Friday, September 29, 2006

Staying the Course 

Some crises point to operational changes that should be made. Sometimes changes are deep and require cultural shift, a behavior change. When that happens, be prepared for failure unless the leader of the business commits to a multi-year effort. It's unfortunate, but crises can emanate from organizations that ignore processes and create environments in which failure is tolerated until the media find out. When bad stories appear, there is a rush to make them go away but no real effort to fix the problem. It's too difficult to fix without relentless commitment to change. Perhaps this is why some organizations teeter on the edge of crisis constantly. They talk a good game: They are unable to play it. It's easier to pay consultants to smooth things over when the next bad thing happens.

The leader who confronts this attitude and stays the course is courageous and often unsung. It is management 101 -- blocking and tackling -- hardly stuff that gets one featured in articles or positioned for the next promotion. It is easier for the leader to ride the storm and to move on to the next job as quickly as possible. Let a successor handle it. Of course, this happens again and again until the organization crashes then changes or withers. The leader who is last in line is indicted for bad management when it was really a legacy of poor controls handed from one boss to another.

PR in these conditions can call for fundamental change, but doesn't often get it. We lack influence to argue for higher ground, so we apply band-aids or tourniquets without much hope. Like doctors with dying patients, we keep them comfortable as long as we can.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Same Old Things 

Reading this story a couple of days ago put me in mind of this long-departed queen about whom I saw a documentary recently. The radical cartoonists of her day tarred her reputation by portraying her as a "pornographic princess" who bedded every male that visited her. It became conventional wisdom among the French that she was as randy a royal as ever was when, in fact, she was a devoted mother. Marie Antoinette ignored the charges for too long then when she moved to knock them down, she did too little. People are always ready to believe the worst of another.

There is scarcely a political candidate who hasn't had to deal with some charge that is off-issue and off-target but effective in moving voters to the opposition. Most political advertising this year is negative. It's the same old things over and over. Unfortunately, it's the same old things because it works. Honesty and issues have nothing to do with it.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Numbers and Pictures 

I've stumbled on two lessons in ethics and accuracy that would be good for PR practitioners to imitate -- sourcing numbers for readers and production of accurate and ethical graphics. The first came from a critique of newspaper columnists who cite statistics but fail to let readers know where they come from. The second is the code of ethics for the Society of News Design. Both strike a chord because twisting numbers to make a point is a common failure and using jiggered graphics for the same reason is pervasive in PR.

There is no excuse for either. In PR we have to be more accurate than the media because the media believe we lie for a living. Our credibility depends on careful presentation. If practitioners were accurate consistently, we wouldn't have the reputation we do among reporters and editors, and they would rely on us with less suspicion.

I'm dreaming, of course. There are too many practitioners who are too sloppy to change the media's belief. We build credibility personally with individual reporters in spite of the PR business. It shouldn't be that way, but it won't change. Too many practitioners are more concerned with selling than with building relationships.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Death of a Culture 

This is an interesting article in that it alleges the death of the culture of a great company -- Hewlett-Packard. HP grew in a spirit of fairness and openness because that is the way its founders operated their entire careers. With the spying scandal, observers now say the company is no longer what it once was.

Cultures don't die easily, so I'm skeptical. The article is correct that HP's way has been under assault, but that doesn't mean it is dead. There is institutional memory, and behavior endures for long periods. Any communicator engaged in cultural change is aware of the embedded nature of beliefs and actions.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Destroying an Industry 

The E Coli outbreak in the California spinach industry is the worst kind of crisis. It is destroying an industry because no one is sure yet how or why it happened. There is no immediate resolution, no way for a company to promise change, no way to assess fault. The plants have been declared clean. The fault appears to lie somewhere in the fields, perhaps in the water used to grow the plants, but no one could say for sure all last week. It may be days before resolution. Meanwhile, vegetables rot, and growers lose millions.

The processing plants have been proactive in informing the public of their laboratory results. They have answered hundreds of questions, but it isn't making much difference. Meanwhile, attorneys have filed lawsuits; stories about the death of babies have reach print and other unfortunate details are in place for a long-term impact.

