Friday, August 30, 2013

How Do You Do It? 

How do you mount an effective PR campaign across state lines when a scarce resource is at stake?  The resource is water and the target audience is farmers across the Great Plains.  The farm community is pumping down the Great Plains Aquifer  which, when it runs dry, will turn millions of acres back to a desert.  Coordinating pumping and water rights across thousands of farmers is more than a PR task.  It needs to establish a class of water rights and effective enforcement of them.  The hard part, however, is convincing the ag community that such restrictions are essential for the long-term health of the land.  Farmers don't get paid unless they grow crops.  They can't grow crops without water.  Putting restrictions on them means some will leave the business, which isn't good for the country. Citizens depend on food coming from the Plains.  There needs to be change in attitude about management of the underground water supply.  Today, farmers pump their wells down and deepen them or abandon crops that depend on irrigation.  If the Great Plains dry because of global warming, growing without irrigation might become difficult, if not impossible.  The time to act is now, but how do you persuade the ag community that change is urgent?

Thursday, August 29, 2013


The New York Times web site was just hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army, and it wasn't the Times fault.  It turns out a reseller of a vendor was compromised and from there the Army moved upstream to the Times.  No matter.  The Times is left with a credibility issue and a smirch on its online reputation.  What good would it do for the Times to fire the vendor?  The way the Army worked its way in could be done to any vendor of the media giant.  The proper PR move is for the Times to work with authorities internationally to bring the members of the hacker gang to justice.  A highly publicized trial and sentencing would demonstrate to the shadow world of digital invaders and to Times readers that the Times is not about to accept such incidents lightly.  The hard part is for the Times to find and identify these people.  Maybe that could be its next investigative story.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Should PR Practitioners Learn Programming? 

Here is an interesting proposal from a journalism teacher for changing curricula to a digital focus.  Rather than newspapers and magazines, she is calling for teaching multimedia.  Her view is correct.  Journalism schools to survive have to change, so what about PR? Public relations, because it is so close to journalism, also needs to shift focus to digital media.  In fact, large agencies have already done so.  But programming?  Probably not.  It is easy to forget that even in traditional media, skill sets were broken into specialties - photography, design, production, distribution.  Inevitably the same will happen, if it has not already done so, in multimedia.  Practitioners will learn how to use systems but few will gain the knowledge to create them.  One can look on this as a problem or just the way the world works.  Practitioners need to know enough about programming to know what is possible, but they shouldn't have to hack code.  The digital age is like traditional media -- multiple specialties producing, formatting and distributing content.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


It takes preening self-confidence to call an attorney general who just sued you a "political hack."  That is what Donald Trump has done, and of course, he made headlines yet again.  Trump is easy to dislike.  He is his own outrageous publicist and he gets away with playing the "bad boy" time and again.  Perhaps this time the law will catch up with him but more than likely, it won't.  But, even if it does, Trump will bray that the government's case was weak, and he managed to settle for a pittance.  Trump holds himself in highest self-regard, and he has made himself wealthy many times over.  His name is on many buildings and he has assured himself a legacy.  One wishes he would try humility for a change, but that won't happen.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Cut Back, Move Forward? 

Microsoft is facing a dilemma with the announcement of Steve Ballmer's upcoming retirement. Should it adapt Ballmer's grand plan to integrate the company around services and hardware? Should it cut back to money-making software and get out of marginal businesses?  Ballmer will not  be in control to see integration through, and it will take years.  The next CEO might have a different view of the company and its prospects.  PR has entered an unsettled period.  It is status quo for the next year, then it might tack into unknown territory.  One wouldn't blame Microsoft's image-makers for being nervous.  They are in suspended animation, knowing that whatever they say about the company might be contradicted in a few months.  Hence, it is better to say little or nothing at all.  Meanwhile, investors want to know what the next CEO will do.  

