Sunday, September 30, 2007

Long Day 

I won't be blogging tomorrow. I'm on a 6 am plane to a client and won't get back until after midnight. Something has to give.

Friday, September 28, 2007


Dictators know the strength of communications so they control them. It is typical, therefore, that the ruling junta in Myanmar has cut internet communications to the country. The junta doesn't want the world to know what it is doing to stop demonstrations against it, and it might succeed. Still, there are ways for news to get out and it probably will.

The military rulers have lost the PR battle to demonstrating monks so it is using the one tool it knows -- raw power. Shooting demonstrators, injecting fear into the population and cutting the people's ability to talk to one another is a time-honored way of gaining control. The question that remains is whether the monks will give up. If they don't, the government will face a symbol that violence can't defeat.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Winning but Losing 

The United Auto Workers union in the US is a symbol, but not a symbol it hopes to be. It is a sign of the weakness of industrial unions in America rather than their strength. It is a case of an organization and its membership that moved away from the mainstream and found itself isolated. It seems clear General Motors got what it wanted out of the membership by shifting healthcare costs to the union and off the company's income statement. So what was the purpose of the strike that started and ended too quickly to hurt either side?

The union's leadership apparently understands that US auto companies must be competitive to survive. The question is whether its members do. The strike might have been a public relations exercise more for the membership than for the company. I.e., does the union really want to face its ultimate destruction by forcing even more jobs offshore or out of Detroit?

It is hard to bring back any member-supported organization that has lost its way. Members would rather hold on to what they have and bicker than adapt to realities about them. It takes extraordinary leadership to get members focused and moving forward. Sometimes the task is futile. It is too early to know where the UAW will end up, but an answer will come if its membership keeps shrinking.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Transparency, Transparency 

I meant to comment on this two days ago but didn't get to it. There was a comment on it in another blog yesterday. What amazed me is that Burson Marsteller is a respected firm with skilled and intelligent practitioners, yet someone apparently still doesn't understand transparency in the internet age. It is hard to get away with front groups now. Thousands of bloggers, activists and others look for sources of funding and find them. Burson should have known that building a front group for Microsoft was risky.

I would like to think that Burson didn't hide Microsoft's influence but didn't trumpet it either -- sort of a half-transparency. But, that doesn't work once a group's cover is blown in a publication like The Wall Street Journal. I'm sure Burson has good reasons for what it did. It still looks ridiculous -- and sneaky.

How Low? 

How low will political marketers and PR consultants stoop to win? This low. It is embarrassing, to say the least. No wonder we have reputations of being flacks and "spinmeisters."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Wise Advice 

This is wise advice to the news industry. The writer suggests that traditional media stop identifying themselves by the medium in which they are working and to look at what they are -- news generation and delivery companies. They may use any or all media to develop and report stories. This means, of course, that today's news companies have to develop skill sets in both traditional and new media. They are, in fact, doing that. Reporters at The Wall Street Journal, for example, have become on-air personalities at CNBC and in-house at the Journal's own TV studio. They are writing blogs and producing podcasts. They are posting stories first on the Journal's web site rather than waiting for the next morning's paper.

But, the Journal still calls itself a newspaper. It is time to stop doing that. It is a news publishing company. How it delivers news is a matter of reader or viewer preference.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Instructive Graph 

Journalism has always been ill-paid by comparison to other jobs. It remains so, apparently. One doesn't go into journalism to make money. One goes into the business "to save the world" as a former reporter and colleague says. This is why journalists and PR practitioners often don't speak the same language. Their assumptions are different. A PR practitioner will approach a topic with economics in mind. A journalist will approach the same topic with fairness as a guide. Their conclusions might be quite different.

We have to be broad-minded enough to see an issue from a journalist's perspective and to explain it to managers who have been trained for decades that the profit motive is the driving force in society. If journalists were paid better, that might not be the case, but they haven't been in the history of journalism, and they aren't likely to be. They have experienced the hypocrisy of American business, a failing I clearly recall from my brief time as a reporter. I used to say publishers would defend the right of Free Speech in every instance except the one in which a reporter asked for a raise. Their response then was that there were thousands of others out there waiting to take the reporter's job.

Pay scales are a useful reminder that some essential skills in society are ill-paid. It isn't always about money, and it never has been. If it were, we wouldn't have the media, teachers or government workers, to name a few.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Good Product, Terrible PR 

Here is an example of an invention for humane crowd control that is suffering from terrible PR. It is questionable whether it will be put to use because of fears of misuse. There is little doubt that even though it is safe, it is a frightening device.

