Sunday, October 30, 2005

Forbes on Communications 

Despite the attack on bloggers, there are lots of comments on communications here.

Blogs in Washington 

Politicians are pragmatic: They know the first rule of governing is to get elected. It is interesting to see how they have adapted to bloggers. I wonder how many CEOs would do something similar. Count your fingers on one hand. However, there are fewer bloggers writing about business than those writing about politics.

For a relatively new medium, blogging has traveled a long way in gaining credibility. Trent Lott can avoid bloggers if he wants to, but other congressmen and senators know there their votes are.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


Environmentalism is wonderful until it impinges on my electricity bill. This sort of expedient thinking is behind the rage over gasoline prices in the US and similar unhappiness over the cost of natural gas for heating. Self-interest has a habit of trumping larger community principles. That is why I find this story amusing. Natural gas was supposed to replace coal in pursuit of cleaner air and less acid rain. That was before the price of natural gas skyrocketed.

But, there is more to the story. Years ago when I was a reporter, I was assured that America had enough natural gas for 1000 years to heat homes. That was before massive amounts were burned in utility boilers to generate electricity. The natural gas bubble sooned turned into a natural gas shortage. So, pursuit of environmentalism created the problem that coal is now going to solve.

The lesson here is that one should look behind principles to see what they really mean before one signs on to supporting them. It is easy to support a cleaner, healthier environment. It is not so easy to face furious householders who demand lower electricity prices.

Coal is making a comeback in America as it is elsewhere. That wasn't supposed to happen.

Good Idea 

I have long been interested in medical reform, and we have had occasion to work with clients who are similarly interested. One of the major issues in medical lawsuits are experts for hire who are paid to say anything a tort lawyer wishes them to say. The Daubert principles are supposed to help in getting junk science out of courtrooms, but when does a judge know that one medical expert is better than another? This is an interesting solution to that problem. Have an impartial doctor from out of state evaluate the testimony of experts before they are allowed to get on the stand.

What does any of this have to do with PR? Out-of-control medical costs are affecting every company in America, your pocketbook and mine too. We are and will be called on as practitioners to explain the impact of medical costs to employees and the public. We need to know what is going on and to be ready to participate.

There are more experiments like this one underway. Some will work and some won't. Slowly but surely, doctors and lawyers are feeling their way toward reform.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

A Different Time: A Different Culture 

Two entries from the web site, Metafilter, unintentionally highlighted a change in attitude over the last century toward war. The entries are worth examining. The first announced the death of the last Australian soldier to have fought in World War I. The entry noted that Australia lost 60,000 dead and had 200,000 casualties out of a population of about 5 million. Most of the dead and casualties came from idiotic military decisions. The second story announced the 2000th death from the Iraq conflict . That comes from a country with well in excess of 200 million people. If you saw the newspaper headlines in the US, the 2000 number was banner front in nearly every one. Two thousand deaths are considered a horrendous toll. In 1918, it was a pittance.

We've learned a lot about war and its evils in the last 100 years. These two stories spotlight the changed understanding of the American public. We know better now the dimensions of the loss of life. Men are no longer cannon fodder.

From a public relations perspective, the change has been dramatic. It doesn't take much to dig up propaganda posters from World War I and World War II, for that matter, where fighting the enemy and dying for a cause was portrayed as a noble thing for a young person to do. That culture still exists in the US, but it is muted and getting fainter.

It's worth remembering that deeply rooted beliefs can shift over time, but one has to work tirelessly at making it happen.


Sometimes the media can get something so wrong that it is beyond shocking. This is such a case (Oct. 26 entry, "The Liam Lawlor Debacle") that has just happened in Ireland. One has to ask how reporters can err so completely and slander individuals so deeply. But, on the other hand, the media did the same thing in New Orleans after the hurricane. It is incidents like these that justify most expenditures on PR counsel, but fortunately, they don't happen that often. In both cases, it appears that the old game of "telephone" was working. Rumors piled on rumors and the stories inflated to absurdity.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Resist This Law 

There is a move in the US to protect journalists with a shield law. It's a bad idea. Because as the article asks, "Who is a journalist?" With the internet and blogging, anyone can be a journalist and many are. How do you determine who to cover and who not? It's a bad path to go down, but journalists are out there pushing it. It seems they are no different from anyone else when their self-interest is at stake.