Friday, August 23, 2013

Drone PR 

How do you persuade people to do a vital but boring job?  That is the issue the Air Force is facing as it tries to staff its ranks of drone pilots.  The job is hours and hours of guiding remotely piloted aircraft across the skies of Iraq and Afghanistan.  There are so few Air Force pilots willing to do it that those who have taken the job pull long shifts.  That, of course, makes the task less desirable. The Air Force is faced with changing the position to get more volunteers.  That is step one in good PR.  There needs to be incentives for junior officers to spend mind-numbing hours flying in circles.  Perhaps if drone pilots were able to make higher rank faster, more would be willing to take on the job.  The challenge facing the Air Force is that drone work is not going away.  It is too valuable as a source of intelligence and firepower.  If anything, the Air Force will become the Drone Force in decades to come. That means it needs to solve personnel issues now.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Single Issue 

It is eye-opening how deep and broad an advocacy organization can get when it concentrates on a single issue.  The revelation in this article about the National Rifle Association is that the NRA has names and addresses of millions of gun owners in its databases.  The irony, of course, is that the NRA opposes any central database under government control.  How does the NRA gather its data?  The same way any direct mailer does -- buying lists of many kinds, sorting and classifying them.  The government could do the same if it could get by the stumbling block of political opposition from the NRA.  From a PR perspective, what the NRA is doing is smart.  It has deepened the base of supporters for gun rights by millions and it can call on these citizens at will to support gun ownership and oppose registration.  That it has done so and continues to call for help is evident in a lack of legislation from Congress.  The NRA understands PR and political lobbying at its most basic.  Its opponents need to do the same.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


One has a right to defend oneself against error, but this letter to the public from a Roman Catholic Archbishop is unfortunate.  Why?  Because he was angry when he wrote it, and his wrath shouts through his words.  It would have been better had he let a day or two or three pass before he published any thoughts on the explosive issue of child abuse in which he was accused of lax oversight.  After that time, he should have taken a cold and objective look at the letter again.  Rather than fighting back, he should have expressed sorrow for the situation then listed facts as he did in paragraph three.  He then should have closed with another expression of concern and a commendation of all sides to God.  Blaming the media and others for the situation was not only not useful to his case but prejudiced it.  I don't know if the archbishop has PR counsel, but if he does, he either didn't listen to advice or he is ill-served by the practitioner with whom he works.  Either way, he didn't restore his credibility and he comes off as a wounded personality lashing back rather than handling the situation in a statesmanlike manner. Sadly, he doesn't sound Christian.  

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

OK For Now 

Amazon.com's media spokesperson has an uninteresting job.  To every reporter's query, his response is "No comment."  He can get away with stiffing the press as long as Amazon is riding high, but what will happen when it isn't?  He will lack credibility and leverage with journalists who will report their stories as they see them.  The spokesperson shouldn't be faulted.  He is only reflecting his boss' distaste for talking to the media, and his boss is not alone.  Tens of thousands of companies in the US -- large and small -- refuse to talk to the press.  They see no upside in doing so.  One can fault them for short-sightedness, but many have been running for decades by staying out of public sight and serving their customers.  Amazon is unusual in that it is a high-profile giant that remains secretive.  However, now that Bezos has purchased the Washington Post, it might be difficult for him to stay off reporters' radar.  If that happens, Amazon's spokesperson might at last have something to say.

Monday, August 19, 2013

No Restraint 

Public relations depends on persuasion -- the ability to discuss ideas and over time turn an opponent into an ally.  PR rarely resorts to violence to make a point because bodily harm persuades no one.  It only cows them until the time is right to rise again.  This is why the lack of restraint in Egypt is so disappointing and far removed from free speech and a democratic society.  The military's slaughter of civilians and rebels murder of policemen  is an ugly tit for tat that highlights how far removed each side is from the other.  If Egypt is to survive as a secular state, all sides must resolve to sit with each other and to work through issues until an agreement is reached that does not require street demonstrations, tear gas and bullets.  Given the size of the death toll, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.  The military detests the Muslim Brotherhood and vice versa.  That the struggle is enmeshed in religious belief only makes the stakes higher.   By all accounts, the Egyptian populace is struggling to get basic services -- enough food, medical care and education -- to live comfortably.  Killing each other is not a way to achieve this.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Time To Cut Losses? 

When is it time to cut losses and bow to what seems inevitable?  This is an issue facing Time Warner cable in its face-off with CBS.  Time Warner has dropped CBS from its transmission in a dispute over fees.  Angry householders have levelled a class action suit against Time Warner and others are abandoning cable for Verizon FiOs.  This doesn't include the reputation damage to Time Warner, loss of credibility and poor PR.  Time Warner doesn't seem to care at this time.  It wants to drive home to CBS that the network is being greedy in its charge for retransmission.   The two sides have appealed to the public through advertising, and appear to be locked into a long-term war with each side proclaiming it is the victim.  

