Friday, July 30, 2010

Sudden Crisis 

The insurance industry has been plunged into crisis in the last two days on the strength of one newspaper article. Investigations have already begun into how the companies handle death benefits for the families of deceased soldiers.  Did the insurance industry see this coming?  Should they have seen it coming?  The industry is absent from early reports, which indicates that they were not prepared and had no defense ready.  Now, however, they have the attorney general of New York State and the Defense Department looking into their affairs.  That is never good and should they be held at fault, it would be cost costly to the industry's reputation.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


As more and more studies indicate, one should never underestimate the extent to which we can deceive ourselves.  In this case, those who fake mental illness come to believe that they are ill.  Self-deception has no limit.  We can believe just about anything.  This is why in PR work we need to rely on facts, what can be independently verified, rather than beliefs.  Every PR practitioner knows at least one client who has fallen in love with a product or service and is convinced that it is the best in the market.  The client is unhappy if anyone dares point out that the product or service might not be any better than competing offerings and in fact, might suffer in comparison.  There is an old newspaper cliche that states, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."  We can rarely be certain in PR.  There is always the possibility of unknown evidence that can change the interpretation of what we think we know.  We assume that even if we don't know those facts, others do, so we proceed cautiously.  Whether or not our clients appreciate such respect for evidence, the media do.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


News that the US military has been paying journalists in Afghanistan to write positive stories about America has been dismissed as PR.  Actually it is propaganda, but the reporter who wrote the story cannot tell the difference.  It is a reminder to PR practitioners that few understand what we do even yet.  It is true that in the early days of modern PR, practitioners paid editors to write and/or run stories, but that went away decades ago.  With the internet, pay-for-play will return to some lesser web sites, and some PR practitioners will put money down to get their messages out.  Most PR practitioners will continue to use persuasion.  Now if the media would only learn that...

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

When A Program Stalls 

This story is instructive.  It is a report of the aftermath of a public affairs program that has stalled and might have failed.  The utility industry spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying Congress for a cap-and-trade system to handle climate change.  Then last week, the Senate balked because the Democrats realized they don't have the votes for legislation.  Everyone behind the program is exhausted, discouraged and ready to quit, but there is no choice but to play the rest of the effort out.  The story highlights that even the best and well-funded communications programs sometimes fail, and there is little one can do about it.  Senators struggling with a slow economy and joblessness aren't about to pass a law that might impact the economy negatively.  Cap-and-trade might be the right bill but it is the wrong time.  Every PR and public affairs practitioner can tell a similar story.  It has happened to all of us. The difference this time was the size of the effort.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Taking The Sword 

In a none-too-subtle way, the board of BP has let it be known that it will throw over its CEO tonight and choose an American to run the company.  This is a delayed response to a disaster that will define the company for the next 10 to 20 years or even longer.  It has been pointed out in the news media that BP relies heavily on US operations for its revenues and earnings.  The rumored American successor is now in charge of day-to-day operations in the Gulf.  While this is a move to salve the outrage of the American public, it comes under the headline of "too little too late."  BP has joined Union Carbide and Exxon as case studies of industrial disaster that needn't have happened.  There is still an open question whether BP can survive this.  Although the company has stated publicly that it can absorb the costs, that assertion seems hollow in light of the lawsuits and cleanup operations still to take place.  An American as CEO isn't going to make those expenses go away.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Future of News 

These long, insightful and brilliant comments from Google to the Federal Trade Commission on the future of news are essential reading for PR practitioners.  Google recites the history of technological change and newspapers, points out what it is doing to help find new economic models for news gathering and dissemination and calls for reasonable business approaches to ultimate solutions.  As one commentator noted, Google takes the Commission to school on the subject.   As if to verify Google's approach, this innovation from ABC News for Apple iPads is an innovative approach to providing global news to readers.  It provides a graphic approach that engages the reader's interest at the same time as it provides information.

Google is right.  News cannot stay the same nor should it be subsidized in the internet era.  Newspapers will find new economic models after a period of shrinkage and pain, but that should not be done by fighting the present and future.  Rather, one should accept change and move with it.  This is something that newspaper publishers have always found hard to do.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


How do you communicate to a rogue state that glories in its belligerence?  This is the constant challenge the world faces in talking to North Korea.  North Korea holds its own counsel, plays games with China, South Korea and the US and gets away with appalling behavior.   Yet, because it is a nuclear state and a highly armed one, the rest of the world must tread carefully about North Korea's borders.  If there is any one state that deserves to fall in the world today, North Korea would be it.  No one is ready to take on that mission so the rest of the world  jawbones North Korea's leaders who play one country against another.  It is frustrating and not productive, but not much else can be done.  North Korea is an example of the limits of communication.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What Is PR Doing? 

