Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Losing the PR Battle 

Amazon.com is slowly but surely losing the PR battle with publisher, Hachette.  Authors, well known and not, have united in protest groups to oppose the company's actions.  Amazon is not listing books from Hachette or not making them available for weeks.  It makes little difference at this point that Amazon's position is a benefit to book buyers.  The noise from the author community is so loud and insistent that Hachette needn't worry.  Where did Amazon go wrong?  By not explaining itself forcefully in the first place.  This was an easy battle for the company to win if the company had only engaged rather than remained silent.  It's not Amazon's style to justify its position in the media.  It might not be too late to respond to its critics but it needs to go big at this point and that isn't what it appears to be doing.  Jeff Bezos is brilliant but in this case he has been ham-handed from the beginning.  One hopes he is not so arrogant that he fails to realize the poor position he is in and how he is compromising the long-term reputation of the company.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Keep 'Em In The Dark 

The world knows about the democracy protests in Hong Kong, but not the people just across the border in mainland China.  There, every mention of people in the streets protesting has been blocked in a modern example of Orwell's 1984.  In the internet age, can China really get away with censoring news?  We're about to find out.  My guess is that there will be leakage but no deluge.  Democracy activists on the mainland will hear about it.  The average Chinese citizen won't.  One wonders how any government can maintain credibility with its people when it behaves as it is doing?  It is perpetuating a cover-up of major proportions.  The answer to that is the throttle that the Chinese have placed on the internet and government controlled news media. The country is becoming a case study for dictators of the present and future who want to keep their citizens in the dark and obedient.   Sooner or later, the truth will come out but China is betting that later will be enough to prevent protests from spreading.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Common Sense 

These nine rules for handling e-mail should be filed under common sense.  Unfortunately, as always, common sense is not common.  I had boiled down e-mail to three points.  1.  Keep it short.  2. Keep it accurate  3. Manage your mail.   There is overlap between my points and his.  Whether you follow nine rules or three, e-mail is the basic medium of business.  It should be treated as such and not abused.   As for brevity, it is an issue with  business school students I teach.  I push them constantly to keep e-mails short and to get the key idea into the first sentence.  Most of them can do that but they feel compelled to ornament their writing with information the other party doesn't need to see or read.  There is a time for explanation but after one has given the key message and not before.  Action-oriented managers learn sooner or later to condense their thinking and to use e-mail for implementation. They know there is less stress when a recipient knows exactly what to do, think, or say.  Examine your use of e-mail and be honest with yourself.  Do you follow the nine rules or the three guidelines?  If not, it is time to start.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


A general has banished a reporter publicly because he doesn't like what she writes.  The newspaper involved is standing by its journalist who will continue to cover the division the general leads.  Not only that, but a higher level military public affairs person has vouched for the reporter in opposition to the general and is seeking to overturn the general's action.  The general doesn't realize the power of the media and is clearly out of his depth when dealing with them.  Somewhere in his training he should have received basic instructions in how to work with reporters.  If so, he forgot them.  His anti-journalist stance is dumb and won't stop the journalist.  It might make her more critical of the division's actions because of the general's boycott.  She won't get insight she needs to understand the unit's operations.  If the general was miffed, he should have taken it up directly with the reporter in an off-the-record session, cleared the air and started over.  My guess is that he will be forced to do that anyway.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hanging Out  

Coke, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper have finally agreed on something -- the sugar calories in soda aren't good for you.  They have committed themselves to reducing the calories by 20 percent by 2025(!).  With such a long lead time, they can nibble at the goal for 10 years.  And, maybe, that is what they have to do to keep consumers from protesting that the taste of their cola has changed.  The important result of this announcement is that the three beverage makers are hanging out in public and open to devastating criticism if they don't do what they have pledged to accomplish. Public pressure has brought them this far.  Now they have to make it the rest of the way.  Reducing sugar and fructose is a risk.  They are going to find out how much consumers want a sweet refreshment and whether consumers can tolerate sugar substitutes in a non-diet cola.  Cutting sugar is the right thing to do but it could prove to be bad for business.  The companies and the public will know in a decade.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Fundamental Credibility 

