Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Free Speech Issue 

This is an incomplete but interesting report on a speech by Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House. Gingrich is raising the issue that Free Speech rules for the internet may have to change for terrorists. My guess is he is thinking of the "clear and present danger" doctrine that states no one has no right to advocate positions that pose immediate harm to citizens.

He has a point. The internet is a free-for-all and as such, there are those who exploit its freedom far beyond what is safe for society. Having written that, I'm concerned that regulation of any speech is a situation in which it is easy to go too far. There is a deep-seated desire to control what is being said about oneself and institutions. That is why advertising has been and will be the preferred method of communication from corporations and other institutions over public relations. It is also why so much of PR today has descended to mere publicity and message-pushing rather than give and take. Most marketers don't want to hear from citizens: They want citizens to hear them.

So, I'm nervous about Gingrich's thinking. Terrorists are dangerous, and they advocate destruction of our way of life. Their "anything-to-win" mentality, including blowing themselves up, is fundamentally opposed to societies where life has great value. Yet, somehow I think in our society, most people see through them. The question is whether they do elsewhere. There is plenty of evidence in Iraq that citizens don't there, for example.

Still, I'm nervous. However, the decentralized nature of the internet will make it difficult to control no matter who tries it. There is comfort in that.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Doom Mongers 

There seems to be an unending supply of scientists and thinkers who predict disaster for the earth and its occupants. Here is another one. The problem is that time and again they have been proven wrong. The industry of mankind and adaptation of the planet have successfully bypassed limits set by each group of thinkers.

This intellectual pessimism has been an issue in PR for my career and long before. After all, it was Malthus who in 1798 assured the world that it could not hold but a fraction of the population that it has today. When I started in PR, predictions from the Club of Rome were popular but the world has blown by those too.

I don't wish to be a naive optimist, but the science of prediction hasn't yet proved that it can mathematically foretell the future of anything from the weather to the stock market. There are too many variables and the intelligence of humans to encompass. We have clients today who are planning for how the world is going to support a population far larger than it has now. They are inventing the technologies for food and fuel, and those technologies are being implemented.

Will it all end at some point? Sure. But we don't know where, when or how. The world since its birth as a great dust ball has changed more times than we know. It will change again. Global warming is impacting how we live and how we think about the world around us. Will we survive it? Who knows? Surely the scientists don't.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What Would You Do? 

This is an interesting case. The US Army contracts for a video game to help sign recruits. It's exciting and lets one use the "gee-whiz" equipment the Army will take to the battlefield and -- Wow! -- one can win against the enemy every time.

The game designer is unhappy because the Army won't let the game player lose, nor will the Army let the enemy learn from tactics the player employs, as any enemy would do.

The Army's answer to that is that it is a marketing tool and not a realistic depiction of the horrors of the battlefield. On the other hand, why shouldn't the Army provide a realistic description of war when it is asking people to sign up for duty?

This is the kind of conundrum in which PR practitioners and marketers should end up on opposite ends of the spectrum. Practitioners should side with the game designer, and marketers with the Army's decision. Why? A PR practitioner should trust that individuals can make up their own minds when presented with facts persuasively. A marketer is intent on selling and will take shortcuts to do so. A PR practitioner should be worried about false depiction and its effect on reputation. A marketer is focused on moving players from screens to recruiting stations.

Whose right? Both are. The Army wants a recruiting tool and got one. Score points for marketers. The Army's recruiting tool could and -- and should -- have been better. Score points for public relations practitioners.

The point is at the heart of what marketers and PR practitioners do, there is a fundamental difference. Each discipline views the world in its own way. Marketers train to complete transactions. PR practitioners train to explain accurately, protect reputation and complete transactions. Both should reach the same end point if they do their jobs right, but marketing wants to get there more quickly. Given the pressure the Army has to recruit, it will favor marketing's approach more often.

I'm not a video game player, but it seems to me a game that is too predictable fails to respect the intelligence of players. At least, the few times I played Sim City, I came to that conclusion. Once one learned the patterns of the game, it was the same approach over and over. The city got larger, and so did the problems, but the game got boring in the end. But then, I'm not a teenager, and I already performed military service.

