Monday, January 31, 2005

Profit and PR 

Having been to business school, I have witnessed opposition between the way businesspeople think and PR practitioners speak. The two groups aren't from the same world, or at least, from the same assumptions. MBAs think revenues and earnings. Their motive and success is profit. Reputation, relationships and ethics are added complications to an otherwise simple formula. You are measured by money you make.

Recently, an article in the Financial Times addressed this issue in relation to business school teaching. A business school professor was unhappy that so few of his students understood or cared about ethics. But it made sense that they wouldn't. Their finance, accounting and marketing courses are about profit, about return without relationship to the larger context of business. Their spreadsheets do not have factors for relationships, reputation or ethics. These are off-book items that may be important but don't get one a top grade in a finance course.

Hence, this article, which examines the profit motive against PR principles. PR doesn't come off well. PR practitioners are outsiders who often shout to the deaf. And, regrettably, that is the way it will be. Business exists without ethics other than completion of a transaction. Ethics are imposed on the transaction by buyer and seller and by regulators. Economic transactors can be legitimate businesspersons or crooks. It makes no difference. Even PR principles can be subverted for use in illegal businesses.

The article is bleak but it does not toss reputation, relationships or ethics. It makes the practitioner aware that hewing to these principles means a lifelong fight to be recognized and frequent defeat. But then, you knew that anyway.

Sunday, January 30, 2005


This memo is from early in January, but it is so good that I am citing it here. It is a report and recommendation from a blogger-journalist to his managing editor on how to integrate blogging with a newspaper -- the Greensboro, NC News-Record. Look particularly at his suggestions at the end.

The memo reprises the difficulties newspapers face with declining readership, the success of bloggers in traditional journalism and the rise of community journalism. It's a digest of everything bloggers have discussed during the last year and an argument for incorporating blogging into the paper's editorial process. His suggestions are compelling and a way to get readers involved while keeping the newspaper's editorial integrity intact.

It struck me that much of what he recommends could be used in any multi-location company that is trying to keep a useful flow of news going to employees. For example, there is no reason why there shouldn't be a blogger assigned for groups of stores in a retail chain -- say, one blogger for every 10 stores -- whose job is to track what is happening in the stores and to log news for employees in them. This could be done on the company's intranet and made available to the company population as a whole. The editors of general employee publications can draw on these blogs for stories that go into greater depth. This approach would take away any headquarters bias of employee publications and bring the point of customer contact closer to the entire company. The same can be done for plant sites, for distribution points and for sales offices. In other words, the same community journalism envisioned for newspapers can also be done for in-house communications.

I'm sure there are practitioners doing this already. If so, I would like to hear from you.

Friday, January 28, 2005

A Neat Promotional Tool 

This tool is begging for a publicity person to adapt it and use it. It would make a great promotional device. I've tried it and it's eerily precise.

Useful Reminder 

Although some examples are suspect, this story from USA Today is a useful reminder to bloggers that similar media have been used before in history. But was Tom Paine really a blogger?

It's good to keep a perspective about what we are doing.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Future Now 

This story from Wired magazine is an example of new media that PR practitioners will have soon enough. Use of digital projection is well known. (I've seen it twice in two different science museums.), but the use of high-speed data transmission and WiMax to deliver the movie to a remote theater at 24 Mbps is a test bed.

The news is not that it was done but the implications of doing it. As the story points out, one can show a movie at the same time in thousands of theaters throughout the world and reach a larger audience than at any time in movie history. Further, one can use the technology for little movies and documentaries filmed with inexpensive digital cameras. Need an instant documentary? We have one for you.

This should be a great PR tool when developed, but if my bet is accurate, it won't be. Marketers will use it first, or politicians in campaigns, and then, it will filter its way to PR people. I hope I'm wrong, but I haven't been yet when I've predicted that PR will lag.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Slow Death 

AOL has announced that it won't provide access to newsgroups anymore. Few are using them, so now one will go through Google, which seems to be the last organization that tracks them.

Most PR practitioners know little about newsgroups. They are an artifact of the early Internet before the Web dominated. There was a time that if one wanted to talk to other PR practitioners, the newsgroup was the way to do it -- and there wasn't much else except CompuServe, another name lost to the past.

