Friday, May 30, 2008

Business News 

In case you haven't read this Q&A on business news and the internet, take the time to do so. John Byrne is a magazine journalist who has made the transition to online and has a number of ideas for getting readers involved. They make sense too. Editors like Byrne with a foot in both traditional and online journalism are showing others the way to creative multimedia reporting. The one issue not covered in this Q&A is probably the most important -- how to pay for it all. From the little I know, business magazines are still struggling with the economic model for profitable online publishing.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Moral Leadership? 

This is an interesting conundrum. What should the CEO of Exxon Mobil do? Commit the company to greater profit for shareholders or lead the company into uncertain returns from alternative energy? Activists want the company to find new sources of alternative energy and to reduce its carbon footprint. Shareholders enjoy the profits from its current business of mining oil. The CEO apparently has commited himself to satisfying shareholders -- which is his duty. But, is there a time when there is more a CEO should be doing, when a CEO should ignore shareholder demands and embark on a different course? If so, how should the CEO communicate such a decision?

The CEO at Exxon Mobil is balancing short-term gain against long-term health of the company. The short-term gusher of profits is providing capital for the future. On the other hand, that capital can be given back to the shareholders, wasted in a fruitless search for oil, commited to uncertain technologies or any number of outcomes that leave the company no better off 15 years from now. The CEO is paid a hefty salary to make decisions that ensure capital is used productively, and it may not be clear what Exxon Mobil should do. Perhaps the CEO should be discussing publicly the decisions the company faces and the risk-rewards of each. It would show the thought processes the company is undertaking at a time when it is earning enormous returns. On the other hand, there is a risk that the company's thinking might be narrow, and public exposure would earn it greater criticism.

It is a difficult time to be an oil executive.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Take Time 

Take time to browse the 2007 GAP V Study on generally accepted PR practices from the USC Annenberg School for Communication. There are no great surprises in it, but it does provide a baseline snapshot of where the industry is today. It is disappointing, but to be expected, that PR agencies are seen as "arms and legs" to help companies complete their communications programs. That is, agencies are seen as commodities to be changed out at will. There are many reasons for this including growing sophistication of internal communications departments.

There are seven sections to the study, so be prepared to spend a while sifting its contents. Note particularly the section on measurement. There are disappointing results there that indicate a lack of understanding, particularly among marketers, for what measurement should be. On the other hand, I would argue with the study's author over the concept of measurement in general.

My thanks to Prof. Jerry Swerling for making me aware of the study.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Devolution of Traditional Media 

With shrinking newsrooms and a rise in blogs and other online media, a question arises of how PR should respond to the devolution of traditional media. This article is a suggestion for one approach that could change how PR practitioners are perceived -- but probably won't. One could accuse the essayist of promising pie-in-the-sky, and he would be guilty of that except that the article notes the difficulty of achieving the goal.

As usual, your comments are invited.

This is the 76th essay on communications posted to online-pr.com.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Labor Day Weekend 

It's the wrong time of year, but we are concluding a Labor Day Weekend. It consisted of tearing down and hauling more than 12 cubic yards of cabinets, sinks, counter, dishwasher, plaster, tile, linoleum, plywood, sheet rock and more from our kitchen. I'm sore all over. My wife had the hard job of lugging buckets of material to the dumpster in the driveway. I had the dirty job of hammering, cutting and yanking plaster and tile from the wall. My daughter manned the air hammer to break tile. (Lovely things, air hammers.)

The project was a reminder of how difficult most people's working lives are by comparison to those of us who sit in offices writing, calling the media and going to client meetings. I believe every office worker at least once a year should be tasked with doing manual labor. Executives at McDonald's work behind counters in their restaurants one day a year. Why not the rest of us? It is too easy to set oneself apart in the comfort of one's office or cubicle and to begin to believe one is not like the cleaners who dust, sweep and empty trash cans. We could just as easily be in their jobs but for advantages we have had.

