Thursday, November 28, 2013

Image Control 

News photographers at the White House are steamed because the Obama administration is taking photos of events and serving the images to the news.  Meanwhile, photojournalists are barred.   Commentators are claiming that it is propaganda, but is it?  It might be the wounded pride and exaggerated self-importance of the media.  The potential for propaganda is there because in-house photographers will send out only pictures approved by the White House staff.  On the other hand, most of the images are for record purposes only and are hardly revealing -- grip and grins, people in meetings, state dinners.  If there is a real news event in any of these, it is bound to be small.  Maybe it is just as well that the White House has cut down on the phalanx of photographers clicking shutters madly for no apparent reason.  Yes, there might be propaganda, but it hardly matters since most people won't be paying attention to the pictures anyway.  Meanwhile it has created a PR flap for administration's staffers.  Something tells me they won't have much trouble controlling it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

How Do You Recover From This? 

Say you are a gene-testing company and you get a public letter of warning from the Food and Drug Administration that states what you are offering is a form of consumer fraud.  How do you recover your reputation after that?  This is what has happened to 23 and Me, the best-known brand of genetic testing businesses.   The FDA letter in effect put the company out of marketing.  Yes, it can do gene-testing but no, it can't report proclivities to various diseases.  So why get tested in the first place?  23 and Me is facing a prolonged period of brand reformulation and it might have to give up much of what made its offering distinctive.  It also cannot escape the letter and warning, so it will have to carefully work around it.  Were I the CEO of the company, I would be plenty worried.  Were I the spokesperson for the company, I would be tongue-tied.  There is a good chance that 23 and Me will go out of business and the millions it has raised will disappear without a return to investors.  The mystery is why the company ignored the FDA in the first place.  There might be a case study in that -- how not to do it.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Whatever Happened To...? 

In the internet age, sites come and go and few remember them.  Here is one.  When it started, iVillage was touted as the premier site for women.  Then it faded.  Now it is gone and one is left wondering if a web site dedicated to women's interests was a bad idea.  From a traditional media perspective, it should have been a winner.  Women's magazines continue to hold their own on news stands.  Why shouldn't it be the same online?  But it wasn't.  The transient nature of online media challenges PR practitioners.  They must be alert to what is coming and what is failing and what media reach target audiences best.  It has always been that way but traditional media were a finite challenge.  Online media are many times larger and approaching infinite. Because target audiences are fractured and scattered online, practitioners must assemble bits and pieces into a coherent whole.  It is a harder task, even with media databases to help out.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Credibility Is Key 

At the heart of PR, diplomacy, business dealings and relationships is credibility,  Do we trust another party? US and Western Europe are facing that question with the tentative Iranian deal to slow uranium enrichment.  Can we really trust them?  Israel does not, and President Obama has a major challenge in getting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept the six-month agreement.  The US is electing to trust the Iranians but members of Congress are skeptical, for what after all has Iran given up?  There is no computer that can crunch a mathematical equation and arrive at an answer.  Perhaps at the heart of the difference between machines and humans is credibility.  If we can't take a machine's result, it is either miscoded or doesn't have enough information.  If we can't take another human's word, it is that we don't trust the individual to do or say what he or she has promised.  There will never be a guaranteed algorithm to calculate credibility.  Humans have too many levels of self-interest.  President Obama might have scored a diplomatic coup but then again, in six months he could look like a fool.  It is hard for him to know now.

Friday, November 22, 2013

This Is Dumb 

Companies are suing and fining customers for bad-mouthing them online.  Threats are designed to muzzle them through intimidation.  How dumb is that?  All it does is tick off the unhappy person who will make an extra effort offline to give the company a bad name, and the more people who find out about such aggressive tactics, the fewer that will use the service.  The customer is not always right, but that doesn't mean one should punish him.  That is simply bad public relations.  That written, there is no good way for companies to defend themselves online other than through aggressive promotion -- asking happy customers to speak and write on their behalf to counterbalance trash talking.  This provides potential customers with a fuller picture. One would think companies value customers enough to avoid angering them, but that doesn't appear to be the case.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Symbolic Destruction 

When is destroying something a good deed?  When the object being destroyed is illegal and never should have been collected in the first place.  That is the reason why the US Government crushed its stock pile of ivory recently as a symbolic protest against poaching and slaughter of elephants by criminal syndicates.  While it is sad to see valuable material  ground to dust, it is also testimony against murderous thieves who are decimating herds in Africa.  The destruction won't stop poachers, however.  It is a game of hunter and hunted.  The symbolic crushing was meant more for western eyes than for the Third World where the killing takes place.  Perhaps it would have been better had the act taken place in Africa in full view of hunters and others who might be tempted to follow a path to easy money.  However, that wouldn't hurt the demand for ivory because it is still being used in Asia for intricate decorative carving.  The problem is far larger than the US and African nations can tackle alone.  It needs a multinational PR and community relations program that raises awareness of elephants and their value to the ecosystem.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