There are crises that are acts of nature, and no one's fault, but that doesn't make much difference in the US. We're a culture that demands someone to take the blame -- and pay up. Perhaps there was reckless behavior, and farmers ignored warnings. If so, they deserve punishment. But, if there wasn't and bacteria slipped into the growing chain through a previously unknown source...?

Perceptually, the US long ago moved to the principle of "guilty until proven partially innocent." One never leaves such situations behind. They live in archives and in memory. Even if scientists eliminate a bad actor from the food chain, there will be those who will never touch fresh spinach again, and the growing region may lose one of its more valuable crops.

Friday, September 22, 2006

PR Flap 

If you haven't read about this PR flap, skim through the initial post, then be sure to read the comments. There is much to think about.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Piling On 

We're in the middle of a crisis now with a client, and several characteristics are appearing.

One is piling on. When things go bad, it is never one incident but two, then four. A second is lumpiness. There are moments of calm then spurts of frenzy, which is what happened yesterday. We had one assignment to complete. Suddenly, there was a second emergency then another. A third characteristic is weariness. After hours of working one problem, there is another and yet another while regular work piles up. A fourth characteristic is disappearance of facts. A person will tell you that this IS the case. Further checking will show it isn't quite the case. Still further investigation will show the case is weak and can't be used to rebut allegations. Another characteristic is slogging. One endures a crisis. It's dentistry without pain killer, but you move forward because you have to. And, a final characteristic is fantasy. This crisis I'm going to write about in my book someday -- the one that never gets written.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Crisis Communications 

Here is a company in need crisis counseling, especially since it has harmed the reputation of its customers.

Great Publicity 

When was the last time you saw a toy get this much press?

Worth A Thousand Words 

A good visual is the best way to tackle a complex subject. The Federal budget is one of the most difficult of all.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


The older I get, the less tolerant I am of speakers who go on and on and.... Last night I sat through a meeting in which a person talked for at least 45 minutes too long. Mind you, this person was a show of waving arms, dashing about, patting people on heads, clutching others and hollerin' to make us aware of the message.

But the style didn't work for me, and I don't think it worked for other adults in the room. We were there after a day of work, and it was 9:30 pm. I had left the house at 6:15 am and hadn't seen it since. The communications error, it seems to me, was letting enthusiasm for a subject carry one away. At that hour, with glassy-eyed listeners, brevity is best.

On second thought, at any hour, brevity is best. We are no longer in an age when lengthy speeches are part of popular entertainment. In the 19th Century, a politician or preacher was expected to deliver a long and stirring oration to lift media-deprived audiences out of their humdrum existences. What we need today is less presentation and more content. The longer one talks, the less people listen.

It's a sore subject for me. In presentations to clients, I am forever hammering that the formal presentation should not be more than 10 minutes, and it should serve as an introduction to questions and answers. Interaction with the audience sustains interest, not talking at the audience. Even interaction, however, has limits. By time 9:30 pm rolled around, I resented even questions from the audience.

I used to like the sound of my voice too: I hope I've learned something over decades of working as a communicator.

Monday, September 18, 2006


Even popes can commit faux pas, it seems, as Pope Benedict XVI did with his quotation from 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel Paleologos II. Apparently the Pope was trying to reject the notion of religious violence, and he used the quotation to point out that conversion at the point of the sword was irrational. He should have kept his mouth shut.

On the other hand, the threats of violence and actual attack on religious personnel since the incident began causes one to pause. The Roman Catholic Church does not have clean hands with respect to religious violence, no matter how it positions itself today. There are numerous examples in its history where conversion came at the point of swords. That the Church knows better now is good, but from a PR perspective, the pope should have started with self-criticism and worked out to other religions. It would have been best had he avoided the topic.

One doesn't have to be in PR to know that religious issues are inflammatory, even if one is a religious leader. My guess is that the Pope won't make this mistake again.

Now he has to deal with the fallout.

