Monday, September 30, 2013

How To Lose 

Congressional Republicans have made a habit of  "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory."  With their current game of chicken with the White House and Senate, they are doing it again.  One must ask why politicians can be deaf to the public will.  One also must ask why they are still being elected.  Republicans claim they speak for all Americans in trying to quash the Affordable Care Act.  It is not clear that is true. It is clear that a government shut-down is not in the interest of voters.  Playing a game of who blinks first, Congressional Republicans are certain they can force the President to back down.  If the President doesn't and government offices close tonight, it won't be the President who gets a bad name and loss of reputation.  One should ask how a group can come to such an erroneous stance then persist in it.  One conclusion is that Republicans are victims of Groupthink.  They have convinced themselves they are taking the right course and nothing, nothing will shake that conviction.  Maybe they do know something that the rest of us fail to grasp.  If so, they ought to let the public in on their secret.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Great Idea, If... 

Amazon.com is putting live video of its technicians on screen for users of its Kindle Fire HDX.  This is a great PR idea if...  if it works.  The hardware part of the challenge is simple.  The people part of the equation is where Amazon's challenge lies.  How long will a frustrated user have to wait before an image of a tech-support person appears?  Will the tech person know my problem and be able to help me?  Will I get routed from one tech to another before my problem is solved?  Will the tech speak clearly in English or will he/she talk in heavily accented Asiatic lingo?  The promise of live video support is groundbreaking, but more can go wrong than right and that can turn into a PR nightmare.  Amazon is a customer-oriented company so if any retailer can pull this off, it can.  That doesn't mean it will.  Amazon won't know its problems until it goes live with the Fire HDX and the first calls come in.  One hopes the firm has in-depth contingency plans for handling high traffic.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Good Advice 

One hazard of a PR organization is that we like to sell ourselves and talk up our skills and contacts.  What we should do is listen to potential clients, and listening well is a matter of preparation.  One can't hear until he assumes the worldview of the person who is speaking.  A second piece of advice  also is important -- know it all but don't be a know-it-all.  Use knowledge to ask good questions.  It is the depth and sophistication of queries we make that shows the other party we have done our homework and understand their challenges.  Asking why surfaces the thinking behind another's words and deepens the conversation.   One doesn't have to force oneself to be interested if there is natural curiosity about others and how they view the world.  Even a boring person can provide insights if we know how to pierce the veil of ennui. So, before the next new business presentation, spend more time researching the prospect and less time buffing the PowerPoint that discusses who we are and why we are brilliant.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Saying No 

The hardest thing for politicians to do is to say no to constituents.  It hurts them at the ballot box and can end their careers.  Yet, that is what is happening in cities across the US where excessive debt is forcing mayors to cut where they can.  Some cuts are in pensions and benefits that have gone out of control.  No amount of persuasion on the part of public officials, no application of PR principles is enough for unions to agree to a reduction.  Mayors argue that these expenditures are bankrupting their cities, but no matter. The proposed restructurings have gone to court where judges will decide.  It makes no difference that citizens have made their will known and support a mayor's position.  There are limits to persuasion, especially when rights are involved.  Unions believe they have earned their pensions and benefits and once gained, a city has no power to take them away.  Look for cases like this to rise to the Supreme Court where justices will parse law. Perhaps cities should never have granted such generous terms in the first place, but what was done is past.  Today's politicians have to figure out what to do and it is never pleasant to correct the sins of previous office holders.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Hammer Head 

To a man with a hammer, everything is a nail.  To a supporter of guns, every tragedy could have been averted had there been more guns.  Such overly focused and unbalanced thinking lives in the National Rifle Association.  The answer to every question is guns, more guns and more after that.  The Association deserves credit for staying on message even to ridiculous lengths. However, its implacable stance is working against it as gun-caused tragedies mount.  Even its supporters might start questioning whether every incident warrants more weaponry.  For now, the NRA remains a potent political force able to remove state and Federal legislators who dare to disagree with its position.   But resentment is growing and sooner or later legislators will have the courage to oppose the organization.  When that happens, the dam will break, and chances are gun control bills will be stronger.  It would be better for the NRA if it was more willing to negotiate and to go along with modest control measures, but that will not happen under its current leadership.  In political lobbying and PR, one should be willing to compromise, but that is a lesson the NRA has yet to learn.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Thin Veneer 

