Thursday, March 31, 2005

Not There 

It's interesting that in Fast Company's 25 Top Jobs for 2005, PR is nowhere to be found.

What PR Used to Do 

Here is an example of what PR used to do -- teaching people how to dial a rotary phone. This film from 1927 is a painful reminder that AT&T had once the largest public relations department in the world. Now AT&T is no more, and the thousands of PR people that once worked for the firm are retired or doing other things.

AT&T in the end forgot its monopoly existed by permission of the government that granted it and could be removed at any time -- as it was. When removed, the company learned it had forgotten how to compete -- if it ever knew. The collapse was slow in coming but inexorable. PR could not help in the end because AT&T's market was gone and its purchase on the minds of Americans lost.

A company is never safe and can never stop building its relationships with key audiences.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Invisible Audience 

I'm embarrassed about my ignorance of Hispanic radio. There is an Hispanic station one floor below our agency, but I haven't the least idea what the station does. This article from LA Weekly is an outstanding description of differences between Hispanic radio and anything else we might listen to in the US. More than that, radio gathers a huge audience among immigrant populations. The closeness between announcers and listeners has little parallel in English-language radio and the civic mindedness also is unusual.

I know there are PR agencies that concentrate on Hispanic markets, but I never understood the cultural differences before reading this piece.


More agencies and practitioners are thinking about using Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phones. I'm still skeptical about them because my experience two years ago wasn't the best. We dumped the service (Vonage) and went back to POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service). However, if you are thinking about it, read this. It's as good an explanation as I have seen.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Clever Communicator 

There is a young and apparently upcoming magician in the UK named Derren Brown who can teach one a thing or two about communications. He does stunts that he explains afterwards so one can appreciate the fine points of his skill. There is a wonderful site here that shows videos of several of his mind-bending tricks with his explanations of how he did them.

What's clever about much of what Brown does is his manipulation of language and communication to distract an individual, to suggest an action or to determine what the individual is thinking. The first clip of his work is getting people to fall asleep in telephone boxes. This is a trick of pure communications since he lets the phone ring until someone picks it up. Then he bombards the person with a confusing set of instructions and statements for 10 minutes before ordering them to fall asleep. They do. His explanation of this trick contains insights into communications and politics that it are worth remembering.

If we feel that our brains are being overloaded with information, we panic and start to become confused. In this situation, if we're given a simple instruction, we grasp it like a lifeline. This technique is used in tricks to persuade people to behave in ways that are completely out of character. When commands are issued at the end of a stream of confusing instructions, people are so relieved they can finally understand what's being said that they will do whatever they're told.

Public speakers often capitalise on the same response. Have you ever listened to a politician giving rapid-fire statistics so fast that the audience can't possibly take them in, only to end the speech with a simple, memorable phrase? The soundbite comes as such a relief after all those facts and figures that this is all the listeners remember.

I suspect most of us have considered this sleight of words at one time or another, but if not, know that it works. You can even put an audience to sleep.

Monday, March 28, 2005

What Business Are We In? 

I'm confused. I don't know what business I'm in anymore. This story is the source of my confusion. Apparently, if the story is to be believed, we're in the cheap advertising business now on TV. That is, we don't do placements. We make cheap "news" spots, then we buy time to run them as advertisers do. At least, that is what Medialink is telling us to do. And Medialink justifies it by saying that we are going back to the future by citing John Cameron Swayze's advertisements for Camel cigarettes from decades ago.

Here is what Medialink Chairman/CEO Laurence Moskowitz said to Broadcasting & Cable magazine to defend what he is doing.

"We can produce a 90-second newscast for the cost of catering a traditional 30-second spot, and we can turn it around in hours," Moskowitz boasts, estimating the price tag for a three-minute news vignette is $15,000-$25,000. The average cost of producing a national 30-second TV commercial is 10-20 times more.

Who cares about the implied third-party credibility that public relations is supposed to produce by persuading journalists at arms length to report a story? Hell, we can shoot a cheap spot and buy time. No muss, no fuss and we don't have to work with reporters.

