Friday, May 31, 2013

Big Brother PR 

When is it good public relations to be Big Brother and spy on employees?  When public safety is of concern.  The most common source of infection in hospitals is when people neglect to wash their hands, so one hospital has done something about it.  It has installed video cameras in its washrooms to track doctors and nurses and make sure that they have cleaned their hands during every visit.  If you were a doctor or nurse involved, you might be offended, but on the other hand, you couldn't deny the science.  There are antibiotic-resistant "Superbugs" scattered throughout hospitals today.  In fact, hospitals are dangerous places for the weak and ill.  Stopping transmission of microbes is imperative.  Employees might resent Big Brother checking on them, but if they could be trusted to wash their hands each and every time, Big Brother could go away.  That is not likely to happen because there are always some who resist or forget.  There are times when Big Brother is a benefit.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

What Have You Done For Me Lately? 

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, is learning a hard lesson of politics.  Investors want to know what is next from the company and are not impressed by speeches with vague promises.  It is the "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" critique.  To be fair, Apple is a company that has lived by hits, innovative technologies that have taken markets by storm.  The company hasn't presented anything groundbreaking since Jobs death, and investors are worried.  They've sold the stock and are sitting on the sidelines waiting and watching.  If Cook introduces another mind-bending product, they will be back.  Otherwise, they will short the company's stock in a bet on its fall.  If I were Cook's PR counselor, I might say, "Enough already.  Skip presentations and get a product out the door."  There is such a thing as over-exposure, and Cook might well be suffering from it.  If, on the other hand, he is dancing because products are not ready and won't be for some time to come, Apple is in trouble, and Cook knows it.  The next few months should reveal the facts.  

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Water Is For Fightin' 

The Colorado River is at all-time lows because of drought, and seven states are gearing to fight for their share of the water.  It will be ugly and divisive.  Each state has its own set of publics to satisfy and their citizens aren't necessarily ready to stop watering lawns and golf courses and allow swimming pools to lie empty, nor are they ready to take showers on alternate days or run the dish washer only two times a week.  But, someone will have to do that.  There is less water, and there is no practical way to produce it from the sea.  The pushing and shoving over who gets how many acre-feet will pit population centers against Indian tribes, farmers against urbanites.  Courts have stepped in before to adjudicate water issues between states.  They might have to step in again.  The ideals of public relations break down when there is a shortage of basic needs.  It is every man for himself.  Yet, the only way the issue can be settled is for the publics of all seven states to recognize that they must restrain themselves a little for the common good of everyone.  That is a PR program I would like to see, but it won't happen.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


I will be away until next week.  Have a happy Memorial Day.

An Old Story 

Tesla, the electric vehicle company, has a PR headache.  It seems car dealers are protesting  Tesla's desire to sell directly to the public.  Dealers are organized, and they have political power.  How do I know this?  Porsche tried to do the same in the mid-1980s and enraged its dealers who were instrumental in passing laws against the company and in suing it.  Porsche quickly gave up its plans while my agency worked to overcome the PR damage the German sports car maker had caused.  There is no reason why Tesla should be barred from selling directly other than the tradition of dealers coming between the manufacturer and its customers.  That is the way the auto business started over a hundred years ago, and it is the way it continues.  Should a company be allowed to shatter precedent?  Yes, but it needs market power to do that and when even majors are scared to take on their dealers, one fears for Tesla's efforts.  For all that, I wish the company well in handling the PR and legal fallout from its efforts.  If it should succeed, it will show a way forward that other auto companies have been too timid to take.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Eye Of The Beholder 

There is one more argument between Israelis and Palestinians -- who shot a 12-year-old boy, Mohammed al-Dura.  There is video of the incident but no smoking gun.  Israelis say there is no proof.  Palestinians point to the firefight as evidence that it was Israeli bullets.  What one believes is in the eye of the beholder.  If you trust Israelis, you accept the argument that there is no proof.  If you trust Palestinians, it is the opposite.  There never will be a definitive answer, but there is and will be passion on both sides.  With an increase of video surveillance in society, there will be more of these moments when the camera neither lies nor tells the truth but poses a conundrum.  PR practitioners are well versed in the power of the image, but even they cannot make strong cases from incidents like the death of Mohammed al-Dura.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Interesting PR Challenge 

