Friday, November 30, 2012

Historic, If Upheld 

A judge has ordered tobacco companies to advertise that they lied about the dangers of smoking.  If the companies bow and do not appeal the court's order, it will be an historic occasion in communications.  Only rarely have judges stepped in to force companies to admit they have not told the truth.  From a PR perspective, there is no danger to tobacco companies for having to do this.  They are pariahs already in the public's estimation.   Advertising would be one more nail in a finished coffin.  From a larger perspective, however, it is a warning to organizations to be honest.  Despite inducements to stick with facts, human nature bends to deception time and again.  The internet has escalated the opportunity for embarrassment, but that won't prevent companies and individuals from skating on and over the edge.  Perhaps judges should act more often.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Coming Issue 

Here is an issue PR strategists should start thinking about -- the moral choices of robots.  This story is focused on driver-less cars but as robots take over more of daily life, there are other areas as well.  For example, the roles of robotic assistants to the elderly.  There are such machines in existence.  The issue, of course, is what a robot should do when the unexpected happens for which it isn't prepared or programmed.  Robots need default modes that do the least harm to humans but it isn't always clear what the least harm might be.  Humans have the same moral dilemmas.   Forecasters are now saying we can see driver-less cars on the road in 10 years or so.  Given the speed with which the technology has developed, it might be sooner.  Driver-less cars have already journeyed hundreds of thousands of miles, and two states -- Nevada and California -- have made provisions for them on their roads. While the article calls for collaboration of philosophers, computer scientists, legislators and lawyers, there is a huge role for communications to make issues understood.  That's where we come in.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Hype And Super Pacs 

If one believed the media, the rise of Super Pacs in the last election cycle was evil and the rich buying elections.  It turns out that much of what the media conveyed was hype.  The President was re-elected.  Democracy did not come to an end.  There isn't much evidence that anyone "bought" an election, although given the money spent, they should have.  The public ignored much of the attack advertising.  Voters, in other words, are smarter than political operatives -- and the media.  We should give citizens credit and take the Presidential campaign as a lesson in communications.  Noise doesn't equal message transmission.  Noise is racket that offends the targets of it.  Huge amounts of money sloshed through local TV stations in swing states.  Most of it was wasted.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A New Type Of Auto PR 

For those who don't follow the auto press, this is the leading edge of auto PR -- operating data on your vehicle that you can access anytime anywhere.  General Motors has long been in the lead with its OnStar technology that links each car to a call center and which sends an automatic emergency signal if an airbag deploys.  Now, with the Chevy Volt, one can see how one is doing against other Volt owners.  It is an auto version of baseball stats.  Only 1,800 Volt owners are doing it, but it is sure to grow.  More than that, GM downloads hundreds of thousands of data points daily to check on its vehicles and their sub-systems.  It is PR at its most fundamental.  PR, in other words, has moved to the engineering and IT departments.  Practitioners should cheer.  PR has long contended that is an integral part of organizations, and nothing is closer to the customer than checking his car all day every day.  For those worried about privacy, GM has answered that with its new application interface.  So now, if you want to get into a miles-per-gallon competition with someone living five states away, you can, and you can be assured your auto's maintenance is being watched at the same time.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Reverse PR 

Egypt is practicing PR in reverse.  Its citizens are defining the boundaries of good relations and  enforcing them through protest.  Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi thought he could get away with grabbing for sweeping powers, but  the people won't let him.  They are forcing leaders to bow to their will.  Mursi has created a dilemma for himself.  If he backs off now, he looks weak.  If he fails to back off, he may reignite the revolution and lose his job anyway.  He will need some face-saving measure to move forward, or he will need the support of the army to quell protests.  Either way, he has put himself into a precarious position.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Friday Hysteria 

What kind of cultural impulse creates Black Friday madness when hundreds of thousands of people line up to assault stores?  One can chalk it up to "everyone wants a bargain" but it is more than that.  Tens of thousands wait in line all night as if trying to score tickets for a rock concert.  Retailers fan the publicity and the media go along, reporting the gear-up each year as if a major news event.  The curious part of all this is that one can shop as easily and probably as cheaply online now.  There is no reason to get out the sleeping bag and don two pairs of gloves and a sweater cap.  But, people still do.  It is a rite of passage apparently and curiously American.  I'm baffled because I've never had an interest in shopping frenzy, and I'm a lost cause for retailers.  But, let the cash registers ring and annoying loops of Christmas music repeat.  

