Friday, June 25, 2004

Out of Control 

One last note before heading off on the road.

There is a state of existence in which an organization has no control over its future. It lives amid events so much larger than the organization itself that it cannot do or say much to influence the outcome. Instances in which this happens include the death of Enron when forces moved against the company quickly, the demise of Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm swept up in the Enron affair, the collapse of large US airlines that continues.

The question is what to do when this happens. The answer isn't easy. The CEO might stand amid the wreckage and rally the troops until the bitter end -- or not. One might continue to deal with the media -- or not. The awful truth is that everyone knows the outcome will be damaging. It just depends how bad it will be -- whether the organization will survive in some form or disappear. Rah-rah morale building is hollow. Optimistic statements to the media are laughable. Acknowledging the awful state is good, but everyone knows that, don't they?

It takes a leader to keep an organization focused at times like these and tough PR practitioners to find ways to communicate effectively when there is nothing to say.

I'm of a belief that one keeps communicating in some fashion until the end, whatever that is. But then, that might be foolish. On the other hand, useless communications make matters worse, so the course one chooses is critical. But there are no rules for situations like this. One endures or leaves.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

On the Road 

I'm on the road for a week, so I won't be blogging much. It is typical, however, that travel doesn't mean absence. With Blackberry on belt and cell phone in hand, I will be conducting business and as connected as if I were in the office.

The need to stay wired has bothered me since the Internet era started. Too much connectedness overrides time to read and think. Good practitioners devour news and information and from that gluttony, find ideas and avenues for effective communication. Constant thumbing of a Blackberry and talking on the phone pulls one from learning and cogitating. I do not agree with those who see PR practitioners as arms and legs. The business would bore me if that is all that I was allowed to do.

The fun part of PR is not media hits -- although they are satisfying -- and not writing and production -- although everyone should be able to do that, it is tackling problems and finding solutions. It is an ability to walk through a client's dilemma and to find effective and realistic ways to communicate the client's message. Implementation becomes a test of one's recommendations.

But it requires constant reading, learning and thinking to know what to do and how. Constant connectedness is white noise that obscures good ideas. There is a role for silence, and we forget that in PR.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Another View 

Pete Shinbach is a long-time friend and compatriot in the war to bring technology to PR. Pete and I have wounds from the effort and a few successes along the way -- darn few, unfortunately. The industry has resisted technology from the beginning, as Pete will attest. It hasn't changed much. So, I asked Pete for his outsider's view of PR and blogging. Here, edited, is what he had to say.

Will PR people figure out blogging? Some will but most won't. Those that will are those who grasp the principles of third-party endorsements, relationship management and other things most PR people pay lip service to but don't really understand. On the agency side, I think some boutique shops will use blogging and the larger agencies like Edelman, Burson, Fleishman-Hillard, if they're not already. Others won't because it isn't media relations, it can't be controlled, it can't be relevantly measured (yet), it requires first-person singular mind sets and not first-person plural with passive voice.

The other reason is that virtually all PR people who blog these days blog about blogging. True, there are exceptions. However, most PR bloggers seem to kill a lot of electrons gazing at their navels and linking to each other. As a result, they are really not contributing to the body of knowledge or encouraging PR people to integrate blogs into their work, either by publishing, commenting on or reading blogs.

Should PR people know how to use the blogging tool? Sure, they should. Will blogging become a mass medium? Hell no. Will it become an influential medium? Hell yes. That's because it has so many characteristics that any successful information medium has. It is personal, it bypasses filters and gatekeepers, it's trusted (even if there are dubious characters writing and reading blogs -- which is true for any communications medium), it's interesting and it's self-selective. However, what sets blogging apart from most of its electronic and all of its dead-tree predecessors is its use of linking to form online conversations within an unstructured framework. By employing trackback links, blogrolls and other tools, bloggers encourage serendipitous exploration.

As usual, Pete has given me something to think about. Thanks, Pete.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Travel Blues 

We visited a client yesterday in Atlanta, which entailed a plane flight south. My colleagues left from La Guardia, and I left from Newark Airport nearer to my home. My colleagues decided to go out Monday night because they did not want to get up early Tuesday morning. I decided to go out Tuesday morning because I get up early anyway. Here is what happened.