How do you sell an island that was the national quarantine center for infectious animal diseases?  Carefully, very carefully.  Can you imagine a householder paying a large sum to buy two acres and a sumptuous house on land where one is never quite sure if another virus or microbe outbreak might occur?  All the assurances of authorities that the island is safe will have a "but" floating in the air.  It might take years for people to forget that Plum Island was shut off from the rest of the world because animal maladies there were so serious and contagious.  And, who knows if any of them could jump to humans?  Authorities have an interesting PR challenge with the 843-acre dot on the end of Long Island.  Perhaps their best bet is to turn it into a sanctuary and to restrict access until memories fade.  The island today might be completely safe, but then again...

Friday, May 17, 2013

I Didn't Know -- A Poor Excuse 

The attorney general of the US is the latest boss to say he didn't know what was happening in his own department.  Maybe he didn't but it is a poor excuse.  A boss is supposed to know what is happening, and if he is surprised, he is also supposed to take responsibility rather than ducking.  Courts take a dim view of executives in the docket who plead ignorance.  Inevitably there is a smoking e-mail or memo somewhere that shows the boss he was informed.  He failed to grasp the significance of what was written.  My guess is that the same holds true for Eric Holder, Jr., but he is trying to lawyer his way out of the spotlight and fire.  It is understandable that he doesn't want to stand up.  The media are furious that the government would snoop into their phone records.  Holder's defense of those who took the action doesn't make it any less of a PR gaffe.  The media believe they are set apart and they react badly whenever they learn they aren't.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

When Disappearance Is Best 

The former Catholic Cardinal of Scotland is leaving the country to perform penance and reflect on his past behavior.  He stepped down after it was revealed he had made inappropriate advances to fellow priests.  A PR counselor would tell him to remain out of the country.  There is little he can do to restore his reputation.  His power is gone and unlikely to return.  He is an embarrassment to the Church in Scotland by his presence.  Roman Catholics believe in forgiveness but that doesn't mean one should get his old job back or remain on the scene.  Scripture relates that Jesus forgave Peter's denials of Jesus and handed him the keys to the Church.  The modern day is not so tolerant, particularly when a religious figure embodies criticism for how society behaves.  Critics are only too ready to charge hypocrisy if an errant priest remains in power.  The former cardinal can perform good works and demonstrate repentance in the time he has left on this earth.  And, he might return to grace by doing so, but not as a cardinal and not in Scotland.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Grassroots Protest 

Here is another worry for PR practitioners and marketers -- a phone app that allows one to determine if a company or individual is behind a product.  One can envision a time in the not too distant future where a protest group organizes a national grassroots campaign through use of the app.  The only safety for targeted companies and individuals is that most people might not care enough to scan products in their shopping carts.  In other words, apathy might be the best protection.  Still, practitioners cannot discount the rise of such mobile tools.  Say there is a scare about genetically modified foods.  People would use an app like this in the store, and it would be a major issue for producers and retailers.  It is less likely, however, that millions would shun a product because the Koch brothers are behind it.  Still, the more tools developed for individual expression, the greater the likelihood that people will eventually use them.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Poking The Bear 

The quickest way to lose the support of the media is to investigate them to find their sources.  The Justice Department has poked the bear with its seizure of phone records of Associated Press journalists.  To call the move dumb would be to dignify it.  The media have treated the Obama administration well to this point.  There is a good chance that they won't from now on.  This revelation comes just a couple of days after the IRS admitted it investigated conservative organizations to see if they should maintain their not-for-profit status and during the Benghazi free-for-all that Republicans are trumping up in Congress.  The President should ask himself how many investigations of his administration he wants to have running at the same time.  From a PR perspective, the Obama administration is squandering the good will it gained from winning the election last November.  It is about as bad as the previous President who thought he had political capital to spend after his second election only to blow it away in a year. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Can't Win 

