Friday, June 28, 2013

When Listening Doesn't Work 

Ask a horse thief for a horse not worth stealing and you're bound to get a broken-down nag.  Asl a senator for a list of tax breaks that should be eliminated, and you won't get reform.  In this case, however, senators are being asked for tax breaks worth keeping.  The senate still won't get tax reform because each senator will hold tightly to a pet exclusion, and the only ones that fall out of the system will be broken-down, unloved breaks that hardly raise a cent.  This is a case where listening doesn't work.  When the public is as fractured as the senate over what to do, it takes courageous and persuasive leaders to get it to legislate anything of worth.  One also should ask where the President is in all this.  He could put his pressure and prestige behind a reform bill but he appears to be absent.  There are larger issues on his agenda.   Will the country get much-needed tax code restructuring?  It doesn't look like it today.  There are too many competing interests and too little political and public cohesion.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

I Mean It . I Really Mean It. 

Threats mean nothing unless there is action to back them up.  That is why this threat seems empty.  The newspaper has made the promise before and it didn't close.  Who says it will this time if production unions aren't compliant?  The PR response should be to set a date for closure unless the unions to come to agreement, and more importantly, to stop printing on that date and rely one's online presence.  Would the newspaper lose money?  Yes, but probably not much more than what it is shedding now.  Turning on a press and distributing hundreds of thousands of newspapers is expensive.  In one action, the newspaper would be rid of paper, as other newspapers have done already in the US.  The important point from management's side is to make the unions blink.  If they don't and one isn't serious about closure, then the unions will run all over management as they should.  Once again, never say it unless you mean it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Too Little, Too Late 

A board fires the founder and spokesperson of a company then waits a week to tell the world its reasons for doing so.  That comes under the heading of too little, too late.  But, this is what the directors of Men's Wearhouse have done.  It is poor governance and smacks of desperation.  Apparently the board thought it could rid itself of an internal dissident quietly.  Of course, it didn't work.  The board needs a PR counselor who can tell directors what is most likely to happen when any high profile action is undertaken.  A counselor would have advised them to make reasons explicit enough to justify its action in the form of a press release issued at the time of termination.  That way it gets its message out right away and shows it is in control.  A PR counselor would not have told them to wait a week and watch a crisis unfold before commenting.  First impressions count, and the board was painted as high-handed in firing the founder.  If one believes its explanation for the termination, it was doing its duty.  Why didn't it say so sooner?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Perception And Wine Tasting 

Public relations deals with perceptions -- what people think they know versus the facts of an event or an individual.  Perceptions are often influenced by impressions, particularly first impressions.  It hadn't occurred to me that wine tasting is perceptual and that tasters are influenced by their first impressions of the cost of a vintage.  That is, the same wine described as less expensive one time and more expensive at another will rate differently with expert tasters. It also hadn't occurred to me that the same wine presented at the same price point minutes apart also will get different descriptions and rankings.  In other words, even expert tasters don't know what they are doing and cannot discriminate one wine from another.  This, of course, has upset the wine industry, whose judges believe they can distinguish taste better than the average person.  It also upsets vintners who charge more for some wines than others.  As for the rest of the public, we can be happy with less expensive, good tasting wines while scoffing at self-appointed palates

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Counter Response 

To all those who publicize healthy eating, this is a counter punch.   Twinkies epitomize junk good, yet millions eat them and are excited that they are coming back.  If anything shows the limits of persuasion, this is it.  Hostess and the "healthy food" movement are opposed voices in the marketplace.  Both will win to some degree, but neither will be triumphant.   That is the way it should be.  One can't legislate healthy eating, in spite of the efforts of New York's mayor.  People will find a way to eat the way they want.  The only hope is slow and persistent education that brings people to an understanding of what they should put in their mouths and what they should avoid.  In other words, the healthy food movement is engaged in a long-term PR program, as long or longer than the one that finally took down cigarettes.  

Friday, June 21, 2013

What Now For Branding? 