Kudos to B.L. Ochman and her colleague for a creative use of a blog in a marketing campaign.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Wanted: Crisis Counseling 

Here is a person who could use a good crisis counselor.

I am not here to pile on, but Judith Miller's newspaper and much of the public have turned their backs to her. She is in a wilderness from which she might not return. It appears from recent communications that she believes the best way to get through this crisis is to trade blow for blow. She forgets she is not in charge of the news columns at The New York Times, and she cannot win. It would be better, it seems to me, if she were conciliatory, but that doesn't appear to be in her nature.

No matter what happens, the fight is wrecking the reputation of The New York Times. I wonder if Miller is thinking that if she goes down, the Times goes with her. Already the paper has suffered a reputation loss that will take time to recover. Perhaps the paper needed to be humbled. It had set itself above others and was widely perceived as arrogant.

All I know is that I trust the Washington Post more these days for national reporting than The New York Times. I never thought I would write that sentence.


You have to wonder about any organization that has to pay a newspaper to write good things about it. This is what the Newark, NJ city council is doing. It voted through a $100,000 no-bid contract to a community newspaper to carry good news about the city and its mayor.

The mayor of Newark is known for his take-no-prisoners style of politicking and governing. In fact, a documentary expose about him was deeply embarrassing. But, he keeps getting re-elected and with paid journalism singing his praises, there is less chance his supporters will read anything contrary to their perception of him.

As far as I know, there are no PR practitioners involved in this fiasco, and for that, I am deeply grateful.

Sunday, October 23, 2005


This is an interesting marketing/PR ploy on the part of American Express. Few marketers would ask a blogger to write anything at all and pay them for it. Message control is a mantra of marketers, which is why I have been skeptical about most so-called blogs that come from marketing. Note the disclaimer under his first posting after meeting with Branson.

I would be interested to see what might happen if a blogger didn't like what was presented. My guess is that the experiment wouldn't last long -- or the blogger would never be hired again.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


Any practitioner in the business for a while has bumped into a romantic -- a person with high ideals and an inability to effect them. This is a continuous problem, for as much as one might like to help, the romantic has no money and no idea how to start. Because romantics are not implementers, they hope you bring operational skills, but in the process, they don't want to lose control of their idea. This makes them difficult to work with, and individuals to avoid.

The practical idealist starts work and figures out what to do along the way. This person never loses sight of the end, but he or she is willing to start small and to build. They figure time is on their side, and often, it is. If you look about the world at great idealists who have effected change, you will often find individuals who started with nothing but did not let that stop them. They were, in other words, entrepreneurs of ideals and not romantics at all.

The older I get and the longer I work in PR, the more I try to avoid romantics. They're a waste of time.

Corporate Blogging 

Here is a story that is a few days old, but I am linking it here just in case you missed it. It seems that corporate blogging already is on a steep climb. Update: See Constantin Basturea's analysis of the study. He doesn't believe a word of it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Why People Give Up Blogging. 

I have written elsewhere that blogging is hard work. This is a bit overstated, but it makes the point.


If the future of online PR in the US rests on universal broadband service, we're in trouble.

We Knew It All Along 

The founder of wikipedia is now saying that the quality of the encyclopedia has suffered. He admits to attempts to hijack sections of the production and a lack of subject experts.

We're not surprised. We knew that would happen from the beginning. The wikipedia was born of a romantic notion that people would put aside self-interest for the greater good. It doesn't work that way for long: It didn't work that way for wikipedia.

Regrettably, the internet has been a source of much romanticism about human nature. Time and again, such belief has been shattered by spammers, hackers and other near-criminals who see online as a way to advance their interests over that of the community.

