Monday, August 29, 2016

Never Safe 

One thing communicators should never be is smug -- convinced they and their clients are safe.  There is no protection from events imagined and not yet thought of.  This was brought home to me on Friday when I received a call informing me that my oldest brother had been in a bicycle accident and is on life support.  He had pedaled thousands of miles without incident, but suddenly he plowed into the back of a truck.  There is no way of knowing why such a thing could happen.  It did.  Now his wife and daughter must prepare to live without him and those of us who depended on his leadership will have to make our own ways.  It is no use complaining about the unfairness of it all.  Life is not a matter of even-handed justice.  The good and bad both leave this earth and the only thing left of them are memories of what they did. Recollections of my brother will be fond and vigorous for he was that kind of person.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Science Hype 

The science news is discovery of a planet 4.25 light years away.  Little is known about it other than it is in the "goldilocks" zone suitable for life.  The media went crazy with this news but it shouldn't have.  It is clear the planet is so far away, any probe traveling less than the speed of light would take tens of thousands of years to get there.  Further, there is no way to tell yet whether the planet has water or oxygen suitable for life as we know it.  All we know is that it rotates a red dwarf star every 11 days and the only reason it is potentially habitable is that its sun is cooler than ours.  It may take years if not decades of astronomical work to flesh out the details of the planet and some might remain hidden given its distance from earth.  Why did the media play up the story?  The scientists did and the media obliged.  Secondly, the media probably didn't understand how far away the planet is, how many trillion miles go into a light year.  Third, how would we communicate to a satellite at such vast distances? Each message would need to travel for 4.25 years to reach the instrument and another 4.25 years for a response.  This is science hype at its worst.  

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Self-induced Crisis 

There is little doubt pharmaceutical companies are sparking self-induced crises in their drug pricing policies.  The latest uproar is over the EpiPen used by people with peanut and other severe allergies.  The ingredients in the pen cost $10 but Mylan is selling the pens in packs of two for $600.  The company has tried to justify its huge pricing differential but no one is listening.  It has brought this PR disaster on itself, and it will be pilloried until it lowers its price.  Mylan is not alone, however.  New drugs coming on the market are costing $100,000 or more, and there is no way for consumers to pay for them without health insurance. Health insurers in turn are fighting back but to no avail.  There are no generic drugs for some of these medicines at the current time. Pharmaceutical companies are getting a bad name because of this aggressive pricing -- and they deserve it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Maybe This Time 

The Nigerian government is claiming it has killed the terrorist leader of Boko Haram.  The problem is that it has made that pronouncement several times before and each time Abubakar Shekau has reappeared in good health.  To say the Nigerian government has no credibility in the issue is an understatement.  In order for it to be believed, it needs to produce a body and other evidence that the bandit has indeed  been slain this time.  It doesn't look like it can given the nature of the attack -- an air strike in the jungle where the terrorists can easily disappear.  Why does the government risk becoming a laughingstock with its multiple communications that it has killed the leader?  It might be a twisted sense of PR -- providing hope to families whose lives have been destroyed by the group and whose girls have been kidnapped.  A false sense of security, however, doesn't help anyone and none can be blamed for being cynical about Nigeria's leaders.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Negative PR Not A Problem 

In a usual election year, this kind of negative PR would be enough to sink a candidate.  Not this year.  Hillary Clinton should thank the Republican party for putting up a candidate with more negatives than she has.  Although it is early, it is looking now like Clinton will sweep most of the states in her march to the White House.  Trump, although getting better, is so far behind that it would take a herculean effort to turn around his slide.  Add to that, his lack of organization.  Hillary has a campaign machine working behind her constantly.  Trump has a skeleton staff and he has barely advertised his candidacy.  Even though a judge has ordered the release of 18,000 new Clinton e-mails before the election, it doesn't look like this would hurt her much.  The Republican Party's collapse this election year is a case study of bad PR.  One can only hope that the party can revitalize itself before future elections.  