When an organization already is deeply unpopular, having it exert authority can spark trouble.  The Internal Revenue Service is learning that all over again.  Its efforts to check the tax-exempt status of 501(c)4 quasi-political organizations has erupted into volcanic rage from the groups affected.  No matter that lower-level employees in the agency thought they were doing their jobs.  It is clear that in this instance the agency should have investigated everyone or no one.  The slightest perception that it was targeting was unacceptable.  And, it was targeting.  It is understandable from a management point of view what the agency was doing -- selective audits.  The IRS has neither the manpower nor time to audit everyone so it uses criteria to determine whom to investigate.  It stumbled badly in this instance and should have known better, even in the lower echelons.  Now the IRS and the Obama administration have a mess to clean up, and suspicions of opponents run deeper than ever. It is a good example of "Can't win."

Friday, May 10, 2013

Is It Enough? 

Consumer Reports gave the Tesla Model S electric vehicle an outstanding rating, but is it enough to get over anxiety about the range of these cars?  The Model S is a luxury car designed for short to middle-distance commutes.  For longer ranges, it is hampered by a lack of charging stations and by the time it takes to top off its batteries.  There is an opinion that without major breakthroughs in battery technology, electric vehicles will never be popular.   Citizens will refuse to wait even 30 minutes for a quick charge.  From a PR perspective, Tesla has a challenge that might be insurmountable.  It might do well as a niche vehicle but can it ever become a mass-market product?  Should the company every think that way?  Perhaps remaining a small company is the most profitable course of action to take -- a company that is close to its public and listens to them carefully.  Other car companies have taken this course successfully, notably Porsche whose sports cars were never built for the masses.  Tesla has the credibility, but what can it do with it?

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Change Agents Unable To Change 

Newspapers have long considered themselves change agents.  They pride themselves on speaking truth to power.  So it is ironic that this deep into the digital age newspapers still are unable to change, if you believe this anonymous newspaper executive.  While it is always dangerous to take someone's word who insists on concealing his name, what he says in this article rings true.  Even major newspapers continue to bleed while their digital operations are unable to make up for the revenue loss of display advertising.  It is a humiliating experience for an industry that once minted money.  It should be a warning to those who freely criticize business that they ought to get their own houses in order first.  But, of course, reporters won't be cautious.  They will continue to point to the peccadilloes of the mighty while groaning about pay and lack of career advancement.  Some things never change.  From a PR perspective, it is sad to see publishers in such a sorry state.  We need newspapers as much as they need us (although they would never admit to that.)  PR, however, will survive even if newspapers disappear.  It might even absorb many of those journalists who are out of work.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Mea Culpa A Little Late 

Apologies for mistakes are good but sometimes they can be too late to be of much benefit to one who is sorry.  That might be the case facing Microsoft with its admission that Windows 8 needs work.  Users have been complaining about the operating system for months, ever since it appeared.  Microsoft took the role of a demanding mother -- "Eat your peas."   That didn't work.  Users either didn't upgrade to the new system or when forced into it through purchasing a new PC, groaned loudly.  The internet was filled with pleas to bring back the start button and desktop.  Microsoft resisted until it looked at sales of the system, which were not robust.  Now, the company is saying it has listened and will make changes.  It forgot that in the networked era, users have choices.  Microsoft no longer has a monopoly on operating systems for small computers, and it can't force people to do its will.  One would hope that this experience has been a salutary lesson and the public won't have to bash the company again.   One would hope...