Friday, September 15, 2006


It's not often that one gets to post at such an hour, but I've got to fly today to a meeting in a distant town. I rarely do this, and I don't like the thought of getting up at 3:15 am. On the other hand, think of the traffic. It should be a quick trip to the airport.

Here's to sleeping on a plane.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Making It Up 

PR practitioners will never run out of work, if one considers errors the media make, the unwarranted assumptions, baseless speculations and printing of rumors. Here's one from last week. Here's another making the rounds in Canada. I suppose I shouldn't get upset by any of this. The more errors the media make, the more work there is for us to unwind mistakes. But, there are moments when I ask why the media can't do better? With the rise of blogs, of course, it is getting worse. Just about anyone will print any statement no matter how outrageous it might be. It will never go away.

The first rule of PR -- accuracy -- is becoming more important than ever, as opinion becomes the order of operations. Yet, accuracy is not something associated with PR by most members of the media. That says something about us, and it isn't pleasant. I wish there was a way to bar PR practitioners from the business, if they are caught lying. There isn't and won't be, but the business would rise in reputation, if practitioners were known for accuracy first and persuasive powers second.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi 

The Romans knew a thing or two about falling from power. It happened a fair bit in the ancient city before the Caesars. The Romans might look on the present with a grim understanding of how quickly fame can flee from individuals and companies like Dell and Bristol-Myers. It seems like every week now a corporation is in upheaval at the top or a CEO is defending against criticism. The period of satisfaction with corporate executives is departed, now that unhappy truths of the Bubble period have emerged from faulty accounting to backdating of stock options to fraud in the cases of companies like Enron.

CEOs are learning their jobs are riskier with boards that are more independent, and boards are learning being a director is not easy. Both are beginning to understand that public relations means more than words, and perceptions can be fatal. That's good for the PR business, but one could wish it didn't take so many disasters to drive the lesson home.

It seems as if the homo economicus is fated to be focused on the short-term and to learn over and over basic lessons about human relationships. Wall Street is a fickle god, but CEOs are forced to worship at its altar anyway. We need leaders who build companies and care about people more than stock price but with the turmoil surrounding CEOs that seems less possible.

It's an interesting period to be in PR.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Best PR 

Because the best public relations are actions and not words, imagine the persuasive power that proponents of deep-space robots have built with the Mars rovers. NASA has just reported that the Opportunity robot, which should have been dead years ago, is now approaching a new destination 4.5 miles from where it started.

There has long been a debate within NASA over human exploration versus machines in deep space. Proponents of deep space machines continue to make a case that robots do as well, if not better, than humans for far less money. I, for one, don't understand the need to send men to Mars. The more we know about the planet, the less inviting it becomes and the more expensive a manned mission.

Perhaps it is time to realize we are isolated in this universe and deep space colonization is romantic but impractical. It is time to care of what we have and to put away dreams of other solar systems.

The Future Deferred - Again 

Some communications media always seem to promise but never quite deliver. Video conferencing is one. Decades ago we were promised the video phone, then video conferencing equipment arrived, and regularly we are told we won't have to travel as much. We only need to go to a room to participate in a discussion anywhere in the world.

Video conferencing works well, but there is a human need to move, to get on the ground and to see for oneself what is happening. Video conferencing apparently is no substitute for pressing the flesh and one-on-one communication without the barrier of cameras and projectors.

The industry still predicts rapid growth as prices fall and equipment gets better, but I wonder. Are some communications habits so ingrained that even good technology won't change them?

Monday, September 11, 2006

Framing An Empty Issue? 

The President has been working hard around this anniversary of terrorism to remind the world that terrorists exist and that is why we are in Iraq. The world I know isn't buying the argument. The response to the President is something like this: Yes, there are terrorists, but they weren't in Iraq when the US got there. It strikes me that the President is framing the wrong issue -- a fatal mistake in argumentation. On the other hand, the White House knows much more about the mood of the entire country than I do here on the East Coast -- the "liberal, defeatist East Coast."

If those who think the President is wrong are right, then the President's hard work is actually building a case for throwing his party out at the polls in November. It's the kind of public relations support his party members not only didn't request but don't want. It reminds the public at large why they should vote against rather than vote for.

