Friday, February 29, 2008


Words from Don Bates, Academic Director of The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management and a colleague.

Great PR writing isn't always about the "wordsmithing," though that's what people may think of first when they hear the phrase. The truth is great communications is really about the logic and insight behind the words on the page. So I think that's largely what's missing at a junior level in PR these days—the cursory research, talking to the client, backgrounding and true reportage that makes a release or whatever you're crafting solid, successful and really worthwhile.

I've often said I can teach anyone to write well. What I can't teach easily is how to think well. PR writing is explanatory first -- relating facts and the story in a clear manner such that reporters can use the information quickly. There is little need for adjectives and adverbs. Writing is nouns, verbs and objects. To some, it might seem flavorless but to journalists, conditioned to read hyped PR prose, clear writing is fresh air. It is bracing. It makes their jobs easier. It is credible. But, to write clearly means one must know what to write about and present it logically.

I disagree with Don in one point. Bad writing has been a chronic condition in PR since I started decades ago. It isn't recent. It has long disturbed me how little PR practitioners know about the clients, products and services they represent. They don't take the time to learn. They are too busy selling. The first rule of selling, however, is to know what you are merchandising.

I wish Don well in his effort to teach writing. It is needed.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


My colleague, Peter Shinbach, sent me this column on "Doublespeak" used by airlines. It would be hilarious, if it weren't infuriating. Is it impossible for airlines to tell passengers the facts? The airline business is tough and barely profitable. There is overcapacity. There are employee problems and bad morale. There are escalating fuel costs. The airlines have responded by making travel ever more difficult for passengers and extracting revenue from them through smaller planes, cramped seats, deleted services and extra charges. It is past time for an airline CEO who is plain-speaking and for airline marketers who explain why travel is so miserable.

Slow Death 

There is little that is more painful for a CEO and for a company than to have its main, moneymaking product declared useless or unfit as is happening in this case. There is little that one can communicate to make the pain go away or less sharp. The companies are in a race to prove the scientists wrong or to find other products to supplant those being relegated to the dustbin. As a PR person, I've been in situations like this. It is a helpless feeling. Either a new product comes out of the pipeline to replace or make up for the old, or it doesn't, and the company fades from the marketplace.

As has been written often here, there are limits to communicatons. This is one.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Safety in Numbers 

When one company does badly, analysts are quick to blame the CEO. When all companies do badly, CEOs get a bye. That is the case here and here and even, here. From a PR persepctive, the cover is helpful. One doesn't have to spend as much time defending a CEO's performance. Pointing to the economy is enough. On the other hand, how a CEO responds to downturns is as important as growth. The discipline that a CEO shows in managing a business through rough times is as important for credibility as revenue and earnings. PR should emphasize what a CEO is doing to throttle back and how well the company is implementing. Leadership is never easy, but there may be less stress in good times than in bad. Bad times show how firm of a grip a CEO has on a business.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Low Profile -- But Not 

This is an interesting profile of a Mr. Fix-it at Boeing who shuns the press, but even as he does, the press tracks him. There is great value in his "watch-what-I-do" message. It is the best PR. He is going about fixing things and letting his bosses deal with the media. His bosses know better than to take credit for success. There has been too much failure already, and it is clear that if production turns around, it will be the result of a leader who descends into the muck and gets rid of the snags. It's a tough, high-risk job, but if he pulls it off, that will be his PR for the rest of his career.

Maturity -- Maybe 

This column trumpets Microsoft's maturity as a company in releasing its code to developers. Maybe. It is clear the EU is not buying the argument. The lesson appears to be that maturity is difficult to achieve and gaining credibility for it even harder. It is like parents who have watched junior grow to an adult but persist in treating him as an adolescent.

Microsoft fought hard for its position and not always fairly. It is going to take a long time for regulators to forget. Developers will remain wary as well. The rest of us? I'm cautiously optimistic but in a wait-and-see mode too. It is hard for a company as large and as powerful as Microsoft to turn into a new course. There needs to be a great deal of behavior change. That doesn't come easily. So, we wait and watch.

Credibility -- Or Lack thereof 

Pfizer pulls Jarvis ads. I had wondered how they had gotten him to shill for them.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Pipe Management 

Pipe management is an interesting concept in Free Speech -- that is, the size and speed of internet data delivery. We have written in the past about Comcast's PR embarrassment for failing to tell users that it was slowing or preventing transport of gigabyte-sized files. Now, it seems that ISPs might not be allowed to dictate what is transported over their networks. What other medium would have that restriction? Certainly not printed media that are allowed by reasons for space to dictate what goes in their columns. Nor electronic media which have only so much bandwidth for sound and visuals.