What does a company do when its board fires its founder and public face?  This is the challenge of Men's Wearhouse, which let go George Zimmer who started the chain in 1973.  Every Men's Wearhouse ad featured Zimmer intoning, "You're going to like the way you look.  I guarantee it."  To make matters more difficult, the board gave no reason for the dismissal.  The chain is doing well and turning in good numbers.  There are no public scandals.  There are no rumors of moral turpitude. Apparently the board decided it is time for a change.  Put yourself in the role of marketer and PR practitioner for the chain.  What do you do now?  Suddenly you're spokesman has been pitched down an Orwellian memory hole.  Do you act as if he was never there in the first place?  Do you acknowledge his contribution but go on?  Do you whisper the reason for the firing to justify the board's action?  There is the possibility that neither the marketer nor the PR practitioner know the real reason why Zimmer was pushed out. Somehow, they have to regroup, find a new communications strategy and move forward.  The business can't depend on one individual if it wishes to thrive.  Bad things happen.  Move on.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Interesting PR Challenge 

Now that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN has discovered the Higgs Boson, what is left for the billion dollar machine to do?  That's a PR dilemma for the massive machine.  There is plenty of science in the offing but none of the dimensions of the Higgs.  The machine is off-line now as engineers refit it for the next runs in early 2015, so CERN is taking the opportunity to show the technology off.  The photos make one thing clear.  In every respect, it is massive, one of the largest machines, if not the largest, ever built by man with its 16-mile race track.  Machines like this are important to understanding the fundament of the universe, but they are hugely expensive to build and to run.  Hence, the continual necessity for PR to educate the public about science being done or scheduled.  Unfortunately, it is not so easy to isolate just one particle as a target for a hunt as was done with the Higgs.  Now they will smash hydrogen protons to see what they can see.  What else is there?  What did we miss if anything?  What is the Higgs really like?  Public interest in the machine will recede, but scientists hope the budget will not.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Speech Coach Of The Future 

Among the many aspects of life that have been automated, put speech coaching into the mix.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed software that gives practical hints to budding orators.  Those of us who teach speaking might find this worrisome, but we shouldn't be.  Automation can be a valuable assistant to helping people overcome fears, tics and behaviors on the podium.  It won't take over completely, but it might make the speech coach's job easier and faster.  There never seems to be enough time to help managers and executives improve their speaking styles.  The challenge is that one learns speaking only by doing it over and over again.  It is no different than practicing a musical instrument.  For managers and executives who don't stand in front of audiences often, lessons are soon forgotten and bad habits resurrected.  If an automated speech coach can help infrequent speakers maintain their presence, it will be worth the expenditure.  Where does one sign for a trial?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Continual Embarrassment 

One would think by now the FBI would give up its hunt for Jimmy Hoffa's remains.  The agency has spent decades on the search and follows up every spurious tip.  It has proven a continual embarrassment for the Bureau since Hoffa's disappearance in 1975.  It is clear that his murder was a professional job and pros are careful with how they dispose of remains.  Instead, agents scour one place after another and look inept as fantasists come forward with stories.  Eventually the agency will have to give up because everyone associated with Hoffa will have died.  Meanwhile, from the point of view of the public, the agency looks dumb with its futile chase after clues.  What does it hope to prove by finding the bones of the long gone union official?  It strikes one as foolhardy as the constant search for Amelia Earhart's plane in the South Seas.  Some people cannot accept unknowns.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Painful Position 

New York University has found itself in a painful position -- accused by a Chinese dissident of kowtowing to the Chinese government.   The university is defending itself, but the charge is still sensational and likely to make the school think twice about helping the next dissident who leaves China.  It is understandable why Chen Guangcheng thinks the way he does.  He has experienced the power of the Chinese government to silence protesters.  He knows NYU is starting an educational arm in Shanghai.  It is easy to put the two together and to conclude that the government is pressuring the University.  NYU has rebutted the charges, but it is still easy for the public to believe Guangcheng.  The university, in other words, has a PR headache that only time will cure.  

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Future Of PR - Diversity 

For the first time in a century or more, more white Americans have died than have been born, and in the next 30 years, people of European origin will become a minority in the US.    That is something to celebrate and to prepare for.  It should make no difference to an American what the ethnic origin of anyone is.  In public relations, we don't distinguish individuals that way but only by interests.  If an interest group happens to set itself apart by its cultural or ethnic background,  we take that into account.  Otherwise, we focus on what their wants, needs and opinions are.  It is good that the US is changing again in its make-up.  Each group that has come to this country has brought gifts of intellectual and cultural insight.  This country has a history of rejecting those for decades before absorbing them into its fabric.  That might happen again, but if we have learned anything from a focus on diversity, we should have grasped that differences of perspective are opportunities rather than threats.  Thirty years from now will the majority of PR practitioners be Hispanic and Asian?  