Those of us in PR knew from the beginning that the wikipedia was destined to run into trouble if not fail. Documents need editors who make sure that quality goes in and stays. Editors guard accuracy -- or at least, they should be protecting it. There have been notable failures of editing in recent years, as The New York Times will tell you.

I might dislike the pickiness of those who edit my work, but I respect their mission. I might seethe on some days, but they are more right than I am most of the time.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Join Our Club, Dan 

Dan Gillmor is unhappy about blog spammers, and he is calling for reputation systems to vet bloggers.

I say, "Join with PR practitioners who work on reputation issues all of the time." I suspect Dan wouldn't do that. He doesn't think much of us in the PR trenches, but it's good to see he is worried about reputation.

I agree with him, however, that there needs to be a system where there is none now.

Good Advice 

This comment applies to historians but it could as easily apply to PR practitioners. There are those who believe PR practitioners must be passionate advocates for clients even when clients are wrong. We're not lawyers: We're communicators. Our best stance is to present facts in the best way possible. But, we should never deny, twist or spin facts. And, we should avoid partisanship. Is that hard to do? Yes, it is, but if we debase ourselves to win now, we sacrifice our credibility later.

One of the best lobbyists I have known was trusted because everyone knew he would tell the truth no matter what. Legislators were amazed that this fellow would never bend so far for a client that one couldn't trust his word or his action. That is an ideal for a PR practitioner.

Monday, October 17, 2005

How To Ruin Your Reputation 

The New York Times is giving us all a lesson.

Reality and the Internet 

It's one of the hard lessons of life that just because something is good doesn't mean it will be accepted or that it will happen. This is what the internet community is learning in its effort to move from version 4 of the internet protocol to version 6.

The world is running out of internet addresses. There are only so many billion addresses that can be used before all have been taken in version 4. The effort to move to version 6 is to ensure there will be a nearly infinite number of addresses, which will allow every machine connected to the internet anywhere on earth, sea or sky to have its own unique identification. That is not true now.

But, there is so much money and time invested in hardware and software for version 4 that no one is eager to spend billions to change it out. Sooner or later, they will have to do it. It would be better if it were sooner.

If ever there was a setup for a major PR campaign, this is it. The public doesn't know or understand how the internet works or why it needs to move to version 6. There is an enormous opportunity to tell them the benefits and to build the pressure needed to make the change.

I'm not holding my breath waiting for the funding of such a campaign.

Blogger PR Campaign 

Can independent bloggers conduct organized PR campaigns? They can. This one is particularly interesting because bloggers are attempting -- and succeeding -- in embarrassing politicians who have voted for projects that are blatant examples of pork-barrel spending.

Credibility for Hire 

As Refco continues to struggle for its existence, it is worth noting that the winners these days are professional credibility-mongers. Hire me and I'll make you look honest.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Blue Screen of Death 

Little is more discomfiting in computers than to get the Blue Screen Of Death on your PC with an incomprehensible error outlined in equally garbled explanation. Such an error occurred on Sunday with a program I have been using for a long time. There was no apparent reason for the crash, but it locked my system so tightly that I had to pull the power plug to shut it down. Several attempts thereafter, and I realized to my horror that I couldn't access the desktop. Whatever it was, it was ugly and mean.

Fortunately, my brother was in the house, and he works with computers although not with Microsoft XP. He kept me from diving out the window, and we tried to debug the error. I learned quickly about a PR failure that Microsoft and other software companies still have not resolved. It is damn difficult to use system recovery software and other tools buried in the operating system. They're all there: Try to find them. When you do, try to understand what they mean. Debugging ain't for sissies.

Finally, on a hunch, I went to a software manufacturer's site and tried to debug through it. The manufacturer recommended on the web page to download the latest version of the software after removing the current version. That seemed to do the trick. Everything appears to be working again -- and it only cost me four hours. It was just what I wanted to do on a Sunday evening with a house full of guests who could hear my four-letter muttering.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Do I Laugh or Cry? 

This is one journalist's view of the "nobility" of journalism versus PR. This is the counter-response from a journalist who wisely mocks the "priestly calling" of the business. Note that he doesn't understand PR either.

