Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow 

One lesson PR practitioners learn early is that the world can be indifferent -- or cruel.  Celebrities come and go or are exposed in shameful and shameless ways.  As the cliche goes, fame is fleeting.  That is the schooling the former substitute quarterback for the New York Jets is pondering this morning.  Tim Tebow was a college standout, winner of the Heisman trophy and fan favorite.  Unfortunately, the coaches of the Jets never knew how or never wanted to use him.  His talents did not fit the struggling team.  So, he sat and yesterday, he was replaced.  He hasn't got a club to go to.  He is, for the moment, one more college athlete who didn't make it in the pros.  The attention of the world will move to other things and people, and he may have to find another way to make a living.  Tebow's experience is a reminder to athletes how short-lived their careers may be and how quickly they can be forgotten.  One would think they would learn humility but many don't.  The lesson is lost.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Social Media And Liability 

As this article points out, the SEC's permission to corporate America to use social media to disclose material information presents risks and liabilities.  Hackers have already invaded corporate Twitter accounts and sent false information, notably last week.  Stock manipulators will do the same and profit from gyrations of a company's shares.  The issue facing business is its liability for letting that happen.  Was its security adequate to prevent hacking of the account?  That a hacking incident was successful is prima facie evidence it was not.  Cue the tort lawyers who will soon be filing shareholder lawsuits when hacking incidents occur.  This more than anything else may spur American corporations to get serious about security.  From a communicator's perspective, any medium we use for corporate work should be carefully secured with strong passwords changed often and firewalls that complicate, if not defeat, efforts of hackers.  There are numerous ways into any system and security is never fail-safe, but companies have to show they tried energetically to prevent outsiders from getting in.  

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Way Of The Fad 

Zynga is losing its shirt after exploding on the scene with games everyone wanted play.  And that's the problem.  Everyone wanted, but they don't now.  The game-playing crowd has moved on, and another fad has fallen.  Fads are everywhere, for example, the cupcake business, and companies come and go quickly.  From a PR perspective, there is little one can do to defend a company's brand differentiation when the brand fades as quickly as it appeared.    Second acts are difficult to devise and for the most part, they fail.   So, what is one to do?  From the outset, a CEO should understand that the company will be successful only for a short time and diversification is essential.  It is not the first game that is important but the second and third.  It is not the decorated cupcakes that will win the day but other baked goods that supplement and perhaps, eventually replace them.  Communications should spend as much time on the next offering as on the present winners.  It is sad to see once-popular companies disappear, but that the is the Darwinian way of capitalism and no one has found a better solution.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Everyone Should Disclose 

Unions and activists are trying to get the Securities And Exchange Commission to mandate disclosure of campaign contributions by businesses.  That is OK.  The First Amendment doesn't guarantee anonymity.  However, in fairness, unions, activists and interest groups of all kinds should disclose donations promptly as well.  Everyone should be transparent then let voters decide who might be buying influence.  Unfortunately, the SEC cannot mandate total disclosure.  It can only order public companies to reveal in their annual reports or proxies what they have given to political action groups.  Thus, the union request is unfair, and the SEC should turn it down.  There is a good chance the commission won't, however, because there has been a grass roots campaign to support the change.  If the SEC forces disclosure, it will become an element in protecting corporate reputation.  Companies will have to guard their flanks during election season from those who would bash any economic entity for speaking out.  At the moment, it doesn't look like US businesses have mobilized to defeat the effort, and one wonders why.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Future Discovers The Past 

Here is an interesting essay by a dedicated Twitter user.  In his call for an edit function he has discovered the past.  Before new media, editors knew reporters made mistakes, sometimes willfully, but most of the time not.  The editor exercised caution, was a second pair of eyes and an inquiring mind to what another has banged out.  As the author of the essay says, with Twitter, you don't get a check function.  Once you've written 140 characters and clicked the send button, your words are out there for all to see and retweet.  The romantic view of human nature would argue that everyone must now become his own editor, but that is fallacious.  Humans get locked into concepts and insights and cannot see their errors.  It takes another to show them mistakes and if need be, to spike their copy.  The Boston bombing demonstrated the best and worst use of internet media.  There were verbal persecutions of innocent people but at the same time, swift reporting of the capture of the second bomber.  PR cannot afford to act in a "cowboy" fashion,  if it is to maintain credibility.  We are paid to be accurate, and we should have editors on staff.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Forever Alone 