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Self-Inflicted PR Crisis? 

The auto industry might be putting itself into a crisis with voice-activated systems for e-mail and other online activities.  If there are accidents while someone is dictating an e-mail, look for torts to fly quickly and a PR headache.  Auto companies insist they have worked through the safety of these connected systems.  Outside experts differ.  Sooner or later, voice-activated technologies will be in every car and competing for drivers' attention.  We will learn who is right and who is wrong.  Does it have to be this way?  It doesn't.  The auto industry can take into account research done already.  Certainly the industry is aware of it, but there is a demand from consumers to stay connected.  Auto engineers and marketers are rushing to meet it.  If it is shown that one can't split attention between the road and a voice-activated system safely, that can lead to further development -- the automated car, which takes much of the driving responsibility out of the driver's hands.  Technology is moving that way but one wonders why manufacturers are willing to take on greater risk in the face of contrary evidence.  Voice-activated systems should come after vehicle automation and not before.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Good Buzz, Bad Buzz 

It's an axiom of public relations that good word of mouth can buoy a product/service and bad buzz can kill it.  It seems the marketing industry is learning the facts all over again in social media.  This time, however, marketers are trying to measure the exact effects of buzz in Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc.   Some are finding effects. others not.  In other words, they have the same measurement challenge PR has been living with since its inception.  That is, we know it makes a difference and we can see change, but it is damnably hard to reduce it to numbers.  Since social media is coming to the fore as a force in marketing, there is a push to capture it in numbers.  Maybe this time analysts will find an algorithm that works across the board and is simple so everyone can use it.  Thus far, there doesn't appear to be one.  However, the power of the hive mind shouldn't be discounted.  What is concerning is that analysts will rest on near-measurement that doesn't conform to reality such as gross ratings points or clicks. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Company Crisis 

Almost lost in the revelation of NSA data-gathering is the crisis that the leaker caused his employer.  Booz Allen Hamilton is paid well to keep government secrets.  Imagine its panic when an employee of three months, a former CIA operative, goes rogue.  The company didn't hire him lightly.  He went through multiple security clearances, and he had a resume that indicated he could be trusted.  Whether or not one agrees with what Edward Snowden's exposure of government data gathering, one can feel sympathy for Booz Allen, whose thousands of employees but one have maintained secrecy.  Now the company has to scour its ranks to make sure no one else talks in public, and it has to impress on its work force again the seriousness of secrecy -- as if they don't already know it.  Snowden's fate will be a lesson whether he is apprehended and brought to trial or he wanders the world in search of safety.  Booz Allen, meanwhile, has to justify itself to its client and assure them and members of Congress that it can do its job.  That won't be easy.  Already some legislators are calling for reduction in outsourcing to prevent exposure like this again.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Service PR 

This blog has reminded readers repeatedly that public relations is what an organization or individual does and not what is said.  This was driven home again this last Friday night when our internet service failed at our house.  We called Verizon Saturday morning and reported that our FiOs  fiber-optic connection had stopped working.  Verizon did all the remote tests and said we would need a service call.  The time for a tech to show up?  Three days.  I sputtered that my wife runs a business from home and that was a long time for her to be out.  The answer.  We'll see  what we can do, but it was most likely three days.  Later we discovered the cable to our house was downed during a rainstorm on Friday.  We reported that, hoping it might speed service.  The answer?  Still three days.  Utilities are essentials to modern living -- water, power, sewer.  I would add to that the internet, especially since it carries our phone service, internet connection and TV.  If a communications utility can't respond faster than in three days under normal conditions, one wonders why anyone should use them.  Unlike water, power and sewer, there are options for the internet.  We had moved from Comcast only a few months ago because Verizon promised more.  We could always move back.  If we do, it will be one more example of where poor service equals poor PR.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Bad Position 