Tuesday, May 07, 2013


Activists can go too far and make themselves look absurd, if not worse.  That is the case here.    To go after a governor because he squashed a spider on his desk in front of school children is dumb.  PETA is using any excuse for its publicity campaign and as a result, it is reinforcing a perception that its members lack judgment.  In PR and publicity, there needs to be balance as in everything else.  One can't push too far ahead of public sensibilities without backlash.  Persuasion is a step-by-step affair.  Perhaps someday the public will value spiders highly and killing one on a desktop will be seen as out of bounds.  That isn't the case now.  PETA should have let the incident pass but no.  It seized an "opportunity" to cry aloud again for ethical treatment of animals.  The organization needs lessons in PR 101. 

Monday, May 06, 2013

Seeds Of Revolution 

When joblessness reaches 27 percent in a country, the government had better watch out.  The seeds of revolution have been planted, and the public is ready to roar in anger.  Perhaps Spain's only safety at the moment is that there is no prevailing political philosophy other than democracy to help the country find a way out of austerity.  Were there Marxist cells promising jobs, an uprising would be a certainty.  There is no guarantee a revolt won't happen.   People look to government to provide the basics -- food, health, work, a freedom to congregate and speak.  With high unemployment, essentials are threatened, and the people conclude their government has failed.  Like Greece, there may be no quick fix.  The economy was boosted artificially, especially in the real estate market.  When the bubble burst, there was nothing to prevent a freefall.  There is hope that Spain and Greece will grind out of the messes they are in.  If they are successful, perhaps their citizens will never again opt for easy solutions to economic growth.  But don't bet on it.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Harrowing Choice 

This is the kind of decision that a President of the United States has to make -- kowtow to a dictator or let a US citizen rot in a North Korean jail.  Kim Jong-un, North Korea's leader, would prefer the US to bend because it would make him look good before his own people and his army.  He has humiliated the capitalist.  The US would prefer if the North Koreans would let the imprisoned tour operator, Kenneth Bae, go without a US delegation approaching the North.  The US is unlikely to get its way.  The North Koreans understand propaganda and perception.  The appearance of swagger is enough.  Although the rest of the world considers the country a wretched joke on its citizens, Kim Jong-un remains in power through waving his arms and acting like a bully.  One hopes a day will come soon when the political apparatus of the North fails and falls.  Today, its citizens are cowed, hungry and lied to.  They march in parades carrying banners extolling the state, but one has to  believe in their hearts they want to go to a market and find food rather than empty shelves.  It is not clear what President Obama will do to get Bae back.  Whatever he decides, the choice will be distasteful.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Best Kind Of Publicity 

IBM has made world headlines with the best kind of publicity stunt -- demonstrating its amazing prowess at the atomic level.  The stop-action animation using carbon monoxide molecules is not a work of art, but the fact that one can manipulate atoms to this degree is stunning.  Why is the publicity so good?  Because it proves IBM's scientific skills are among the greatest on earth and perhaps are the best.  No one else has attempted such a feat nor, as far as I know, pulled it off.  Other laboratories may now try to one-up IBM but they won't take away the impact of an atomic boy and his ball.  

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

A Humble Beginning 

This is the first web site ever created.  CERN, the European science agency, has restored it in honor of the 20th anniversary of the web.  Twenty years...  It seems longer than that, probably because the web has toppled nearly every other form of media in becoming the communications medium of the earth.  No one would have guessed from this small-scale exercise in hyperlinking that such a vast network would grow.  The world couldn't imagine it nor could traditional media who dismissed its importance until it eroded their power and wealth.  At first, it was a toy and geeks would excitedly e-mail one another when a new web page appeared.  But, the web grew swiftly and it was impossible in short order to review all of the pages going up daily.  It was in tens, then hundreds, then thousands and tens of thousands then millions.  I recall those days vividly.  It was exciting, but we couldn't grasp how it related to PR.  We knew we would have to get involved with the web but we didn't understand until later that it would become the primary communications presence of the organization 24/7.  There are still those who see a web page as a brochure and not the dynamic presence it should be.  For the rest of the world, it is an invention greater than Gutenberg's movable type.

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