Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Nobody Is Safe 

On the heels of multiple hackings of Sony web sites comes the news that The News Hour on the Public Broadcasting Service was hacked and a phony story left on its site.  It is clear that nobody is safe.  Computer security is now a reputation issue, and it has moved from the back office to a front line consideration.  While hackers are hitting high-profile organizations now, it won't take much for them to go after any institution for real and imagined grievances.  There is only one protection against this assault.  That is renewed emphasis on security and vigilance.  It is expensive but it is a must.  Put a to-do on your list to check with the IT department about the security of your web sites.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Leaders in Chief 

President Obama and the Governor of Missouri performed a basic task of leadership yesterday.  They appeared at the scene of the tornado disaster in Joplin, Mo and offered hope to the victims.  This simple act of presence is still the most powerful form of communications.  Strictly speaking, there was no need for them to be there.  With all the forms of modern communication, they could easily have grasped the dimension of the disaster without showing up.  But, that is not the point.  Their presence was for the survivors, those who have to bulldoze the wreckage and slowly rebuild homes and businesses.  Invoking the memory of the dead is a show of empathy that people expect.  It is interesting that leaders will forget how powerful their presence is.  They get busy -- and certainly, President Obama is crushed by world problems -- and they prioritize emergencies they have to handle.  Touring a disaster site becomes a secondary task relegated to another official.  Whether or not one likes this president, he can be an excellent communicator.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Risky Business 

What happens to your reputation when it becomes known that you are helping a dictator invest  billions that he has stolen from his country?  A group of banks are about to find out.  A document has come to light that shows they were instrumental in helping Col. Qaddafi invest funds from Libya.    They have a defense in that Qaddafi wasn't on a blacklist until recently.   Association with Qaddafi is an issue now, and a potential black mark on their reputations.  Some of the banks like Goldman Sachs are already under public pressure for their actions in the economic meltdown.  This doesn't help.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pricking A Bubble 

It is well known that the cost of college has escalated beyond affordability.  It is a bubble.  Here is someone who is doing something about it.  He is telling the young that they don't have to graduate from college to start a business, and he is right.  Three of the largest high-tech companies were founded by college dropouts -- Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Larry Ellison.  The point that this philanthropist-entrepreneur is trying to make with his awards to budding business people flies in the face of conventional wisdom and parental fears.  No wonder he has reaped publicity for making the grants.  Now if parents and students would only listen, the inexcusable increase of college costs might be stopped.  Colleges and universities are unable to do budget themselves on their own.  They need the pressure of the public to regulate them.  Call it reverse public relations.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Perils Of Flack 

Those who make unsubstantiated food claims are now facing investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.  And, well they should.  There are too many "nutritional" items on store shelves that have little or no scientific backing for their claims.  Marketers are engaged in flackery, the likes of which PR practitioners are often accused of doing.  One can only hope PR practitioners have avoided such hucksterism but that would be expecting too much.  (Someone will always take money to flack.)  A standard practice should be before a PR practitioner takes a nutritional food account, the practitioner reads and evaluates the research backing the claim.  Taking a client's word isn't enough, especially with the FTC watching.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

PR Pro 

Ireland must be happy to have such a highly placed PR pro boosting the mother country.  Ireland needs any positive word that it can get. Its debt load approaches that of Greece, Spain and Portugal, three basket cases of the European Union, and people are leaving the Emerald Isle once again to find work.  Having such a prominent tourist stop by for a pint is the kind of positive jolt the country can use.

Monday, May 23, 2011


Pakistan can huff about the violation of its sovereignty but it has a major communications and credibility problem with this event.  Pakistan's citizens can question legitimately whether their armed forces are ready and capable to take on the Taliban.  It would seem not with a military base takeover in the heart of the nation's population center on the edge of the sea and nowhere near the mountains where there is disputed territory.  In one sense, the Taliban have done Pakistan a favor. They have spotlighted the lack of military security and preparedness.  Pakistan's allies don't need to preach.  The incident is jawboning enough.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Among economists, there is hue and cry over the expired national debt ceiling. Among average citizens, there doesn't seem to be much interest.  Why is that?  It would seem that no one believes yet what the impact of a national default or 40 percent cut in budget would create.  Even in Congress there doesn't appear to be enough urgency. Republicans are playing brinkmanship and ignoring pleas from the White House and Treasury.  One wonders when the meaning of the debt ceiling expiration will click in the minds of citizens, when they will start bombarding Congress to do something, when political pressure becomes so great that both sides fashion a compromise.  It is apparently weeks away, and this demonstration of credibility, rather lack there of, will continue.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What Do You Do? 

