Friday, November 30, 2007

Don't Cross the Online World 

Facebook is learning one doesn't upset the online world and get away with it easily. There is no confirmation yet the company is going to alter advertising plans, but the pressure isn't going away. The challenge for the company is serious -- how to monetize information in its system without upsetting members. There is apparently no easy answer. Advertisers want exposure for their goods and services. Members may not in the way Facebook plans to do it with Beacon. That doesn't make Beacon a bad idea, but it may require a great deal more communication with members to get them to understand it. It's a fundamental PR challenge, and there will be more like it. The online world is not afraid to speak loudly about likes and dislikes. However, beta testing can stir activists who are not representative of a larger population. Advanced communication for a new idea often cannot convey the experience. Just doing it may be too sudden for consumers. Still, it seems to me that Facebook would have been better to have eased into its proposal, since it deals with issues of privacy.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

How Difficult Is The Newspaper Business? 

Even the New York Times is feeling the effects of declining circulation and advertising.

Political Transparency 

The internet has been a blessing in achieving greater political transparency, but that has made the lives of politicians and their communications people more difficult. Take, for example, this blog entry that reveals the intentions of the Edward's presidential campaign, which had been hidden beneath a call to rise against lobbyists. The blogger was offended that the campaign wouldn't admit it was engaged in a list-building exercise. Or, take this report from a citizen's group that released on the internet all the "earmarks" politicians tucked into the Labor Health and Human Services spending bill. (An earmark designates money for a politician's pet project and is also called "pork.") These kinds of pressures to open the political process did not exist in the past. They are mostly for the good, although some political activities are better conducted out of the eyes of the general public. What this tells me, however, is that the national political scene needs a different kind of communicator who can thrive in the more open environment. Given the propensity of political communicators to bend truth, that might be difficult.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Wisdom of Crowds? 

Anyone who believes in the wisdom of crowds needs to answer this. How is it that the crowd again descended to folly in overbuying real estate just as the crowd blundered in overbuying tech stocks less than 10 years ago? As we know well, a crowd is frequently and disastrously wrong when it comes to investments. In other words, when thinking through PR messages, just because a message is popular with a crowd doesn't make the message right. Sometimes, PR should risk the displeasure of a crowd heading in the wrong direction.

How Do You Do Publicity For This? 

Here is a topic that would task the genius of a PR practitioner. How does one make re-use of waste water in the pure water supply sound appealing? Yet, with growing water shortages around the world, there will be more projects like this. Someone will need to sell the idea to a skeptical public soon. I suppose the message has to be that the water discharge is pure, and there is no place else to get it. Still, the thought of drinking water that has gone through a toilet is appalling.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


It is difficult to fight back in PR when an opponent uses misdirection. In a case we're working on, an activist group mis-characterized a technological function as invasion of privacy and called for regulation of it in a manner that misses what the function is. The activists made their proposition sound simple when it is anything but. The group wrapped itself in truth, justice and right but threatens to wreck an industry that benefits millions.

How does one fight back against that? With facts presented as clearly and as cogently as possible. That, of course, is not as easy as the misdirection because the real story is complicated. However, there is no gain in fighting simple wrong with complex fact. The public doesn't listen. The challenge, then, is to simplify accurately a story that resists it. It's an interesting task that takes honing of logical steps from point to point, but, if done right, the message explains itself. The key is to start with concepts that everyone accepts and to move into ideas that no one yet grasps and to make the transition as painless as possible. That is easy to write but difficult to achieve.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Where Was I 

Taking off for four days is disorienting. I need to find a way back into work and the blog. One benefit of the time off was reading. I'm finishing a biography of Stalin before he came to power called "Young Stalin." It traces the devious evil and vengeance of the man through the years that he built the Bolshevik party with Lenin until it took over Russia. Stalin was the pinnacle of a person for whom "the end justified the means." He engaged in murder, robbery, shakedowns. blackmail, anything that helped him gather money and control people. He was an affable person to his friends and deeply frightening to everyone else. Later, of course, he turned against many of his friends as well because he was riven with paranoia. He sent millions of innocents to death along with a few guilty of conspiring against him.