How does one tell a higher authority that public relations support is not wanted? One can avoid campaigning with the person but overcoming the impact of nationally reported and televised speeches is difficult.

Politicians get into these public relations binds more than corporate CEOs do. I suppose they should be pitied.

Not really.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Symbols of Meaning 

This is an old story but still fascinating. How does one create symbols that warn people 10,000 years into the future when languages as we know them today may have disappeared. It is an issue science has confronted before -- notably the Pioneer satellite, which has left this solar system. The effort to transmit meaning is worth studying as a communicator because it shows just how difficult it is.

Wouldn't It Be Nice? 

Wouldn't it be nice if commentators and reporters in the media were required to apologize when they get facts wrong and unfairly tarnish reputations? Instead, they let commentators who were not part of a witch hunt apologize for them. A large part of the perceived arrogance of the media comes from mad pursuit of stories to the detriment of facts. There has been a lot of that lately, especially this vile incident. As PR practitioners, we defend clients against such smears. Having done it, I can report that it is nearly impossible when reporters rush a story.

I know it is fantasy, but I wonder what it would be like if reporters and commentators who get a story wrong were forced to own up publicly and acknowledge they have damaged reputations and ruined careers unfairly. My guess is there would be more caution in reporting and commentating.

Words Matter 

This is an interesting discussion of word choice and why words matter -- especially since the White House appears to be using a neologism loosely with intent to confuse. That's an operating procedure in politics: It shouldn't be in PR.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Outside Inside 

One cliche in consulting is that advice from outside consultants, although the same as that from inside counselors, gets a better hearing. The reason? CEOs don't trust insiders to tell them the truth, whereas outsiders don't have to worry about keeping jobs.

Of course, this isn't always true, but like most heuristics, it is partially correct. Where the cliche falls down is that CEOs sometimes don't listen to outside counselors either, especially when they are determined to do something.

It doesn't take long working in PR to witness incomprehensible gaffes. The first question to mind is "Where was PR?" Often, we blame lawyers for getting in the way, but sometimes the CEO won't listen to lawyers either, or the CFO or the board of directors. The resulting mess can sometimes end a CEO's career. At the least, it creates a distraction, which the CEO has to spend months cleaning up.

The good part of such mistakes is that a surviving CEO is unlikely to create them again. No intelligent creature touches a hot stove twice. The CEO is likely to listen to PR advice the next time and times after that, whether from an inside or an outside consultant.

Where outside consultants have an advantage is when CEOs are uncertain about advice they are getting from insiders, mostly because insiders have a narrower perspective of an issue. It is true outside consultants over time engage in a more varied practice. They work a greater number of different kinds of events. But at some point, especially in large organizations, insiders can catch up, and there is no great difference.

Even though I have spent a career as an outside PR consultant, I have met extraordinary counselors in company ranks, and I've learned that it is never wise to look down on them.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Perception and Finance 

I read over the weekend a depressing but well-argued book on generational accounting called The Coming Generational Storm. It discusses massive debts coming due in Social Security and Medicare as Baby Boomers retire and lays out page after page of evidence for the authors' views. One passage in the book is testimony to the power of perception and its impact on human affairs. The authors' are writing about the collapse of countries when debt becomes too large. They use the example of Argentina.

If everyone believes that everyone else believes that Argentina is getting into trouble or could be getting into trouble, everyone raises the interest rates at which they lend to the country. The higher interest rates then put the country into a recession, forcing it to default on its loans and to use the printing press (inflation) to pay its bills. Hence, the original beliefs about default and inflation become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Everyone knows finance systems are built on credibility, but this is a succinct way of stating the case and a powerful example of perception becoming reality.

Gain and Loss 

For everything one gains in technology, one loses something. While blogging software made self-publishing a near-universal service, it also enabled splogging that contaminates the entire technology. Once again, we're in a fight against those who turn communication to their own ends to the detriment of community. It's never-ending.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Playing with Perception 

Politicians are masters of perception, but sometimes they fool even themselves. It seems to me this is what is happening as House Republicans have apparently decided to delay any bill on immigration until after the election in November. Do they really think everyone will forget about such a divisive issue in two months, especially immigrants? Or, do they expect anyone who wants immigration reform won't vote? Their Democratic opponents won't forget, and they remind citizens that House Republicans are refusing to do anything about the issue.

