Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The World Continues 

There is a phenomenon around major holidays that never ceases to interest me. It is the diminution of serious news for fluff. That, of course, comes partially from the number of news media who take time off, but it is something else as well.

It comes from the act of observation itself -- or lack of it. Wars continue, people starve, discoveries are made as much on holidays as any other day of the year. Failing to report such news is as much a cultural and behavioral act as it is a function of smaller news staffs. We don't want to see; therefore, we don't. Such willful blindness is not usually acceptable among journalists, except on days like Christmas. It is instructive to be in another country on major holidays in the US, such as the Fourth of July. There is a different perspective. The world continues.

Sometimes, it is hard to remember that US culture does not define everyone else. We project our beliefs because we want to. It is a form of cultural imperialism that other peoples resent

I have long held that PR practitioners cannot afford to be locked into their cultures, especially in the global business environment in which we work. There are no days off from the news anymore: There never were. We didn't choose to acknowledge the fact. We can't afford to do that anymore.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Time Off 

I will be taking time off during the next week. Blogging will be light -- at best. Merry Christmas.

Perpetual PR headache 

How would you like to have this perpetual PR headache? No matter what you do, you are condemned globally as an art theif or dealer in stolen goods. Must be great to be the PR person at the Getty...

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Alternate Realities 

This is a long (too long) article on denial and scapegoating in world politics. You may -- or may not -- agree with the author's view of the Islamic threat. You will recognize her point about alternate views of reality. Either there is a threat, or there isn't.

It strikes me that much of PR work is like this. There is no clear picture of the future. One stakes a position and defends it, recognizing that the opposite may be true. What is harmful is passionate advocacy descending to emotional argument. There are too many "haters" in politics and the corporate world. Why deal with issues when it is easier to slash another's character? Verbal assassination has gone beyond civility too many times to count. Anyone prominent risks attack from all sides.

If we look at American history, we see intense emotional debate at times when the future is clouded for the country. This was true, especially, at the beginning with the standoff between Federalists and Jeffersonians. Neither could gain the upper hand, so they set about to destroy one another. The Civil War had similar language. So too, just prior to World War II, the isolationist movement was vile in its words.

When things go bad, calm discussion works better, for the most part. At least, it doesn't obscure issues as much as alternate realities do. Calmness should start at the top where it is too often lacking. When leaders keep their balance, those around them find it easier to do so as well. Resist the temptation to get even. Stick to facts you know and reasonable positions.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Dumb Question 

There are times when reporters ask dumb questions and an interviewee has a right to be insulted. Here is a question one African-American journalist asked another. I'm not sure what a PR person should do or say in instances like this -- perhaps nothing. But, there isn't much excuse for it. The temptation is to avoid working with a person like this in the future.


Here is an annoyed comment from a writer about a statement from Sony's president of computer game design. It seems the president boasted that no developer will ever use the capacity of the new Playstation 3 machine from the company. That smacks of "famous last words."

There are some companies that never seem to learn humility about their products -- that is, to let products speak for themselves. Years ago, when I had the German sports car company, Porsche, for a client, its engineers taught me a marketing lesson.

Top speed in a sports car is a number auto journalists always quote. They will give the top speed listed by the company, and top speed they obtained in testing. With most sports car companies, listed top speed was higher than what a lead-foot journalist was able to attain. With Porsche, it was usually the opposite. Porsche always gained from this conservatism because the journalist would make special note of it.

"Porsche says their new model is capable of 150 miles per hour, but we were hitting 155 mph down the stretch."

Why did Porsche do that? Its engineers explained to me that the firm only listed top sustained speed of their cars. On good days with the right fuel, road and temperature, a car could go faster, but that wasn't sustainable, if conditions changed. Porsche's engineers wanted to be accurate, and journalists appreciated it. Besides, it made the journalists feel better that they were able to squeeze a few mph more out of a road rocket.