There is the old cliche of being put between a rock and a hard place.  Verizon, the telecommunications giant, knows what that means.  It is caught between the government, which ordered Verizon to turn over call logs for its Business Services unit, and civil libertarians, who are worried about government intrusion into privacy.  Verizon has responded that it must comply with the law, but that isn't going to insulate it from criticism that it should have fought the government order.  No company wants to be in a position like this.  It is another example of "can't win."   Verizon has been swept into the maelstrom of argument over how much a government is allowed to intrude into lives of citizens.  There is no clear answer nor defining law.  The government, true to its nature, is pushing as hard as it can to go as far as it can to protect citizens through finding and isolating terrorists.  Ultimately, the Supreme Court will have to set boundaries.  Meanwhile, Verizon and other telecommunications firms will live in limbo.  They could speak out as Google did when China intruded into privacy, but chances are they won't.  It is one more PR peril of the modern age.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Future PR Tool? 

It takes little imagination to see Google Glass as a future PR tool.  The camera alone will prove useful at events where practitioners serve photos in real-time to watching publics.  Wearing Google Glass, a practitioner can move about crowds and pick out people and actions to image without the burden of a camera or a cell phone doubling as a text messager-camera.  The ability to tap the side of the Glass and capture a shot then instantly tap a note on a mobile will reduce the burden on an event reporter.  I would be surprised if Google Glass isn't being used in this way already.  It's you-are-there quality is what makes the spectacles valuable.  As I see events, so do you, even if you are thousands of miles away.  There is growing skepticism that Google Glass will become a breakthrough product, and that may be the case, but the potential of the technology is exciting.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

One-Man Band 

A struggling Chicago newspaper has fired all of its photographers and is teaching its reporters to shoot photos with iPhones.  It is the return of the one-man band, the journalist who does everything for better and worse.  Predictably, the media are unhappy that more work has been thrust on them and the out-of-work photographers are threatening to sue.  In PR, there are some of us who shrug and ask what else is new.  Many practitioners have had to master more than one discipline as a condition for staying employed.  I can think of one individual who is a jack of all trades -- a photographer, a writer, a bartender, a tour guide and more.  He does whatever his company asks of him and he accomplishes each task well.  The newspaper business was never quite like that.  Because there were more technical aspects to film-based photos and cameras were cumbersome -- the old Speed Graphics --  photographers were separate from reporters.  With modern equipment, the technical problems have gone away and anyone from a five-year-old and above can snap a picture.  It might not be the best-composed shot from the right angle with the right visual story telling, but it is an image editors can work with.  There is a deficit to one-man bands.  Time for reporting is taken away by time spent shooting photos.  Journalists will have to work around that, but from a PR practitioner to a reporter, welcome to the club.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013


This is a terrific publicity campaign, and complaints about it are even better.  In fact, the protests are hilarious from fanboys who "know" how Superman shaves.  That they are aggrieved is only better publicity.  Kudos to Gillette for coming up with the promotion.  It would be good to say a PR firm was behind it but there wasn't one.  It came from an advertising agency.  Or, to put it another way, can ad agencies do better publicity than PR firms?  The answer here is yes.  PR firms do not have a monopoly on unpaid media and with the trend toward social media, ad agencies will move even more deeply into the space.  If there is one advantage ad agencies have, it is the ability to think big.  PR firms historically have been budget-constrained, and great ideas have been set aside because "they cost too much."  This campaign doesn't look as if it was big budget.  What sets it apart is imagination. One hopes the movie is half as good as the publicity for it.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Reputation, Reputation 

What is a reputation worth in the financial industry?  Billions.  That is what an insider-trading scandal is costing SAC Capital Advisors LP.  It is not the first nor the last firm from which investors have fled.  It will happen again because there will always be people who take shortcuts in pursuit of profit.  The sad part of the situation is that no control system can ever be good enough to catch a clever person -- at least not right away -- and the damage a person can cause can amount to billions in seconds and over ensuing days as fraud comes to light and money leaves.  Hence, financial firms must trust their people to do the right thing each and every day while keeping a sharp eye for the one or two who don't.  The days of rewarding traders for bringing home revenue without questions are gone.  Wall Street has to increase and maintain vigilance, and financial industry leaders understand that reputation makes or breaks them.

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