The Web is a second generation technology to sweep the Internet and blogs are a third. We tend to forget the Internet is in its 35th year of existence and the Web but 13 or so. Blogs date from the early 1990s but they didn't come into their own until after 1995, and they didn't explode until two years ago.

Old timers remember when we checked newsgroups to find out what people were saying about products, services and clients. I haven't done that in a long time. In fact, when we monitored the web for a major electronics company over a two-year period recently, we rarely looked at or took anything from newsgroups. They were dated and shrinking in usage.

Nothing about the Internet is new, but some things about the Web are. It's good to know where the medium has come from and where it is going.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Slip Sliding Away 

How does a respectable corporate executive slip into fraud and ruin his reputation and the reputation of his company? Oddly enough, a book on Accounting Irregularities and Financial Fraud, (Aspen Law & Business, 2002) paints a convincing picture of what happens.

It's important to understand how irregularities occur because every one of us can be tarred by major failure. The editor of the book, an attorney by the name of Michael R. Young, draws a picture that limns the Internet Bubble.

It starts with a company that is a hot stock and a CEO who is overly concerned with Wall Street's opinion. The CEO sees business starting to slow before Wall Street senses it. Usually a slowdown is cyclical because no business grows at a fast pace forever. The CEO refuses to accept that the company must cut earnings, and he damn well doesn't want to see his stock price fall. To prevent that, the CEO holds his executives to high earnings targets and will not bend. His subordinates MUST find a way to meet sales and earnings goals -- often called "stretch goals."

A division president knows there is no way he is going to make the target based on the business, so he looks at gray areas of accounting and starts to cut corners legally. He'll ship as much inventory at the end of a quarter as he can. He'll cut reserves for bad debt. None of these things are wrong, but they are not recommended. The problem is the next quarter the business still has not picked up, and the president has to make the bogey again. He becomes even more aggressive with accounting. It happens the next quarter too and the quarter after that. Pretty soon, he has uncollectible receivables and erroneous inventory levels. There is nothing he can do except to continue the fraud until someone discovers it, and the reputation of the executive and the company are damaged.

The president didn't start out to be dishonest. The CEO pressured him and created a "no-excuses" environment that was more than the president could bear. The president didn't engage in massive irregularities at first. He did little things that took control of him rather than he controlling them. The fraud grows and grows, and there is no way out. Eventually, it bursts.

Every one of us has seen companies run like this, and most of us have probably gone along with the pressure because "that's the way business is." The point this attorney is making is that isn't the way business should be. Honesty is the first and best policy. The first person who was dishonest wasn't the president but the CEO who would not accept the cyclical nature of the business. Unfortunately, the CEO is likely to get away unscathed and the division president take the fall.

There is not much PR practitioners can say when CEOs become arrogant, but it should be a warning to get out of the company before the house of cards collapses.

Sunday, January 23, 2005


Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is the focus of the current Economist survey. Do yourself a favor and read it, although it is lengthy.

The key section is Profit and the Public Good. The magazine points out that the first responsibility of a business is to make a profit. In the process of making a profit, a business produces social good in specific ways. (This assumes a business is ethical to begin with and not in drug-dealing or other destructive behavior.)

There is room for regulation where the pricing of products does not account for the full effects of the manufacturing on the environment -- e.g., global warming and air pollution. But, the idea that a firm should reduce profits to raise social welfare is foolish in that it is an attempt to "borrow virtue," as the magazine says. In fact, the magazine provides the traditional four-box matrix to show where CSR makes sense and where it doesn't. Where CSR both raises profits and social welfare is termed "good management." Where it reduces profits and social welfare is called "delusional CSR."

While there are businesses that are able to do good and make a profit at the same time, the magazine is frank about the fact that most businesses are using CSR cosmetically -- "borrowing virtue."

The survey is worth your time, especially sections where the magazine states that many CSR economists misunderstand economics. That's good for argument.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Not Last Night 

Here in the Tristate area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, many of us who work in PR don't drive. We take a train from the suburbs. This is a problem when staying out late with clients, as it was last night. In fact, I am writing this with three hours of sleep.

