Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dumb, If True 

Campaign communicators try anything whether ethical or not. Here is a case, if true, where communicators got caught. It was a dumb move. Whatever happened to transparency in the PR business? O, I forgot. Political communicators don't believe in it. They have one policy -- win. The end justifies the means.


Here is a radical call to kill print editions of newspapers and to publish only online. The blogger notes that it has been done already and the future of some news publishing operations depends on cutting costs to the bone. He is pitiless in his description of journalists who fight to save newsprint. It is sarcasm born from conversion to the online world himself.

Given the continued accelerated decline of newspaper circulation in the US, his point of view may be correct for smaller newspapers. Larger papers will find a steady state of readership at some point and will continue, but it will be difficult. They won't be as profitable as they once were. Most news publishing operations still haven't found an economic model that works online. Until they do, newsrooms will keep shrinking.

It is an unpleasant time to be a journalist in America.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Bad News 

There are times when the public doesn't want to hear the truth. Here is one. It is hard for Americans to adjust to the high price of gasoline (that is still lower than what is paid in Europe). There was flash news yesterday that gasoline reached $4.00 a gallon in San Francisco -- a dreaded number.

Citizens will blame the President for failing to do anything about it. There isn't much the President can do, but he is the leader. It doesn't help when you have financial gurus predicting a long and hard recession. The confidence of the American public has collapsed.

What can the President say? Not much. He is a lame duck and few pay attention to him.

From a PR perspective, it doesn't get much worse, although a scenario is set for new leadership that might bring fresh perspective. Asking the public to wait isn't much of a message, but there are times when that is all one can do.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Global Communications, Global Panic 

Global prices for food are rising. Stories of food riots around the world are appearing in traditional media and online. Global communications are fueling global fears, including panic buying of rice. Get ready for more of the same with the fully connected earth. A distant country's problems are suddenly are own. The transparency of modern media emphasizes connectedness in ways few could imagine. We now know that food stocks worldwide are low. We also know some governments have pulled up their bridges in foreign trade and are starting to hoard food for their own citizens. It will take concerted government action to calm fears and to make sure there is sufficient apportionment among countries. Right now that is not happening. The poorest countries are being left out.

As PR practitioners, we should observe this living case closely and learn what needs to be done to fend off global panic. We will see it again in our lifetimes.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Great PR Positioning 

Let me add my huzzahs for this wonderful PR idea. It is the best kind of approach -- providing a useful tool to the beer industry that also positions the company behind it. This goes under the heading of "I wish I'd thought of that." The best thing that Miller Brewing can do is to leave the reporter alone and let him carry on just as he is. That is hard for marketers, however. They always want to sell, sell, sell. (See the previous blog posting.)

Good Point 

This blog post is "catty," but it makes a good point about social media. Social media are not marketing vehicles to be started and stopped with the beginning and end of campaigns. They are continuous relationship vehicles. That is true as well with web sites. Marketers, however, haven't figured this out. There are many orphaned sites online that were started for book launches, for example, then dropped when book publicity ended. The sites sit there getting moldy by the month until someone finally takes them down.

When marketers start and stop these vehicles, they make one point clear. They don't want a relationship. They want to sell you something and disappear. A one-night stand is fine. The consumer is justified in feeling cheated.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Dancing for Dollars 

The dance between Microsoft and Yahoo has been going on for weeks now. Yahoo has adopted a "Just-Say-No" strategy unless... unless Microsoft pays a whole bunch more for its stock. Microsoft has taken an "accept-it-or-else" strategy that doesn't appear to be changing.

The two sides are interesting to watch because they are using PR campaigns against each other. Yahoo points to value it says Microsoft isn't considering. Microsoft says its bid for Yahoo is fair, and it won't raise it. Moreover, Yahoo hasn't found any other suitors for the price Microsoft is offering. So they dance back and forth -- each lobbing verbal shells at the other and hoping to win public sympathy.

Thus far, it doesn't appear to be working. If Microsoft moves forward with its threatened hostile bid, Yahoo's talent can walk out the door. If Yahoo stays independent, there is no guarantee the company can re-ignite growth. If the two companies do get together, the enmity between them may doom a merger from the start. One wonders why Microsoft continues its pursuit.

