Friday, February 27, 2015


There is little a PR practitioner can do when a leader is lost in hubris and insists that he knows better.  Take, for example, this case.  In trying to show his command of events, Gov. Scott Walker boasted that if he could beat the unions in his state, he was also qualified to be President and take on ISIS.  

""We need a leader who will stand up and say we will take the fight to them and not wait until they take the fight to American soil, If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same in the rest of the world."
Maybe so.  Maybe not.  Predictably Democrats mocked him for comparing unions to a terrorist group.  Had Walker thought about his remarks more carefully, he might have noted that while appealing to conservative Republicans, he was jeopardizing himself with the larger electorate.  If he has objective advisors working for him, surely one of them cautioned him.  Remarks like this come back to haunt a candidate later on.  Walker has no friend in the unions and should he campaign officially for President, they will oppose him every step of the way.  Who needs that?  A bit more humility might have helped.

Thursday, February 26, 2015


The silly season for Presidential campaigning has begun and journalists are playing "gotcha" with candidates.  Consider this case.  The question was irrelevant to any campaign, and the candidate, Gov. Scott Walker, parried it a bit clumsily.  This gave the reporters an opportunity to write an article disparaging Walker.  Whether or not one approves of such media misbehavior, it is an integral part of campaigning, and it is justified on the basis that Presidents have to be able to think on their feet.  CEOs are largely spared such press needling but it can happen, if they aren't careful.  There is nothing under the First Amendment that prohibits such baiting.  Hence, it continues and the media wrap themselves in righteousness as they do it.  What this means for candidates is that they have to prepare themselves for the odd-ball question that can detonate in their faces.  One wonders why anyone wants to be President.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Fading Away 

What kind of communications program do you need to keep from fading away when everything is against you?  This is the difficult position that the governor of New Jersey is in.  Chris Christie wants to run for President, is running for President, but he has an enormous budget deficit to close at the state level, and voters are restive.  His poll numbers are negative, and he has a reputation for being a bully.  He has spent much time out of the state giving speeches in early primary venues like Iowa, but his problems in New Jersey keep following him.  He has promised to close the budget gap without raising taxes, but a judge already has shot him down in his efforts to produce pension reform.  If he is serious about his desire to be President, he has to make major changes in a hurry and somehow pull off a miracle that he can talk about nationally.  That is a tall order and it is even more difficult by happening next to the nation's largest media market -- New York -- where the news media report every peccadillo.  Were I the governor, I would concentrate on the task at hand and worry about a Presidential campaign another year.  But, I'm not the governor nor do I have his ego.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Ad Hominem 

What can you say about the truthfulness of a person who uses ad hominem attacks against anyone who contradicts him?  Consider this fellow, for instance.  Rather than answer charges that he was not in combat, Bill O’Reilly spews at the person who made them.  Unfortunately, that person was with him at the time the event occurred and has credibility.  Further, he has been backed up by others who were in Argentina as well during the riots.  One must question why it took them so long to speak out but even so, if there was no pitched battle, O'Reilly ought to admit it.  Instead he uses words like "guttersnipe" to characterize his former colleague.  PR practitioners ought to eschew ad hominem attacks whenever possible.  They demean the person who makes them as well as the person who is the subject of abuse.  O'Reilly might save his job by being combative but at the cost of his credibility.  (On the other hand, his credibility has been at issue for some time.)  

Monday, February 23, 2015

Key Messages 

In PR, we constantly remind clients to stick to and get back to key messages when they are presenting.  It seems the Democratic party is just realizing this.  Their after-election report on the state of the party bemoans the fact that voters can't figure out who they are because of a 

"lack of a “cohesive narrative,” according to the tack (sic) force, which in turn “impedes the party’s ability to develop and maintain a lifelong dialogue and partnership with voters.”

No kidding.  Candidates know to stay with their themes, but apparently the party as a whole cannot find a single thread to unite its voices before voters.  There is only one way for the party to be successful in building that story -- start from the bottom and work up.  It is a slow process but there is really no other way to get the job done.  Imposing views from the top neglects the centrality of local issues that drive voter interest.  Good luck to the party in getting the job done.  It is a task measured in years, not months.  

