Monday, July 31, 2006

Promises, Lies and Apologies 

My thanks to Peter Shinbach for making me aware of this experiment at Wharton. It has an important outcome of PR practitioners. It's not that we didn't know the effects of lying, but it does quantify what PR has been saying for many decades about trust and credibility.

Actions and words do matter, the researchers say. That's a rediscovery of the wheel, but it is an objective reminder of what we tell internal and external clients. That is, if they don't believe us, point to the research. If they don't believe the research, PR practitioners should be smart enough to get away from the individuals and find someplace else to work.

On the other hand, lying is so much a condition of life that it is little wonder most consumers don't trust companies much. I recall a family story of an uncle who was a lobbyist for many years in a major state. The word was that everyone trusted him on both sides of the aisle because he was one of the few persons inside or outside the legislature who refused to lie. That's a commentary on human nature.

Trust has economic impact. That's a message CEOs should hear repeatedly.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Guilty Until Not-Quite Innocent 

The winner of the Tour de France has asked the media for the impossible. He is asking to be judged innocent until proven guilty of doping during the race. Alas, it doesn't work that way now, if it ever did. Reputation is destroyed when incidents like this happen, and it is never quite recovered.

Richard Jewell, the unfairly accused security guard at the Atlanta Olympic games, says there are still people who believe he planted the explosives in Centennial Olympic park, so he could discover them and make himself look like a hero.

When authorities single a person out, it is equivalent to a sentence of guilty in minds of the public. When prosecutors and others leak to the media for their own purposes, they place a huge reputational burden on the accused. Recognizing this, authorities ought to treat investigations with confidentiality, but they don't. They're human.

Companies with deep resources can hire PR practitioners to fight on their behalf and help recover their credibility over time. What do individuals do who don't have the money?

Welcome Back 

Larry Marshall, long-time PR talent recruiter, has re-entered the business. Larry started his firm at a time when few thought about using outside help to find PR practitioners and corporate communicators.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

No There There 

Aaargh. The title for this entry had body copy to go with it -- a comment on conglomerates. Blogger crashed. I'm not going to attempt to recreate the thought.

I've been snakebit for two days. Yesterday when I arrived at work, I found my hard drive had crashed. I typed on a temporary machine all day and tried to get around the peculiarities of its setup. When I got up this morning, Blogger wasn't working well -- then it froze. When I got here this morning, a rebuilt machine was in the old one's place but it isn't working right yet. For example, I can't place shortcuts to programs on the desktop for some reason.

All this will work out, but it is a reminder. Machines break.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Watch that Rhetoric 

Sometimes one wonders where PR handlers are for politicians. Senator John Kerry made a public gaffe a few days ago that someone should have caught. Perhaps, it was a spontaneous remark, but even so, if one even suspected that the "Boss" was thinking in such a direction, it merited a caution. Kerry said in public that if he had been president, the conflict between Israel and the Hezbollah wouldn't have happened.

Excuse me. Does Senator Kerry have a personal relationship with the Hezbollah? Could he have known their plans to kidnap two Israeli soldiers and stopped them before they were implemented? Is he that good of politician that he can persuade terrorists from their mission?

He couldn't have been thinking when he made that statement. I hope his PR person cringed and got to him right away.

Complete Disaster 

There are disasters beyond crisis management control. They are so large and so complete that nothing one does can handle the outcome. As you may have been reading, the week-long power outage in New York City appears to have been one of those.

The sequence of events seems to point to a man-made disaster that came from a judgment call. The utility was trying to do the right thing for customers during a small blackout and apparently created a major failure. Rather than shutting down an entire area when some cables began to fail during a heat wave, the utility decided to run the system the best it could. That didn't work because for some unknown reason, all the other feeder cables overheated and failed too. Suddenly, the utility was faced with replacing all underground feeder cables to 100,000 consumers in the middle of the heat wave. Worse, the utility did not and could not know what cables had failed except by calls from customers. It first thought that a few had been blacked out, then it realized it was a few more, then a great deal more and finally, about 100,000.

Combine furious, sweating customers with incomplete information and a slow rewiring of the underground system over seven days and you have a disaster that no PR crisis plan can handle. New York's mayor defended the utility but that didn't prevent a number of politicians from demanding the resignation of the utility's CEO. The CEO apparently kept a level head and concentrated on getting the system back up, but progress was slower than expected and dragged on while the temperature soared. Of course, there were TV stories of utility company drivers sleeping in their vans to help inflame opinion.

