Thursday, October 31, 2013


I'm taking time off.  I'll be back Nov. 12.

Cat Piss 

Here is an interesting PR problem.  Purchasers of Dell Laptops are complaining that their new machines smell like cat urine.  Dell says it has fixed the situation in its manufacturing process and it is taking in affected machines for repair and/or replacement.  As laughable as the situation sounds, Dell has to treat it seriously.  The computer market today is one of brutal competition and no matter how ridiculous a complaint may seem, it is dangerous to ignore an unhappy customer.  Ideally, Dell should have caught the mistake before any machines went out the door, but once done, the issue becomes how quickly one can make up for the error.  Dell was apparently slow to respond but has moved quickly since.  Note that the news came from a users forum that was posted to an online news site.  Nothing is secret for long.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Dangers Of Demonizing 

Is there such a thing as pure evil in a person?  As this article points out, the answer is no.  Even the most violent personalities can have likable human qualities.  This highlights the dangers of demonizing others, something PR shouldn't do, but which happens.  Blackening another's name can set up cognitive dissonance when a bad person proves magnetic and warm.  What does this mean?  Hitler, by many accounts, had charm and liked children and dogs.  Those who fell under his spell idolized him.  So too, Stalin and Mao.  All three are the worst mass murderers in history.  If one portrays them as monsters dripping blood from every tooth, the picture is wrong and indefensible.  Rather, one should assert the facts of their evil deeds and let the reader or viewer decide how to portray them.  That is difficult enough.  Stalin was known as "Uncle Joe" in the West at the time of his greatest terrors.  He benefited from Soviet propaganda and wasn't called to account.  Had the public known that "Uncle Joe" had consigned millions to gulags, they might have regarded him as pure evil, but there was still a human lurking there somewhere in his cynical, paranoid mind.  One should depict that without flinching from the truth.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Monetary Punishment 

Have we entered an era of big fines and large settlements, or is it more of the same?.  Penn State, JPMorgan Chase, Chevron, BP ...  All face huge penalties.  Are they just compensation and do they change behavior?  There are arguments on every side of those questions.  From the viewpoint of PR, they are large and continuing injuries to the reputations of the organizations involved.  Their failings will live on in internet databases and they will or have already become case studies of neglect or managerial failure. The higher the damages, the more defensive litigation as Chevron and BP are engaged in.  One can pay teams of lawyers for years and still not come close to surpassing the penalties being imposed.  Should they win, they can point to the judgment as partial vindication.  However, in the court of public opinion, they will have a long way to go.  It is not just money paid out in fines and settlements but the funds spent in restoring reputation that amount to a huge bill.  No wonder more corporations are fighting rather than settling.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Spy With A Black Eye 

News continues to appear that the National Security Agency bugged the German Chancellor, the French President and now, it is claimed, 60 million Spanish phone calls.  The White House is trying to keep as much distance as possible from the PR nightmare by claiming that President Obama did not know about it.  Maybe not, but it happened on his watch, so he has to deal with the fall-out and the black-eye that America's reputation and public relations have suffered.   It is all part of the fall-out from Edward Snowden and his revelation of the extent of US spying.  As far as the Agency is concerned, Snowden will never see America again except through the bars of a jail.  But, it raises a serious question.  How much spying should be allowed when one is fighting an amorphous enemy?   When one is hunting for needles in haystacks, it is first necessary to build the stack.  It is clear that the NSA was sweeping vast areas and using data mining and keyword recognition to find terrorists, but did that justify bugging world leaders?  They don't think so and neither do their citizens.  The NSA is now facing new controls on its work that probably should have been there all the way along.