Even if one assumes that CBS is over-charging, one has to ask if Time Warner will be on the losing end of the battle, especially if subscribers leave by the thousands.  To win the the PR fight,  Time Warner ought to be explaining to the public vigorously why it won't pay CBS what the network is asking.  It needs to position itself as a consumer advocate and not a greedy cable company.  It might well be doing this but the message has yet to get through.  The company can't afford to let up.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mea Culpa 

What do you do after you have fired someone publicly?  You make a public apology.  That is what the CEO of AOL did.  He acknowledged to employees that he made an emotional decision when he sacked an employee for taking pictures at an all-hands meeting.  The former employee apparently has not gotten his job back.  Although AOL's CEO calls for openness and communications between ranks, what would you do after the trauma of seeing one of your fellow workers humiliated in public?  A letter of apology is not enough, and returning to a spirit of openness will be difficult to achieve.  A leader learns sooner or later that some actions are irrevocable.  One can't call them back and start over because they have changed the environment.  One has injected fear where it wasn't before.  The opposite also is true.  In highly charged moments, a leader can instill a sense of calm and confidence that electrifies the ranks.`  The wisdom of the leader is to know when to take action and how to achieve his goal.  The CEO of AOL learned the hard way what not to do.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


It takes a celebrity for hype to get publiciity.  Here is an example of a celebrity businessman throwing his half-baked idea to the world and the world gives him an audience.  This kind of gee-whiz, futuristic thinking sometimes pans out, but most of the time doesn't.  Think of Buckminster Fuller.  It is not that his ideas were loony.  It is just that an idea on its own does not an industry make. Had Elon Musk built a working demonstration of his theory, it would have moved beyond hype into the realm of reality.  A PR counselor might have told him to be low-key until he had proof of concept, but Musk apparently likes the sound of his voice as Fuller did.  Chances are that Musk's transportation plan has birthed stillborn.  If so, Musk has only himself to blame for using his personal credibility to hype.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Violating A Crisis Rule 

One of the first rules of a crisis is to avoid speaking until you know the facts.  Otherwise, you risk loss of credibility and embarrassment.  It looks like the President of Xerox's office and solutions systems group doesn't know the rule.  He has had to eat his words from last week and inform customers this week that he was wrong.  Some background.  A Xerox customer discovered that Xerox scanners would randomly change numbers on poorly printed documents.  Xerox last week assured customers that this glitch occurred only at the lowest scanning resolution.   This week it announced that the same error occurs even at the scanner's highest resolution.  Xerox is scrambling to fix the problem and customers are left wondering if any of their documents have phony numbers, and if so, what the potential damage might be.  One would like to know why Xerox's president was certain the error happened only at low resolution.  Did the company test documents?  If it did, it didn't test enough of them or the test wasn't rigorous enough.  So, now the president lacks credibility.  The next time he makes an announcement he should be certain of what he is going to say and better yet, he should couch his words just in case he might be proved wrong again.  It is a bad position to be in, made worse by the fact that one has done it to himself.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Big Dreams 

California's politicians like to dream big -- projects that change the future of the state.  Now they are dreaming of huge electricity storage from renewable energy sources such as sunlight.  The problem, of course, is that such storage is expensive, far more costly than natural gas generation plants that are used today for supplementary energy.  So, why not build more gas plants?  They would not be renewable energy, although the nation is awash in available gas. 

There is nothing wrong with dreaming big.  The question is how the public will respond.  In this case, there is a good chance that the public will pay more for building and running storage plants.  That will not go over well.  There is an argument that the public often doesn't understand what is for its own good.  Steve Jobs, for example, disdained customer surveys as did Henry Ford.  However, in the case of power plants, the public will vote on the outcome, and it will take a good deal of publicity and ground-pounding PR to get them to accept higher monthly bills.  Are politicians ready to do that?

Friday, August 09, 2013

Reality and Perception 

The Pope is tightening management of the Vatican bank to stop corruption there.   One asks why there was a problem in the first place.  The Vatican is perceived to be a moral leader in the world and a voice for ethics.  When it comes to finances, the Vatican should be unimpeachable.  But, it hasn't been, especially with a monsignor jailed for money laundering.  The city-state has been put in the perilous position of "Do as I say, not as I do."  No one can be blamed for being scandalized and for a negative perception of the doings at the headquarters for the Roman Catholic Church.  The Pope himself remains untouched by the scandal, which is good, but even his prestige might not be enough to overcome public concern for the Church in the modern world.  Cynics will say the Vatican bank shows how churchmen are only too human and hardly believers in an afterlife of reward and punishment.  Catholics are frustrated again by the Church's leadership.  The Pope's emphasis on the poor and his desire to avoid the perks of his office might set a good example for all -- bishops, priests and laity.  Corruption will never entirely disappear because humans are involved, but there is a chance that the Pope's public relations can eventually balance it.