Stalin's history proves a need for transparency in society. Stalin worked best out of sight where he could plot and maneuver against others. He perfected this craft after years of being on the run. He depended on secrecy to get his foul work done.

I would like to think that a person like Stalin could not gain power in the US or survive in power for long. But, anything is possible. The book is a reminder that sociopaths can seize power and when they do, they are among the most destructive forces known to man.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Few Days Off 

I'm going to disappear for Thanksgiving, starting tomorrow. Posting will begin next Monday.

Company Politics in Public 

This is a difficult PR problem when employees play company politics in public. In this case, a new CEO and the board are facing a potential revolt by its largest employee body. It is even more difficult because if Merrill's brokers don't get their way, they can take their clients and go elsewhere. Mobility is easy on Wall Street. What can PR do about it? Not much. This is a CEO- and board-level communications challenge. What both say to the brokers will be critical in future relations, especially if there is no intention to give into the brokers' demand. It will be interesting to watch the outcome.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Another Way to Lose Reputation 

Here is another way to lose reputation -- dispense malware from your news site. One of India's largest news sites was apparently hacked, and the organization did not move quickly to stop the attack.

Still Looking 

E-books are like the video phone. We waited for decades for a practical video phone and when they arrived, no one wanted them. As this article notes, e-books are a solution looking for a problem. It turns out that the public still prefers old-fashioned communications technology -- paper and ink. There are good points about e-books -- portability, multiple texts, multiple fonts and type sizes --but nothing that is going to get me to run out and buy one for $400. I might consider it if e-books drop into the range of $50, but even then, I'm not sure. PR practitioners won't have to worry about e-books for a long time, it seems.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Web Used To Be Fast 

Marketing executives say they have trouble getting their web campaigns launched on time, if this survey is to be believed. A core benefit of the web is speed, but speed has disappeared in meetings, negotiations and waiting for coders to get the job done. Maybe it is time to return to simplicity.

The Changing PR Environment 

If you can text for pizza, and now you can, think how that changes what we should be doing in PR to get messages out.

Required Reading 

This is required reading for PR practitioners, not so much for learning how to leak, but to learn why so much information gets out that shouldn't. The focus of the article is Washington DC, but the motivations are universal. Washington has raised the leak to an art form. Organizations outside the beltway have yet to reach the same level, and it will be fortunate if they don't. Still, there are points in this article PR practitioners should know.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Over Control 

This incident is old news, but it continues to annoy. The case of a planted questioner at Mrs. Clinton's rally is a typical example of marketing over-control. It is also an example of what has happened to PR in recent years. The desire to get rid of variability produces embarrassing outcomes. Unfortunately, campaigning and life are changeable. The unexpected intrudes, and one learns to deal with it. Voters and the public look for how individuals and companies handle change because it shows character beneath the mask. When one shields an individual or organization from the unplanned, the result is an artificial wall, which will break over time. Usually an individual or organization that has lived within the wall is unprepared and unequipped to handle what pierces defenses.

Mrs. Clinton claimed she knew nothing about what was happening, and the plant was the result of an over-zealous staff. Maybe so, but it is telling that an individual tolerates such over control. What would she do as president where emergencies flood into the oval office day and night?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

How Things Have Changed 

It is an odd day when the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission comes out publicly to defend the existence of newspapers by calling them a threatened species. It wasn't long ago that newspapers were the key news medium of the nation. I don't agree with the chairman, however. There are many news sources now, and citizens have a choice of which ones they view or read. Newspapers are one element in a broad mix of communications. He does have a point in that newspapers are still the main content generators of local news, but that is changing as newsrooms cut back on reporting staffs. Newspapers won't go away, but they are diminished in importance. It will do them good to fight harder for readers. Publishers had been fat and self-satisfied for far too long. This is one more reason, however, why PR practitioners must be skilled in multimedia.