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving 

May Thanksgiving be peaceful and comforting and your gathering around the table a time of joy. 

From Bad To Worse 

HP's announcement of a $8.8 billion write-down of last year's acquisition is one more spike into its reputation as a well-managed business.  Analysts and investors are asking if HP's leaders can do anything right.  The pressure on CEO Meg Whitman has increased and skepticism abounds. HP is not the only electronics company to face criticism.  Sony also is in the dump and struggling to find a path, any path, out of it.  Both are formerly great companies that have been unable to maintain competitiveness.  It is notable that in the 1990s, another electronics company fell to the bottom and only though great leadership came back.  That corporation is IBM.  Neither HP nor Sony are destined to go out of business, but their boards and their CEOs must make the changes necessary for them to return to health.  It won't be easy.  The marketplace is accelerating change and leaving them farther behind.  From a PR perspective, the companies are already after-thoughts -- and that is sad.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Brand Jeopardy 

A situation like this is a mortal threat to a brand.  Sesame Street has every right to protect itself, especially since the character, Elmo, is one of the most important in its line-up.  It would be a pity if the puppeteer's personal behavior destroyed the creation he spent decades building.  The puppeteer apparently understands that.  Sesame Street has been put into an embarrassing situation of replacing a star who built the image, psychology and personality of a bit of fabric and fluff.  Although the puppeteer had backups, one wonders if Elmo will be quite the same.  Sesame Street has entered a time of testing, and no one can be sure how it will fare.  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lost In The Electorate 

How do reasonable people get lost intellectually and fail to see what is happening around them?  This is what Republican party members are asking themselves.  Rather, it is what they should be asking.  Some are convinced they are on the right course whether or not they win elections.  But, senior party members understand they have to vet candidates better than they have.  Otherwise, the party will suffer the same embarrassment it felt this year.  From a PR perspective, Republicans are listening but only to a minority who think like they do.  They live in an echo chamber.  Lest Democrats celebrate, they do as well.  That is what has contributed to polarization.  Such division is not new.  Southern Democrats controlled the Senate for decades before, during and after Roosevelt's New Deal.  After Roosevelt's first 100 days, the Southerners were able to block legislation -- and did.  One wonders why one party or the other seems bent on committing political suicide.  If they could learn to listen to the broad electorate, they could do better, but they never will.  Parties are made up largely of activists and ideologues who have a grand vision of the country and aren't willing to give it up.  They bend facts to support their view, and compromise is a dirty word.  Hence, sooner or later, Democrats will move too far left and will suffer in the same way Republicans are now.  It is up to a few men and women in the middle to forge coalitions of the moment.  It is frustrating but that is the way democracy works.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Three Leadership Styles -- All Effective 

This story discusses three approaches of three leaders to handling Hurricane Sandy before, during and after its landfall in the New Jersey/ New York area.  Two governors and a mayor ably  handled the crisis and are continuing to show visible presence in affected communities.  The men are as different as chalk and cheese, yet all have been effective.  It highlights a truism about leadership.  There isn't one way to approach a challenge.  There are many.  At the heart of leadership, however, is communication.  All three men were admirable in the way they reached out to citizens to alert them, comfort them and spur recovery efforts.  They used the media heavily throughout the storm and its aftermath and projected an aura of control when nature was uncontrolled.  Although it is the last term for the mayor of New York, the public will most likely reward the governors of New York and New Jersey with another term for how they handled the chaotic time.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Anti-PR But Successful 

As this story demonstrates, bosses can be bastards and jerks of the first order yet still be successful.  While the story focuses on the tech world, it could have easily ventured into any other organization.   If one accepts Robert Caro's research on Lyndon Johnson, Johnson was ruthless, manipulative, a suck-up to power, abusive and a despicable individual but he got great things done both in the Senate and in the Presidency.  In other words, the model of sensitive leadership is not and never has been the only way to achieve success.  There will always be room for Attila the Hun.  This is repulsive to those who believe that all publics deserve respect, but it is the way the world works.  PR practitioners have to adjust assumptions when working for a tyrannical boss -- that, or leave the job.  Those who stay look to the ultimate success the leader has in getting things done and take comfort.  I could not have worked for Steve Jobs, but Jobs was brilliant in execution.  Others remained by his side and he lifted them to the top.  Abuse was the price of success so they accepted it.  So too, the football players who cowered under Vince Lombardi accepted his punishment because he pushed them toward perfection.  Caring bosses are the fashion now, but they won't always be.  We could easily return to a time of tyrants and check PR principles at the door.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Lies Last In Memory 

