Sunday, February 29, 2004

Q.E.D, Cont. 

Last week I wrote about the inability of organizations to do the right thing. This is a constant problem in communications. CEOs can't bring themselves to do and say what it necessary to prevent bad press but they are upset when they get lousy stories, and they order the PR department to fix it.

Well, it's not just communications and not just CEOs either. Whole industries can refuse to do the right thing. This story from the San Francisco Chronicle is a perfect example. It is about a hospital in the San Francisco area that is pushing toward full computerization. This hospital has been a leader in computerizing its activities since 1971, and now, it is taking yet another major leap forward toward getting rid of paper and X-ray film. What the hospital found was that it makes less mistakes and saves money as well with an integrated computer system that extends from the patient through every department to billing.

But anybody who has worked in or around the hospital industry for the last decade and a half has known this. The industry just couldn't get around to doing it. Computerization costs money, but hospitals were losing money so they wouldn't computerize. The federal government, the states, the experts all told them that to control costs and to stop losing money, they have to move to technology integration. But, no, it didn't happen.

The story says that hospitals in California are beginning to move now in getting integrated technology into their wards, but one has to ask, "What took them so long?" It seems that the industry would rather cry about the steep costs that were holding it back than getting on with the solution. I'm sure a lot of PR practitioners were helping them weep too.

Saturday, February 28, 2004


I'm completing a paper on the limits of PR brought on by the flap over the Janet Jackson incident at the Super Bowl. It won't surprise anyone that what Jackson did was OK from the point of view of communications mechanics. It might have been stupid from the point of view of her audience, but that is yet to be known. Her audience was not most of the viewers that night. It was the young and daring. Jackson's misjudgment was to ignore those watching who have power over her career. She's learning that lesson now.

But that is not the point of this thought. The point is there is a broad spectrum of permissible communications within PR, some of which turns me off. As a practitioner, I don't have to like what other practitioners do, but I have to accept that they are allowed to do it and make a living in their own way.

So, they think Janet Jackson's stunt was stupendous. From one point of view, it certainly was. Would I ever advise a client to do that? The answer is no because it is highly unlikely I would ever have a client like that. We don't do entertainment PR.

The paper reviews what is permissible and what is advisable and produces no startling conclusions, but you might find it helpful in formulating your own advice to clients.

I'll have it up on the site soon.

Thursday, February 26, 2004


We attended a meeting yesterday during which several crises were affecting a client at the same time. It was chaos. The head of the organization was on the phone. People were dodging in and out of the conference room. Three different documents were under preparation, a fourth under discussion, and we were talking strategy for how to handle a touchy situation. Our client was unable to focus on any one item for more than a few moments before something else hit him.

In the middle of the bustle, it struck me that this was no way to do quality Public Relations. There is too much chance of making a mistake when pressure is this high. And, there were minor errors in the documents we looked at. Some were grammatical and easily fixed. One or two were tactical mistakes in handling the media.

When there are tough issues and short deadlines, one still needs time to think. Executing at high speed guarantees a less optimal solution. And such solutions have a tendency to create problems. The client had little choice in moving as fast as he did. There were absolute deadlines. But that meant the client was forced to make best-guesses and hip-shot decisions. He had no time for more.

Perhaps the hardest thing to do in situations like this is to slow down and take five minutes to go through a document carefully. Sometimes this means leaving the room. (We actually took two documents back to the office because there was no way we could edit them at the client without constant disruption.) Quality work requires reflection and patience to spot the misused word, the unfortunate phrase and tactical error.

Yet, some PR departments seem to be a center of chaos. That's not good. Not only does it burn out practitioners, but they also begin to satisfice, to make do, to let little things slip in order to meet deadlines. Over time quality slips and eventually one asks what happened to standards.


Apropos of the comment directly below, here is a link to a story about the Federal Reserve Chairman's remarks on Social Security. Everyone knows Social Security is broken but no one dare say it in public. Alan Greenspan at the age of 78 is apparently in an outspoken state of mind. Predictably in this election year, everyone condemned his remarks.

Neither the White House nor Presidential Candidate Kerry apparently knew what he was going to say. Both acted in a predictably craven manner and shouted that NO ONE is going to touch Social Security. Greenspan is right, of course, but his political clients are having none of his advice.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Doing the Right Thing 

Doing the right thing is easy. It is persuading the client to do it that is hard. This bit of wisdom was distilled from years of counseling and consulting. I was reflecting on it yesterday because of several situations our agency is handling.

The corollary for this wisdom is that a client almost always knows the right thing to do. Many consultants and counselors -- I among them -- have learned that the right answer to a client's challenge is almost always found within the client's organization. The problem is that the client hasn't been listening to the person(s) who proposes it. The client cannot believe this person(s) two or three levels down has the answer to a tough problem. A prophet is without honor in his own country.

A consultant has a marginally better chance of getting a client to listen because the client pays for the consultant. But, even a consultant faces a challenge. Sometimes one places personal credibility at risk in telling a client what to do. The client doesn't want to do it. There are 25 -- no, 26 -- reasons why it won't work. The consultant has to knock down the 26 reasons over time and get the client to act.

It is a matter of trust. If the client trusts you, the client usually goes along. If the client is doubtful, nothing happens. That is why the counselor and consultant work hard to maintain credibility. They must know when and where to pick battles, to know what to leave untouched and where to begin change. There are no formulae for this. It is a matter of judgment. Counselors and consultants who come in like bulls rarely succeed. They crush opposition, but they don't kill it, and it rises again silently to sabotage everything they try to do.