Friday, October 25, 2013


Amazon.com doesn't talk to the media.  It leaves everyone guessing about its intentions and meanwhile, continues to expand quickly as the premier online shopping site for America and beyond.  It spends heavily to build systems, warehouses and delivery.  Returns to shareholders are paltry to non-existent, but it is still a hot stock because investors are betting on Jeff Bezos and his hidden vision.  Is this a recipe for disaster?  Possibly, but if Bezos remains healthy for years to come, there is an excellent chance that he will build a retailer as powerful as Wal-Mart.  But, let a breeze of competition slow growth and the company's stakeholders along with the media will turn on him.  He has made no effort to court them and his neglect will spur criticism as soon as his vision is proven fallible.  This happens to every company sooner or later.  Bezos is "living on borrowed time."  One wonders if he understands that.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

When Will They Ever Learn? 

Everyone knows you don't blog or tweet anything that can come back to bite you.  So, why then was a White House staffer tweeting critical comments about his bosses under an assumed name?  How dumb can that be?  Of course, he was discovered and fired, and he has work to restore his reputation.  What did he expect to happen?  So, once again, for the 10 percent who still don't understand, never write anything in an e-mail, a blog, a tweet, on a web page, in a comment box or anywhere else on the internet that you don't want to see in headlines. Never say anything out of order in a video or digital recording.  Always be on guard.   If you think that is paranoia, then so be it.  There is ample evidence to support the boomerang effect.  The internet lulls people into thinking they can express their innermost thoughts freely without retribution.  Time and again they get caught.  Some never learn.  It is a matter of personal discipline to review everything you write, speak or video to make sure it doesn't compromise you.  If you haven't been doing that, it is past time to start.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Should Have Known? 

President Obama's leadership reputation is taking a ding with the snafu-ed rollout of the ACA web site.  There is a case to be made that his underlings and possibly, the President himself, should have known that large programming projects are normally behind schedule and over budget and many fail.  Whether or not the project "didn't have a chance in hell" is a matter of opinion.  So now, there is finger-pointing all around.  Heads are rolling.  Experts are being called in and there is an urgency to make the web page useful, user-friendly and effective.  Don't be surprised if it takes months more for that to happen.  There are apparently hundreds of glitches to fix.  It might get worse before it gets better.  Meanwhile, Obama has to project calm and control.  It's a difficult act and privately, he must be seething that his legacy has come to this.  If he is lucky, a year from now, citizens will have forgotten the botched roll-out.  If not, there will be more heads rolling and a deterioration of his image as a leader.  

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

PR Gone Wrong? 

According to a new book, PR staff for Fox news used dummy accounts to counter negative postings about the company.  Was that unethical?  It was not transparent, and it was dishonest.  Should PR be doing this kind of sub rosa defense work?  Some say yes, others no.  My inclination is to say it is out of bounds.  PR practitioners shouldn't engage in hidden flaming or promotion.  They put their credibility and that of the company at risk.  For when it comes out, as it has with Fox, it harms the reputation of the company and its employees.  PR should play for the long term and not short-term tactical victory, if there is such a thing in the comments sections of blogs.  Sure, it is frustrating to be attacked, but find an open way to fight back or ignore the taunters because soon enough, everyone else will as well.  Correct fact errors and stand above the fray.  Getting into the gutter with street fighters means one will get as dirty.  Some practitioners don't mind that.  They enjoy bare-knuckle brawling.  But in the process of gouging eyes and biting ears, they fail to see that the public at large condemns both sides as extreme.  

Monday, October 21, 2013

Out Of Control 

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co., is in an unfamiliar and painful position.  He can't stop a criminal investigation into his bank.  So, not only is the company facing a record fine at $13 billion but it must continue to suffer the indignity of prosecutors turning over rocks throughout the institution.  It must be humiliating for a man who a short time ago was the master of the financial world.  The government is determined to make an example of him and has succeeded in doing so.  Other big bank CEOs must be thanking their good luck that they are not in Dimon's place and nervous about their own control systems, which is exactly what the regulators want.  It is clear that if one desires the privilege of being a financial major with operations around the globe, the government will offset that power with relentless investigations into every peccadillo.  Is it worth it?  The Federal government might be indicating that it isn't. Some big banks might sell off operations and deliberately downsize as a result.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Data and PR 