Why is it important to correct errors right away?  Because lies last in memory.  Experiments show that false memories endure and further verify the danger of relying on memory for recording events.  Researchers have developed false memory implantation to a fine art and in the process they have destroyed the movement that maintains memories can be recovered.  It turns out our minds manipulate recollections.  And, scientists have shown that techniques for resurrecting memories are similar to the process for implanting false ones.  In other words, recovery was creating false memories. This means that companies and individuals need to move quickly to keep their reputations intact.  Otherwise, incorrect information becomes fact and fact becomes long-term harm.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

An Unending Battle 

The issue of race remains so volatile in America that even good intentions can create tensions and PR faux pas.  That is what happened here.  The Virginia education board is proposing to change testing standards for Black and Latino children because they are not up to the level of Asians and whites.  This has enraged some Black legislators who say that it embeds a perception that Black and Latino children are less than equal.  It has incensed some Virginia education board members who also are black because they maintain that scores are what they are and there is no use trying to compare Black and Latino children to better-testing Asians and Whites.  There is no right answer for a situation like this but the PR fall-out is severe.  Perhaps the Chief Justice is right.  The way to stop discrimination by race is to stop discriminating by race, but that begs the question of how to help those who are not performing as well as others.  Are they consigned to a lower class?  That is the fear, and should it happen, the education system will have failed.  Teachers maintain that lower performing students need more attention, but more attention requires more resources and budgets are already stressed.  So the problem continues without resolution -- and the fight continues.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Life And Death PR 

RIM announced that it would introduce its new Blackberry phones on Jan. 30 at an official launch event.  The event and the products had better be good.  RIM is facing a hanging in the marketplace that some say is already underway.  The company is engaged in life and death PR.  The reception it gets to its new products may well determine its fate.  There aren't many second chances in the electronics business.  One wonders how the company is preparing for the launch.  Engineers are spending long hours writing code.  Marketing and PR people are planning in relentless detail how to do the roll-out.  There are private and public fears, and bets are already against the company's success.   It was Samuel Johnson who said, "Depend upon it Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."  The minds at RIM must be focused indeed.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Still Not The Way To Do It 

Transportation to and from Manhattan and New Jersey is coming back to life after Hurricane Sandy, but New Jersey Transit still hasn't figured out how to communicate.  Take last night.  At 10 pm after many commuters had gone to bed, NJ Transit sent out an alert that it was restoring limited service on our train line.  It did provide a schedule.  Wonderful, we thought.  We'll take the early train to avoid the crowds.  We got to the station at 5:55 am for the 6 am train and there were three NJ Transit employees there to answer questions.  They verified that limited service had been started.  Well and good.  Then an announcement came over the station speaker that the 5:40a train that should have passed through was now 40 minutes late.  OK.  We thought we would wait for it.  Then another announcement came over the speaker.  The 5:40a was now 70 minutes late.  We gave up and drove to Newark, NJ where Northeast Corridor trains are running and are on time.  On the way there, still another alert.  NJ Transit was suspending service on the Morris/Essex line.  In other words, before the service started, it was stopped.   Now one could argue that NJ Transit did communicate through its alerts, but it waited until the last minute and discovered it wasn't ready.  It would have been better had they taken another day and determined they actually could run trains.  The result is ticked off commuters again.  Not only did the service fail to communicate during and after the storm, but when it tried, it couldn't get its information right.  That's lousy PR.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012


I will be away Thursday and Friday and not writing.

Great PR 

I wish I had known about this PR campaign sooner.  It is a wonderful example of bringing transparency to the process of making, distributing and selling fast food -- namely, McDonald's.  The Canadian arm of the company decided that transparency is best to handle rumors about its food and preparation.  So they take viewers to a potato farm then a processor then a factory where fries are cut and blanched.  Each person talks in his or her own voice and explains precisely what is happening.  The sequence on how the Big Mac is photographed for advertising is especially interesting.  With fast feeders under assault by food activists, this is a powerful way to combat fears and make one's case about quality and nutrition.  Whether it works in the long run is an open question.  It is difficult to fight governmental and cultural attacks on obesity and super-sizing of portions -- and maybe the company shouldn't.  However, what McDonald's Canada has done improves its image.  Would that other chains were as open.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

