Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Neuron Challenge 

Brain imaging studies are showing that different cultures are wired differently in their neurons.  Not only do different societies think differently, but their physical make-up is reshaped in line with their cultural bent.  This verifies what communicators have long suspected, but it also heightens the challenge of sending messages.  We must be even more aware that what we say may not resonate with other societies because their brains are not shaped to understand our point of view.  We can no longer assume that we can adapt messages easily when world views of others are embedded into their brains.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cyber Monday 

Today is Cyber Monday, the day that we are all to go to work then get online to shop for the holidays.  It says something about our culture that a period, which once was a religious and family time, has become a mercantile contest.  The erosion of the original intent of the holidays has become an avalanche of economics.  Retailers depend on this season to make their numbers for the year.  Economists and reporters watch the daily and weekly numbers to get a clue to consumer intent and the overall health of the economy. 

From a PR perspective, one wonders how the messages shifted over the decades, what happened to cause the change and how public behavior responded.  It didn't have to happen this way, but it did.  Will it continue this way permanently?  That is hard to predict.  There is always a possibility that public shopping habits might change, as retailers stretch the holiday season from Thanksgiving to Halloween and earlier.  It is interesting to watch the desperation of the merchants to sell and their efforts to get consumers to buy.  But, why do consumers go along with it?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Difficult Position 

South Korea has accepted the resignation of its defense minister in the wake of the artillery bombardment from the North.  The firing was symbolic and a message to South Koreans that the status quo with the North is not acceptable.  But, what is acceptable?  The country is in a delicate position.  It is trying not to provoke the tyrannical regime in the North, yet it is also trying to secure the safety of its citizens.  It is hoping China will step in to pressure the North but China doesn't appear to be willing to do that.  It needs to keep world opinion on its side, but it also needs to stop unprovoked acts of aggression.  Tit-for-tat violence may not be the answer.  There are parallels for that.  Think of the stand-off between Israelis and Palestinians.  Nothing has been resolved there, but thousands have been killed.  What kind of messages must South Korea communicate and how to the North?  That is the challenge the South is facing, and it is probably one of the hardest tasks of a politician to undertake.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Why is it that publishers and authors never learn when it comes to writing books?  In this case, it is news that a newly minted senator from Kentucky has landed a deal to write a book.  He hasn't done anything yet except win an election, and chances are that whatever he writes will come back to haunt him in years to come.  From a PR perspective, such insta-books are dangerous.  Whatever the senator pens will be used against him in the future -- especially if his plans go awry in the Senate, which inevitably they will.  It is far, far better to discuss what one has done rather than what one plans to do.  If the senator is lucky, his book will hit the remainder pile quickly and be forgotten by most, even his opponents.  But, that is not the way Washington works.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Speculation And Appointments 

This story exemplifies the messages sent when people are appointed to a new position within a company.   In this case, it appears that the cable side of NBC television is on the ascendancy while the network side is not.  It doesn't matter whether that is the intent of Comcast's CEO or not.  Appearances and actions count.  Comcast got rid of NBC network executives and promoted NBC cable executives.  That speaks loudly both to employees and media watchers.  It makes one wonder if companies are always careful about PR when appointments are made.  One can imagine that employees on the network side of NBC are updating their resumes and watching their new owner carefully.  That may not be helpful if Comcast plans to turn the network around.  The lesson here is to clarify at the time of an appointment what the company intends.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Swallowing Pride 

The Irish government has decided to take a bailout after weeks of refusal.  It is a come-down for a country that was a modern economic miracle just a few years ago.  One wonders how the economy spun so far out of control, but then one needs only look at the US to find a similar example.  From a PR perspective, Ireland's reputation has taken a major blow, and it may take years, if not decades, for the country to recover.  The population's solution to economic hardship is emigration.  The young are starting to leave again.  That has to be a heartache for Ireland's politicians who spent many years trying to stop the flow of people from the country.  It is hard to blame Ireland's economic planners for wanting to improve the lives of citizens, but it is a reminder that giddy economic times usually cover up deep-rooted problems.  It doesn't do away with them.


Today's posting has been delayed by an internet glitch.  We're back up and operating.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Reputation Destroyer 

Even if a person is judged innocent in the end, this kind of lawsuit destroys an individual's reputation.   The headlines that ensue, the accusations, the state publicizing its case all work against one.  There should be rules about how attorneys general proceed in such instances, but there aren't and probably never will be.  Ambitious officers of the state have filed high-profile suits in the past to advance their reputations and gotten away with the injustice of doing so.  Think of Eliot Spitzer.  I have no idea whether Mr. Rattner is guilty or innocent of the charges against him, but I do know that this suit will follow him for the rest of his career.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Plan A, Plan B 

