Friday, February 27, 2009


When an auditor publicly questions the viability of a company, it is a strong blow to the credibility of the organization and its leadership. That is what General Motors is now expecting. From a PR point of view, GM did the right thing by alerting the market before the auditor's letter is published. The company is getting bad news out quickly. It won't make much difference in the price of the company's stock, which already is at an historic low. It is one more piece of bad news that management and the board must deal with as they try to turn the corporation around. Watching this once mighty company crumble is hard, but it is a useful reminder that no organization is safe -- ever.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


This op-ed from The New York Times condemns the way politicians use sound-bites to take simplistic positions and the way sound-bites are used against them out of context. It ignores an essential element about humans. People like short, simple phrases that express a position or truth. They have always been that way from the earliest uses of rhetoric in ancient Greece and before. The human ear does not comprehend complexity easily. It wants a nugget to grasp. A sound bite is just that. While I understand and agree with the writer's view that we need to analyze the whole text of a speech and not just a phrase, people can't and won't do that as a speech is being delivered. They are listening for key points. The best approach is to avoid controversial sound bites if one is treading on sensitive ground. One wonders if a PR practitioner vetted Attorney General Eric Holder's remarks with that in mind.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Words And Reactions 

Politicians in Washington DC are learning what it means to move markets. Unfortunately, they are absorbing the lesson the hard way. They can no longer grab for headlines without worrying about the stock market taking a dive. The financial world is watching Congress and the White House closely and searching for clues as to what they will do next to solve the financial crisis. An innocent remark may bite the one who said it -- quickly.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Flawed Logic 

This kind of thinking has no place in PR. The idea is that if we build cities that had no need for cars, people wouldn't use them. It's as if a car is a sad necessity. That, however, is not true. People choose to use cars because they like them, and they get into long lines in traffic jams because their preference for driving displaces their choice of mass transit commuting. There are limits, of course, such as gas prices, and there is a segment of the population which prefers mass transit (I'm one.), but that segment is not enough to get rid of the need for highways.

In PR we need to accept reality as we find it and not as we wish it to be because that is the basis for effective communication. You start with the audience's assumption and bring them through persuasion to your point of view. Assuming people will leave their cars willingly is a planner's ideal, but not reality without disincentives that make driving difficult. The "Car Culture" in America was driven by millions of individuals who discovered a new freedom of mobility that previous modes of transportation lacked. That desire for freedom is still there, and there is something fundamental about it. There are traffic jams the world over whether from cars, motorbikes or bicycles. We need to start with individual preference and find how to motivate the person and not "the public."

Monday, February 23, 2009

Things You Don't Say 

There are certain things that you don't say in public out of politeness. This is one. Handicapping the lifespan of a Supreme Court Justice is crass. It doesn't make a difference that the Senator might be right. He isn't a doctor and he doesn't know the treatment that the Justice is receiving. One wonders if his staff vetted his remarks before he gave them. I bet they didn't.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Too Late? 

General aviation manufacturers are striking back against those who criticize the use of corporate aircraft. I've seen one of their print ads. It wasn't convincing. On the other hand, their web site is good, even with its unpersuasive URL. The question is whether it is too late. The damage has been done. Plane manufacturers needed to act immediately, and they didn't. The image of CEOs in personal aircraft jetting off to Washington to plead for money is embedded in national consciousness.

There is a lesson here for PR practitioners. You need to act quickly when an issue like this arises. Otherwise, it takes months, if not years, to turn around a bad reputation.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Newspaper Web Sites 

This list of the top 15 newspaper web sites has two interesting statistics -- the monthly unique visitors figure is much higher than the papers' print circulations and the positive growth of the sites is a contrast to declining print circulation that nearly all newspapers are suffering.


Facebook has learned two lessons -- the power of bad publicity and the depth of transparency. I'm sure that when the firm changed the terms of agreement language, it had no expectations that it would ignite a firestorm. After all, the change was in text that no one reads, except that this time someone did. When millions use your services online, it only takes one individual to find a discrepancy and let the others know. I suspect Facebook will be much more careful in the future and will advise its users well in advance of changes that might affect them.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

One Hopes... 