The most important person to convince is the CEO. If you have the CEO on your side, no one can stand in your way. If you don't, you are condemned to stutter steps of progress.

The right thing is often simple and evident. But, most of the time, the right thing doesn't get done.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004


We were discussing two communications departments yesterday and trying to figure out how they could run better if we had our way in reorganizing them. After a while, it struck me that no matter how they were organized, they wouldn't run better. There is a lack of managers who can integrate media.

We have media relations specialists, event specialists, issues specialists, web specialists, writers, promotions specialists and on and on. We don't have managers who have had experience in PR, IR, direct, advertising, Web, e-mail, etc. and who know how to put these disparate media together in powerful combinations that transmit messages effectively. In fact, as far as we could tell while talking the issue over, no communications discipline has that kind of managerial talent. This has been a sore point with the media conglomerates for years. They need account managers who integrate messages and media effectively: They don't have them.

This is why inclusion of the Web, among other disciplines, has moved slowly. Few understand how to integrate it into a media mix. That is also why our advertising brethren continue to rely on the 30-second spot and why PR practitioners like myself stay with pitching reporters at traditional media.

We don't have media integration: We still have media dis-integration. I wonder how long CEOs will put up with it before they look across disciplines for managers who can make communications run well.

We were trying to think where such individuals could be found. All we could agree upon is that they are unlikely to be in communications.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Luddites and Liberals 

Marketing Wonk, an interesting site that covers advertising, PR and marketing has an interesting, although inaccurate story that is worth reading. It is about the split among liberals over the value of technology. Some think technology -- the Internet -- is the new way to organize politically. Others think the Internet is the vanguard of Big Brother and evil globalization. Both groups coexist in the Democratic party with each having plenty to show to prove a point.

And, both use the Internet to make their points about technology -- ironical as that is.

Where I think Marketing Wonk has erred is describing this as a liberal standoff. It is no different in many walks of life where there are mixed feelings about what New Media have brought.

Regrettably, many PR people suffer from the dichotomy. They use the Internet because they have to, but they really don't like it. It's not a favorite tool or one to learn all that well. It's just there like gas that heats the house and electricity that turns lights on. They don't want to become a plumber or electrician. So, they are always in a fix when it comes time to change something in New Media. They have to find a Web plumber or electrician to tell them what to do, and they are hamstrung because they don't know the questions to ask. Hence, they never learn the medium. They follow and do what they are told.

Regardless of how you feel about technology. If you use it, learn enough about it to adapt it to client needs. That sounds simple enough, doesn't it?

How come so few do it?

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Interesting Idea 

Microsoft is funding a 7700-mile walking tour of US nature preserves that a young college graduate is undertaking. But here's the news. As the fellow takes pictures, he will record their location using Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. Thus, as he walks and when he is done, the world will have a precise record of where the fellow went and where exactly he took his pictures.

This might be a crazy idea but it struck me that such a system might be useful for anyone in travel PR. As travel writers move through a country, they can snap photos and take exact records of where they have been, so tourists can find their way later. Perhaps someone is doing this already. If so, I would like to hear about it. I certainly would like to have a GPS record of some places I've been and wouldn't know how to find again if I tried.

Microsoft will load the hiker's photos and GPS coordinates onto its World Wide Media Exchange (WWMX) that will link them to an exact location on a map, so people can follow along. Wouldn't it be neat if travel writing were that way today? One could open a Web site for the Carribean, for example and follow real-time, GPS-enabled travelogues of several islands to help figure out where to go for that much-needed winter vacation in warmer weather.

It's something to think about.


Wrong usage of words is the bane of PR practitioners who care about accuracy and good writing. To find that you have used the wrong word for some time is embarrassing. This happened to me last week in a meeting with my boss and a client. My boss used the word "factoids" to describe a listing of facts that we were thinking of using for a client. Then he said that he really shouldn't be using that word because it means a misleading fact. I objected as did two other of my colleagues who were present. "Factoid" means a short fact, we said. There is nothing misleading about it. My boss said he had checked it recently in the dictionary, and it does mean misleading. We said we would consult our own dictionaries rather than his and prove him wrong. The client was grinning throughout.

Well, my boss was right. "Factoid" does refer to a misleading use of facts. I don't know why I never knew that, but I didn't. It bothered me for two straight days so I went back to the online dictionaries again and checked once more. It turns out that a secondary and less preferred meaning is a "short fact." So I was one-quarter right and three-quarters wrong. Interestingly, the old Webster's Second Edition that I have at home doesn't have "factoid" at all.

Saturday, February 21, 2004


I am late in finding this but there is a terrific web site writers should know about. It is a survey and maps of American dialect that focuses on the use and pronunciation of words and phrases. For example, how do you pronounce the word "aunt?" The site shows the different vocalizations and a map of where they occur, including a percentage weighting of how it is pronounced. What are the three pronunciations of the word "been?" The site shows you those and where they are concentrated in the U.S. The site covers 122 words and phrases that differ across the country.

If you are writing speeches or anything else meant to be read aloud, this is a good site to know.

Thursday, February 19, 2004


There are cases of miscommunication that are beyond absurd and deserve a place in history. While reading about arctic exploration last night, one popped up that deserves mention. The book is Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909.

