Monday, February 29, 2016

Science Vs. Perception 

In a court of law, perception can overcome science.  What is unsettled in the investigation community becomes a judgement resting on the slimmest pretexts of fact.  Consider this case.  There is no definitive proof that talc-based baby powders cause cancer, but a jury thought so and awarded $72 million to a family whose mother had died of ovarian cancer.  Their attorneys apparently made a convincing case that withstands civil judgement but not the analysis of the scientific community.  Was Johnson & Johnson wrongfully punished?  Apparently so and now the company will have to appeal. If the case had been pursued solely on the  basis of science and not of perception, it might never have come to trial.  But, apparently, there was enough circumstantial evidence to proceed.  Correlation is not causation but that apparently didn't matter.  

Friday, February 26, 2016

Change And PR 

When a company makes a change that affects customers, it should do so with care and communicate often and clearly why it is doing so.  This is why Starbucks shift in its customer awards program might not be going so well.  The company has moved from rewarding frequent customers to rewarding customers who purchase more of its product.  The modification makes sense from the company's point of view but customers are miffed.  It is slighting those who make Starbucks their daily stop on the way to work in favor of those who purchase several coffees for members in the office --- perhaps once a week.  Starbucks might lose customers as a result, which could dent the bottom line.  It depends on how many use the frequent rewards program.  If the fall-off is significant, it will be a lesson Starbucks shouldn't forget

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Great PR 

Google has once again engaged in act of great PR.  It is offering to protect news sites from distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks for free.  Google is doing this to protect the flow of information to the public and the most that the company will get out of it is the assurance that voices are heard worldwide whether or not governments or other critics try to silence them.  It is easy for the cynical to say Google has vested interest in the maintaining the information flow and it does.  The company, however, is making sure its interests align with the public weal.  This is true public relations.  The company will also gain the respect of the media who use its services and have been victimized by DDOS in the past.  There will come a time when that support will be needed because no company is entirely free of controversy and completely on the side of the angels.  Kudos to Google and its enlightened engineers.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

More Trouble 

As if Uber didn't have enough PR problems with governments trying to close it down, the shooting in Kalamazoo focused concern on its driver vetting. Add to that a revolt among its drivers who are trying to build their own application rather than use Uber.  The company is beset by troubles brought on by rapid expansion and arrogance in dealing with cities and states.  It also cut driver returns in a price war that it cannot win.  The more it squeezes its drivers, the fewer of them remain to handle the business.  Uber is not exactly in a free-fall but it isn't on the right side of perception.  It seems to be a company in difficulty rather than a thriving technology concern.  If so, Uber could go the way of dozens of other technology businesses that burst on the scene then withered.  Chances are its model can be imitated locally to the confusion of users, and there could be over time dozens of Uber-like services offered to the public.  Uber's brand is in peril and the company doesn't have much time to turn it around.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Money Doesn't Always Talk 

The demise of the Bush campaign is a reminder that throwing money at the public doesn't always work.  There needs to be a persuasive message and appealing message bearer.  In the end Bush had neither of these but he did spend $130 million in the process.  It is not uncommon for companies in crises to undertake ad campaigns to get their side of an issue out.  It rarely works in the end.  If the public is opposed, there is little one can do.  Consider, for example, the BP effort after the oil platform disaster in the Gulf.  The company spent millions trumpeting its concern for the environment but that hasn't stopped lawsuits and penalties.  Its advertising has been a wasteful exercise.  The Bush campaign was a large organization and money mint, but in the end it meant nothing.  The only people who profited were the consultants and PR firm that represented him.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Fatal Blow? 

One way to deal a death blow to a fad is to declare it unsafe.  This is what happened last week to hoverboards, the star transporter of last Christmas season.  The Consumer Product Safety Commission declared them all dangerous, no matter the brand or price point.  None will be allowed to be sold until they get an Underwriter's Laboratory certification.  One wonders how the product reached these shores without it.  Once a manufacturer does receive the UL mark, it can start again to build and sell the machines, but the unknown is whether anyone will buy them.  They are not easy to use and there are numerous videos of people falling off of them.  They could easily go the way of the Pet Rock -- a brief popularity followed by nothing.  If so, it would not be the first or last fad this happened to.  Like the Segway, which was supposed to be the mass transportation vehicle of the future, the hoverboard may recede in public consciousness.