A couple of points before I decide whether to laugh or cry over such vanity and self-delusion. One. Who said journalists have to be underpaid? It has been and continues to be lousy business practices of media owners that causes this situation. Two. Who said PR is all that better paid? When I entered the business, pay was terrible, and it continues that way for juniors as far as I know by comparison with other businesses.

Perhaps journalism professors are crying because students have learned there are few jobs left in the newspaper business and the students are wisely choosing other directions. If so, that's economics in action, and newspapers are not immune from economics. For that matter, neither is PR.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


This is a topic on which I have written before, but it concerns me, so I am writing again.

A few organizations and individuals can command media wherever and whenever they want it and in the way they want it, whether or not reporters concur. Think, for example of the high-handed approaches Hollywood publicists use to control access to celebrities. What is sad about these organizations and individuals is that they don't work in the same PR world that 99.9 percent of practitioners live in. Most of us have to work to get reporters interested in organizations and their products and services. We can't sit back and take incoming calls while deciding whom we are going anoint today and whom to place in a penalty box until they lick our shiny shoes.

The problem with high-handed practitioners is that they become as arrogant as their clients, and arrogance is the death of PR. Arrogance leads to spin and spin to gamesmanship that earns PR the bad name it sometimes deserves.

Arrogant clients don't want to hear facts. They fling them back in your face. You are incompetent for telling them something can't or shouldn't be done. You are ignorant for failing to understand how the system works. You may have been a practitioner for 20 or more years, but clearly you don't know the business. One has a strong urge to throttle people like this because they not only won't listen, they can't. They know what they know: Their conviction is held so strongly that facts are an assault on their self-image.

How do you handle arrogance? The best approach is to get away, if you can. Sometimes you can't. If you have to serve this kind of client, submissiveness is a mistake, I believe. One must stand up for facts and repeat them whether or not the organization or individual agrees.

The challenge is that one must know the facts. There must be checking and rechecking to make sure that what one says is accurate. There must be paper trails everywhere and plenty of arse-covering. Even one slip with this kind of person, and one is tossed aside quickly. Of course, there are times when that happens anyway no matter how hard one has worked.

The most depressing part is that the arrogant often get away with their behavior because there is no one more powerful to straighten them out. PR practitioners are not strong enough to put brakes on them.

Wouldya Believe? 

This is so dumb that it is hard to believe. How would you like to have been the district PR representative for McDonald's handling this one? What could you say?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Great PR 

It is a pleasure to cite programs that are examples of great public relations. This is certainly one. I would never have thought of it, but the professor who did provides an example of creativity combined with technology. The idea that one would map a neighborhood in order to gain better representation for it in city government is one that could be borrowed by any number of companies seeking to give back. The win-win-win here is that the students are learning as they do it, the community is teaching the local government about itself and the local government gains knowledge that it needs to make the needed improvements.

Like the DARPA race for robotic cars, this program has everything going for it. It isn't strictly a PR program, but it is an example of great PR.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Magic Money 

One of the great PR embarrassments in Hollywood has been accounting -- or nonaccounting. Everyone knows, including auditors, that Hollywood producers move money and assets to the point where no one knows whether a movie made money or not. This essay tells how one well known person apparently did it.

In any other industry, an individual would be jailed, if he did what he is alleged to have done. In Hollywood, apparently, one can get away with shifting losers into future time periods and winners into the present, as long as one's partner doesn't find out.

I have long wondered how long accounting abuse will go on before a district attorney starts taking down studio heads for fraud. It hasn't happened yet, and Hollywood's fiction has been going on since its early days in California nearly 100 years ago.

