Thursday, August 31, 2006


This is one of those mornings when I take the 5:18 am train to New York. My colleague who has farther to come is already on a train that left his station at 4 am. My client has been up since midnight. So, I have it easy by comparison.

I don't recall my momma telling me there would be days like this in the PR business, but occasionally, early hours are part of the job requirement.

It's a big day for the client, but by 5 pm tonight, all any of us will want is a pillow. Adrenalin takes one only so far. So, pardon me while I get dressed and oriented toward the door with briefcase in hand.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Circular Logic 

The inability of a populace to understand complex issues is one of the limitations of democracy and of PR. Much of what we do is to simplify concepts so a broader group can grasp them. I was reminded of this when I read this story about a proposal to tax oil companies operating in California in order to put some of their profits to work on alternative fuels.

The logic sounds inviting, but in the end, Californians will pay the tax themselves in the form of higher fuel costs. Let's see. Californians are angry over the cost of fuel, so they tax the oil companies operating there who end up by increasing the cost of fuel, thereby making Californians more angry. Yes, that seems to make sense. But, that is the kind of circular logic that can happen in just about any proposal if the surface seems inviting enough.

A first rule of PR is accuracy -- understanding the issue at hand and expressing it correctly and factually. It seems to me that what California needs is a few more PR practitioners who know how to analyze issues.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Can't Win 

Along the lines of yesterday's post about the Army and reporting of death, here is another case where authorities can't win the positive perception of citizens. New Orleans must move ahead to survive, but in doing so, it will anger tens of thousands of struggling householders. There is no way to please everyone, nor should authorities even try. It's a tough but necessary decision. Were I the mayor of the town, I would be communicating the same message over and over. "New Orleans is rising again." It's going to be a bitter PR battle with lawsuits and perhaps, demonstrations.


What is the credibility of a publication that lies about its circulation? Forbes.com is not the first to be hauled up for, perhaps, exaggerating about how many people visit and read its articles. All last year, there were circulation scandals at some of America's largest newspapers.

Although reporters are fond of saying there is a wall between the editorial and publishing sides of the business, how much of a wall exists in the mind of the public? The news media need a bit of humility -- and a dose of honesty -- in the matters of readership.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Ugly Truth 

This editorial is a balanced discussion of the saddest duty a military service has -- informing individuals of the death of their son, daughter, wife or husband. Inevitably, the question arises of "how did he/she die?" The military service like anyone who is respectful of the dead wants to say a person died honorably. Since the embarrassment it suffered with the death of the former football player, Pat Tillman, who was shot by friendly fire, the military has learned that bending truth is a worse than telling it. The Tillman incident was a PR disaster because the Army tried to cover the story up. As the truth emerged over months, the Army looked worse with each report.

Many would prefer not to know exactly how a loved one died. They want to preserve the memory of an individual in a certain way. But, war is ugly, stupid and unfair. The military now is committed to telling people how violent it is. One has to think this will be a PR disaster too. There is no good way to communicate news of death.

Friday, August 25, 2006

New Forces, Part 2 

I missed this but it's another example of a new style of reporting emerging on the web. This time it is focused on government. The article provides several examples of organizations that are going after legislators' prized "earmarks," -- money they get for the folks at home that also helps them to get re-elected. Eight separate groups are looking into "earmarks." They are all small, but they are chipping away at a single issue and asking others to join them.

When one steps back and considers what they are doing, they are acting like a special interest group. They are not seeking to pass legislation but to change behavior in Congress -- a somewhat futile gesture, it seems to me.

They are doing the same spade work discussed in yesterday's posting. It's not glamorous but it is useful. Their hope is that mainstream media will pick up the cause and carry it for them at some point.

Look for more of this kind of activity.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

New Forces in Business Reporting 

This site is dedicated to looking into smaller public companies and finding if they are what they purport to be. It's staffed by a well-funded, investigative business reporter. The reporter's first target was a firm called Xethanol. To put it colloquially, the reporter did a "number" on management. The CEO has already been replaced, and the company's stock has plummeted. If you are a PR practitioner in a smaller company, add the site to your watch list. The new site is one of a number coming to the fore where individuals concentrate on specific elements of business and dig more deeply than mainstream journalists. Another one is here. Still another is here.

If you are not aware of sites like this, rest assured that mainstream business reporters are. These sites are doing spade work that mainstream journalists don't have the time to do.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Misplaced PR 

It was a quiet morning at the Maplewood, NJ train station yesterday. It usually is in the little suburban town of 20,000. I was waiting on the platform at 6:15 am for the New York express when a procession of police cars, SUVs and black vehicles drove up in a convoy. Out stepped eight troopers in combat gear, flack jackets, dangling gas masks and black nine millimeters strapped to their sides. A raid, I wondered? What for? The policemen said nothing but went to the lead SUV, opened the tailgate and removed black M16 rifles with spotting scopes, then locked and loaded gray ammo magazines into each of them. Another policeman opened a cage in the back of second SUV for a large, barking German Shepherd that he began to walk in the park.