My colleagues did not get to their hotel room in Atlanta until 1:30 a.m. Flight delays, of course. They sat around the LaGuardia terminal for hours and had a dinner of "very bad food," one colleague reported. I got up at 3:30 a.m. to get to the airport for a 5:30 a.m. flight only to find that the airline had lost my reservations and the flight had been cancelled. I was bumped to a 6:30 a.m. flight. The airline did not notify me of the cancellation until I got there. In the end, I got more sleep than my colleagues did, but that was small consolation for wretchedly poor airline service.

Fortunately, in my work I have not had to travel that much in recent years. I suppose I would be inured to the lousy conditions that fliers suffer if I did. As a result, I am angry over the lack of service that airlines pass off to customers these days. They are cattle cars of the air with one exception. They aren't as regular as cattle trains.

Long ago when I first started working, flying was a pleasure. But that was long, long ago. I don't expect to enjoy flying every again. And that's a pity. But then, I don't expect anyone will ever enjoy flying again. The airlines need PR that starts with decent service.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Door-in-Face Persuasion 

It has long been said that there are two forms of selling -- foot in door and door in face. Foot in the door is push selling -- advertising, publicity and face-to-face persuasion. Door in the face is exclusive selling -- holding off the consumer until the consumer is deemed worthy of being catered to.

Similar principles hold true in PR. But, exclusivity is not what we mean by door-in-face. What we mean is that we communicate a message that we know might hurt or upset some who listen to it. Usually only a CEO gives these kinds of messages. They are often about downsizings, mergers, restructurings, management turnover and other unpleasant topics that employees don't want to hear but must.

There are instances, however, in which one lets matters take a course and consumers come to their own conclusions. This is what is happening with fuel prices, for example. We can cajole all we want about conservation, but the quickest way to fuel savings is to let gasoline rise over $2.50 a gallon. And increasingly, that is the way some in the energy industry see as the only realistic course to get Americans to change out of Hummers and SUVs into practical and fuel-efficient vehicles.

We rarely use door-in-face persuasion in our work, but sometimes we should. I can think of one instance. The obnoxious, bullying journalist who won't take no for an answer and badgers one endlessly can use door-in-face discipline. These individuals hate "no." But, if one gives a juicy tidbit of news to a competitor first, the bully gets the idea that a hard edge won't work with you. And if the journalist doesn't learn, one cuts the reporter out completely until he or she does. One can't always do this, but one should never be afraid to try. The problem is that too many PR practitioners and CEOs quail before bullies.

Door-in-face persuasion is a valid technique. Use it with care.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Rumor Uncontrol 

Although the following story appeared last week it is worth a first or second read. The article investigates the course of two rumors on the Internet -- one had to do with the intern who supposedly had an affair with Kerry but didn't and the other focused on rumors of Reagan's impending death, which were true.

What the story makes clear is that the Internet has become the primary pipeline for rumors, and if you don't control them at the Internet level, you won't control them once they hit traditional media. That said, there are only certain kinds of rumors that hit the Internet heavily. They are usually associated with high-profile people, places and organizations.

However, one never knows when an organization might be thrust into the limelight. A client went from a quiet existence to international criticism in hours, and the Internet was filled with false rumors about the organization that found their way into print. We were able to warn off some journalists but others plunged ahead with irresponsible suppositions that had no basis in reality or fact.

The worst part of such rumors is that some people will believe them. And, it is often people who should know better. But, humans are not given to checking facts before they speak. If they did, they would speak less or more carefully than they do.

During the Internet Bubble, one company after another was plagued with rumors from people shorting their stocks. It was difficult to control. It is tougher now. The media are more attuned to the Internet and rumors floating through it. Reporters are quicker to pick up the phone and ask rather than using common sense. However, asking is better than running with the story and not asking -- which some have done.

Keep your eye on the Internet. You don't know the day or the hour when things can go bad.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Newsletter Pollution 

I spotted a report today that the number of online newsletters nearly double in 2003. A site that tracks this sort of thing -- IWantMedia -- went from a catalog listing of 2,500 newsletters in 2002 to 4,949 in 2003. About 3,000 of the newsletters were extensions of print publications -- e.g., magazines that use them to stay in touch with subscribers between issues.