From a PR perspective, the longer the verbal warfare continues, the lower the chance anything good will come from the merger proposal. It's time to act.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


It gets uncomfortable for a company to have a Federal regulator criticizing it repeatedly. That is what is happening to Comcast, the broadband and TV cable company. Comcast says that it has a right to control its delivery systems so heavy broadband traffic doesn't bring down the network for all. The regulator says it is Comcast's responsibility to carry all traffic without prejudice -- i.e. net neutrality.

So who is right and how does Comcast protect its reputation from further damage? The answer to the question is more complicated than it seems. For Comcast to be net neutral, it has to expand its network's capacity to handle huge bursts of data. That's expensive and someone has to pay for it. Either everyone pays for the expansion -- even light users -- or just those who are heavy users through volume pricing. Comcast has not moved toward volume pricing yet, but other internet service providers have. Increased cable rates or volume pricing will further erode Comcast's reputation with users who have alternatives, unless every other ISP takes the same approach at the same time. Meanwhile, the regulator goes around the country and criticizes it.

It is never comfortable being a "whipping boy," but that is what is happening here. It would easy if Comcast could make an agreement to expand capacity and get the regulator off its back, but what happens when insatiable demand for more capacity occurs again? Who pays for expansion the next time? Threats to reputation are never-ending.

From a long-term reputational point of view, it is probably best for Comcast to stand its ground to avoid further damage later. On the other hand, it if takes that decision, it will need the courage to tolerate the "jawjaw" of the Federal Communications Commission.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Reality has a way of changing conventional wisdom quickly. Here is a case. A few months ago, there was animus against anything genetically modified, and as the article states, that dislike still holds in Europe. When massive food shortages arose, objections to genetically modified organisms (GMO) began disappearing. Emaciated babies and food riots have a way of re-setting agendas that all the PR in the world cannot achieve.

The interesting part of this story is that agronomists knew the shortage was coming. They saw food stocks falling. They warned it was necessary to grow more and to use anything that makes agriculture more productive. Few listened. "Slow Food," organic food and farmers markets had captured the interest of food writers. There is nothing wrong with these movements, but with the reality of falling grain stocks, it is clear they are ideas belonging to an elite that can afford them and not to a world worried about basic nutrition.

We know now as governments teeter and non-governmental organizations struggle to find maize, wheat and rice that the First World had been ignoring the plight of the Third World. Food prices have shot up in the US as well, but Americans can pay more than Africans.

It is time now for a new PR effort to explain agricultural productivity -- what it is, why it uses genetically modified organisms and what farming requires to feed the world. It's a much different story than most urbanites know.

Monday, April 21, 2008


The Pope's visit to the US is now the stuff of commentators who are asking why he came. It is interesting that advance publicity about the man has changed. Suddenly he is kind and compassionate. It is unlikely he was much different before. People don't change behavior so quickly, especially in their 80s. But, that doesn't appear to be the main reason for the Pope's six days in America. There was a deeper element of communications involved -- the need for people to see leaders face to face in their own space.

Yes, Roman Catholics could go to Italy to see the Pope in one of his weekly audiences, but there is something special about the Pope coming to see them. This is true of all leaders. The CEO walking the floor of the office and popping in on managers has greater meaning than people being summoned to the CEO's suite. The message is clear, "I am here to talk and listen to you." All the modern media at our disposal do not change the need for personal appearance. Face-to-face communication always has been and will remain the most important means of persuasion. It is easier to forget that now, but we shouldn't.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Getting Away With It 

When an organization is big enough, it can get away with more. At least that is the case for the Department of Defense, which still cannot audit its books. One wonders why there isn't a severe hit to the DOD's reputation for its inability to perform adequate accounting.

Why, for example, hasn't Congress hauled the senior bureaucrats in the Defense Department before it and demanded answers? There is one explanation that appears obvious. The senior bureaucrats will ask for billions to pay for new systems to do better accounting. Those billions won't be forthcoming because tax money goes to payroll and weapon systems. Hence, everyone looks the other way.

Eventually the DOD will suffer for its prolonged mismanagement. It will happen the usual way -- through a scandal too big to ignore. Suddenly, Congressmen will discover the horrid financial mess and demand that it be cleaned up -- and it just might be. I don't expect to be alive when that day comes.

No corporation would be allowed to run as badly as DOD. Its executives would be jailed. But, there is a difference between public agencies and private business. There is more tolerance for frailty among public servants.