The story concerns the first English explorers sent north along the west coast of Greenland to look for a passage to Russia. They took with them an Eskimo guide who sketched pictures of what he was witnessing. Two ships worked their way through ice floes to the far northern tip of Greenland where they discovered an Eskimo village called Etah. The Eskimos in Etah had never seen white men before nor ships, which they thought were large birds. They had never seen mirrors nor glass nor anything else of England of 1818. A picture of the scene the Eskimo guide drew shows English sailors in cockaded hats, tails and riding boots walking on the ice with the newly discovered Eskimos backing away from them. (No one had thought of sending explorers to the North with cold weather gear.)

Not knowing how to introduce himself to terrified Eskimos, the captain chose a "universal" symbol of peace -- a white flag with a hand holding an olive branch. There were only a few things wrong with this communication. The Eskimos had no idea what a white flag meant. They had never seen an olive branch. In fact, they had never seen a tree because there are none that far north. Fortunately,the captain realized his mistake and offered gifts the Eskimos could understand.

This incident occurred in 1818, but the lesson is relevant. Let's use a too-common example. Every discipline has its own jargon. If you have ever listened to engineers talking to one another, it is almost impossible to understand their shorthand, acronyms and concepts. You are the Greenland Eskimo and they the visiting English.

There isn't a single discipline in business that works differently. The language and concepts of the discipline erect barriers against outsiders. Sometimes this is deliberate. More often than not, it is the result of unintentional veering from common speech. I have written before that PR practitioners are translators between business and target audiences. Frequently, we are translators internally too between disciplines that do not understand each other. As translators we must learn specialized languages and be able to explain ideas simply and clearly in common dialect. This can be hard work.

The amusing part of the 1818 episode is that the English sailed away thinking the Eskimos were ignorant savages. The Eskimos, however, were dressed warmly and had lived for hundreds of years in the deep cold. The English, on the other hand, continued to visit the arctic in normal dress for decades and never learned how to dress for survival. Who was dumber?

Wednesday, February 18, 2004


There are pseudo-beliefs in PR -- principles that practitioners believe must not be broken for a company to communicate well. Unfortunately, most of these beliefs are wrong -- or limited in scope. In fact, some companies do not need to communicate much at all except to customers, and they do well.

It was early in my PR work that I learned this lesson the hard way. I was part of an agency that performed communications audits for companies as a way to get more business. A company pays you to tell it what is wrong with its communications, then you sell the company a program to fix it.

We were engaged by a firm called Central Soya, an agricultural company that was in a bevy of businesses from grain trading, grain transport, chicken growing and processing, feed production and international entities. Central Soya was headquartered in a high-rise building in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was a drab place with peeling linoleum floors and gunmetal gray desks. Even in the headquarters building one could not find out all the company did. For some reason, the CEO said he would pay for a low-cost audit, so I was sent to several of its US locations to interview employees and to learn what they knew about Central Soya.

I traveled the length of Indiana, visited Ohio and ended up in Athens, Georgia where Central Soya had a feed plant, million-egg chicken hatchery and a chicken processing plant that turned hens into cold-pack fryers ready for the oven. The head of the plant sent an employee to me to interview who was a terrified looking man, grizzled, horn-handed and inarticulate. He never spoke a complete sentence during the interview. And, while I didn't know for sure, it was possible he was illiterate. The interview was a failure. When I asked him what he thought of Central Soya, the only answer I got was "Good Cmpee."

I collected all the interviews, returned to my office in Chicago, penned the audit results and wrote a plan for better employee communications. (No one knew anything about their own firm.) We took the plan to Fort Wayne and presented it to the CEO. The CEO never looked at it. We never got the business either. He was content that no one in Central Soya knew what anyone else was doing as long as customers were happy. And, he wasn't much worried about employee and customer loyalty either. He could always get more low-wage workers for his chicken processing plant, and since Central Soya owned the most grain barges on the Mississippi River, elevator owners had to deal with him.

That episode taught me to examine PR principles with deep skepticism. It was years later that my re-examination became my first book, Integrating Corporate Communications.

Most business specialties have pseudo-beliefs and not just PR. The point is that we should challenge our thinking before others do it for us.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

I've Said This Before 

I've written before that I'm not afraid of media consolidation in the US because blogs have the potential of filling in gaps the media miss. And there is evidence to indicate I might be right. Here is an example of a weblog site that is doing just that. It is New Jersey Weblogs, a site that is attempting to cover the state through bloggers who take a town or sport or other topic and follow it. In essence, they are reporters in a blog set up like a newspaper existing only online.

Will efforts like this succeed? Many won't but some will and enough should be around to fill in where major media leave gaps. I note, however, that at least one blog I examined seemed to be rehashing news from the newspaper with only occasional references to other sources. This will have to change in the long run for such blogs to succeed. Why should someone come to a local blog to read news rehashed from the newspaper? Bloggers need to develop their own sources and stories to make their blogs compelling reading. When they do that, they also will be compelling targets for PR practitioners.

It is not clear what will work and what won't with blogging. I'm convinced blogs that carry new content have a better chance of surviving than blogs that don't. Hence, blogs like mine are an endangered species in the long run. Our only salvation is to find news in places that target readers don't normally look. Hence, I read publications that are out of the realm of most PR practitioners -- economics, technology, politics, law -- and I try to find instances that demonstrate PR principles or sins.

I have avoided rehashing news from the PR industry, although I find that news interesting. Others do it better than I do.

