Friday, June 30, 2006

High-Risk PR 

The National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA) is betting its most important program on the space shuttle flight this weekend. That's high-risk PR. Should the shuttle fail again, there is little likelihood NASA would attempt to fly the remaining equipment into space. Even if the shuttle works, there is so little trust left in the agency and the shuttle among citizens and influentials that NASA will hardly win public opinion back.

This is quite a come-down for an organization that was once the focus of the world's attention. NASA is an after-thought at a time when we use space routinely. We listen to radio from space, make telephone calls, guide ourselves and watch the weather all from hundreds or thousands of miles from earth. There isn't any surprise left, and few understand the value of a space station, including many scientists.

But NASA plods on.

Working in PR at the agency must be a difficult chore. Sure, one grinds out press releases and issues press passes and does all the things media relations require, but underneath press attention is a deathwatch -- will the shuttle blow up again? There is little one can do to change that attitude, which makes PR futile for the shuttle program.

Here is a wish for the shuttle to fly well and for everyone to come home safe. No one wants to see astronauts die in the cause of science, especially when scientific value is unproven. Perhaps the best PR would be to retire the shuttle program soon and try again with another vehicle.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Man The Measure 

During the past week, I read two books and an article from a science magazine that curiously all dealt with the same issue -- objectivity. One book was the measure of the meter done at the time of the French Revolution. The other book was about the American artist, Thomas Eakins. The article was about the ability of bird's and reptiles to perceive ultraviolet light. All came to the same basic conclusion -- seeing is an act limited by the observer. We cannot escape perception no matter how hard we try, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. This issue, of course, is at the heart of PR work and arguments over whether one should "spin" facts or offer them. One can present them or smooth them to fit personal bias. I have always believed PR's primary obligation is to present rather than smooth. Others differ. In the end, both points of view can succeed or fail in the PR business, but one lends to credibility and the other doesn't over the long run. And, whether or not one examines the question, sooner or later each PR practitioner ends up in or the other camp.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


It was a week of travel in California that has now ended. The state was running over a hundred most of the time and Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley was difficult to live in. I had forgotten how uncomfortable it can get.

It was good to be on another coast, however. It puts things in perspective. For example, the daily newspapers I read out there barely covered national or international news. And, these are large-circulation papers. I didn't get to watch much TV but the little I saw had local news -- the same car-crashes, shootings and local tragedies that keep local TV news going everywhere. The mayor of San Jose was indicted for bribery, though, which was something new.

It's good to be home.

Monday, June 19, 2006


Beginning tomorrow, I'll be otherwise occupied for eight days, so there won't be any posting. I'll be back about the middle of next week.

To all of my readers, thank you for taking the time.

Bias by Visual? 

A major American newspaper blundered over the weekend, it seems to me, when it reported backdating of options at a company and showed a headshot of the CEO. The blunder was that the backdating had occurred before the CEO was in office. The visual made it appear just the opposite until one read the story carefully. What leads me to believe that bias might have been in the choice to run the photo is that this CEO is not as popular as the CEO who came before him.

I don't know how one corrects such a choice with a newspaper because the damage is done. Readers who scan headlines say to themselves that not only don't I like this guy, but he is shady too. Nothing could be further from the truth. One hopes the editors involved will acknowledge the blunder and try to make it right in the future.

Meanwhile, what does the PR department do at the company and how do you explain it to the CEO?

Friday, June 16, 2006

PR and Propaganda in War 

This document said by the Associated Press to have been found in al-Zarqawi's safe-house in Iraq (that wasn't so safe) is instructive on the use of PR and propaganda during war time. Here are a few snips:

As an overall picture, time has been an element in affecting negatively the forces of the occupying countries, due to the losses they sustain economically in human lives, which are increasing with time. However, here in Iraq, time is now beginning to be of service to the American forces and harmful to the resistance for the following reasons:

By undertaking a media campaign against the resistance resulting in weakening its influence inside the country and presenting its work as harmful to the population rather than being beneficial to the population.

Based on the above points, it became necessary that these matters should be treated one by one:

1. To improve the image of the resistance in society, increase the number of supporters who are refusing occupation and show the clash of interest between society and the occupation and its collaborators. To use the media for spreading an effective and creative image of the resistance.
7. To avoid mistakes that will blemish the image of the resistance and show it as the enemy of the nation.

There is more. It is worth reading and reflecting upon. The enemy is as adept in PR and propaganda techniques as we are.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Media Scams 

One way editors use to sell magazines is to create lists --the Top 50 this, the Top 100 that, the 25 standouts of the year, etc. But, as this commentator points out, it's a scam, especially when rankings are opinions. Unless one is using verified data like the Fortune 500 list with clear delineations for rankings, there isn't a way to rank well. Yet, as PR practitioners we play into these editorial scams constantly. I suppose we accept that if we help editors sell magazines, editors will help our clients in return. That's OK to a point but there are times, as in choosing a doctor, when it's risky.

Lists are overdone, but don't expect to see them disappear anytime soon.