Continuous Shoe Crisis? 

Who would have thought there would be a continuous crisis for a shoe company over clogs getting caught in escalators? But, based on this story, it is a serious issue. I wondering how the company's PR arm is handling it. It seems rumors have reached the level of urban myth.

Future Tech 

This is an interesting view of how technology may impact the future. The Cisco Systems executive divides the world into information rich and information poor. With low cost computing and networks reaching the poor, they can become players in society and join the information rich. Expect them to make their voices heard in ways they cannot do now. Expect calls for justice and fairness in the sharing of the world's resources. Expect them to join, as the executive says, the world economy and to provide competition for jobs globally.

The pressure of the Third World on society will be hard to ignore, and that 's a good thing. But, it also means publics of tomorrow may be different than today, and PR practitioners should be preparing for them. We should have a better and growing understanding of the economic and political issues of countries we can largely ignore today. We should learn how organizations we represent impact these countries and vice versa. The time will come soon enough when we will put that knowledge to work.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Time for Damage Control 

If this fellow's allegations are taken seriously, they would jeopardize a multi-billion dollar plane development program and the company itself. I suspect PR is working overtime to rebut him. Whistle-blowers like this are extraordinarily dangerous, because they believe they are right and because they bring evidence to support their contentions. Boeing must be deeply worried, or it ought to be.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Too True 

This unhappy view of publicists is sadly true. It has been this way for a long time. In the 1980s, I would quiz subordinates on product knowledge, so they could represent clients properly. In the 1990s, I worked with publicists who didn't know the products they were handling, and their attitude was that it wasn't their job. They were there to get releases and press kits out. Today, not much has changed except the environment in which publicists work.

There never has been and never will be an excuse for failing to understand the issue, product or service one is promoting. It is self-limiting laziness. There are publicists who consider themselves salespersons. "Give me a topic, and I'll dial for dollars with the media." They are helpless when reporters ask questions. Reporters get frustrated and go around them, if possible, or they don't write a good story because they can't get answers quickly enough.

It is hard to keep up with product knowledge, but it is a basic task of PR.

Thanks to my colleague, Mike Millican, for spotting this article.

Even in Second Life 

Even in Second Life, it is hard to escape reputation issues.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Your Future Audience 

This is an interesting study on how students are learning with technology today in colleges and universities. Think of it this way. It is a description of your future audience. Note the amount of time students spend online each week -- 18 hours on average. If I were a member of a traditional medium, this would cause me to shiver -- and work harder at establishing an online presence. It also tells me that PR communications tactics need to change rapidly, if we are to reach the newest generation in the workforce.

How Not To Hire 

A California State University, UC Irvine, has just demonstrated publicly how not to hire a dean for its new law school. First, you hire him and sign the documents. Then, you fire him for no other reason than he writes opinion pieces in the newspaper. Then, you rehire him after massive public protests. Lastly, you take the few shreds of reputation you have left as Chancellor of the university and you give them a proper burial. The Chancellor has lost the confidence of his entire faculty and ignited protests. Of course, if he wants to look on the bright side, he has gained national prominence for his new law school. Now, his PR department has years of work to help rebuild the school's reputation. It probably won't happen while this chancellor continues in his job.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Wages of Reputation 

Microsoft is learning what poor corporate reputation means. It is expensive for one thing. The blow to Microsoft's reputation in Europe is huge.

Don't Anger a Journalist 

My friend, Peter Shinbach, tipped me off to a journalist's blog rant against cable provider, Comcast, that is worth reading. Here are parts one, two and three. Peruse them all and wonder how Comcast is going to recover any reputation it had for service. The diatribe is a reminder that PR is what you do and not what you say or spin. Get the basics right and the rest tends to follow. Get the basics wrong, and little you say in your defense rings true no matter how creative you become in saying it.

Friday, September 14, 2007

International Reputation 

Reputation counts among countries too as China is finding out.

Phony Interviews 

Here is one more reason why thorough web monitoring is essential. You never know who is going to make up an interview and publish it as real.