It is hard to remember that civility is a veneer on the psyche of humans, an accepted and acceptable body of rules we voluntarily follow.  It takes only one terrorist invasion of a fancy shopping mall in Nairobi to drive the truth home.  PR depends on civility for efficacy.  Its assumption is that one can persuade another through  ideas and presentation. Civility vanishes in the muzzle of a gun and then, only force is sufficient to counter force.  One could argue that physical power is a vital part of persuasion, and it is, but when a group vows to fight to death, there is no relationship. Only might is sufficient to extinguish the will of a fighter. We could be tempted to think that what happens in Nairobi can't happen in the US or other First World countries.  We would be wrong, if we do. It is easy for gunmen to invade a shopping mall with multiple entrances and unguarded floors.  It hasn't happened here because no one has attempted it.  When it does, we will feel the fear that Kenya's citizens have awakened with today.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Falling Down 

American bridges need an estimated $3 trillion in repairs, according to a recent study, and in 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America's roads a D- rating.  How do you convince citizens to budget for infrastructure repairs?  It is a PR challenge that municipalities, counties, states and the Federal government will undertake for decades to come.  It is easy to gain support to build a bridge or road.  It is harder to keep them in working order for their lifespans.  Other priorities get in the way -- education, nutrition, help for the poor, medical aid, pensions  etc.  Repair budgets get cut or go unfunded.  Citizens become alarmed when a bridge or road actually fails but until then, they drive them daily and never think about rust, spalling, buckling and cracking.  It is someone's worry and job.  But, it can't be because the tax money to repair them comes from the citizen's pocketbook.  It is up to citizens to voice concern for infrastructure.  How do you persuade millions of taxpayers that it is in their interest to pay more for maintenance?  

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Whites Only? 

Discrimination on the basis of race can lurk anywhere and create a PR problem.  Consider  sororities at the University of Alabama.  They are and have been whites only, either because they haven't tried to recruit minorities or they don't want them.  Either way, it is a black eye for the university, which has taken a strong stand against racial intolerance.  Anything the university says about race is countermanded by groups opposed to the policy of integration.  There is a solution, and that would be to ban sororities from the campus.  Universities have done just that in the past because of misbehavior by the Greek organizations.  The University of Alabama can follow that action, but it probably won't until the sororities have been given a chance to reform.  Until they do, the school is in an uncomfortable position of advocating policies that its own students don't follow.  That is called hypocrisy.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

PR And The Media 

The media have a PR problem of their own -- getting breaking stories wrong.  The latest case was the misreporting of the Washington shooting incident where reporters couldn't settle on either the number of shooters (only one), the weapon used (shotgun and pistol) and the number wounded or killed (13, including the shooter).  This joins a line of incidents in which in their frantic pace to get information out, reporters and editors have forgotten their training and flooded air waves and the internet with speculation.  There is a deep distaste for saying, "I don't know," so they pick up tidbits wherever they find them and run with them.  TV reporters are particularly to blame for abdication of journalistic responsibility.  Print reporters share the blame because they are tweeting and blogging and picking up "facts" from tweets and blogs that are unverified.  This sloppiness has created a public relations challenge for the media who have been under pressure since the rise of the internet.  The public wants the information quickly but accurately.  Both elements are essential.  Reporters and editors know this, but they keep slipping when news breaks.  They have created a crisis for themselves with their shrinking publics.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Poor Excuse, Poor PR 

The Department of Defense is saying that it can't fulfill Freedom of Information requests because its fax machine is broken and they can't afford a new one for months to come.  There are several questionable points to this excuse.  1)  With the billions that the Defense Department spends, it is impossible to buy another fax machine?  2) Why is the Department of Defense still using fax machines in the era of document scanning, pdf's and e-mail?  3) Why can't the Department of Defense use another fax machine in the Pentagon?  

The reasoning is specious and suspect.  One could conclude easily that the Department of Defense finds FOIA requests bothersome and the broken fax machine is its way of getting out of fulfilling requests.  It is poor PR at best and contrary to the law at worst.  