I learned a great deal from the hours of tugging, hauling and hard breathing just completed. I will appreciate a new kitchen more because of it. However, I don't want to do that much demolition again if I can help it. Demolition is for younger folks who can endure the monotony, filth and pain better than I.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Need The Money 

At last, an honest politician. The real reason why states won't suspend gas taxes? They need to balance their budgets.

It is easy for political candidates to call for tax holidays. They don't have to do find the revenues to make up for the shortfall. It is all part of the cynicism that goes into campaigning. No wonder citizens get fed up with the political process. If businesses made the same pie-in-the-sky promises that candidates do, they would be convicted for fraud.

Beware Of What You Promise 

It is an old rule of marketing and PR never to promise more than you can deliver. That rule was apparently forgotten in this case.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Can't-Win Theater 

Here is an example of "Can't-Win Theater" -- oil executives testifying in Congress about high fuel prices. The oil executives know they are going to get beaten down. The Congressmen know they are going to do the beating. It is every bit as staged as professional wrestling.

This drama is targeted to "Joe Six-Pack" who has been complaining about prices at the gas pump. It is a cynical attempt to portray Congress as doing something about the high cost of gas when there is nothing Congress can do -- nor the oil executives, for that matter. In other words, it is the lowest form of publicity and a waste of everyone's time.

If Congressmen were trying to be responsible, they would have asked the oil executives to explain the pricing mechanisms that go into the cost of gasoline and macro-economic demand for oil that is driving commodity speculation. But no, that would have been too difficult for "Joe Six-Pack" to understand and besides, "Joe Six-Pack" just wants cheap gas. Don't bother him with the details. That, of course, is pandering to constituents and assuming they are too stupid to understand.

So, we have these "feel-good" dramas that prove nothing and change nothing, and everyone goes home until the next act.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Start, Maybe... 

Google has launched Google Health, a place to store personal medical records. It is a free service to millions of Google users and is a PR gesture in the best sense of that term. It might even work and begin the long process of automating health records. Among the many things that are wrong with the US healthcare delivery system, lack of automation is one of the most maddening. Every time one goes to a doctor, the same forms must be filled out time and again by hand. These forms are then stored as paper or in a siloed electronic data base where no one else can reach them.

In a country that has as much as or more computer power than anywhere else on earth, why is this happening? It increases medical errors, administrative costs and record-keeping burdens on doctors and medical staffs. The few hospitals in the US that have automated have noticed, for example, that incidences of prescribing wrong medications to patients have declined with automation.

While individuals may store their records with Google, there is a question whether the medical establishment will use them because of Federal law on the treatment of medical data -- the so-called HIPPA regulations. In the end, Google's good deed may come to nothing, but it is pointing to a path that should have been taken a long time ago.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Collapse Of An Industry 

It is not overstatement to say the airline industry has collapsed. It is hard to think of what more could go wrong other than an increase in accidents. Fuel costs, ticket prices, over-booking, bad seating, lousy service, huge losses, unhappy employees, late departures and arrivals, the industry has it all.

So, what are the industry's public relations? For most carriers, the goal is survival -- i.e. keeping enough customers satisfied that the businesses can continue. For other carriers, the goal is combination because they have given up hope of making it on their own. There is little one can say in circumstances like this.

The first goal of PR should be to provide decent service -- something many carriers cannot do. In fact, they have deliberately lowered expectations by charging for food, charging for more comfortable seating in coach, charging for extra baggage, monetizing everything they can touch. There is little left of passenger accommodation other than departing and arriving at a destination. Third World carriers do as much.