How would you like to be the crisis communicator on this incident? There will be blame and lawsuit for months to come. It will take years for the utility to regain its reputation.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

About Time 

This newspaper has decided to drop the column of a conservative shrew because of "stridency." It's about time. There are a few liberal commentators who should go as well for the same reason.
Don't get me wrong. Anne Coulter has a right to complain as she does. A newspaper also has a right not to devote its columns to her complaints. She can go to any street corner and spout if she wishes.

Coulter belongs to the class of persuaders who believe the best defense is a good offense and the more offensive the better. There are plenty in PR who think that way too. It works for a time, and then, it gets tiresome. One wants to turn the volume knob down or off.

There is no attempt to persuade the opposition with the merit of one's argument. Rather, the effort is to please the faithful by calling the opposition names. It's a narrow version of relationship building.

There is far too much preaching to the faithful on both sides of the aisle in the US today. What is needed is reasoning across the aisle. In other words, more of what public relations is supposed to be, but too often, isn't.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Good Advice 

Whose who would pitch a blogger might take the advice of this person who was contacted by two people -- one smart and one not so intelligent. His critique is excellent.

Bad Form 

This story from BusinessWeek is embarrassing to the PR business. I'm not referring to the writer's contention that phone companies still don't know how to compete. You may take that opinion as you please. I am referring to the PR people failing to tell the writer in whose home the writer was, especially since the homeowner was a company executive.

Talk about hiding a fact a reporter should know.

My friend, Peter Shinbach, sent this to me. He was a member of the old AT&T. His comment "an interesting description of how discombobulated AT&T (the new one, not the real one) PR has become."

AT&T invented many of the concepts of what PR used to be until PR turned into the marketing technique that it is mostly now. There are still those who subscribe to the rules of Arthur Page, but Arthur must be spinning in his grave.

Friday, July 21, 2006

A Too Typical Story 

Here is a tale of a reporter who has gone into PR -- unwillingly --, but he has to pay the bills. It is too typical of mainstream media. Long ago, in my brief venture in television reporting, I learned one can have fun, as long as one didn't care about living. Pay was wretched. Pay continues to be poor in many markets.

The mainstream media have been hypocritical in this regard since the beginning. They call for fair wages for others, but they rarely look at what they pay their own workers -- unless their workers rebel. They espouse Free Speech but not when it comes to discussions about compensation. They believe themselves on the side of the angels and forget they are businesses like any other. Sorry. I'll stop now. It's a topic that sets me off.

On the other hand, as PR practitioners, we should be happy the conditions are so poor. That means we get experienced hands into the PR business who remind us of how mainstream media work. In the old days, most PR practitioners were ex-journalists. There was a benefit to that, which is mostly lost to the business.

Hiding is Useless 

Many have written that the internet prevents secrecy because of its openness. That's not true, but it is more difficult to remain hidden as the North Koreans are learning. If a secretive society has trouble concealing its weapons, how much more difficult is it for the rest of us?

Blogging Study 

I missed this study on blogging when it came out. I've learned from it that I'm too old to be blogging -- an anachronism again. Seriously, what it does say makes approaches to bloggers a difficult task for PR practitioners. That's because most bloggers are keeping personal diaries and have little interest in topics beyond themselves.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Missing the Point 

It is not often an article so completely misses a point that one has to say something about it. This one does in the latest copy of CIO Magazine. The article describes how the Chinese are moving to the next generation of the internet -- Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) from the longstanding version used by the rest of the world, Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4). It rhapsodizes about what the Chinese will be able to do when each network device has its own unique address on the internet, something that is not possible under IPv4. Only in a sidebox comment does the writer get into a real reason why the Chinese are leapfrogging the rest of the world by moving to IPv6. The government will be able to track every internet user: None can hide from it with a uniquely addressed network device. China will become Big Brother peering over the shoulders of a billion citizens.