It has been a practice when working late to take a car service home because train schedules are poor after rush hour. There is one an hour. Miss it and you sit in the terminal for the next one. A car service can help cut the wait time and gain the sleep one needs for the next day. Last night, it was approaching 10:30 when I bid the clients good-bye and left them in the capable hands of two colleagues (who live in Manhattan). I called the car service from the restaurant, expecting at most a 20-minute wait. The woman on the other end of the phone bawled in her best Brooklynese, "An hour ana half." It didn't take much mental calculation to show that it would be midnight even before I could get picked up. Even sleeping in a car wasn't going to help. So, it was back to the train. I rushed to the station and sure enough, I had missed it. I got to my town at 12:25 am.

There ought to be a better way, but in the many years that I have worked in this area, I've never found it. For some activities in PR, it's just better to live close to work.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

What the Hell 

Crises can come from anywhere at any time. Nice words but when they actually come, my first reaction is, "What the hell. How did THAT happen?"

I got a phone call from a client this evening with a story that was amazing. Out of nowhere, a crisis has hit this client at precisely the wrong time. The client didn't see it coming. We didn't. No one we know mentioned the possibility of it happening. But, it's here and it will require legal action in a hurry to prevent serious damage to the client's reputation.

I called my boss, thinking he knew about the crisis and started to tell him about the phone call. He stopped me and asked what I was talking about. He hadn't heard either, although I had thought the client had called him first. When I explained to him what was happening, he had the same reaction, although he is too polite to use a swear word.

This is the second time in less than a year that a crisis has come like a bolt from a cave where lightning is never supposed to be. We'll deal with it because we always do, but it would be nice to have an inkling once in awhile that something like this might hit.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

As the Elections Go 

Have you noticed that since the elections, stories about President Bush have grown softer? Reporters can read election returns and polls too. There are more stories without charges and more adoring stories (such as the Barbara Walters Special) than Bush had all of last year.

This turn in perception is enough to make an observer cynical about the ways of man, but on the other hand, it shows reporters and editors have accepted that the people have spoken. It's time to get on with governing.

Companies and CEOs go through the same swings of good and bad press, and there is little one can do about it. If a CEO hits a bad quarter or two, naysayers suddenly have major voices in the media. If the CEO turns it around, there is the "wait-and-see" story followed by the "he-did-it" story. All this is as predictable as a sunrise. One would think reporters would step outside of their herd mentality and look impartially, but for the most part, they rely on conventional wisdom and what preferred sources say.

It's hard to break this habit among reporters. Yet, this is one of the major tasks PR practitioners have when a company has a message that isn't getting out. It make take months for a reporter to come around, but one has to keep hammering. This is the value of maintaining good relationships with reporters, even when they bludgeon you.

Bush has a brief period of reconciliation with his critics until the inauguration is over. Then, of course, it will be back to the wars. It must feel good to get a breather of a few weeks.

Monday, January 17, 2005


The Los Angeles Times has a lengthy article on a dirty secret of our business -- gimmes, or as the article says, "swag" that journalists take freely and sometimes demand for coverage. "Swag" has always been part of the business. In the Post-Nixon, Watergate era, there was a crackdown on reporters taking expensive swag like cases of liquor, but there were always little giveaways they could take with them. The article seems to indicate the problem has grown out of control again -- at least in entertainment PR.

Reporters can claim ethics all they want, but when they demand dresses and abscond with expensive items they prove themselves no better than anyone else. That is natural, of course. They are human. Give credit to PR practitioners for understanding that and feeding the habit for their own purposes. But there are limits and it looks to me as if they might be getting out of control in the LA basin.

PR 101 

Soldiers going to Iraq are getting lessons in dealing with the media before they depart, and it appears the lessons they are getting would give anyone a good grade in a basic PR course. Look here for the lessons. Not bad.

PR World 

Did you notice this interview with Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com? It sounds like a public relations point of view. Make sure you DO before you SAY.

