Monday, March 31, 2008

Some Things Stay The Same 

The cherry trees were blooming on schedule in Washington DC last Friday. The day was warm, and thousands of visitors on school break were wandering the mall. Arlington cemetery was green with row on perfect row of marble markers. The gems at the Smithsonian Natural History were as big and beautiful as ever and paintings at the National as striking. It is hard to believe in a town as politically dynamic as Washington DC that some things stay the same year after year. It is as if there is a need for permanence in a city where nothing is fixed for long.

The sameness is a message about America. There is amazing wealth and power in the monuments and museums. The message is that all this was assembled for and belongs to the people, not to a president or Congress. This is why, but for the crowds, that is wonderful to visit Washington. It is our town.

But for the heat and humidity, I could have lived and worked there. But, Washington has always been unbearable for its temperature. Since the beginning, it was a hardship post for diplomats in the summer. Air conditioning solved much of the problem of July through August, but Congress, the President and anyone else who can still abandon the town in the summer. So, even in its sameness, there is a message of impermanence. Come and visit, but don't stay. However, millions have ignored that advice to live there and tolerate beastly traffic.

It is back to work this morning, but seeing cherry trees in bloom for the first time was worth the trip.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

On the Road 

I'll be on the road again for the remainder of this week. Posting will be light.


This incident is interesting because it shows how little one can get away with in the modern era. Mrs. Clinton makes a claim, but video posted prominently online shows her claim is not what she says it was. An effort to boost her credentials turns into "gotcha." Mrs. Clinton handled it well. She fessed up that she had made a mistake and moved on. Her admission is not likely to prove fatal.

There is at least one lesson from this. If you are a public figure, check your memories against the record. If you don't, others will. Memory is inherently untrustworthy. Psychologists have experimented with implanting false memories and discovered that such so-called recollections endure and are powerful. People insist on things they have never done. If Mrs. Clinton was being truthful, there is reason to believe this is what happened to her. She remembered instructions from the Secret Service, but not the event.

The more we know about memory, the less certain we are about what people recall. That is why it is dangerous to take what a client remembers saying and doing as fact without checking further. Our job is to be accurate and to spare clients embarrassment for their unintended inaccuracies. The human brain is an amazing machine but like all biological machines, it isn't perfect.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Fast Response 

Give Sony credit for fast response to an online uproar. One wonders how the company decided in the first place to charge for removal of software one doesn't want. However, it saw quickly its error and corrected it. Sony demonstrates how closely companies watch the internet.

There is a trusim about internet response one should keep in my mind. Unhappy people speak first. The internet has an inherent bias to negativity. So, while a company's customer surveys might show positive results for its products and services, it can still be bashed relentlessly on the internet. It doesn't take many people to create an atmosphere and perception of failure. Hence, companies move quickly to stop complaints before they get out of control.

There may still be companies that track complaints to their 800 numbers but ignore what is said about them on the internet. We saw this as recently as two or three years ago. We hope such firms are few in number today. Companies should not get rid of customer service numbers, but should recognize that 800 systems are insufficient. They need to monitor online forums, blogs and web pages to know what is really being said about them. Of course, this is obvious, but it wasn't so clear not long ago. If there is one failing in marketing departments, it is an inability to keep up with the speed of the internet.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Close to Home 

For some, the meltdown of the financial service industry is a distant affair taking place in Manhattan. What they see are "For Sale" signs in front of homes in their neighborhood. This case of financial meltdown is occurring down the street from where I live, and the company was a client years ago. It is interesting that CIT's difficulties did not come in its traditional business. They came from the CEO's decision to expand into riskier but more lucrative markets.

CIT had long been considered a sleepy, but profitable company that performs vital financing to industries such as heavy machinery. It was a hard company to publicize because much of its business was bland, and it wasn't a market leader. Its invisibility was the fate of most companies in the world that do good but boring business. Perhaps CIT was best left alone to do what it did best, but, on the other hand, there was less chance of long-term growth. That is the kind of conundrum that keeps a CEO awake at night.

I wish the company well in its present difficulties. It is now in the news columns, but not in the way the company would like. If CIT emerges whole and still independent, my guess is that it will be relieved to return to anonymity and the largely invisible work that it has long been doing.

