Tuesday, March 20, 2018
Uber doesn't need any more PR crises, but it has another one. The company's self-driving Volvo mowed down a woman in Tempe, AZ and killed her. The vehicle had an operator on standby but was driving autonomously at the time. This sparked international news and threw a wrench into the move to driverless vehicles. The PR crisis is not only Uber's but also Waymo's and General Motors' and Ford's and every other entity working on engineering questions for self-driving vehicles. The fundamental question is why the system didn't see her pushing her bike along the edge of the road? Since it didn't register her, what other people and objects can it miss? Is its failure common to other systems and if so, can any of them be declared road-ready? Authorities will be looking closely at the incident, and development of autonomous vehicles might be slowed for months, if not years.
Monday, March 19, 2018
Consumer-facing businesses are always subject to a sour customer. This is the person who rages at the staff and is unhappy no matter what one does -- like this. The workers' attempts to mollify the person go for naught. The best one can hope is the customer leaves quickly before upsetting the rest of the people in the store. McDonald's did the right thing by upholding its staff and calling for respect in economic transactions. That doesn't mean it will be the case, but at least workers on the line know the company stands behind them. It is good internal relations and too often forgotten. Companies should remind employees that sometimes it happens and it isn't their fault. There are angry people in the world and nothing assuages their ire.
Friday, March 16, 2018
It is time for weapon manufacturers to account for the morality of their business. Guns in and of themselves are neutral technology but what is done with them carries responsibility. It is telling that Smith & Wesson, the builder of semiautomatic weapons used in several massacres avoided speaking with demonstrators outside its corporate offices. The company is not ready to talk and might be hoping the issue goes away once the hubbub of the Parkland shootings subsides. But, even if it does, that does not change the issue. Too many of its guns are being used to murder people. It needs better safeguards for who purchases its weaponry. This will not be easy to do. The company loses control over its rifles once they leave the factory and are shipped nationwide. What S&W can do is to take a public stance on gun control and stop selling the AR-15-like rifle. Admittedly, it would be a hit to the company's bottom line, but like restrictions on the purchase of tobacco, it needs to be done.
Thursday, March 15, 2018
Elizabeth Holmes, the former CEO of Theranos, is earning the wages of hype. She is paying a $500,000 fine and is barred from serving as an officer or director of a corporation for 10 years. All this comes from overstating and lying about the efficacy of her company's product for blood testing. She raised $700 million from investors through telling tall tales. She deserves what she is getting and is lucky that so far, she won't be suffering jail time. This should be a warning to publicists and PR practitioners who are tempted to bend facts to make a case. Don't do it. The consequences when they come are severe and one will carry a stain on reputation for the rest of a career. I suspect Holmes did not set out to lie. She felt pressure to perform and began to exaggerate. The exaggeration grew until it no longer had a factual base. She then had to lie more to show progress when her analyzers fail to perform adequately. She felt she couldn't tell the facts because her company might collapse. Instead, she fed the hype until the truth came out and the game was over. Now she must bear the burden.
Wednesday, March 14, 2018
At General Electric, you know when you haven't done well if your bonus is cut. Imagine doing without it at all. That is the case this year at the ailing conglomerate. Only one of the top executives received any merit compensation. The others are doing without. This was a shot across the bow of GE's managers to right the ship before it sinks. Their attention is concentrated now, and either they are working harder or they are looking for ways to get out the door. There won't be much traction for them if they stay and manage as they have. There is no argument any longer that Jeff Immelt left the company in a mess. The focus now is to find a way forward even if that requires selling off divisions and shrinking the enterprise. Can GE be great again? Probably, but it won't look the same.
Tuesday, March 13, 2018
The governor of California, Jerry Brown, decided that what the high-tech state needed was a high-speed train. So, he promotes relentlessly a proposed link between Los Angeles and San Francisco that will pass through the Central Valley. As most boondoggles are, it was under budgeted and far too optimistic in timing. The project is already a PR disaster. The next governor will have to decide if the state will keep funding it or will let it die a natural death. The plan was never thought through or its boosters lied about the timing and cost at the beginning and are only now fessing up to the real numbers. This is another feature of boondoggles. The objective is to get shovels into the ground so a project takes on a life of its own, which is hard to stop. Right now, the California High-speed Rail Authority is building a line to nowhere without any key links in place. It is too early to say the project will end with the next governor, but it is on its death-bed.
Monday, March 12, 2018
Elon Musk is his own best PR practitioner. His most recent appearance at SXSW over the weekend allowed him to talk about his vision for settling Mars. It seems outrageous and utterly impractical, but he said he will have his Mars rocket ready by next year and he will start testing it in short flights. He is also working on his spaceship that will be ready at the same time. It is hard to bet against Musk. He is the founder of Tesla and SpaceX. His Falcon rockets are taking off regularly from earth and putting satellites in orbit. But, colonizing Mars with a million people is a dream. Mars is closer to Antarctica where a few dozen people winter over at the South Pole. It has never proved practical for large-scale development. The environment is too hostile. Still, the man has his dream and he is willing to put his millions behind it. One hopes he doesn't go broke pursuing it.