Monday, November 27, 2006

What Do You Believe? 

There are extraordinary incidents in which one is forced to line up on one side of a question or the other. This is one. The death of a former Russian spy through rare poison creates an enormous PR problem for the Russian state, especially since President Putin had a career in the KGB.

So far, there is no telling who might have killed Litvinenko, or even whether it might have been suicide. The difficulty is that it places a black mark on Russia until the truth is uncovered, if it is. Even if evidence is produced that it was not Russia, Putin will have trouble making the case go away.

That's a PR crisis that strikes at the power of government itself. Putin would be wise to place the resources of the Russian at the disposal of the British government to find out quickly where the polonium210 came from and who might have handled it. The retort by an aide of Putin appears to indicate the government is glad Litvinenko is dead -- hardly a smart PR move.

The Soviets in the old regime were masters of disinformation and many people believed them, except those suffering under their rule. They understood cynically that too many of us in the West are fools -- even those with high IQs. They perverted public relations into the worst kind of "spin" and got away with it for too many decades.

This is why practitioners who ignore facts are dangerous, even though they may be successful financially. One wonders how they can live with themselves.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Sitting It Out 

Today is Black Friday in the retail world -- the first big shopping day of the holiday season. Pardon me, but I'm not going near a store, nor will I take to the road, if I can help it. To me, the best thing that has happened is shopping online, which I do most of the time now. There are trips to The Home Depot for projects I'm working on, but places like Sak's Fifth Avenue (which is spamming me with Christmas ads) don't get my business. I hope those flooding malls today feel a little better that it is less crowded by one.

I suppose I should bestir myself at some point to look at the Christmas windows in the shops of Manhattan, but that's about as far as I will go.

The online world is less stressful for those who dislike shopping. Some retailers have figured that out like Amazon. Others are working their way there.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


It's raining on the East Coast and it looks like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade is going to be uncomfortable for all concerned. That's better than bitter cold, I suppose.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, especially to those working in other parts of the world.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

At The Margins 

If this report is believeable, here is a company that operates on the margins of legality. That raises a question. Who would represent a firm like this for public relations? People do. Hundreds of PR practitioners worked for cigarette companies over the years, even after those companies starting losing lawsuits.

The PR business, of course, is not law in which every client gets representation. It is an elective despite denials from PR executives.

In PR, the reputation of a client transfers to the reputation of the PR practitioner. Practitioners who take marginal clients are considered marginal too. There are practitioners who find it difficult to walk away from money on the table, especially when the remuneration is rich.

I have wondered whether I could take a company like this, but I find the thought difficult. As a sign on my boss' desk says, "business is for a long time." People remember your clients better than you do. On the other hand, taking a client with a message that goes against conventional wisdom is fun and a challenge. And, there can be a fine line between messages that come from out of the mainstream and ethics. It is not always clear when to say no. And, it will never be clear, because the lure of business distorts objectivity. It is a peril of PR.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Complex Problem 

We're dealing with a complex communications problem, and the client wants it simplified with a structure that allows his firm to think about it. We think we can do that, but there is no guarantee we will find a common thread.

These are times when one trusts instinct. We've done this before. We will do it again. There will be hours when we know we won't reach an end, but then we do. And, when we do, if we think about the problem correctly, it will look obvious, and we'll ask ourselves why we worked so hard.

Great communications are simple, but they encompass complex ideas and illuminate them. I think back to a demonstration of atomic fission I saw as a boy. That was a time when splitting atoms was mysterious. Animators placed dozens of mousetraps on a table with a pingpong ball on each. When they dropped one ball on a mousetrap setting it off, it flung off its pingpong ball that set off other traps and soon the table was covered with bouncing balls. It was a great visual that explained chain reaction with two simple devices.

That is what is needed here. Something direct, powerful and supportable that skeptical audiences will take to heart. It's going to take a while to find it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Failed Communications 

Flying last week was a reminder of communications that appear to fail but must be done. These are government-mandated instructions before every flight. Airline attendants give a demonstration or run a video and passengers ignore everything being said. One wonders why anyone bothers beyond fulfilling the law -- and that is precisely the point. Airlines are fulfilling the law. They use the same words and show the exact same demonstrations in the same order.