Suddenly, I was nervous. So was everyone else. The woman who runs the concession at the station and the newspaper seller stood at the door and peered at the officers. Finally, I asked one stone-faced policeman what was happening. Was it training exercise? No, he said, it was for real. New Jersey Transit and the State police were using a show of force at various stations because of an elevated alert level for terrorism.

In Maplewood? You've got to be kidding. On the other hand, the engineer for the first World Trade Center bombing was a Maplewood resident.

The policemen spread out along the platform and two in black crossed to the center platform where they stood silently staring at us waiting next to the local tracks. A woman commuter passed me and commented that it smacked of Russia in the 1970s. Few knew what was happening until one policeman handed out yellow "security minder" cards that explained a "yellow" alert level and their and our need for vigilance.

It was absurd, of course. We're commuters. We carry briefcases, bags and backpacks to work every day. A terrorist could have been standing next to me, and I wouldn't know. Moreover, the policemen were not checking backpacks. There was nervous laughter and more commentary among the commuters -- none of it positive. We got on the express train and departed, leaving the unsmiling policemen for commuters coming after us.

I thought about the incident later. It was beyond silly. It was misplaced PR. Yes, New Jersey Transit wants us to know it is taking precautions. I'm grateful for that. Terrorists have an affinity for commuters as we learned in Spain, India and the UK. But, throwing police cordons around commuter stations randomly isn't going to stop anyone -- or even hinder them. It does do one thing, however. It upsets patrons of the transit system, which is the opposite PR message the agency wants to send.

Perhaps I'm a fatalist about terrorist attacks. I believe there will be at least one at some point on some part of the greater Metro New York transit systems. I believe every station in the various systems should have cameras to spot individuals with bad intentions. I don't believe random police "raids" will do anything except cause an individual to wait a day at most.

But cameras cost money and time to install. My guess is the random police presence is someone's idea of demonstrating security on the cheap. It's publicity, not PR.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Basic Error 

Among mistakes that occurred during the flood of New Orleans last year, one has apparently been revealed in a new documentary being shown on HBO. This is the former police chief's admission that he passed on rumors of rapes and murders to the media without checking whether any were true. He claims that he "erred on the side of caution. I didn't want people to think we were trying to cover anything up. So I repeated these things without being substantiated, and it caused a lot of problems."

Aaargh. Rule one of any crisis is to know the facts before speaking because one doesn't want to mislead the public.

I don't want to pick on the fellow. He has been through enough, but his admission says something about leadership in New Orleans a year ago. How could a municipal leader have risen so far without crisis training? It is PR 101. What is the state of disaster preparation in other municipalities around the US? Are officials trained in how to handle communications in crises?

It is possible that in a disaster so large and so overwhelming that this fellow's judgment broke down. If so, it is understandable in hindsight, if not forgivable. He admits his bogus reports harmed the relief effort because aid workers were afraid to enter the city and other communities turned back refugees.

New Orleans should become a case study in how not to handle crisis communications -- a case study taught to every municipal official in the US.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Need to Be First 

It is interesting to see the Democrats addressing the imbalance in state primaries for presidential candidates. It has never made sense that the smaller states of the Union have the largest impact on who gets nominated for the presidency. The addition of Nevada and South Carolina barely address the imbalance, but it's a start.

What struck me about the decision was New Hampshire's reaction. The state is howling mad to be losing its primacy and threatens to break ranks. The power of perception is strong indeed. If primaries were proportionate to population, then California, Florida and Texas might be first, and candidates would better reflect the attitude of the country. On the other hand, campaigning in these states is so expensive that fledging candidates would easily go broke before breaking through to public attention.

It's an interesting exercise in politics and public perception to add Nevada and South Carolina. Both are small but Las Vegas is the fastest growing town in the US, and South Carolina is the deep South, a region the Democrats badly want back. The question is whether the public will go along with the change. New Hampshire is hoping they won't.

Friday, August 18, 2006


I've finished travels to Pittsburgh, PA and the Roanoke area of Virginia. As usual, it was good to leave a desk behind and glimpse the country. What struck me this time was a visit to a house whose local newspaper is focused intensely on the surrounding area with barely a hint of national or international news. The default web site for the homeowners was The New York Times. It appears as if the local newspaper editors have given up on being providers of general news and moved to proprietary content, material they own and control. If so, they have joined a trend among newspapers outside of large cities.

