Friday, March 30, 2007

When It Rains... 

...It pours. Dell was a media darling for better than a decade with a reputation other high-tech companies envied. Now it stumbles from one crisis to another, and Dell's PR practitioners are getting a workout. One wonders if they were ready for such pressure after a long period of success.


Here is a guaranteed way to motivate employees and build morale. Take your best-paid employees and force them to reapply for their jobs at lower salaries -- that is, if you bother to hire them back. Don't you wonder about customer service in an environment like this?

Thursday, March 29, 2007


After threats against a blogger, there has been a call for a code of conduct among bloggers. Codes of conduct are useless unless enforced -- and they rarely are. Look at the Public Relations Society of America and its ethical code of conduct. Practitioners ignore it and the PRSA is helpless to enforce it. It means little, even as a guideline. Enforcement is fundamental. Those who call for codes without means of enforcement are naive.


This story has been wandering about the internet for the last couple of days. It is a case of someone at a PR firm hitting a "send" button too fast or carelessly and giving a reporter the entire background the agency has built up on that reporter. Aside from asking, "How could this happen?", one should ask how damaging the file was. Interestingly, it wasn't that harmful other than the fact that the reporter gleefully quoted the agency's assessments of him and others chimed in as well.

The reporter knew that the agency was tracking him. He expected that. What he didn't know was how closely the agency was tracking his development of a story. He felt used but on the other hand, he went ahead and wrote the story anyway because he felt it was newsworthy.

Take some time to read the report itself. It is professionally done and a credit to the agency. It's just that one doesn't publicize such things -- even accidentally.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Why deadlines are important. A basic rule of PR is to meet media deadlines. It didn't happen in this case with predictable results.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Data PR 

There is too much jargon thrown about these days about "Web 2.0." Nobody really knows what it means other than software activities that take place in servers. The following article tackles the topic and provides an explanation for PR practitioners. It also suggests possible uses of this technology in PR.

As usual, let me know whether you agree with what is written. The article is the 62nd essay on PR posted on online-pr.com under white papers and essays. All these papers are free for your use and your reaction to any of them is encouraged.

Spin on Spin 

In writing about PR and spin, there is plenty of negative spin in this New Yorker article. The writer's disdain comes through in every sentence. The article would have been more powerful had the author been more objective.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Corporations Are Next 

This story is one PR practitioners should take note of. Corporations are next. It doesn't take a great effort anymore to produce a video. The person who did this Anti-Hillary ad claimed that he finished it on a weekend at home. If that is the case, what is to stop any group from attacking a corporation and its leadership for their environmental policies or wages or health care? It is a matter of time before it happens.

The anti-Hillary video was viewed a million times before its creator confessed to producing it. He could have remained silent and continued on with his business. I suspect that more will do that so they don't get fired from their jobs. Corporations in the news should monitor YouTube as a matter of course along with news and blog scans.

Update: Actually some anti-corporate videos exist already on YouTube. The ones I saw a short time ago focus on Wal-Mart and aren't good, however. It takes skill to produce video. Perhaps the safety of politicians and of corporations is that most people lack the talent to do video well.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Managing Perception in Decline 

How do you manage perception in an industry that is dying? This question has come up before but it takes on new urgency in light of this in the recorded music industry. CD sales continue to plummet and not even the brightest recording stars are succeeding.

The challenge is that the 100+-year-old industry has worked the same way since Edison invented the phonograph. Music is distributed on something -- a medium whether wax, or vinyl or plastic. The entire business model and accounting of the industry is pegged to that something. With digital downloading, there is no physical entity and no good way to account for sales. With large scale piracy, there is no revenue coming to the industry and artists. With the long-tail of recordings available on download sites such as iTunes, there is no way to sell one artist over another consistently.

The industry is spending enormous amounts of energy to combat piracy and to persuade youth that it is bad, but it clearly isn't working. The question is what concept will work and how would PR go about helping the industry sell it? This challenge almost certainly will not involve sales of something physical and sales are likely to be lower margin than before. The hardest part of the challenge will be to get the industry away from selling something to selling bits and bytes. It seems clear that few are prepared to do that even yet. The industry fears for its future, so it clings to the past. It is an interesting time to be in PR in the music industry.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

When Values Collide 

This story is interesting because it points to a growing problem in the United States -- the mixing of wildlife and people. The citizens of Florida don't mind that the crocodile has returned as long as the crocodile doesn't show up in their backyards. But, in many wildlife categories that is what is happening from bear through turkeys, opossums, raccoons, coyotes, groundhogs and deer. There was a bear in my town this year that caused general panic, and deer are as common as squirrels but wreak more damage.