So, here is a Sony executive boasting that no one will ever use the capacity of its new machine. Wouldn't you guess that ticked off developers who sooner or later will max the machine out? There are days when I think it would be better if engineers ran marketing rather than marketers. Certainly, PR people shouldn't let executives boast like that. They should remind them that humility rarely hurts.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

What the Press Gives... 

...the press takes away. It is amusing to watch the current media bash for Senator Barack Obama. Reporters have fallen for his image: They don't know the man. I don't know the man either, so this is not criticism of Obama as a candidate. What is happening, however, is a human condition -- reporters become excited about a candidate before they fall out of love with him. Obama is riding an early wave of the quadrennial horse race called presidential elections. It won't last and his fall may be hard when reporters get around to asking tough questions.

I wonder how aware Obama is of his perilous position. Any good PR person could tell him he is in for a rough ride, and it would be best for him to be lower key in his appearances and speeches. That is what Hilary Clinton, a far more experienced campaigner, appears to be doing. She is lining up support, resources and followers. When she starts her campaign, she will be closer to a machine rolling through primaries and winning elections.

In other words, real PR is not press clips but votes in one's pocket. Press clips help but at the right time. Now is not the right time for one to be leading in straw polls.

Obama is a young politician and, for all I know, unseasoned. Aspiring to the highest office is a relentless grilling that lasts for months. One has to demonstrate an ability to hang in as a campaigner and to mobilize forces across many states. It will be interesting to see if Obama can make this happen.

But now, if I were him, I would work hard at being a good senator and work more behind the scenes.

Monday, December 18, 2006


Note the paragraph on corporate psychopaths in this article.

There's currently a bull market in corporate psychopaths, according to psychologist Paul Babiak of HRBackOffice, an industrial-consulting firm in Hopewell Junction, N.Y. Organizations undergoing major changes, such as downsizing or mergers, provide a chaotic atmosphere that savvy psychopaths exploit, Babiak holds. They cozy up to a firm's power brokers, manipulate coworkers, and intimidate underlings on their way up the corporate ladder, stealing everything possible along the way.

I can't say I've met a true psychopath in the corporate environment, although I believe I know of one individual outside of business who shows characteristics of the condition.

One individual like this in a business harms an entire organization. One CEO without values will ruin a company. I've met CEOs in my career who had few moral tenets, but at least they had some. I can't say I've ever met one without ethics. I don't know what I would do, if I did -- except get away from the individual as quickly as possible.

Money and Justice 

The continuing self-destruction of the District Attorney in the Duke player rape case is an example of the worst PR a government official has practiced in a long time. On the other hand, it gives one pause. The students involved are from wealthy families who are able to pay lawyers to show the injustice of the DA's action.

It's chilling to think that others have gone to jail -- particularly the poor -- because they did not have adequate defense for similar miscarriages of justice. Even in the legal system, good PR is what one can afford. One would hope it would be different someday, but that is unlikely.

The rich can buy better justice. That said, I remember the words of one Duke player from a few months ago who asked why a person could destroy another's reputation for no good reason. It occurred to me that he had learned the ways of the world. It happens all of the time.

Good Advice 

This is advice for online journalists, but it serves PR practitioners and marketers as well.

Friday, December 15, 2006

It Didn't Just Happen 

Here is an example of how political PR is played. It's down and dirty and successful. Look for this to happen to corporations soon enough when activists attack them.

How Bad Is It For News Magazines? 

This bad.

When Will They Ever Learn? 

This has been banging about the blogs in the last few days. When will marketers learn to avoid such fakery?

Perpetual Headache 

Some issues never seem to resolve themselves and become a perpetual PR headache. Affirmative action is one. Arguments over affirmative action are again before the Supreme Court. The state of Michigan voted down use of affirmative action in school enrollment, and the university is in a quandary about what to do. The activist attempting to strike down such laws is himself an African-American . He has a point that resonates with those who find fundamental unfairness in categorizing by race and/or gender.

But the issue of diversity doesn't go away, and it's a concern for corporations in the US, so much so that there is competition for skilled women and minority managers.