It proves that some public relations scandals can continue for decades as long as everyone winks and looks the other way.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Language Confusion 

The phone rang on Monday, and I hit the speaker button to answer it. "Horton," I said. There was a long silence, but someone seemed to be on, so I said, "Horton" again. A heavily accented voice spoke slowly from what sounded like a long distance. It sounded as if the party were fighting echo on the line causing him to speak even more carefully. The individual proceeded to inform me he was calling to finalize my plans for attending a PR conference in a large Middle Eastern country, and he was calling from that country to get my information. I was stunned. I had written this individual months ago to let him know that I could not attend. Apparently, his grasp of English was marginal, and he had not understood my refusal. I said again in as simple a language as I could that I was not attending. He finally said he understood and hung up. It was an expensive phone call for him; I was sorry he had to make it.

Ten minutes later the phone rang again, and the man was again on the other end of the line. He now said the conference wanted to make a "film" of me to show. "How are you going to make the film?" I asked. He didn't understand. "How are you going to take pictures?" I queried. He said in his thick accent that they had downloaded my photo from my web site. This clearly wasn't going to be a "film." I wasn't sure what it was going to be. It occurred to me they might put up my picture and have audio of me with someone translating. I asked him if this was what they planned to do. He couldn't understand me. We started then into a protracted sequence of him talking off-phone in his language to a disembodied voice in the background then translating roughly to me. The translations made little sense and were disconnected. I didn't know what to do except to tell him again that I wasn't coming.

He then asked if I would comment on the proceedings, and I said I would. I'm not sure, however, whether I am to comment before or after the conference. He then asked me if I could come in 2006 to the conference. I told him that it is "unlikely." He couldn't understand "unlikely." I then said "probably not." He couldn't grasp that. I finally said, "No." He then said that he wasn't talking about 2005 but about 2006. Surely I was coming in 2006. I didn't know what to respond. I didn't want to close the door a year early, but I also could not hedge language in a way that the fellow could understand it. I said we should talk again. He grasped that. I will now have to live through another phone call at some point next year.

I have long considered myself a better-than-average communicator, but this incident proved I have a way to go.

Blow to a Brand 

I feel sorry for PR practitioners handling this situation. RIM is risking ruination of its brand in the US, if it cannot get the Supreme Court to overturn patent decisions that have gone against it. The company appears to be able to afford a $53 million payout, if it has to make one, but it lives in an environment of uncertainty with competitors swarming and ready to steal Blackberry users. If there was ever a time for firefighting in PR, this is it.

I hope RIM has savvy attorneys who understand that the power of public opinion will be vital in keeping the company's brand safe while appeals proceed. This is no time for RIM to be hiding. It has to make its case and survive no matter the outcome. RIM needs a consistent stance. It might be something along the line that RIM will not abandon customers in the US and will serve them as it has always done whether or not the case goes against it.

I don't know the particulars of this patent infringement case, but there has been discussion that the patent system is out of control when one can patent a concept without turning it into reality. In the old days of the US Patent Office, an inventor had to present a working model of an invention to get a patent. This proved too cumbersome even before the turn of the 20th Century, but the idea was a good one. One can't say he or she has invented something until making the idea work.

Design Mistakes 

Here are the Top Ten Design Mistakes for 2005 from Jakob Nielsen, the web usability expert. Most are old: Some are new. It seems the same mistakes keep recurring (which says something.)

I am cursed with link rot because of the nature of Online-pr.com, but I continue to work that problem. I removed some links this morning, and the percentage of bad links on the site remains lower than average. Still, the situation is dynamic. Links go in and out of service constantly on the internet.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

More News from a PR Failure 

The Segway two-wheeled autobalanced vehicle was an example of hype at its worst. Thus far, the vehicle has not lived up to its advance billing and this news is further example of the idea's decline. Companies are usually not eager to sell rights to technology that is highly profitable.

Blogging and the First Amendment 

While I strongly favor the First Amendment, stories like this give me the willies. Does this mean that anyone is free to get online and abuse a client without retribution?

No One Asked Alaska 

It is always helpful to remember there are two sides to nearly every issue. One of my favorites for this is Alaskan oil and gas development. Nearly all commentators in the Lower 48 push to keep Alaska pristine. No one, however, asked Alaskans who are eager for developmentt because it means jobs and livelihoods where now few are to be had. This is an issue that has even divided native Alaskans. There are progressive tribes with indoor plumbing who want jobs and revenues from oil pumping, and there are traditionalists (who use gas-eating snowmobiles), but don't have indoor plumbing and want to keep things as they are. Similar circumstances divide Canadians in the oil sands region where mining is creating an evironmental disaster.