Citizens subscribe to environmental values that have allowed these critters to thrive, but they also want to grow gardens and not worry about animals pooping on lawns, slashing garbage cans, making off with pets and denuding flower beds. Thus, for example, in towns through the Northeast, citizens have accepted the need for killing deer to cut down on populations roaming freely. They expect wildlife control will come and cart away brown bears to a wilderness "somewhere."

The problem continues to grow as more people move into areas where wildlife have long felt at home and as wildlife learn people won't hurt them. What has happened is interesting from a PR perspective. It is a growing clash in values. By subscribing to environmentally responsible living, citizens have allowed the environment to return in ways they don't like. One or the other has to give eventually.

It seems to me that environmental values will yield over time to practicality in many towns, and it will be better in the long run. Our town was paralyzed for years because a substantial group of citizens couldn't bear the thought that a deer might be killed. It took an environmental study to prove that deer were out of control. I wonder if it will take an environmental study to prove that bear don't belong in flower beds.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fix It 

Some organizations see crisis PR as a momentary event. Others see an opportunity to change and get better. These views have different outcomes. For the first view, PR is a fire extinguiser -- "In case of fire, break glass." The second takes time to understand why a crisis occurred and what it has to do to prevent it from happening again. The second organization is the one with fewer crises in the long run.

Organizations can be on both sides of the issue because there are external events and issues over which an organization has no immediate control. The error arises when an organization assumes the same crisis won't occur again. PR is told to "fix it," and the organization continues on as before. This is particularly dangerous when crisis is self-induced -- that is, when the organization's actions caused the failure. PR cannot fix anything when that happens except to work on building reputation knowing that its efforts are likely to be destroyed. Usually, improvement demands change in culture and operations. That requires hard work and leadership may shy from the labor. It takes strong and confident leadership not to be afraid of tinkering with a system that is embedded in the behavior of its employees. These are the leaders who understand what PR is about, even if they don't call it by that name.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Human Nature 

After hurricanes and floods and with rising sea levels, one would assume that man would not build in low-lying spots next to the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico. That assumption would be wrong, however. Building is proceeding in some areas as fast as ever. The question is why: The answer appears to be one of greed and willful ignorance.

As PR practitioners, we will meet similar circumstances in which there is a deliberate lack of understanding. No matter what we say or write or demonstrate, the target audience will pay no attention. It is then one moves out of the realm of persuasion and into the realm of law and politics. This is what happened in the wake of hurricane Katrina.

Persuasion works only as far as humans listen. In some cases, humans aren't willing to listen at all.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Not This Time 

We had a 24-hour sleet, snow, hail and whatever storm on Friday that caused hundreds of flight cancellations in the New York Area. Unlike the last time, there were fewer stories about stranded passengers on planes. The passengers never got on them. Jet Blue, still smarting from blows to its reputation caused by the last storm, was quick to cancel flights. It clearly learned its lesson. The irony, however, is that thousands of passengers still did not get to where they were going.

This raises an interesting question for PR practitioners and operational managers at airlines. What is a failure in the eyes of the public versus an act of God that passengers will forgive, even though upset? It seems that the line between passenger anger and acceptance is not well defined. It appears that if all airlines act as one, cancellations are acceptable but if some cancel and others don't, that might be a situation in which passengers become angry. Yet, airlines make decisions independently, so how is one to know what to do?

The difference in Friday's storm is that there was no doubt. No one was going to take off. What fell from the sky turned into instant cement on the ground. Saturday morning, I walked outside and my boots did not sink into four inches of ice. Fortunately for the airlines, the weather warmed rapidly, and they resumed flying quickly. Passengers appear to have accepted the delays, though weary from waiting.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Telling On Oneself 

So this is what the Sarbanes Oxley law has become -- forced transparency. Before the law, it is unlikely General Motors would have said publicly that its internal accounting controls aren't working. Such tattletale statements are a new kind of reputational crisis. "Uhh, sorry but we can't add."