About the only conclusion one can come to is that some things in society change at glacial speed, and there is little one can do to speed them up, even with application of laws. That doesn't mean one gives up, but realism sets in after years of pushing. It's easy to predict that 15 years from now, there will still be a PR issue with affirmative action in the US. Women may populate top ranks comfortably by then, but other minorities won't. It took nearly 40 years to change smoking habits in the US. It will take longer to get rid of affirmative action as a PR issue.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Year in Corrections 

"Regret the Error" is a blog that tracks newspaper corrections throughout the year. Some are pedestrian. Others are whoppers. Blogger, Craig Silverman, has done a listing of the most serious corrections during the year. Note what he says about the Sago mine disaster when 12 miners died in a methane gas explosion.

The tale is well known, so we’ll offer one word: Sago. We considered demoting this error to second place, due in large part to the culpability of the mining company. As news of “12 Alive!” spread over the wire and airwaves, the company kept silent and didn’t do its part to reveal the correct information. The media, of course, deserves its fair share of blame for turning rumor into fact, but the company had the means to temper the story right away and instead remained silent. So a pox on both houses. Sago will live on as a tragic event made all the more tragic by incorrect reports that spread the world over. That’s a rare phenomenon, so it also earns Error of the Year honors.

This was a clear public relations failure on the part of the company.

By the way, a state investigation has apparently concluded that the mine explosion was caused by lightning. You will note that the cause of the disaster was buried in the newspaper by comparison with the failed rescue attempt. The company has been blamed for safety failures when it is arguable that such failures occurred.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Right On 

Here is a cynic about metrics who has hit a bulls-eye. Love of numbers can distort reality, especially when numbers are gamed, as they always are. In PR especially, metrics run into a wall. No one has yet told me how one measures keeping a client out of a bad story. What is the exact value for a client's reputation not to have appeared among others accused of misdeeds? It's huge, but what is huge?

A lot of work our firm does in crisis is just that. We count wins when we soften an attack or even avoid it. We prove value when we alert a client to an ugly reality just around the corner. Issues management like this is difficult to assess. A CEO sleeps better, but how much is that worth?

PR metrics are largely market-driven, which is good, but they are far from complete.

The Way of the World 

One peculiarity of technologists is idealism. They see only the good things that can come out of their inventions: They overlook too often the bad. Here is yet another case of the way of the world. The community of news searchers -- Digg -- is being polluted by companies that pitch members to rate news stories about them highly.

Nothing on the internet is safe from this kind of gaming. That's the price one pays for being human. Yet, time and again, inventors will trust others to do the right thing. They should know better, but most are young and inexperienced. They learn later when their best ideas are corrupted.

PR practitioners ought to know better from the outset. The reality in our business is that unethical operators were in it from the beginning. One needn't look far to find those who paid journalists to write stories or made up facts or pulled off phony events to generate coverage. There are those, however, who believe it is possible to practice PR correctly if one chooses to do so. I'm among them. We may not get rich nor be influential, but there is more to life. I, for one, like to sleep well at night.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

More of This To Come 

This is painful. It appears to be a call to Verizon, the phone company, to straighten out a bill. The call goes on and on and gets hung up on simple math. Naturally, Verizon's customer service reps come off poorly.

Since the beginning of the internet, customers could complain online, and millions have. The idea of posting one's actual experience with customer service is newer.

There is a lesson here from a PR perspective. More customers will get even with companies by using YouTube or similar sites to post live experiences. I wish I had done the same myself with technology companies I've dealt with. (Try installing a WiFi upgrade without muttering.)

PR starts at the customer contact point of any organization. If that point is failing, the company is failing in public relations. All the press releases in a practitioner's kitbag cannot make up for a lousy customer experience.