What no one has asked is who the heck needs so many newsletters and who is actually reading all of them? It strikes me that we are once again in newsletter pollution.

In the OLD days when there was snail mail, there was newsletter pollution too. Everyone had to have a newsletter. We knew, of course, that 90% of all newsletters went straight into a waste basket unread and even unscanned. We urged clients to drop newsletters and to do something else to gain attention. So here we are in the Internet age and what are we doing again? Newsletters. Will we never learn?

There are media that people cling to because they don't know how to do anything else, and the newsletter is one. Do yourself and your organization a favor: Drop the newsletter. Start a blog, a web page, something, anything but avoid newsletters.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Tech Hype 

Take time to read this brief comment from a blog called Techdirt. The writer accuses a PR person of laziness. Why the accusation? Because the PR person pushed to get a personality piece on the founder of a young and unprofitable company rather than on its product. The suspicion, of course, is that there is not much to the product, or the PR person didn't bother to learn the technology and its value.

In my tech experience, this accusation has more merit than not. Many tech publicists that I knew had little or no understanding of technologies they flacked. Not only did they not know what was in the black box or the code but they couldn't care less about learning. Their job was to shove releases and press kits out the door -- and that's what they did. No wonder dozens of useless products and services were hyped as the next best thing to the Internet. No one had enough understanding to balance remarks with reality.

There was one PR person I knew from the beginning of Silicon Valley who was different, and he should have been the model that everyone followed. Too bad they didn't. That was Regis McKenna. I had the pleasure of talking with him once and of working with people who trained under Regis. He was strict about proving the value of any product before it went out the door and of making sure of its differentiation. Whatever I know of tech PR and marketing, I learned from Regis' books.

But that is no longer the way of Silicon Valley, which got lost in its own hype. That's too bad because ultimately, the Valley killed itself with greed and self-importance. Today, many tech PR flacks are out of work. Have they learned a lesson?

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Digital Shift 

There was a small story in yesterday's tech news that shows how much the world has changed. Nikon announced that it is looking to a day when it will stop making single lens reflex (SLR) film cameras and only make digital SLRs.

That's an amazing shift. Anyone who has worked professionally in photography has probably had a Nikon at one time or another. It was a workhorse that handled horrible conditions with aplomb.

When I started in communications, I was in photography. I did still photo work in the US Army as part of the Department of the Army Special Photography Operations (DASPO). I carried a Nikon around my neck in all kinds of situations while mountain climbing, slogging filthy deserts and plowing through jungles. The only problem I had with my personal Nikon is that sweat from my body short-circuited the light meter one day while mountain climbing, and I had to get a new one. More than 30 years later, I still have that camera and its lenses in a closet at home. I haven't used it for a decades, but I'll bet I could take it out, clean it, replace the battery and fire it up.

Now Nikon has announced that it is raising the monthly capacity for the "D70" digital SLR camera to more 90,000 units by September or October. Nikon is looking forward to 100,000 digital SLR units a month eventually, and it expects to sell one million digital SLRs this year alone.

While the company said that it has no immediate plans to stop production of film SLRs, it is starting to pull back, and it plans to exit the compact film camera business next year.

You might be asking why it took so long for camera makers to move heavily into digital. Film has been around for more than a hundred years, and the economy was set up for the ease and convenience of film users. Eastman Kodak attempted to convert to digital since the early 90s, but film hung on stubbornly until about a year ago when sales of the little yellow boxes at last began to fall.

In the PR business, I haven't thought much about film in the last four or five years. It takes too long to have negatives developed. Shoot with a digital camera, download and get on to the next task.

Still, the old Nikon in the closet has sentimental value, even if my daughter asks what it is for.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Golden Flackery 

This note is a diversion from the usual thoughts about public relations. It is, however, about spin -- mathematical spin.

There is a wonderful piece on the Golden Ratio that is worth reading simply because it debunks long-held notions in academia and elsewhere about the magic and irrational number starting 1.618. The story is here. Take your time reading the essay because it turns out the Golden Ratio does occur in nature but not throughout buildings and paintings and art and poetry as many would attest.

