Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Measured By This? 

The market plummet yesterday spotlights an issue that bedevils CEOs and is a major PR problem for them. Many are measured on the basis of their companies' stock prices. But, markets are irrational, as we saw yesterday. A panic in one spot radiates through the world into a major sell-off. There is little consideration for the value of underlying stock.

It has never made sense to me to value a CEO's ability against such variability. The CEO can't control it: No one can. However, we have major shareholders screaming at CEOs to raise their share prices or else. Institutional shareholders are not patient. They want to know now what the CEO is going to do in the next quarter to add value, and they will complain if it isn't enough. Sadly, investor relations plays into this madness rather than ameliorating it. IR officers these days are marionettes on strings being moved here and there by demands from large shareholders who will dump the stock in a minute if they get the right price.

There needs to be more common sense in dealing with markets. There isn't now.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Their Turn, Our Challenge 

I missed this story last week about the growth of air conditioner sales in Asia and the impact on the earth's ozone layer. What is striking about it is that Asia is getting creature comforts First World countries assume, and it is getting the attendant problems that go with the technology.

The temptation to preach about the environment to Asians is strong, but it is a temptation the First World should avoid. Rather, we should be happy the rest of the world is catching up. The communications challenge is to change First World habits, so developing countries can share in our wealth without damaging the environment more than humans have already. This will require immense changes in attitudes in First World countries, and it will be a PR challenge for decades to come. America, especially, is so used to consuming a disproportionate share of earth's resources that sharing will be difficult.

Almost certainly, as Americans reduce use of harmful technologies, Asians and others will take up the slack. There won't be much net reduction in harmful gases, but it is an opportunity for developed countries to lead the way globally. We should expect a great deal of PR work in future decades will be around environmental issues -- explaining them, persuading Americans to be more efficient and to change to less harmful technologies. It should be exciting work precisely because of the serious issues involved. There won't be overnight solutions. It will be a grind, but the trip will be worth the effort.

Monday, February 26, 2007


Senator Hillary Clinton has an interesting challenge in her quest for the US Presidency -- opposition in her own party from those who will not forgive her vote for the Iraq war. It has created an unusual communications problem. She won't apologize for her vote, but she won't defend it either. She has moved half-way toward her opposition by saying she would have voted differently had she known the facts. That is not nearly enough for the liberal wing of the Democratic party, which tends to vote in primaries.

The challenge is interesting because Clinton's position appears to be the right one for the rest of the country -- that is, voters who can put her in the White House -- but she must get by her own party first. One can say the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is extreme, but the Republican party is no different for other reasons. The conservative wing of the Republican party doesn't like the Republican candidates it sees either.

So where are moderate voters and how does one communicate to them while keeping immoderate elements at bay during the primaries? This is a serious problem in an era when any remark one makes will end up on the internet in minutes and follow one thereafter. I'm sure Clinton's message creators are puzzling over what to do, especially if polls show she isn't registering with likely primary voters in key states. It is difficult to figure out a position. One can't change the past and acceptance isn't enough. What it does mean, however, is that any candidate may be forced to blur key positions well before the final campaign for the office. Moderate voters will pay the price for a lack of clarity.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Out of the Office 

I will be out of the office on business tomorrow so there will be no posting.

No Surprise 

This article illustrates what happens to product announcements in the age of the internet. One loses the element of surprise and control over message because details leak before the official unveiling date.

This is not new. In fact, some years ago, we were pointing out to a major electronics company that it could no longer expect to announce new products regionally because of the web. News in one market was instantaneously present to all markets. That is apparently what happened here. It seems camera details sent to UK dealers were posted on the web a week early.

We have clients who still struggle with this concept. Their training has been that one can localize news and control it, but one can't -- not anymore. News control is directly proportional to interest in the news itself. That is, news of great interest spills from market to market. News of little interest tends not to do so. So, only if one is posting a dry release about an obscure product or service on a regional web site, is there a chance of keeping it confidential.

The new way of handling product and service news is to let everyone know at the same time. This might be inconvenient for a company's marketing system but it is realistic. At least, Sony is discovering that lesson.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Effective PR 

The Australian government is engaged in effective public relations with respect to global warming by banning old-style light bulbs. This simple act saves energy and greenhouse gas emissions. It is something that could be done in the US with a little leadership that we have yet to see.

We use these bulbs around the house. Their light is not the best but they work, and they are an easy first step in cutting energy use. The bulbs are a reminder that the best relations with others are actions and not words.


This is an interesting but hardly new finding. It shows that humans see patterns in data whether or not the patterns are there -- in this case zodiac signs related to human illness. Spurious correlations are a constant in science and in life. It is difficult to stand back and assess data using common sense, especially when one wants an answer.