This story raises a question.  What kind of courage is needed to tell a boss that he or she has blundered -- and badly.  Newt Gingrich speaks first and thinks later.  Last Sunday, he did just that and he ran afoul of his party to the point that his young candidacy for president is in jeopardy.  He has been backpedaling and has disavowed what he said, but why didn't he think first?  If you were his communications director, what would you say to him?  Get on message and stay there?  What if he is undisciplined and incapable of staying on message?  How does one guide an errant missile?  Or, does one conclude that the assignment is hopeless?  Politicians aren't the only ones with loose tongues, just the most prominent.  Some asides and quips can be good and show off talents.  Others are deadly.  There is betting that Gingrich won't last long on the campaign trail.  The more he speaks extemporaneously, the shorter it might be.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Financial Perception 

What is a company worth?  Good question.  It is a matter of perception and of expectation.  Nowhere do those two psychologies interact more than in an Initial Public Offering -- such as this IPO.  Who is to say that LinkedIn is worth $42 to $45 per share.  It is what the market will bear, and LinkedIn's underwriters sense a larger demand for the stock.  Will LinkedIn hold its value six months from now?  Who knows?  Most IPOs come down to earth sooner or later.  By then the underwriter and initial investors are gone.  It's the next investors who value the stock against its peers and establish a price that is closer to the financial statements of the company.  IPOs have always amazed me for the extent to which normally rational investors can act in a foolhardy manner -- bidding up a new stock that has no record of sales and earnings.  There is as much or more "flackery" involved in the IPO market as selling underwater real estate, and it will never change.  There are always those who invest on the basis of hope.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Error Upon Error 

When a firm stumbles, it is usually not one faux pas but several.  Burson Marsteller is learning that lesson with an inexcusable mistake last Friday -- deleting negative comments about it from its Facebook page.  Of course, Burson didn't get away it.  In an era of transparency, Burson was caught almost immediately and had to apologize again.  Its first mistake was allowing ill-trained ex-journalists (!) secretly attempt to smear Google on behalf of Facebook.  Burson now knows what it is like to be called a hypocrite, a firm that says, "Do as I say and not as I do."  The sad part is that it takes only one glaring error like this to tar the entire PR business.  Cynics can now say with evidence that PR talks a good game about transparency but is no better than anyone else in practicing it .  PR has always worked under an accusation of misrepresentation -- that is, journalists believe we lie as a matter of business.  This is why PR practitioners must insist on accuracy and transparency.  It is questionable whether Burson understands that or whether in a quest to grow, it forgot first principles.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Stepping Up 

It's an interesting phenomenon that once engaged in battle, it is hard to control its expansion.  At least that appears to be what is happening in Libya where the British commander is setting the scene for a broader campaign to topple Colonel Qaddafi.  America knows this phenomenon well since Vietnam, incursion into Iraq and now Afghanistan.  It comes from ignorance of what real battle is like, from a perception that the task at had will be easier than it proves to be.  It is a form of  self-delusion.  As long ago as the Civil War, politicians thought that a few thousand men were all that was needed to subdue the South.  When General Sherman said it would take many more than  that, he was considered mad even though he was proved right.  Rhetoric at the beginning of war is wrong and becomes real only later.  From a communicator's point of view, the beginning of conflict is a time when few want to look at or speak about an enemy for what he is.  There is a need to paint an enemy in broad strokes in order to motivate the population, and that is what happens time and again.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Craft Of Business Writing 

Here is a brief essay on the craft of business writing.  It is opinionated, and I welcome rebuttals.  The heart of the paper is a plea for better thinking and logic rather than more studies of grammar and communications techniques.  One can argue that my view is simplistic, but in my experience, poor writers are poor thinkers.

This is the 117th paper posted on online-pr.com.


Blogger has been down for a day.  We're back now and ready to post.  Sorry for the interruption.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Why Bother? 

So many people have kicked Burson-Marsteller today that we won't add to the verbal pummeling.  I'm sure there is a review of ethical PR standards underway at the firm, and just maybe, one or two people are looking for jobs.  It has been a bitter reminder that a PR firm should never be part of a story.  

Greed Will Out 

It is too much to expect that conviction of a Wall Street magnate will deter others from illegal activity, as prosecutors apparently hope.  Where there is a chance to make money, someone will take it -- legally or not.  One doesn't have to work in business for long to realize that situational ethics abound.  Normally law-abiding citizens will bend -- and sometimes break -- when an appealing opportunity presents itself.  When there is a great deal of money involved, it is harder still for one to stay on the right side of rules.  Please don't misinterpret what is written here.  There are many honest and law-abiding businesspeople on Wall Street and in business, but it only takes one to tar them all, and there will always be one.  Humans aren't perfect, and there is no test that can be given to determine who will act ethically and who won't.  So, the law has nabbed a billionaire today.  There will be another tomorrow.  And the day after that.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Economic Reality 

Perception is reality in housing, and the reality is that housing prices continue to be crushed under the weight of millions of foreclosures.  This, of course, is devastating to the real estate industry -- the hundreds of thousands of brokers, developers, financiers and builders who can only work if people believe it is a time to buy.  When one stands back and considers the present situation, it makes little sense because housing prices will rarely be lower than they are now.  One would expect renters to be shopping, but it isn't happening.  The perception of a marketplace disaster has infected every level and one can only wait until there is a change in thinking that may still be months away.  Housing has always been somewhat of a manic depressive business -- from bubbles to disaster and back.  It would be an interesting communications challenge to try to bring proportion to the field, but that would be unlikely.  Housing is one more example of the irrationality of many economic decisions.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Media Grazers 