Friday, February 19, 2016


Political campaigns have room for dirty tricks but this one is dumb.  Why photoshop the heads of Obama and Rubio on a stock photo?  Didn't anyone in the Cruz campaign think it would be caught?  Now, Cruz has to defend himself from charges of lying rather than making his points about why he should win the primary.  One benefit of the internet age is that such chicanery is discovered far more quickly to the detriment of the candidate who uses it.  When found out, it backfires on the candidate -- as it should.  If Cruz survives this, and there is a good chance he will, maybe he will think twice before using such a stupid approach again.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Tough Challenge 

Apple is facing a tough challenge with a court order mandating that it help open the mobile phone of a San Bernardino terrorist.  On the one hand, it doesn't want to be seen as spying on its users anywhere in the world.  On the other, government needs a way to find out what a person was planning and with whom he might have been in contact.  There is no easy outcome for this situation.  If Apple gives in to the US on this occasion, what is there to say when the Chinese government orders the same thing in order to track activists?  The issue will wend its way through the courts and could end up at the Supreme Court's bench.  That will determine once and for all the limits of privacy in the online world.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

A PR Challenge 

This article raises a PR challenge for all online stores.  What does one do with all the cardboard from shipping goods directly to the home?  It is a mountain of recycling and the more that online takes over shopping, the taller the crag.  There is no good way to handle the issue.  Goods need to be shipped and cardboard is the medium for doing that.  No other shipping material makes much sense, such as foam or plastic.  About all that Amazon.com and other online shippers can do is to make sure that the right-sized box is used for the item being sent.  Amazon, particularly, is not very good at that.  Often it will send small items in a large box that leaves one shaking his head.  It is an issue that online shippers will need to confront sooner or later.  Meanwhile the Everest keeps growing.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Spin, Spin, Spin 

The moment Justice Antonin Scalia's death was announced, the spin began pro and con over what the vacancy on the court meant.  All sides are furiously engaged in a battle of words.  The president has vowed to move ahead with naming a replacement.  The senate Republicans have pledged to block a new Justice until after the November elections.  Each side is engaged in speculation as to what the absence of a conservative voice means for the future of the court.  Activists are out in force.  Common citizens have been forgotten in all of this.  They are bystanders watching the farce play out.  Given the importance of the Court to the law of the land, it is to be expected that vital interests tangle over its direction, but the intensity of the fight is almost unseemly.  Chances are no one will win given the face-off between the Senate and the White House.  President Obama would need to propose a middle-of-the-road candidate and Senate Republicans would need to be satisfied that the candidate is conservative enough.  Chances of either of these things happening are slim.  So, the political parties continue to spin, spin, spin.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Publicity For The Poor 

Say what you want about Pope Francis but he is dedicated to publicizing the plight of the poor and scolding nations for failing to care for them.  He has made poverty a central theme in his reign and he rarely misses a chance to highlight the miseries of the masses who have little shelter, food or water.  One can dismiss these critiques or pay attention and act.  Obviously, the pope hopes to spur movement but words only go so far.  He has no way of compelling people and governments to work at raising the standard of living for the forgotten, but he can scold, persuade and highlight the right path.  The pope has been an equal opportunity prod -- pushing his own bishops at the same time he talks to countries.  The question is who is listening and whether those who take note are in a position to act.  The wealthy might dismiss him as a gadfly while the poor look upon him as a savior.  No matter the opinion of the people, he continues because he sees it as his ministry.  That is good enough for many.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Great Science Publicity 

The detection of gravity waves -- a first for mankind -- has also produced some great science publicity such as this.  The producer of the video has taken a complex topic and boiled it to its essentials to facilitate understanding.  The complexity lies in the building of the two machines in the first place. Every source of extraneous vibration had to be neutralized for the two interferometers to work.  It took years of effort to get that done.  Rather than go into the story of building the laser systems, the video explains the why and what in clear terms that a school child could understand.  Now that we know that gravity waves exist and we have observatories to listen for them, a new branch of science has opened that will take generations to explore and understand.  Look for a Nobel prize to go to the developers of the machines.  They deserve it.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


Why does China continue to support North Korea when it is widely known that the country is one of the most corrupt and repressive nations on earth?  The answer that China wishes to preserve communism hardly suffices because even Chinese communists learned that repression doesn't work well and ultimately, ruins a country.  North Korea is a nightmare.  It doesn't listen to its people whom it starves and imprisons on whims.  It deifies its rulers and forces the public to celebrate them.  It uses the propaganda techniques that George Orwell satirized 70 years ago.  Surely the Chinese understand this.  Yet they persist in upholding the country's leadership.  It wouldn't be long for North Korea to survive if China closed its border and stopped all trading.  China could be looked upon as a hero to North Koreans if it took over the country and opened its economy as it has done at home.  Yet, it doesn't.  There is political inertia at work that makes no sense and North Koreans are left to suffer.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Sometimes a public will suffer from inertia and will not act when it is clearly in its interest to do so.  Venezuela is a basket case of hyper inflation and lack of goods, but the people have not rebelled yet against the current leader, Nicolas Maduro.  They have put in a parliament of opposition legislators whom Maduro has said he will ignore.  As for Maduro himself, he has no understanding of the mechanics of governance and his intransigence has ruined the country.  Why does the public not rise up as one and depose him?  That's an unanswerable question.  To an outsider, it would seem obvious a regime change is what is needed.  To an insider and Maduro loyalist, the havoc is the result of conspiracy.  As long as Maduro maintains some kind of political base and the backing of the army, he can remain in power, but as the economy continues to plummet, he has to worry about erosion and revolt. Inertia can last for a long time as it did in the Soviet Union and still continues today in North Korea, but once the public acts, matters can change swiftly as they did at the teardown of the Berlin wall.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Past Due 