The Japanese are not immune to hype.  They are talking about funding the construction of a Maglev train in the US.  As this article notes, it is highly unlikely.  Construction would cost billions that neither the Japanese nor the Americans have, not including right of way, new tunnels, signaling and other necessities.  Maglev trains have been the transportation of the future for quite some time.  The problem is that the future has yet to arrive but for a few installations globally, and even those are not doing well.  Yet, the Japanese plod on and continuing to refine the technology.  American visitors to the test track in Japan burbled with delight about the train's speed and stability but it was clear that they did not bear any checks and were looking for a hand-out.  How long can a country continue to spend on magnetic levitation is anyone's guess, but look for the day when it becomes a scandal and is finally shut down.  The problem with hype is that sooner or later reality intrudes and when it does the after-effects are brutal.  Just ask Tesla.  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

PR Crisis In The Making 

Here is an example of a PR crisis in the making unless airlines work hard to prevent it.  The idea that pilots never learn how to fly their highly automated planes makes sense.  Most of us learn to trust the output of machinery without learning what is in it.  Consider, for example, a car.  How many have an understanding of how the engine, drivetrain and electrical systems work.  Most of us get into a vehicle, turn the key and go unless the engine doesn't start then we call a garage or tow truck.  But, because modern cars work so well, we rarely need to do that.  Pilots are the same way.  The more their planes are automated, the less they have to master the complex systems that run them -- until something goes wrong at 30,000 feet.  A preventable crash because of system failure is an immediate black mark on an airline's reputation for safety.  It is not one that a carrier can afford.

Monday, November 18, 2013

An Old Story But Still Embarrassing 

The Pentagon can't balance its books.  That is an old story.  It hasn't been able to audit its leviathan accounting system for decades.  No one seems to care.  There is no move in Congress to force accountability.  The White House is silent.  Waste and fraud continue in the armed services, but their relations with the public remain good.  Forcing better documentation of where money is going appears to be beyond war fighters.  Historically, goods moved about the battlefield through a system of barter.  Supply sergeants did back-door deals with each other and satisfied their needs.  That kind of system, however, destroys any audit trail that one might have.  It is a pity, however, that one of the largest spenders of public money cannot be brought to account.  One wonders how long administrations will let the disgrace continue before someone cracks down.  It appears unlikely in the near future.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Social Media Gone Wrong 

JPMorgan Chase & Co dipped its toe into social media and got burned.  As this commentator says, the bank ought to have known better.   What seemed like a good idea was tried when the bank is under attack from regulators and activists for its actions during the economic meltdown.  The communications practitioners at the bank should have known that opening lines of communication through Twitter was going to incite critics to pounce.  And, they did.  It is one more lesson that social media are not necessarily the first choice for every organization.  It depends on the environment in which the company and its people are working.  Right now, there is a deep-seated hostility toward financial companies and Wall Street.  They are looked upon as masters of greed and oppressors of the little guy.  Whether or not this is true, and it is doubtful that it is, offering two-way conversation with unhappy consumers is bound to take a wrong turn quickly.  If the bank was expecting that, it wasn't disappointed. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Yesterday's News 

Old media continue to shrink and publicity opportunities with them.  Note here and here.  This has changed the work of PR practitioners as much as anything, but it is for the better.  Disappearance of traditional media has forced PR to use new media more quickly than it might have otherwise.  PR was caught in its technique of placement and clip counting.  One talked to practitioners in vain about the internet and new media not all that long ago.  The field lagged in taking on social media and content generation and allowed a cluster of new types of agencies to establish themselves.  In fairness to PR, the same happened with advertising.  Now that there are fewer traditional outlets, young and old practitioners alike think creatively about the use of new media and look at the field more holistically than in the past.  One could argue that it should have happened sooner but it has been soon enough.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Emerging PR Crisis 

The ethanol industry in the US is living in an emerging crisis, and it needs to ask hard questions about itself in order to survive an onslaught of negative publicity.  It is hard to remember that a few years ago, ethanol produced primarily from corn was considered a vital part of energy independence.  Then came horizontal drilling and fracking and suddenly, the nation has all the natural gas and much of the petroleum it needs, especially with continued conservation of energy.  Critics of ethanol, who were always there, are now getting a hearing from people worried about food prices and security.  The ethanol industry has already scaled back, but now it is looking at its existence and must fight for a place at the resources table.  Part of the problem is that urbanites and suburbanites do not understand the agriculture or the technology behind ethanol production.  Their criteria is affordable food and energy.  If they can get both with ethanol production, they will support it.  If one or the other commodity rises in price, they will protest.  Ethanol's future rests with policy makers in Washington.  It will be interesting to see what happens to the industry in the next three years.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Crisis That Determines A Country's Course 

The Philippines crisis is of a magnitude that it could determine the course of the country, certainly of the political administration.  Its citizenry has been so devastated by 190+-mph winds and tidal surge that there is nothing left for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of them.  Because the center of the typhoon was on an island and air and road systems have been affected, there is no easy way to reach victims.  The Philippine government, the US, other countries and worldwide charities have mobilized to bring in help, but once it gets to the affected locales, there is no good way to distribute aid.  This leads quickly to a turning point event in relations to publics.  Philippines legislators have long been known for corruption and ineffectuality, but this is a time when there is a critical demand for efficiency and recovery operations.  Each day that passes without food, water, shelter, medicine and clothes reaching victims is a black mark on authorities.  One hopes the president of the country realizes that and gets personally involved in relief efforts.

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