Monopoly and PR 

You don't need good PR when you have a monopoly.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Online Reference Library 

The vast availability of online material has increased the demand for accuracy in PR. There is less excuse for failing to check facts, for misspelling names or missing essential points when one has a search engine to check. However, search engines are often unable to bring up just the site you need right now. They produce 10,000 hits, and your answer is in there somewhere. This is the reason that PR along with most practices needs its own online reference sources that collect data in depth in areas practitioners are likely to use. It was the reason for the launch of online-pr.com 10 years ago and the reason why this site continues.

This article discusses the need for an online reference library. It focuses on online-pr.com because it is a site I know well.

As usual, I look forward to getting your comments. It is the 70th essay on PR and communications posted on online-pr.com.

Online Reputation 

Technocrats understand the importance of reputation and are looking for ways to make it portable online. It's a good idea. It won't replace PR's role of reputation protection, but it can help.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Real v. Perception 

This story is laughable for what it fails to say. Amtrak is a train service that would infuriate a European or Japanese who is used to trains that run reasonably on time. It's closer to a third-world service in reputation but for a few trains that run along a high-speed corridor between New York and Washington, DC. But, even then... My wife took Amtrak last weekend to Richmond, VA, which is about 70 miles past Washington, DC. Her train broke down about 50 miles into the trip leaving the passengers stranded on the tracks for two hours then sitting in the heat and dark at Philadelphia's train station.

Amtrak has a huge gap between reality and reputation, even with record ridership. For one, the service has been a money-loser since it was formed and today, it no longer makes an effort to run with a balanced budget. It points out that train service is subsidized everywhere in the world where high-speed and timely rail service are a reality.

I'm not sure how one does PR for such a conflicted entity. It can't abandon unprofitable routes because Congressmen won't let it. It can't make money because of the unprofitable routes. It has been suggested time and again that Amtrak could be viable if it stops long-haul service and concentrates just on corridors where it is competitive with air service, but this sends both its supporters and critics into a tizzy. So, it limps along without enough money to do its job right and it is an embarrassment that people try not to talk about -- like a relative who tipples too much. I'd like to see a strategic PR plan for Amtrak that is built on its peculiar reality.

Good Idea 

Here is a good idea. A local newspaper helps identify and publicize to its readers those blogs that are reliable in what they report, thus saving readers time in finding blogs to read. It's an idea that can work well for PR too, particularly with trade blogs one might not know about -- e.g., with tech blogs like this and this, both of which do a good job of tracking news that doesn't reach regular trade magazines or web sites. It's a way for old media with its standards of journalism to be relevant to new media.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Slow-motion Disaster 

It is interesting to watch this slow-motion PR disaster for the Republican party. Democrats are wooing Hispanics, the largest minority in the US, while Republicans are talking about border fences and jailing illegal immigrants. Hispanics are moving in droves to Democrats. How blind can a party be to pursue such a wrong-headed direction? The Bush administration had the right idea for how to handle immigration, but Bush could not control his own people. So, it is time to sit back and watch voters swing from Republicans to Democrats and to reflect on the long history of nativism in the US. At least the Republicans can say their public relations wounds are self-inflicted. They have no one to blame but themselves, and the mess they are leaving for their future political spinmeisters will take a long time to clean up. One wonders if the Republican Party is ensuring minority status for decades to come.

The Common Good? 

How does PR handle this situation? Neither company is willing to give an inch in the war over the next generation DVD standard. Those who buy one format can't view movies in the other, so the public is not buying, for the most part. What good is that?

I'm sure PR practitioners at Sony and Toshiba are touting the merits of their respective formats and are unwilling to suggest compromise internally. Their bosses are grasping for huge returns and nothing so far has persuaded them to stop fighting. The result is the public loses. So, where is the public in Sony and Toshiba public relations? What is needed is corporate statesmanship, and there doesn't appear to be any. The sad part of the situation is that this format battle has been going on for several years and has slowed the advance of technology. At some point, one of the two companies will concede defeat, but how long will consumers wait until that happens?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Hard to Overcome 

It is hard to overcome bad PR when your company is at fault. Take these cases. The phone company has caused either smoke or fire conditions while installing fiber optic cable links. PR practitioners have tried to dispute whether or not there was a fire or a smoke condition. That is a distinction without a difference. Either way, the phone company's reputation is taking a hit. Good PR is not to let it happen in the first place.