What this means to publicists, however, is that their work will shift even more to localization or move online. We have always tailored press releases to locations, but the challenge will be more difficult if mainstream media demand local users. "Yes, I will write about your new machine, but I want to talk to someone nearby who has one." Frequently, there isn't someone nearby. If this is the case, "mainstream media" for publicists will become secondary. This has happened in areas like high tech, but imagine food publicity moving online and away from food pages.

Friday, August 11, 2006

In and Out 

I'm going to be in and out during the next week. I most likely won't be posting until the latter part of the week, if at all.


Why do writers do this when they know there is a heightened chance of being caught, especially with the internet? Where is their common sense and self-interest? This fellow is never going to work again in a responsible publication and his falsehoods will remain on record for others to see in online databases. As a PR person, I wouldn't deal with him or anyone else who has a history of making things up.

There has been a long history of such fakery in journalism, and even well-known individuals such as Theodore Dreiser and James Thurber, had periods when they created news and facts for lack of time or news, in Thurber's case. Publicists in the early days did the same. But, that isn't acceptable anymore: The world has changed.

Now, if only everyone would catch up.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

More Good Advice 

This column from a public editor on whether and how to clean up quotes is useful for PR practitioners. At least it raises an issue I have tangled with over the years.

If you write quotes for a client, how do you make them read? Should they be bland business-speak, if your client is more colorful? Should they be colorful, if your client is bland? A client in the end accepts a quote or not, but the client often takes a cue from the writer. There is less problem with grammar, an issue in the column. No PR practitioner I know allows bad grammar into print.

My experience has been that clients don't like directness. I favor short and sometimes, blunt quotes that make points clearly. Clients often soften these and just as often, my colleagues won't let them out of the office. It baffles me why clarity is not desirable, but then, I have a bad ear for emotional tone. It may be that directness has a hostile feeling that others sense, and I don't. What happens, however, is that clients miss opportunities to take stands to their advantage.

Quotations are never easy. They put clients on record when clients don't want to be there. Quotations can define relationships when clients prefer ambiguity. They can give facts that clients might wish to avoid. No wonder so few are memorable.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Good Advice 

Reuters newswire is dealing with fallout from doctored photos out of the Lebanon war zone. It has published this statement on what is allowable in retouching digital photos for news use. It's good advice for PR as well. Essentially, you can clean up photos and correct densities or dirt, but you can't alter content.

I use digital retouching regularly in my own photography. It's easy to take that next step and erase that out-of-focus person in the background or add a little something in the foreground. That's OK in personal work. It's not OK when one is trying to convey an accurate image through the media to others. It seems even news photographers forget or deliberately violate the rules.

Case Study 

If you haven't read this Wall Street Journal column on the development and spread of a viral spoof over the internet, take a few minutes to do so. It's a case study of how successful these can be, and it came from someone who was having fun at a US Senator's expense.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Bad PR, Worse Statesmanship 

When the Mexican voting standoff first occurred weeks ago, I noted that it was an opportunity for statesmanship, but it also was a poisonous environment in which followers get out of hand. There hasn't been statesmanship on the part of the loser and followers did get out of hand. However, it appears Mexico has held together and the losing candidate's whining has turned off those who hold the power in the country.

It's sad. Here was an opportunity for the loser to cultivate good relations with the citizenry and for a public relations gesture that showed he is a patriot. Mexicans got neither. Instead, Obrador's political career is at an end.

Sports, Speed and Marketing 

I wrote recently of how tried and true publicity techniques still work, especially in auto racing. It works in racing yachts too, as well as auto engines.

Monday, August 07, 2006


This is an indication of what computers will do soon enough with ordinary companies to track the evolution of management thinking and action. Let a computer digest everything a company has published in recent years - 10ks, 8ks, speeches, press releases, brochures, etc. -- and spit out themes of what a company is concerned about. It will be much easier to accomplish than what computers are doing with the 70 million words of the Congressional Record. If and when that happens, I wonder how many inconsistencies will be found in how a company portrays itself to its publics?

A Fine PR Pickle 

BP, the oil giant, has shut North Slope oil production in Alaska because of corrosion in transport pipes. This whacks 400,000 barrels out of domestic production at a time when the nation is thirsty for energy. It also removes a prime source of tax revenue from the state of Alaska.

Wanna bet there will be legislative hearings somewhere into what is happening?