...more and more money will go into making a great customer experience, and less will go into shouting about the service. Word of mouth is becoming more powerful. If you offer a great service, people find out.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Set Up 

With some reporters, you know when they call that nothing will go well from that point. It's the 60 Minutes Syndrome. Last Thursday, a gentle-voiced reporter called me and said she was going to write about a client. Could I possibly arrange an interview? I bolted to attention. This reporter never writes anything that praises anyone. She is an investigative columnist.

I told her I had to check on the availability of the client, who really was out of town and not easy to access. My first temptation was to say the client was unreachable, but I knew she wasn't calling unless she was going to write. I ditched that idea instantly and called our direct client contact, who was in a meeting. He was whispering on the phone to me until I told him the name of the reporter. You could hear him leaving the room and concern rising with his voice. I told him I was going to find the people the reporter wanted to talk to but he needed to know.

We got the client on the phone and thankfully, there was no resistance to talking to the reporter. The client knew the case and understood that if the client's points weren't made up front, they wouldn't get into the article. We had to dash to a videoconference so the client called the reporter alone, something we don't like to do but in this case was unavoidable.

Well, the story appeared, and it is everything we expected -- awful, harsh, mocking. The reporter did mention the client's points, however, which scarcely mitigated the hatchet job she did. Fortunately, the client hasn't expressed much irritation. Everybody knew it was going to be bad. It was a matter of degree.

Thursday, January 13, 2005


This must be a week to write about disasters. Yesterday, we had a near disaster in a new business meeting. We were talking to a CEO who asked us to describe our creative idea for marketing his high-tech service. We gave him a wonderful description of what we would do and how this would nail the center of his market and steal a march on his competitors. If I do say so, it was terrific.

There was a pause, and the CEO proceeded to tell us why the idea wouldn't work. It would alienate his customers and cause a severe problem with the company's marketing.

Oops! For a second, a dropping pin would have sounded like bell. It was clear we did not understand the CEO's marketing problem. So, we did the next best thing. We began to ask him questions. Why wouldn't it work? What was the flaw? The CEO explained his predicament. It became clear that the solution was something completely different -- a targeted campaign that hides what the CEO is doing from competitors poised to catch up.

We continued to ask questions, and it dawned on us that our idea could be modified for target markets, if handled carefully. We pulled the idea off the scrap heap, brushed it off, and suggested it again in a new context. To our relief, the CEO said, "That's a good idea."

We left the meeting with a feeling that we had acquitted ourselves, but it was close. We had almost blown ourselves out of the water with a creative bomb. It reminded me of a terrible misfortune that happened to World War II submarines. A submarine would fire a torpedo, and the rudder on the torpedo would suddenly jam to the side and throw the weapon into circle that brought it back to the submarine. The torpedo would frequently sink the submarine with all hands aboard.

We had given the CEO our best shot then watched it circle back and nearly sink us. That's not a great feeling.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


Some time ago, a publicist contacted me and asked if I would do a book review on the blog. I was surprised by that request, because I hardly think my opinions sell books, but I told her that I would. I cautioned her that I am a tough reviewer, and if I didn't like the book, I would say so. I never heard from her again until a day ago. There was a Fedex envelope in the office bulging to the point of bursting. Inside was a press kit and book. The publicist, Melissa Weiner, of Stray Dog Media in Santa Fe, NM, wrote a letter that was a little too cute. It opened thus, "There is a clich , "We all make mistakes."

The book is called Talespin: Public relations disasters -- inside stories & lessons learnt. It's good, but it's the kind of work that you won't read from cover to cover. The book is filled with mini-case studies followed by pithy advice, somewhat like Aesop's Fables. Its contents run from A to Z (literally) with anywhere from one to seven mini disaster case studies under each letter. Some are funny, some outrageous and some Acts of God that no PR practitioner could have anticipated. The writer, an Australian, Gerry McCusker, is partial to European football stories and to zingy language to brighten things.

Is this an essential work for the practitioner's shelf? No, but it is decent and worth investigating, if you want to get an idea of what can go wrong in this business. (In short, anything and everything.) McCusker's advice is good if conventional, but there is nothing wrong with that. Too much advice in PR is bad and unconventional.

So if you are interested, here is the ISBN: 0 7494 4259 X.