There are limits to perceptual hocus-pocus and spin. It is easy to wave a wand and make things disappear, if few people are concerned about an issue. One can afford to let them scream. But, on an issue that has sparked huge demonstrations and angry discussion pro and con, it is highly unlikely a majority of citizens will forget. Rather than helping their cause, it seems to me House Republicans are in the process of sealing their fate.

It is interesting to watch. Every organization over time stops listening to its constituents or listens selectively to a few. We see this everyday in the business world where CEOs and CFOs pander to Wall Street to the point of wrecking their businesses. They will do anything to get their stock price up.

The hard part of listening is actually listening without filters and with close attention to underlying motivations and needs. Surveys and focus groups mean nothing, if one uses them to confirm biases. It seems, however, that human nature is not designed to be objective for long. We get lost in ourselves naturally without realizing it. Then our constituents remind us -- sometimes brutally -- how far we have strayed. This is something House Republicans are about to find out.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Labor Day 

Today is a holiday in the US in honor of laboring men and women. Therefore, I am laboring at home working on a second-floor bathroom renovation. It's a "gut job," which means everything in the room has been removed to the joists in the floor and studs in the wall. There is a feeling of power when one tears into iron with a Sawzall, a reciprocating hacksaw with multiple blades designed for demolition. The tool cuts through wood, pipe, nails, plaster, etc.

The pain comes when one examines what is left. In this case, it is a second floor room that is sloped into two directions from the outside wall. Unfortunately, the low point of the room, the entrance, is the one point that needs to be the high point so one doesn't have to climb into the bathroom. I'm having nightmares trying to figure out how to level the room -- or at least make it straight enough for tiling.

Books don't tell you about such things. The how-to manuals always start from the point of view that houses are somewhat level. They aren't, as anyone in an old house can relate. One option is to remove the beams and start over. That won't work here. Another is to jack the slump back into a semblance of level. That won't work either since the entire house settled to the center over 80 years. The realistic option, screwing new beams alongside the existing ones is the headache because no matter how I level, the entrance to the bathroom appears to be too high. My contractor talked about shaving beams but I'm having nightmares about that. I can't bring myself to it -- yet. Meanwhile, the plumber and electrician stand idle while I try to figure this nonsense out.

Being a PR person, I'm not adept at home improvement, but I keep my hand in because it is good training. It is easy for those who sit in offices to ask for unrealistic solutions from a craftsperson because they don't know. Forcing oneself to work at a craft is a reminder that the real world doesn't work the way one thinks it does. It can be maddening and humiliating but is a lesson one should not forget.

Friday, September 01, 2006

About Time To Say It Again 

This article touches on a topic I have written about many times here -- junk surveys. Howard Kurtz, Washington Post media critic, takes after journalists who unthinkingly print surveys that seem to contain surprising or alarming data. Kurtz feels journalists ought to know better by now. What he doesn't say is that PR practitioners ought to know better by now. No one wins when one issues inaccurate surveys. There might be short-term advantage, but in the long term, one destroys credibility.

It's time to go back to statistics 101 and to start over with the concepts of universal populations, random samples, careful question construction and accurate correlations. And once again, internet surveys ARE NOT random unless they draw from a carefully constructed audience. There are only a few polling companies that do this, as far as I know.

It does the PR business no good to engage in fraudulent surveying. We are correctly accused of "spinning" when we do. Resist the notion of doing a survey unless you are willing to spend the time and money to do one correctly. If you don't know how, then engage the services of a professional polling company to do it for you. Be aware. It is difficult to do a statistically accurate survey -- and often expensive.

I'm sure I'm going to write about this issue many more times before this blog is retired -- and so am I. It would be nice to see even a small bit of progress toward honesty in polling, but I have no expectations it will occur. It is part of human nature to take the easy way out.

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