...Moskowitz says he is creating a new genre of television that blends news, PR and conventional Madison Avenue media-buying practices. In effect, he is competing with both Madison Avenue and the TV news industry, while blurring the lines between them.

Will someone please tell me what business I'm in?

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Looking Back 

If you haven't had a chance to read this story yet, take time to do it. It looks at predictions from 10 years ago for how newspapers would change online and compares the predictions to what is happening. The predictions were optimistic -- and largely wrong.

The most disappointing conclusion was the first one:

Online news is still a downstream product. For the most part, the news text comes to the screen after it has been edited for the print – and that means that the “extra” reporting has been edited out already, although there are sometimes exceptions in newspapers’ news sites.

Reporters on magazines like BusinessWeek write strictly for the online edition, but journalists at newspapers rarely do the same.

Part of the delayed future may come from the fact that American newspapers are fighting falling circulation without success, and they have no viable economic model for transferring newsprint to online. They're stuck in the middle -- the worst place to be. There is little doubt that more papers will fold, and newsholes will shrink unless publishers can find a formula to attract readers and advertisers to an online product. But when readers can get all the news they want from Google and Yahoo, why should they read a local newspaper site? And when advertisers can go to high-volume traffic sites for a greater return, why should they bother?

Thinking back, I'm glad that when I did my journalism masters long ago I chose television rather than newspaper reporting. But then, TV isn't looking good now either.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

CEO Visibility 

It is no secret CEOs are more reluctant to be seen in public these days. Too many former CEOs are now in court and some have been convicted. Boards have tossed out other CEOs for infractions real or surmised (Harry Stonecipher, formerly of Boeing, for example.)

CEO visibility is a concern now that it wasn't before the internet bubble burst five years ago. That is why I have written the following essay with thoughts for how to assess CEO exposure to the media and the public.

As usual, I invite your comments, critiques and disagreements.

Political Bloggers 

It seems the politicians have figured out that blogging is good constituent relations and fine for fundraising too.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Useful Advice 

Jakob Nielsen is a usability guru for the internet. He examines how people use web pages then advises companies how to make sites consumer friendly. He recently posted a new study that is an eyeopener. It focuses on low-literacy users, of whom there are many. He found that those who do not read well are quite different in how they approach web pages by comparison with good readers. Good readers skim and skip through copy. Poor readers plow through copy a word at a time and pause at multisyllabic words to work them out. Poor readers read less because it is too difficult. Here is the key advice that Nielsen provides:

The main and most obvious advice is to simplify the text: use text aimed at a 6th grade reading level on the homepage, important category pages, and landing pages. On other pages, use text geared to an 8th grade reading level.

His other advice is common sense: Prioritize information. Streamline the page design. Simplify navigation. Optimize search.

Good advice for PR practitioners whether or not they work on web pages.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Death of Record Industry 

Singer Elvis Costello was widely quoted yesterday saying the record business is about to end. As soon as broadband is big enough, he opined, the record industry will go away.

He might be right, but the music publicity business won't disappear, even if the record industry does. When a listener has a choice of 10,000 bands and 100,000 songs, it takes good publicity to build an audience for any one band. In fact, if Costello is correct, music publicity will be full-employment. Rather than fearing the future, I would be excited. Practitioners who figure out how to make a living on direct delivery of music should do well.

I haven't paid much attention to the music business, so I cannot speculate how PR might change in it. If someone knows, contact me, and I will report your experience here. I suspect there are hints of shifts to come with PR for the iPod. For one, we know that the "long tail" of the music business is still profitable when the cost of song delivery is kept low. A song might be ranked 100,000, but it costs so little to download one can still make a profit by carrying it in an online catalog. But does it make sense to publicize backlists? That I don't know.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Ireland in the Lead 

What will Ireland have shortly that the rest of the world won't? All-digital cinema. About 500 cinema screens in the country will have 35mm projectors taken out and replaced with digital projectors. Having seen digital projection in two separate theaters, I can tell you the difference between film and digital is amazing. There is none of the washed-out color from an older print, scratches from too many passes through the gate and the occasional splice. Digital sparkles and has a realism that film doesn't possess unless it is a new print.