Look for similar postings such as a dumb retail clerk, a weasel mechanic, a sleazy lawyer, etc. These kinds of things used to be reserved for investigative reporters with hidden cameras. No longer. It's one more worry for companies to think about.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Spin Speak 

I missed this earlier, but it is a good example of "staying on message" run amok. Washington is filled with "Spin Speak." Each side tries to bend perception in its direction by chanting acceptable phrases in speeches, releases, interviews, etc. It's part of the reason why ordinary folk view politicians negatively. Pols are always trying to sell something. After a time, one grows weary trying to figure out the difference between facts and twist.

There is a place for "staying on message," but like any other technique in rhetoric, it can go too far. It is better to allow some diversity in language because in the shifting of concept, there is a note of authenticity. Yes, it takes longer for citizens to hear a message. Yes, it can confuse an issue. But, a politician no longer sounds like an unthinking robot with 35 embedded phrases.

There is deep fear in Washington over uncontrolled language. Politicians' handlers would rather candidates never say anything that has not been written down and vetted against focus groups. They warn of disasters that can happen when a politician is caught in even one unguarded moment. However, it is in unguarded moments that one says what is really on one's mind, and this is precisely what citizens look for. They want to know the real person behind the protective shell. So do opponents.

Political handlers want packaged products with a shiny surface: They care little about what the contents of the package hold. In that regard, they are the opposite of public relations. However, political spinmeisters hold power in the PR business. They have become leads in agencies and heads of corporate communications. It is one reason why PR has degenerated as a concept.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Double Jeopardy 

The nightmare of any business is to have a highly publicized recall followed closely by another. Sony recently went through that with its burning batteries. Now comes news that an outbreak of E.coli illness on the East Coast of the US had come from vegetables -- scallions -- grown in California. This is the second such outbreak in four months. The last one occurred in spinach from California. Even though the scallions came from a different growing region of the state, it is black mark against farmers there that won't go away for awhile.

A recurring incident ignites speculation, none of which is good, such as: Have farmers adopted practices that have tainted the soil? Has water used to irrigate crops become permanently polluted? Has intensive farming practices used in the State ruined the land? California is a hotbed of environmentalism, and one can be sure critics are already in full cry.

The danger is even deeper than city dwellers know. There is a "back to nature" movement in the food world that idealizes small farms, organic vegetables and custom growing. There are those who say something like this would never happen, if there were more farms and less factory farming. These same people forget there wouldn't be a sufficient food supply either, if we went back to the old ways of growing food. The old ways were terribly inefficient and the cost of food was much higher than now. This movement, however, is creating a public relations problem for agriculture, and I believe it is serious.

Fewer farmers grow more food today than at any other time in world history, and they will have to do even better as the population of the world continues to burgeon. But fewer farmers means less votes and less influence in public debate. Those who don't know can start dictating to those who do. It's happening already.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

O, So Fast 

How fast are media changing? Well consider this and this and this and this. And yes, this too. All are stories just from the last couple of days. The shift is wrenching. Firings, of course, have been going on for a while, as has circulation shrinkage. But change is relentless. It seems every week, sometimes every day, there is news of yet another mainstream medium cutting back, changing course, experimenting with something, anything, to survive a decline in advertising dollars.

The New York Times story highlights that actual dollars from its fast-growing online business do not begin to match in raw dollars what newsprint still brings in. The Times, as are all other newspapers, is facing the same meltdown that another mighty company, Kodak, is suffering. Digital revenues are less than traditional business.

There are days when I wonder if there will be enough business news reporters about to handle the kinds of stories our firm merchandises. In local media, business news departments appear to have collapsed back to the old days when business news was consigned to the end of the sports pages and before the comics.

I'm not going to despair. Change is difficult, and one rides it or quits. There is reduced coverage, but there is coverage. One has to compete a little more for attention. That means our facts and stories must be more persuasive than ever. In other words, there is no substitute for doing homework. That hasn't changed.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Media Crossover 

This is interesting. NBC is taking a web site and moving it to television -- a reverse media crossover. Most of the time, mainstream media have extended TV programs to web sites. We should look for more of this as the internet integrates with mainstream media.

