Thursday, January 31, 2013

This Time Is Different 

This is amusing and acrid advice to a wealthy man who has purchased a publication.  In this case, the magazine is New Republic and the owner is Chris Hughes.  Whether you agree with the writer's view or not, there is in the opinion piece a cautionary note for PR practitioners.  That counsel:  Avoid saying, "This time is different."  New Republic has been handed around and is a money-loser.  It is a second-, perhaps, third-tier periodical at a time when major magazines like Newsweek have stopped their presses.  What the new owner is doing is apparently a classic revival strategy at a time when old formulas no longer work.  It is possible that Hughes sees something others have not.  It is more likely his self-assurance has convinced him that he can run the magazine profitably.  If I were working to publicize the new New Republic, I would want to be careful what I wrote and how, and I would suggest the same to the publisher. A host of wealthy men have failed in the publishing business.  There is no guarantee Hughes will be any different.  If Hughes can live with ongoing losses, he can focus on content and forget the need to make money.  If he can't, it is a safe bet that New Republic will be up for sale again in a few years.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Poor HR = Bad PR 

This is an interesting example of what poor Human Resources planning can do to an organization's PR.  The culprit is NASA and the situation arises from exploratory missions to Mars.   The Mars sol, or day, is 39 minutes and 35 seconds longer than the earth day.  Here on earth, NASA did not plan for that when it assigned crews to control the rovers on the Red Planet's surface.  So what happened is that within two days of work, controllers were working within another time zone.  Within four days, two time zones away from the earth clock.  Crews became exhausted because they were out of rhythm with earth's sleep cycles.  NASA basically told them to "gut it out."  They couldn't.  Circadian rhythms can be ignored for only so long.  NASA, for a time, made no concessions to rover crews and earned a bad reputation as a result.  It is understood now that when working on another planet, whether from earth or on that planet, one must adjust to the planet's time.  One can't operate out of brute force.  Humans need sleep on a schedule.  If that cycle is Mars' time, so be it, and HR policies should adjust. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Accounting And Credibility 

Much of a business' reputation relies on its numbers.  That is why accounting is the primary language of economic entities, (and why PR practitioners should be able to read income and balance sheets.)  Caterpillar has learned the hard way how accounting affects reputation with a write-down of Chinese assets.  It seems the former parent of a mining machinery manufacturer had fiddled the numbers before selling off the business to Caterpillar.  This sort of chicanery is common in Asia where keeping multiple books is a way of life.  Caterpillar did its due diligence.  It missed the finagling, and now it is taking a blow to its reputation as a well run company.  Corporations can get away with a lot but not with manipulation of financial results.  It is essential for stakeholders to be able to rely on reports of economic health.  Caterpillar will overcome this embarrassment, but it won't forget.  It is better to spend millions on vetting numbers before concluding a purchase than having to admit it was cheated.

Monday, January 28, 2013

No Easy Answer 

Boeing's crisis with the 787 Dreamliner is getting worse, although it is hard to believe it could.  Japanese authorities have now ruled out the battery as the cause of the fires in the plane.  This means something in the wiring and software control systems is wrong, a harder glitch to find.  It is not unthinkable that the plane will remain out of service for months.  The 787 has become already a major embarrassment for the company.  That written, Boeing still has a chance to turn its misfortune around and the Dreamliner into the plane of the present and future.  What it doesn't have is time.  It needs to get the problems with the plane fixed now and restart deliveries.  There are sleepless nights in Seattle and well there should be.  The question now is why the error did not show in testing, an issue that is likely to be the subject of prolonged inquiry.  This is the kind of PR disaster that no manufacturer wants.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Having It Both Ways? 

Whenever an organization takes both sides of an argument out of self interest, it compromises  credibility and integrity.  That is what is happening here, if the news story is correct.  A Roman Catholic hospital chain is arguing that fetuses are not people in order to avoid a malpractice lawsuit.  The Roman Catholic Church has held just the opposite for decades -- namely, that life must be protected from the moment of conception to the point of natural death.  It would be interesting to know if Church hierarchy is aware of the court case and of the hospital's contentions.  If they are and have done nothing, they are guilty of hypocrisy.  More likely, they are just learning along with the public what the attorney's defense is.  If so, they don't have much time to act in order to avoid the charge of hypocrisy.  Already, commentators have tipped to the story and are using it to pummel the Church and its beliefs.  From a PR perspective, the situation is bad and couldn't get much worse.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Silly Publicity 