The idea that the internet provides unlimited bandwidth and speed to users is enticing but for one difficulty. Who pays for it? Should access be left on a flat-fee basis or should heavy users pay more? The obvious answer is not the response internet users want. Internet users demand a low flat fee no matter how much they stuff through the system. It is as if Free Speech has no economic limits. But, unfortunately, it does. A carrier has a right to earn a return on investment for the pipelines that it builds to users. When someone wants to put more through the pipeline than it is built for, the carrier should have the choice of saying no or of demanding payment for transport.

The internet has extended Free Speech to vast dimensions but not infinity.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Explaining the Unimaginable 

This story is a reminder that we are in an era when PR practitioners will be called upon to explain what was unimaginable only a few years ago. The idea that one can measure the precise force it takes to push an atom of one kind on the surface of atoms of another kind is mind-boggling. Engineering deals regularly now at the atomic scale as if anyone could do it -- and shortly, many laboratories will.

It is time for practitioners to familiarize themselves with nanoscale structures and methods, if they have not done so already. What we could leave safely to physics text books and out of mind is now part of products coming to market. Perhaps there is a need for another type of PR practitioner -- an engineer who can explain what is happening in everyday language.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Posting will be light this week. I'm away.

President's Day 

Although I've written about this recently, President's Day is a reminder that neither countries nor companies nor sports teams get great leadership often. Great leaders are rare and they are fashioned partially by circumstances in which they find themselves -- Washington, the founding of the country; Lincoln, the salvation of it; Roosevelt, the Great Depression; Truman, the end of World War II and start of the Cold War. Most leaders are competent but not enduring. They serve their time and move on. Their records may be good, but that is all. They help institutions they lead, but they don't move them into a new place because there is no need for that. They solve problems, but they are not asked to manage life-threatening ones.

The questions arising from this are several. If there is no need for great leadership, why do we expect it? Why do we compensate leaders as if all were expected to be great? Why do we demand outstanding performance when there isn't much chance of it -- or need for it? One answer is that one can never know when a leader is thrust into circumstances that require extraordinary performance. No one can predict the future. Why we compensate leaders so well is laid to an issue of scarcity, but it is more than that. Why we demand outstanding performance all of the time is baffling. It seems that once an individual becomes a leader, we take away humanity from performance. Humans make mistakes: We don't allow leaders mistakes. That is silly, of course, but we do it anyway.

As communicators, we face the humanity of leadership constantly. We see up close where CEOs bungle, and we're asked to cover up their errors. If CEOs were more humble, and we were more honest, we wouldn't do that. The CEO would acknowledge the error. We would communicate it. That doesn't happen often -- nor will it. Humans don't like to admit mistakes, especially humans in charge. So, we live with the folly of leadership. It is part of the PR job.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


This story could take an award for stating the obvious. Of course, the airline industry needs to take capacity out of the system so it can raise prices. On the other hand, maybe there is a need for stories such as this. It has been my experience that the obvious is sometimes not clear to many. At the risk of looking dumb, it is better to state what everyone knows, primarily to ground discussion. Sometimes after stating the obvious, clients have disclosed that they do not want what is surely to happen, and they have changed course. On other occasions, stating the obvious has led to new solutions about what to do. So, while the writer of this news story was not reporting a groundbreaking news article, he was providing a service. Do Americans want a transportation system with restricted flights and high prices on each route? Have they really thought about the implications of consolidation? My guess is that most have not, and maybe it is time they do. There is something obvious about that.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Out of Action 

Monday is a holiday in the US -- President's Day. The rest of the week I will be out of the office. Posting will be light -- or not at all.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Where PR Comes In 

This story is a testament to the role of PR in online marketing and a warning to companies using online advertising. Those who click on the your ads may not be the audience you want. It is interesting to learn that close to 70 percent of the online universe doesn't click at all. What this tells me is that contextual methods of message delivery -- i.e., what PR does -- are the more powerful tools on the internet. However, I'm sure there will be studies to disprove this conclusion. It will be interest to read them.