What is PR doing to take advantage of the e-book, now that it has entered the mainstream?  It is a natural point of information distribution for PR.  It can handle new information in just a few seconds of download.  The information can be updated frequently.   I can see consumer uses for PR materials related to health, home and food.  There is an opportunity, for example, for e-books on fitness that feature a manufacturer's products, for DIY e-books from retailers and for recipe e-books that feature packaged foods like soups.  These could be given away free or for a modest charge since there is no printing cost to making them.  I've yet to read where anyone is doing this.  If you know of an instance where PR is using e-books already, let me know.


Will bloggers never learn?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


This story about media exhaustion and burnout in online journalism doesn't mention PR.  It should.  A key job, of course, for PR practitioners is to make life easier for journalists when they report stories.  We do the legwork that they don't have time or access to do and in the process we win a place for our clients.  Thus, the more that online journalists are stretched, the greater the opportunity for PR.  If the future is anything like today, media relations will become more important.  Content generators -- i.e., reporters -- will rely more heavily on PR, not because they want to but because they have to.  Our job is to serve them well and thereby serve our clients well.  PR practitioners have made a mess of media relations time and again.  Maybe this time we can get it right.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Limits of Credibility 

BP has capped the blown well and wants to keep it shut until it can be sealed forever.  But that hasn't changed the fears of investors and the government into confidence that the well is under control.    So much has gone wrong in the process of capping the well that they now fear there could be seepage from cracks in the ocean floor.  In other words, BP has gone beyond the limits of credibility.  There isn't anything BP can do to calm fears except for the passage of time and the absence of oil and methane. 

Friday, July 16, 2010

Getting Away With It 

Is it possible to have a major disaster and get away with it?  It is.  The Mexican government had one of the worst well blow-outs at sea in history in 1979.  As the article notes, few remember it, yet it was nearly identical to the disaster in the Gulf that is still unfolding.  The Soviet Union, of course, had a number of major environmental disasters that were buried until the country fell apart.  Few know about or remember them.  It is possible, to paraphrase George Orwell, to put events down a memory hole.  The importance of a free press is to prevent that from happening.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Health Care PR Challenge 

Here is a PR challenge for the healthcare industry -- the reluctance of doctors to report on their peers who are incapacitated or incompetent.  Essentially, doctors are saying that "it's not my job" to let authorities know when one of their colleagues shouldn't be practicing medicine.  Yet, doctors are in the best position to know when another is no longer capable of treating patients.  In spite of the American Medical Association's statement that it is the ethical duty of doctors to report on others' abilities, more than a third said they wouldn't do it.  What this means is that in practice, physicians are not self-regulating,and regulation will have to be imposed on them.  Already doctors are unhappy about their loss of status and power.  One would think that they would work to avoid further diminution.  But, that doesn't appear to be the case.  They are in the position of a patient who pleas for "someone to help me before I harm myself."   There is a merit to protecting one's own but not when it comes to harming others.  Physicians have apparently not learned that lesson.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Good Thing, Perhaps 

An Appeals Court has struck down the Federal Communications Commission's indecency policy, calling it a violation of the First Amendment.  That is a good thing.  It was silly having the government police language that erupted on the air.  On the other hand, there is a tendency to push limits, so it could lead to a decline in civility and more expletives.  This, in turn, could lead families to abandon network TV.  It is a PR challenge for the networks.  How much do they dare tolerate before they upset viewers?  It will be interesting to watch how the use of expletives evolves.  Look for intrepid producers to write some into their dramas and for celebrities to vent on talk shows.  Then, watch the public's reaction. Network executives will be observing as well.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


When one commits a PR blunder, it hurts more if one should have avoided the error.  Apple is in the middle of a major faux pas that it could have avoided had it listened to its customers.  It didn't, and now Consumer Reports no longer recommends the iPhone 4 because of antenna problems.  Consumer Reports performed tests on the phone that other media had already completed.  So far, all have found that the new antenna on the phone loses signal strength if one holds the phone in a certain way.  Apple declared that this fading was a software problem and not loss of signal at all.  In fact, Apple said the software problem had existed on all iPhones for years and the company had not realized it.  No one in the media is buying this explanation.  There may be a software problem but there is also a hardware problem.  One wonders how a company like Apple can put itself into a spot like this. It knows better.  Now it has a worse PR mess to clean up and a potential loss of business if people stop buying the phone.

Monday, July 12, 2010


Spain's World Cup victory yesterday was the latest of a PR triumph for soccer.  Only the Olympics come close to the sports fever that sweeps countries when the World Cup matches are played.  The growth of both events was gradual and took decades, but today the role of both organizations is to protect image, to keep a good thing going without scandal or other action that would scar the populist flavor of the events.  It is hard to do.  The Netherlands team, for example, was gathering yellow cards yesterday at a fast clip in play that was dirty.  Such win-at-all-costs approaches can tar the game in time.  FIFA authorities will need to address it along with better officiating.  Still, as a PR event, the matches were priceless.  Congratulations to Spain.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Throwing 'Em Overboard 