Second-guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking of the President are well underway.  Most of it is dubious and only time will tell whether the President was right or wrong.  This opinion, however, is interesting.  It concludes that the President had a plan for turning around the economy but when deterioration outstripped the plan, the president lacked a Plan B or Plan C.   The insight may or may not be correct, but it does point to a common problem with plans.  They fail in the face of reality.   That is, one should make robust plans that can be adapted quickly when events turn out to be different than one thinks.  Locking into one plan is dangerous.  From a PR perspective, one may change tactics frequently, but not the message.  The message for the economy was job creation.  The President needed multiple ways to tackle creation of employment, but he may not have had them ready to go -- a basic management failure.  On the other hand, there may have been little that he could do in the face of the worst economic downturn since the Depression.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sad, If True 

This story is written as an indictment of college students who cheat their way through school by having others do their work. It is disappointing and alarming that students who are nearly incoherent in their thinking and writing are getting degrees based on this gentleman's work.  What does it mean for the future work force?  How will these people perform once they are in a position?  I can recall once working with a PhD who was a nearly incoherent writer and wondering how the individual made it through a degree program.  One wonders if people who cheat will be future clients who rely on communicators to make them look good. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Popular Revolt 

What do authorities do in the face of a popular revolt?  Here is one -- protest against full-body scanners and full-body searches.   Pilots, flight attendants and members of the public are furious about the intimate inspections.  So far, the government is remaining firm about the need for them, but at some point it may become a critical issue if there is mass rejection of the procedures.  It is a major PR issue for the government and one that should be addressed immediately.  The question is how to ensure security and passenger safety without invading privacy.  There is no easy answer to this question and never will be.  Perhaps the government is expecting passengers to get used to the procedure eventually and the protests will die down.  But what if they don't? 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Yes? No? 

Here is an issue about which the President seems to have been on all sides whether he has or not -- extending tax cuts for the wealthy.  Now, the word comes that he will not extend them -- his original position -- but the issue of a short-term extension is still open.  Whether or not the wealthy get a tax break is no longer the point, it seems to me, but the appearance of vacillation is.  The President sometimes seems uninvolved and indecisive, an unfortunate impression at a time when the electorate is looking for direction.  The public wants a leader who says, "Go there and all will be well."  What is puzzling is that the President was an extraordinary communicator as a candidate.  That is what put him into the White House.  He seems to have lost the power of words since.  It is an issue that commentators already have noted and historians will chew in time.  The rest of us are left wondering.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Can't Do This 

This is an interesting story about journalists and their ability to handle large data sets.  Some reporters are just now harnessing desktop tools to tease important stories out of masses of variables.  A question struck me while reading the story.  Could PR practitioners do the same?  The answer sadly is no.  Most that I know don't have the skills with either Microsoft Excel or Access to tackle large-scale projects.  To those who say that we don't need these skills, I would retort that some of our clients handle large data-set reporting yearly, and I personally have done large data-set studies.  There are warehouses of information available from clients we represent and often there are compelling stories hidden in them -- stories that support reputation or potentially harms it.  How long will we wait in the PR business before skilled use of a spreadsheet and relational database are required?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Panel Problem 

What is it about government panels and commissions?  They come up with economically astute solutions that are politically dead from the moment they are announced.  Here is a case of another one.  The deficit panel's ideas make sense to close the government's budget gap but few senators or congressmen will support them.  And, that is a problem.  There is a real and terrifying hole in US revenues and expenditures, but the public will is not there to do anything about it.  There is no consensus yet that will allow a politician to be brave and keep his job.  So the political impasse will remain whether or not there are more panels, commissions, study groups, nonpartisan recommendations, reports or any other communication pointing to the problems.  When special interest groups howl, politicians listen -- and count votes.  Only when there is a general consensus that something must be done, will the tide -- and public perception -- turn.  History tells us that can take a long time or not happen at all.  Many nation's have declined because they could not deal with their fundamental problems.  There is no guarantee the US is different.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Dangerous Error 

Rolls-Royce is in the middle of another quandary.  Why are its engines on the largest commercial plane in service suddenly prone to failure?  As the article points out, it is not the first time Rolls-Royce has been in this position, but there is little time for the company to find the problem before it loses credibility with its air carrier customers, regulators and the nervous public.  It does little good to appeal to experience in handling past defects.  The focus is on handling the present errors now.  No one wants another engine to explode.  This is a life-threatening reputation problem for the company and increased communications and transparency won't help much.  Finding the hardware error will. 

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Too Late 

This is interesting.  The US panel investigating the BP spill has found no evidence of the company putting cost over safety.  That is an important finding for BP but it is too late.  The perception is embedded that BP is a penny-pinching corporation when it comes to protecting its workers and its operations.  The finding might help BP in court but even that is open to question.  What jury is going to believe that BP simply had an accident?


When you are the dominant player in the marketplace, you can get away with mistakes like this.  Your reputation may be damaged but where is anyone going to go?  Nielsen has had problems with measurement over the years but has never lost its position.  It must be nice to be able to make mistakes and not lose your customers. 

Monday, November 08, 2010

Spend More? Spend Less? 