In PR we explain issues and events constantly to target audiences. It is easy to act like parrots and frame answers according to what clients think they are. It is more difficult to challenge a client's explanation and to look more deeply. But, it seems to me, that is what we should be doing. We are not just presenters of information, although many think so.

One of the best mentors I had in the PR business was a man who was never satisfied with a first, second or even, third answer. He wanted accuracy, and he would push me until he got it. It was sometimes frustrating working for him, but he taught me to be careful. He taught me the lesson that this study is about.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Fessing Up 

It was interesting to read yesterday that the CEO of Jet Blue was humiliated and mortified by the breakdown of his airline in New York during the recent ice storm. He did the right thing as a leader by confessing to management error. The key now will be to see what the airline does the next time something like this happens. Customers won't give companies a by for long, even if the companies offer good deals in terms of fares and seating, as Jet Blue does.

It is interesting that the company attempted to keep operating during the ice storm rather than cancelling flights. If the analyst is correct, trying to do the right thing is not always the right thing to do. The storm was severe. I do not remember many times in my life seeing sleet fall so heavily and turn into instant ice on the ground as it did that day.

From a PR perspective, Jet Blue earned a black eye last week, but it is one that can be forgotten if the company analyzes what went wrong and makes sure that it never happens again.

It may well be the next time that the company upsets passengers by cancelling flights along with all the other airlines. That would be preferable, however, to the chaos that is now burned into the memory of its employees.

Monday, February 19, 2007

On Presidents 

Today is Presidents' Day in the US -- a national holiday. When one looks back on the history of Washington and Lincoln, it is interesting that only one of the two men kept a strong public image while alive -- Washington. Lincoln didn't gain his stature until just before he was shot. Both men lived in turbulent times, Washington at the founding of the country and Lincoln at a time when a divisive principle of the union was forced to resolution.

Washington by all accounts was an individual of bearing -- always set apart and always a leader -- even when he enjoyed himself. He was a man of courage as well. His troops were stunned when in one battle he rode to within 20 yards of the advancing British to rally his troops without getting gunned down. Washington kept even bitter opponents pulling together in his administration.

Lincoln, on the other hand, had no military experience and he was a self-educated man from the frontier of Illinois. Lincoln thought deeply about things and was eminently practical in hiring and firing generals until he found one who could fight -- Grant. Lincoln too was able to keep opponents together -- men who knew they could run the job better than Lincoln.

But for these two men the US wouldn't be here today. Leaders do make a difference. The US was favored with two at critical times in its history.

The success or failure of any public relations campaign is directly dependent on leadership -- the ability of the individual in charge to do the right things under pressure. It is not about spin. Washington was concerned for his image, but he also was concerned about getting a job done correctly. Lincoln understood he was in for a great deal of criticism, but he knew that the union had to be preserved, so he put himself in harm's way. There are clear reasons why the two largest memorials in Washington DC are for these two men.

Friday, February 16, 2007


I'm sure everyone has read the 12 Commandments of Flaming long before I did. I'm citing them because they are a good example of irrationality that one deals with in the PR business. When one gets an opponent who is convinced of his or her position, there is no reasonable argument that will do anything other than make the person more angry. Yet, there is no gain in falling into the mud with the Flamer to wrestle. The best thing is to walk away and leave the Flamer with his or her opinion.

Unfortunately, there are professional flamers, especially in politics on all political sides. They largely speak to their own crowd of conspiracy theorists, but they also annoy those who seek reasonable discourse. The temptation is to tell them to shut up, but they won't. We have to learn to tune them out. Sadly, tuning them out doesn't make them go away. When a Flamer dominates discourse, the Flamer kills online discussion and prevents reasonable discussion elsewhere as well. They have an impact on citizens who do listen to them, and many of these citizens vote. So, whether one likes it or not, there are times when PR must deal with bigots. I believe the best way to handle them is to hedge them in with reasonable argument targeted to influentials. Others may disagree. There is no easy solution.

Media Monitoring 

Chip Griffin, CEO of CustomScoop, sent me this paper on the uses of media monitoring. It's a good and objective primer for why one should be doing it, if you are not already. I must admit that I'm guilty of failing in one of the eight ways -- namely, keeping an eye on competitors. I know better, but it is one more example of how one can become overly focused on a client and forget the larger world in which the client competes.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Project Management 

A number of activities in PR are projects with defined beginnings, middles and ends. Think, for example, of producing an annual report or a press event or an electronic newsletter or magazine or news monitoring. The questions that bedevil many practitioners is how long such activities take and what is a realistic budget for getting them done? This is where a piece of software called project management comes into play. As far as I know, project management software has not been used much in PR, and it is a bit of a mystery why not. It may be the complexity of the software defeats practitioners. It also could be that few PR departments have bumped into the software, which appears to be used in line operations more than in support functions.

