Thursday, September 30, 2004

New Article 

There is a new article posted on the online-pr.com web site about network-centric relationships. It is here. I had written earlier about changes that ubiquitous networking would bring to relationship building with stakeholder audiences. The article expands this view using an example of grocery retailing.

It is based on an existing store of the future in Rheinburg, Germany as well as retail grocery web sites such as Albertsons, Peapod and Fresh Direct. I am convinced that future PR practitioners will not use traditional media as a first choice but a secondary option. Many recipes merchandised to newspapers and magazine food pages today will go first to web sites or the networked store where there is a link between the network and individual pushing a shopping cart. In fact, there is a business for grocery retailers in doing this. They will form relationships with food marketers and charge for the use of their network to reach customers at the point of purchase. Publicity information will become part of the information mix.

Read the article, and let me know what you think. I may be wrong but it seems to me that much of what I describe is in existence, and it will dominate in the next decade or so.

Debate Kabuki 

It is amusing to watch the build-up to the debates between the two presidential candidates. No one is talking about substance. There won't be any. Everyone is focusing on style. There will be plenty of that. It seems to me that we have reached the "why bother" stage of debating. The only effective communication left is whether one is sweating and the other isn't, whether one smiles pleasantly and the other smirks, whether one seems confident and the other circuitous.

I suppose there is something to learn from that, but it seems darn little. It's the equivalent of a Miss America beauty contest. Maybe we should award points on the basis of John Kerry's tan.

I am far from alone in wondering why and how election communications have degenerated so far into imagery and away from issues. This bastardization of campaigning is certainly not new. In the 19th Century, campaign managers were adept at the same thing. Has it always been thus? If so, what does that say about the concept of public relations being built on facts?

I should review my assumptions about the business.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Silence of the Frog 

I've had a chest cold for several days, and I've lost my voice. Rather, my voice is the basso croak of a male pond frog. This is embarrassing enough when talking to clients on the phone, and in a client meeting, I sounded like I was on my deathbed because my voice began to go.

Well, wouldn't you know that I had a half-hour television program taping to moderate last night? On air for a half hour with a voice that no mother -- not even a frog mom -- could love. It is a tribute to throat lozenges -- lots of them -- that I was able to get my voice back to the basso profundo croak from the somewhat indescribable sound it had in the afternoon. But along with "deep throat" came periods of uncontrollable hacking and coughing. I wasn't sure I could make a half-hour on air without shutting down the audio system during an attack.

So I stuffed my cheeks like a squirrel with Cepacol lozenges and had one of the cameramen get a class of water on the set. That carried me through 13 minutes. I hacked a couple of times in the 14th minute, and we went to a one-minute break. During the break, I broke open several more tin foil blister packs of pale yellow lozenges and stuffed them into my mouth. The hope was that the lozenge would prevent coughing even if it could not prevent a voice change. Unfortunately, I blew the cue into the second section, and the director had to reset the system. There went the lozenges and by time we started to talk, my mouth was dry. I let the guest speak as much as she wanted and nodded my head most of the time. I didn't dare say many words.

We made it through and everyone was happy with the program. No one teaches you these tricks in professional communicator's school.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Failure to Communicate 

There are individuals that no matter how and how often you explain, talk, cajole, scream, they don't get what it is you are telling them. There is a failure to communicate. Why this happens, I don't know, but it does, and it is one of the most frustrating situations a communicator suffers. After all, we are practitioners who are expected to know how to communicate to audiences of all kinds. It is a comment on our abilities when we don't.

But it happens. I know I will not understand anything about quantum physics. I've tried for years, but I don't get it or the anti-logic of it. I don't understand chemistry. I dislike the topic and avoid it. But neither of those topics are often on my list of things to understand or write about. It is everyday things that frustrate one the most. You want to tell someone that anyone with COMMON SENSE would get this, but common sense isn't common. There are people who lack it completely.