Friday, March 21, 2008

What Is Truth? 

Chinese control of news flow from Tibet has once again created an alternative universe of rumors, facts and purported facts. Depending on whose side you are on, the story changes. One would think the Chinese government would understand that information of some kind will get out no matter how hard the government tries to stop it. Apparently, bureaucrats in Beijing haven't yet lost the behavior of old-time communism. It is unfortunate for the country at large and for its reputation on the world scene. This incident highlights that China is not yet ready politically to trust its people and at heart is not a stable government. By that, I mean its leaders do not feel they can allow dissent without damaging the political machinery.

Given China's modern history, it is understandable that its leadership does not want to stare turmoil in the face again for generations. Tens of millions of died in the country in the 20th Century from conflicts of various kinds. On the other hand, there will come a time when China's inability to liberalize speech will harm the country and even possibly, destroy it. Today, with its accelerated growth and growing personal income, its citizens are too busy pulling themselves out of poverty to become overly concerned about personal expression. So there will more incidents like Tibet that will occur and more conflicting stories about what happened. We on the outside can only watch and guess what the facts are and ponder the implications.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Beg To Differ 

This is an interesting take on brand conversation, but there is one error. PR is content, not advertising. Marketers have failed time and again in carrying on brand conversations. They want to SELL. They don't want to discuss. PR understands -- or should, anyway -- that one interacts with audiences. That is part of unpaid persuasion we use as our primary tool. On the internet, people are information gatherers. They want to know more about products and services they are considering buying. They look for unbiased -- and extremely biased -- discussions. What does one love, hate? PR inserts itself naturally into that stream.

Having written that, there is a limit to what people will look up. There are categories of service and products that are commodities because of their price points and because, well, no one talks about them. I know this because I have gone to the internet to find information and it wasn't there. Perhaps that is an opportunity for a makers and providers of these products and services, but perhaps it isn't either. Most of us don't discuss the quality of common nuts, bolts and nails. We just go to a hardware store or home center and buy them.

I do agree that content must be useful, engaging and interesting. That is what we are supposed to be doing with content everyday when we work with the media.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Fear And Its Consequences 

The Federal Reserve is flooding money into the financial system like a dam bursting its wall. Wall Street firms and banks are channeling it into capital reserves but aren't lending. Everyone is staring at the foreclosure rate and paralyzed. We are living in fear. We don't know yet the consequences of it for the nation, but we do know they won't be good. The world is awash in dollars that are declining in value by the day. At some point, the Federal Reserve will have to rebuild the dam and stop the flow. What then when interest rates begin to rise?

Meanwhile, a chorus of critics has arisen against what the Fed is doing. Let banks fail, they say. Maybe so, but fear is driving the Fed too. How then does one communicate the concept of stability? The earnings reports yesterday from Goldman Sachs and Lehman helped lift some of the gloom, but no one at this hour knows whether it will turn things around. It is a day-by-day event with an eye to world-market reactions as well, and a pervasive tension has settled over offices throughout Manhattan.

Fear is a strange emotion that seems sometimes to be beyond words and persuasion. As a communicator, I feel powerless.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Internet Journalism 

There isn't much surprise in this study of internet journalism. It points out that news is shrinking and not expanding because most sites repackage the same stories or focus on the same news topics. That is, most sites rely on AP, Reuters, Bloomberg and other news services rather than doing their own enterprise reporting. That is the way it has been since the beginning. It is easy, cheap and fast. But, the future of journalism does not appear to be the easy route with skeletal newsrooms. Readers remain hungry to know what is happening in the world. It is hard to believe they will be satisfied with a scan of Google news in the morning.

PR practitioners had better hope that news publishers rediscover the need for enterprise reporting. Like it or not, traditional news organizations are still a channel for the persuasion work we do. Some may think this idea is old-fashioned and that PR has moved beyond publicity, but publicity has not disappeared. We still need the news media and they, whether they like it or not, need us. It is harder now when week after week one watches major media get slimmer and read of newsroom buyouts. There are more stories than ever but fewer reporters to write them.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Cost of Incredulity 

$236 million. That is the price J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. is paying for investment bank, Bear Stearns, that was worth $3.5 billion as of Friday and $20 billion little more than a year ago. In banking, trust is everything and loss of it, ruinous. It is sad to see a scrappy, 80-year-old firm disappear, but it is a reminder how much reputation counts. Bear Stearns employees are losing hundreds of millions of value in their shares, their jobs, their culture and their future.