Friday, February 20, 2015


Sometimes, even though you think you have done everything right, something goes terribly wrong.  Consider this case. A total of 179 patients at a Los Angeles medical center have been exposed to deadly bacteria because an endoscope wasn't properly sterilized.  The hospital insists that it followed manufacturer's guidelines.  Still, patients were infected.  There isn't much one can do in a situation like this except to communicate quickly to those who have been exposed so they can take available measures to detect the bacteria and get treatment.  Both the hospital, the UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center, and the manufacturer are facing a probability of lawsuits over the error and loss of reputation.  What patient will willingly undergo an endoscopy at the hospital now?  Other facilities can do the procedure.  The hospital has taken pains to explain to the media that it had done everything it was supposed to do, but that isn't nearly enough to alleviate concerns.  There is no tolerance for error in matters like this.  It has to be right each and every time.  Saying one is sorry isn't enough either.  The hospital's communications are going to be difficult for some time to come.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Failing Communication? 

When is a sanction not a sanction?  When the penalized party ignores it and keeps doing what others want to stop.  Think, for example, of sanctions on Russia over its involvement in the Ukraine.  Countries keep tightening the screws but Putin is moving ahead to supply troops and armaments to the rebels.  At some point, the US believes, Russia has to give in, but it is not there yet and might never be.  It is an example of failing communication, and there is little the world can do about it.  A next step would be to supply arms to the Ukrainians but no one believes this will solve the problem.  Russia has depots of weapons that it can pour into the turbulent eastern zone for the foreseeable future.  The challenge, then, is how to communicate to one who isn't listening and is defiant.  There isn't a good answer.  If Putin were to wreck his country in order to get his way, his citizens would rebel, but that doesn't seem close and Putin can stamp out unrest with force for some time.  Hence, a communications conundrum for world leaders.  There isn't much else to do so they keep adding sanctions and hoping at some point, Putin will quit.  It is likely that they have under-estimated the man and how far he is willing to go.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Reporters are burning out while reviewing brutal footage from the battlefields of Syria and the actions of ISIS.  Some say it has become a mental health challenge in the newsroom.  One wonders about this.  There was a period in the news business when the more graphic a picture was the better.  Think of Weegee in the mid 20th Century or Matthew Brady's photos of dead soldiers on Civil War battlefields or of the many photos from World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam.  Perhaps it is that people are becoming more sensitive to death in all of its forms and no longer want to see it in its rawest presentations.  There is an argument, however, that they should.  Why disguise evil when people are beheaded on camera?  The counter-argument is that such pictures and video become death porn and needlessly upset people, especially those related to the victim.  There is no good answer for what a newsroom should do nor for that matter any organization.  PR tends to hide the ugly but should it? Perhaps there are times when truth, as foul as it is, should be displayed.  There might be no better way to communicate.  There will never be a formula for what to do.  It is an issue beyond computers and calculation.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Start Stop 

A federal judge has apparently stopped President Obama's plans for immigration reform.  It is too early to know if his order will be lifted or not.  One point is for sure -- communicating to millions of immigrants who can take advantage of the plans will be immensely more difficult.  First of all, many do not know what the original proposals entail.  Secondly, once they do, they are left with the uncertainty if they will come to fruition.  Almost certainly, Obama's administration will take the matter to court and try to have the injunction overturned.  It might happen right away or move to a higher court, which takes time. All the while, every message is conditional.  If the executive orders stand, then this will happen.  That offers wan hope for those who are afraid of deportation.  What one wants is communications with certainty, but in this case, it might not be possible.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Stretching The Limit 

Elon Musk has been the PR spokesperson for Tesla since its beginning.  The electric auto has been expensive to build and the company is a money-loser,  So what is Musk doing.  He's doubling down on his investment by spending $763 million to double production.  Shareholders have been patient, but for how much longer?  Musk so far has led them into the unknown and succeeded in developing a well built auto.  He has kept his presence in the media constant.  He has not backed off from his vision.  But, should his company lose huge amounts of money for another year or two, he might not be so lucky.  He is an entrepreneur living on borrowed time.  PR won't help him if his investors turn their backs.  His company has yet to prove economic.  It is a dream that numerous inventors and entrepreneurs before him have pursued and failed to realize.  Musk has come closer than most to succeeding but he isn't there yet.  He had better hope that he continues to be successful as the spokesperson for Tesla.  Failure will be ugly.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Cutting Losses 