This paper looks again at project management software and asks whether PR is ready for it. I had looked at the software more than a decade ago. It was difficult to use then, and it is still not easy now. However, there appears to be more project budgeting in PR today than in the past. That is, an agency may get a small retainer but then has to budget for each project above that retainer. This requires care to think through what a project will entail. That is where project management software is at its strongest.

As usual, I would like to hear from anyone who is actively using project management software for PR, and I would like to know if the paper has gaps that need to be filled.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

They Can't Help Themselves 

This story on TV's tabloid journalism during the last week is disturbing. It was Anna Nicole Smith all the time, unless it was astronaut Lisa Nowak. It was as if channels like CNN couldn't help themselves. I could write that it is a sad commentary on the state of TV journalism, but it isn't. TV loves a lurid story like newspapers of old when multiple editions during the same day brought episodes of the plight of someone caught in embarrassing circumstances. If you don't believe that, look at the history of New York and Chicago journalism.

Whenever one thinks there has been progress in human nature, there is backsliding to remind one that interest in human failing doesn't change much. We like a good scandal even though we might try to discipline ourselves from reading or viewing too much. It is a reminder to PR practitioners that it is difficult to duck the media when a CEO gets in trouble, for example. Witness the headlines when a well-known CEO falls from power. There is plenty of piling on by the media that not only buries the former CEO but heaps dirt as high as possible. Given all the "dirt" that comes out, one wonders how the CEO held office for so long.

As PR practitioners, we need to be prepared for excessive media attention. The spotlight is glaring and the intensity of the light blinding, but there is plenty of work to do. One must remember to get it done.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The More Things Change... 

This is an interesting story in that it is unusual for a company to announce publicly that an executive violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The Act has been in force since 1977 when it was common for nearly all companies doing business outside of their borders to provide kickbacks to government officials and others. The US took a stand on the issue with the FCPA, and US businessmen complained it would damage the competitiveness of the country. It didn't but a new class of middlemen arose to whom US businesses sold their goods without kickbacks. What middlemen did was another issue.

Bribery and kickbacks are still in international business. US businessmen long ago learned ways to work around international competitors who "flash the cash" to win contracts. There is more than reputation at issue with such corruption. There is also the economic cost of doing business when money changes hands in order for goods to flow into a country. Kick-backs get factored into the sales price of goods.

The FPCA is a law that is always lurking in the background, and PR practitioners have to be aware of it and its significance. There will never be an end to greed and in pursuit of sales, temptations to bend rules are a constant.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Free Speech 

We will see more of this as time passes. How many doctors are prepared for people to go online and to say the doctors have done harm? In this case, the surgeon appears to have been a prominent individual. Suddenly, he finds himself called incompetent. That has to have direct consequences for his practice.

Doctors have been under assault for years, but it appears some might be in need of PR services. I'm not sure how one would go about defending a physician in the media, but it is worth thinking about. For one, it seems to me doctors need to be more personable. It is known that injured patients want most from a doctor an expression of regret and apology for failing. But, that is exactly what a lawyer doesn't want a doctor to do. Admitting failure is admitting the contentions of a lawsuit. There also is an unfortunate arrogance about many doctors who are trained to get things right and don't like to admit they have been wrong. How many of us are comfortable going to a physician who tries on a best efforts basis but with no guarantees? We go because we need a biological correction: We expect to get it. That's what the doctor is there for. Yet, there is a lack of certitude in medicine as in PR. Doctors often don't know what is wrong even after batteries of tests. Patients can be unforgiving. When they are, incidents like the above will happen more often.

Friday, February 09, 2007


Reader Chip Griffin took me to task for yesterday's posting. He wrote the following:

You suggest that PR practitioners should look to a "preponderance of evidence but not a preponderance of opinion." But what qualifies those of us in the field to assess the evidence in cases like the ones you mention? Now, I'm not questioning the existence of evolution or global warming. I'm certainly not in a position to do so. But there are those who raise credible questions about the extent to which one can take even those widely-held beliefs. Should those questions -- or others like it on other "settled" topics -- be ignored simply because the perception is that there is no room for debate?