It doesn't take back-of-envelope calculations to figure out that asteroid mining is unlikely.  The cost of building deep-space equipment, ferrying it from earth to an asteroid, landing it, mining, transporting material to an in-space processing plant that needs to be built and making something useful is science fiction at this point in time.  That is why companies announcing asteroid mining efforts are engaged in hype.  That they get media attention says something about reporters and editors.  Having written this, it is fair to say the news media have missed breakthroughs in the past because of disbelief.  While the Wright Brothers were testing their plane outside of Dayton, the local newspaper never sent a reporter to see what they were doing, yet the pasture from which they were flying was next to a main road.   Deep-space mining, however, is not nearly as believable as flying a heavier-than-air machine.  There are plenty of causes and efforts worthy of media attention that get little.  One wonders why hucksters are successful, and serious scientists aren't. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


While actions speak louder than words, sometimes what is said or written offers hope.  That is why this extended letter from the new president of Purdue University is refreshing in its honesty and insight.  Mitchell Daniels Jr. lists all of the criticisms against higher education in America.  He doesn't duck them.  He says he believes Purdue is different but he is open to change sweeping higher education.  Still, he is new to the office.  Academic bureaucracy may yet weight him down and prevent him from acting.  The difference is that he appears to have a focus that rings through his words.  He knows where he wants to go.  It would be good if more university presidents showed the same honesty instead of hiding behind academic jargon and euphemisms.  Perhaps it comes from knowing that their jobs are nearly impossible and that in many cases, all that is expected of them is to be fund raisers for a dysfunctional system that wants to continue as it is.  Daniels has made a good start in proposing a new agenda.  True public relations will be effecting his vision in the years to come.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Words And Deeds 

The pomp of inauguration day is deceptive.  It is a triumph of hope over experience.  So too a President's words.  The essence of politics is "what have you done for me lately?"  Citizens will be looking toward Washington DC to see what the President accomplishes, and the President could be in for a hard road.  Republicans have given up neither their positions nor their power in the House.  They are a formidable blocking force to the delight of some Americans and despair of others.  If one powerful speech could change the course of history, then Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural words surely should have done so, but he died soon thereafter and radical Republicans set about punishing the South instead of integrating it back into the Union.  President Obama's words will only have force based on action he effects.  Or, as we say in PR, it is what you do and not what you say.  One should always be cautious about soaring rhetoric.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Martin Luther King Day 

This is a conflicting day.  One would like to celebrate the advancement of African-Americans but reality slaps one in the face.  Our little town is integrated, as is the community next to us.  Racial incidents are rare.  African-Americans are solid middle-class citizens holding good jobs, mostly in Manhattan like everyone else.  But, two towns border our community, both solidly black, both poor and both riddled with drugs and violence.  Why?  One can trot out the usual explanations -- gangs, broken homes, poor education.  However, it is more than that.  If 30 percent of our community has been able to escape the ghetto, what went right for them and did not go well for the others?  I've got private thoughts, and there they will remain because I have no standing, nor should I.  What one can hope is that parents will see the African Americans struggling up in my town as proof that it can be done, that there is a future, that Martin Luther King's dream is at last reality and not just words.  

Friday, January 18, 2013

Big Numbers 

If this data is right, the internet is a communications system far greater than ever known to man. The numbers are staggering: 2.2 billion e-mail users, 144 billion e-mails a day, and sadly, 68.8 percent of it was spam.  634 million web sites and 51 million added last year alone. 2.4 billion internet users worldwide.  One billion active users of Facebook.  2.7 billion likes on Facebook each day and 7 petabytes of image data!  9.66 million tweets during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.  And so it goes.  Everything about the internet, web and social media is gigantic. What the numbers don't say is that within these figures are billions of overlapping relationships -- connections, near-connections and distant links --, some of which are useful to the communicator, but most of which are not.  The internet is a splintered community along tens of thousands of interests.  PR practitioners need to isolate just those groups they need.  The image is that of a librarian in the Library of Congress waving at the mammoth stacks and saying, "It's all there."  The problem is finding "it."   While search engines make internet use possible, they are not perfect, and there are huge amounts of data hidden from users.  Some day, perhaps, there will be an ultimate index that captures everything from the instant it is uploaded to the time it is deleted.  At that point, theoretically, the world's knowledge will be available to everyone everywhere, but the inability to comprehend it will be a greater barrier than ever.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Worse And Worse 

Boeing's PR crisis keeps getting worse, and there doesn't seem to anything that can stop it.  There isn't one problem with the model 787 aircraft but several.  None of them at this point appear fatal but they prevent planes from flying and airline customers earning revenue.  Now that the two largest Japanese airlines have grounded the craft, there isn't much Boeing can say other than it is working the problems and tracking down faults.  Boeing doesn't appear to be worried over "teething issues", but it should be.  If the plane gets a reputation as a money-loser or if passengers start to avoid it, the company's manufacturing business will take a major hit.  It is understandable that in developing an entirely new and highly complex machine like an airliner that some elements will be less than desirable and will need changing or strengthening once they enter service and begin to break.   However, one expects major systems to fault-free and the plane to be safe.  The issues threatening the Dreamliner are fuel leaks, electrical fires and cracked cockpit windows.  The company needs to act quickly.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Smart PR Twice Over 