Monday, September 16, 2013

Disappearing Act 

When principal publics are against you, there isn't much you can do except disappear.  That is what happened to the supposed front-running candidate for the chair of the Federal Reserve.  Liberal senators were opposed to Larry Summers and Wall Street wasn't enthusiastic.
Liberals held him in contempt for remarks about women made at Harvard.  Wall Street wants continuation of easy money policies.  So their choice for the job is a woman, Janet Yellen, who is the vice chair of the Federal Reserve.   Summers did the right thing by withdrawing and avoiding a fight.  The President doesn't need another headache.  He has too many as it is with Syria, immigration reform, the looming debt crisis and continued opposition to his health care program.   Summers went voluntarily or was quietly pushed.  Either way, he handled the situation well by formally withdrawing from consideration.  He understands that public and political relations is a long game.  If not this time, maybe in the future.  If not this job, maybe another.  Burning bridges serves no one, least of all the one who set the fire.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Best Kind Of Publicity 

The best kind of positive publicity is that which you get when you have tried to avoid it.  Consider a well known actor who dove into community service after a tragedy but refused to tell anyone about it.  Others spoke out later and cited his dedication.  The result is the actor's credibility and image have increased.  There is a continuous challenge in PR with clients who grab for glory.  They want to be seen everywhere and be on everyone's lips.  They don't understand moderation.  There is a time to shine and a time to stay in the background lest one weary the audience one is courting.  Politicians, particularly, are susceptible to the temptation to be on camera constantly.  What publicity hogs fail to realize is that they breed resentment, and it injures their credibility with those whom they work.  Some get away with it.  Most don't.  

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Emerging Crisis 

Along with the high cost of college, another crisis is brewing in the US.  This is the feeling among college graduates that they didn't need a degree to do the jobs they are performing.  The underlying reason for the degree is to certify to employers that they have work habits companies desire.  The American university system is teetering on the edge of failure but neither administrators nor academics seem willing to explore and make changes.  This leaves the field open for entrepreneurs to enter with better solutions.  The debut of Massive Open Online Courses is one such answer to the high cost of post secondary education.  Some universities have accepted them.  Most have not.  Parents, however, are searching for solutions because they don't have savings to pay their children's tuition and prepare for retirement.  Universities understand this but they seem helpless to do anything about it other than giving scholarships.  They continue building programs.  They spend heavily on sports -- football.  They skimp on academics through the use of adjunct professors.  Somehow, they hope few will notice.  Good PR would be to rethink the university from the ground up then reform it.  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Maybe This Time 

Lean, finely textured beef, also known as "pink slime" is making a comeback of sorts in school lunch programs.  Its reappearance is remarkable after the negative publicity of the past year.  The principal maker of the product nearly went out of business.  The whole affair was a sorry mess. Celebrity chefs and others inveighed publicly against the product.  Parents, worried about what their children were eating turned against it.  Everyone ignored the US Department of Agriculture which has never changed its opinion that "pink slime" is safe to eat and nutritious.  Now some school systems are returning to it because it is three percent cheaper than ground beef.  In other words, cooler heads prevailed.  "Pink Slime" is a case study in how a crisis can erupt quickly around a product in the wired world.  Clearly the company wasn't ready to handle the negative name for the product nor the negative publicity. It is now, but it could have been too late.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Needs PR 

States are testing electronic license plates.  Instead of stamped metal identifiers, they are exploring a digital message field that not only provides the license number but can show other information as well, such as an expired registration.  It's an idea that could put prisons out of business, since that is where many plates are made, but it will need a PR campaign to convince drivers.  Who wants to be behind the wheel with a warning message illuminated on one's vehicle, inviting the police to pull one over and issue a ticket?  States might ultimately force drivers to take digital plates, but not without protest.  The thrust of a campaign might need to be why electronic plates are better for car owners and not just that it  is less expensive for the state to issue and control them.  Like most new ideas, there will be resistance at first and acceptance over time.  It might not be too many years before a curious child asks a parent, "What is a license plate?"