Such filings pose an interesting situation for management. It is forcing leaders to say publicly they are incompetent. How does one defend that in terms of public relations? There is little one can do except to report progress in getting problems fixed. It is unlikely, however, that PR had any influence on a press release or other news related to the SEC filing. This is a situation in which the lawyers and CFO controlled what was said and how much. The PR department may not have known the filing was being made. Yet, it has direct impact on the reputation of the company and its managers. GM will now have to keep investors apprised of its progress in fixing its accounting control system in addition to other challenges the firm is facing. Reputation management is more difficult than ever.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

PR Challenge 

This is not a new story, but it is interesting nonetheless. How do you sell speed limits to Germans who consider rocketing the autobahn a natural right? It seems every country and culture has non-negotiable set-asides. Even though a survey of Germans indicates they would favor the concept of speed limits to help the environment, note that German politicians are not lining up behind the idea.

Still, if Germany were to impose limits, I would like to work on the PR campaign that sells the idea. It would be a major PR challenge.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Long Arm of Online 

This article raises an issue about which PR practitioners should be concerned. It is the inability of an individual to escape his past. With global databases accessible online, a failure of yesteryear is open to everyone for the rest of an individual's life. Modern society has become a culture in which there are no second chances. I shudder to think what it would be like for my generation, which openly rebelled in the 1960s and 1970s. We are survivors of a pre-database age.

The issue the writer raises is an interesting one. What is the role of forgiveness, if any? As PR practitioners we will be given the task of supporting someone who might have been busted for something when young but has done well since then. How do we handle this issue? There is no escaping it and increasingly, there is no ignoring it either. In past years, it was one of the duties of a PR person to handle things quietly for executives when they or someone in their families got into trouble. With sites like The Smoking Gun, there is little chance of doing that, especially since the site specializes in running booking photos of prominent people.

Transparency cuts in two ways -- for good and for ill.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Deja Vu All Over Again 

Whenever one is tempted to think companies learn from experience, situations like this come along to prove organizations make the same mistakes time and again. Everyone knew subprime lending was risky, but greed drove funders and lenders. Now, New Century is collapsing and there is finger-pointing in every direction. Once again, it is time to ask where the PR practitioners are? My guess is they trusted their employers to know what they were doing, and they will be laid off with the rest of the worker-bees.

It may be too much to ask PR to stand apart from organizational ethos, but someone should have been asking questions internally. It seems clear if anyone was, no one was listening. We speak to clients about preparedness for crises and ask them to plan for worst-case scenarios. Some do: Most don't. But, someone in every organization should be looking at potential end-games and how organizations can survive them. Unfortunately, greed produces willful blindness. It is one more reason why unregulated capitalism is dangerous.

Shielding Whom? 

Here is another article calling for a Federal shield law to protect reporters from prosecution. What the article fails to confront, as so many do, is who should be protected? Should I as a PR blogger get the same protection as a working reporter at The New York Times? If not, why not? Why should there be a protected class under the First Amendment and a class exposed to the courts?

As PR practitioners, we ask clients to indemnify us against damages resulting from representing them, but that doesn't protect us from libel or lying or from breaches of confidentiality. Moreover, based on what we are doing, we can claim as much service to the public interest as reporters do.

What mainstream media want in terms of protection is noble but fraught with problems. We live in a new era, unfortunately, and we need to adapt to it.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Responding to Social Media 

I received this question late last week:

You talked about how things like camera phones and continuous news coverage have blown your average bad news like the Jet Blue delays into national headlines. But I'm interested in how a company would handle a crisis that originates with social media. For instance, when Dell computer users take their complaints to blogs. How could Dell respond to negative buzz of that magnitude and should they?

The answer is companies must be concerned with blogs and other social media postings. They should be monitoring them constantly. This has been true since bulletin boards in the 1990s allowed users to discuss and complain about the actions of corporations. When complaints become broad-based and focused, the corporation that fails to respond is heading for a reputational crisis and perhaps, a fall. Dell, for example, suffered a great deal from complaints about a decline in service. Dell finally took action but not before the company fell from favor.

It is not difficult to monitor blogs. Several search engines comb through them. It also is not difficult to respond directly to individuals or to a situation through operational improvement, e-mail and other media. The key is doing it regularly and frequently to capture and resolve complaints before they radiate beyond control and into mainstream media.

Friday, March 09, 2007

What to Worry About. 

Those who read this blog regularly are aware that my firm is skilled in handling crises. We believe every corporation should have a crisis communications plan in which real scenarios are rehearsed regularly. Few corporations actually do it, however. There are too many scenarios and predicting the future is as uncertain as handling the present.