Reader Don Bates countered with the following:

Jim Horton and Chip Griffin -- two very savvy cats who give PR blogging a good name. I appreciate both of their positions on the issue at hand although I lean toward Jim's perspective on evolution and global warming. We're talking science here, not religion; reason, not belief; fact, not fantasy. When it comes to religion and belief, however, I definitely lean toward Chip's view although I have a different take on the dynamic of dialogue in this instance. To wit: if we can't or won't discuss contrasting ideas of God or faith or what's true or untrue about humankind's spiritual inclinations, what can we discuss? Certainly not much of consequence.

I won't debate the issue of truth. That's too complicated as PR practitioner Jim Lukaszewski recently noted in Jack O'Dwyer's newsletter (Feb. 7, vol. 40. no. 6). He is quoted as saying that "truth is 15% facts and 85% perception."

What I was arguing was the facts of the situation. The preponderance of evidence, -- i.e. facts -- go against those who would continue to argue against evolution and global warming. The truth of how we evolved and how the world has grown so warm so quickly might still be arguable but not the facts that both have happened.

I strongly believe that PR practitioners like good journalists have to establish the body of facts first, then -- and only then -- apply interpretation. Lukaszewski used an example of an auto accident and witnesses. He noted that if there were four witnesses, there would be four explanations of the accident. He is right about that, but all four would agree that there was an accident. That is where the newspaper reporter, the police and the PR practitioner should start. We accept the fact of the accident. We debate in a court of law and in public opinion the responsibility for the accident. My point yesterday was that the facts of evolution and global warming are beyond debate unless there is a new and overwhelming body of facts to the contrary. None have appeared that I know of, and I don't believe we must continue to allow opposite views of the issue to have a voice.

Chip is right that when a new body of evidence arrives, we have to be ready to change, and change is difficult. For example, when the Australian doctor posited a new type of viral matter called a "prion," he was scorned by the scientific community for nearly 15 years. The body of evidence over time went the doctor's way and today we accept the existence of this biological oddity.

How does one establish the body of facts? We look them up as anyone else would do. Research is a key component of PR, an underlying bedrock that keeps PR from becoming "spin." Chip is right that when there is reasonable doubt, PR should listen to all sides and be ready to join the debate on behalf of clients. But we've known in the West that the earth is round since Eratosthenes. We needn't listen to the "flat earthers" any longer.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

No Need For Two Sides To An Issue 

There are some issues that are so settled one needn't look at both sides of them. Global warming is one and evolution is another. As a PR practitioner and former journalist, I have been taught to listen, but there are times when listening is a waste of time. Proponents of the opposite view are so out of the mainstream that it is unlikely they can be brought around to an accommodation. In cases like this, one moves ahead, as this museum is doing, but takes precautions against actions from the fringe element.

The hard part of moving forward is to make sure that one isn't blinded by conventional wisdom. That is, everybody believes X, therefore it must be true. That is where a PR practitioner can get into difficulty. One uses a preponderance of evidence but not a preponderance of opinion. Where there is no clear evidence, a practitioner should take great care to listen. Sometimes, it is not always clear what is evidence and what is opinion. For quite some time, both global warming and evolution had aspects of opinion and not evidence. That is no longer true and hasn't been in the case of evolution for more than 100 years.

There are still those who believe in a flat earth. We shouldn't have to spend time arguing with them.


China is using the old rhetorical device of distracting attention from itself by blaming other countries. Brazil is not far behind in distracting attention from what it is doing to the Amazon. It's an old PR spin trick, and it has never worked well. The two countries probably learned it from the US, which has pointed everywhere but at itself on a number of fronts.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Useful Advice 

This article on science writing has useful advice for PR practitioners. Note particularly the following.

Let the research speak for itself. This is where PR practitioners fall down regularly. They fail to relate in releases how research was conducted, an essential step in determining validity. Failing to give details is a common error in reporting surveys. One should always give sample size, whether the sample was random and error ranges for the population.

Don't use scientific jargon. This is a frequent error in press releases. A practitioner is not sure of what a term means but uses it anyway and obfuscates the text. Learn to use layperson analogies or, the first time a term appears, explain it clearly before going to the next step. Most importantly, if you don't understand a term, press the researcher to explain it until you do.

Visuals need the same treatment as words. This is an area where PR practitioners fail often and when they do, they can misreport results. Simplified visuals must not be simplistic. Bad graphs are common. They have distorted ranges that make a result look more significant than it is.

Don't overstate your case. Here is where PR practitioners err regularly. Part of the problem comes from the researcher who is excited by a result and makes too much of it. "This is a cure for cancer!" Uh, maybe. PR practitioners have to push back when researchers believe their own hype. An understated release is better than an overstated one, as long as one has told the story clearly and concisely.