Friday, August 19, 2016

Ignoring Your Best Customers 

It is a strange marketing and PR choice to ignore one's best customers yet Volkswagen is doing it in the diesel engine scandal that has overtaken the company.  The conglomerate has spent billions settling claims for cheating on its smaller motors, but it has yet to take any action on its larger power plants that went into its Porsche and Audi brands.  Porsche owners, particularly, are in a dudgeon over the lack of action on their high-priced vehicles, which are now devalued well below their selling points.  Why has Volkswagen not addressed the problem?  Probably because handling the fallout of cheating on its smaller engines is taking the company's entire time.  However. ignoring one's best customers is never a good idea, especially if one wants to enhance the luxury brands.  Volkswagen doesn't have much time left to rectify the situation.  Lawsuits are pending and the corporation is not in a good position to defend against them.  

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Stuck In The Past 

This video opinion piece explains why American train travel is so bad.  Amtrak is caught in a bind not of its own making.  Were it free to operate, it might cut back on money-losing long haul routes and concentrate on three-hour trips between major cities.  This means it would be primarily an East Coast service since there are few cities outside the East Coast that are interstate, close enough to serve and with sufficient passenger traffic.  One can think of Chicago-Milwaukee, Chicago-St.Louis or Los Angeles-San Diego but the question remains whether there are enough business commuters between those cities.  The challenge for Amtrak lies in Congress.  Whenever Amtrak tries to remove a route, a Senator or Congressman will protest and force Amtrak to keep it alive.  Amtrak doesn't have the lobbying power it needs to circumvent Congress, and it might never have.  Hence, it is like the US Postal service -- another money losing entity.  It knows what it should do but it can't get there.  It is a major public relations challenge and one that Amtrak will be struggling with for years to come. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Fact Checking 

It seems this political season fact checkers have come to the fore and everyone is busy looking into the details of what candidates say.  This is good but for one point.  Who will check the fact checkers to make sure they are doing their jobs correctly.?  It is easy for a fact checker to slip opinion into data being vetted, even if the checker is rigorous about the work.  Facts are slippery.  One person's body of facts are another's set of lies.  One has to abstract himself from the noise and judge as objectively as possible what the truth of the matter is. There are obvious errors such as claiming President Obama was the founder of ISIS.  There are subtle mistakes such as forecasting what the GDP might be under one's fiscal plan.  It is with these latter kinds of errors that a fact checker can go wrong.  Fact checking on the whole is good.  The media should be doing much more of it but with caution. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

False Perception 

There has been a rise in pick-it-yourself farms and these have given a false perception of what it is to work in agriculture.  Real farm work can be brutal and exhausting.  There is no easy way to pick strawberries, for example, other than backbending labor that makes standing up agonizing.  The pick-it-yourself farms minimize the work and maximize the experience with a false sense of PR.  This is an issue close to me.  As a teenager, I worked on farms as a summer job.  There was no romance to it.  It was hot, dirty and painful.  I wouldn't have done it had there been other jobs available.  There weren't.  We forget that migrants do most of the manual labor on farms, and they too find the labor onerous, but they have little choice.  I was going back to school in the fall.  The migrant would push on to another field and then another and another.  They were and are trapped in a cycle of oppression that only unionization can alleviate.  That is why I have long had a warm feeling for the United Farm Workers union.  Before the UFW and its efforts to dramatize the plight of the migrant, there was no help for the field laborer.  Most Americans still think their food comes shrink wrapped or in plastic boxes, and they never think of how it got there.  

Monday, August 15, 2016

Forgetting The Basics 

Why is it that politicians and business people forget the basics of the electronic world? By basics, I mean never writing anything in an e-mail or text message that you would not want to see in headlines.  Here is another case of "Duh."  A governor's aide writes to another person that e-mails would show the governor "flat out lied" about his involvement in a scandal.  Apparently she never expected her message to be found in discovery, but it was and she put her boss in a bad light as the case goes to court.  But then again, maybe she did want her message to surface.  She might have given up on her boss and wanted to sink him and his reputation for bullying the media.  It is hard to say what her motivation was but the result is the same.  I hammer the point with my business school students.  Always check your email and text messages for how they are going to play in public.  Change them if necessary and never write in anger.  The basics.  Maybe the aide will remember the next time, if there is one.