Recently, a client asked how fast we could respond if a crisis occurred in another country. We thought about it and our answer was not fast enough, but then, it won't be fast enough for anyone today. The reason is obvious. There is a 24-hour news cycle and ubiquitous cameras from cell phones to hand-helds. News media like CNN rip holes in their scheduling to take viewers to Russia or India or South Africa in an instant. No company can keep up -- or get ahead of -- news reports moving this quickly.

What this means is there is little one can do in the early hours of crisis management except to scramble for facts along with everyone else. Phone chains are insufficient and getting someone on-site is often too slow. As a result, it seems to me the PR business needs to re-examine crisis management and perhaps, start over. How does one handle an explosion or hostage taking in a plant 5,000 miles away when news cameras are on the scene at the same time one finds out about it?

PR Campaign? 

If true, this has been an effective PR campaign and deserves to be a case study. The writer of the opinion piece is biased, however, so it is hard to know if she has stated facts accurately.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The High Cost of Reputation 

It seemed like a good idea at the time -- a bank security firm getting into electronic voting machines. Look what happened. Diebold is trying to find ways to get rid of its voting machine unit because it has harmed the reputation of the rest of the company. In retrospect, it is clear Diebold didn't know or understand what it was getting into. It does now. There is even a question whether anyone would want to buy the unit.

Where PR Battles Are Now 

This blog entry on a PR battle between Microsoft and Google is instructive. Note where the warfare is taking place -- within blogs. We saw this happen in politics. It won't be long before the largest corporations will fight most of their PR battles in blogs and not in traditional media. Google and Microsoft are early leaders for a fundamental change in reputation management.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

When Will We Ever Learn? 

This complaint from a blogger is an old sad song about PR. When will our business learn to check before sending mass mailings? There seems to be an element in PR that believes spamming is effective strategy. It isn't and never has been. I suspect the mindset of the PR practitioner who engages in such broadside contact is "you never know." It's like playing the lottery. "Maybe some day, I'll win. Meanwhile, I will keep taxing myself with the cost of a lottery ticket."

The illogical thinking is depressing and makes one wonder about the future of the business. That written, I will relate what a PR practitioner said to me yesterday at lunch. This fellow has been around the PR business for decades and today, he teaches writing to practitioners who still can't string words together correctly. He said he worries about the future of PR based on the young practitioners he sees. He called PR a second or third-tier business that isn't getting the brightest minds. Maybe his view explains continuous spamming. But, if true, it also explains the decline of the field.

One could reply that it is just Old Farts complaining about the younger generation as Old Farts tend to do. He has a point, however, when spamming like this continues unabated. Some practitioners haven't learned the rules of the business -- or never knew them.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Not Good PR 

This column about Best Buy, the major electronics retail chain, is a PR embarrassment. The company only acknowledged it uses a separate intranet under pressure from authorities, and it admitted prices on its intranet may differ from prices on its web site. The company's assurances sound hollow and its slowness to admit to its intranet makes it appear devious.

Having worked on more than a few crises, this incident smacks of a lawyer's hand. "Don't tell them anything unless you have to." If that is true, it is the wrong way to go about it. The reporter found out anyhow and in his eyes, the company has lied. It will be hard to convince the reporter in the future that Best Buy has its customers' welfare in mind.

The result is a blow to the company's reputation that was and is unnecessary. What harm would it have caused to let the reporter know in the first place that Best Buy has an intranet? Most companies do. The result is that Best Buy made what should have been a little story into a big one.

I would like to think that the Best Buy's PR practitioners would have handled this differently. I hope I'm right.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Sorry "Bout That 

You might have noticed I didn't update the web site, online-pr.com, last Friday. There is a story behind that, which you should know. It is an example of the somewhat bizarre nature of the internet.

What happened is that on Friday morning, I began to get an error message that stated the system no longer saw nor could access the server on which my web site is stored. I figured the hosting company was doing maintenance, so I didn't think much about it until Saturday when I got the same error notice, then yesterday as well.

Something had happened. I called maintenance and reached a fellow with a thick accent who looked over the system and promptly told me I couldn't access my site in the way I was doing it. "That can't be," I said. "I've been accessing the site for seven years using the same ID." He told me it couldn't be right. I asked how. He had no answer. He gave me a new ID. It worked and I got in. He insisted the ID he gave me was the right one all the way along.

So here I was updating my web site in "error" for seven years. Of course, I don't believe that. Someone at the host company flipped a switch, did an update, restored code or something that caused the system to change. That person left no record of what he or she did and might not have known that he or she did it. Suddenly, the system changed.