New Source of Activism 

A new source of activism to monitor when guarding corporate reputation.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Brain 

This is an amusing but accurate discussion of the brain and the tricks it plays on everyone. Read the whole column. The author reminds us that we can never trust what we remember, what we see or, maybe, even what we decide. The path to accuracy is hard, and misperception is constant. Of course, anyone who works in PR knows this. That is why PR can be frustrating and seemingly self-defeating. Our shortfall is failing to delve more deeply into the brain and how it distorts. We leave that to scientists and psychologists. But, we shouldn't. The better we understand self-delusion, the more creative we can be to use it in communicating effectively.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Social Networking Worry 

As if there isn't enough to worry about, it turns out attorneys are using social networking sites as evidence and, in some cases, compelling disclosure of what a person has placed on Facebook or MySpace. There have been concerns about both sites for different reasons related to personal information security. This adds to the overall question of why people would disclose so much about themselves to the world. From a personal reputation consideration, it has never seemed advisable. Now, from a legal point of view there is less to recommend such exhibitionism.

There is a tendency to use communications tools because "everybody is doing it." That has never been a good enough reason. One should look at the implications of a tool as much as its popularity. Social networking tools lend to too much disclosure from individuals who don't know how to use them well. People don't have to know everything about a person. In fact, they shouldn't know. Privacy advocates have a point when they call for better care of personally identifiable information on the internet. On the other hand, when a person freely gives such information away, there is no reason why others should not employ it against them.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Present and Coming PR Problem 

Internet users in the US are used to flat-rate usage -- one payment monthly and all the bandwidth one can stuff data through. As this article predicts, that may be coming to an end. Bandwidth costs money. Someone has to pay for it. Utimately, it will be users, or companies will not be able to afford the investments to build bigger data pipelines. In other countries, people pay tiered rates for data they ship through their systems. They are deeply unhappy about that and point to the US as the model of what the internet should be. Imagine when US internet users become more like them. This will be a major PR challenge. One cable company already is considering a data fee. Others will follow in time or start to restrict data flow, as Comcast was caught doing. It turned into an ugly reputational incident for Comcast. It will be for other internet service providers as well.

It will be interesting to see the communications programs that prepare users to pay for what they have long expected to get for free.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Sign of Desperation 

Why is it when sports teams and political campaigns get into trouble, they fire the manager? The message firing sends is one of desperation and not of a new beginning. It says to everyone, "We've got to salvage this season somehow. We need to shoot someone to show progress." The problems of the organization could be from the manager but most likely they aren't. There is more wrong at the root. It could be the wrong players on the field or the wrong candidate. The manager may have something to do with that, but not always. The manager plays with the team or candidate the manager has been given.

If one is going to replace a manager, it should be done early before the message takes on too much subtext. To fire a manager when a season is well along speaks too loudly of other things beneath the surface. It places supporters on edge. It forecasts diminishing prospects. It says clearly the candidate or team is in deep trouble.

There are some moves that teams and candidates shouldn't take. This is one of them.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Why Do Candidates Fail? 

This is interesting news. Mitt Romney has looks from central casting, experience in business and government as a leader, a strong political pedigree and piles of cash. But he failed as a presidential candidate.

What does it take to be viable? What messages? What presentation? What media? Whatever that mixture is, Romney clearly did not have it this election cycle, nor did John Edwards, another person with seemingly strong presence. Yet, a candidate who had failed last summer, Senator John McCain, is now the Republican front-runner.

Messages and candidates are of the moment in politics, but they are more than that. They are products of character, organization, fund raising, volunteers and political promises among other factors. Campaign professionals and journalists would say money is at the heart of everything. But, this time it wasn't. Romney and Edwards are wealthy. McCain was broke last summer and Mike Huckabee, the remaining Republican candidate has campaigned on a broken shoestring.

What this election cycles proves again is that effective communications programs are difficult to devise and execute. By effective, I mean programs that do more than build awareness but get individuals to perform an action -- vote for you. Playing a lottery is easier and about as successful. It is certainly less expensive. The candidates this year already have spent hundreds of millions and the nomination is not yet secure for any of them.

It is easy to assign reasons for why a candidate has failed. Journalists do it regularly. But the reasons are usually facile. It would take in-depth study to sort through the choices of a campaign to isolate those where things went wrong. I would like to see such a study for this election cycle.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Digging In 

I spent most of yesterday plowing through documents related to a company headquartered outside the US. It was interesting. There is an amazing amount of data and a fascinating story. However, in the middle of stitching together facts, the realization of how little I know became apparent. I don't have a grasp on the country's culture or on the way consumers think about the company. It is unlikely I ever will understand their view, but it might not be a barrier to telling the company's story.