List Management 

There was an anonymous response yesterday to the posting titled "one chance" in which I cautioned a person who had spammed me with a press release. The respondent asked why I didn't ask to be taken off the mailing list and said it was unreasonable to expect a publicist to manage a list, which the publicist might have bought somewhere.

Unfortunately, list management of media is what PR practitioners do, or should be doing. One of our key tasks is to know the media that cover our organizations' interests. As the media never tire in telling us, it's our responsibility to know who they are and not their responsibility to educate us.

I wish I could agree with this respondent, but I can't. I and my colleagues spend hundreds of hours annually developing, checking and rechecking media lists to make sure they go to the right reporters. We haven't been right every time, but it's not for want of trying. Any practitioner who says list management is "not my job" is someone who doesn't know PR, it seems to me.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


This story happened a few days ago, but it is amusing. It seems The New York Times still doesn't understand how online works, and General Motors has had to teach them a lesson. It's not a new lesson, but it is embarrassing, and it shows how arrogant mainstream media can be.

Same Old Same Old 

This article on web site usability points out eight problems with web sites that haven't changed since the beginning of web sites. It's long past time for these kinds of errors to be corrected. If you have any influence at all over your organization's web site, review it for these errors, especially for "vaporous content and empty hype."

One Chance 

A publicist from a Los Angeles agency sent me a press release yesterday about a topic that I have never covered and never would cover. My name was on a list somewhere. This is a reminder to the publicist to check before sending out mass mailings. Should there be a next time, his name and agency will be listed for all to read.

Reporters and editors complain constantly about being bombarded with useless releases because PR practitioners fail to read their publication or check their beats before sending them out. It is a longstanding abusive practice, and it is my belief that PR bloggers should help stop it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

PR by Suicide 

Every PR practitioner by now has read the unfortunate quote from a senior US State Department official that three suicides in the prison at Guantanamo Bay were a "good PR move." By those lights, the shelling of Palestinians on the Gaza beachfront by the Israelis was a bad PR move.

The statement was not only regrettable, it revealed something about the official who said it. For this official, human action is symbolic. There is no other meaning. There is no despair. There is no anger. There is no personal rebellion against conditions in which one is thrust. Killing oneself is simply a way to rally the troops through a compelling publicity stunt.

It's possible and maybe, even probable. But the worst PR is to identify it as that, especially in light of conditions under which the prisoners were held with little recourse to lawyers or justice. The quote only served to enrage Arab nations who don't need any more provocation.

The quote should go down as one of the dumbest PR moves of the war.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Back to the Beginning 

My daughter's Girl Scout troop needed a PR release and publicity photo recently for a project on which the troop is working. It is typical of small organizations that they have no resources for such things. So, it was fun to go back to the beginning of publicity work and do everything myself.

I write releases, of course, but I hadn't shot a publicity photo in years. There's a trick to doing it and making it interesting. I didn't achieve that, but I think I met most of the unwritten rules. It's important to have some of the girls in the photo, so their parents can see them. You must have more than one, or the "sniping factor" will begin. "How come my child was left out?" You should have them all in uniform, although one wasn't. All their faces should be clearly visible and evenly exposed. I took the photo in mottled light, but it would have been better in full shade. They should be doing something interesting. Ah, that was the trick. There wasn't anything interesting about collecting small toys and games for children, especially since they hadn't started yet. So, I posed them around the collection box holding out the small toys and games they were looking for. At least, it told the story of what was needed.

Was it a great publicity shot? Not in the least. It suffered from failure of the imagination, but I had 10 minutes to take it and three minutes of preplanning. As my old photography teacher would say, that's no excuse. It should have been better. On the other hand, with a night's rest and reflection, I still don't know what else I would have done.

The next trick was converting color to black and white for the newspaper. I'm not good at this. The whites aren't white enough and blacks too gray. Yet, publicity photos are supposed to submitted to a newspaper in middle tones of gray because newspaper presses tend to print in higher contrast. I just hope it works for the paper.

Could I go back to this kind of publicity if I had to? I guess I could, but I need work.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Where PR Shines 

This story describing the scientific battle over fish consumption and mercury levels is where PR is practiced at its best. For one, there is not yet proof that any level of mercury consumption is injurious to fetal health. (Whole societies have depended on fish for many centuries.) Secondly, there is proof some level of mercury consumption is dangerous to fetal development. Third, it is apparently a modern problem exacerbated by air discharges from coal-fired plants.

Industries hang in the balance of the battle. Science may someday define a precise level of fish and mercury consumption. Meanwhile, each side marshals studies against the other to score points, and public relations is an essential part of the mix.

One could call this "spin" and not PR, but that would be incorrect. Because there is no proof, the fish industry has a right to defend itself against those who would shut it down. On the other hand, those worried about mercury have an equal right to highlight potential harm.

One can argue that the effect of the PR battle is to confuse the public and not build relationships. That is true, but on the other hand, the battle is informing the public of the two sides of the issue and providing information for citizens to decide for themselves.