Some people are so committed to their way of viewing things that any statement that contradicts their point of view is wrong. There is no discussion and no effort to see the other side. Failure to communicate to such hardheads is disappointing but not surprising. Communicators must learn to go into the other person's assumptions and to come out with one's own. Grant the other side its point, then show how the point fits a larger and more expansive view. But that doesn't always work.

There are failures to communicate no matter how good we are. We should not try to take them personally, but who is going to believe that?

Sunday, September 26, 2004


What can 11 9-year-olds talk about for nearly 12 hours? I haven't the slightest idea, but I can attest to the fact that they can do it. My daughter had a sleepover for her birthday party and she and her friends talked all night long. I gave out about midnight and got up once about 1:45 am to calm the group down, but they kept talking.

As a working communicator, I find this dedication to chatting and gossiping interesting. There is a compulsion in the human animal to communicate: Silence is not golden. I suspect if I asked my daughter what she talked about, she wouldn't remember that much. (Actually, she is so tired that she isn't recalling anything right now. She will go to bed early tonight.)

I suppose it is not the substance of what everyone talked about so much as the bonding that went with it. These girls are likely to remain friends. They were friendly before the all night slumber party and after hours of chatting, they know each other better than before. Face-to-face communication is still the best form, as any communicator knows.

I went to bed, but I am exhausted. It will take a couple of days for me to recover from being a chaperone. That said, the 11 girls were well-behaved and a pleasure to have in the house. (I'm not sure I would do it again, however.)

Thursday, September 23, 2004


Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) is the rage, and one company after another is putting its telephone system into it because VOIP is less expensive and has advantages over a typical Private Branch Exchange (PBX) system. Most people don't know what VOIP is, however. This article, though technical, is about as good an explanation as you will find.

Why should PR practitioners know about VOIP? You may be using it and if not, there is a good chance you will be soon. Even major phone companies are moving into VOIP under the philosophy that if you can't lick 'em, join 'em.

Our family was an early adopter of VOIP about two years ago, and frankly, we didn't like it. We went back to analog lines because calls are clearer. No one claims VOIP is as consistently clear as a landline telephone call. The claim is that VOIP is as good as a typical cell phone call. That means one gets use to echoing and dropouts unless one is using a Virtual Private Network with matched routers. (You don't need to know what that means, but your calls are routed over a better-than-usual internet pathway.) We didn't want a system that sounded like a cell phone, but we may reconsider.

I have watched VOIP for about five years. We had a client who was an early purveyor of the technology when most companies were still saying it wouldn't work. Then along came Vonage and other providers, and opinions changed quickly.

With VOIP, every call on the internet is a local call even if you call around the world, and every extension is a local extension even if offices are thousands of miles apart. Moreover, if you unplug your phone, fly across country and plug it in again, your phone number and your calls follow you wherever you are. For these reasons, corporations want VOIP systems. It saves maintenance time.

Take a few minutes to skim the article, and you will understand why people are excited. Think how you might use VOIP in your client service.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Network-centric Relationships 

Broadband is changing the way we communicate to and maintain relationships with stakeholders. A complete shift is years away and depends on pervasive installation of existing technologies such as RFID tags (Radio Frequency Identification). But the outline of what is happening is in place. It is a matter of time before networks become prime media for communicating to customers, whether in a store or online; to communities, to traditional media, to shareholders, to vendors and to regulators. The task of the communicator will change from e-mail newsletters and calls to The New York Times to point-of-sale advice and information databases The New York Times will draw upon for reporting.

Content providers will be more important than communicators. Grocery store web pages already have nutritionists providing weekly columns. The nutritionist brings knowledge beyond good writing and speaking. Perhaps there is a communicator in the background doing the editing, but there is no gatekeeper function between expert and audience.

I am convinced many communicators today will not transition to network-centric communications. They won't know what to do, and they will fall by the wayside. Part of the difficulty they will have is that traditional media are not going away soon, so they will delude themselves into thinking there will continue to be work in techniques they know.