Friday, August 12, 2016

In Need Of PR 

Psychiatry is a profession in trouble.  The public looks down on the field and accuses its doctors of being pill-pushers rather than diagnosticians.  Yet, there is a need for them more than ever.  Mental health is fragile in the stress of the modern era.  There is depression, suicidal tendencies, angst of many sources, brain disease of different kinds.  A primary stop-gap between harm and help is a psychiatrist.  So what can the field do to earn itself back into the graces of the public?  For one, it needs to make the field more medically based.  Rather than scribbling on a prescription pad when a new patient arrives, psychiatrists need to ferret out the root causes of an illness.  They should align themselves with neuroscientists who are studying the inner workings of the brain.  In other words, they need to be more fact-based.  That is hard and with high patient loads, clinicians have little time to explore symptoms, but it is necessary for the good of the field.  That is what PR is all about.  Doing rather than saying.  For psychiatry, good PR means work that regains public support.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

17 Versions 

On rare occasions one is dogged by writing that never seems finished.  Consider, for example, a release that goes through -- count 'em -- 17 versions.  Each time one thinks it is done, there is a word change, a phrase subtracted, another phrase added and yet another round of approvals.  This continues until it takes a life of its own.  No one seems to be in a hurry to finish and arguments erupt over what should  be included in it.  So one goes through a spate of inclusion and exclusion of facts.  Eventually, that exhausts itself and the release settles back into wordsmithing that continues for versions more.  At this point, the original author has given up trying to preserve the tone and intent of the release and is making changes solely to put an end to the process.  There is no use fighting.  The exercise becomes "Yazza Boss!"  Whatever the client wants with the intent of "Let's get the damn thing done."  Usually by time everyone is exhausted with making changes, the release looks nothing like it did when the process started and it isn't necessarily good.  It just is and the quicker one can issue it and see it gone, the better.  One is thankful that there weren't 18 versions or 20 or 25 and is left with the feeling that there must be a better way.  

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Federal regulators, having found a correlation between vaping and cigarette smoking, have banned the sale of vaping products to minors.  The e-cigarette lobby is pointing out that correlation is not causation and it is still uncertain that minors who vape first, smoke later.  The correlation was close enough to causation for the FDA, which promulgated the rules.  The tobacco lobby has earned the restriction it gets.  For decades it got its way in Congress and over regulators.  Now it begs for mercy.  This is a legacy of abusive PR.  It is unlikely Federal authorities will ever again give the industry a break.  Tobacco companies fought for their products till the bitter end and now are largely an afterthought in US society.  Sadly, they are still making money but their end-time has come.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Blow To Reputation 

Here is a $100 million blow to a bank's reputation.  Barclays has been paying out because of its participation in the LIBOR bid rigging scandal.  Chances are the penalty won't change its perception among consumers, but among governments and businesses, it has a bad name and deep pockets.  The fine and restitution are meant to burn into the bank's DNA that some behavior is well out of bounds.   Fixing the LIBOR rate in order to skim profits was clearly illegal.  This $100 million adds to billions banks have already paid for the errant action.  Barclays is fortunate it wasn't more.  One wonders how financial institutions fall into such behavior and tolerate it for years.  Surely the bank's traders knew what they were doing and their supervisors knew as well.  From a PR perspective, there is no excuse the bank can give to lessen its culpability.

Monday, August 08, 2016


Facebook has changed its news algorithm to get rid of clickbait stories from marketers. Good luck with that.  As I write, marketers are finding ways around the algorithm to get their ad messages out.  No set of instructions can encompass all possible variations of words.  There is another way to get around the software fence, and it will be found.  What Facebook has done is touched off a war with marketers that will incorporate attack and counterattack for months, if not years, into the future.  Consider Google's algorithm to determine search ranking.  Google is constantly improving it and shutting doors that marketers find open and exploit.  Humans are more clever than computers.  Facebook can never relax its vigilance under the assumption the problem has been fixed.  The challenge is just starting.