The new Republican governors and the new Republican House majority are devising ways to spend less money in order to cut the budget deficit.  Democrats are pushing to spend more in order to create jobs.  Who is right?  One could put two economists in a room and stand back to watch a cat fight.  Although spending more alleviated the Depression in the 1930s, there is no clear evidence with multi-trillion deficits that the same stimulus would work today.  Hence, the opposed views are deadlocked in a fight for the public's support.  It is one of the most important public relations battles occurring today yet few think of it that way.  And, it is a battle that will occur over the next two years with each side making a case for its point of view, sometimes rationally and sometimes ad hominem.  What both sides appear to be missing is that the public doesn't much care.  People want to work again, to pay their bills and to return to a semblance of a normal life.  They will favor deficit cutting if it creates jobs or government-created jobs as long as they can work.  So, the key to the argument for both sides is to make clear how their points of view create jobs today without delay.  That is hard to do.  Deficit cutting doesn't create immediate work nor does government spending, as the President learned with his stimulus bill.  This is an argument that will be interesting to watch.  Both parties might get punished in 2012 if the economy doesn't turn around.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Partial Advance? 

Toyota is asking the courts to throw out lawsuits against it for unintended acceleration.  The company's reasoning is clear.  There is no evidence that its electronic accelerator failed in any of the incidents tort lawyers are suing for.  It will be interesting if the courts go along with Toyota's petition, but it won't make much difference in the public's perception.  Everyone knows that Toyotas suffer from defective accelerators, whether or not that claim is true.  In other words, the company has a reputation problem that will take years to turn around.  For my part, I hope the company's petition is granted and the lawsuits dismissed.  But, I'm not sure what the company does next to change conventional wisdom.  Trumpeting its victory in the courts only raises the issue again.

Thursday, November 04, 2010


The day after Republicans swept Democrats from the House there are claims that the newly elected have heard the voters.  Maybe so, but what they have heard appears to be a wide variety of complaints including the need for jobs, less government, more government help, lower taxes, less regulation and more.  In other words, the new officeholders have interpreted what they have heard in a number of ways and the result is cacophony.  It won't result in good governance unless there are priorities put on the list of voters' wishes.  There is the problem.  A new Congressman has to learn to get along and go along in order to get anything done, and the newly elected don't appear to understand that yet.  The new Republican Speaker of the House has his work cut out for him with just his own party.  We preach listening in PR, but we don't discuss priorities as much.  The new Congress is an exemplar for why we should.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010


What if you as a company tell your key personnel to choose and they do -- they leave?  That is what has happened to Oracle and contributors to its Open Office product.  In fact, the defections are mass.  Thirty programmers in a public letter switched their allegiance to a new competitor established to take over Open Office development.  The reason?  They don't trust Oracle.  It is a PR headache for Oracle, which says it intends to continue development of the product suite.  There are reasons for the defections.  Oracle over the years has been aggressive and difficult to work with, and its CEO has a style that has been called piratical.  In other words, the reputation of a company can hurt it, which, of course, is what PR has been preaching for decades.  If Oracle does elect to continue Open Office, it will need to make peace quickly.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Advocacy Journalism 

Some members of the media have been tut-tutting about Fox News for its patent conservative views and advocacy journalism.  However, what Fox is doing is not new nor innovative.  Reporters forget that most journalism in the history of US media took a point of view and kept it.  They should remember Hearst and Pulitzer, for example, both of whom made no pretense of being objective during the heyday of newspapers. 

From a PR point of view, practitioners can work with media that have viewpoints as long as the practitioners understand where the media are coming from.  Only a few media are so objectionable in how they operate that one avoids them whenever possible.  There is one caution, however.  One should avoid getting tainted by a medium's viewpoint -- that is, appearing to be a supporter of the medium when one isn't. 

Advocacy journalism will run its course eventually and the public will turn back to more fact-based reporting.   At least, that is what happened in US history.  People tired of sorting through opinions for news.  Will it return all the way to the era of "he said-she said?"  It is too early to know, but it is unlikely to happen soon.  We live in tumultuous times.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Summing A Life 

Attending a funeral yesterday, it struck me that writing a eulogy is a task that a PR practitioner encounters, albeit rarely.  And, it is a difficult job.  One wants to sum a life positively without denying the humanity of the deceased.  There is a combination of sadness, laughter and memory.  It is important that dates be right in retelling a person's life, that events be recalled in their proper order, that those who knew the person recognize the individual in the words and approve.  In ancient days of rhetorical training, one was taught how to do this.  Few are today.  Instead, each person takes up the task anew in a time of grief and attempts to master an unfamiliar craft.  Yesterday's eulogy was well done and hit the right notes and feelings, but it must have been hard for the person who gave it.  She was eulogizing her much-loved mother, and it would have been too easy to succumb to pain.  She didn't but she didn't hide her sadness either.  I only hope that I might do as well if a day should come that I'm asked to remember another.

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