One hopes a PR practitioner wasn't called upon to cover up this kind of executive behavior.


What's a PR practitioner doing threatening defamation?

Hypocrisy Exposed 

If you are going to tell others what to do, make sure you are doing it yourself.


What can happen when an aggressive self-promoter goes too far...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sending A Wrong Signal 

The "Buy American" provisions of the new stimulus spending bill, even though watered down, send the wrong signal. The message is that the US considers trade to be global until the country gets into trouble. The unfortunate part of the communication is that it provides an excuse for other countries to descend into protectionism that might be more restrictive than that of the US. I.e., if the US has become protectionist, so can we.

The language of the law is a lesson in the unintended consequences of communications. It would have been better had the provision never been there and the US recognized from the outset that the recession is a global phenomenon. Now that the language is in the law, the US has years of work ahead to regain leadership in pushing for global trade. Words count.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Two Presidents 

We celebrate two presidents today who were different as communicators. One was silent who demonstrated authority by his presence. The other was voluble, a prairie lawyer who had pleaded hundreds of cases and engaged in historic debates. Both were extraordinary -- one by silence and the other by well-crafted words. They are a reminder that there isn't and can never be one way to get a message across to target audiences.

Friday, February 13, 2009

1984 In Spanish 

George Orwell would recognize this brand of communications. He wrote a book about it. One hopes Venezuelans are smarter than Hugo Chavez who is using the same tired language and tropes of dictators. Claim conspiracies as an excuse to tighten and maintain control. There may be citizens who believe Chavez each time he makes this kind of statement, but it can't be many. For some reason, nearly all dictators or dictator wanna-be's abuse communications in the same ways. Words are tools to grasp and hold power. One says anything that will achieve that objective, and facts be damned. The principles of public relations are corrupted at the core and spin is all that is left. Once one controls the media there is no way for the public to know what is true and what isn't. If Venezuelans are smart, they will understand that it is past time to get rid of Chavez as a leader.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

How Does He Do It? 

Some people seem to live charmed lives: No matter what they do, they survive. Here is one such person , the former mayor of Washington DC, current council member and felon with a history of drug use and now, failure to pay taxes. Yet, he continues to get elected. What is it that the people of the District allow him one by after another? It would make an interesting PR case study to examine his positioning and campaigning. What does he say and do that the people continue to trust him? How has he maintained a core of supporters for decades? It would be instructive to know.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Talking Too Soon? 

There are times when one should delay communications until there is more to talk about. This is apparently an instance of talking too soon. The market was looking for specifics from the Treasury Secretary, and he didn't have them. Hence, a massive sell-off and a situation that looks worse this morning than it did before the Secretary held his news conference. In hindsight, it would have been better if the Treasury Secretary had delayed his proposals until they were more fully fleshed out. This may have been an instance of moving too fast because of the urgency of the situation. The President wants action: We will give the President action. The net result is that the Treasury Secretary's reputation has taken a hit that probably wasn't necessary.

It is a lesson for communicators as well. Make sure that messages are substantive and sufficient for target audiences.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Here is a new form of humilation for investors whom Bernard Madoff bilked. One can search the names of those who have been defrauded. This kind of information access is only possible on the internet and is part of the transparency online provides. In the past, the names would have stayed on a paper list. There wouldn't have been many copies of the list and opportunity to access them would have been limited. Now, there is nowhere to hide.

Monday, February 09, 2009


A President is measured less by his words than by his action. To Obama's credit, he understands that. As a result, he is willing to look more partisan than he wanted to be in order to get stimulus legislation through Congress. Whether it is the right bill or misdirected is another question. Republicans say it is stuffed with useless spending. Apparently a great number of citizens think the same way. Obama sees an emergency and the need for movement. Ultimately, it looks as if Obama will prevail, but he will need to muscle the program through. That is not surprising. There is rarely a piece of significant legislation that doesn't result in backroom dealing.