Take some time to read through the various entries in New Jersey Weblogs. It might give you ideas for how to use blogs in your own organization. For example, each major department keeps a blog that is reported to a central intranet site and functions like an internal newspaper.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Political Correctness 

I've been researching the limits of what one can say in PR, and I happened on the "seven filthy words" routine of George Carlin that ended up at the Supreme Court because it was broadcast over radio. The seven banned words 30 years later are hardly shocking. Well, one or two might still cause a titter. But, it shows a shift in standards of acceptability since the court case was decided.

Political correctness is a strange force. There are things we don't talk about because we don't. We should talk about them but if we do, everyone rises to arms. That is the fate of Janet Jackson who showed a boob at the Super Bowl. One simply doesn't do that at the Super Bowl. MTV is OK and late night television but not the Super Bowl and not in prime time in the US. Silly, isn't it? Outsiders coming to the US are more amazed by what is prohibited than what is allowed. I met once Australians who could not believe women were not allowed to show breasts on prime time TV in the US. They told me the US was "sex, rugs and rock and roll," so it couldn't be true that women are not allowed to appear half-naked, as they do in Australia.

Wouldn't it be easier if we addressed all subjects? Well, no. There are subjects that spark tension -- such as racism or anti-Semitism. So, even though taboo aspects of these subjects deserve serious examination, they don't get it. And, as PR practitioners, we tiptoe around them as if they aren't there.

No matter what I might write and no matter how I might couch what I write, someone will take it amiss. The problem is that I as a practitioner do not have the credibility to address inflammatory subjects: Others do. They are the ones who should ask hard questions, and they aren't -- at least not in the popular press. So we just don't talk about certain things like a family that overlooks an alcoholic uncle. We might say old Charlie has had his troubles, but we never confront Charlie and tell him to get help.

Something About Me 

An Australian publicist by the name of Greg Tingle contacted me the other day and asked to interview me online. Tingle runs a firm called Media Man Australia. I said yes, but I'm not much in favor of talking about my career. Anyway, Tingle has published my comments on his Web site and they are here if you have interest in reading them.

I'm of the belief that PR people are more like Polonius than the Danish king. They promote others but not themselves. However, I'm wrong. Successful publicists understand that name awareness is essential to getting business, and they work hard, as Mr. Tingle is doing, to stand out from the crowd.

If I seemed flip in answering his questions, I apologize. I believe the answers are accurate and several are preceded by "I don't know." The stories are true, especially the one about how I got started in the business. It was easier to get into PR in the 1970s than it is now. And yes, I was that dumb about business then.

History of Hype, cont. 

A common error in histories of modern publicity is to trace its beginnings to the early part of the 20th Century. We know, of course, this isn't remotely true. Agencies started at that time but promotion and publicity are as old as humans. This is why I like to highlight examples of promotion that pre-date the 20th Century and to show how anything done in the 20th Century had clear predecessors.

The following is a passage about a publicist from "The Devil in the White City," a marvelous history of Chicago's World Columbian Exposition of 1893 combined with a lurid tale of a psychopath. The publicist was a fellow named Sol Bloom, a young man from San Francisco who was sent to Chicago after showing his talent for hyping theater in California. Bloom took over all the concessions at the Chicago Exposition and ran them brilliantly with one stunt after the next to increase crowds. But, while the fair was still under construction, he proved valuable as well as a hypster. In fact, he was a model of what modern entertainment publicists would become. Here is the passage:

Bloom's knack for promotion caught the attention of other fair officials, who came to him for help in raising the exposition's overall profile. At one point he was called upon to help make reporters understand how truly immense the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building would be. So far the exposition's publicity office had given the press a detailed list of monumental but dreary statistics. "I could tell they weren't in the least interested in the number of acres or tons of steel," Bloom wrote, "So I said, "Look at it this way -- it's going to be big enough to hold the entire standing army of Russia.'"

Bloom had no idea whether Russia even had a standing army, let along how many soldiers it might include and how many square feet they would cover. Nevertheless the fact became gospel throughout America. Readers of Rand, McNally's exposition guidebooks eventually found themselves thrilling to the vision of millions of fur-hatted men squeezed onto the building's thirty-two are floor.

Bloom felt no remorse.

Has our business changed all that much?

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Why We Need PR 

I happened a few days ago on a blog that carried a letter from a 1st Lieutenant who is serving as a public affairs officer in Iraq. His comments about the news media are worth reading. I'm noting one point he made because I find it true in my experience. Here is what he wrote:

The accuracy of news reporting is affected by the fact that most reporters
are very poorly read on the subjects they are covering. Given that the
storyline is planned/ written before they show up (only dates/names need be
inserted) there is little motivation for them to actually become educated on
the world they are supposedly depicting.

Another major contributor to inaccuracy is most reporters are only in
country for a month at a stretch. Though some embedded reporters were around
long enough to establish a rapport with their units (during the war, before I
got here) that is no longer the case. Media embedded during the war were
learning at the same rate as their soldier escorts -- Iraq and warfighting was
new to everyone so there was little room for one to call the other
"inaccurate". These were also higher paid, more famous correspondents.

In post-war Iraq, reporters show very little interest in getting a story
right to a T. "Close enough" reporting is the norm. After all, does the
American public really care if CNN calls a Bradley Fighting Vehicle an M1? Or
if there were 13 detainees taken instead of 10? The American public probably
doesn't care and the story is close enough to not be called a lie. These minor
deficiencies in the facts are important however because they show a lack of
scholarship on the reporters' behalf.