Here is one example of smart PR and another.  The Swissotel guide to world etiquette is not only handy but it positions the company as a global  purveyor of hospitality.  Wal-Mart's announcement that it will hire 100,000 veterans is not only good positioning for the often- criticized company but it brings in a workforce known to be disciplined and motivated.   Two companies and two PR solutions, both on the mark.  There is plenty of room for creative and meaningful actions that set an organization apart.  There is little need for businesses to stick with "me-too" solutions, which they too often do.  Granted that hiring veterans is not a new idea.  The Home Depot did it years ago. The size of the commitment is what sets Wal-Mart apart.  The company has determined to go big to make a dent, and that has happened.  This makes it harder for activists who dog the company for abuses and omissions.   Swissotel, on the other hand, plays to the fears of any traveler who goes to a country and isn't sure what to do or how to fit in -- and that is just about everyone.  Its site is a utility -- something a traveler checks regularly.  Kudos to both companies.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Hard To Believe 

This story verges on the incredible.  If  true, the hypocrisy of a company is without limit.  The narrative is that Coca-Cola is defending itself against a public interest lawsuit over health claims for its vitaminwater by saying that ""no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitaminwater was a healthy beverage."  In other words, the company has said that its vitaminwater is a healthy choice in both name and advertising, but it assumes you know it is lying.  How outrageous is that?  Corporations earn bad reputations through bad behavior and situations like this confirm in the minds of activists that businessmen are evil.  That isn't true, of course, but such incidents make it all the more difficult for the innocent to prove they are without guilt.  Maybe Coca-Cola's lawyers are at fault for taking a bone-head line of defense.  On the other hand, maybe their logic has been forced by facts.  I.e., vitaminwater is a scam perpetrated by a knowing corporation on a gullible public.  Whatever the truth is, Coca-Cola has put itself in a difficult position in the courtroom and in public opinion.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Ding To Reputation 

The board of JP Morgan Chase & Co. is considering whether to release an internal investigation that faults Jamie Dimon's oversight of a division that lost $6.2 billion on bad trades. If it does, it will be another ding to the reputation Dimon had of being the best bank CEO in the US.  Dimon might need a dose of humility, but that isn't the issue.  One can ask if Dimon can't run a mega-bank well then who can?  This is not the first time this question has been raised.  There is concern even among professionals that global banks have become unwieldy and demand too much of their leadership.  Dimon thinks about his company day and night and is constantly on the alert for something going awry, but one trader in London was enough to embarrass him, the bank and its control systems.  There is no such thing as infallible management.  Humans are not machines.  It is a matter of catching human error before it blows out of proportion, and that is Dimon and his team failed to do.  Even if he redoubles efforts, he is aware that something somewhere can explode at any time and take his reputation with it.  It can't be fun.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Titanic Battle Of Reputation 

The question facing Herbalife's shareholders is who do you believe?  The hedge fund manager shorting the company's stock, the hedge fund manager supporting it or the CEO defending its reputation?   Herbalife is in the position of fighting for its existence with forces lined up on both sides.  Shareholders are caught in the middle.  If Herbalife is a pyramid scheme, the FTC will shut it down in the US and the short wins.  If Herbalife can prove that it is a legitimate business, the company and its supporting hedge fund win.  Shareholders will recover their investments too.  Herbalife's stock price has plunged in the last year from a high of $73 per share to a low of $24.24.  It has been a downhill ride on a roller coaster.  One could not blame investors for abandoning the company whether or not its reputation is ultimately restored.  It will be an interesting battle to watch and full employment for lawyers and PR firms.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Return Of The Ink-Stained Wretch 

As this story and this one point out, journalism has returned to its roots.  Until well into the 20th Century, news employees were ill-paid.  They were, as the cliche states, ink-stained wretches.  The ink may have disappeared but poor compensation has not.  From a PR perspective, should a practitioner care?  Yes and no.  It is less likely for good people to go into a field that compensates badly and hence, one has to worry more whether a reporter understands a story.  On the other hand, reporters constrained by compensation and time might be more amenable to being spoon-fed messages.   Overall, it is bad for journalism to pay its people poorly.  The editorial product is affected and the reputation of the media harmed. However, it does little good to damn the greed of publishers. Even the largest are struggling to keep their enterprises going as they search for new economic models.  Journalism is a labor of love, but there is a time when dedication isn't enough.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Laughable Spin 