Monday, September 09, 2013

Huffin' N' Puffin' 

In international diplomacy, as in every other human endeavor, one should speak from a position of authority and credibility.  That is why this call to Syria to turn over its chemical weapons is absurd.  There is no guarantee that America will strike the country.  The President is scrounging for votes, although he could have sent in missiles already.  The public is overwhelmingly opposed to a military strike.  Assad has already deployed chemical weapons once and can be considered likely to use them again.  The US has already said that its goal is punishment but not regime change.  So, what is there for Assad to fear?  If the President's finger were on the button and American troops were poised at Syria's border, there would be a different dynamic.  So, put this Kerry warning down as huffin' n' puffin' without substance.  In Texas, there is a cliche for this kind of talk -- big hat, no cattle.  It is poor international relations. 

Friday, September 06, 2013

How Not To Get Elected 

One thing a candidate for office should learn early is not to take things personally.  If a constituent comes after one, fend the person off politely but firmly and never lose one's temper.  This is a lesson that a lagging candidate for mayor in New York apparently forgot.  He engaged in a pitched verbal battle with a voter in public in front of cameras.   It wasn't pretty and the media jumped all over it, of course.  The candidate, Anthony Weiner, already has strikes against him.  He resigned from Congress after sending lewd photos of himself to women.  Running for office in the City of New York was supposed to be his resurrection from voter limbo.  It doesn't look like it is going to happen at this point and Weiner might have to look for honest work rather than a career as a politician.  If so, he might reflect on his PR faux pas and learn from them.  His behavior would not be acceptable in a commercial environment.  

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Can't Walk Back 

President Obama is learning a truth of the internet age.  One can't change what he said in the past without being caught.  The cause for this lesson is the now famous "red line" that Obama said Syria dare not cross with the use of chemical weapons.  Commentators have resurrected his words from a year ago and pilloried him with them.  Obama's first mistake was when he said the phrase.  His second misstep was attempting to disavow what he said.   He has now put his credibility on the line in his effort to punish Syria for using Sarin to murder its people.  That in itself might be a mistake because it looked like he was going to order bombing last week when suddenly he decided to ask for Congress' support.  In the eyes of citizens and the world, he looks to be vacillating and indecisive.  That perception will do more to harm his reputation than his desire to build a base of support.  It is a pity because he showed resolve in capturing Osama Bin Laden, but this time it seems he blinked when he should have slapped a dictator down.  

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Accidental Publicity? 

Did someone push a wrong button at Amazon and reveal its forthcoming Kindle Paperwhite reader?  Or was the "mistake" intentional and designed to get media attention.  It is easy to be cynical about such accidents.  Apple's early iPhones were "accidentally" left in bars and restaurants and became media sensations.  Even if these accidents were real, they had an effect of offering a scoop on a new product to editors and reporters.  And, the journalists willingly took the bait.  It is easy to imagine a publicity campaign that is launched by planned accidents.  Silicon Valley almost certainly has done so in its history.  Other industries have done the same -- e.g., spy shots of new model cars.  Some of the spy shots were indeed news but others were almost certainly "accidents" planned by the marketing departments.  There is a benefit to accidents that might not be readily understood.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Chronic Crisis 

On rare occasions, companies suffer a chronic crisis.  Something goes wrong and endures in error for months, if not years.  This is the situation at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant.  The Japanese government is stepping in to help the company control leaks of radioactive water from melted cores of its disabled reactors.  It seems little has gone right for Tokyo Electric Power Co. since the tsunami wrecked the plant, and there is no end in sight of the toil and trouble at the facility.  How does one do public relations in a situation like this?  There isn't much of an alternative other than communicating fully and constantly to the public, so individual citizens can judge the risks and prepare, if need be.  The company doesn't have the choice to remain silent.  If it does and something major goes wrong, the government will come down hard on its executives.  The company already erred by failing to disclose that radioactive water was still leaking into the ocean.  It is likely, given the dimensions of the clean-up, that the Japanese government will foot the final bill.  What will become of the company and its leaders?  The government might have a say in their fate as well.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Labor Day 

There is an irony about today's holiday.   It celebrates achievements of workers, but millions of them cannot take advantage of the time off.  They are laboring in Big Box stores, in fast food restaurants, in hundreds of thousands of retail locations to serve the millions at rest.  And, they are the lowest-paid employees in the economy.  This was highlighted by the strike of fast-food workers in the last week.   If these laborers were granted the privilege of taking time off like everyone else, stores would not be open today and beaches would be over-crowded.  One wonders if retail establishments are setting themselves up for a public relations crisis in the years to come.  

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