Great PR 

Google seems to be taking a PR tip from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) with this move. Note that the reward for success is five times larger than what DARPA gave to the winner of its robot car contest earlier this month. It's wonderful positioning for Google, which has already the reputation for being a leader in programming. And, it gives a kickstart to getting applications for its new mobile phone software. One contest does far more than an equivalent amount of advertising.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Consumer Truth Squad 

Finally, the corporate world has a truth squad similar to that used in political advertising. This will make marketers uncomfortable -- and should. Marketing claims have a history of being stretched beyond accuracy. However, it will create reputation problems for companies as well, and this is where PR will come in. Note that the first point of attack is pharmaceutical advertising to consumers. I mentioned previously in this blog that pharmaceutical D to C seemed to be the starting point for a general reputation decline in the pharma industry.

Funny But True 

This note on using Google's online tools and wasting time is funny but true. Productivity software is a trap if it isn't used for productive purposes. I see it less now, but there was a time when colleagues adapted new utilities as they came along and spent more time learning them than using them in work. I am guilty of the same. But, eventually, one has to make a choice about changing work habits. What is faster and more accurate? It turns out that most PR practitioners need few tools to get their jobs done. That doesn't mean one stops looking. Practitioners should always allow time for experimentation to find software that will make their lives easier. It does come along but not as frequently as one might think.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Charisma and PR Risks 

Everyone knows the benefits of representing a charismatic individual. The person is magnetic. People flock to him or her. The PR task is preserving the person more than projecting his or her message. There is, however, another side to charisma that is less talked about. That is the charismatic person who is a PR risk because of the individual or the individual's message. This essay looks at the bottom side of charisma and provides some guidelines for how to handle the risks involved.

Many PR practitioners won't have the opportunity to work with a charismatic person. They are rare, but they are out there. Consider the article a caution.

This is the 73rd essay posted on online-pr.com.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Unusual Strategy 

This is interesting news, if true. Merck pharmaceuticals, after winning most of the lawsuits against it over the drug Vioxx, is about to settle the rest of the claims. Has the company decided it isn't worth it economically to continue litigation, or has it established with trial successes that any settlement won't be as large as first estimated? Either way, Merck's reputation took a blow with the Vioxx affair. It will take years for the company to repair, if it can, the image it had of a caring corporation.

The pharmaceutical industry in general has fallen into disrepute and gained the reputation of money-grubbers no different than the rest of companies. It is hard to remember now, but it wasn't always that way. The industry was once honored for huge leaps it made in the control of diseases. I may be wrong, but it seems to me the industry had a better reputation before it was allowed to advertise directly to patients. Advertisements for such lifestyle drugs as Viagra haven't helped and the difficulty that pharmas have today of developing major drugs hasn't supported their image either. It seems it will take a whole new way of thinking about marketing for major pharmas to get back to where they were. That thinking isn't apparent now.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Massive Energy: Bad Reputation 

The largest energy source in the US suffers from a bad reputation, and it makes little sense. The country is energy dependent when it has more than enough energy. Logic would dictate that one find a way to work with coal to get rid of its "dirty" elements while keeping its power, but that doesn't seem to be the thinking of environmentalists. They want to get rid of coal completely. And go to what? All the windmills and solar panels one could build would not replace the power from coal-burning plants. There is a massive technical and PR challenge here for those willing to tackle it -- how to rehabilitate coal. It would be a fun project on which to work.

It Only Takes One Employee 

It only takes one employee error to put an entire company at reputational risk. In this case the employee fell for a phishing scam, but in the process, he turned over the keys to the company database. The phisher was smart in that he (almost certainly a he) did not spam the company's customers but carefully moved to penetrate their databases. This kind of failure in the internet age is scary, and PR practitioners need to be alert to how to handle it. The first step, of course, is to stop the penetration. The second step is an apology to customers, an explanation of what happened but most importantly, the solution the company is using so it never happens again. Salesforce.com did not appear to own up immediately to the failure, which only hurts its reputation the more.