From a public relations point of view, it is easy to take one side or the other, depending on whom you serve. It is more difficult to take a balanced view, but it is a balanced view that a PR practitioner should take because balance requires respect for facts, for all issues in a case and not just facts you prefer to recognize.

I, for one, intensely dislike unbridled development. The "strip malling" of American comes from collusion of real estate developers and local authorities eager to override urban planning for the sake of property tax dollars. But, as much as I dislike what I consider to be unbridled greed, I also have to accept there are good reasons for towns and cities to do this and similar reasons for developers to build shopping centers. The result, however, is that urban planning rarely works as advertised, and thousands of miles of American roads are ugly. Just saying no to situations like this are not enough. One must find solutions that both sides can live with. That's not easy. True PR requires deep understanding of issues and from that understanding realistic paths for publics to take.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Great PR 

The best PR is a win for everyone. Target audiences are pleased, media are delighted and the organization doing the program achieves its goal. That is why I have written about this event before, and I will write about it again.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had a stroke of brilliance when it funded a robotic vehicle race. No one won the $1 million prize during the first attempt, so DARPA boosted it to $2 million this year. The race is in pursuit of goal to develop useful unmanned vehicles.

Participants are in pursuit of the glory of building the first successful vehicle and taking home a large purse. The media are entranced with the concept and participants and are reporting the race as they would a NASCAR Sunday. And, no one loses even if the vehicles should fail for a second time because the experience gained will go into the next round of racing. Sooner or later, DARPA will win because it will get a practical unmanned vehicle.

I for one will be watching the news reports to see if any of the vehicles finish the desert run.


Comments on my blog entries are welcome. I especially appreciate hearing from anyone who disagrees with what I have to write. I learn from argumentation.

But some idiot is spamming comments to my blog. I pray that this person's hard drive crashes and that the chips fry in this individual's miserable computer. If this idiot does not cease and desist soon, I will turn off comments in the blog for which I ask your forgiveness.

I am not interested in ways to make money at home. I am not interested in earning cash online. I am not interested in anything this idiot is purveying. And, if by chance, he or she should be reading this blog, stop NOW.

Alas, I suspect my name has been sold to spammongers, and I cannot expect this cretin or anyone else to quit. I'll give it a few more days then flip the switch.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


The ultimate game of perception is Wall Street. Investors can no more predict the future than you or I. They can worry a lot or be confident and trade or not, but that doesn't change outcomes. I have often wondered why CEOs get hot under the collar about what Wall Street thinks. Sure, much of a CEO's compensation is based on stock value, but the only thing CEOs can control is what their companies do and not the price of their stock. It doesn't take much to look about and find good companies trading at a low P/E and lousy companies the hot stock of the moment. If Wall Street had any rationality at all, that wouldn't happen. But, it doesn't. It's a perception game of the worst kind where rumor and fact mix indiscriminately.

It is hard to imagine any company these days without a proactive investor relations department to guard its image on the Street. But, it is difficult to accept that CEOs can live or die by stock price when they are doing good jobs otherwise.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Press Releases Online 

A hat tip to my friend, Peter Shinbach, for this story. It relates an experiment comparing the ROI of press releases and advertising on the internet. Not surprisingly, PR comes out well, very well. However, use the results with caution. They are not definitive, and there wasn't a valid statistical test from what I can tell. But, the results are delineated enough that one has to ask questions -- and perhaps repeat the experiment on a larger scale.

I wasn't familiar with this site before the story, but I'll track them from now on.


This is an ugly story about corporate reputation and how it can hurt a company. None of the participants comes out looking good and sadly, they are all newspaper companies. The end of the article is particularly damning:

As the tax ruling reminds us, corporate character matters. When you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.

What's the price of corporate reputation? In this case, about a billion.