Friday, March 09, 2018
The news that the doors to the office of the Interior Secretary will cost $139,000 has raised concerns, especially after the HUD secretary spent $31,000 for a table. The spokeswoman for Interior made a strong case for the replacement and emphasized that the Secretary didn't know the cost of the project. Still, it is a matter of perception. The expenditure seems outrageous, and therefore, in the minds of many, it is, despite a lengthy explanation for it. This is an ongoing PR challenge to anyone working in Washington DC. The news media are merciless in reporting what appears to be self-interest on the part of political appointees. The Secretary of the Interior now has a flap on his hands, not of his own making, that he needs to handle. He can cancel the project but that will harm the building. He can let the work go ahead but restrict its budget, but that might result in a poor job. He can let the repair proceed as is and take the heat. There is no good outcome.
Thursday, March 08, 2018
In my opinion, weather forecasters have low credibility, particularly when it comes to storms. They tend to hype the possibilities. The real-life situation on the ground may be, and often is, quite different. Over the years, I've tended to ignore them and go about my work. Yesterday proved to be an eye-opener. The forecast was for a major nor'easter to hit the Tri-state area with six to 12 inches of snow. I left for work in the morning and there were barely flurries. During the day in Manhattan there was a mix of rain and snow. When I left for home and exited the train tunnel to New Jersey, there was about six inches on the ground. By time I got home two hours later after commuting snafus, there were 18-21 inches of snow in the front yard. The weather forecasters had called it correctly for our state. My family was upset with me for going into Manhattan. It turns out my credibility was shot and today, we're trapped in the house since the plows haven't come to open our road. Next time, I'll pay closer attention.
Wednesday, March 07, 2018
I wrote about an MIT study of Uber and Lyft and the low income of their drivers. It turns out the study was wrong, and its author has publicly admitted it. He is now in the process of recalculating his work. The two companies promptly rebutted his research because it was a PR threat to them. Well they should have. The problem was an ambiguous survey question. It is difficult to write clear questionnaires and the researcher proved once again that even experts have problems. The paper will go back to the academic mill and might be reported out in a few weeks or months. By then its impact will be mitigated. The lesson here is that PR challenges come from anywhere and need immediate and factual response.
Tuesday, March 06, 2018
United Airlines is embarrassed for what it almost did to employee bonuses. It had proposed to take away individual rewards and to conduct a lottery in which one employee would win $100,000 each quarter and other employees would win vacations, cars and/or cash prizes. Needless to say, the proposal didn't go down well with its workers. They revolted and the airline put the program on hold. The message was clear. Don't take away my bonus. An external observer might say the unhappiness was to be expected. Individuals depended on the bonus and to see it turn into a game of chance was maddening. It meant that most employees' hard work would go unrewarded. United blundered internal relations on this one. It was smart to pull back as quickly as it did.
Monday, March 05, 2018
The end game for many Uber drivers is poverty. They don't earn enough from driving to make a living. Uber is not alone in this. Its competitor, Lyft, has the same challenge. This presents a PR problem for both companies. If drivers become convinced that ferrying passengers is a mug's game, they will no longer do it. Then where will the two services be? Statistics show an extremely high turnover in drivers per year. On the other hand, if fewer drivers work for both services, their average income will rise and they might make a living. This would lend credence to limiting the number of drivers in a region to make sure they can survive. So far, neither service has appeared to do that. High tech is not always better.
Friday, March 02, 2018
Some crises never seem to go away. They just get worse. Such is the case of Equifax, which bungled a mammoth hack last year in which 145.5 million customers had their data stolen. It has now confirmed that an additional 2.4 million consumers had their names and partial identifications taken. As outrageous as this is, the knowledge that Equifax was entirely responsible for the successful hack is even worse. The company failed to update a server and left a gaping hole in its security that thieves exploited. It will be a long time before consumers trust the company again and that is as it should be. Equifax was lax about protecting data, the one thing it needed to have. It destroyed its reputation in the incident and it can't seem to recover. One almost wishes the company would go away and let other credit reporting agencies take its place.
Thursday, March 01, 2018
The mayor of Oakland, CA warned undocumented immigrants that the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) was about to make arrests in the town. She did it because Oakland is a self-proclaimed sanctuary city. ICE was furious with her and said 850 targets had slipped away. The mayor put her reputation on the line and that of Oakland as well. It was a courageous act and good PR -- what one does and not what one says. Maybe the next time ICE will leave Oakland alone. That is surely the hope of the mayor and immigrants there. ICE is running roughshod over the lives of the undocumented and creating havoc where there doesn't need to be any. It is good that it has had its comeuppance and perhaps the mayor's act will be emulated elsewhere in the US.