Soldiers like to see themselves on TV but they also like to see things
broadcast correctly. When things are incorrect, it feeds their belief that the
reporters are reporting only what they want to report. This lessens soldiers'
overall hospitality towards the media and -- given enough time -- causes them to
leave camera crews standing in the motorpool.

Lack of understanding sums my own experience with reporters and why PR practitioners are essential to help them get stories right. Reporters are better educated than they ever have been. They don't understand not just because they have no motivation to do so but also because they have frequent deadlines and have little time to reflect on their craft. The job of PR practitioners is to guide them into a proper view of what they see, to give them context, to supply facts so reporters write accurately.

It is true employees are depressed and disappointed when they see inaccurate representations in the media. And, they do develop grudges against reporters. Sometimes, these are not warranted: Often, they are. As PR practitioners we have to fight the "they're-out-to-get-us" mentality and convince employees to continue to cooperate.

That is what this 1st Lieutenant is doing in Iraq. His job is tougher than mine.

Slow To Report But Still Amazed 

I was late to report the Ad Age story below, but I am still amazed by it. It is a perfect justification of the "end justifies the means." Stunts are a legitimate and creative way to gain attention for a person, product, service or brand. But there are limits beyond which one damages the person, product, service or brand.

The response I've always used to those who say any publicity is good pubicity is this. "Here's a pistol. Go down to the street and gun down everyone you see. You will get all the publicity you want. It might not be the right kind of publicity, but you'll get it."

The PR practitioners who praised Janet Jackson's stunt have confused the end and means. Or, they have so little understanding that they don't know there is an end and means. Perhaps they missed Ethics 101.

To those who would say that "it was just a boob," I agree that it was, and there are far more salacious things to worry about, especially on the Internet. But, the "boob" was out of context much like the couple who performed a sex act in a cathedral last year while it describing it to two 'shock-jock" radio DJs as a gag. Civilization depends on civility. There are self-imposed limits for the good of all. Freedom does not mean one is free to do anything.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

The Business We Are In 

I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw a headline yesterday in Advertising Age. The story was worse. Here it is in its entirety with a link to the site so you can see for yourself I am not making this up.

'It Raises the Bar for All of Us,' Says Executive
February 09, 2004
By Claire Atkinson
NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- For those in the business of masterminding
public-relations stunts for marketers, Janet Jackson's big expose during
CBS's airing of the Super Bowl has raised a serious issue: how to top it.

For James LaForce, partner in New York PR agency LaForce & Stevens, the
Jackson episode was "extremely successful. ... We love stunts at our agency
and she opened the door for more people to take risks," he added. "It raises
the bar for all of us."

A stunt 'gone right'
Whatever the impact on advertisers, CBS and the National Football League,
few in the PR field think the stunt harmed Ms. Jackson. Desiree Gruber,
president of Full Picture, a PR management company that counts Lisa Marie
Presley and Arnold Schwarzenegger as clients, agreed it was a stunt gone
right for Janet, and a stunt gone wrong for everyone else, but so what if
she upstaged the advertisers?

"Janet is a brand, just as much as a Frito-Lay is," Ms. Gruber said. "Where
does a brand begin and end? She sells and she sells directly to the public."

Mr. LaForce thinks that it will be discussed for years to come. In terms of
coverage, Ms. Jackson certainly overshadowed the main event, both the game
and the commercials. According to media research firm CARMA International,
Washington D.C., Ms. Jackson garnered twice the number of U.S. press
mentions as the commercials in the four days following the event, though
much of that coverage was driven by the Federal Communications Commission
investigation of the incident.

Album release
The "costume reveal" also catapulted Ms. Jackson into search-engine record
books, conveniently just weeks in advance of her first album in three years,
Damita Jo. According to janet-jackson.com, one of the singles from the album
was released to radio stations around the globe on Feb. 2 -- the day after
the Super Bowl. Ms. Jackson is also planning a world tour and is starring as
singer Lena Horne in an upcoming ABC special.

Said Andy Morris, principal at Andy Morris & Co., a New York PR firm that
works closely with the music industry: "It is the ultimate stunt. I don't
see any downside for her. It fits perfectly with the new CD that's about

Howard Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein & Associates, however, is taking
steps to ensure his agency doesn't receive any backlash from media outlets
covering PR stunts in the future.

'Can it backfire?'
"It has absolutely changed a lot of things about how we do stunts," Mr.
Rubenstein said. "Right now we are asking ourselves: Can it backfire in any
way? Can anyone be injured, will it insult anyone, does it make fun of
people with a defect, is it over the edge sexually? Now PR people will have
to be very cautious."

Mr. Rubenstein, who at one time represented Michael Jackson, is asking his
staff to be wary if stunts might cause the company to be punished or barred
by the media. In fact, Ms. Jackson was originally scheduled to perform on
Feb. 8's Grammy Awards show, also on CBS, but at press time, her appearance
was in doubt.

Peter Himler, a managing director at Burson-Marsteller, a WPP Group company,
said he thinks such stunts are overrated.

"So many firms are about creating short-term PR or publicity or buzz and
forget that the best way to build your brand is to produce a quality
product," he said. Burson represents consumer marketers such as
Hewlett-Packard, McDonald's Corp. and Coca-Cola Co.

