What's correct and why should PR people care? Both are legitimate, but PR practitioners have to work differently when there is a greater chance of error. One must defend quickly in an environment of greater opinion and lesser fact. On the other hand, when thoroughly checked stories get facts wrong, it may be more difficult to get a medium to admit error. One can make a case for remaining silent and out of the media in an environment where facts are suspect. On the other hand, when one is injected into stories willingly or not, the ability to fight becomes more urgent.
I suppose this means being a PR practitioner in the UK is more interesting in some ways. It would be interesting to find out.
Friday, May 05, 2006
What motivated me to write is loss of moral authority that the CEO is suffering for his stupidity. How the hell can he look his subordinates in the eye and still lead the company? In fact, it seems to me he won't for much longer, if he has an ethical sense left. At the least, he owes a deep and sincere apology to everyone for his actions from the lowest clerk to the Pentagon with whom Raytheon has numerous contracts.
There appears to be an epidemic of plagiary. One author after another has been spotlighted in recent years, and as articles noted, the CEO was caught in his misdeeds at the same time as a hot young writer at Harvard University.
The internet has helped greatly in surfacing blatant copying. Millions of eyes now look at texts rather than dozens or hundreds in a traditional publishing cycle. And, people speak out on the internet and are heard as they might not have been before. On the other hand, the vast library of the internet makes copying easy to do.
Plagiary is a plague in universities and colleges where students apparently are still trying to learn ethics -- or maybe not. That is why there is a plagiarism resource site for professors to help them vet student work.
It's worrisome that so many feel they can steal intellectual property with impunity. It reflects badly on our culture.
Thursday, May 04, 2006
The anniversary is a reminder of how much the internet has changed traditional media, and this article on what reporters do today is proof. Reporters now, especially in smaller markets, have so many more skill sets than I ever had when I worked in journalism. And, less time to do the job right. And, no clear idea of what it is that they should be doing first. And too little editing help.
It is notable that there are still dunderheads among editors who insist on holding stories for the print edition of the paper. It is also interesting that newspapers don't quite know what to do with blogs. They want reporters to comment but not too freely, and they certainly don't want negative comments about the newspaper itself. Hmmmm.
Then there is the pay issue... Publishing has remained true to its tradition of underpaying its workers.
What does all this mean? PR will inevitably change as some, or many, of these reporters leave the news business and "enter the dark side." They will bring much-needed and tested skills with an understanding of web-based publishing.
I'm looking forward to meeting them.
Wednesday, May 03, 2006
Tuesday, May 02, 2006
Having lived through the era of electronics magazines from the early success of Byte, now an online site, to today's shrunken market, it seems a matter of time before most magazines disappear. Moves by BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes and others to recreate themselves electronically have been interesting to watch. They are looking at one another and stealing what works. Of major business magazines, it seems that BusinessWeek "gets" it more than others, but time will tell.
There is a feel paging through magazines that news aggregators don't have, and that's a pity. That feel is one of serendipity -- accidental discovery of stories that one wouldn't ordinarily read but are important to one's understanding. I don't spot offbeat stories as easily on the web for some reason. I will have to learn how to do it.
Monday, May 01, 2006
The problem was that too many people at the client knew about it and despite SEC materiality and admonitions to remain silent, people talk. Perhaps they can't help themselves. Perhaps they think it is OK to mention it to their wives or just one friend. Perhaps there is an effort to derail the announcement by leaking it early. Perhaps they never realized they leaked. There are as many reasons for why one fails to keep silent as there are people.
This is why there are rules for how to handle secrets. Rule 1: Tell only those who have to know. Rule 2: Announce quickly. Even those who must be insiders have a tendency to talk, sometimes inadvertently. They are not trained to keep secrets so they don't know how to watch what they say. They think they are being cautious but in a passing moment they mention something that provides a clue -- or gives away -- the substance of the information.
I often wonder how governments keep secrets. Politicians and their staffs are born talkers. They hate the notion that they aren't in the know and they need to show off what they know, or (Repeat here all the reasons above.)
Were it not for materiality and a requirement to remain secret, it is less strain to be open.