From a communicator's perspective, the pell mell rush to find habitable planets in the universe is an odd effort.  The Kepler space observatory has identified two new exo-planets in a Goldilocks zone just far enough away from their stars to have water but not too far to be in a deep freeze.  The complication?  They are thousands of light years from earth.  If we assume there is life on the planets.... if we assume this life can receive radio waves... if we assume this life can translate the signals received...if we assume this life can then transmit a signal in return, we are still looking at thousands of years before we can substantiate the existence of intelligence there.  What astronomy is telling us is that for all practical purposes, we are alone in the universe unless or until we can travel faster than the speed of light.  Star Trek is fantasy and always will be.  In other words, we need to treat the earth well because there is no place to go if we wreck it.  That was almost the message of Wall-e, the wonderful Pixar animation, except the film posited an artificial space station in a distant galaxy.  We've just celebrated Earth Day, but it is well to remind ourselves how alone we are in the universe and how incommunicado with any other intelligent beings that might be out there.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Falling Star 

Wall Street is dumping Apple and demanding action from the company.  It is not that Apple is doing poorly or cash-constrained.  The company has $150 billion in the bank, and it continues to generate profit.  The real problem at Apple is that its CEO, Tim Cook, is not Steve Jobs.  Succession was always going to be a problem in a business run in an eccentric but brilliant fashion.  From a PR perspective, Cook can't win.  Yes, Jobs designated him as the next CEO but Jobs was dying when he did it.  The board should have been involved deeply in determining what the company would become once Jobs was gone.  It doesn't appear to have had much input.  If Apple muddles, it will be the latest example of a founder-driven company that could not hold together once the founder leaves.  Jobs to many was one of the best CEOs of the last 100 years.  In retrospect, the shine on his image is tarnished.  The measure of a great CEO is not only what he does when he is in office but how he passes on power to ensure the longevity and success of the business.  Twenty years from now, we will know whether Apple was a brilliant flash, a falling meteorite, or a company with a core of technology and design that sets it apart from rivals.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Abortion And Communications 

Conservative commentators and USA Today have criticized the mainstream media for ignoring a trial of an abortion doctor in Philadelphia.  The contention is that editors and reporters have ignored a case of mass murder because of their position on abortion.  There is evidence pro and con for that claim.  The important point is that it raises an issue around which American society is divided and for which there can be no resolution.  As science and reproductive technology prove daily, life begins at conception and that life can only be human.  As advocates say, women have chosen for thousands of years whether to bring that life to term and making abortion illegal won't stop them.  The law supports a woman's right to choose, but those who regard human life as sacred are dedicated to changing the law.  Morals and ethics are at the heart of the argument.  Either one values human life in all forms or one doesn't.  Proponents of abortion argue that society has long made decisions about life, including use of capital punishment.  The counter is that the law inflicts punishment on those who have done violence to other humans and society while unborn children are innocent. From the perspective of communications, one wonders whether a practitioner should get involved on either side.  One is making a moral choice if he does and setting a value on what it means to be human.  Even if one doesn't, the issue doesn't go away.  It is like slavery, which today we consider monstrous  but was judged normal until the start of the 19th Century.  There are issues in society for which no amount of persuasion is sufficient.  They strike at the heart of humanity and one's position, stated or not, defines one's stance toward others.  

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Serious Threat 

The US meat industry has created a serious threat -- antibiotic resistant bacteria.  From a PR perspective, it could hardly be more dangerous because it strikes at the root of growing, processing and selling protein.  The industry has criticized the study that spotlights the problem but that won't be enough to assuage the concerns of millions of consumers.  Meat-growers have to show that antibiotics benefit consumers in some way that overcomes fears of drug-resistant bacteria.  Or, the industry has to stop using antibiotics, as some growers and processors have done.  Food retailers have been quick to label meats that are antibiotic-free and are giving consumers the choice of purchasing them.  Shoppers will vote with their pocketbooks, and farmers and processors will have to follow if they wish to stay in business. Rather than being forced to change, wiser ranchers and processors will do it voluntarily.  Listening to customers and anticipating their concerns will be better and healthier for all.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Limits Of Spin 

Authorities are investigating Samsung for paying students to write negative reviews about rival phones from HTC.  Samsung is not the only company that has done this.  The difference is that it got caught.  Such underhanded spin tactics are part of the landscape of modern communications.   It is easier now to be exposed for pursuing them.  That, however, raises a question.  Should companies ever consider rival bashing under a cloak of anonymity?  From a PR perspective, the answer is no.  It is not only dishonest but with the transparency of the internet, an organization puts credibility and reputation at risk.  Even public bashing, the kind Microsoft is doing to Google, smacks of desperation.  One wonders if a company has so lost its edge that it must go hard at rivals.  Name calling is sophomoric.  Politicians do it all the time, but no one has accused them of honesty and intelligence.  One would hope a company could be different.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Bombs And Expectations 