I don't think I will make it a practice of reviewing books, but Melissa showed courage in contacting me, so she deserves something in return. Besides, I envy anyone who lives and works in Santa Fe.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Blowing It 

Once in awhile, we blow something big. Sometimes we could have seen it coming, sometimes not. There is no joy when that happens, but there is fear that a client will fire us, that our boss will kick us out, that we will never recover from the bonehead move we made. It is then the temptation to cover up and justify is overpowering. But it is also then that we earn our reputations, if we confess our stupidity and take the blame for the error.

I don't know about you, but I have made mistakes throughout my career and in my personal life. I don't know of anyone who hasn't made one or two. We are human, even though clients expect us to be perfect. In the end, it is the size of error that counts, it seems to me. A typo can usually be recovered. Wrong advice for how to handle an interview might be damaging. Sending inaccurate information to reporters and then trying to cover it up is fatal if one is caught.

Honesty in the PR business should not be the best policy. It should be the only policy. That is why it is disheartening to see practitioners who "fib," use "white lies" or spin truth into something that has little relationship to reality.

Even at the risk of getting fired, be honest about what you have done. Then, don't do it again.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Sad End of Big Hype 

This story from Arizona shows how far a much-hyped project has fallen. Millions were spent on building the biosphere and the publicity was an intense as anything I can remember during that time period. Of course the project ran into trouble and then into fraud when the theory didn't meet practice.

The lesson here is to control the hype when you are trying something new. Acknowledge the difficulties. Undersell and over-achieve. It would have been nice had the Biosphere turned into a true science facility for all the money that was spent there. So far, it hasn't and it may never.

Fired Bloggers 

If you think that bloggers are free from corporate interference, check this site. It should change your mind, even if the list of fired bloggers is incomplete or otherwise inaccurate. Those who believe that bloggers should be free from corporate control just don't get it -- for example, the people who sponsor this site.

Ethics, Part II 

As long as we are speaking of ethics, this problem is one that software companies should be ashamed of. That a magazine does an annual expose on vaporware shows how prevalent the problem is in the industry. It's not just bad PR to promise what you can't deliver, it is dishonest and a fundamental breach with customers.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Ethics, Anyone? 

The news from late last week was disturbing on the PR front. USA Today reported that the US Department of Education had paid commentator and columnist, Armstrong Williams, $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind Law(NCLB) , a favorite of the Bush Administration. The money was for Williams to bring up the law regularly on his radio broadcasts, as well as to interview the Secretary of Education, Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during 2004.

The disturbing part of the news was that Ketchum Public Relations was hauled in as part of the contract to use Williams' contacts with a group of black broadcast journalists to get them to talk up the NCLB law as well. Williams did just that. Here's the problem. Williams never disclosed his contract to his audiences, although he maintains that he told his colleagues about it. If Ketchum disclosed what was happening, no one seems to know that. Now, in my memory, the Public Relations Society of America in its principles calls for transparency in these kinds of relationships.

Needless to say, Williams' colleagues in the journalism world were unhappy about these monetary arrangements even though Williams says he believes in the law and would have promoted it anyway.

It is hard to say how Ketchum comes out in all of this. Apparently Williams was part of a $1 million contract with Ketchum to make Video News Releases about NCLB with Williams the featured person. The Bush administration already got into trouble for doing VNRs about Medicare, so it is certain to get into trouble again with this.

Perhaps no one had an ethical lapse in the end, but it does make a case for transparency to maintain credibility.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Old Product, New Publicity 

There can't be a more basic product than concrete. It has been around for thousands of years. The Romans used it: The Pantheon is built of it. So what can one say to make concrete interesting? It turns out one can say quite a lot as this article from Science News shows. Concrete is no longer the product we think we know. Scientists have reinvented it into an exciting material that does more than anyone thought possible, including bending like metal.

If someone 10 years ago had asked me to publicize concrete, I would have had a hard time coming up with a story about the material itself. Now, with see-through concrete, there are stories aplenty, enough to keep a PR agency or corporate communications department busy.

What's the point of this thought? Just about everything can be made new in some way if one tries hard enough. In the case of concrete it took innovative thinking, but it was done and the result is an exciting.