If there ever were a time for communicators to cross-train themselves in multiple online disciplines, this is it. We will need them soon enough.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Where the Jobs Went 

This is an old story but one that should not be passed over. The AP reported last week that an estimated 403,300 high tech jobs were lost after the bursting of the Internet Bubble. Several hundred of those were high-tech PR jobs. They haven't been replaced. The downsizing of high-tech PR threw the field for a loss. What intrigues me -- and others -- is that PR has not recovered.

We see tire kicking, but we don't see many new contracts. People think about PR but they don't budget for it. What worries me is that companies may have determined they can do without corporate PR for the time being. They are focused on selling products and services, and they have decided to let other things ride -- that is, until they get into trouble. There also seems to be less emphasis on supporting a company's stock price. The Street has edged sideways for months, and there is no great buying pressure. I suspect CEOs have turned their attention elsewhere, and this too has hurt PR programs. Finally, there is a reluctance among CEOs to be out front after the intense criticism business has received over the last four years.

So we dig dry wells and hope for water seepage on the bottom of the pit. It isn't fun.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Nifty Service 

Webex, the web conferencing service, has just started providing a new service that you should know about. It will tell you if anyone present at the conference has switched their computer into another program and is no longer paying close attention. So, for example, consider that fellow who plays solitaire in the foreground while listening to the conference in the background. You can catch him doing it. This smacks of Big Brother, but to put a positive spin on this news, it can keep presenters from getting too dull.

Read the following story for the full details.

Blogs and CBS 

Read this detailed history of how blogs brought down CBS and its forged memos. It's instructive and should be a lesson to PR practitioners, corporate communicators and anyone else protecting reputations. The blog universe can strike quickly and hard. Dan Rather didn't see it coming and neither did CBS.

More of the Same 

The previous note about elections parallels my reading -- a lengthy biography of Alexander Hamilton. Aaron Burr, it turns out, was the first effective campaign manager in New York City. He routed Hamilton's Federalists in state assembly elections through appealing to target segments and by breaking down a campaign into a logical exercise.

Hamilton, on the other hand, was a brilliant polemicist who answered every charge with more in return. He was a maker of noise and often, a successful one. In his defense, the Republicans, led by Jefferson and Madison, made as many irresponsible charges as Rush Limbaugh. They were shameless in their accusations, many of which they made up in their prolonged paranoia over Hamilton and his push for a strong Presidency.

The early years of the United States saw more vitriol than at any other time in American History except the Civil War. Indeed, both sides thought a civil war was about to occur.

Modern campaigning with its hellish noise and corrupted messaging has a precedent.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Election by Noise 

When is communication deliberately not communication? When there is an election. In a mythical world of rational elections, candidates communicate positions and voters make rational choices based on self-interest.

In the real world of elections, media confuse more than communicate -- exactly what they are supposed to do. No campaign really wants anyone to pay attention to issues. It is charge, counter-charge and imagery 24 hours a day distributed through every medium a campaign can afford to buy -- campaign appearances, TV, Radio, direct mail, billboards, lawn signs, bumper stickers, internet, telephone outreach, events, stunts, etc.

Modern campaigns are whirlwinds of message-sending through election day and in the sending, the message is lost. So, how do people determine who to vote for? They appear to form impressions of candidates based on a few less-than-credible elements and visuals. So campaign managers try to have their candidates present themselves in as many ways as possible to appeal to target segments.

I have worked on few campaigns so I cannot provide deep insight into what one does to win an election. But it was clear from the one campaign I did advise some years ago that others also don't know what to do. The people I counseled were clueless about how to handle the issue they were supporting. They rejected what they had to do in favor of advertising, some thing they knew well. They went down in flames.

This year, both Republicans and the Democrats are moving into personal, door-to-door appeals to individuals to vote. This is the machine electioneering that cities like Chicago used to employ. I know it works because a wardheeler showed at my door one day and asked how I was doing. I was impressed then and now.