It must be difficult to work in PR at an airline. Some problems the industry has brought onto itself. Others like fuel costs have been imposed. Airline executives can be forgiven in thinking there is no way out of the mess they are in. Their customers are justified in expressing dark thoughts about the treatment they are getting. I'm not sure what a PR person could write about the industry at the moment. Acknowledging the mess is not the first step in fixing it because it isn't going to be fixed in present marketplace circumstances. Perhaps the best PR can say is that we understand what is happening to customers, but customers are going to have to learn to endure. Not much of a message, is it?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Blame The Media 

It is a sign of desperation when one blames the media. On the other hand, there are times when the media should be faulted for jumping too quickly or falling into a herd mentality. Hillary Clinton appears to be suffering both from desperation and a media that has jumped to a conclusion. It doesn't help that her opponent is pulling huge crowds.

Still, there is little advantage to turning one's fire publicly on reporters unless one is sure others will follow. Only a few have won this gambit. It is better quietly to let reporters know they have made a mistake and to let the editorial process issue a correction. Of course, a correction rarely carries the impact of an initial story but in the databases, the original article and correction will live together. That, however, is of little consequence to one fighting for her political life today. There is no long-term resolution of an error in her favor if Hillary fails to gain the nomination. So, she is trying for the long shot. She is telling supporters to ignore the press and to listen to her.

What else can she do?

Friday, May 16, 2008

More Of The Same 

There will be more of this kind of fight in the future -- a dissident shareholder attempting to remove directors. Under the law, shareholders have more power than before, and they are using it. It is hard for directors to defend themselves, especially when a shareholder claims they have acted "irrationally."

It is unclear whether Yahoo's directors did act against shareholder interests or whether they understand the situation better than Carl Icahn. On balance, one should give directors the weight of better information. However, that won't stop Icahn from blackening their reputations. This is why it is hard to be a director today. The position carries reputational risk. It is also why boards need PR help. More boards now have their own legal and financial advisors. It is possible they will get their own crisis communications advisors as well. It would be foolish indeed to get into a public battle with shareholders and not have PR counsel in the background.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bang My Head 

Some news stories make me want to bang my head against a wall. This is one. We represented the client who introduced this technology six or more years ago. No one was much interested then. It seemed too ethereal that one could strap a device on a person's ankle and track that person to make sure he stayed out of exclusion zones. This article repeats point for point what we were trying to tell the world back then. What's the saying? "Deja vu all over again?"

This is not the first time something like this has happened, and most PR practitioners have similar stories to tell. There are products and services that come before their time. They are good ideas but the world isn't ready -- or at least, the media aren't. So, we shake our heads when the world catches up. We wonder if we were persuasive enough, or if we contacted the wrong persons, or if something else happened. There never seems to be a consistent root cause other than the media were not interested. Who knows why they saw no news value then but do now? Some mysteries have no explanation.

Sign of Progress 

One can conclude that bloggers have come a long way in politics when there is this kind of an announcement. It is a PR move for the Democrats but a good one nonetheless. Someone will aggregate their postings to get a blow-by-blow view of the internal workings of the convention. For the first time in decades, the convention could be interesting rather than a staged show for delegates and party faithful.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Cloud Computing Redux 

This article summarizes some of what I wrote recently in an essay on Cloud Computing . It highlights one point -- the benefits of the Cloud are going mostly to individuals and small organizations. Larger organizations haven't caught on yet. There are reasons for that. Security is one, of course, but variability of high-speed networking, conservatism and embedded assets are among others.

The interesting part about this trend is the PC revolution started the same way back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Individuals started using small computers against the orders of IT managers who were protecting mainframes and dumb terminals. It took about five years for the power of the PC to overcome resistance. It will take that much and perhaps, more, for the same to happen with Cloud Computing. Meanwhile, early adopters will work their way through the problems and gain the benefits.

How many PR practitioners will move to the Cloud? Few. Most work today in large organizations with assets invested in large-scale networks. The ones who will adopt -- are adopting -- are solo practitioners with the courage to cut themselves free. There aren't many of those. PR as an industry has always been slow in the matters of technology.