Monday, October 03, 2005

No Story 

A number of things lately spurred me to think about clients whose stories are difficult to tell. I have had plenty of these over the years -- clients and stories. They never get easier. It made no difference whether a story was important. Reporters were not interested.

The most maddening experience to date was trying to get business reporters interested in accounting issues. Accounting is the language of business and on definitions of assets, liabilities and equity turn trillions of dollars. Business reporters, however, would have none of it. They didn't know accounting. They didn't want to know accounting. They had no interest in learning about accounting topics. Yet, they reported daily on business stories at whose roots were accounting issues. It was -- and still is -- the height of irresponsibility, but that made no difference. It was an impossible task to make accounting palatable to nonaccountants. I have been through numerous stories like this. Some like accounting are baffling because the issues are so important one cannot imagine a member of the media not being interested.

When companies suffer with the "no story" syndrome, there are several avenues to take. One is to give up, if a company is doing well, and publicity will not make much difference to the bottomline. Another is to keep searching until one finds a key of some sort to unlock indifference. That key may not be a direct attack, but something tangential that captures interest. A third is to keep hammering until someday someone wakes up. The last is the bleakest situation and not preferable, but sometimes, it is all that works.

In my experience, when one has "no story," there can never be enough facts to collect and prepare. That is, one has to do everything one can to deliver testimonials, demonstrations, whatever to get people to pay attention. Scanting any element keeps the media away.

PR practitioners in agencies earn their keep on tough stories. Anybody can represent a celebrity and turn away interviews. I have had only one account where I was a "traffic cop" shuttling media from here to there, and I didn't have to worry about generating interviews. It was too easy. I felt guilty representing the client.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Mea Culpas 

There are now numerous stories correcting original stories that came out of Hurricane Katrina -- lurid tales of rape, robbery, killings, lootings and bodies piled high in the Superdome and elsewhere. The media has recognized too late that it contributed to hysteria rather than reporting facts. I would like to think that some of these stories are "mea culpas" for a poor job of sorting facts from fiction.

On the other hand, what were reporters to do when some falsehoods came from the Mayor of New Orleans and the police chief? The claim that 10,000 people died in New Orleans was directly from the mayor and horror stories of body piles came from the police chief. A charitable explanation of events would conclude that both lost their heads during the disaster. A cynical explanation would say they were attempting to blackmail the Federal government. I can't read the mind of anyone, so I'm not going to assign a reason. Communication broke down in the city, so neither the mayor nor the police chief knew what was happening in those critical hours.

Yup, you saw this coming. The lesson for PR practitioners is simple and part of PR 101. Never speak when you don't have facts. Never. At most, hedge everything you say carefully. You cannot depend on the media doing it for you in a crisis. They failed in New Orleans: They will fail again. The pressure to report an unfolding crisis is so great that rules of good reporting are set aside. Reporters are anxious to record a deluge of facts, impressions and perceptions. They don't have time to sort them out. Editors should apply brakes, but they are overwhelmed too.

What should practitioners be doing in the role of protecting clients during crises? That's the hard part. Perhaps clients are at fault. We don't and can't know until we have facts like everyone else. But, we can make a case to avoid a rush to judgment. "We don't know" is not a satisfying answer, but it is a true one. "You don't know" seems accusatory when dealing with a reporter, but it is likely to be true as well. Reporters can get belligerent when someone tells them to check again, but it seems to me we need to tell them to do so.

I have witnessed crises where clients harmed their cases because facts they should have had weren't available until weeks after initial events. It was too late then. What this tells me is that companies still aren't doing a good job of preparing for crises. They still aren't fashioning likely scenarios of what can happen and rehearsing responses. This is as much a failure of PR as it is of top management.

When a huge crisis hits like Katrina and all communications are severed, expect the worst, for it will most likely happen. Preparation and rehearsals are overwhelmed, and lack of communication makes fact checking impossible. The best one can do is to plead for the media to be careful in what they report. If I find any fault with the Mayor and now, former police chief of New Orleans, it is that they forgot this rule.

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