Why should PR practitioners care about digital projection? Because it is changing how the movie industry operates. It will change the industry economically, and it will change how one promotes films because there will be less time from editing suite to theater. There is even the possibility of changes after a film has been released. Digital films are uploaded from the studio and downloaded to the individual movie house. It is possible that a film could even change endings from one run to the next.

I don't like going to the movies anymore because films are often out of focus, and print quality deteriorated. I prefer watching DVDs at home on a large-screen TV where the image is crisp and colors true. Digital projection could change my mind quickly. On the other hand, digital projection may be too late. Recent books have stated that studios don't care that much anymore about theater runs. They make their money in other ways -- through tie-in promotions, through selling DVDs, through international distribution rights. Movies that bomb in US theaters prove to be solid money makers when all is toted at the end. It may be that movie publicity will move more toward supporting the DVD than the film, although I have yet to read that anywhere.

Anyway, all hail to Ireland for leading the change.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Medical PR 

BusinessWeek this week has a major article on the wired hospital. It is a must-read for PR practitioners for a couple of reasons. As written here frequently, medical costs in the US are soaring and require concerted effort to control. I can tell you from personal experience that medical costs make life difficult in the agency world. An agency has to pass through most medical increases to employees, and increases hit the paycheck -- hard. Medical costs are among the largest expenses companies' have other than payroll.

The second reason is that medical technology needs a new kind of PR person, although the person is not a PR practitioner. At Hackensack University Medical Center, the focus of the BusinessWeek story, the practitioner is a doctor in charge of medical informatics. His real job is getting doctors to use the computer system because only a few use it willingly, and then, documenting the improvement for the doctors and the hospital. The hospital was astute in determining that it takes a doctor to persuade doctors. Communicators do not have the credibility to get the job done.

Take the time to read the whole story. It describes where medicine should have been five years ago and is still stumbling towards. The article points to the difficulties of automating, a stumbling block at many hospitals. The key is usability. If a system isn't easy to use, no one will take the time to learn it. Usability is an issue we have discussed in web page design. Note also that the hospital has dressed its robot in a lab coat with a stethoscope hanging around its "neck" to humanize the machine.

Hackensack is pioneering communications techniques to make its system work, and there are lessons there for anyone working in medical PR.

Seeing the Truth 

We've known for some time that one can no longer trust pictures. The advent of Adobe Photoshop allowed unlimited image manipulation for good and ill.

But pictures are powerful, and people fall regularly into the trap of believing that what they see is true. This is an issue PR practitioners deal with constantly. Political spinmeisters are forever finding the right backdrops for Presidential appearances, the right kind of middle-income family to use as a TV example, the visually perfect "weeper" for the climactic moment of a hearing or speech.

Thus, it was refreshing to read last Friday a Science Journal piece in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that details how scientists and laypersons alike are being fooled by visuals of brain scans.

Neuroimaging such as PET and fMRI are seducing laypeople and scientists alike into believing we know more than we do about how and why we think, feel and behave, some scientists say. The power of brain imaging, says Frank Keil, a Yale University psychology professor, reflects "the illusion of explanatory depth. If people see something, they are often deluded into thinking they understand it better than they really do."

That is a wonderful indictment of what many PR practitioners do (including myself) -- making superficial visual explanations of things beyond the understanding of laypersons. We believe we can simplify complex processes into meaningful pictures -- and we do. But, time and again, we go too far, and we simplify into falsehood. Sometimes this is unwitting but regrettably, too often it is a conscious decision. The worst outcome of such willed error is that we justify it as defending a client.

It is good to know that science tangles with the issue of visual explanation as much as we do in PR. But, it is a warning that even the sophisticated can be misled by a strong image. There is no substitute for accuracy in the end, whether visual or not.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Good Client, Bad Client 

Clients aren't always right. Sometimes they work against their own best interests. Sometimes, they're dead wrong.