'Boobs conquer everything'
One PR executive representing a Super Bowl advertiser said the stunt smacked
of desperation and that the public was left feeling manipulated. An
exasperated music publicist, who did not wish to be named, said simply:
"Boobs conquer everything from the networks to the media to corporate

So you can check me out, here is the link.

If the PR firms that approved of the stunt are right, Frank Sinatra should have exposed himself while performing and Ella Fitzgerald performed a strip tease. But they didn't have to because they could sing and hold an audience with their sense of music and meaning.

What's happened to the music industry and to the PR firms that serve it?

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Clever Idea 

Sometimes the best PR ideas are the simplest. Here is one that caught my attention in the past week that is brilliant. It is a webcam and software system that lets college students know if a laundry room is full of students doing their wash. This solves an longstanding problem of students lined up with baskets full of dirty underwear and socks waiting their turn with exams looming in the morning.

The outfit that thought of this idea is a company in Cambridge, MA that installs and runs laundry rooms nationwide in 400 colleges and universities. The company used a web browser that allows students to go online and check every laundry room in the vicinity. The name of the service is called, appropriately, "Laundryview." Added to this service is software that tells the operational status of every machine in a room -- broken, operating, in use and in what cycle, if in use. And, the system will e-mail a student when the student's laundry is done so the student can retrieve it. (How many remember finding their laundry dumped on a table or the floor because they didn't get it out of a machine fast enough?)

The system works because the company can connect it right into a university's broadband communications system, which every institution of higher learning has these days. According to the news story I read, some students open a little window on their laptops while studying so they can keep an eye on the laundry room. The next step for the company is to get rid of quarters for washing machines and dryers and to move to electronic payment cards that tie to debit cards students use in universities now.

What do I find this interesting? The problem of waiting in line is as old as a college laundry room. It is one of those annoyances that students adjusted to because they thought it could never be fixed. This company with an eye to public relations and customer service has potentially solved the problem once and for all. Ideas like this are good business and great PR.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Customer Service - Bah! 

No matter how hard a company works at public relations, it can throw it all away in its call center, as a firm was doing to me tonight. I called to make a change in some vital information. The phone answers, I get music and a cheery voice telling me someone will answer my call shortly. Ten minutes later, the music tape has repeated and the cheery voice continues to tell me someone will answer my call shortly. Finally, a voice answers without the least apology for the wait. And, companies wonder why customers think their service stinks...

PR practitioners are tempted to say call centers aren't their problem because they don't run call centers. But it is their problem because PR deals with relationships with publics, and relationships cross all contacts a company has with its publics. If your call center stinks, your relationships stink. All the press releases that you might write cannot cover up the failing.

Most companies understand this, but some don't. They see a call center as an efficiency process and not a service point. They talk about numbers of calls and queues and answering rates, but they fail to turn this into the feeling of customers left hanging while getting more and more frustrated.

Some companies do understand call centers and are wonderful to work with. The phone rings and a voice is on the line almost before one is ready. Conducting business is swift and courteous. The operator knows to make suggestions and to inquire for needed data. There is no hemming and hawing and waits while the operator looks something up. Of course, this requires a lot of machinery behind the scenes to make it sound easy, but that is what call centers should do.

Here is something for you to try. If you have a call center, dial it twice a month and listen for the reception you get. If it is anything like I experienced tonight, you have a PR problem. Tell your CEO to fix that first before launching the next major PR initiative.

Renaissance Spin 

The Renaissance pope, Julius II, was equal to anyone today in the craft of spin. At least, that is my conclusion from reading a wonderful history of Michelangelo and his painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

This book is worth your time. It is Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King (Penguin Books).

How did the Pope buff his image? He kept a preacher by him who was skilled in finding passages in scripture that foretold this Pope was to be the salvation of Italy, of the Church, of (name here). He was careful to have his portrait painted into some of the finest frescoes ever done. (His house painter, Raphael, was eager to oblige.) He saw himself as the embodiment of the revival of Rome as a powerful city and stop for pilgrim tourists. (Rome was a garbage pit at the time.) He was one of the only popes to command an army, attack in battle and project his image as a "warrior." (He wasn't much of a general or anything else militarily.) He spent vast sums on the arts to make the Vatican look pretty and the artists he hired were only too eager to pay homage.

Much of the great art at the Vatican today stems from this pope. So, he has a place in history because of that. He also has a place (in the opinion even of some contemporaries) in hell. Modern popes do not resemble him thankfully. But, there is a lesson in his art of personal publicity.

Sunday, February 08, 2004


I found this news about a week ago. It caused me to think about employee relations, leadership and the web.

Computer Sciences Corporation, (NYSE: CSC) the global information technology firm has a group that apparently took away workers' vacations for a second year in a row by imposing a freeze. Or so The Register reported. Why? Because workers apparently haven't met company goals. Here is the memo The Register reprinted.

The San Diego Regional Center is not meeting our fiscal year productivity and therefore causing a negative impact to the GTS financial objectives. There are some actions that must be taken.

1. Effective immediately, SDRC is freezing all vacations for billable employees through the end of our fiscal year, April 2, 2004.

If you currently have an approved vacation, contact your CTM, Delivery Manager, Captain to establish alternate dates or justify extenuating circumstances. If you are uncertain if you are billable or non-billable, contact your CTM, Delivery Manager, Captain .