A Growing Reputational Issue 

Getting hacked and staying silent about it is an embarrassment for corporate America.  Sooner or later, the news comes out.  While the SEC has emphasized that corporations must tell shareholders about material items, companies have not been disclosing loss of confidential data to online invaders.  They are in for trouble if they persist in avoidance.  There are two reasons to disclose:  1.  Theft of corporate data IS material.  Not only the loss of information but the fact that a corporation had a hole in its security is something shareholders and others should know.  2.  By disclosing hacking, a company spurs efforts to prevent unlawful entry again.  What is needed is general corporate cooperation to bar first then hunt down hackers wherever they are.  Time and again, sources for invasion have been traced to China yet the Chinese government denies involvement and refuses to act.  What is needed is pressure on countries that house hackers until something is done.  Continuing to take losses and hiding them is lousy PR and a self-inflicted reputational issue.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Candle Light Ain't Romantic 

We're entering our seventh day without power at home.  This in the state where Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.  There is progress.  We can see street lamps glowing about a quarter mile from the house.  Power company workers are picking their way up the hill and through the mess that Hurricane Sandy left.  For the most part, communication has been good throughout this crisis.  There are two conspicuous failures. The power company let it be known that we would have electricity by midnight last night.  That didn't happen and now the company is saying sometime this week.  People in my neighborhood were visibly deflated.  It is not only dark but cold and sitting in a house around a fire is getting less than cuddly.  The other mistake is New Jersey Transit's lack of communication about the status of its rail system.  NJ Transit has said nothing for days.  We have no idea when the system will be back up and no progress reports on clearing trees and reinstalling wires.  The riders I know are angry at the agency for ignoring its customers, and my guess is that it has created a long-term reputational issue for itself that a few tweets, web-page entries and blog postings could have cured.  One wonders how an agency can fail in a state where the governor has worked overtime to make himself visible and show leadership. We will cheer when the lights come back on and feel relief when we can go to the train station again.  We might not feel so charitable toward the power company and transit agency.

Friday, November 02, 2012

About My Absence 

We have been living in a house with no power and no heat since last Monday night, and we are lucky.  Undoubtedly you have seen pictures of the devastation from Hurricane Sandy that ripped the New Jersey shore.  Where we live the damage was from wind but that was enough.  On every block there are downed trees, dangling wires, snapped power poles.  Our power went out at 6:30p just when the winds were rising to hurricane force.  There were a series of flashes from a nearby utility pole then darkness.  We were expecting it and had candles and flashlights at the ready.  It will take several days more before the lights blink on again.  

The frightening part of the storm was not howling because there was none of that.  It was a roar like a distant jet on a taxiway waiting for take-off.  That roar would build now and again as if the jet was rolling down the runway then moments later a rush of air would blast the trees, twist them, bend them, set them swaying madly.  After dark, we could hear the roar but not see the trees.  We heard snapping and falling from the large oak in the back of the house but could not tell what had been hit.  (It wasn't a house.)  Tuesday dawned gray and nearly still by comparison to the night before.  We surveyed the damage as did all the neighbors.  For some, it was soul-crushing.  Others had scattered limbs in their yards that they hauled to the street throughout the day.  We had two large limbs, eight inches in diameter, plunge to the ground and just miss anything crucial.

The governor and the President have toured the destruction along the shore.  We are on the lookout for utility trucks.  One came through on Wednesday to survey the damage but we haven't seen anyone from the power company since.  No one is complaining.  The anger is over gasoline.  Since most of northern New Jersey is without power, the gas stations can't pump what is in their tanks.  This morning at 6 am there were already half-mile to mile-long lines at the few stations that have electricity and police to control the crowds.  It's not just autos that are dry. Householders with portable generators are scouring for gasoline as well and not finding it.  Neighbors took to siphoning gas from their car to keep their generator going.  The gasoline crisis would be resolved if there were power and transportation, but the train lines are down with no announcement as to when they will be up again.  Bus service has resumed but there is no way busses can transport everyone to New York.  The mayor also imposed a three-rider rule on the working bridges and tunnels because the streets had become impossibly jammed by Wednesday.  

A neighbor who has a nearly full tank in his car decided to drive in this morning.  Two of us joined him and we left in the moonlit blackness at 5:27am.  The drive in was quick and uneventful once we had threaded the streets to get out of our town.  The 15-block walk to the office was refreshing.  I'm writing this in a warm room with lights(!).  Tonight we will wind our way back to the darkness of our homes, bundle again against the chill and wait out the weekend.  Monday, who knows?  Our neighbor isn't going to drive in again because he can't spare the gas.  We will chance the bus.

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