The question that I have is who started this piece of puffery that continues to endure in every art class from high school through postgraduate university courses? The essayist seems to think that it is such a good story that people simply repeated it without checking too closely. And isn't that the way of many myths broadcast through organizations -- stories about an individual's heroic deeds (Jessica Lynch) that aren't true? Or, stories about the CEO that have no basis in fact but everyone knows they are accurate?

It seems to me that the role of the PR person is to debunk myth in favor of facts, but that is naive. Sometimes, it is better to live with the myth because the public prefers it that way. Debunking it would do more harm than good. For example, would you be the first person to tell a five-year-old that there is no Santa Claus and no Easter Bunny and no Tooth Fairy? For adults, the same holds true and the Golden Ratio is one of those harmless academic myths that are convenient to foster and pass on.

If it isn't true, it should be.


Last week I mentioned a wonderful set of blogs from a dairy, but in the process, I erred. Let's let the Chief Blogger say what I did wrong, since he was kind enough to write and point out my goofs.

Thanks for mentioning Stonyfield Farm’s five blogs on your own blog. It was fun to see. I just wanted to point out that your link to our pages is not working, for some reason. And, just a point of clarification: we are NOT located in Vermont. Many of the farms that supply us with milk are in Vermont, but the Stonyfield Farm company (the largest organic yogurt company in the country) is located in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

I am the blog administrator for the five blogs--actually you’ll see my title: Chief Blogger—and I’m having good great fun doing the blogs as part of our company’s public relations team. The blogs have been up and running since April, but we still consider ourselves in the learning phase.

Again, thanks for taking note of this unique adventure of ours.

Chris Halvorson
Chief Blogger and Web Editor/Writer
Stonyfield Farms

I just went back to check the link and found that it is working on my computer, but here it is again, if it wasn't working on yours -- http://www.stonyfield.com/weblog/. As Chris develops the blogs, it will be interesting to hear about the lessons learned of what to do and not do in corporate blogging.

Thanks, Chris.

Sunday, June 13, 2004


Drip. Bad news breaks. The PR practitioner and company scramble to handle the story and media frenzy. Drip. An unknown part of the story surfaces. Another scramble ensues. Drip. Still more news surfaces -- and it is worse. Another scramble.

Drip-Drip-Drip. The story is out of control. New data emerges from every angle. There is nothing to do but to hang on and hope for the best.

Finally, matters settle. The whole story is out, and the media have gone their way. Drip. Another aspect of the story appears, and the scramble starts again.

If you have been through this kind of crisis, you know how demoralizing it can be. One can never get ahead. Most political crises work this way. The impeachment of President Richard Nixon evolved exactly this way. Little by little, piece by piece, the story appeared over months until it ground the presidency down.

It takes perseverance to hold on. One must have as many facts as possible and know where the organization stands. If the organization is an innocent bystander, it is easier than if the organization is at fault. But it is difficult either way, especially when hate mail and poisonous telephone calls flood the office and target you.

But if you feel bad, imagine what the Board, the CEO and employees are feeling. Their friends look at them oddly. They are asked unanswerable questions. They wonder why they ever got involved with this organization and why they continue to dedicate themselves to it.

At times like this a PR practitioner can be the most valuable resource a CEO has, but one needs to stay cool when everyone else is out of control and work the story. That's tough to do and some are not cut out for it. One also has to act quickly and to endure long hours. The best one can do is to lower one's head and plow forward day after day, hour after hour until it is over -- whenever that is. One works stubbornly, persistently, steadily. There won't be any miracles that will bail the organization out. There might be small victories when the media get something right but it won't affect the larger issue. Worse, one will not know for months how badly the scandal has tarnished the organization.


Thursday, June 10, 2004


For some reason, our firm has been involved in litigation lately. We have clients on the receiving end of lawsuits or in fear of being indicted. It has started me thinking about litigation-support PR. It is a specialty but one used by many attorneys, especially tort attorneys pushing for settlements.