Thursday, August 08, 2013


This and this are examples of speculation over why Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post.  Such idle thinking in print is not something PR practitioners should do.  It is the province of reporters who don't have to defend their assumptions like we do in PR.  That reporters do it at all is a part of a fundamental need to know why something has happened.  People want to know the reasons and journalists are happy to oblige.  That neither of the reporters has an insight into Bezos' mind is not a barrier for their authoritative pronouncements.  It would be fruitful if after a year, reporters would have to update speculative stories with what is really happening.  They might be humbled enough to stop. But, don't count on it.  

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Smart PR 

Whether Jeff Bezos wrote this letter or had someone write it for him, it is smart PR.  He starts with the concern of Post employees and recognizes their apprehension.  He then moves to the values of the Washington Post, which he says will not change.   Then he tells them that he won't be leading the newspaper because he will stay in Seattle and the current management team will stay on.  Next he addresses the issue of change and says there will be some shifts because "The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: ..."   Finally he gives a paean of support to journalism and its importance then closes with an encomium to Donald Graham who is selling out on behalf of the family.  The balance, the insight, the addressing of concerns is near perfect.  One wishes that every businessperson could write like that,

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Fighting A Lost War 

It is hard to be a steely-eyed realist as a PR practitioner.  One isn't in charge and telling people what they don't want to hear can shorten a career.  On the other hand, letting them live in a world of make-believe doesn't help an organization or anyone's future.  So what would you tell the few remaining floor traders at Chicago's Board of Trade?  They are suing the CME Group Inc., owner of the Board, because they say that ownership has sabotaged open outcry trading.  Hardly.  Trading moved to machines long ago and open outcry is an anachronism that should have disappeared.  The Board's leadership is making sympathetic noises but allowing reality to take its course.  This is as it should be.  The few remaining floor traders don't want to listen and won't.  Eventually they will be forced to leave and the pits will become a museum of what was, if they are not torn out and the floor repurposed.  What leadership is doing is correct and a lesson.    Floor traders are part of a boisterous past.  What if you were the person deputized to tell them that?

Monday, August 05, 2013

Publicity Stunt 

Publicity stunts work in science too.  How else can one explain a decision to serve lab cultured meat in the form of a hamburger at a press conference?  Scientists are trying to make a point about progress in using stem cells to grow muscle fibers.  They see a future with reduced use of live animals and more employment of petri dishes.  That might be true, but there is a long way to go before the stunt becomes a reality, and there are many steps to take to industrialize the process.  There is nothing wrong with demonstrating the feasibility of something that most thought impossible just months ago.  However, if the scientists are honest, they will discuss the economics of the process at the same time -- which now seem prohibitive.  Farmers with cattle munching grass on the Great Plains have little to worry about yet.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Lousy PR 

It's bad enough to fire people.  It's lousy PR to dismiss them over the phone without giving them the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting.   That, however, is what a communications medium has done.   The Cleveland Plain Dealer laid off 50 editorial staffers by calling them at home and telling them to pick up their effects at the company's production center miles away from the office. Publishers have rarely treated content generators well.  They consider them disposable like old blades from a razor.  They seem not to understand that their media would be blank columns without them.  On the other hand, journalists haven't done themselves favors by merchandising themselves as indispensable to free speech.  They have learned bitterly in the last few years that anyone can claim credentials and anyone can speak out.  They knew that conceptually but they didn't personalize it until the massive reduction in force from ailing newspapers across the nation.  Still, it doesn't exonerate the Plain Dealer for how it handled the situation, and one can only guess the depth of resentment in the ranks of remaining reporters.

Thursday, August 01, 2013


The Dell shareholder fight has gone on so long -- a year -- that one wonders if management has any credibility left.  Dell's sales and earnings have eroded and market share has declined.  One suspects Michael Dell is spending so much time in the shareholder battle that he has had less time to manage the company.  If he loses the fight -- and there is good reason to believe he might -- his personal authority will be damaged with the board and probably with his employees as well.  Should he then step down?  He and his affiliates own 15 percent of the shares so there is reason to believe he can maintain his position, but to what effect?  There is no good outcome at this point.  The company needs a turnaround, and maybe by going private it can achieve that, but there is no guarantee that Mr. Dell can do it nor much chance that his shareholders will allow him to proceed.  How does one do PR in a situation like this?

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