Two bomb blasts killed three during the Boston Marathon yesterday.  A series of bombings killed 55 in Iraq.  The news media jumped into wall-to-wall coverage of the Boston incident.  The Iraq bombings were mentioned in passing.  Do people hurt less in Iraq, and is there less pain to know that loved ones have been ripped to bits?  The news media demonstrated the power of expectations.  They consider bombings in Iraq a normal event.  The explosions at the Marathon were extraordinary.  But did that merit breathless coverage?  Reporters and editors understand correctly that Americans want to know what happened to their own and why.  Hence, they treated the event accordingly.  Do we care less about Iraqis?  Apparently we do.  A cynical citizen of that country could look with disdain on the Boston coverage and ask why similar reporting is lacking there.  An answer to that is Americans don't expect terror to be a normal part of life.  We have let 9/11 recede into memory and the two great holes in downtown New York are from an increasingly distant time.  America has spent billions to increase security.  We expect it to work.  That it can't as Boston has shown and Iraq continues to demonstrate is a horror we don't want to contemplate.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Tax Day 

The US tax code is PR run amok.  It seems every constituency has to have its break, its take-back from the exchequer.  What better way for a politician to show concern for voters than to get them an exception?  Thus the code is a monstrosity that few, if any, understand in its entirety.  Specialists master sections and more importantly, how to game those pieces of legislation to the advantage of those willing to pay.  The tax code is a negative example of too much attention paid to individuals.  In pursuit of "fairness", the law has become inefficient and unjust for all.  A "flat tax" is unfair too but it is simpler.  Billions of hours and dollars would be saved annually if the code were simplified and most people didn't have to prepare their taxes at all.  However, that will never happen. When it comes to forking over money, it is every citizen for himself.  Even if the code were radically simplified tomorrow, by next year there would be adjustments then more tinkering the year after that and so on.  Eventually the code would again be a monstrosity.  Human nature is at work and not for the better.  Pay your taxes today and reflect that as bad as it is, it could be worse.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Smart PR 

Agribusiness is self-regulating food purity to prevent government from coming down on it.  Farmers and processors also know that any bacterial outbreak hits them hard on the bottom line.  The combination provides a direct path to ensuring that vegetables and meats sent to consumers are untainted.  One can be cynical about this and say it isn't so much smart PR as a choice between business or no business.  It is more than that, however.  Tainted and spoiled food has been a problem for as long as man has been eating, and with the rise of farmers to serve urbanites, the issue was chronic.  Today, agribusinessmen are smarter.  They understand that one outbreak of poisoning can shut them down for months, if not for good.  They also have  examples where that happened, even among farmers who had taken precautions.  They know it is better that they guard their products themselves rather than have someone -- the government -- do it for them.  It costs more but it pays in the long run.  Other industries should imitate them.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Life Threatening 

There is no greater danger than when an employee breaches the fundamental trust a company must maintain with customers.  It is especially threatening when the company is defined by that trust.  This is the challenge facing KPMG, the international accounting firm, who just fired a partner and gave up two audit clients because the partner was leaking client information to a stock trader.  One can hear the gnashing of teeth among other partners who would not think or ever consider doing such a thing.  Confidentiality is at the heart of public accounting.  That one would breach it is as serious as a lawyer divulging client secrets.  KPMG now has a public relations nightmare, which it will have to handle over the coming days.  It has done the right thing in dismissing the partner and publicly condemning his actions.  The only question is how quickly it acted once it became aware of what was happening.  It will be to the firm's credit if it moved at once.  It will also be to the partnership's benefit if it conducts a communications campaign internally to reinforce its commitment to client confidentiality.  And, it owes its former audit clients a make-good for the withdrawn work.  One person can create chaos with acts of stupidity.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013


Ron Johnson is now the former CEO of JC Penney.  He was fired yesterday after wrecking the chain of clothing and dry goods stores.  Although he did some good things, he got off on the wrong track with every day low pricing, and he was never able to recover.  With his resume and record of success, one is left wondering why he made such hash of Penney.  One answer is obvious.  He didn't know nor care to find out much about his public.  He assumed he knew what they wanted.  That was the approach he took with Apple stores, which are highly successful, and it was the path that Steve Jobs took with product development at Apple.  It is also the direction than many innovators have followed who realized that often the public doesn't know what it wants or needs until it sees it.  But Penney's public was different, and Johnson didn't see that or denied it.  Humility is a hard lesson for leaders.  The board finally had enough, and now the chain is facing a prolonged period of rebuilding.  It is possible that Penney never will recover.  Retailers come and go.  If it does disappear, Johnson's bio will be forever stained.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Nibbling At The Edges 

Two more technologies have appeared to threaten network television.  The networks are reacting as incumbents do.  They're suing.  If they can't beat the technologies, they will bury them in legal fees. From a PR perspective, it is wrong.  If new technologies provide better, faster, cheaper service to customers, then one should accommodate them.  However, that it is easier written than done when technologies harm one's economic model, which both are doing.  It is a cliche to say that the days of network TV are past.  They will never again dominate as they once did, and it is possible that one or more will disappear as viewers migrate to online and cable offerings.  Like newspapers, network TV has struggled to change but has largely been unsuccessful.  It still depends on the upfront buy annually to sell advertising time.  It still works on gross numbers, although this is changing.  Nielsen is still the ratings agency.  It is a fallacy to say industries can adapt.  They evolve within an understanding of their economic models but to ask them to discard the fundamental basis for business and to start over is too difficult for most.  More technologies and consumer offerings will appear that will continue to erode network TV's hold.  Youngsters are already listening in fascination to elders talk about a time when there were only three stations to choose from.