There is really one PR decision a lawyer takes when dealing with a case -- whether to try it in public or in the courtroom. A case may end up in the courtroom, as the OJ Simpson murder trial did, but there was as much posturing in the media as there was in the courtroom. I think Simpson's lawyers would say what they did with PR was to counterbalance those who had convicted Simpson before he was tried.

But there are as many reasons to keep a trial out of the press as there are reasons to have it there. For one, a case might not be interesting. Secondly, exposing it to the media might complicate things for an attorney in ways the attorney might not like. Third, when a trial is played out in the press, someone's reputation is ruined, whether or not the person is convicted. The Martha Stewart case was like that. Even if Martha had been found innocent, she would not have recovered the aura she had before she was indicted.

In high profile litigation, the case will be played out in public with "talking heads" who handicap the trial, tactics and jury. There are attorneys who thrive on this and others who loathe it.

Attorneys control litigation PR. Some are masters, and others are ignorant of how the media work. But that makes no difference. The PR counselor explains the mechanics and implications of media exposure, but the attorney makes the decision to proceed.

I have yet to work with a flamboyant attorney. Without exception, every one has been wary of the press and tried to keep a case below media attention. This has not always worked, but our job was to prepare for what might happen and hope it didn't.

There is tension when dealing with matters that may decide the fate of an individual or organization. One realizes there is no room for mistakes. Accuracy and alertness are essential.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004


There is always a person or group that takes advantage of tragedy to make a point. I call what they do "grandstanding." They are folks who run ahead of parades and proclaim themselves marshals. They file lawsuits they know they cannot win but spark headlines. They hold press conferences and make irresponsible charges in time for the news deadlines. They lead protests that have little to do with actual events.

Organizations are often breathless at the cynicism of such persons, but the sad part is that opportunists get away with what they do time and again. The worst part is that they always seem to find followers.

There is nothing PR practitioners can do to stop grandstanding. But there is something they can do to cut the legs out from under those who attempt it. The key is to have facts and to use them mercilessly. This is not as easy as it sounds because many events are fogged in ambiguity. Ambiguity plays into the hands of opportunists. Clarity doesn't.

Among grandstanders I dislike, I place a prominent African-American,a self-proclaimed spokesperson for a segment of the African-American community. He lost all credibility years ago when he made false charges against a district attorney in Upstate New York in a case where a black girl lied that she was raped. The district attorney sued for libel and won. This fellow then claimed he had no assets and could not pay damages in spite of the fact that he continues to dress and live well. As far as I know, the attorney never did collect the full amount from this person.

Yet, here is this fellow time and again thrusting himself to the head of protesters and claiming the spokesperson position. More than that, TV networks continue to hire him as a political commentator.

People like this African-American are difficult PR challenges because attacking them is equated with racism, or something else, when it might be nothing of the sort. Yet, if an organization fails to fight, the opportunist rolls over it.

I would rather fight, but it is not always a PR practitioner's choice. A CEO may have to take a longer view of what is best for a company and to sacrifice anger to expediency. Of course, the opportunist wins when this happens.

No one said PR is easy.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Relative Relations 

This story is an eyeopener. The University of Michigan has a customer satisfaction index and the latest edition of it shows that mobile-phone service was the second-lowest-ranked industry topping only cable providers.

But there is something odd about the results. Millions use both cable and mobile phones and they are not giving them up. People are not mounting aerials on their chimneys and going back to wire phones. Consumers have made a relative calculation about mobile phones and cable. They dislike the customer service but they like the products and they are willing to sacrifice to have them. The sacrifice comes in terms of poorer phone calls and billing madness as well as cable packages that seem to be priced arbitrarily.

In other words, public relations is relative. It has no absolute standards for what is a good relationship with customers and others. Standards are gauged against other competitors. But as long as all competitors in an industry have mediocrity as a standard, consumers will accept it, if they value the service enough.

What this means to PR practitioners is not always pleasing. There are conditions in every industry that we serve, which we would like to change. But as long as competitors have the same conditions, executives are often content to leave things as they are. Should a competitor be able to make a profound breakthrough in service, the rest of the industry much catch up -- or die.