Integration has been a long time coming. Some publications like BusinessWeek, for example, print online discussions from readers in the magazine. While interesting, it doesn't appear to be the extent of integration NBC is planning. BusinessWeek continues to be a "split" property in the eyes of some of its own reporters. (One told me recently he didn't quite understand how online meshes with the magazine, and this came after I enthused about the blogs BusinessWeek has started.)

There is still fumbling as editors and producers test limits of readers, viewers and listeners to integration. Media relations work has changed greatly in recent years in response to these tests. It's going to change a lot more. We still have clients who want to see a clip from a newspaper or magazine rather than looking at an article online. That is going away quickly, but old habits die hard. If technology should ever get to the point where we all carry electronic paper that changes headlines by the hour, we can at last proclaim full integration. There is a long way to go.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

PR and the Education Gap 

I found this article interesting. It touches calmly on an inflammatory issue that divides the nation -- a persistent IQ gap between African-American and non-Hispanic White Americans. The article appears to point -- at least one of the commentators points -- to a cultural divide over education. That commentator noted that other minorities in the US excel in education because academic learning is part of family values.

If this is even partially true -- and there is evidence that it is -- then a question arises. How does one change the attitude and behavior of an entire class of individuals? What public relations, if any, or marketing, might convince millions of individuals that a better future lies in a good education? You have seen advertisements that have pushed for learning among African-Americans. You have witnessed educators pleading with students to focus on studies. What will actually change students to drive for excellence?

This is a question on which local, state and Federal governments have spent billions without much effect, it seems. The commentator appears to think change starts at home, and only at home, with expectations parents place on children. Somehow that seems too simple. There is also the environment in which children grow up. That is why parents try to get their children out of drug- and violence-ridden environments into locales where they can focus on academics. In other words, it is a multi-tiered problem for which there is no easy answer -- or one would have been found. Yet, some African-Americans excel in academics and continue to do so. What is different about them? Could a program be taken from their experiences and transferred to others? This too is being tried, seemingly without broad success. What, then, allows millions of individuals typed in a class to change direction?

It is an unsolved mystery of PR, marketing and government policy.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Great PR, cont. 

Over the years, I might not have liked all of the choices, but I have always appreciated the public relations value of the Kennedy Center Honors for artists who have made a difference in society. One wonders why it hadn't been done before. It's hard to remember now, but since 1978, it took the spotlight from New York with its well-known theaters and shifted it firmly to Washington DC. That's a feat enough in itself. Even more importantly, it put a political and cultural stamp on the honors given to the recipients, which guaranteed its recognition. Finally, the show itself has always been done in a sophisticated style that makes it easily watchable.

The Kennedy Center in its early years was a "wannabe" theater complex on the edge of the Potomac -- striking building but not much was going on in it. That has changed over the decades. Perceptually, it is an anchor for the American arts. That would make the Honor's long-time co-producer, George Stevens, Jr., one of the most successful PR practitioners in American today.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Ah, Mockery 

There are times when companies hang themselves on their writing and get the mockery they deserve. This is one of them. I like particularly the quote the newswriter took from Dell Inc.'s "simple" statement. It's worth reprinting.

UMA delivers a layered framework that enables a path to "built-in" management for hardware and software using standard instrumentation such as CIM and SMI-S, and access protocols including WS-Man. The result is a cross-vendor approach that can yield more robust systems modeling, enabling high availability and standards-based building blocks for business process management.

Did you get all that? The test is tomorrow.

It's easy to mock tech writing because it is so bad so often. One wonders when the industry will learn to write clearly -- perhaps never.

Tech writing is difficult. I've done a bit of it and made my share of mistakes. I'm lucky, however, in that my colleagues won't stand for dense sentences and will force me to explain what I thought I had written clearly. Perhaps the answer is always to have someone on staff who knows little or nothing about technology and to make that person the final editor of copy.

Someone might suggest that to Dell.

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