I have been reflecting on this lately because it seems the same failures show repeatedly in account service, and they never get fixed.

It is depressing for an agency to be hired by a client, then ignored and eventually fired. The client either didn't know how or didn't want to manage the agency correctly. Data wasn't provided. The agency was never taken into confidence. Programs started and stopped and stuttered and half-started again.

I 've been on the agency side of the business for my career and at a loss to understand why clients cannot manage agencies better. It would seem if one is spending the money, one would want to get the most out of the investment.

There are always reasons why programs have momentary lulls and those are understandable. There are timing issues and a client might have trouble distilling a message or getting logistics in place. Agencies can work with that. But, it is a persistent inability to get work done that frustrates agency personnel. I have seen them nearly roar in frustration because they are desparate to DO something for a client and the client can never seem to get started.

It is easy to pick on agencies for incompetence or lack of productivity. Sometimes it is true that we don't get a topic and we don't work as hard as we should. But, to be honest, I have seen less of that in my career than a client who is uncertain what to do and ends by doing nothing.

The agency-client relationship IS a relationship. Both sides have to contribute. When one or the other falls down on the job, there is little chance that a program can succeed.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Back Again 

Blogger has been in and out (mostly out) for most of the day. I have tried off and on to see if I could get it to work. I finally broke through at this late hour. It is not clear to me if it is Blogger or something else, but it happens occasionally then goes away as mysteriously as it came.

It is frustrating.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Cable Out 

Sorry that I didn't get any updating done on online-pr.com yesterday. When I woke up, I discovered the cable was out and took my internet connection with it.

Now Blogger is acting up, and I am having trouble posting.


Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Same Old Same Old? 

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) sent me their Spring 2005 Resources Guide yesterday. It is filled with professional development courses for PR practitioners.

Something struck me about the 44-page guide the instant I opened it. Among dozens of courses, there are but one or two that deal with anything on the web. There are lessons on leader coaching, on strategic communications planning, on crisis communications, on measurement and evaluation, on development of presentations, on building and evaluating employee communications programs and on and on.

Buried in the center of the booklet on page 23 is a course on "Anatomy of a News Release, Pitch and E-mailed Release." On page 27, there is a course titled "I'm not a Journalist, but I Play One on TV: A re-examination of who and what a journalist is today." This section actually mentions "bloggers" right after "bloviators" in a sentence that says it all, "With an ever-increasing number of self-styled media commentators, critics, bloviators and bloggers, what has become of the definition of a journalist?"

Is it me or is the PRSA out to lunch?

In fairness to the PRSA, the society offers courses for which there is demand. And, there is probably not much demand for learning focused on the internet. But, if that is true, what does it say about PR practitioners? It seems to me the Society is facing the same challenge as most revenue-driven educational institutions. Do you give students courses that students want or courses they need, whether they want them or not? The PRSA cannot compel members to be more web-savvy, but still, it is disappointing.

A Change 

I started online-pr.com, the resource site to which this blog belongs, in 1997. It was during a brief period of unemployment, and I wanted to use training materials developed in my previous job to launch a resource site. At the same time, I noticed there was no similar site for PR practitioners that was regularly maintained. I made two decisions. The site would be free to all, and I would take no ads. Since 1997, I have spent hundreds of dollars and thousands of hours maintaining online-pr.com. This is not a complaint, simply a fact.

Recently, Google contacted me and suggested I could use their Ad-Sense program on the site and perhaps, pay for its maintenance. That is appealing, but I told my contact there will never be ads on the home page of online-pr.com. Practitioners like a clean, unfussy page. Google assured me that I could put Ad Sense only where I wanted it to go. So, I told them I would experiment with it.

There is only one place where I am going to try it for the time being -- the section that lists PR job and career links and job hunting tips. It seems to me this is the least objectionable place to start a test. I'd like to know if you think the same.