Why bother? I flew in a private plane as well last week, and there were no similar instructions.

But then, if one were to think about it, our cultural is permeated with government-mandated information that few read from ingredients on the side of food boxes to lists of contraindications that come with every vial of medicine. Some of it is tort-proofing in a litigious society, but most of it is a vain attempt to tell people information they probably should know. The difficulty is that most people don't care to know.

There must be a better way. At least, one would think so. Do agencies that mandate such useless information-sending have professional communicators? I'm sure they do. I wonder if they are ever put to the task of determining how to inform people more effectively?

Saturday, November 18, 2006


Five cities in six days. Not the kind of travel I like, but it needed to be done. The problem was that it shouldn't have been five cities. United Airlines left me stranded in Chicago's O'Hare Airport at midnight on Sunday after leaving me and other passenger stewing for six hours in Newark. We were waiting for a plane from Denver that didn't show up, and by time we reached Chicago, all of our connections had departed.

There is no airline provision for messing up one's schedule, so I was on my own. I went over to the Hilton at the airport, and they offered me a room for more than $300 for just six hours of sleep. After complaining, the manager backed the amount down to $199. Whoopee. I was barely in bed when I had to get up again for the first flight to the town I was already supposed to be in. When I got to the gate, United had delayed the flight by 20 minutes, then delayed it 20 more minutes. I was late for my first meeting as a result. I'm sure United has good reasons for all this, but next time, I will fly another carrier to see if it can do better.

I learned how to fit into middle seats on Northwest Airlines and Delta. Planes ran full with no way to change to anything more comfortable. (If any airline should wonder why people dislike them so much, I will offer this week's travel as a perfect example.) Northwest, of course, offered to sell me a snack on the trip from Minneapolis to California. I declined the honor. Delta distributed snacks on the way from California to Salt Lake and from Salt Lake to Newark. Delta didn't charge for them, but they weren't much above cheese and crackers or a cookie. Delta's middle seats were the most comfortable.

Now I've got to take a mountain of information and boil it into something sensible with the assistance of colleagues. That means I won't have to get on a plane. I like that.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

On The Road 

I'll be out of the office starting tomorrow for a week. Two clients, three cities, four days. To think there are people who do that for a living... Given the travel schedule and meetings, I won't be blogging in that time period.

He Gets It 

Here is an old-line media guy who gets it.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

How Come? 

How come Wal-Mart can be blasted for paying a blogger to write about it when politicians are apparently paying bloggers openly and few care? Where's the credibility and why haven't mainstream media reported it?

Count me among those who believe that paid blogging doesn't work. It's just another form of shilling. But, if politicians can get away with such blatant hype, why not corporations? That is, if politicians choose not to be credible, why not commercial entities?

Wait! I think I've answered my own question.

When It Goes Bad... 

Most of us are familiar with down and up cycles in personal life. There are days when everything goes right and days when nothing works. Organizations suffer from the same cycle. Wal-Mart is currently in a down cycle in PR and self-inflicted wounds like this don't make it better.

No Simple Answer 

This story has been a long time coming in the national media. It points out that there is no simple answer for the rise and impact of global warming, at least not on the basis of fossil evidence.

Environmental issues have turned into sloganeering. Simple answers are driving complex issues. We don't really know what outcomes will be of the earth getting warmer. All we do know is that it has been warmer time and again, and life survived -- or we wouldn't be here.

Count me in the camp of those who favor control of carbon dioxide and temperature change, but also count me a skeptic. I'm still not sure what the future will bring, and neither are scientists. It all depends on the range of earth history one examines. The narrower the range, the worse the problem. The larger the range, the more normal the situation.

From a communications perspective, I have been and remain confused by global warming. We have had environmental clients who favor carbon sequestration in the form of more tree growing. That's good, but does it really solve the problem? I don't know. We would discuss among ourselves that for every forest fire, carbon dioxide was placed back into the atmosphere. Sequestration was temporary at best.