As this story illustrates, once you have a database, you can mine it for PR purposes.  For years, I have told clients that data they collect from customers and others is a source of stories, opinion pieces and commentary that can position their businesses accurately and interestingly.  There are two challenges to achieving that, however.  One is proprietary.  Clients may not want the world to know about the depth of data they have gathered.  The second is practical.  Clients may not have the mathematical and programming background to massage a database well.   As data banks grow, however, there is an increasing urgency to use the terabytes collected to differentiate one business from another.  It is easy to foresee a time when PR agencies have programmers and mathematicians on call to help massage millions of opinions into insights and a cohesive picture of a client.  It should be happening now.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Public Shaming 

The US government is trying public shaming to control business behavior, especially on Wall Street.  It is too early to know whether it will work, or even if it is fair.  The present victim of the regulatory stockade is JPMorgan, which can't apologize enough for its rogue trader, dubbed the London Whale.  Jamie Dimon, the CEO of Morgan, must feel like a punching bag.  His company has paid nearly a billion in fines for trading errors that cost the bank a billion.  That is enough to take a bite from earnings.  It is clear that regulators have determined to make an example of Dimon who was the star of the financial meltdown five years ago when he kept his bank out of the trouble that sank other financial institutions.  Dimon didn't get long to ride high before the error occurred on his watch.  Is the government unfair and too harsh in its treatment of Morgan?  Probably, but there is no pressure to moderate the self-righteousness of bureaucrats.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Scientific Publicity 

Do scientists hype results?  All the time.  Here is an example.  The National Ignition Facility has been a disappointment in terms of achieving fusion and its funding is hanging in a balance.  It is urgent for the scientists, engineers and technicians working on the mammoth laser facility to show progress.  So, they did.  They are saying that we're almost there, right on the cusp, inches from success.  Don't cut our cash flow now.  The lab is affected as everyone else by the government shut-down, and it is on the target for permanent cutbacks.  Its people are literally fighting for their jobs, another year or two years of money so they can see the experiment through.  Scientists are adept at publicizing themselves and their work, and they carry the credibility of experts.  We should not be surprised that they crank the publicity machine along with everyone else, especially when their livelihoods are at stake.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Culture Shock 

American auto companies are suffering from culture shock.  It seems that the millennial generation is not driving as much as their parents.  There are any number of reasons for it, including the cost of a car and its upkeep, but the fact is that car manufacturers no longer just market their brand but also the joy of driving.  Who would have thought that it would come to this?  Mobility is a deeply held desire of humans.  In Third World countries where the most that one can afford is a two-wheel motorbike, it is common to see whole families of five, six or seven crammed onto a cycle and weaving through traffic.  If millennials persist in avoiding driving, that will pressure public transportation, which already is stressed in many places.  There is a precarious balance between those who drive to work and those who ride.  Is it possible that millennials will change their minds about driving as they mature, marry and start families?  Probably, but that means they will be out of the market for years more.  Look for more PR and image campaigns that portray freedom behind a wheel.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Smart PR? 

Is it intelligent and safe to inject politics into business?  Starbucks is about to find out.   It has rolled out a petition calling for Congress to pass a budget and to cut debt.  The resolution is not controversial but once a business gains a reputation for taking public positions, it risks alienating a percentage of its customers.  Thus far, it hasn't hurt Starbucks whose CEO is increasingly outspoken, but one has to wonder what might occur.  Starbucks is a public company.  Its shareholders might not have the same views as the CEO who ought to understand he cannot speak with impunity. The bolder Howard Schultz becomes, the greater the possibility he will find himself in an untenable position in his business.  This is not to say that business should stay out of politics.  Quite the opposite.  Business has to defend itself in the legislative arena as much as any citizen, but to take public positions that have little to do with one's business is risky.  I'm not sure I would have the courage to do it.

Friday, October 11, 2013

What Kind Of Pressure? 