Public relations at its root assumes a Free Speech society, for how else can one have a conversation with individuals who grant one the permission to survive and succeed -- consumers, shareholders, etc.? One builds a relationship through mutual trust, not through mutual suspicion. Until China accepts the notion that its citizens can speak out on their own, it will never be free. There isn't yet clear evidence that it has granted that right. On the other hand, it isn't clear that a number of countries have granted it. There was news from India in the past week that the government blocked access to bloggers after the bombings in Mumbai.

The day that IPv6 is universal will be remarkable indeed for what one will be able to do on the internet, but for each step forward, there is an equal risk of a fall backwards. We must never forget that.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

PR Challenge of a Century 

According to this population projection, by 2025 billions will have moved near oceans, just at a time when the sea level rise becomes critical to dwellers anywhere near shores. How does one stop or at least slow the movement?

The answer, if there is one, is that any one agency doesn't. Governments in affected areas need to work with groups bit by bit to achieve change. It is a public relations exercise that requires many parts to solve, including providing means to work in interior locations.

If I read this map correctly, urbanization will contribute to shoreline density -- people leaving subsistence lifestyles for greater opportunity in cities. This is happening in China where tens of millions of peasants have migrated creating sprawl, difficult living conditions and low-paid employment. It happened in the US less visibly where the Great Plains emptied while US coastlines increased in population. We see what is happening here as hurricanes grow in intensity.

Encouraging citizens to protect themselves by not doing something is a difficult task. People don't listen. Short-term self-interest trumps long-term danger. Yet, in this case, the danger is there, as we saw in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. Some people have listened and are not returning to shorelines along Louisiana, but shamefully, local governments encourage rebuilding in affected zones.

How does one persuade politicians of the right thing to do? Perhaps that's the greater challenge.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

PR Coup 

The PR practitioners at Hewlett-Packard get the nod for the PR coup of the year with this announcement that was everywhere yesterday. But then, the debut of a wireless chip the size of a grain of rice that can store up to 100 pages of text is an exciting event. The possibilities are numerous for such a device, and they will grow as the price falls.

Usually I resist speculative notions of what a new product can do, but this one appears to be a slam dunk. I say "appears" because the device won't sell itself. Someone has to do the hard work to get it into use generally. For example, it is suggested in the articles about the device that it could be useful as a portable medical chart for patients. The medical field needs something like this to save money, but it will cost money to implement it, and few want to make the initial investment.

The next task for PR is produce numerous case studies of how the device is being adopted in order to get the marketing ball rolling.

Practitioners are going to be busy for years.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Too Extreme? 

My colleague, Peter Shinbach, had this response to the essay posted last Friday:

First, your argument seems based on the premise that something written or said is either "transparent" or a lie. That premise occurred to me as I read the fourth paragraph. I don't, for example, agree that saying "no comment" when you know the answer is a lie. It's merely your choice, regardless of the motivation, to not answer a question. If, for example, (your daughter)knows that you've bought her birthday present and asks you what it is, are you lying if you say to her "I won't tell you," the equivalent of "no comment?"My point is that there is a lot that is neither lie nor transparent. Let's call it the rhetorical middle ground. It's something you avoid walking on in your argument. It's like having no news sources other than Bill O'Reilly or Al Franken. (Both of whom, particularly the former, I believe are transparent liars.)

But the second MIA in your treatise is one that I find is equally MIA in virtually every other thing I've read about "transparency" in the last year, the period when "transparency" became one of those corporate catchwords whose meaning is suspect. Which brings me to my point: what, the hell, is "transparency?" Nobody who preaches it defines it. You come close, by implication, in your final paragraph. But, after reading your white paper, I still don't know what you mean by "transparency." And I don't know what others -- ranging from the Wharton School, at one end of the spectrum, all the way to bloggers at the other end -- mean either. So, rather than a critical dissertation on the implications and tactics of lying vs. transparency, I'd welcome one that defines & discusses the various layers of "transparency" -- from Windex-clear to opaque to obscured.

These are good points. The article, however, was looking at real instances in which we use euphemisms to cover truths and not instances where we use "no comment" or the equivalent. Peter is correct that there is no lying if one says positively that one will not disclose the facts of a case. The problem is that in too many instances we are called upon to say something that is a partial truth -- a lie -- rather than the whole truth. We say what is socially acceptable, so we never think of what we are doing. This is the case, for example, when we say an executive who is drying out at a clinic from alcoholism is said to be at enjoying a vacation at a health spa. Well, yes and no.