Tesco, the UK grocery chain, is learning the hard way about credibility and reputation.  You can't fake numbers and maintain either.  It is obvious but someone (or a group of executives) did it anyway.  Now the facts are emerging and the company is under stress.  What would possess the executives involved in undertaking such a stupid move?  A desire to protect bonuses?  Fear of revealing bad news that would reflect on their stewardship?  They should have known that the factual numbers would eventually come out and they would have explaining to do.  It is possible in the internet age to hide but not for long.  Someone will discover discrepancies soon enough.  The managers thought they could insulate themselves from the world within their corporate walls.  They know now that they can't.  Tesco has months, maybe years, to regain its credibility and reputation because of a fundamental transgression against transparency.  It is a case study and a reminder to other executives who might be considering similar tactics.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Fried Motherboard 

Those who reach this blog through the web page, online-pr.com, were legitimately confused during the last week.  The date did not change from Sept. 12. That was because I was dealing with a fricasseed motherboard on my home computer from which I reach my web site.  A dead machine is never pretty, and this one died slowly enough that it confused me for days.  First, the USB ports started sputtering -- not working some of the time then springing to life at others.  Then they stopped altogether but for one and I was in the position of using the keyboard without the mouse or the mouse without the keyboard.  Still thinking it was a software problem, I had a tech come by and look at it.  His diagnosis -- hardware failure.  Thinking it might be solved remotely, I called the maker of the machine, Dell. No luck there either.  So, hundreds of dollars later, I've got a new motherboard in the machine, and shortly, a new video card.  It might have been cheaper to get a new desktop, but for gigabytes of data on the hard drive --most of which had been backed up, but not all.  This is the first machine that has died on me in decades of computing.  With luck, it will be the last.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Precarious Balance 

The DNA testing company, 23andMe, is in a precarious position with its customers.  Some want to know everything about their background, including finding lost relatives and siblings.  Others don't.  They want to keep embarrassing episodes of family history buried and lost in mists of time.  After one customer discovered he had an illegitimate sibling, the news caused his parents to divorce.  23andMe put brakes on its pending decision to automatically tell clients who their immediate relatives are.  This decision didn't sit well with those who are eager to find out and fill out genealogies.  So by making one set of customers happy, the company ticked off another set.  There is no good answer for 23andMe to pursue, and there never will be.  Its service reveals the past in ways that are difficult to argue with. The company's decision to remain conservative in letting people know their immediate relations is probably right for now, but is it true for the future?  That is unclear.  The only solution for 23andMe is to monitor customer feelings from this point on and to be ready to change from one position to the other.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Credibility Again 

This credibility destroyer keeps happening and one wonders when people are going to learn.  Lying about one's academic credentials opens the possibility that one will lie about other things as well.  It is embarrassing to every employer this fellow had that he was able to slip through credential screening and end up for eight years with Wal-Mart.  He was a good spokesperson for the company before he got caught, but that doesn't matter now.  He damaged his credibility, and he threatened the reputation of Wal-Mart.  One wonders when such individuals will be honest on their resumes and the answer is never.  Ambition gets ahead of honesty and once done there is no turning back.  Perhaps this is the only lie he has ever told but who is to know?  

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Hope Springs... 

Technology companies are banding together to co-develop and set guidelines for open source software.  They are working under the banner of TODO -- Talk Openly: Develop Openly.  Put this effort under "Hope Springs Eternal."  Historically competitors have failed at collaboration because of fears that someone might gain an edge in the marketplace before they do.  In other words, they are more concerned about the short-term injury to themselves than long-term benefit to the public.  It takes leadership from the top to make collaborations successful.  The CEO has to dampen fears of what other companies will do and rein in impulses in his own company to steal a march on others.  PR supports the idea of better user experience and software that works on any platform.  It is better customer relations, and it removes a major headache for owners of multiple devices from different companies.  However, it can reduce hardware to a commodity if companies fail to innovate within the platform standard.  Think of an electric plug.  In America, we think nothing of it today because the three-prong plug is standard.  Go to Europe, however, and you will encounter multiple plugs depending on the country.  The cost of that lack of standardization is a headache for manufacturers and users.  So, here's to TODO.  "May the odds ever be in its favor."

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Case Study: Silence 

Amazon.com is choosing to remain silent in its dispute with publisher Hachette.  Its reputation is taking a beating from authors and publishers who are speaking out.  Amazon is becoming a case study for CEOs and PR practitioners in the dangers of failing to make one's case public.  The company has a history of avoiding the media so its current stance is not new, but previously its decision to remain close-mouthed was not as dangerous as it is now.  What is known about its dispute with Hachette puts Amazon in a pro-consumer light, but one wonders why the company isn't merchandising its point of view.  Instead, it is letting authors complain publicly about its stubbornness and its decision to stop pushing Hachette books.  The word that comes to mind with this stance is arrogance.  Amazon is so convinced of its position that it doesn't feel it has to make a public case for it.  If so, the company could not be more wrong.  