I have been researching as well a company in a commodity industry in the US. Although I don't have worries about cultural distinctions, perhaps I should. The pressure of competition on a company that makes a product without differentiation is fierce. Employees think differently. Managers approach the market with fanatical attention to costs. Saving a penney is a win with long production runs. Penneys add up. This company's story is also interesting, but it will be difficult to tell. What is there new to say about an industry in which there are few innovations and in which the difference between winners and losers is efficiency? The answer to that is to keep digging. The inside story of the industry may reveal missing angles.

The lesson from both these companies is there is no substitute for homework, but homework is never enough. Elements are always missing. Sometimes they are critical, sometimes not, but it is hubris to think one ever knows.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Brownie Chip 

I'm not going to comment on Super Tuesday. Other bloggers are doing that, and they are smarter than I about the presidential candidates.

Rather, a tidbit of news caught my attention -- this. The idea that a cell phone will be turned shortly into a relatively high-quality camera is in an odd way taking Kodak back to its roots. The company invented photography for the masses with roll film and cheap cameras like the Brownie Box. The company is reinventing photography for the masses with a cheap but quality cell phone image chip.

Mass market photography was one of the great communication inventions of the late 19th Century that continues today. Millions learned to communicate in images. Kodak led and fed that desire. Kodak spearheaded the primacy of image over word even before television.

From a PR point of view, it may soon be essential for practitioners to carry a phone with a good image chip to grab shots for use in communications to target audiences. The cell phone will become the Brownie Box of the 21st Century and not the smeary image-maker it is today.

It will be interesting to see how it changes corporate communications.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

What Next? 

Microsoft's hostile bid for Yahoo is probably best for shareholders looking for a good return. But, (there is always a "but") how is a combined company likely to fare? The record for mergers is so dismal, especially with culture clashes, that a rule of thumb for many companies is never to attempt a merger of equals. Rather, they buy little companies they can absorb quickly and whose cultures may not be deeply established.

In communications and management style, the differences between Microsoft and Yahoo will be substantial. There are two schools of thought for how to handle this. Some CEOs say to act quickly: Others prefer to back off and even allow merged companies to operate as they always have. Either solution is right or wrong, depending on circumstances. The wisdom of the CEO is to know which approach to choose.

Communicators at Microsoft and Yahoo will be caught in the middle of the turmoil. It will be interesting to watch how they handle the transition.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

On the Road 

I will be on the road Monday and will not post.

Rhetoric v. Reality 

Super Tuesday primary elections are coming this week. I vote in the Democratic party, but I'm not enamored with either candidate. It's going to be a tough decision at the polling booth.

One deep concern is that voters might be misdirected by soaring words and vague concepts of the brotherhood of man. There is a gulf between words and deeds. This has been true since the beginning of communications thousands of years ago. I'm reading (or re-reading, I don't remember) Tolstoy's War and Peace in a wonderful translation. Tolstoy portrays the same distance between those who do and whose who talk. I saw a quote this morning that compared Cicero's eloquent orations with Caesar's simplicity. The jist of it was that Romans listened to Cicero but marched for Caesar.

I don't know the capacity for either Democratic candidate to get things done should he or she win the presidency. That's part of my problem. But, the lure of high-sounding rhetoric worries me. John F. Kennedy was a wonderful orator. The record shows he wasn't much of president. On the other hand, Lincoln was both a magnificent speaker and astute political player, although he was unskilled in the ways of Washington. However, as one historian pointed out, Lincoln was unique as was Washington. America has not and will not find such leaders often.

Great leadership is rare. Most presidents in US history have been undistinguished. Some whom we hold in high esteem were, in fact, wreckers, such as Andrew Jackson who spun the US economy into uncertainty for decades after he got rid of the Bank of the United States. Others like Teddy Roosevelt had a record of an unjustified war against Spain that is a black mark on US history. I have no expectations that any candidate from either party will rise to greatness. But, one can be surprised.

It is easier to throw darts at a board than to vote.

Friday, February 01, 2008

A Different Kind of Reputation Management 


Good Lesson 

Here is a good lesson in PR from a journalist. It's not the usual "damn the spinners," but a deep understanding that perception is reality. The editor teed off to Microsoft on its Vista operating system, calling it a dud. He has an acute awareness of what Microsoft needs to do to change the image of the software. He was also sensitive enough to understand that Microsoft doesn't want to hear what he had to say. Read the whole column.

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