I agree with Peter's second point. I don't know what transparency is either. The article discusses the difficulty of the term and suggests another word might be better employed. There is little or no transparency given the dictionary definition of the word, unless one includes instances where light filters through nearly opaque material. PR has again adopted imprecise terms and assumed everyone knows what we mean. I'm not sure "bright-line" definitions of transparency are possible or desirable. I'd rather get rid of the word. Perhaps a better term is "disclosure," even though that can get mixed up with Security and Exchange Commission rules of what must be told to investors.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Lying and Transparency 

It occurred to me recently that of the words PR practitioners use, "transparency" is a term that is best a misnomer. No organization is transparent. It is more or less open based on the needs of key audiences. Even well run organizations lie to the outside world and to themselves depending on circumstances. Yet, there are organizations that have a quality of openness and others that have a quality of closure. What is the difference? That is what this essay is about. It is the 58th white paper/essay posted on online-pr.com and they are all available here.

Looking over the titles, I have concluded that the author has a magpie mind that is incapable of focusing on any one topic in depth. He should keep his day job.

As usual, any comments are welcome.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Staying on Message 

This is an interesting story and insight into how PR over-controls messages. Or, it might be a story of laziness by failing to vary a message. Take your choice. Either way, the outcome is silly when two persons are given identical quotes.

The tendency stay on message has gone to absurd lengths, to a point where few listen after they have heard the same theme 10 times. There is in music theme and variation. The theme is varied to entertain the listener, but it doesn't get away from its underlying structure. The same holds true for PR. Elaborating on a theme makes it deeper and more meaningful. Pounding a theme without variation makes it shallow and easily dismissed.

Once again, the political campaigning has influenced the trend to stay on message, but PR practitioners forget that politicians talk to different and new crowds daily. They don't say the same thing to the same crowd day after day without variation. That written, I know a CEO who does do that, but he is in charge of a huge company, and he wants to make sure no one thinks he has changed course. It works for him, but it doesn't work when one is dealing with reporters who are looking for news angles. Most practitioners use theme and variation. Those that don't smack of automated communication. Push button: Hear message.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Kick 'em 

It's part of human psychology and media sport to kick individuals while they are down. One bad story generates another. An individual or company becomes a scarecrow for the public that is easy to assault. There is little a PR person can do to stop it, and the best hope is to prevent it in the first place.

I've had clients in this position who are good people. They made dumb mistakes in communications, and reporters found it easy to get even on behalf of disgruntled shareholders. It's tough to watch and the natural tendency of a client is to hide once it happens. But that is the wrong thing to go. One takes the flogging and moves forward -- more easily said than done. Perhaps the hardest task of all is to examine what went wrong and to fix problems so they don't happen again. Sometimes that requires a CEO to change how the CEO operates, a tough task when the public is jeering. Pardon the CEO, if the CEO asks, "Why me?" About all one can say is that it happened, and it needs to be fixed. This is perhaps the toughest conversation one can have with a leader of a company.

As Written Before 

I've written here often enough that political PR adopts new technologies far faster than any other branch of the business. This story supports that statement. If you want to learn how a new communications technique might apply to your business, look to Washington, D.C. first.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

36-Hour News Cycle 

Scientists stumble on interesting facts and this is one. It seems the natural news cycle on the web is 36 hours after which people no longer access most stories. I'm sure there are exceptions like the burning Dell laptop below.

It's good to keep in mind this time length. One has a day and a half to get news out online. It's a rule of thumb for planning purposes.

Loop of Disaster 

By now, you must have read or seen the sequence of the burning Dell laptop. The images and story have been reported online and through traditional media and have turned into a loop of disaster for the company. Each time someone sees it, Dell's reputation and sales take a blow.

From a PR perspective, this is a fierce headache. There is nothing one can do to stop the story and little explanation that can take away frightening images of flames leaping from a tabletop.

Pardon the pun, but Dell has to wait until viewer interest burns out and rebuild its reputation. It also needs to get explanations everywhere into online and traditional media for what happened and why it isn't going to happen again. To Dell's credit, it is working on doing just this, but it will take a long time.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Still Don't Get It? 