Political campaigns have mastered the craft of cutting losses by spinning off people and organizations that threaten the success of candidates.  Consider this example.  Jeb Bush has not yet formally declared he is going to run for President, and he already is letting people go who could embarrass him.  It's a smart thing to do.  Campaigns are bloody affairs with the media and the internet examining every detail of a candidate's personality and people.  They are looking for faults that are symptomatic of how the candidate thinks and what he might do in office.  They are less interested in issues, especially if they are check-box statements designed to appease segments of voters.  It's the campaign itself that motivates them -- who's winning, who's receding, who's navigating the shoals of special interests best.  Despite decades of self-flagellation over focusing on the horse race, the media continue to play the ponies.  Bush knows that as does every serious candidate.  Hence, it is not too soon to cut loose a staffer who could distract the media and voters from the candidate himself.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Game Of Chicken 

The war of words between Greece and the rest of Europe has turned into a game of chicken. Each side has mustered its PR tools and is bluffing the other.  Will Greece get rid of the imposed austerity plan?  Will Europe force Greece to stick to Europe's will?  Will the Euro survive if there is a breakup?  These are huge issues and there is no path forward yet. Greece has the advantage of having its citizens behind its decision. The position taken by the new government is what the people want.  The European Union has the force of money behind its stance.  It has tried to bail out Greece but in return it wants Greece to reform.  Any resolution to the stand-off will be hard won and will require negotiation with give and take on both sides.  Meanwhile, Greeks continue to suffer from joblessness and hard times.  If there is a lesson here, it is that financial solutions might not be practical in the end. Winning the hearts and minds of a populace must come first.  It is clear that didn't happen in Greece.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Blow To Reputation 

A now former employee of HSBC bank stole thousands of files from its computer systems and created a major reputational crisis for the institution.  The files reveal that the bank helped thousands of wealthy people, including crooks, hide money from tax authorities in Swiss accounts.  The employee who took the data considers himself a whistleblower.  The bank calls him a common thief.  No matter.  The situation in which the bank is caught will cost it hundreds of millions in fines, if not billions. There is no out for the institution.  E-mails state openly that bank employees were helping clients squirrel away money and were not particular about where it came from.  Call that the dark side of client service.  One wonders why in this era of transparency that a bank might think it could get away with such behavior.  Apparently, the question never occurred to HSBC's leadership or they turned a blind eye to what was happening in their ranks.  HSBC will now undergo an excruciating examination by tax authorities from several countries and it might well wish that it had been more vigilant in the first place.  It will take years to rebuild its reputation as an honest bank.

Monday, February 09, 2015


How do you communicate when a major merger has been frozen for a year by regulators?  This is the challenge faced by Comcast in its effort to merge with Time Warner Cable.  Comcast is working closely with regulators and has one of the largest lobbying operations in Washington DC, but it has yet to be able to move the combination forward.  Now with new net neutrality rules being proposed, there is yet another strike against the companies getting together.  Perhaps what is needed here is another grand bargain with the government that guarantees internet speeds to everyone within its market areas.  This would impose a burden on both companies that might not be economic, but there needs to be something that breaks the ice jam.  Otherwise, regulators are adept at studying an issue to death.  They don't say no or yes but they do ask for more and more information.  Each question begets a study and the study more studies, more financial data, more questions until one or the other side gives up.  It takes character and desire to endure the process and courage to keep chipping at the resistance.   I would have cut my losses and moved on.