Interestingly enough, the cable industry in the US is in tougher competition now against satellite TV and local telephone carriers for broadband services. Cable has shown itself worthy in holding back competition by upgrading services it should have improved a long time ago. There is a new relationship being built, and it has a higher standard.

Ask yourself about the relativity your organization has with key publics.

Blogging Moos 

Someone has certainly picked up on this already, but there is a dairy in Vermont using blogs constructively to market its organic yogurt. It's a neat bit of online PR. The dairy is Stonyfield Farm and its five blogs are here. The interesting part of the blogs is that they attempt to carry news of interest to visitors.

The first is "Strong Women Daily News" and it focuses on women, health, calcium (of course)and fitness. The second is a blog from a local organic dairy farm and it gives a sense of real people behind the company. The third, "The Dairy Planet" is about environment and recycling -- an issue to manufacturers that uses millions of paper or plastic cartons. The fourth, "The Daily Scoop" is news from inside the company and seems rather weak. The final blog "Creating Healthy Kids" focuses on school lunch programs around the nation and what they are doing about nutrition.

The five blogs provide an excellent example of what a company can do to better relate to customers. I have no idea what it costs Stonyfield Farm to run the blogs but there is apparently a blog administrator who manages some or all of them. Stonyfield Farm also is marketing the blogs well with a banner on its well laid out and highly usable index page.

If a dairy can use blogs well for PR purposes, many others can too.

Monday, June 07, 2004

The Optimist 

The passing of former president Ronald Reagan takes a great optimist from the world. Reagan's view was so relentlessly positive in my remembrance that he could sweep doubt from listeners' minds.

In many ways, optimists are best at public relations too. They are upbeat, positive and able to see good in any situation. They are the best salespersons one has. Their world is without limits, and if there are nasty facts in the way, one walks by them with a conviction that human will can reshape events. And, indeed, it can quite often. Optmists MAKE things happen.

Unfortunately, most of us who have worked in PR for some time are more realistic and pragmatic. Maybe that is good and maybe not. I have watched great PR salespersons spin stories I knew not to be true, but they made them happen and the end result was reasonably OK. I wonder how one does that, and the answer appears to be that optimists believe what they say to be true, whether it is or not. They are people whose dispositions see good even where there isn't much possibility of it.

Reagan had a strong sense of right and wrong built on a base of optimism. He could see Communism was wrong and his conviction of the essential goodness of people allowed him to oppose it. What Reagan couldn't see was that the Russian people would be lost politically for a long period without Communism -- as they still are. It seems that much the same has happened in Iraq.

We need optimists in the world, just not too many of them.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Same Thing All Over Again 

I was in upstate New York over the last three days and while there, I met a PR practitioner who was pushed out of a corporate communications role. This practitioner related an all-too-familiar story. The company had decided it needed skilled PR management, so it hired another person into the job. The person who came in was from a marketing background. Immediately, the new person stopped talking to the press. And, apparently, this person has not talked since either.

When I explained why I thought this happened -- lack of control over the media -- the ex-corporate communications leader said this sounded like the case. I have nattered here about the change in PR from working with media to preference for controlled communications akin to promotion. I have to say I am late in making this charge. Jack O'Dwyer in his newsletter has been complaining about it for years. I ignored him for a long time until it happened all around me.

The sad fact of marketing is it assumes that what it cannot control, it can ignore. This has never been the case, and it never will be. What one ignores can sink a company, especially if the media suddenly become vehicles for sensational charges, as I have been witnessing lately.

An organization might be able to work for a long time without dealing with the media, but there will come a day when it must relate, and it won't know how. If a company feels it can't afford to keep people on staff to do media relations -- other than trade media --, it should find an agency to handle larger media.

Wait! That's silly advice. One agency after another has de-emphasized media relations in favor of high-volume, marketing-related work using controlled communications.

So where does a company go that needs to deal with Forbes, Fortune, Barron's, Business Week, The Wall Street Journal, CNBC and other national business media? Where does a company go to get objective advice about its story -- what works and what doesn't? There are fewer places to turn. And, that's not healthy for PR.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Off The Reservation 

I'm going to be out of town this evening and tomorrow. You won't see a post for Friday. Meanwhile, I've posted a new essay on a subject that has bothered me for awhile. That is the tendency of past actions of companies to be reinterpreted in the present as wrong because of changing societal mores and knowledge. It's called "When Good Deeds Go Bad." The situation is not rare, by the way, as I think you will find when you read the article.