Stories like this are depressing. Perhaps Hollywood, which has done so much on the web to build audiences, still doesn't get blogging and word of mouth promotion. Yet, it can't be totally true because The Lord of The Rings built a massive audience on web-based speculation well before its release. Maybe the answer is Hollywood is ambivalent. It wants word-of-mouth marketing sometimes but not all. Of course, that can't happen. You can't prevent fans from talking. Or, it could be that some Hollywood executives are still clueless.

Friday, July 07, 2006

People Formerly Known As The Audience 

Somehow I had overlooked this essay, but it is worth reading. The writer makes the point that readers aren't passive anymore. They want to interact, converse, argue and make their feelings known. There is no amorphous and silent mass of readers, viewers or listeners.

Well, there are fewer of the amorphous and silent. I don't know about you but I rarely contact a reporter about something I've read even when the reporter has an e-mail address at the bottom of a story. I don't call radio talk shows. I appear on TV only as a host for a program.

However, the writer is correct in saying people do speak up more now than they have ever done because they have the tools to do so. You know this, of course, but how much has it affected your PR planning? Do you still in the deepest recesses of your mind think "mass" audience?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Brinksmanship PR 

The state in which I live, New Jersey, has shut down all but essential services because it can't get a budget approved. The governor and his own party can't agree on how to raise taxes. I'm amused to watch how the governor is handling the PR for this crisis. The governor ordered the shutdown, but he is blaming the legislature in one press conference after another. It's the old "you made me do it" defense. So far, it appears to be working, but the public is not stupid. New Jerseyans know that the governor precipitated the crisis because he wanted his way, and he refused to work with his own party, which doesn't agree with the governor's approach.

The next election will tell how well the governor's PR campaign has worked.

Science Hype - Cont. 

It's nice to learn that a science of the future with its amazing breakthroughs for man is 10 years later still in the future with its amazing breakthroughs still out of reach. That appears to be the case with cloning. It is yet another instance of science hype that never seems to end. Scientists more than any other group should be cautious about predictions, but they're human and ambitious. It's a reminder to PR practitioners to remain conservative about all claims for the future.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Spin Cycle 

Having lived through the stress in the US when a presidential election was too close to call, my sympathies go out to the people of Mexico who are caught in a recount. The stress comes from non-stop spinning on each side in favor of its candidate and against the other. Opposition is sharp and gets uglier by the hour. It's needless, but supporters feel compelled to comment as do pundits. Perhaps it makes them feel better, but it doesn't help those trying to get a vote count done and ordinary citizens waiting for an answer.

The intensity of conflict raises legitimate fear that a country's political structure cannot survive the spinning. In the US we faced the prospect of a lengthy court battle that was short-circuited by the Supreme Court. Many are bitter still about that.

True relationships with publics call for statesmanlike conduct in hours of crisis. It's a pity one rarely sees it from candidates' supporters.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

July 4 

The Declaration of Independence for all of its magnificence was a statement of intent. It wasn't yet action. That was to come, and it showed how poorly our first leaders had conceived the country. That the nation held together was largely due to the leadership and stubbornness of Washington who got little support. Drafting the Constitution still didn't produce the country we know. It took the Civil War to resolve contradictions.

So, without trivializing the Declaration, it is right to say it was a brilliant piece of publicity that did not achieve a new relationship with essential publics. We honor the Declaration for actions it sparked. We gloss over perils it created. The more one reads the history of the period, the more one appreciates the brilliance of our forefathers and the narrow path that resulted in the United States of America. No strategic plan nor logical exercise could have or would have foreseen the outcome. It is important always to remember that grand plans deteriorate into action, and it is action that determines the relationships we have.

Admire the words: Remember what happened.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Now You Tell Us 

Here is an admission from USAToday. I guess PR practitioners at BellSouth and Verizon can breathe more easily, but the reputations of their firms have been damaged anyway. How does one get reputation back that was unfairly taken?


Bromides but worth scanning.

I'm skeptical about writing advice. There is a void between advice and action. Pick up any of hundreds of books on how to write well, and you find the same counsel over and over. Yet, people write poorly.

Writing is self-discipline. It is relentless paring of words to get to the bone of meaning. Writers don't fail because of bad advice. They fail because of laziness.

Tradition, Tradition 

From the beginning of auto manufacturing, a way to gain brand recognition is to go racing. It still works. Old ways are not always best ways, but Audi is doing well respecting tradition.

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