Monday, September 15, 2014

Why Marketers Shouldn't Create Content 

My colleague, Mike Cargill, sent this story to me for which I thank him.  It is an example of why marketers shouldn't create content.  The article is a collection of some of the best and worst tweets commemorating 9/11.  The bad ones are terrible and disrespectful.  They push product on a day when commercialism should be at an ebb.  The best ones do a credible job of remembering the day without attempting to sell the reader anything.  How can a marketer use an international, world-changing tragedy as a bench for selling anything?  The answer to that is marketers are trained to ask for the order at any and all times.  "So, thousands were killed, here's a coupon to buy my product."  The marketer doesn't see the offer as tacky and inappropriate.  It is one more opportunity to sell, sell, sell.  On the other hand, the PR practitioner should and usually does consider the feelings of the audience being addressed.  Marketers should leave content creation to professionals, all of whom should have PR training.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Crises Come From Anywhere 

The commissioner of the National Football League is living on a razor's edge.  He was dealing with a crisis of concussions and their effects on players.  Suddenly he is dealing with domestic abuse by a player against the player's fiance.  In each scandal, the NFL has been perceived to move too slowly to address the underlying problem.  Part of the reason the league has been tardy might be that it isn't set up to handle scandal quickly.  It might be too busy marketing itself to watch the horizon for incidents and events that can compromise the image and reputation of the teams and the office of the commissioner.  As this second scandal demonstrates, the league has to get better at disciplining players who cross the line.  But that means it must move faster and not wait until video of an ugly incident is made public.  By then, it is too late. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Stiff Challenge 

Apple debuted its version of mobile payment on Tuesday.  Already, skeptics are weighing in on the cloudy future for the technology.  The reason for doubts is one that held back other systems from success -- conservatism on the part of retailers and consumers.  So far, there hasn't been a clear advantage to waving the mobile phone near a merchant's point of sale system and having it record data wirelessly.  Merchants will need to upgrade systems to handle Apple's technology.  That costs money.  Apple will want a percentage of each transaction as payment for its system.  More money out the door.  Consumers have to adapt to passing their phones near the system and not swiping a card.  That requires a change in behavior.  Consumers also will be concerned about the safety of such systems.  This will take time and intensive communication.  Way back when banks introduced ATMs, they stationed people next to the machine and had them walk consumers through depositing and withdrawing money.  Banks had a vested interest in doing this because they wanted to cut down on tellers and bricks and mortar.  There is no equivalent reason for mobile payment.  Apple has taken on a huge marketing and PR job to make sure its system is a success.  The company is capable of doing it, but there won't be much progress initially.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Doing Well By Doing Good 

Anheuser-Busch is replacing its diesel trucks at its Houston brewery with compressed natural gas rigs. The brewery says it wants to be "green".  That may be true but left unsaid is that the price of diesel is higher than that of natural gas.  In other words, A-B is doing well by doing good.  There is not only nothing wrong with this, but in the best situations, this should prove true.  The better, faster, cheaper way should also be less expensive in both the short and long run in order to gain the support of business.  Good PR does not have to be costly.  It should not be an add-on that a company should do out of good citizenship, but a line item that contributes to the bottom line even when it seems far afield from what a company does.  Too often, PR activities are "stick-on" actions without reference to the company's main business.  But, PR is what a company does, not what it says.  It is how a company acts and not how it spins.  So, bravo to A-B for doing the calculations and even though the tonnage of carbon dioxide diminution is modest, it is something to note.  