These are publicity opportunities I find interesting. No one expects much, so they are impressed by what you can do.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Watch Where You Write 

This article verifies what several have said for some time. When you work for a company, the company controls your machine and work product you produce. You don't, so watch what you say. In this case, a man was using an organization's computer for pornography searches. The organization allowed the authorities to take the computer and use it to convict the man. The Washington State appeals court upheld the seizure and conviction.

I don't expect many readers of this blog will be downloading pornography, but you could be writing unflattering e-mails about your bosses to friends, or you could be storing confidential data on your hard drive that should not be on your machine. Either way, you have put yourself in jeopardy, if you have done so. Criminal cases that have been made with e-mail evidence have grown significantly. So too, secret company documents on hard drives have a way of finding themselves in the public eye -- e.g. Enron.

The old rule still applies. If you won't want it exposed, don't write it in the first place. PR practitioners often handle sensitive data, and it is easy to become lackadaisical about it.


Tuesday, January 04, 2005


Before you go into that next brainstorming session to come up with the ultimate publicity stunt, read this . It looks at six myths of creativity, and there is a lot of common sense to the observations. There are people in the world of great creativity, but they are few. There has been but one Mozart and one Da Vinci. Most of us make do and that is good enough for clients. Note particularly the comment about creativity and downsizing being PR spin.

Blog Tracking 

I missed this story from last week on Bacon's tracking blogs as part of clip coverage. The way they are going about it, however, seems cumbersome. There must be a better way.

More Stats 

This study from Stanford determined that 60 percent of Americans use the internet now, and they spend more time per day on the internet than they do watching TV -- 3 hours online to 1.7 hours of viewing. If there was ever proof of the need to make the internet a primary part of your communications plan, this is it, especially since one-third of the time spent on the internet is at work. Read the whole summary, especially the part about the internet reducing sleep time. No wonder you're tired.

Monday, January 03, 2005


Since the economic bubble burst in 2000, many businesses have disappeared through merger or collapse. PR practitioners went with them. Sometimes they saw it coming and sometimes they were surprised, as nearly everyone was with the failure of Arthur Andersen, the former accounting firm, for example.

In my time in PR, I have seen a number of companies come and go. Some hit a wall at 100 miles an hour and never saw it there. Others lingered then failed. A few transformed themselves and went on to new growth.

The question PR practitioners should ask if they see that a business is dying is what to do about it. This article is a partial answer to that. It discusses broad areas of concern and the importance of communications in turning around a dying business.

Even though the economy is recovering, more businesses will die, and more practitioners will be shunted out of work. That is guaranteed because capitalism shows no favorites.

As always, let me know what you think.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Good Idea 

I don't know where I have been but I wasn't aware of Vmags for college recruiting until a New York Times article from last week (Dec. 30). The article focused on St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, IN. It's a good PR idea to have full-motion video with sound for show-and-tells in magazine form. The system the campus is using is called Vmag from NEWGame communications in Charlotte, NC. Each magazine has a package of four one to two minute video clips of aspects of campus life for prospective recruits.

I had trouble getting connected because I don't allow ActiveX controls on my system but after getting around that, the system is ready to receive 5-minute magazines sent from the college. I will be interested to see how they look, and you might be too.

While this blog doesn't flack products or services, it does take note of good ideas -- and this one seems to be that. I am curious to know what you think about it. Video magazines, it seems to me, have wide application in both the non-profit and corporate environments.

Saturday, January 01, 2005


I firmly resolve during the year 2005 to make no resolutions. I don't keep them anyway.

I could resolve to lose weight but that has been a losing 20-year struggle, so I won't do that. I could resolve to be more patient, but I have been impatient since birth, so why bother? I could resolve to do many things that need work and like Benjamin Franklin be systematic in controlling them. But, Ben wasn't entirely honest about his efforts toward self-perfection anyway.

Nope, the best thing to do is to recognize that there are unhappy character and physical flaws in everyone and to learn to live with them the best one can. That's a fundamental part of relating to the public, isn't it? (Excuse me, the public is outside you and not you - Ed.) OK, it is. Still, I'm not making any resolutions.

Happy New Year.

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