My objective is not to make a living from ads but to pay for upkeep. I thought you should know so you won't be surprised if you see a change in that section by next Monday.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

About Time 

I received my second masters from this school. It's about time for the university to address convergence and train future communicators to handle it.


I find this fellow offensive, but I admire his tactics in the last presidential campaign. He could not get established media to report charges he and his group were making against Senator Kerry, but he was able to get his message out effectively anyway. The Kerry people worked hard to stop them, but here is what happened according to O'Neill:

TAE: Did the attempts of Kerry's people to stop your message only help publicize it more?

O'NEILL: They helped us tremendously. The threats against the station managers led to extensive publicity, particularly on the "Hannity & Colmes" show and then on other FOX News shows. Then it spread to CNN and to MSNBC. More than 1,400,000 people downloaded that first ad, and it swept through the Internet. It also allowed thousands and thousands of people to start donating money to us at our Web site.

Note that people downloaded the ad. The Swift Boat Veterans made much of their case through the internet. This supports an earlier observation that citizens aren't reading newspapers as much, but they are getting information from the internet.

The same question asked here yesterday must be asked again, "What are we as PR practitioners going to do about this?"

Monday, March 14, 2005


We justify much of what we do in PR by appealing to the implied third-party authority and credibility of the media. So what do you make of this? The study concluded that news stories about Bush were three times more likely to be negative than those about John Kerry. Yet, Bush was reelected handily over Kerry. If the media have implied credibility, wouldn't you expect a result the other way around?

Or, does the American public no longer trust the media in some matters, especially matters of politics. Or, worse yet, are fewer Americans bothering to read the media, and print journalists write to a minority of voters who do not influence the outcome of races? I favor this last explanation because newspaper circulation is falling. More Americans get news from TV and online than from turning the pages of a paper.

This opens a question we don't like to ask in PR. If that is true, why do we spend so much time getting placements in newspapers? We justify our existence by saying influentials read papers though others might not. But is that true? I don't think it is. Most CEOs have no time to read a paper. They scan news summaries prepared by a PR department. News summaries come from a variety of sources so any one medium's credibility is not as much an issue. I suspect this is true as well in the halls of Congress. Aides read papers not Senators and Congressmen. So again, to whom are we speaking when we get a placement in the newspaper?

These are tough questions, but a time is coming when we might be forced to give better answers than we do now.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Open Season 

Remaining secretive about work invites criticism such as this and this. It's time for PR agencies to come clean. A VNR is a good tool as long as it conveys news rather than hype.

Consider the following. There are two VNRs. One conveys health information from the Center for Disease Control and the other conveys a message about the benefits of a new law. Which is news and which isn't? Actually, either can be news or hype depending on how the creator of the VNR handles them.

Despite The New York Times , VNRs have been used for decades. It is only recently they have become a political issue because journalists were allowing themselves to shill for the Republican administration. The Times piece, by the way, is a must read for PR practitioners. The problems, the article shows, are complex and broad with local TV stations as much to blame as PR agencies.

VNRs are under a cloud, but they won't disappear. Practitioners need to be cautious in how they make them. Accuracy is rule one. It has always been rule 1. News is rule two. A VNR should provide timely information that otherwise might not be reported. Transparency is rule 3. Let people know who is behind the VNR.

Blog This! 

My colleague, Mike Cargill, sent me a link on Friday with an advisory, "Blog this!" OK, I will.

The story he pointed to was about a Gallup poll that showed few Americans are aware of blogs and even fewer read them regularly.

Three-quarters of the U.S. public uses the Internet at work, school, or home, but only one in four Americans are either very familiar or somewhat familiar with blogs (the shortened form of the original "Web logs"). More than half, 56%, have no knowledge of them. Even among Internet users, only 32% are very or somewhat familiar with blogs.

Lest we get too messianic about blogs, we should remind ourselves they are still the buzz of the chattering classes and of the young.