It is interesting that with all the media in elections one needs to return to the oldest form of communication -- face-to-face.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Media Relations - Basics 

It seems like every time we meet a prospect we explain what we do for a living. Media relations are not that difficult, but no one understands why one needs a specialist or even if a company should talk to the media. So we trot out the same explanations over and over and try to give prospects some sense of what it is we do and why. I've grown tired of that, so I wrote this piece that is posted on online-pr.com under white papers and essays. You may use it at no cost other than telling people where you got it from.

Perhaps the simplest way to think about media relations is to think of ourselves as "concept salespersons." We peddle ideas to the media. That is not all we do, but when we are proactive that is exactly what we do. We sell a point of view that we back with facts and testimony from clients and others. Sometimes our cases are strong and self-evident. Sometimes they aren't. It is easier when concepts we sell are wrapped in products or services. It is harder when a concept is just that -- an idea not well tied to anything.

Read the piece and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Product Crisis 

Business 2.0 has been tracking in its blog a potential product crisis. Someone has claimed that he can open the U-shaped Kryptonite bike lock using a simple Bic pen. The individual made a video of what he did and posted it on his web site where it has been copied and sent to many places. Damon Darlin, the blogger at Business 2.0 thought the video was a fake, then he contacted the person who made it -- an engineer in San Francisco. The engineer said the video was real, and he learned how to open the lock from someone else.

Quick. You are the Kryptonite company. What do you do now that someone has alleged your locks don't lock? The lock is your franchise.

First of all, you have to know about the allegation. If your PR people have not been monitoring web sites and blogs, you're in deep trouble. Secondly, you need to find out if you can replicate what the video shows. For this, you gather your engineers in a room with locks and Bic pens, and you try to open the lock with a pen stuffed into it. If you succeed, you have a BIG PR and customer service problem. If you don't, you still have a PR problem. What do you say to the world of Kryptonite lock owners? You can't say much beyond the fact that the company can't replicate the video and is continuing to research the problem. Then, you contact the engineer in San Francisco and ask him to show you how he opened the lock. If he demurs, you can be suspicious. If he accepts gladly, you have a BIG problem.

A crisis like this might mean the company may have to replace millions of bike locks -- an expensive exercise. Few firms can afford it. Or, Kryptonite would have to find a low cost way to prevent the opening the lock with a Bic pen and get that solution to the field as soon as possible. Another expensive exercise. The worst thing the firm could do would be to ignore the problem and hope it will go away. It won't. Kryptonite can be sure people across America are stuffing Bic pens into Kryptonite locks and trying to open them. If even a few succeed, its market share will plummet.

It's an interesting product crisis with many PR implications. I wish I were working on it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Great Showcase 

First of all, apologies for yesterday's post. I was in no mood at 5:10 am to recreate a posting that Blogger had swallowed whole. I put down the main thought with no explanation and went to work. I should at some point go back and amplify the thought, but it won't be soon. I'm still burning over the way Blogger gets balky. Enough said.

General Electric is putting its money where its mouth is. It has created a showcase as well as wonderful PR for the company's medical technologies. This story details how the company has constructed a digital heart hospital in Tulsa, OK. The key to the story, it seems to me, is that doctors already are making rounds 30% faster than they did before, and the system is just gearing up. As it matures, the hospital will find more ways to save time and money.

Some months ago, I heard the CEO of GE, Jeff Immelt, say his company knows as much or more about health care as anyone because the company is deeply committed to medical technology. He indicated GE was going to do something about the healthcare crisis in the US in order to stop escalating costs. Well, he's doing it.

In fairness to the hospital and to the company, both have made it clear that only special hospitals today can afford GE's solution. It takes money to save money, and regular hospitals don't have cash. But GE is pioneering a way out of the crisis. Give the company credit.

Where is Grrrrr 

It is deeply annoying to have written a blog entry only to find that blogger upchucks and doesn't post it. That just happened with an entry about the leading digital web sites of the US state governments. I won't bother to recreate the post, but Maine was the leader and not a state that you would think, such as California. It seemed to me that this was a useful reminder to those who think they have a birthright to the use of the Internet. Now if I can only get this posted...