Some technologies don't sit well with consumers.  They are always the next "big" thing in the marketplace but they never quite take off.  Consider 3D television or, for that matter 3D movies.  Some producers and directors have used it but most don't.  There doesn't appear to be a good reason why except the public apparently doesn't like wearing glasses.  3D has been the next technology since the 1950s and it still isn't here.  When major TV makers abandon work on them, it is clear it won't be for some time yet.  There is little in the way of publicity one can do to stimulate demand.  The content isn't there and because of the lack of content, the public demand to view programs in 3D isn't there either.  A similar technology that has taken decades and has never established itself is the video phone.  Yes, the public uses mobile phones to video chat but the home phone application never took off.  That didn't prevent AT&T from featuring video phones since the early 1960s as the next "big" thing.  The lesson here is that one cannot lead the public where it doesn't want to go.  Technologists face limits to their inventions.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Unwanted Publicity 

It is bad enough that one sponsors a race in which contestants stop and gorge on a dozen sugary donuts half-way through, but to have a runner drop dead in the middle of the challenge is unwanted publicity.  This is what happened at the annual Krispy Kreme challenge in North Carolina, a race that benefits the North Carolina Children's Hospital.  It is odd enough that runners have to ingest high-calorie donuts then run again but a Krispy Kreme donut is the antithesis of a healthy snack, which might be the reason race organizers originally chose it.  The gimmick backfired this time even though the runner apparently did not reach the point where he was forced to eat before continuing. There is a lesson here, which is to be careful of how you set up fund raising events.  They might seem worthwhile and fun at the beginning but as they carry on year after year, there is a chance the event can turn on one, much like it did with this race.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Difficult Persuasion 

In California, heavy rains and a deep snowpack in the high Sierras would seem to have ended the long drought in the state.  Everyone can go back to watering lawns and filling swimming pools.  But, they can't.  The drought isn't over according to the State Water Resources Control Board.  This is a difficult message and more difficult persuasion that the regulators have undertaken.  They are telling citizens who have experienced the downpours that one year of wet winter weather is not enough.  Will the populace listen and will water delivery agencies continue to hunt down wasters and fine them?  Only time will tell. If the state's dams refill to their former capacity and water releases become mandatory, it will be a tough job to keep citizens in line.  Next year will reveal whether the drought is really over or not.  If the state gets a suitable rainfall and snowpack two years in a row, the Control Board could consider lifting some restrictions.  Will Californians wait that long?

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Smart PR 

Because public relations is what you do and not what you say, this is smart PR.  You take photos of your room, send them to the company via an app on your phone and get back a visual redesign of the space you can use at once.  The advantage is that it all happens within the app and there is no other software required.  The company is still in test on the system but it will come out of beta soon enough and already looks to be successful.  The only persons who will be dismayed are interior designers.  But, some of them might find employment with the company.  The benefit of the program is that it makes something complicated look and work easily.  That is intelligent and effective PR.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Pain Of Not Knowing 

There is a special worry when one knows a certain crisis can erupt at any time, and one can't stop it.  Consider Chipotle and E.coli poisoning.  The outbreak hit the company hard across the US, but in spite of efforts to identify the source, the cause is unknown.  That means Chipotle is set up for further E.coli outbreaks and is powerless to defend against them.  The company has strengthened food buying and handling procedures, but those are no guarantee the bacteria will be controlled because Chipotle has no idea what caused the problem.  The most the company can do is to maintain a fast reaction force should the bacteria erupt again in one of its restaurants.  That would mean shutting down the restaurant quickly, testing for sources and hopefully neutralizing the problem.  In spite of scientific progress, there are still mysteries and the pain of not knowing is real.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Long-term Crisis 

Sometimes there is nothing one can do in a crisis.  It will play out at its time length be that short or long.  Here is a case in which the resolution of the crisis will take months if not years.  There is little to be done to make drinking water in Flint, MI safe except to change the pipes leading to houses and businesses. Meanwhile, Flint's citizens have to live on bottled water, an inefficient and irritating interim solution.  Left unsaid is who will get their pipes changed first.  That alone will be a major upset if it looks as if one group is being favored over another.  The mayor of Flint might save the town time by submitting his resignation before he is voted out of office, which he surely will be.  It will be up to the mayor's successors to solve the crisis once and for all, and the resolution will be painful.

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