2. Please be certain to complete TES accurately each week. And, comply with our policy to report all hours worked.

3. Review your own productivity over the past 9 months. Your CTM, Delivery Manager, Captain can help you with this.

4. Are your labor adjustments, if any, fully executed. Did you miss a day in labor recording and never corrected it.

I encourage everyone to pay particular attention to the details of self management to improve your productivity as part of your daily routine.

I thank everyone in advance for your support in helping this Center and GTS to achieve our goals.

To take away vacations once is a way to gain workers' attention. I understand that. To freeze vacations twice is a sign something is wrong somewhere. It is a wrong communication. Either goals are too high, or there is a fundamental leadership/organizational problem that should have been addressed by now. I wonder if an employee relations person was consulted in writing this memo. I suspect not. Or, if there was a communicator involved, he or she failed to explain how the organization missed goals without an examination of the manager, the job and personnel.

How should this memo have been written? Maybe there is no better way that maintains credibility with employees missing vacations. On the other hand, I would have spent more time explaining why the department is missing its productivity goals and what the department is doing to reach them in the future. Perhaps, this was done in another context, and the memo was taken out of that framework.

The author should realize that internal documents filter to the Web these days, and one is not just writing for an immediate group but for others who are not part of the intended group.

The upshot? CSC has created a credibility problem for itself that has been exposed to all of The Register's readership and likely, many more than that.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Have You Noticed? 

Have you noticed that the same stories written about Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean are now being scribbled about John Kerry? Who is John Kerry? Can Kerry be stopped? Is Kerry untouchable? It's as if reporters simply tore the headlines off Dean stories and slapped new ones on with Kerry's name.

How quickly perception changes! I'm sure Dean's people are still asking themselves how it could have gone so bad so quickly. After all, this is the candidate who around Christmas time was no longer running against the other Democratic candidates but against George Bush because, well, because his nomination for President was all but locked up.

All organizations can suffer turnarounds as quickly, and they should be ready. When the shuttle Challenger burned up entering the atmosphere, NASA went from an agency that had rehabilitated itself to a bungling bureaucracy that seems incapable of learning safety. It happened in 15 minutes -- the time it took to confirm the falling meteor was Challenger and not an extraterrestrial phenomenon. Exxon went from a mighty oil company to environmental monster in the minute it took the ship to gut its bottom on the rocks. In the Super Bowl, Janet Jackson ruined her reputation in less than five seconds.

This is not a meditation on crisis communication. It is a reflection on the fragility of credibility. We like to think at our company that we have built credibility with the media over years of working with them and doing what we say we will do. Yet, last Monday, a guest who was to appear on a TV show failed to show up and suddenly, we were idiots. It was not our fault the guest didn't show, but that makes no difference. We had arranged for the guest, so we had better produce the individual. As far as I know, the producer of the show has forgiven us, but it had better not happen again. Of course, we won't use this guest again. He broke the rules: His credibility is shot.

Never mess with your personal or organizational credibility. The consequences are too great.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

I Don't Like Anybody Very Much 

The whole world is festering
With unhappy souls.
The French hate the Germans
The Germans hate the Poles.
Italians hate Yugoslavs
South Africans hate the Dutch
And I don't like anybody very much.

Lyric by Sheldon Harnick

This long-ago comic song about world rivalries has been echoing in my mind as I think about the state of communications departments. They are just that -- warring states. They don't get along. Corporate communications hates IR. IR hates them back. Marketing doesn't like either. All three hate the external agency. The only one who can get them to work together is the CEO, and the CEO is frequently distracted with something called business.

In my years in PR, I have rarely had an occasion in which I could talk comfortably with an IR person. And, I started in IR. The IR person felt as long as I stayed away from analysts and the IR person avoided media, everything would be fine. Our agency has tried to explain again and again that reporters talk to analysts and vice versa, so a company should not isolate the two groups. We haven't sold that idea yet. Frequently, we have found the case where marketing doesn't trust corporate communications. Corporate communications won't share information with marketing and vice versa. We've again explained that both have a common interest in sending a consistent message to the same audience -- the consumer. We might as well talk to a post.

There is no reason for such professional jealousy in a well-run operation, but it is there, and it won't go away. One cannot extract human nature from humans. It is a test of a CEO's leadership to get the three pulling in the right direction. I haven't met many CEOs who have been able to pull that off.

So we end up singing the lyric, "I don't like anybody very much." It's a pity and it's sad. It wastes tremendous amounts of time. It slows understanding and execution. It infuriates CEOs who cannot understand why their communications departments are so uncoordinated.

Couldn't we all just get along? (Rodney King)

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

I Told Me So 

Sure enough, plenty of things went wrong with the event but even so, it was successful as far as I could tell, and we had a good turnout.

What happened? Let me count the ways. At the last minute, the club shifted the meeting room. As we walked over to setup at 4:30 p.m. torrents of icy rain fell and chilled us to the bone. (There are no cabs in New York when so much as one raindrop falls.) The checkout table was misplaced as was the coat rack. The video camera did not have a long enough cable to plug into the mux box. There were other glitches as well that we had not anticipated.

All in all, a typical event. So we went about fixing each problem while a client watched over us and made suggestions. We had everything in order about 15 minutes before the seminar was to start, but we couldn't do anything about the rain. It was gushing outside. I began to tote numbers mentally of those who were making their way to the train to go home rather than to the seminar.

Sure enough, we lost a lot of people, but serendipity took over. Walk-ins began to show. The number of unregistered walk-ins nearly equaled those who failed to come. We ended up with 80 people in the room.