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

PR And The Wealthy 

The question in this essay is who should pay for Detroit's bankruptcy?   Today, the debt overhang rests on the poor because the wealthy and middle class left for the suburbs long ago.  Even if it had been possible that Detroit could have kept its tax base evenly distributed, it wasn't likely.  This, of course, is true for several cities around the US, urban centers that have been hollowed out and are surrounded by wealthy autonomous towns. To keep the wealthy and middle class, city administrations needed a long-term PR plan that involved taxes and services targeted to the middle and upper classes.  Is this fair?  Not really, but the wealthy and the middle class have the option to move and have done so over the decades as cities became less welcoming, cramped and poorly run.  The reality is that cities have to compete for the wealthy and middle class against suburbs, first by keeping businesses in the inner core and secondly, by holding on to the well-to-do population.  Once either has left, the other will follow.  New York City, as wealthy as it is, nevertheless lost numerous corporate headquarters to the suburbs surrounding it and is in danger of losing more as its power as a financial center has declined.  Mayors need to play a long game but often are constrained by short-term politics.  It isn't fair that the wealthy and middle class get to leave, but that is the way it is.  Laws won't change self-interested behavior.

Monday, September 08, 2014

PR and Leadership 

President Obama is admitting that he goofed by playing golf so soon after addressing the beheading of an American journalist.  The optics looked bad. It is good that the President understands this now, but one wonders why he didn't grasp the gaffe earlier.  Leadership has been a trial for this President since the beginning.  He seems to be more comfortable following the pack rather than standing at the head of it.  Witness his decision to back off on immigration after saying that he would use executive orders to address the problem of tens of thousands of children cross the border from Mexico.  In that case, he spoke before he estimated what might happen to Democratic senators in battleground states.  Were I brash enough to talk directly to the President, I might advise a rudimentary course in PR and the boundaries of leadership.  

Friday, September 05, 2014

Risky Positioning 

CVS Health has stopped selling cigarettes in its drugstores.  Walgreen has not.  Its reason for continuing to sell tobacco seems specious at best.  Walgreen maintains that it is the duty of pharmacies to help smokers stop and drug stores are only a tiny percentage of the retail outlets for smoking.  The result of that thinking is "Let us help you stop smoking.  Meanwhile, here is another pack of cancer sticks."  Aiding and abetting smokers while telling them to stop is curious.  It is not a positioning I would be comfortable taking, and one wonders whether Walgreen's employees feel the same way.  CVS Health has chosen the high road.  Walgreen has chosen to muddle its message.  It is hard to say whether this will have consumer impact.  (People select drug stores out of convenience.)  But, CVS employees can hold their heads higher, and that in itself is something worth noting.  

Thursday, September 04, 2014


This publicity stunt is insensitive and dumb, especially on the heels of another journalist beheading in the Middle East.  It comes under the category of "What were they thinking?"   Celebrating Headless Day on Sept. 2?  Puh-leeze.  No wonder journalists took offense.  It is a case of creativity run amok.  One can imagine the brainstorming and the "neat" ideas surrounding the Headless Horseman.  No one bothered to ask whether the ideas fit into the larger consciousness of the public where news of journalist decapitations are fresh and raw.  So they ran with the campaign and to their horror realized they had erred.  Time for an apology.  That won't help the reputations of the publicists behind the dumb promotion nor will it help the show.  At the least, the stunt backfired.  It is hard to tell what could be worse. 

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Beyond PR 

News that airline passengers are fighting over seat room should not surprise anyone.  Airlines have pushed economics to the limit and so doing, have inconvenienced passengers beyond tolerance. Airlines make no apologies for their actions.  In order for them to make money, they have to fly full planes and the more they can pack in, the better financially it is for them.  At some point, however, regulators and Congress will step in.  Until then, airlines will continue to shrink seating space and cram in yet another row in the steerage part of the cabin.  One would think that if airlines considered public relations, they would set a generous limit on seat distance.  So far, only one or two carriers have moved that way.  The rest are redesigning seats to make them smaller and lighter so they can pack 'em in.  When is the public going to revolt?  Isolated instances of passenger melees might not be enough to make management think twice.  Any way one looks at the outcome, it is bad public relations.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

From The Beginning 

As scientists discover more about primitive man and his relatives, they are finding that the urge to communicate through use of visuals and symbols was there from the beginning.  This ability to send messages through use of abstract and realistic figures is one of the hallmarks of homo sapiens. From the beginning there are those who could do it well and those for whom rudimentary scratches on rock walls was all they could muster.  It makes little difference to the paleontologist, and it should be much the same with us.  Clear, concise communication, unadorned  but direct, should be a goal in the modern day as it was with the ancients.  The magnificent cave paintings of Lascaux and Neanderthal scratches both reveal intellect in action that rings down to the present day.  Could our ancestors have known their work would last tens of thousands of years?  Probably not, but it did, and in the survival are vital clues to the origins of man.  Not bad for primitive communication.  

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