Problem For All 

This is depressing news. Spammers can wreck the internet for everyone, especially for responsible advertisers. The volume of spam clogs the arteries of the internet, kills the credibility of honest merchants and is a constant annoyance.

It seems that out of self-defense, responsible advertisers may eventually have to contribute to slowing down spammers. How this might be done is not clear, but regulation, whether self or imposed, won't help. Spammers live beyond the reach of rules. There needs to be robust technical solutions beyond spam-catchers. The solutions need to punish spammers or identify swiftly machines sending it and isolating them from the internet. Whatever the methods used, they won't be entirely fair, and there will be disputes between those who believe they are responsible and those blocking them. I would rather see the disputes and know that spam is far less than 92.3 percent of all e-mail sent globally.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Stating The Obvious 

Sometimes it is necessary to state an obvious point to get people to pay attention. Here is a case. The US health care system is unprepared for the people using it today. The future will be a continuation of the present unless major changes are made.

It has been my experience that it is a good tactic to state an obvious point, even if one gets "the look" from a listener. Having done so, one can make subsequent points more easily. If this is obvious, so is that and the following. It is one of the oldest tactics of rhetoric, and it still works. Plato's dialogs used the technique repeatedly.

The problem with most communication is that we assume too much, and we're worried about talking down to an audience. That can happen but it is less often than one might think. It is a matter of how one states the obvious that counts. In Socrates case, he elicited the obvious starting point through questioning, which then moved toward argument that Socrates wanted to make. That technique still works well too.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Say It Ain't So 

Let's hope that no company would be this dumb in using social media. Although it looks suspicious, there might be a reasonable explanation for the Ticketmaster site. I sure hope so.

Useful Advice 

Videoconferencing is making another comeback. With the cost of fuel and chaos in air travel, maybe it will dominate this time. That is why this is useful advice from experts who have put in and used videoconferencing systems. There are tricks of the trade. Who would think simple things such as wall color and network traffic are critical to successful sessions? As communications professionals, we need to be aware of these details, especially since it is likely we will be doing more videoconferencing in the months to come.


This is a PR nightmare. Not only is Merck, the pharmaceutical giant reeling, from disclosures about the efficacy of its drug, Vioxx, but now the scientific community has turned on the company. It doesn't get much worse, and it will take years for Merck to win back its reputation, if it ever does. This is an amazing come-down for a firm that was once considered the standard of how a pharmaceutical company should behave. What happened? There is a case study waiting to be written that dissects how a well-regarded company descended into PR hell.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

PR Problem 

Food prices are a PR problem for the agricultural industry. The rapid rise in costs stems from at least two sources -- the price of fuel and worldwide demand for better nutrition. Farmers are reaping profits now, but the moment may not last. Prices tend to be cyclical. For years, there had been almost no movement in the price of corn and soybeans, and many small farms went out of business.

The problem farmers face now is that the public will turn on them and accuse them of being greedy and of starving citizens. There isn't much truth to that, but there is at least one desired piece of legislation that is likely to take a hit -- the US farm bill with its crop subsidies. There is no eagerness in Congress to approve support payments when corn and soybeans are at historic highs.

There is a second problem farmers face that is more serious. There are so few of them left in developed societies that their political influence can be easily dampened by urban and suburban voters. If prices continue to rise, voters will choose their pocketbooks over those of the agricultural community. The Ag industry has had a strong voice in Congress for many decades, but in times like this, historic shifts can occur. Were I a farmer, I would be worried that the tide of public opinion might be turning against me, especially if I were a large operator planting thousands of acres at a time. The public doesn't understand -- and doesn't want to understand -- agri-business. Shoppers want affordable food. They don't want to know how it got to the store -- who grew it, who processed it, who transported it.

The Ag industry should be communicating frequently and urgently right now to the society at large, but that doesn't appear to be happening. The industry is too fragmented with too many competing interests. The PR problem for the industry will continue to grow until prices subside again. The political damage may be permanent, if society should conclude that it is being held hostage by Ag interests.

Monday, April 14, 2008


A good part of the past weekend was spent helping my daughter complete her science project on optical illusions. I learned a great deal from what she was doing, not the least of which is the difficulty brains have in processing illusions. Some people see illusions and some don't. It is not a function of age, physical or mental ability or of anything obvious. It is not clear why anyone sees or doesn't see them.

In one sense, nearly everything we see is an optical illusion. We think we see something, but we don't. We glimpse part of it and extract an explanation that may or may not be right. Optical illusions are a reminder to check everything carefully for what actually is there rather than what we assume is there.