Friday, February 06, 2015


By now, you might be aware of a tale that Brian Williams, NBC News anchor, had been telling about his time in Iraq -- how he was in a helicopter that was shot down. Turns out it wasn't true.  He was in a helicopter an hour behind the one hit by ground fire.  The internet is out in force mocking him.  Williams has apologized publicly.  Some say he made the story up to make himself look good.  Others ascribe the falsehood to a bad memory, which Williams does as well.  If it was memory, the lesson here is never to trust it.  Williams must know the old newsroom cliche -- "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."  The point is never to rely on what you think you know but on the facts, which might be quite different.  Certainly in Williams case they were.  We know memory is slippery and often deceitful.  Scientists have implanted false memories in test subjects time and again to show that the brain will willingly recall incidents and evidence that never occurred. PR done right relies on accuracy and avoids spin.  This means practitioners should always check facts rather than recalling them.  Getting facts wrong might not be as embarrassing as what happened to Williams, but it does impact the credibility practitioners need in their work.

Thursday, February 05, 2015


After a tragic accident caused by your employees, which displaced 1000 people, is it smart to recommend to a government executive that he praise you in a press conference?  This is what happened after a fire burned an apartment complex in Edgewater, NJ.  The public  relations firm sent an advisory e-mail to the county executive suggesting he cite the company for "stepping up" for the homeless individuals.  Predictably, the county leader did not use the talking points and someone leaked the e-mail to the press.  Now the owner of the complex is looking uncaring and dumb.  Should the PR firm have contacted the county executive in the first place?  Yes, but with a list of facts without suggestions for what to say about them.  This wasn't a time for spin and in any event, no matter what the company had done for the victims, it was hardly enough.  Its employees, unlicensed plumbers, were using a torch to fix a pipe in a complex built largely out of wood.  That was an accident waiting to happen, and the company is going to deal with lawsuits as a result.  There are times and places in which to highlight a company's good deeds, but this wasn't one of them.

Hat tip to Karen Horton for finding this.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

A Blow To Reputation 

The dietary supplement industry has long been under attack for the efficacy of its products, but this charge is a blow to reputation, even if proved wrong.  The New York State attorney general ordered Walgreens, Wal-Mart, Target and GNC to stop selling their herbal supplements immediately because they don't contain the products listed on the label.  It makes the four retailers sound like quack medicine men hawking miracle cures to dull-witted marks.  The argument made to the attorney general is that he tested the products incorrectly, but no matter, the damage is done.  Now the retail giants will have to retest their supplements using standard and accepted techniques and present their results to the state of New York, which might or might not accept them.  Meanwhile, the four retailers face the challenge of removing these products from their shelves in the Empire State, and perhaps, elsewhere, or braving the assault of the law and taking the issue to court.  Either way, there isn't much one can say until new test results are in.  

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Clash Of Ideas 

Behind President Obama's budget document is a gloomy view of the future and a desire to have the federal government intervene to create jobs.  Behind the Republicans' opposition is a desire to cut down the size of the federal government and its debt and have the states take on the heavy lifting.  This is a philosophic clash that goes back to the beginning of the country and the role of government.  Like Jeffersonians, Republicans believe in a weak -- or weaker -- federal government and strong states.  Like Hamiltonians, Democrats strive for a strong central government and weaker states.  The clash will never be settled, but it shows time and again in budget proposals.  Because Obama lost both houses of Congress, his budget ideas are DOA.  He might get some of what he is asking, but it will be little.  

How as a communicator should one deal with this clash?  There is no good way to hearken back to the thinking of the country's founders because too much has happened since.  One can only appeal to the interests of the public at the moment, which is what Obama is doing.  He has decided on class warfare to make his case -- tax the rich to feed the middle class.  That appeals to average householders and is anathema to the wealthy.  It is also unlikely to work since high income individuals already supply most of the tax dollars in the federal government budget anyway.  So the budget document will remain a vision of what the country could be but not a reality.

Monday, February 02, 2015


Timing is essential to winning.  Just ask the Seattle Seahawks who threw an interception in the last minute of the Super Bowl.  Hilary Clinton is now in a debate over timing.  The presumed front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president, she has continued to delay the launch of her campaign. If she starts too early, she risks being the focus of Republican attacks.  If she starts too late, she leaves the door open for a challenger.  Her staff is arguing and the Democratic party is kibitzing.  Hilary herself must be receiving plenty of on-the-record and off-the-record advice from friends and party members.  There is no good way to know when is best to start.  It is a judgment call as many communications campaigns are.  One can fault or praise the candidate only in hindsight.  Timing is an example of why PR and communications are as much art as craft.

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