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Deja Vu 

With the touting of blogs as a new form of journalism, it is refreshing to find analogs in history that appear to indicate blogs aren't all that new. They are, perhaps, deja vu all over again. Here is a passage from the wonderful biography of Alexander Hamilton that I have been reading .

Like other newspapers of the 1790s, Freneau's National Gazette did not feign neutrality. With the population widely dispersed, newspapers were unabashedly partisan organs that supplied much of the adhesive power binding the incipient parties together. Americans were a literate people, and dozens of newspapers flourished. The country probably had more newspapers per capita than any other.... These papers tended to be short on facts -- there was little "spot news" reporting -- and long on opinion. They more closely resembled journals of opinion than daily newspapers.

That's a pretty good definition of many blogs. Nihil novum sub soli.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Amazing Admission 

The New York Times ran a story Thursday about Wal-Mart that contained an amazing admission. It should be a case study for every PR practitioner.

The CEO of Wal-Mart admitted in a conference held in Manhattan that the mega-retailer was responsible for its own image problems. Here is the key quote:

"What we found is that there is a different group of stakeholders today that are important and that is a person who's not familiar with Wal-Mart stores, they're not familiar with what we stand for. So their view of Wal-Mart stores is what they read in the newspaper and what they see on TV. We have decided it is important for us to reach out to that group."

PR 101, anyone? This was followed by a more striking admission from Mona Williams, the spokesperson for Wal-Mart.

For too long, we thought that if we just focused on our customers then everything else would follow. We probably did not realize soon enough how important it was to work with the media. It is an acknowledgement that the media and others offer important venues for telling our story, and we need to continue doing a better job at that.

In defense of Wal-Mart, it started out as a small-town retailer that followed the principles of its charismatic founder, Sam Walton. Sam died before Wal-Mart had grown into the giant that it is today. He didn't need to think much about the media when the company was smaller, so he ignored them. As Wal-Mart expanded, the size of the company became newsworthy and complaints against it grist for thousands of negative stories.

While one can be astonished at how long it took Wal-Mart to learn PR basics, give the firm credit for absorbing the lesson at last.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Offline and On 

I wrote the following this morning: "Something is happening to blogger. It is isn't posting well. There is an entry from last night called "Wikis once more" that is present in the log but doesn't appear on the page. Curious. I am going to try to post this to see if the problem is associated with the entry."

I couldn't get it posted or anything else, so I wrote the help line and the company was prompt in response. Here is what they wrote:

Hi there,
We apologize for the problems you have been experiencing with Blogger. We had a simultaneous failure across multiple machines responsible for the publishing of Blog*Spot blogs, but this issue has now been fixed. To prevent this type of outage in the future, we are performing a full system audit to ensure that proper redundancies are in place.
Blogger Support

So that is why you didn't see anything from me. We're back now to a regular publishing cycle, and my hat is off to support for a quick response

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Wiki Once More 

Reading through some blogs yesterday I as surprised that the topic of a Wikipedia had been a subject of discussion over Labor Day weekend. This story generally supports my view about the dangers of collaborative trust. The experimenter inserted false information into a wikipedia and waited for someone to correct it. No one did after five days.

This story from The Register casts a wickedly ironic eye on the whole proposition and concludes that a wiki is a potentially useful tool, but that's all. Finally, this entry from a fellow who should know better concludes that wikipedia's have newer and more factual entries than staid old encyclopedias. However, he chose entries that are likely to have updated information and he didn't choose entries that might not, such as cultural factors that go into winemaking.

While the case for a wikipedia is open, I remain skeptical of its overall value and of the value of any publication without a systematic editorial function.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Brilliant PR 

I've been reading a biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. The biography should go far to boost Hamilton's reputation as one of the most important of America's founding fathers, even with his faults.