I had an experience like this last week. We were meeting with a client whose service we assumed worked well. A marketing representative whom we had not met before told us that it isn't the case. The service has quality problems brought on by conditions in which it is deployed and used. It was a dispiriting meeting. It would have been far better had we talked to this individual first but for some reason we did not meet him when we first visited the company. The company had not hidden him from us, as far as I know. It assumed that we knew what the service was like. That was our illusion, and we should have known better.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Great Comparison 

In this article, IBM's Chief Technology Officer explains the speed of a new computer chip by saying it will complete a cycle before a light beam travels from the knuckle to the tip of one's index finger. Now, that is a great image. The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second or, as NASA puts it, in one second, light would "circumnavigate the equator approximately 7.5 times." So, here is a chip completing a duty cycle in approximately an inch and three-quarters of the distance a light beam would travel.

Kudos to the individual who figured that out and to IBM for using the analogy. It has one saying, "I wish I had thought of that."

Explaining technical details is difficult. I've struggled with it for years. A client is excited by a product, but after I read a turgid list of speeds and feeds, what is there to say? It is too easy to use jargon, so I do. I am guilty of this regularly, as my colleagues will attest.

There is also an arrogance in using esoteric terms. One proclaims that he or she has joined the "brotherhood of insiders." What we should be doing, of course, is translating technology into layperson's terms, as IBM did.

This article is a needed reminder to all who write about technology. Keep it simple, stupid. Everyday analogies are best. Bring concepts to the reader. Don't force the reader to reach for them.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

How Much Worse Can It Get? 

It's tough for a campaigner when she disagrees publicly with her own husband. One wonders what else could go awry with Hillary's communications campaign. On the other hand, this might provide her with distance from a person who seems to have hurt her as much as he has helped in the campaign thus far. Bill appears to have strayed off message more than once.

Do As I Say... 

Here is a case of "Do as I say, not as I do." It hurts when an advertising publication lectures PR about transparency.

The Headline Says It All 

The headline says it all. I rarely write about products in this column, but I saw a USB drive used for a press kit only two days ago. My reaction to it then was the same as this headline. Give the media one of these, and watch it get lost in minutes. I suppose the agency that handed the USB drives out was thinking they are a convenience for reporters -- and they are. Sometimes, however, convenience goes a step too far.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Pennywise, Poundfoolish 

This article on continued cutting at American news gathering operations is depressing. At some point, the editorial product will be so damaged readers will see little value in either print or online offerings. The future of news is news gathering and publishing, no matter how it reaches readers or viewers. When news gathering falls, so does readership. I've seen papers in recent months that were disgraces. Maybe they were never much good. I don't know, but they lacked news. They had wire service stories that anyone can pull off the internet 12 hours earlier and a sparse scattering of local stories from a small staff.

I'm talking out of self-interest, but PR needs healthy news publishing. We need news gathering operations that provide a third-party view. Our form of unpaid persuasion depends on a vigorous industry. Today, news publishing is sick. The future has caught up with it, and publishers were not ready. They had the time, and they were warned, but they milked every last drop out of print until loss of ad revenue forced them to the wall. Now, they need to be creative to find a new business model, and they appear to be lacking. Perhaps entrepreneurs will rise in news gathering who will show the way. I hope so. We need a beacon of light in a dark hour.

Update: The benefit of using a dictionary is a reminder that I'm not the best speller. The headline is now corrected according to The American Heritage Dictionary.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Curiosity Kills 

Curiosity can kill a hospital's reputation.

Now What? 

Yesterday the question was how Mrs. Clinton could get her communications back on track. How about this? What would you do right now if you were a member of the Chinese government or the Olympic committee? I don't know. It looks as if the die is cast, and the organizers will have to live with the protests.

Monday, April 07, 2008

When Things Go Badly 

Mrs. Clinton apparently has been caught delivering another inaccurate story in her stump speech and she has shaken up her campaign staff yet again. The two events are not related but are symptomatic of what happens when things go badly for a candidate. The hard part is fixing errors on the fly without looking desperate. Mrs. Clinton is a tough campaigner, and if any one can do it, she can, in spite of comparing herself to Rocky.

The point here is when a communications campaign starts to slip, it is hard to turn it around. People begin to look closely for mistakes and inevitably, they find them. One has to be accurate in every instance and leave no doors open for critics.