New York football fans are inured to spin.  They look at final scores and records.  That is why this session of hoo-ha was laughable at best and saddening.  Fans won't believe the coach until they see results.  And, that is as it should be.  Public relations is what you do and not what you say.  So, the coach can make grand pronouncements for the year to come.  He had better back them with a winning record.  New York fans won't forget what he promised, and they are ready to throw his words back at him.  In many ways, sports are simpler than the corporate world.  A successful record of sales and earnings is essential but there is more to it.  Investors want an increasing stock price, consumers better quality at lower cost, regulators conformance to rules and much more. CEOs constantly juggle priorities.  Some times they drop one or two and suffer the consequences.  They don't have fans booing from the stands, but maybe they should.  They would get instant feedback on their jobs and a reminder that spin isn't what PR is about.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

How To Transition? 

There have been complaints for years that the giant Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas at this time has outlived its usefulness.  This is only the latest.  From the perspective of the show's organizers, how does one make the show relevant in an era dominated by software applications?  Who would, for example, erect a booth at the show to tout a 99-cent app?  Moreover, the hot news of the show doesn't necessarily become the fast-selling new product in the marketplace.  CES momentarily creates its own world of hype as thousands of media plow through exhibits, but publicity fades quickly once the show is done.  It must be a public relations challenge for the organizers, especially since major electronics manufacturers are under pressure and looking for ways to cut back.  A million-dollar floor display at CES is an obvious target.  CES might shrink over time and even disappear.  It will take constant persuasion and adaptation to keep it in everyone's mind as the place to be in January.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Legacy of Fear 

It might seem an over-reaction for a US nuclear lab to pull out Chinese communications equipment, but the Chinese brought it on themselves.  The country's recent history of industrial spying, whether government-sanctioned or not, raises a credibility issue.  Huawei is affiliated with the Chinese government.  It is a precaution not allow its equipment in areas of national security.  That written, American companies have aided the US government in spying over the decades, and their equipment has rarely been publicly blackballed.  What is the difference?  A legacy of fear lies at the root of the government's decision to remove Huawei's gear.  From a PR perspective, it is up to Huawei to ease that fear.  This might require the company to put a greater distance between itself and the Chinese government.  It also might demand extraordinary transparency about the design and manufacture of its equipment.  Since electronic gear is extraordinarily complex, and traps can be hidden throughout it, Huawei has a challenge to prove its innocence.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Spin Both Ways 

Here is a case in which there is credible spinning in favor of and against a policy -- the grounding of the well drilling rig in Alaska. Environmentalists say the accident after a tow line snapped in bad weather is proof that oil drillers can't work safely in the arctic.  Royal Dutch Shell, the owner of the drilling barge, points to a lack of any damage as proof that it can. Who you believe depends on where you stand.  Although there has been no visible damage this time, there is a chance there will be at some point.  The arctic is a difficult environment.  On the other hand, Royal Dutch Shell is well aware of the dangers of working there and is engineering accordingly.  The incident is providing both sides with ample opportunity to spin their messages. From an impartial observer's point of view, it is hard to decide who might be right.  The world views of the two sides are opposed.  Environmentalists want to see less drilling globally and more conservation.  Oil companies see a profitable opportunity to satisfy relentless thirst for carbon-based fuel on which modern society depends.  One side might be right in the long term and the other in the short term.  Take your pick and your stand.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

What Kind of PR? 

Among nearly hopeless causes, this one takes a front rank.  The US should have gone metric more than 100 years ago but it didn't and now there is less chance than ever that it will.  Nevertheless, the US Metric Association continues to call for the country's conversion to the worldwide standard for measurement.  This raises a question for PR practitioners.  What kind of program would it take to convince politicians, manufacturers and the American public that it is time to think centimeters and meters rather than inches and yards?  One is talking billions of dollars and years of transition.  Just conversion of road signs would be a monumental effort.  It is little wonder then that there is no impetus to make the step even though the US is out of sync with the rest of the world.  Planning alone for a communications program would take years and implementation decades.  Should then the US Metric Association give up the cause?  There is always room for quixotic pursuit and who knows, maybe some day the country will change.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013


Is a half-step toward solving the country's budget and debt crisis good enough?  The public perception and approval of Congress is about as low as it can go with little likelihood of improvement.  There are more fiscal fights coming up in 2013 and chances are that the electorate will witness more tangling in Washington, especially if the economy doesn't advance more quickly.  Both sides are playing for public sympathy.  Right now, the President appears to have the public on his side and House Republicans seem to know that.  It will  be interesting to watch the posturing before the next showdown.  Each side will again accuse the other of damaging the American economy, and citizens will have plenty of chances to take sides -- or say to hell with them all.

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