I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has cut free and works completely in the Cloud. I'm not there yet either. My personal machine was purchased before the Cloud emerged, so I'm still invested in Microsoft Office. The next machine, however...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Title Power 

This is a fascinating story on the power of titles in Hollywood. Millions are spent -- or not -- on the strength or perceived weakness of a movie title. The story is testimony to the need to keep messages simple. The image of people thinking of titles such as, "To Hell and Back," is absurd. But, they do. When one thinks about it, what they are doing is not much different from those who think of campaign slogans -- "Hope in America."

In the end, titles convey the broadest sense of what one is saying and often, readers project their own meaning onto them. I was taught long ago to make headlines short, simple and accurate. None of that holds in Hollywood, or in politics, for that matter. In both environments, a suggestion of meaning is enough to attract people to the movie theater or the voting booth. The suggestion may or may not accurately reflect the underlying substance. However, it is testimony that both movie moguls and political communicators understand the power of a few carefully chosen words. That is a lesson for the rest of us.

Monday, May 12, 2008


Near the end of a hard-fought campaign when victory is in sight, there is a temptation to relax in sight of the finish line. That is one temptation to resist. Opponents can still strike hard and perhaps, win. One can still stumble and lose.

Communications should avoid celebration and maintain the same caution one has when the decision is still ambiguous. Let others, such as the media, make the case that you have won. Don't make the case yourself until you do. The best leaders refuse to believe their press clips. They hew to their message and their goal and make sure their followers do as well. They realize that anything can happen -- and usually does. Hillary Clinton has battered Barack Obama and his own pastor has made his life difficult. He seems to appreciate that it "ain't over till it's over."

Still, it is easy to relax after the rigors of hard work and months more to come. However, should he win in November, the hard work is just beginning. The weight of the office will crash on him with expectations high and disappointment guaranteed because no one can live up to campaign rhetoric in reality. That is why it is never wise to promise too much -- a temptation politicians rarely resist.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Obit For The Living 

How do you go on when reporters have written your death notice, published it and now are waiting for you to expire? This is the challenge Hillary Clinton is facing. Anything she says now will be largely ignored as attention turns to the nominal candidate, who at this hour still doesn't have enough votes to guarantee the nomination.

It is hard to think of a message or medium that can remove one from this dead end. From a communications perspective, it is checkmate. One wonders how her communications staff can get up in the morning and go back to the fever of the campaign trail. My guess is there will be more mistakes made in coming days -- like this one.

There have been other candidates written off by the media who have made comebacks, but it is rare. The hard part now for Clinton is motivating her own people. Her message must be directed internally as much as to voters.

The coming days leading to the last primaries will be increasingly uncomfortable for campaign staff. After months of non-stop work and exhaustion, going through the motions of yet another primary has to be misery. This is one more reason why I'm glad I never worked in political communications.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

New Word, New Worry 

This article introduced me to a new word (for me) -- yottabyte. Actually, it was two new words, since it uses zettabyte as well.

Let's see. There is a terabyte that is commonly used. That is a trillion bytes. A terabyte is followed by a petabyte that is a thousand terabytes, then an exabyte, which is a thousand petabytes followed by zettabytes then yottabytes, which equal 1000 to the 8th power. Got that?

What is worrisome about this? The world is storing so much information now that we are closing in on a society where the detailed lives of individuals and organizations will be on record forever. The more data there is to explore, the more past mistakes can return to haunt the present. Preserving reputation will be more than a forward-looking task but an archival one as well. "Sure, we made mistakes in the past but we did good things then too."

There haven't been many organizations to date that have had to defend their pasts as much as their present. One group does come to mind -- German companies that served the Nazis during World War II. Their past behavior continues to haunt the present.

While it is unlikely that most companies will have deep stains in their histories, it is likely with changing societal mores that records of past activity will be interpreted negatively in the present. We have seen that often enough in the matters of environmental responsibility, for example, or the treatment of women and minorities.

Is it possible that companies will need keepers of archival reputation?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

They All Had Publicity 

Articles like this are good reminders. I've referred to them in the past. These 15+ products were never born in the marketplace but flacked as solutions. They came, and some never quite went like Duke Nukem Forever. Year after year, the maker promised an introduction of that game, which has never happened and never will happen.