As usual, I would like to hear any comments or criticisms.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004


You might think citizens would use immediately Internet sources of information that affect their lives -- i.e., government Web sites. But a new survey from Federal Computer Week reveals that "the federal government has a long way to go to sell e-government services to the public." The study looked at the usage of "three of the president's e-government initiatives." The poll found that "most Americans do not turn to the government for information - not even for their hobbies.... The survey found that most Americans had not yet visited some of the more popular government Web sites, including whitehouse.gov, NASA.gov, recreation.gov or IRS.gov."

This is a strange outcome. Either Americans don't give a hoot about government or government is doing a bad job of marketing web sites or Americans do not realize how much information government can provide. It also tells me something about a need for better publicity for government Web sites.

I wonder where public affairs officers are. My guess is most agencies have put up sites but not bothered to publicize them much because "people will find them on their own." If that is the attitude, it isn't working, and it seems to me there is an opportunity for public relations to shine in popularizing government sites.

Thinking about it, there are some major government Web sites I haven't visited yet, but on the other hand, some I do look at are in need of usability consulting. For example, I was checking the House and Senate Web sites recently and found both leave much to be desired. I was trying to find information on upcoming hearings. The Senate does a better job with its calendar, but it's not that much better.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Media Bias 

One of my favorite blogs is on rhetoric and is called Rhetorica. It is here. Andrew R. Cline, the blogwriter and PhD is a student of media. Cline is deeply interested in the New York Times' admission of poor reporting on Weapons of Mass Destruction last year. He noted recently that it is a good example of embedded media bias. His essay on the subject should be required reading for PR practitioners and it is here. Note that his definitions of biases are not the same as liberals versus conservatives. They are fundamental and go to the essence of the business itself. He cites:

1. Commercial bias: The news media are money-making businesses.
2. Temporal bias: The news media are biased toward the immediate.
3. Visual bias: Television (and, increasingly, newspapers) is biased toward visual depictions of news.
4. Bad news bias: Good news is boring.
5. Narrative bias: The news media cover the news in terms of "stories" that must have a beginning, middle, and end.
6. Status Quo bias: The news media believe "the system works."
7. Fairness bias: Ethical journalistic practice demands that reporters and editors be fair.
8. Expediency bias: Journalism is a competitive, deadline-driven profession. Reporters compete among themselves for prime space or air time.
9. Glory bias: Journalists, especially television reporters, often assert themselves into the stories they cover.

These make a good set of explanations for clients and others who do not understand why or how the media work. They also serve as reminders for PR practitioners working with the media. Most of the biases are intuitive to any media relations specialist, but it is nice to see them listed. They could serve as a checklist for story development.

Prepping the Report 

The client report is an interesting exercise of agency work. One answers the "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" question. The challenge is figuring out how to report to one's best advantage. There are many ways to do it.

Sometimes a client will tell the agency what the client wants to see. Sometimes, it is left to the agency. I have been working on a report lately for a difficult situation -- a new leader at a client. This person took over recently, and we don't know him or his style. He wants a briefing of what we have been doing, and of course, we want to shine to the best advantage. But how does one do that? With a flashy presentation that has the bells and whistles of packaged PowerPoint or with a simple presentation that focuses on content and opens the meeting to discussion?

There is one answer to this question: Ask the client. One should never be afraid to query an audience about how the audience wants to receive information.

There is a tendency, however, for an agency not to ask that question, and this can be a mistake. The agency assumes one approach or another is good for the client because it is what the agency is accustomed to doing. It feels right. But what feels right to an agency may not be useful to a client. That is where I am in prepping the report for this client. The client stated in broad terms what he wants to see, but I'm not convinced his description is what I am writing. Frankly, what I am writing looks too much like the kind of report that we the agency want to see.

At some point, I'll find out whether I'm on course or not. I just hope it isn't until after the report has been delivered.

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