Blog readers are younger than the population at large. Although 17% of the public is aged 18 to 29, a quarter of all blog readers (those who read even occasionally) are in this age bracket. At the older extreme, 17% of Americans are 65 and older, but only 6% of blog readers are this old.

Blogs will grow in importance but they aren't where we might like them to be yet. They will always be niche media: It is a matter of the size of the niche. If 100 percent of Americans were reading blogs but only 10% reading any one blog that would be about the best anyone could expect. It's a question of finding the right 10%.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Blogging and Free Speech 

I'm sure you've read discussions asking whether blogging is journalism. This fellow argues that bloggers and journalists are one and the same and should be accorded the same rights. ( I suppose this means both can go to jail for failing to disclose confidential sources.) This fellow agrees but notes the hypocrisy of bloggers wanting to be journalists one moment but not the next.

Online Journalism Review has decided if you are going to be a blogger, you might as well act like a journalist. And this fellow dislikes the term "blogging" completely:

You know, "BLOGGING". I mean the word "blogger" or "blogging". It's meaningless. Saying "bloggers are x or y" is equally meaningless. Someone claiming to speak for bloggers is more than meaningless it is delusional. Treating "bloggers" as a group, a species, a breed, or anything else is meaningless. As I noted previously, the word "blogger" is an empty vessel into which too many, pour too much, in order to mean too little.

Does that make everything clearer? No? I thought not. I side with those who see blogging as one more extension of journalism because neither journalism nor PR is a profession. Both are crafts anyone can practice under the First Amendment guarantee of Free Speech. Because anyone can engage in journalism, we have unethical hacks working alongside courageous reporters. It is up to the public to determine who is credible and who isn't. This, or course, is true of PR. You are what you make of yourself in PR, and you can never count on the business to lift your image, unless you started as a used car salesperson.

Journalists like to think of themselves as saving the world and PR practitioners as building and protecting reputation. Those are noble thoughts, but hardly reality. Let's not forget that.

Still Don't Get It 

After the trouble the Federal government has had with VNRs and "fake news," you would think government public affairs practitioners would think twice about using one. Apparently some haven't learned, as the LA Times has reported.

We are considering a VNR for a private firm with an interesting technology, and the vendor is advising us to use a satellite media tour instead. We believe this might be too cautious. The private firm is not using taxpayer money to make a VNR, and its news is not politically sensitive. We don't think editors will care.

The key to all VNRs, of course, is news, and that is why many are bad. Too many practitioners and marketers are unable to tell the difference between news and hype.

(Thanks to my colleague, Mike Millican, for spotting the story.)

Blog Monitoring 

A former colleague working in a large corporation wrote to me yesterday with a piece of news. His company for the last two weeks has been sending daily news updates with blog coverage. Apparently someone in charge realized what bloggers have been saying. A company's reputation can be affected by what is written in blogs.

Monitoring appears to focus on news and business-oriented bloggers.

Thanks to my former colleague for letting me know. The message is getting through.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

So Much for PR 

The Atlantic Monthly magazine for March has a dispiriting story titled J-School for Jerks that should be obligatory reading for anyone practicing PR. It makes me ashamed of the business.

The managing director of media relations for a mid-sized public relations firm in Washington, DC, called Qorvis Communications has started a communications course to teach politicians and journalists how to be vitriolic commentators on the air. The guy teaching the course is a regular on so-called political shows where guests assault one another verbally. For those of you who follow such things, these are programs like Hardball, The O'Reilly Factor and Crossfire. The shows make no pretense of discussing issues. They are wrestling with comic book villains and heroes performing mock battles in a ring.

This enterprising fellow who tours these shows regularly apparently feels there could be good money in teaching others how to be nasty. And, so he is.

There are the usual tips like speaking in sound bites, but there are other lessons too such as filibustering to prevent the host or another guest from speaking and dispensing praise in order to disarm an opponent. There is no pretense in any of these lessons of building relationships. It is point scoring, battles mano a mano to defeat your opponent. No wonder Americans don't think much of politicians.