Science writing is a craft of accuracy and story telling at the same time. When one reports accurately and with understanding, readers come away with an appreciation for what a researcher has done -- both the advance and the limits to the advance. Especially with medical research, there are too many claims that come up empty when examined closely.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Taking the Pledge 

This article is an alert to bloggers in general about credibility. One cannot take things from others then blog about it without compromising credibility. That is obvious, but there are companies now that pay bloggers to mention products, and there are companies like Microsoft that dole out freebies to bloggers to get them to write about products like Vista.

The author of this article is "horrified" by what he sees happening. He shouldn't be. The newspaper world was loaded with freebies before Watergate when the press raised its ethics to level of helping unseat a President. Some freebies still existed when I entered the PR field. Reporters took them, but they didn't promise to write about your product or to mention it favorably. That has largely stopped, but the issue remains. When does a blogger jeopardize credibility by taking something from a source?

Because blogging is still like the Wild West with few rules and every man for himself, it seems to me a blogger has to be more strict than someone in the newspaper business with a printed code of ethics and watchful editors. I don't believe a blogger should take anything from anyone as a matter of principle. I also believe PR firms that tempt bloggers with freebies ought to stop doing that unless it is to allow someone to try something temporarily as a test.

That written, I here and now take my own pledge of accepting nothing from anyone for free. I have been asked to test things on occasion, and I have done that but I've never kept anything sent to me.

Does this sound high and mighty for a lowly blogger? It does seem laughable, but blogging is being compromised by freebies. It is getting so one can no longer trust what anyone writes. That's not good, and sadly, PR agencies have been out there creating phony blogs and doling out goods right along with everyone else.

Someone should take a stand somewhere. I would like to see PR bloggers publicly state their positions on freebies then hew to them. It would be good for PR in general.

Monday, February 05, 2007

An Odd Kind Of PR 

When one thinks about it, rating Super Bowl advertising is an odd kind of PR. Not only are companies selling something, but they get a real-time evaluation from viewers on how they are doing. There are studies that rate audience preference for advertising throughout the year, but the Super Bowl has grabbed attention as the one time when a mass audience weighs in publicly and generates news headlines.

One wonders, however, whether the time and expense is worth the recognition gained. This year the cost of a 30-second spot was $2.6 million, a hefty PR budget by any measurement, and that did not count the cost of producing the spot itself. (The exception was the spot that used four bags of Doritos chips.)

Some advertisers are starting to avoid the Super Bowl because they don't think it's worth the cost. Maybe they are the smart ones. The dollars spent go a long way in reaching highly targeted audiences online.

How much longer can the Super Bowl hang on as a mass media delivery vehicle in an age of targeted marketing?

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Friday, February 02, 2007

How to Destroy Your Future 

Here is a PR tip for the former head of advertising at Wal-Mart. Silence is golden, especially when one has been dismissed for inappropriate behavior. Suing the company and loudly proclaiming innocence incites the company to attack in return. The counterattack may be ugly, as this one seems to be, and it can jeopardize your future.

Internet And Relationship 

The internet provides interactive communication as good as the telephone and better than other media in terms of stored information. That said, something isn't happening online. Most web sites don't take advantage of the internet's bidirectional communication to build relationships with visitors. Rather, they use the internet in the same unidirectional manner of traditional media. This paper explores that phenomenon and suggests an answer for the lack of interactivity. It is not definitive, but, perhaps, it will help you ask and answer some of your own questions about relationship and the internet.

As always, please feel free to argue with the paper's conclusions and to send me objections and revisions. The paper is more of a discussion document than finished argument.

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Internet And Relationship 

The internet provides interactive communication as good as the telephone and better than other media in terms of stored information. That said, something isn't happening online. Most web sites don't take advantage of the internet's bidirectional communication to build relationships with visitors. Rather, they use the internet in the same unidirectional manner of traditional media. This paper explores that phenomenon and suggests an answer for the lack of interactivity. It is not definitive, but, perhaps, it will help you ask and answer some of your own questions about relationship and the internet.

As always, please feel free to argue with the paper's conclusions and to send me objections and revisions. The paper is more of a discussion document than finished argument.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Green Nightmare 

This article on palm oil shows that even environmentally correct substances can produce environmental disasters in the wrong hands. Palm oil has turned into a PR nightmare for Indonesia and Malaysia. That raises an even deeper question PR practitioners will be dealing with in years to come. As developed countries move to cut emissions, how will companies ensure they are not exporting pollution through manufacturing in under-developed countries? China, for example, is a known polluter, especially with coal burning. China is taking steps to curb emissions, but it has a long way to go by most accounts.

It is not far-fetched to see the same activists who protest ill treatment of workers in underdeveloped countries take on environmental issues as well.

How Bad Is The Newspaper Business? 

This bad.

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