It is rare today to see such a dramatic and swift bank run, but as we are learning, runs can happen, and the financial system can melt. There is no ultimate safety net, as much as we would like to think.

How much could public relations have done to save Bear Stearns? Little, it turns out. The bank tried to calm investors, but fear and greed ruled. The bank did not have enough friends to stand by it in the end.

In the 1930s, there were movies about bank runs. Frank Capra made two that I know of, and I saw one again recently. I thought then what a quaint document it was of a time long past. Little did I know. The impact of the Bear Stearns failure will slam New York City's finances and radiate through the community. It is unclear still how much damage it will do.

Mark this event in your memory. Use it whenever corporate executives question the value of what public relations should be doing.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Trust But Verify 

Here is another example where credibility breeds trust, and trust allows an individual to get away with chicanery. From what I have read, Mr. Ward was deemed an expert in the rules of campaign funding and much sought after for advice. No one gave a thought to the idea he might be stealing at the same time he was providing counsel.

Why do people fall for such behavior time and again? We trust one another because we have to. We couldn't operate in society if we suspected everyone. Trust allows action rather than bureaucracy. In the case of the Treasurer, he was apparently faking audits and bookkeeping without sufficient oversight. Auditors know in matters of money that duties should be divided among people in order to prevent fraud. Apparently that wasn't done here or somehow, the ex-Treasurer circumvented the system. It is possible to steal for a time before getting caught.

There is a reminder in this failure. Trust but verify in important matters. We know this, but it is hard to break the habit of accepting what others tell us as true.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


This post on the impact of Search Engine Optimization on journalism is an interesting insight. I'm not as pessimistic as the author, however.

The Future of Meetings 

An end to boring presentations is in sight...

Good Idea 

This application opens PR possibilities for a number of companies. It allows one to collect videos of the use of products from YouTube into libraries. For example, we have a client whose products are featured constantly in videos from around the world. We have suggested that these be collected from YouTube and posted to the company's own web site. This application interface makes that possible.

Why do this? It builds a bond among a company's customers. No matter where one might be in the world, he or she can see how others use the same products. It projects a company's global image better. It reminds employees of the broad impact of their work.

The downside of this idea is that one would have to monitor videos constantly and remove unsafe uses of products. But, that is a small price to pay for gaining a larger reputation.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Perception and Reality 

If true, here is a case where perception trumped reality. The Navy admiral in charge of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan resigned because of press reports that he disagrees with the White House over what to do about Iran. The story probably is more complicated than what is reported, but the admiral realized he wasn't going to win against prevailing perceptions, so he left. That is not always the best thing to do. Sometimes, one should ride the tempest.

On the other hand, here is a leader who should have stepped down immediately but apparently is using his resignation as a bargaining chip to avoid prosecution. Reality has made perception of him worse.

If there is honor, the admiral has shown it and the governor of New York hasn't.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Well Said 

This editorial from the Wall Street Journal summarizes concisely the PR disaster who is now the governor of the state of New York. There is not much to add other than a thought that the tri-state area of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut has been unlucky in recent years. A governor resigned in New Jersey in the midst of scandal. The former governor of Connecticut spent time in jail.

There is little one can do for individuals who have spun their own web of destruction. PR only goes so far, and it cannot explain away deceit.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Interesting to Watch 

The rapid rise in the price of gasoline is interesting to watch in the US. American drivers have always believed inexpensive fuel was their right, whereas drivers in Europe and elsewhere have always paid dearly. There has been some impact from high prices. Fuel demand is falling, which means people are driving less or switching to more fuel-efficient vehicles. However, drop in demand is not precipitous -- not yet anyway.

What does this have to do with communications? It is a reminder that getting people to change habits is difficult. Asking them to drive less or to use more fuel-efficient transportation was a failure as long as inexpensive fuel was to be had. Now that the price of gasoline has risen to record-breaking highs, some are ready to listen, but not many.