This is an issue we discuss often at work. Sometimes it is hard to find a story angle that can withstand attack, particularly in fast-moving environments. It becomes a mental chess game. If we emphasize this, it might lead to that. Or, if we emphasize something else, it could lead to the following. We are not spinning. We are looking at the facts and comparing them to the marketplace. The idea is to find the most powerful news angle. One gets but one chance to approach a reporter, so it is important to be right.

Perhaps Mrs. Clinton's fact-checking needs a bit more work. Whatever the case, each time she errs, the slope becomes steeper and the downhill slide swifter. One can't afford errors too often.

Friday, April 04, 2008


Here is an interesting study on the impact of newspaper blogs and politics. It seems reporters and editors still have much to learn.

Heads In The Sand 

The post yesterday about the columnist at Editor & Publisher who stopped taking the daily paper has generated comments at E&P. Some newspaper people still have their heads in the sand.

Another "Chief" 

Business people love the word "Chief." There are chief executives, chief financial officers, chief information officers, chief human resource officers and now, another chief -- "Chief blogger." Sounds official, anyway.

Along that line, the military is looking into blogging as a propaganda weapon. The military has had various successes over time with these kinds of approaches. Maybe they will make blogging part of a Chief Warrant Officer's duties.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Should Have Known Better 

Just yesterday I wrote about practical jokes and the need to do them with care. Here is a PR person who should have known better. He will have a long time to repent his action and repair his relationship with his friend.

A Warning 

This is interesting. A columnist who writes about newspapers and how they should operate is publicly confessing that he has stopped taking his local newspaper and reads the news online. He is not a young man either. Were I newspaper publisher, this would make me shiver.

How Does This Happen? 

Here is a story that should be a public relations case study. Thousands of programmers work voluntarily the world over to build a publicly available and free Linux software kernel. They aren't rewarded for their work, but they contribute anyway. They understand a common message and are motivated to act on that message. It is an amazing example of effective public relations spread over hundreds of companies.

How does one bottle such energy and use it elsewhere?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Practical Jokes 

Some organizations are given to practical jokes, such as this one. Google is known for elaborate scams on April 1. The message of a practical joke appears to be that an organization is not uptight that tolerates them. However, as this article from the Financial Times notes, they need to be done with creativity, flair and care, so no harm is done. Practical jokes can verge on cruelty. It is important that the butt of the joke has a good sense of humor as well.

I'm not given to doing them. They seem sophomoric, but, on the other hand, when done well, they communicate the intelligence of employees and the collegial nature of a firm.


How much does reputation count in the world of banking? Two articles, here and here, from the current Fortune magazine say it best. Reputation is everything in the banking community. Fear of what might happen to banks holding bad debts is paralyzing the markets and has virtually stopped lending. Wall Street shot up yesterday, so there is a chance that the fear is dissipating but it is too soon to tell. Another piece of bad news and the market will plunge again. Credibility is fragile now, and it is never impregnable even in the best of times.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Feel Good 

Here is Congress doing what it does best -- administering a public spanking. Hearings are great theater. Congressmen gain political points with constituents. TV cameras pick up the huffing and puffing, and Joe Sixpack enjoys seeing the powerful squirm. Hearings like this are "feel-goods" for voters that result in nothing, but look like Congress is doing something. It is cynical, but it works. Few understand what it would take to devise a meaningful solution to the problem of high fuel prices. Even the Congressmen are unlikely to know. So, it is easier to castigate the industry rather than look for answers. Fortunately, oil industry executives have been through this kind of public grilling before. They know what to do, and they will make it through the jibes. As for voters, they will continue to pay at the pump whatever the market rate is.

Prelude To A Fall? 

It has long been said that individuals and companies who build great buildings for themselves are on the edge of a fall. If that is the case, this fellow is facing disaster. What do monuments like this communicate? Hubris, certainly, and arrogance. There is no economic reason for building this high. Moreover, buildings such as this divert attention from one's main business.

Looking around Manhattan, I can think of two buildings just on Madison that were built at the zenith of corporate power that disappeared shortly thereafter. There is the old AT&T building that now belongs to Sony, and there is the new Bear Stearns building that will go to the new owner of the failed firm. Both were built at a time when the corporations had seemingly unlimited power to grow.

Big buildings are statements, but often not the messages their builders intend.

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