I will be watching the outcome with interest. Meanwhile, I enjoy grilled salmon.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Basics 

This story on the oldest drawing of a face in Europe is telling. It is four straight lines for eyes, nose and mouth on a wall. Just the basics and nothing more, but one can tell what the drawing is and the communication is complete. There is no need for elaboration.

Sometimes what we do in PR is just as basic -- the 5W's. And, more often than not, that is sufficient. There is no need for piles of adjectives and adverbs and explanations.

My colleagues and I disagree sometimes on style. I prefer bare-boned prose that communicates quickly. It is not artful but honed artlessness. My feeling is that the people to whom I write -- reporters -- want information fast, and they don't want to be sold. Just the facts, Sir.

Sometimes I am wrong, and reporters do want to be coddled, but it is still difficult for me to lard sentences with needless words.

I guess every writer has a failing.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Old and New 

The power went out for more than two hours here last night. It was a reminder about old and new ways of living. First, my daughter sat outside on the porch while she did her homework by fading day, then we went to flashlights and finally, I went to candles to read. It took four candles, and it was still hard to see the book.

When the power went back on after 10 pm, the next step was getting everything started again, especially the computer and phone system. Our phone is VOIP and my wife is on WiFi. Getting this functioning is an exercise in unplugging and replugging the cable modem, router and phone box in the right sequence then hoping. My wife couldn't get back on the internet, but I could.

It is more inconvenient than ever to lose power. What worried me was the surge of the power failing then blinking and going dark as it did. I have double surge protectors, but even so, the thought of frying a hard drive is angst-inducing.

All this has little to do with the practice of PR except it is a condition of what practitioners do now. We need to know things that those who came before never considered. In that respect, the old days of manual typewriters were easier. About all one had to learn was how to change a ribbon and unstick keys. (And most of you, dear readers, won't remember that.)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Clueless PR 

Stories like this give PR a bad name. It appears the reporter knew more about Google than the PR person, and the PR person failed to do homework. It's upsetting. What it does is verify a reporter's worst impressions about the PR business -- namely, that we are clueless drones who interfere with reporting rather than helping.

There are times in every company when one is trapped off by events and activities in the ranks. Even though one keeps an ear to internal news and gossip, someone has been doing something somewhere you don't know about. This should be rare, however. The first job of a good internal PR person is to know what is happening inside, so he or she can represent a company properly to the outside.

As an agency person, I rely on the deep knowledge of internal PR contacts to stay on the right track when representing a company to the media. If my contact doesn't know, I'm in trouble because inevitably I will say the wrong thing or miss a critical nuance. That is why good PR programs always require good internal PR. There never should be competition between an internal person and an agency, but unfortunately, there often is.

There should be a required course for every company PR person. That course has but one lesson: Know what's going on inside. It would involve building contact lists internally, tracking gossip, ferreting sources deep in the ranks to the point where a CEO asks the PR person regularly what he or she knows.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Bad Data 

The legacy of lousy data is embarrassment and loss of reputation. Just ask the American Medical Association. It did what unfortunately far too many companies and PR practitioners still do -- conducted a non-random online survey. It then trumpeted results only to learn its data was wrong.

Its irksome to know that an organization dedicated to the science of health could be so unscientific in its approach. On the other hand, with apologies and abundant discussion of the correction, the AMA has learned a lesson. What about others who continue to use nonrandom methods -- and worse, to defend the approach?

Polling has been suspect for quite some time because of an inability to get random results whether through phone, mail, e-mail or direct contact. People don't cooperate anymore. But randomness is an essential element to projecting a universe. Without it, all other manipulations, summations and cross-tabbing have no validity. Anyone who has taken a basis statistics course knows this -- or should know it.

So why does junk data keep reaching the public and who is being dishonest?

Friday, June 02, 2006

Publicity Opportunity 

I'm not much on the new fad of YouTube, the short films anyone can post on the Internet (within limits of good taste.) I am intrigued by the publicity opportunities of it. It seems to me it is a perfect visual opportunity to gain product awareness. For example, sponsor a creative filmmaking contest using Legos and post winners on the site. There are many products that could benefit from this visual awareness while at the same time celebrating the creativity of users. That's a -- pardon the cliche -- "win-win."

I'm sure there are some creative publicists out there who have already figured this out. I'd like to hear from anyone who is using YouTube already for creative product awareness.

The downside of this idea, of course, is that hacks will get into the picture who have no sense of subtlety and who will try to use YouTube for blatant product promotion. That would be sad but typical.

Perceptive Comment 

There is at least one perceptive comment in this article on the efforts of newspapers to woo bloggers. It's at the end. An editor asks where bloggers would be without news media that generate content for bloggers to reference -- just as this post is doing.

25 Worst Tech Products 

Skip the hyped headline in this article, but remember that each of these 25 wretched products had PR people telling us how great they were.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


If you are a publicist for Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, how do you handle this? Come live here, and we'll find water eventually? The Southwest, especially Arizona, has been hyped for decades as an ideal place to live. It's never had enough water to serve the population there, and power consumption in the summer for air conditioning is huge. Las Vegas is the same.

Is it time to temper PR for these areas with some environmental concern?

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