The reminder is simple. As PR practitioners, we shouldn't drink from the bubbly fountain of promise that marketers quaff. We deal with the same media time and again. We have to look them in the eye and maintain their credibility. There is a distance between reporting what a company intends to do and plugging the virtues of a not-ready-for-primetime product. There also is counsel that tells company executives not to promote products that aren't ready. I suspect in some of these cases a PR person did that and was ignored.

There are instances where engineers fall in love with their ideas and companies get carried away. PR should be a restraint that protects credibility and reputation and keeps companies from putting themselves in untenable positions. In the case of this vaporware, it didn't work, if any practitioner tried.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


This is a timely article on "backscatter," a legacy of spam. It's timely because it just happened to me. Suddenly, I was getting dozens of e-mails claiming my messages were not delivered somewhere in the internet universe. Of course, a spammer had spoofed my e-mail address onto a mailing, and I was getting failure replies. I was upset for a few days about this, not the least because it was cluttering my inbox and was annoying. It turns out I was just one more victim, and there is nothing I can do except to change my e-mail address.

I like to think there is a special place in the underworld reserved for the souls of spammers, and this only strengthens that wish. The internet brings out both the best and worst of humans. It is a constant reminder that one can never cease protecting one's name and reputation.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Not Surprising 

Microsoft's decision to pull out of its offer for Yahoo is not surprising. It was clear some time ago there were diminishing returns from the overly long courtship. In a posting on April 24, I noted that it was time for the companies to act because the PR battle had gone on too long. So, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO, has pulled the offer and now, wounded speculators and shareholders are screaming. Ballmer needs another PR campaign quickly to explain why he backed out and why it took so long for the decision. Yahoo on its part will need to do the same. A failed merger has as much need for communications as a successful one.

Friday, May 02, 2008


One of the more difficult tasks in writing is tone. I'm working on a column now for an executive who is worried about how the piece will sound in the minds of his target audience. Concepts in the column are right, but implications are wrong. Several people have taken a shot at its tonality. None of us have captured the elusive feeling yet. We're at the point now where no one is sure a right tone can be captured, but we keep plugging. A word change here, an adjective there, a dropped sentence replaced by another.

Tone requires an inner ear that is tuned to the mind of the individual for whom one is writing. In this case, no one seems to have dialed the frequency yet. This is not the first such column where I've run into trouble like this. I wrote another column recently for a different CEO that was dropped for the same reason. The column used verbatims from the CEO, but no one liked it. How is it a piece can reflect exactly what a CEO said but still be wrong?

There are times when tonality leaves one lost. There isn't a direction to an end. There are only possibilities. When this happens, it is best to sit with the individual for whom one is writing and to hammer out a final piece. Unfortunately, that is rarely possible. CEOs are busy people. So, one tries and tries again and hopes he doesn't exhaust the CEO's patience before finding the right nuance. These are the hours when writing is no fun at all.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

A Walk In The Cloud 

Cloud computing is a term that has emerged in high-tech over the last year or so. It refers to the vast computing power supporting the internet from huge operators like Amazon, IBM, Microsoft, Google and others. It also refers to the growing number of applications that are solely internet-based that allow users to download word processing, spreadsheets, presentation and other software per need as well as store their information on collaborative workspaces on the internet.

This article looks at the implications of Cloud Computing after a brief survey of how we got to it in the first place. While it is still early in the game, it is already possible to cut ties to PC-based software and to work around the world with little more than a good internet connection. Results will vary by location and surprisingly, the US is among the slower countries in terms of cellular broadband speed. That will change in time, however. As speeds climb, so will the ability to work collaboratively anywhere at anytime in ways that are difficult to achieve now.

As usual, I welcome any comments you may have about the article. It is a living document that can be changed. This is the 75th essay posted to online-pr.com

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