On the other hand, if you have ever drilled into a wall, you know it is nearly impossible to determine what is back there, no matter how hard you try. When you drill through a wall, there is a greater chance of hitting something you didn't expect. It seems to me the phone company's PR staff and installers would be better off explaining the complexities of installation and precautions installers are taking. Homeowners will still suffer angst but they will better understand the job at hand. It is silly to dispute what has happened once damage is done.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Persistence of Myths 

I missed this story earlier this week but it is important for PR practitioners, especially those fighting rumors about an individual or company. According to this story, fighting may make the matter worse, if the myth is repeated while providing accurate information. We have known for a long time in communications that repeating allegations while answering questions is bad because a reporter can quote one out of context. This story points out that it is also a bad way to respond because people tend to associate the charge with the person and believe the myth. In other words, we have to train ourselves how to respond to rumors without mentioning the rumors. That is not always easy to do, but there is little choice.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Free Speech for Bloggers 

I missed this earlier this week, but it is one step in the US to recognition of bloggers as journalists of a kind. The Federal Election Commission isn't the final authority, but it is the arbiter for political campaigning where blogging has had huge impact. From a PR perspective, supporters will use blogs not only to talk about candidates but to argue with opponents. That is good. It will add to the noise but there is a chance that it might also add to understanding.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

More to Worry About 

I wasn't aware of this site but it is more for PR practitioners to worry about. It is a wiki for people to spill secrets about governments, companies and individuals. Its statement of purpose is chilling.

Wikileaks is developing an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and participatory analysis. Our primary interests are oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we expect to be of assistance to peoples of all countries who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations. We aim for maximum political impact; this means our interface is identical to Wikipedia and usable by non-technical people. We have received over 1.2 million documents so far from dissident communities and anonymous sources...

The site has been successful already in revealing the misbehavior of an African leader. If it endures, it is a matter of time before whistle-blowers use it elsewhere. I suppose one can look at it as a full-employment reason for crisis PR practitioners.

More Hype 

This is an interesting story for what it doesn't say. Namely, it avoids the issue that the primary link between England and France, the tunnel beneath the Channel, has been a money-loser since it was built. This paragraph from Wikipedia says it best.

At completion, it was estimated that the whole project cost around £10 billion, including a cost overrun of 80 percent. The tunnel has been operating at a significant loss, and shares of the stock that funded the project lost 90% of their value between 1989 and 1998. The company announced a loss of £1.33 billion in 2003 and £570 million in 2004, and has been in constant negotiations with its creditors. In its defence, Eurotunnel cites a lack of use of the infrastructure, an inability to attract business because of high access charges, too much debt which causes a heavy interest payment burden, and a low volume of both passenger and freight traffic 38% and 24%, respectively, of that which was forecast.

Eurostar operators are hyping speed while ignoring the obvious. No matter how much traffic they run through the tunnel, it is unlikely to turn a profit. From that perspective, this isn't good PR. It is a story about piling more debt on an already bad business.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Wages of Hype, cont. 

Remember when cities were going to install WiFi to give citizens access to the internet on every street corner and park bench? It didn't turn out that way. Once again, hype got in front of the practicality of getting the job done. Now with the the imminent arrival of Wimax, a much faster technology with a larger footprint, there probably isn't much need for WiFi anyway.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the failure of cities to get themselves connected, but in this case, failure has proven to be an advantage. Still, municipal authorities, companies that claimed far too much and complicit media all can take the blame for letting hype get in the way of facts. I'm sure there were a few PR practitioners in this mix as well. The lesson here is that conservatism is key in talking about new technology. Concentrate on what is and not the promise. That is hard to do when dreams of progress are dancing in the heads of authorities, but it is safer in the long run.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Labor Day 

Labor Day in the US is a strange holiday. It is the traditional end of smmer and day before back to school for reluctant children, but it was never intended to be that. In 1882, it was founded as a day off to honor the working man, the laborer and craft skills worker. The original meaning of the holiday has mutated.

What happened to Labor Day is a reminder to communicators that words and events have to be reconnected to their original meanings constantly or they change over time. One has to remind others "why we are here." The Jewish Passover question, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" is an example of reconnection from long ago. The need to remind is especially true for mission statements and statements of purpose. Both are largely forgotten in daily activity. One task of the CEO is to drive home the original purpose of the organization through constant chatter about it. "We're a customer-driven organization. We're here for customers. We start with customer focus. The customer is always right." Sometimes the repetition is annoying but employees can never say they didn't know or they forgot.

Perhaps Labor Day will return someday to its original meaning. I doubt it. Once understanding changes, it is hard to return to original intent.

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