Environmentalists, while happy there hasn't been a major spill, will say, "I told you so. You can't trust oil production on the North Slope." Alaskans and consumers will say, "How long before the pipe is flowing again?" Pro-drilling advocates will say BP caught a problem before it happened, so it should be praised. Anti-drilling advocates will say there was a minor spill, so BP should have caught it sooner. BP is caught in the middle, and I'm sure its PR department is working overtime to issue progress reports on fixes.

It's not a comfortable spot to be in, but any essential industry is caught in the spotlight sooner or other -- such as the major power failure in New York City two weeks ago during the heat wave.

Thinking about it, working in a critical industry is a great place to learn PR crisis management.

Friday, August 04, 2006


It's annoying to have PR used synonymously with "propaganda." The media do it constantly. This story, which I had overlooked from last week, makes a point about the Hezbollah's so-called PR operations. In point of fact, they are propaganda operations.

Or, are they? When one stands back and looks at what the Hezbollah were doing -- guiding journalists only to spots where the organization could score points against Israel --, how different is that from the way PR operates elsewhere? Don't we "guide and hide" regularly as part of our duties. Sadly, we do. We try to be open, but an overpowering need to "control" messages finds us aping practitioners of propaganda.

There should be in PR an element that is out control. That element is respect for facts as they are and not as we would like them to be.

But, try telling that to a marketer, CEO or politician.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Worth Viewing 

This video has been running around the internet, but it is worth viewing for its satiric commentary on truth versus perception and distortions of fact. Wikipedia was not amused.

When Crisis Plans Fail 

There are times when crisis plans and controlled communications break down. I have written that often enough. Here is an example of a time and place where it happened and the reasons why. It is a brilliantly written, moment by moment replay of 9/11 from the North American Aerospace Defense Command center that was supposed to protect our skies from hijackers and attackers. The piece includes the original voice tapes taken as the disaster unfolded.

No one knew what the hell was going on. Bits and pieces of information were spilling in from every direction, some accurate, much of it not. The major in charge was struggling to remain in control while the center was completely blind, unable to tell interceptor pilots where to fly.

The only sad part of the story is the apparent attempt by generals at the end to "spin" it in order not to make the Air Force look bad. Otherwise, one is proud of these men who rode out one of the most frightening episodes in modern US history.

This crisis had all the characteristics of one beyond reach. It was distant from the command center. Communications were poor because the hijackers had turned off airplane beacons. Information was partial. It unfolded so quickly no one had time to figure out what was happening. It played out on global television. Union Carbide's disaster at Bhopal, India was the same type.

So, listen to crisis communications experts and make disaster plans, but know in your mind that there are times when they will be useless.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Where Was PR? 

USA Today featured an article yesterday that focused on entrepreneurs who commit fraud when their bright ideas have run their course. The idea of the piece is that these are people who refuse to admit earnings in their fast-growing companies are no longer what they were, so they make up numbers. There were several examples, all of which you know but worth reading again.

One question occurred to me that wasn't addressed in the article. Where were the PR and IR practitioners? Did they know or have an inkling? Did they go along with the CFO adding a few cents to earnings quarter to quarter to make "the numbers?" Were they as guilty as the senior executives, or were they ignorant?

My guess is that PR practitioners in most, if not all, of these cases were kept in the dark. We aren't allowed to get near numbers because, well, we're "flacks." The IR person? That's another story. They sit in on many of quarter-end conferences, and they see the sausage made.

In both cases, IR and PR are public spokespersons. I can only imagine the feeling of learning one has been lied to for months or years. I also don't know how they could look analysts or journalists in the face as their companies disintegrated. And, as for careers after a company collapses? There is only one safety when fraud occurs. Resign early and get out before one is sucked into the vortex. Bitter-enders gain nothing except deeper understanding of human nature. And, if remnants of their companies survive, bitter-enders are likely to get fired anyway because they were associated with previous management.

Commitment to honesty and transparency is as much self-interest as personal ethics.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Looking Back and Forward 

There is a thoughtful piece on internet journalism in the current New Yorker that PR practitioners should read. The author does a good job of describing the current state of reportage and opinion online and relates it to the history of journalism. He then extrapolates to the future and points to a time when opinion will be calmer and reporting better. It's guaranteed to upset those who believe internet journalism is a whole new medium destined to wipe out traditional reporting.

I happen to concur with the views of the writer. The internet is a low-cost medium that invites self-publishing, but it isn't a revolution destined to change the world forever. Newspapers are shrinking and other traditional publishing media are stressed because of the availability of news online, but reporters won't go away. Sooner or later, many will migrate online and practice their craft there. This is exactly what is happening at traditional media like The Wall Street Journal where reporters are doing audio and video interviews for the journal's web site. The Journal online has a powerful voice and credibility that citizen journalism has yet to achieve.

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