In the same way, changing habits in organizations meets similar resistance. CEOs should know a leader's job is to sell and sell again a new idea for years. A rule of thumb is that major change takes seven years to implant. On the other hand, one CEO declared it takes closer to 14. My guess is that this CEO is more likely to be right. Companies can backslide after seven years -- and do.

Will it take 14 years for US drivers to change their driving habits as a result of high gasoline prices? Probably, if not longer. Drivers will need to switch vehicles, commuting habits and distances to job sites. Governments will need to provide better transportation alternatives. Should prices decline, drivers will return to their old habits, which means behavior change will need to start again once prices rise. Communications will be a drumbeat in the background that some will hear but most will not. Eventually, imperceptibly, people will change, and society will look different.

It should be a lesson to those of us who believe we can implement a PR program and reach an objective in a year or two.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Behavior Change 

This is a disturbing behavior change that requires urgent communication. The expectation has always been that homeowners would fight to the last inch to save their residences, including foregoing some necessities. That is why mortgages were considered a relatively safe investment. Since it is not so, at least in this meltdown, what can the financial industry say to remind homeowners of their responsibility? Education is beyond PR alone. There needs to be structural change. Banks have to bend, as well as homeowners, to find an accomodation that keeps people in homes but generates some repayment of outstanding balances. Failing that, the meltdown will continue for months more, and credit markets will remain under stress.

It is hard to feel too sorry for bankers. They were the first ones at fault for giving unsustainable mortgages to homeowners. They deserve the losses they are getting. Unfortunately, their losses are the economy's pain.


"This is going to hurt Southwest in the image of the public," said Richard Gritta, a professor of finance and transportation at the University of Portland. "This is not just a toilet that's not functioning. This is serious."


Thursday, March 06, 2008


We have concluded two days of interviewing with a client and have more interviews to go by phone. My note-taking hand is protesting by cramping and sending pains all along my arm. I suppose I could take fewer notes or use a tape recorder but neither way has proven satisfactory. When I take fewer notes, I miss details that usually prove to be important. When I record sessions, there are so many umms and ahhs to get through and garbled words that it takes twice as long to transcribe. I converted decades ago to a form of fast note-taking called "Notehand" that helps me stay up with speakers, but after a fourth or fifth interview, fingers give out. There is a penalty for using Notehand as well, which is deciphering cryptic symbols later in the office. However, I've never had as much trouble doing that as listening to tapes.

The function of interviews is to get a sense of a company from those who run it. What interviews lack is detail one needs to write authoritatively. This one gets through documents and other sources. It is interesting, however, how diverse views are about what a company does and differences people have about what is important to communicate. Some project a bias based on what they do. Others try to project an overall understanding of a firm. None quite grasp the dynamics of a large business because they can't. There is too much going on in too many places. Making sense of it all is a labored affair. Knowing what to emphasize is confusing, but eventually facts sort themselves into topics and topics into a theme. We're still a long way from that.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Light Posting This Week 

I'm off again today on client business and will be unable to post for most of the week.

Green For A Day 

What happens to an oil company's credibility when it trumpets that it wants to be "green" then mentions it might sell its unit dedicated to environmental energy? BP is about to find out. This raises a question of how serious any company is about changing course. In the case of BP, a new CEO is turning the company back to its original business and discarding some of the strategy of the departed CEO. When companies get into trouble, they return to what they know best.

Companies do change direction, but it happens most often when a CEO stays around long enough to set the new course and see it through. With CEOs averaging five to six years in office among the S&P 500, this is not nearly enough time for companies to follow new paths. It takes closer to seven to 10 years to get that done. Usually it takes a business cycle to prove the new course works, and it requires new behaviors in employees at every level.

PR practitioners have little choice but to trumpet new directions when CEOs decide to make them. However, they should be skeptical unless the CEOs have long tenures in front of them and the will to steer the course. This means CEOs new to the office are more likely to succeed than those in mid-career and those with bulldog mentalities are more likely to finish than those who are more easily distracted. It also means practitioners must be ready to communicate the same message relentlessly for years at a time -- a boring task that requires creativity to freshen.

In my career, I have seen few transformations that have succeeded. That is about the norm.

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