What kind of public pressure is needed to force the world's utilities to capture CO2?  It has to be more than what we see today because little or no progress has  been made.  Coal-fired plants are still belching it into the upper atmosphere and the air continues to absorb it.  One would think that we would have reached emergency status by now despite global warming deniers.  The publics of developed and Third World countries have not understood the problem well enough to support change, and the economics of the shift are more than utilities feel they can handle alone.  Hence, everything sits at status quo.  A campaign to change minds and hearts would have to be vast -- along the lines of anti-smoking efforts over 40 years.  However, the planet might not have 40 years to spare without major climate shifts.  Hence, the urgency.  Many scientists are discussing the issue, but they are not being heard in a coordinated and persuasive way.  Secondly, the public doesn't see the effects of climate change yet although we can document a retreat of glaciers and ice fields.  The attitude seems to be that global warming is tomorrow's problem.  We will deal with it when it arrives.  Of course, it has arrived stealthily and is increasing year by year.  Meanwhile, power plants continue to vent tens of millions of tons of CO2 into the air annually.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

New Media 

Much has been made of the decline of traditional media, but less has been said about the rise of new media.  Here is a case in which a novice reporter/editor found a need and filled it.  He chose a subject he knows well and is of interest to thousands -- the Jersey Shore.  He fortuitously started blogging just before the first of two major hurricanes swept the sand kingdom.  He has been diligent in tracking down news and answering reader questions.  He is not getting rich off his efforts but he has gained a loyal audience that he is working hard to keep.  And, he is serving a niche that had never been covered adequately by traditional media.  The question is whether and how long he can keep up a 7-day a week pace and eventually whether he can monetize his work enough to give up his full-time job. New media like this can and do pop up overnight and can reach thousands of readers in a short time.  The PR practitioner can easily be frustrated trying to track them and to guess whether they will endure. They are legitimate outlets for news releases but only if one knows about them. It is back to the future.  Before today's media databases, PR practitioners struggled with compiling media lists because there were few updated sources for them.  That difficulty has returned.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Poor PR 

One of the first tasks of public relations and investor relations is to speak honestly to potential and actual shareholders.  That is why Twitter can be accused of poor PR.  In its effort to show a profit, it has excluded items from its pre-EBITDA (Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) earnings that should have been there, and it is making what some might call a lame excuse for the absence.  It is interesting that it isn't getting away with the chicanery.  The Fortune writer is scathing about the company's use of adjusted EBITDA.  What management considers real earnings is nowhere near what the rest of the world would call an honest bottom-line number.  So, the first victims of this IPO are facts -- a poor start in dealing with key stakeholders.  It makes one wonder why he should invest, but perhaps Twitter knows more about shareholders than the rest of us.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

PR Challenge 

How do you publicize an institution where the brightest minds work in mathematical realms beyond a layperson's comprehension?  That is the challenge of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.  The Institute is still best known as Albert Einstein's final place of work, but that was decades ago.  Its scientists continue to labor in abstract ideas beyond the grasp of educated laypersons.  The Institute takes the long view of the theorizing its members do, but that is in conflict with a world that wants progress now.  So, how should it explain what its fellows think about all day? Interesting challenge, isn't it?  The Institute is not alone with this knotty problem.  There are many businesses and organizations that have trouble making themselves comprehensible.  The skill and creativity of the PR practitioner is to find something, anything to tell the story.  And, maybe the story is that it can't be told.