What struck me is that Hamilton could go down as one of the most brilliant practitioners of public relations in American history and perhaps, in world history as well. He would earn this title solely on the strength of the Federalist Papers, the series of essays he wrote with Madison and Jay to defend the proposed constitution of the United States. Hamilton was a busy lawyer at the time that he penned them. He dashed many off while the newspaper printer waited at his elbow. Today, historians consider the Federalist Papers to be founding documents of American political culture and among the most valuable discussions of political philosophy ever.

Hamilton was an autodidact and a lawyer but he started out as a bold and convincing speaker and essayist on a number of matters, the first being a description of a hurricane and destruction it had wrought. He never lost his gift for persuasiveness and argument, and his positions were informed both by experience and deep study.

It would be nice to think that modern day PR practitioners emulated Hamilton, but I doubt that is true for most. At least in my experience, far too many practitioners wait until they are told what to say and then, they write it into a press release or a speech. They do not think for themselves or do their own research. In fact, they feel it is not their job to suggest to internal or external clients what to say. As a result, they limit themselves and their usefulness.

If you haven't read the Hamilton biography, get it. It can teach you more about PR than any number of public relations texts.

Can a Wiki Work? 

I am a slow learner, I guess. I have been reading about wikis for some time and haven't paid much attention to them. Essentially, they are, according to one online dictionary,

a server program that allows users to collaborate in forming the content of a Web site. With a wiki, any user can edit the site content, including other users' contributions, using a regular Web browser. Basically, a wiki Web site operates on a principle of collaborative trust.

The worm in the idea, it seems to me, is that last term "collaborative trust." There are multiple views of humanity. One is that humans as a whole are good, and one can trust them to act wisely. Another is that humans are self-interested and do not act objectively. This latter view was exemplified by President Reagan's quote concerning the Russians, " Trust but verify." Auditing systems are built on the same principle. One trusts another to guard money and make correct entries, but one also systematically verifies this is being done.

It seems to me that "collaborative trust" can fail where there is no systematic editing process. Depending on others to automatically verify is shortsighted. There are multiple reasons why this is so beyond self-interest. There might not be another who knows the facts as well as the original person who made the entry. Others "assume" this individual is correct. There might an individual who merchandises his or her view of events, whether or not this view is accurate. There might be a reliance on conventional wisdom. In other words, expressed views are "politically correct" but not necessarily right, and other views are not welcomed. This is also called "groupthink." There might be a general lack of interest in the material that has been published and error resides on the wiki unchallenged.

Despite all this, I think a wiki can work under controlled circumstances where there is incentive for individuals to get it right. Such a circumstance, for example, may exist in a newsroom where there are penalties for allowing error to creep into reports too frequently and in a corporate environment with similar sanctions. But, a wiki encyclopedia? That concerns me.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Tramping Through History 

I've spent the last week with the family tramping through history. We went to the founding English Colony of the New World -- Jamestown and its successor, Williamsburg, and then the battlefield that ended conflict with Britain -- Yorktown.

It was fascinating to see how communications worked in the past and lies passed off as truth. Jamestown and its environs were described as pleasant places to live with endless riches in natural resources. When the first settlers landed in 1607 on a peninsula of the James River, surrounded by swamps and filled with malaria and other diseases, six out of seven of all original settlers died within a year. About 90 years later, the capitol of the colony was moved 10 miles away uphill to Williamsburg where there were fewer swamps. The heat was and is unbearable. We were there on a late August day with the humidity standing at 100 percent and the temperature in the high 80s. Walking left one soaked to the skin. Still later, the capitol of Virginia was moved to Richmond, even farther up the James River where it is a bit cooler.

Communications were vital to the functioning of Williamsburg and there were examples of newspapers, posters and advertisements posted throughout the restored 18th Century town. At Yorktown, communications took less of a role other than a visual reminder to the trapped British from the French fleet just offshore that no provisions could reach the army, and the colonists and French who surrounded the British on land were going to win the day.

It was a fun and educational week and a reminder that communications and persuasion have always been important factors to the functioning of societies.

It is time to get back to work.

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