Friday, August 05, 2016

PR Challenge 

Convincing people not to smoke was one of the toughest PR challenges, but this one may be even more difficult.  How do you persuade people not to eat so much and to eat the right kinds of foods?  There are government and private communications urging the public to exercise more and ingest less, but the epidemic of overweight consumers continues and is climbing.  I, for one, understand the difficulty of losing pounds once they are strapped on.  It is next to impossible to get them off again and to keep them off.  Millions of Americans face the same problem.  The country needs a simple solution, communicated in depth over a long period of time, to control the epidemic of obesity.  It needs to be as massive as the anti-smoking campaigns and as persuasive.  Even so, it will take decades to work.  

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Winning Ugly 

A successful CEO needn't be nice.  In fact, he or she can win ugly by putting relentless pressure on subordinates to produce better, faster and more efficiently.  That is apparently the harsh style of this CEO.  He might not win awards for humanity, but year after year he puts numbers in the win column.  From a PR perspective, he might be a leader heading for a fall.  It is in difficult circumstances like this, that subordinates will take to cheating to make their numbers.  They fear what will happen to them if they fall behind, so they jigger the system to look better.  It doesn't always happen this way.  Some managers thrive under intense pressure.  They look on the CEO as a winning coach, and they are willing to endure his intensity to achieve greatness year after year.  One can't say that one leadership style is better than any other.  The proof is in the results.  

Wednesday, August 03, 2016


What do you do when your blood testing product has been shown not to work, you have been barred from running a laboratory and you are presenting before an audience of peers?  Why, you pivot and present yourself as a manufacturer of lab testing machines.  This is the highly unlikely scenario that blood testing company, Theranos, just did.  CEO Elizabeth Holmes took the stage and without so much as a mention or a mea culpa for the failure of her micro blood testing devices, she presented a new line of testing units, the size of a shoebox, intended for doctors' offices.  The audience at the annual meeting of the American Association of Clinical Chemistry was skeptical, and well they should be.  The come-down for Theranos has been sudden and sharp.  It is a zombie company  -- a walking-dead organization.  Holmes efforts to publicize her new machines probably went for naught.  Who would buy equipment from a company shown to be a fraud?  One must give her credit for the attempt but she was the source of the failure in the first place.  Maybe this was her way of saying, "I'm sorry."  If so, it was strange. 

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Comical PR 

This is PR with a wry twist.  Denmark and Canada both claim a postage stamp island in the arctic.  Since the 1980s, the military of the two countries have planted flags on the island and left bottles of liquor for the other side to find.  The argument between the two nations has been going on since 1933.  One would expect that it might be settled by now, but boundary lines can foster fights that fester for generations.  There is no good reason for either country to claim the island.  It has no value although the arctic as the globe warms is taking on a new importance.  One can hardly believe that military personnel assigned to claiming the island take their jobs seriously.  They are doing the bidding of their political masters.  One hopes the liquor is high quality.

Monday, August 01, 2016


Local muslim community leaders in the French town where two attackers slit a priest's throat last week have refused to bury the attackers.  It is a protest against ISIS to whom the attackers pledged their fealty.  The leaders' protest is symbolic and important.  Maybe other ISIS-influenced youth will think twice about engaging in violence if they know they will be spurned by muslims.  The next logical step for the muslim community is not to wait until attacks occur but to turn in potential criminals before they strike.  That is much harder because neither muslims nor authorities can know for sure who will go off the deep end.  Still, refusing to bury the dead is a PR step in the right direction.  France and Europe need more such demonstrations from muslim communities.  The protests show that most muslim immigrants are peace-loving and not in support of the brutal ISIS movement.   

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