Monday, October 07, 2013


It takes a special kind of character to be a professional naysayer, to be the one who stands to the side and throws verbal bombs into arguments.  Justice Antonin Scalia is one of those on the Supreme Court.  He comes from a tradition of justices who are out of step with the rest of the court.  Associate Justice William O. Douglas was one of those who for 36 years took minority positions and wrote dissents.  One wonders from a reputational point of view if they would have better served by going along some of the time rather than saying no.  They would argue that opposing views have a right to be heard and should be heard whether one loses or not.  It is an odd position to be in -- a stalwart minority reconciled to secondary status but still vigorous in its defense of its views.  Public relations doesn't have a category for that kind of person.  Practitioners are trained to listen to stakeholders carefully and to appease them if at all possible.  There isn't room for a professional to say, "Hell no" time and again.  The Supreme Court tolerates them and to some degree celebrates contrarians.  There is a lesson there.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Big Data 

What this story doesn't say is that Big Data needs better communication from scientists to the non-technical community.  Hard drives are filling with exabytes of information that will be useless unless Big Data analytics and story telling are applied to it.  This is the role both for PR and journalism.  It is the job of science writers who can translate complex solutions into simple terms. 

If Big Data is multidisciplinary, writing about it is equally so because each scientist on a project will bring and take away a slightly different perspective on what the Big Data means.  Rather than a challenge, PR should see this as an opportunity to exploit.  Right now, scientists are still in the early stages of gathering and analyzing Big Data. They are trying to make sense of it:  The job of the communicator has come to the fore.   It would be interesting to know how many interdisciplinary teams have a science writer dedicated to them.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Publicity Stunt 

So, Burger King restaurants are trying a publicity stunt by renaming themselves, "Fries King." That's one way to advertise your product, but one wonders if it will move the needle for the struggling fast food chain.  So far, none of its publicity stunts have helped much.  Burger King is in an unenviable position of being a follower of McDonald's.  It doesn't have the size or the heft of the Illinois fast-food chain.  Burger King's franchisees are constantly unhappy and this has caused flailing in marketing programs.  Burger King might content itself with being a strong number two, but even that is a precarious position.  So, it tries this and that and something else looking for magic that never quite materializes.  Meanwhile, perceptions of the chain have turned negative and its public relations efforts have not been able to turn that around.  If you were the PR director of Burger King, what would you do?   I haven't the least idea of how to tackle it.  In my career, I've worked for franchise operations, and it became clear that marketing was pinned to the contract made with the franchisee.  If the contract failed to include a requirement, a franchisee somewhere at some time would go against company policy.  One guess is that Burger King is in this kind of bind.  It doesn't have sufficient control over franchisees to deliver effective marketing.  Whatever the reason, it's a tough challenge that has chewed marketers one after another.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Will It Work? 

When a leader calls his organization ingrown and concerned for its own affairs, will the organization get with the leader's vision or resist silently and stubbornly?  That is the issue that is facing Pope Francis who has called the Vatican curia "narcissistic" and failing to serve the wider church.  Pope Francis is about to learn how tenacious employees can be to hang on to their jobs as they see them and not as the CEO might.  Change driven from the top must still make its way through numerous layers of workers, and part of the management challenge is to show each worker how to act differently.  What are the new job requirements?  What resources are needed?  Who are your stakeholders?  All this takes time and while Popes change, the curia doesn't.  It is always there.  It will take the Pope five to seven years of intensive effort to see practical results.  He is not a young man.  Does he have the time and energy to see the project through?  Or, will the curia wait him out and place its hopes on the next holder of the office?

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Smart PR 

This is smart PR -- having medical students edit Wikipedia pages for accuracy.  The students pass on newly acquired knowledge of medicine.  The public gets accurate descriptions of diseases and symptoms.  The students get academic credit to induce them to take on the work and practice in communicating to the public without use of medical jargon.  This comes under the heading of "Why didn't I think of that.?"  It plays to the strength of the medical school and  students.  It serves the public and is a win-win for everyone.  The best PR ideas are this way.  Rather than passing publicity stunts, they take on tasks that society needs and endure with them because the jobs are suited for the ones doing them.  Why don't more institutions operate this way?  Because it is not always easy to find a task of importance to the public and to the organization.  That is where creative thinking comes into play -- finding an outlet or creating one.  In this case, the need is there and what was missing was commitment to take on the job.  One hopes that the for-credit course succeeds and medical students become Wikipedia editors.

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