This report from Pew Research Center concludes that most news site visitors are casual users, or media grazers who show up once or twice a month, spend one to five minutes then move on.  The challenge that presents to the media in defining its audience to advertisers is the same as that faced by PR practitioners responding to clients.  Who is visiting a news site?  We don't know and we can't predict who will see a story on a site except for a tiny group that visits regularly.  If this doesn't worry you, it should.  It means that counts of site visitors are suspect.  It means that the audience a site has today is not the same as that of tomorrow.  It means that we need to think differently about how we reach people online.  It is more important for Google to run a news story than it is for USA Today.  We need to think more of news aggregation than of reaching specific media and of keywords for story filters than placement on a web page.  

Monday, May 09, 2011

Too Far 

This is interesting -- a CEO who admits that he has taken a message too far.   General Electric's CEO Jeff Immelt now says he shouldn't have talked about saving the environment as much as he did.  The problem is that some investors started to believe he was more committed to the environment than to building General Electric.  What this highlights is the tricky path CEOs navigate when they talk about issues.  Investors tend to be short-sighted -- what have you done for me lately.  CEOs have to serve investors' short-term interests while positioning their companies for five and 10 years out.  It is a hard communications task, and CEOs often stumble.  It is unusual, however, to see a CEO who admits that he erred.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Continuing Problem 

As this story relates, even reasonable people have blind spots and suffer from incredulity.  It is an issue the President is facing now by deciding not to release photos of the deceased Osama bin Laden.  Part of his justification is that even with a photo, some people will refuse to believe -- and he is right.   The notion that man can reason his way to proper answers based on evidence is fiction for most people.  Even scientists have taken wrong turns and defended oddball notions long after the weight of evidence has gone against them.  I should write especially scientists because their adherence to an evidence-based approach makes them vulnerable when evidence is incomplete, as it often is.   PR practitioners know incredulity well.  There are always reporters and others who see conspiracies.  They refuse to accept facts at face value.  This phenomenon will never go away.  It is a human trait that one learns to accept.  The mistake is paying too much attention to disbelievers -- unless the incredulous are gaining a hearing.  Then, one must act -- and swiftly.

Thursday, May 05, 2011


Sometimes a PR pitch is so wrong-headed, clueless and crass that one can only stand back and wonder.  Here is one.  Whoever wrote and distributed this release has so little understanding of the media that one can only conclude he or she (probably he) had never dealt with the media before.  If so, why did this person think that he understood how the media operate.  Obviously, the person did not bother to look up a PR 101 text or even bother to look at PR help sites online.  If the person is of the persuasion that anyone can be bought, he has so little understanding of the free press that he should be barred from using traditional media.  That written, there are places in the world where reporters and editors can still be bought.  Perhaps this person should be sent there to continue his practice of PR.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Hacked Reputation 

Sony Entertainment has been hacked not once but twice.  Tens of millions of games players have lost their identification, passwords and perhaps, credit card data.  Company executives have already given a ritual bow of apology to customers but that doesn't make up for the probability that personal information has been compromised and is being sold in the shadow market.  One illegal entry into Sony's system was enough to ding its reputation.  Two back to back are beyond the pale.  Sony could lose hundreds of thousands of customers as a result of carelessness in securing its network.  Sony's experience is a reminder to companies everywhere that there is no safe system.  There are only systems that are secured time and again as new attacks arise.  Security like reputation is a never-ending quest.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

It's Harder For PR Too 

This story is interesting in that it alleges PR is growing while traditional journalism is shrinking.  It sees danger in that because PR people cannot be trusted to impart information objectively.  Nothing cited in the story is new.  PR has been involved in all the activities mentioned for decades. It is a matter of degree.  The story acknowledges that nontraditional reporting is taking the place of traditional journalism  (The Twitter announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, for example.)  What it fails to understand is that PR people are more concerned about nontraditional reporting than traditional media.  Amateur reporters do not understand the need for multiple sources, for accuracy and for getting a story right.  They report rumor, falsehood and slander equally, and for that reason, they make the life of PR practitioners more difficult.  PR practitioners worry about the decline of traditional media because their jobs are harder now, and they don't know from where stories and rumors start.  Before the internet, one could phone a reporter and supply facts that clarified an event or statement.  One could build a relationship of trust over time by dealing with a reporter evenhandedly.  Since the internet, PR has become fire fighting.  The old days were better when PR practitioners could count the media they needed to worry about on two hands.  Now, media sources are a hydra-headed monster.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Negative PR 

The president's announcement last night of the death of Osama bin Laden is an example of negative PR -- a warning to terrorists throughout the world that the US won't stop trying to bring them to justice.  It was a long hunt and it cost the US billions but it was successful.  Others who would try to harm US citizens now know that they too will be hunted down slowly and implacably.  It is unlikely that his death will stop terrorism, but it raises the ante for those who engage in it.  Bin Laden's death is more a symbolic message than news.  

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