I know, I know. Such gamesmanship is common in other countries such as the UK where "question time" is theater, but Americans don't have the wit to do it well. It is painful to watch ad hominem passing for discussion.

This is not the kind of public relations I signed up to provide my clients. I suppose it is good for Qorvis, if it makes them money, but once again, it reminds the public why PR practitioners are not much above used car salesmen in respect and credibility.

Not Quite What He Wanted 

Sometimes one has to ask whether people think when they use the Internet. The Washington Post ran a story (subscription required) on the front page of its business section yesterday that makes one wonder.

It seems a small communications firm, called Rock Creek Creative, that does web design among other things had helped create a web site for Ukraine that featured the Orange Revolution -- a democratic uprising Russia strongly opposed. Rock Creek wanted to let everyone know how well it did so it issued a press release on PR newswire that boasted of its work and its impact on the democracy movement. PR newswire, of course, posts all releases on its web site.

The press release worked -- sorta. The Russian government spotted it and claimed that the CIA was influential in the Ukrainian democracy movement. The Ukrainians saw it too and were ticked off that an American firm was taking credit for their revolution. Finally, the client, The Global Fairness Initiative, a Washington nonprofit that hired Rock Creek to create the web site, saw the release and was upset. Apparently, Rock Creek Creative forgot a basic rule of the internet. Everything you publish is available worldwide -- instantly. Watch what you say.

The Washington Post actually wrote it better.

At a time when public relations firms have been under fire for obscuring their affiliations, the incident with Rock Creek stands as a cautionary tale of saying too much at the wrong time, particularly in an era of instant global communication. "The policy is do the work and don't talk about it," said Robert Chopak, a partner with Washington crisis management firm Chopak, Leonard, Schechter and Associates. "There is no such thing as a local audience anymore. "


Sunday, March 06, 2005

Can't Win 

I have written here several times that there are events in which one cannot win, and reputation is going to take a loss --sometimes a major loss. Such crises are beyond the reach of PR.

The incident in which US soldiers fired on the freed Italian journalist is another example. It is too confused now to know who is at fault, if anyone. It could be a tragedy of wartime -- edgy troops mistaking a circumstance and engaging, a fearful driver failing to slow because he wants to get to safety. It makes no difference what the truth is. The incident inflamed Italian citizens opposed to US invovlement in Iraq. Even if the US could show convincingly that its troops acted properly, that doesn't subtract the bitterness of the experience.

What to do? The incident must be investigated in a professional manner. That is closing the door after the horse has escaped, but it still must be done, so it might be prevented in the future. Official apologies must be made, if appropriate, and perhaps, even if inappropriate. Criminal indictments should be levelled against troops, if they have acted recklessly.

All this is perfunctory, of course. Damage to US reputation has been done. It can't be undone. Worse, the Italian journalist is now saying US troops may have wanted her dead. (That begs the question whether US troops even knew if she was in the car.) It is easy to level charges without facts, and it is easy to make them stick.

I would not be so sensitive to such incidents had not a client fallen into an international incident less than a year ago. It was gut-wrenching and appalling. The client has been found innocent several times over but investigations continue. It is as if someone MUST find the client guilty of something. This is called railroading in a justice system, but in the court of public opinion, railroading happens often, and there is nothing one can do.

Thursday, March 03, 2005


One of lessons of working outside of New York for much of my career is that I learned about gifted people who work in smaller markets and don't get the attention they deserve. This lesson taught me something I have never forgotten. New York communications practitioners are arrogant about their skills. They know they are the best: They don't mind telling you so. It isn't true, of course, and never has been.

What sparked this thought was a chance discovery of a news column quoting a colleague of nearly 30 years ago in the television news business. This fellow, Larry Hatteberg, is the single most talented newsfilm photographer I have ever met -- and I have met more than a few. More than that, he has the complete package -- a voice that sounds like the thunder of God and an eye for human interest stories that is astounding. Finally, his temperament is mild. He was never the kind to do an end-zone dance when he scored on a story.