It is not often you see industrial peers publicly separating themselves from another.  That is, however, what the oil industry has done to BP.    Oil companies are so afraid of the fall-out from the Gulf oil disaster that they are willing to blame everything on BP and trumpet their safety records.  Sometimes it is necessary to do this, especially when there is a chance that regulation may change how the industry operates, as is happening now.  But, it should not be an action taken easily because it invites closer inspection.  The article, for example, notes that Exxon admitted publicly that it is not clear how to handle deep water drilling.  When companies elect to stand apart rather than together, it is easier for regulatory authorities to set guidelines in a vacuum because there is no consensus about approaches to take.  The industry has isolated BP, but the oil companies might find themselves standing alone soon enough.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Changing Attitudes 

This is an interesting story about Europe and its latest proposals related to genetically modified foods.  Europe was stalwart opponent of "frankenfoods," so the rest of the world took to growing with modified seeds and Europe fell behind.  Now there is argument in the EU over the issue.  Some countries want to plant them.  Others are still opposed.  Still others have constituents who are ready to use GMFs but cannot overcome local opposition.  This appears to be quite a change from the united opposition of a few years ago.  It is a slow shift of public opinion among nations and farm communities, a transformation caused by the success of GMFs elsewhere.  Sometimes all the PR work one does is not enough.  It takes time for others to come to a new view, and some never do.  While it is doubtful that Europe will become a strong proponent of GMFs, it is likely there will be much more growing there with them than in the past.  That is remarkable in itself.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Here is an evil scam that blackens the reputations of legitimate companies through no fault of their own.  So-called security experts masquerade as virus catchers, infect machines of unsuspecting users then charge them for removing it.  In the process they advertise themselves as authorized vendors of companies such as Microsoft and McAfee.  The worst part is that the scamsters are probably located somewhere beyond government's reach. Angry victims will demand to know why the companies haven't blocked the scamming when the companies are unable to do much about it themselves.  Note that the scamsters are prepared to move on to new URLs if they are blocked.  This is a kind of reputational issue for which there are few solutions other than the companies informing users of the scam and cautioning them not to be taken in.  There will be many more schemes like this, and it demonstrates why companies in the internet age can never relax in guarding themselves and their customers.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Fluid Environment 

The President is working in a fluid environment in which he has already lost support of constituencies that put him into office.  Democrats are justifiably nervous about midterm elections only a few months away, and with unemployment remaining stubbornly high, there is little good news that the party can point to.  From a PR perspective, there isn't much the President can do.  He can't manufacture jobs nor can he order the economy to get better.  Unfortunately, whether he likes it or not, he still owns the problem and is being held accountable.  He has a similar problem with the oil spill.  He didn't create it nor can he do much to stop the leak and speed the cleanup.  Yet, the public holds him responsible.   This is true for all Presidents.  Obama isn't being singled out, but it is a reminder that the public is unfair and demanding.  One doesn't keep support for long.  It is always "what have you done for me lately."

Monday, July 05, 2010

Expensive Lesson 

News from BP that is has spent $3.12 billion already in cost containment, cleanup and claims is a reminder of how expensive an industrial accident can be.  The sad part for BP is that the final bill may be 10 times what it has spent already, especially when the torts are completed years from now.  BP will spend several years working for the Gulf region and its occupants rather than for its shareholders.  This is as it should be.  One wonders, however, if the lesson will sink in throughout the organization -- safety first.  From a PR perspective, there is little that BP can do for decades to come to live down its reputation as a penny-wise, pound foolish operator.  One wonders what this will do for the company's recruiting and how many current employees will stay with the company if they have an alternative.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Pushing Limits 

When I first read this story, I thought it was a joke.  But, it wasn't April 1, and the newspaper is the Guardian.  So, there might be something to the report that a discount airline is trying to institute standing room only and pay toilets on its planes.  The story was careful to note that it might never happen because it would require changes in safety regulations.  The idea, however, that an airline considered this is interesting.  From a PR perspective, it is pushing limits.  It is an effort to see how far one can go before the public rebels.  The trade-off, of course, is between price and service -- rather, lack thereof.  If the airline gives the standing room passenger who pays to use a toilet a price break, is that enough for the passenger to accept the bargain?  At some point, of course, the majority of passengers will say no.  However, is that a way to run an airline?  The test is profitability.  If customers keep coming, then it is.  The airline, Ryanair, is well known for bargain flying.  It must know something other airlines have yet to figure out.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

PR Nightmare 

This study, if accurate, is a PR nightmare for the current administration.  The number of workers who have lost jobs or pay is more than half of the total workforce.  No wonder there is a mutinous feeling among voters who want the recession to end after three years but see no turnaround in sight.  The jobs issue is likely to be a challenge the administration cannot solve but it is the most important one.  There is concern among some economists that cutting back on deficit spending will prolong the slump and make the recovery even longer.  They have evidence for their views.  The Depression didn't end until World War II started and put everyone back to work.  The US doesn't have a similar situation today.  There is a good chance that the economy will stumble forward like Japan's for a decade or more with millions of workers under-employed and businesses holding tightly to cash to see their way through.  Pity the politicians who have to find solutions in that environment.  Many of them won't remain in office long enough to effect a turnaround. 

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