Friday, February 06, 2009

PR Disaster 

Here is a PR screwup in the making. Rather than switch on the assigned date in February from analog to digital TV signals, Congress has decided to delay the process for four months. The trouble is some stations have already made the change and others are about to do so. So viewers will be caught and unable to see some of their channels whether they are in analog or converted to digital. There are always a percentage of people when a change is made who don't get the message or can't afford it or don't act in time or don't understand it. Congress should have left the issue alone. Instead it has injected confusion into the process and created an instant mess.

Copyright and PR 

Here is a case where enforcing copyright is poor public relations. The Associated Press has decided to make an example of a street artist who used one of its pictures of President Obama to make a popular poster. It would have been better for the AP if it had left the situation alone. It is understandable that the wire service doesn't want people taking its photos and turning them into unpaid artwork, but what happened here was an unusual case and not the norm. Insisting on copyright makes AP look heartless and doesn't help its reputation.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Day Late, Dollar Short 

Is it possible to be sincere, good-hearted and a public relations nightmare? The pope is working on proving that. His latest faux pas was an attempt to heal a division in the Roman Catholic Church that crossed the bounds of propriety when he reinstated a bishop who denies the Holocaust. Now he is saying the bishop must recant his views or not serve in the Church.

The pope has been a victim of either poor staff work or his own inability to see how his decisions play out on the world stage. He always says he is sorry when it is brought to his attention that he has erred, but one wishes he wouldn't make the mistakes in the first place.

Popes are supposed to infallible in matters of faith and morals. They can be woeful when it comes to image and reputation management. This one has consistently proven to be a day late and a dollar short. It's sad because he is personally likable and broadly educated. He apparently just doesn't see the public consequences of his actions.

There is no rule that states popes must be liked or adept in relating to the world, but there is common sense in dealing with societies and faiths. The pope could use a PR practitioner with a broader perspective than the Vatican walls.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Fundamental Trust 

One of the basic relationships between customers and companies is in the IT department. Customers turn over their data to companies and expect the companies to protect it. When companies fail, the outcome is costly. Not only is there a loss of business but more importantly, fundamental trust. The worst part of these data losses is that they are apparently more a matter of negligence than of hackers breaking into a system.

While it might be difficult to think of an IT department as an essential component of public relations, it is. Unfortunately, there is little PR practitioners can do to help information technologists. They know the importance of data security. But, data loss continues to happen.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Irrational Fears 

Europe fears genetically modified foods. The US fears irradiation of food products. Both fears prevent the advancement of food production and safety. There are some issues that seem to be beyond persuasion.


If true, this statistic shows how much credibility Microsoft lost with its Vista operating system. There was a time when the market waited eagerly for each new release from the company. Not any more. It would make an interesting case study tracing how Microsoft went from monopoly to what it is now, a powerful company but not a dominating one. How much of its slide was customer abuse? How much an inability to continue to turn out products that the market wants? It is conceivable that in the next decade or two, Microsoft might become just another software company.

Losing credibility with customers is easy to do and winning it back difficult. Perhaps with Windows 7, Microsoft will resume its position at the head of the industry, and Vista will be a bad memory. If so, one hopes the company has learned a lesson.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Communications Failure 

Sometimes it happens. In spite of best efforts, careful planning and better execution, a communications campaign doesn't work. It is tempting then to move on and forget, but failure can be as instructive as success, if one examines it closely. This essay uses a simulated case study to investigate failed communications of a new employee benefits plan. It discusses three common techniques and shows how to use one.

Essentially, investigations into failure use disciplined logic to parse each element until one finds a cause or causes for a breakdown. Having found the causes, one can then apply the right solutions to fix the problem at its root.

My thanks to colleague, Shade Vaughn, for valuable suggestions in writing this article.

As usual, I welcome reactions, observations and additions. This is the 97th essay posted on online-pr.com.

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