Working with him was trying because no matter how well you did, day after day his work was better -- much better. He led by example and not by word. I don't mind saying that I learned a lot from him, and I often wondered why he never left for a larger market or another station. The fact is he didn't, and he has compiled an enviable record and legendary portfolio of stories. If you don't believe it, click here and watch some of the profiles of people he discovered in the byways of Kansas.

I wrote Larry a brief note yesterday and included the section of the news article in which he was quoted. To my astonishment, he called me on the phone and left a heartfelt message that made me feel ashamed of myself that I hadn't kept contact with him.

Over the years, I have often compared my work mentally to Larry's. I have always come up short, but I have never minded that. There are talents who are so much better than anyone else that one should appreciate them, never envy their gifts. When I mention Larry to my New York colleagues, they often smile indulgently and secretly glance at one another. It's Horton again and his unbridled enthusiasm. But it isn't. It's the truth. Genius is where you find it whether in a big city or town. Larry chose the town and more power to him.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Back from the Dead 

Remember Tyco? It is one of the companies that drove Congress to pass the Sarbanes Oxley financial reform law, which corporations and CEOs curse. Tyco's former CEO, Dennis Kozlowski, was famous for avoiding taxes by sending empty art shipping boxes out of New York and for a $6000 shower curtain in his swank New York apartment that Tyco paid for.

If there ever was a company that should have ended on a scrap heap of overleveraged and underperforming assets, Tyco would qualify. It was a Chapter 11 candidate whose reputation was destroyed along with that the CEO, the corporate counsel and the board of directors.

Well, guess again. Tyco today is a healthy firm that is slashing its debt and thriving under its CEO, Ed Breen. The story of how Breen achieved this resurrection already is one for business school case books. But the story also is one of winning back credibility for a company that appeared fatally injured. Breen swept out old management and fired the entire board. He operated short-handed for weeks while he struggled to find the people to restaff a company sinking under debt.

That he succeeded and brought Tyco back to a respectable investment is a lesson that one can win back a reputation, even one that has been deeply damaged. It seems to me that if Arthur Andersen, the failed accounting firm, had similar leadership, it might have survived too.

The lesson for me as a PR practitioner is to bet on the CEO. If Ed Breen ever decides to step down from Tyco, companies will besiege him for his services. Already he is being bandied as a replacement for Carly Fiorina at HP, a position he said he doesn't want.

Leaders make a difference. If a company is failing, look to the CEO for reasons why. There aren't many CEOs who are commanding leaders. That is partially the reason why CEOs stay in office for less time now. The median time in office for S&P 500 CEOs has dropped to four years. Most are gone in six years. Only a few break the barrier and stay for 10 or more years.

One of the key lessons for practicing good PR is to find the right CEO.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Wishing It So 

Sometimes the most important message one can send is a wish, and if one believes the wish strongly enough, it will come true. Thus the famous quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt that the only fear the American public should have was of fear itself.

I am reminded of this because of the testimony that Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East gave to a Senate panel on Tuesday. He said the fact that insurgents in Iraq could not stop the voting there meant they are weakening. He said this, of course, the day after a car bomb killed 104 Iraqis, the most since the conflict began.

This is not a political criticism of Gen. Abizaid. I don't know if he is right or wrong. I appreciate his assessment for what it is -- good news designed to provide comfort. In dark hours there is need for bolstering. We must never forget Winston Churchill's speeches to the British during World War II. They were rabble-rousing and tub-thumping, but they were what the people needed. About the only president in memory who could not understand the need for a positive outlook appears to have been Jimmy Carter. He blamed the American public for malaise that wasn't justified. The public did not want to hear that, whether or not it was true. That is why Ronald Reagan with his sunny disposition was the next president.

This is not to say that leaders should lie. They should tell the truth but project command over events. Lying only gets one into trouble. Carly Fiorina won't live down her comment that her relations with the HP board were excellent only to be fired a few weeks later. There is a fine line between too much optimism and pessimism. It takes true leadership to know the distinction and to communicate it well.

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