PR is asked to get involved in these issues constantly now to help sway public opinion. It's easy to write bright lines and cliches in support of the environment. It's difficult and confusing to accept that cyclical warming and cooling is the way the earth has always worked. Once it appeared to have been volcanic action -- or something similar. Today, it is human action. Does it make a difference in the long run? That question remains open, it seems to me.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Newsroom of the Present 

Gannett is changing the newsrooms at its newspapers to publish in any medium at any time 24 hours a day. This should have happened years ago, but it is good to see that it is underway. One reminder to PR practitioners. It changes how we will work with Gannett newspapers going forward.

The World Is Round 

I'm always surprised when the media writes the "world is round" story. This is so obvious that it needs a "Duh" to go with it.

Too Much Too Soon? 

One should worry when an individual gets too much PR too soon. It may be the case with this individual who is still an inexperienced politician on the national scene. Were I his counselor, I would suggest that he lower his profile for a few years and learn the business first.

State of the Blogosphere 

State of the Blogosphere. It's huge.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Walking The Line 

News media take a kind of satisfaction when they show that self-proclaimed models of propriety are anything but. There was a spectacular example over the weekend in the US. It raises an issue older than gospel readings -- hypocrisy. There is nothing more revealing than showing cracks in a facade. We've seen a lot of that lately with CEOs going to jail, with high-tech companies revealing backdating of options, with politicians admitting to criminal dealings.

It doesn't take long for citizens to react in disgust.

Why is it that so many forget a basic rule of PR? Let others proclaim your virtues. Demonstrate by your actions that you have the strengths you desire. There are times when one has to speak in self-defense by pointing to deeds one has done. There should be few instances where one takes credit for anything without proof. Yet, it happens constantly -- and reporters wait to pounce.

We in PR are more guilty than most of propagating an atmosphere of hype. We should be the moderating influence on clients: Too often we're not. Instead of questioning what clients want to say, we accept it uncritically and find ways for them to say it. Does that make us as hypocritical as those damned in the news?

Friday, November 03, 2006


Whatever can be used for good can also be used for ill. That's the way of humanity. So, it is proper for the inventor of the web to worry about the future and how the web might be misused. It also is wise for him to begin studies into the "social implications of the web's development." We have witnessed that criminal relationships transfer easily to web. These include groups that trade child pornography, for example, and terrorists who find the web a convenient place to show beheadings of infidels.

Relationships bridge time, geography and culture online. We assume that in our work, but do we examine what it means beyond the practical aspects of communications? What defenses do our clients have? What proactive methods work better than others? Where is the statistical base that shows how negative relationships form and gain force against individuals and organizations?
There are decades of work here for PR researchers.

How Big Is The Internet? 

Bigger than any other publishing medium in history?


One wonders if a PR person reviewed this letter to the editor before it was sent to the Milwaukee Journal Times. Whether dismissed, terminated, fired, laid off, or let go, 50 people were out of work.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Logic and Illogic, Chaos and Control 

Sometimes it is the obvious things in our business that are in danger of being forgotten -- or never learned. One is the illogical nature of much of what a PR practitioner confronts in daily tasks. PR is often bound by likes, dislikes, perceptions and prejudices of individuals that don't fit neatly into matrices and mathematics. Yet, with a move to manage PR more rationally, there are those who step too far into the abstract and get away from the muck of daily operations. They believe one can rigorously control message themes and communications only to find that chaos erupts at unfortunate points, sometimes self-inflicted and sometimes not. Just ask John Kerry.

That is the reason I've completed this essay as a reminder to those who move too far into business organization that PR is frequently disorganized. Yes, we try to apply controls but often enough, controls don't work. An event is out of control. An interest group won't be placated. A reporter is out to get the company.

CEOs, trained in control, can become overbearing when this happens. They will order the practitioner to "just stop it." But, the practitioner can't "just stop it." It takes a mature and wise CEO to recognize that life is beyond the reach of matrices.

As usual, I am eager to hear any comments about what I write - pro or con.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Great Ideas (?) 

How to boost employee relations in Australia...

It's About Time 

The Pentagon is a leader in the pace of modern warfare, but apparently it has been behind the speed of news on the internet. It is now doing something about that. What took them so long?

The Price of Reputation 

This story details the price of reputation loss. It's steep. PR consultants don't come off that well either.

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