The new ID might work for days, months or years and then, change again. I don't know, but it is a lack of control that keeps webmasters on edge. Of course, no one tells you this when you start a web site. Online-PR.com is in its 10th year and it hasn't been offline too often in that time period. Usually when it went down, it was for a mysterious reason, much like what happened to it on Friday.

I wish I could say that I know why these things happen but I don't, and apparently, no one else does either.

Friday, March 02, 2007

More PR Bull? 

Blogger Sterling Hager took after me for my Wednesday posting on the irrationality of markets. His argument against my view was stated as follows:

Mr. Horton's chief assertion is public company CEO life expectancy shouldn't be tied to stock performance. He says, It has never made sense to me to value a CEO's ability against such variability. That's not only ridiculous, it's dangerous, and it begs the question, 'If not stock performance, than upon what shall we measure their performance?' His perfect smile? Her people skills?

How about the balance sheet and income statement– would that be too harsh? But alas, those crazy little annoying quarterly accounting things have a way of influencing the stock price, too, and there we are, right back where we started.

Individual investors can be irrational. But in the collective, a zillion buyers and sellers over a reasonable period of time have a certain 'Wisdom of Crowds' that can't be ignored. Moreover, for every person selling earlier this week, there were people buying. Are the buyers irrational, too? Stocks didn't tank in 1929 because investors all at once came down with a national pandemic of irrationality. Microsoft, for example, hasn't traded in a low narrow band for years because we don't get it. It's there because people get that Microsoft doesn't get it.
I could go on and on… CEOs know what they're signing up for… stockholders have a rightful expectation to a reasonable and timely return on their investment… long-term blind faith investing is for losers… but my main point is this: What's happening to America?

The trend toward not keeping score so that Johnny doesn't get depressed about playing soccer badly is now making its way to the board room? Don't tell Jane her P/E sucks… it'll hurt her feelings? People! Performance matters. When it comes to money, which is what almost everything eventually comes down to, it's all about the ROI.

I agree with his argument but for stock price. There isn't a wisdom of crowds in the market. There is an irrationality of crowds aided and abetted by automated stock selling programs that take human input out of decision making.

CEOs must be measured, but it seems to me they should be measured by revenue and earnings growth, by book value of stock, by any number of metrics associated with controllable variables rather than by stock price. Too often, stocks are "out of favor" in a market. Whole sectors can be "out of favor." Should CEOs be fired because individuals who make up the market pay no attention to the sector? The error, it seems to me, is to assign a "super-rationality" to the combined decision making of thousands of individuals driven largely by fear and greed.

When I started in the PR business, I was in investor relations where I handled stocks of OTC companies -- good firms making excellent money with underpriced stocks relative to the market. I would go to business school at night and learn about the Efficient Market Hypothesis and return to work the next day to represent firms that were in anything but efficient markets. The wisdom of crowds wasn't working then: It doesn't work now or markets wouldn't gyrate by hundreds of points from day to day as crowds (or their automated programs) buy and sell with all the characteristics of a panic.

I don't feel sorry for CEOs. Too many have been too arrogant for far too long. But it is an issue of equity. CEOs didn't deserve the pay they were getting in the 90s when the market as a whole rose to bubble levels. They don't deserve to be penalized when investors abandon markets as a group either. If that is PR bull, then so be it.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Good Advice 

This article on web metrics provides good advice in that it avoids a single metric and looks at what happens. It is also against conventional wisdom. Marketers want a single set of numbers that apply to everyone, much like cost per thousand for traditional print advertising. People don't work in one way, however, and web sites don't flow the same way either. Each site is unique and hence, the user's experience will vary uniquely. What this means is that marketers need to examine carefully what users do when they come to a site -- how they enter, use and leave it. Only then can one refine user flow and conversion.

From a PR perspective, we should be asking the same questions about media information on web sites. For example, some sites have great information but finding it is difficult and the media won't surf forever looking for it. I know that because they call me and ask me to track down studies stored on client sites. I too have difficulty finding the information. The "conversion funnel" is fatally flawed.

The difficulty several of my clients have is a lack of control. They can't unilaterally change their web sites to make them easier to use. The webmaster makes changes, and the webmaster might get around to redesign eventually. When that happens, however, PR practitioners should be ready with specific advice for how to change site design and flow. Often, they are not, and they lose the opportunity to improve the press section because they don't know what to tell site designers. What PR has yet to learn is that site usability is as much a PR skill as writing.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?