Cases like this give executives the shivers.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


The internet allows all kinds of inappropriate behavior. Creating phony candidate web sites to subvert candidates is sophmoric and unfair. There are spoof sites that are clearly send-ups, and there are sites that can pass themselves off as the real thing. There is nothing wrong with a spoof site because it declares its intention. There is plenty wrong with a site that tries to pass itself off. Both kinds of sites are allowable under Free Speech, but there ought to be a ruling that sites clearly identify where they are from and who is running them. Hiding behind anonymity is a path to criminal behavior.

One learns to expect all kinds of behavior in elections. PR principles are thrown out the window in an effort to do anything and everything to get a candidate into office. It has been that way since the beginning of the country. However, if there is one benefit that the internet should bring to campaigns, it is transparency. That has been achieved with campaign donations, but phony web sites are a setback. If the trend continues, the Federal Election Commission should step in.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Numbers like this are an incentive for the newspaper industry to move more quickly into online. Depending on who you believe, the industry is beginning to understand what to do or it still lags, trying to control a medium that wants information to be free.

What Do You Do? 

What can PR do to help stop this? There is a point in a death spiral in which communications are of little use. It is shouting into a hurricane.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Can't Hear You 

There is one communications failure that is indeed frustrating for an audience. It is an inability to hear what a presenter is saying. Yesterday, we sat through a three-hour production of Cymbeline and heard about one in 3o words. Part of the problem was a theater that is too large for the music of Shakespeare's language. The other part was the actors themselves, most of whom were not trained to deliver iambic pentameter clearly. It was interesting that a few of the actors and actresses could be heard even when they turned away, but most could not. I suppose one could say that the production is an example of a lack of classic voice training in America.

The play itself is not often produced and one could understand why. It takes about 25 minutes of exposition at the end for the characters to unwind the convoluted plot by which time there are furtive glances at watches throughout the audience. But then, we may have seen a bad production.

I suppose someday I will have to see another production of Cymbeline to say that I have seen it.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Shoot the Messenger 

Ah yes, the Clinton campaign is engaged in the time-honored communications tactic of criticizing the moderator of a debate in which she didn't do well. Still, as written yesterday, the Clintons have an ability to slip punches with little damage and to come back. It is amusing that her advisors are using her slipup as an excuse for the need to raise more money. I wonder if I could do that with my clients. "I didn't get traction for that last pitch, but if you increase my budget..."

Smart PR 

Here is an example of smart PR that will lead to more efficient powertrains. Give the leaders of Formula 1 motor racing kudos they deserve. Now, if only NASCAR would do the same... The intelligence of the idea is to go back to the future. It was racing that originally developed engines, fuel systems and suspensions for the autos used today, but racing long ago left behind cars on the street. The engine development freeze will force teams to look for different ways to compete that may be adaptable to autos of the future. I particularly like the kinetic energy recovery systems discussed in the article.

It is notable that the move happened in Europe and not the US. What does that say about concern for the environment in the US?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

How is It? 

How is it that some people can err and get away with it? Apparently, conventional wisdom has concluded that Hilary Clinton failed to do well in her last debate. It doesn't seem to have hurt her, just as her husband's mistakes in office haven't hurt him. There is a mysterious acceptance by the public that is beyond PR tactics and strategies.

The Clintons aren't the only persons who have charisma. It is a style of leadership, but it is also risky because people tend to follow charismatic leaders blindly.

Just in Case 

Just in case you are the last PR practitioner who hasn't seen this story, here it is. The list of PR practitioners and comments are damning. Yes, the writer is intolerant, but he has good reason for his unhappiness. It is long past time to stop spamming releases to media. Regrettably some major agencies are on the journalist's kill list.

Hope It's Not True 

This is one of those stories that is hard to believe, and one hopes is not true. If it is accurate, political correctness has run amok in a university. One would hope the PR staff at the school is opposing it.

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