The clients are wonderful speakers, and they did not disappoint. I waited until the Q&A and left to go home. (I was suppose to go earlier, but delayed.)

As any event planner can tell you, there is always something that can go awry. I told myself that time and again while getting ready for this seminar. I wasn't disappointed.

Monday, February 02, 2004


Our agency is putting on an event tomorrow in Midtown Manhattan that will involve three clients. We have gone over every detail, drawn diagrams, made signage, ordered food, checked and rechecked registration, written and revised a script, etc. Nothing can go wrong, right? Ha!

Tomorrow night, of course, is the multi-state primary in which Presidential candidate John Kerry will take a big lead over Howard Dean -- or he won't. Tomorrow night in Manhattan, we are supposed to have combinations of rain, ice, sleet and snow. Tomorrow night or before, we might find our speakers cannot get in from places like Boston and Atlanta because airports are shut down. In other words, there is plenty of room for nerves until the affair is over.

Strangely, I have been calm. (A colleague won't agree with this observation. I'm sure he thinks I've asked the same questions too many times.) But really, I've been calm. I haven't had a sleepless night. The affair has come together thanks to the work of this colleague. I've been on the periphery and a kibitzer.

So why should I care? I've seen what can happen: It has happened to me.

There was the time we were to introduce a new racing car on behalf of a client only to find the freight elevator that was to lift the car to the hotel ballroom was broken. The car was at the loading dock and the hotel hands were going to leave it there. There was a time we had an outdoor event in Chicago in the Spring (A fatal combination.) The day was so cold and foggy, the event was disaster. There was another event when I discovered no one on a dining room staff spoke English and could not take directions from the client. (Fortunately, my Spanish was passable then.) And there was an event in which a client flew a concept car to New York to appear on the NBC-TV Today Show while the CEO of the company explained the wonderful things the car could do. Unfortunately, the CEO showed up, and told me he knew nothing about the car. I leapt into the driver's seat, figured out knobs and dials and trained the CEO five minutes before he went on national television.

Murphy's Law applies to events. There is always a reason to get nervous because things can -- and will -- go wrong. You just hope they are not fatal mistakes.

I started a history of Michelangelo and his painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling last night. It is a reminder that great artists can exhibit unfortunate behavior. Michelangelo was convinced everyone was out to get him. I suppose those around Michelangelo accepted his paranoid style -- or left. In PR work, one learns to endure personalities whom one would not take for a friend -- or lose an account.

Sunday, February 01, 2004


Public relations is not comfortable with history. We work in the present. We don't seek advantage for what has occurred but for what is to come. But, sometimes history is essential. We should know the background of a story to handle it correctly. We shouldn't rely on spin to make a story go away or to help people forget the truth.

These thoughts came to mind as I finished a disturbing history of the Russian prison system called Gulag by historian, Anne Applebaum. Applebaum notes at the end of this deeply researched record of evil that many Russians want to forget the past, even as the past continues to distort the country and its ability to make progress. It is as if millions of Russians have washed their memories to wipe out millions more who were unjustly accused, falsely imprisoned, worked as slaves in prison camps and starved to death. She says at the end of her book that this is unfortunate because mistreatment will happen again: It is only through remembering that we can stop dictators before they gain power.

Thinking about her plea, it was easy to transpose it to commerce. Enrons will happen again as will WorldComs and Parmalats and Tycos. The only way we can prevent unethical CEOs from gaining power is by educating everyone in the history of abusive capitalism. We must not forget, but, sadly, we do.

Public relations practitioners who wipe out the past help to repeat it. When we work without remembering the ills of the economic bubble and self-dealings of many, we help a new generation of unethical leaders get rich at the expense of investors.

We forget that capitalists are not that ethical anyway in pursuit of wealth. Business is amoral. That is why drug cartels continue to flourish, as well as slave trading and prostitution rings. The Gulag, Applebaum reminds us, was the reason we fought the Cold War. Forgetting Stalin's prisons means the Cold War was in vain. It wasn't, and neither should be imprisonment of corporate executives who abuse power.

Still Getting Used To This.  

I'm at an age when trying something new electronically causes jitters. Years ago with the first PCs and networking, I worked through technical difficulties by the hour. Since Bill Gates changed Windows into a registry in the 90s, I have been cautious with operating systems. With the Internet, I have not taken time to learn Java or Perl or even HTML well. I just want to use it.

Conversion to Blogger was not difficult. I twiddled until I figured out what to do. The hard part was learning I could not ftp to my Web site. The boring part was tailoring changes to pointers. Still, it took about three hours to get it all done -- most of which was missteps.

The next part will be working the new system into daily ritual. I do not only write this blog. I care for the main website -- online-pr.com. This means adding and deleting links, writing and adding papers, etc. The blog started as an addition to online-pr.com three years ago when I worried that no one realized I update online-pr.com daily. My thinking was that I would add a thought each day to show I keep the site fresh. The thought turned into a journal and then, this blog. I did not know the word "blog" when I began. It was after weeks of writing and then, researching blogs that I realized what I was doing had been done since the mid-90s.

However, blogs have evolved. They started as quick diary entries with pointers as many blogs still remain. They have evolved into essays and commentary. I began with pointers and moved to commentary. Commentary helps me rethink issues and rethinking leads to essays that I post on online-pr.com. The commentary and essays educate me on communications issues and keep me up to date.

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