Friday, April 05, 2013

The Future. Always The Future. 

Yet another technology is being trumpeted as a possible breakthrough for fuel-cell cars.  The fuel cell has been a power source of the future that has remained there, stubbornly resisting technology to bring it into the present.  It might be that some day, inventors, technologists and scientists conclude that it is not practical for transportation.  Until then, people will continue to look for ways to make fuel cells as common as gasoline engines.  The fuel cell is not the only technology that has remained "out there."  Such things as the personal flying vehicle and the jet backpack have also never come to fruition.  Inventors can make one-offs of these things but they never get them to market.  There are too many physical, cultural and legal challenges to overcome.  From a PR perspective, practitioners should use caution and good judgment when confronted with futuristic technologies.  Claim less, not more.  Let time and development speak for themselves.  Even the self-driving car, which is operating on freeways in California and Nevada, has a long step before it is built into production vehicles.  It is fun to dream about the future, but time and again, fantasies remain just that.  

Thursday, April 04, 2013


Rutgers University has fired its basketball coach for inappropriate behavior toward the team.  The coach forgot, or never considered, that everything one does today can be -- and usually is -- exposed to the public.  His dismissal is a lesson to other coaches, administrators and leaders who believe that driving subordinates through abuse is an acceptable management approach.  From one perspective, leaders should be paranoid about doing or saying anything that could be misinterpreted.  From another, they should welcome dissemination of their methods, especially if they are effective in welding a team together to pursue a common goal.  Politicians already have learned the hard way that they cannot make remarks in private.  The rest of the world is catching up.  Just ask the former coach of Rutgers.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Messing With Credibility 

The online world is considering what to do about sponsored content.  Some are labeling it prominently and have standards for readers to peruse.  Some are not.  From a PR perspective, sponsored content should be labeled prominently and frequently  to avoid credibility problems.  An online publisher who allows sponsored content to edge into editorial copy is messing with his credibility and that of any advertiser who works with him.  It isn't worth the fallout once the public discovers that it is reading company-generated copy.  This doesn't mean that companies are fraudulent.  Far from it.  Articles from sponsored sources can be better than  what a reporter might write.  What it does mean, however, is that the copy has been published without undergoing the editorial process, the third-party vetting that lends credibility.  Readers want to know this, and they feel cheated when they are not told.  It isn't worth the fallout for publishers to edge over the line.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013


Novartis AG has lost a court battle in India to sustain patent protection for its cancer drug, Glivec.  This raises business and PR questions for the company.  Does it abandon India and let cheaper generics serve the sick? Does it stay in the market and cut price, thereby opening gray-market opportunities for enterprising distributors who can buy the drug cheaply in India and sell it for full price elsewhere in the world?  Does it maintain price and lose to generic competition?  There are no good answers in situations like this, and they are not uncommon.  Much of business has challenges that do not fit into boxes.  There are no formulas for what to do.  A CEO has to make a decision in the absence of information, and the choice may in time prove spectacularly wrong -- or right.  Novartis has plans.  It would be foolhardy not to.  The company is putting them into effect in light of the court's decision.  Almost certainly, the loss of patent protection will influence the way that the company works in the market in the future.  Will it keep other patented drugs out of India?  One shouldn't be surprised if it does, but then it opens itself to charges that it is letting people die out of a profit motive.  Another dilemma.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Lirpa Sloof 

Google is carrying on a tradition of April Fools jokes.  Throughout the tech industry, one used to find one elaborate scenario after another on this day.  One measure of the humor was how many people actually believed them and complained when they couldn't get a new product or service.  Of course, they were angry when the joke was explained to them, and they would complain.  One might conclude that this is poor PR, but on the other hand, a person who is taken in by April Fools humor is probably not one's customer anyway.  Such practical joking is sophomoric but it also humanizes a company.  Real people have gone to some length to pull off the deception.  One can appreciate the genius at the same time laugh along with them.  Where a company needs to be careful is when jokes verge on cruelty.  That is not acceptable, but everyone's definition of "no harm" is not the same.  There will be some people who think Google's "smell-o-search"  is beyond a pale, but the rest of us can chuckle.

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