Monday, June 30, 2014

Credibility And The IRS 

The IRS is having a hard time defending itself before the public -- and well it should.  The claim that a hard drive with two years of e-mails had somehow been destroyed is beyond credibility.  As commentators and technical experts have pointed out in recent weeks, it could only have been enormous incompetence or outright criminality behind the destruction.  The IRS of all agencies in the US government understands the need to save records.  Hence, the agency has provided opponents with a huge advantage in public debate over whether the IRS intentionally targeted conservative groups for tax audits.  The Obama administration has tried to distance itself from the controversy but it too has been sucked into it to some extent.  Republican investigators want to know if the White House directed the IRS to pursue its course.  So far, there is little evidence that it did, but then, evidence is missing.  It is likely that the IRS investigation will eventually sputter out when there is no longer any political advantage to pursuing it.  The IRS, however, will take much longer to remove suspicion among Americans that it was used for political advantage.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Two Experiments 

Here is an experiment underway to see if a newspaper can be revived.  Here is one where the new owner tried and failed.  it is too early to say the Washington Post will succeed but if it doesn't, it might end up like the Orange County Register.  There are no guarantees in modern media.  Survivors in traditional media are likely to be few and national brands without circulation boundaries.  But, even The New York Times continues to struggle.  One can only hope that Bezos at the Post can see a way through to a viable path and the newspaper doesn't become a long-term drain on his pocketbook.  If he is successful in building an economic model, it is not likely to be one for the rest of the industry.  This is a situation in which each newspaper will need to find its own way -- or disappear.  PR practitioners are riding into the unknown along with the rest of the media.  There is only one thing for certain.  Our business like the media business is changed forever.

Thursday, June 26, 2014


One of the hardest communications tasks is to support a product that didn't make it the first time in the marketplace -- for example, this one. Once considered the salvation of Barnes & Noble, the company is now spinning off Nook into its own business and letting fate take its course.  Chances are Nook won't be around in a few years as other reading devices and tablets outstrip it in functionality and market power.  Imagine yourself as the PR manager for Nook.  What do you do?  What do you say?  The usual technology publicity is not going to be sufficient to gain awareness and buzz needed to ignite sales.  Given the dire circumstances, there is freedom of action.  One has a license to try anything without much hope that it will work, but if it should, it could prove the salvation of the product and the company.  The PR practitioner and marketer who take on an assignment like this are motivated by lost causes and a chance to hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth with two out.  Just keeping the product alive will be success and gaining market share would be stunning.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


How humiliating is it for a respected university to make a typo on an official document like this?  In PR, we harp on the necessity for accuracy -- proper grammar, spelling, facts and order of presentation.  We make mistakes, but we try to catch them quickly and move on.  It appears that Northwestern will need to do the same and reissue diplomas.  One wonders how many pairs of eyes looked at the text before it was printed.  The university can be faulted if it was only one person.  I suspect it won't happen again.  Next time they will use a spelling checker.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


The old saw in PR that one should never attack another who uses ink by the barrel doesn't always hold true. There are times when it makes sense to respond to the media forcefully, especially when one can do it in style, such as this instance.   Wal-Mart's director of corporate communications marked up a highly critical column from a New York Times reporter and posted it on the company's blog.  The response was restrained and emphasized facts that the reporter either didn't know or ignored, but would have known if he had only asked the company.  The result is that the reporter looks dumb and the column tendentious.  The further result is that other media picked up on the blog and ran with the corrections.  This is only a partial victory for Wal-Mart.  Chances are the reporter won't send a column in advance again rather than risk mockery.  Wal-Mart has also burned a potential outlet for its news, but the reporter would never have been other than biased against the company so it was a small loss.  On occasions, attacking the media makes sense, but it should be done with care as it was here.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Doing Its Duty 

What is a board supposed to do when its CEO is suspected of moral turpitude?  Fire the CEO, of course.  The reputation of a company exists beyond the character of any one of its individuals.  Terminating employment, however, can result in ugly outcomes -- like this one.  The CEO called the action a "power grab" and is suing the board.  The situation has become messy and the company is suffering as a result -- in other words, the exact opposite outcome of the board's intent to protect the company.  Doing one's duty is a losing strategy.  Not doing one's duty risks shareholder lawsuits and worse.  One can feel sympathy for the directors.  I'm sure they didn't sign up for problems like this.  Board members normally discuss growth and business challenges, not the misbehavior of their CEOs.  It is a distasteful part of the job and negative perceptions rub off on the directors as well.  "O, you are a board member of X.  What IS happening there?"  

Friday, June 20, 2014

Not PR 

In the early days of modern publicity, flacks would visit editors, slip them a few bucks and the editors would run a story in the newspaper about a product.  It was pay for play.  PR got away from that for two reasons.  The principal one lay with the media itself, which did not want to be associated with any process that compromised objectivity.  The second was that PR understood better the power of third-party credibility.  That is why this practice goes back to the roots of the industry and isn't PR or publicity as we know it today.  Paying bloggers to flack for you is as underhanded as shoving cash to a reporter.  Companies that condone the practice come from a marketing background that emphasizes control, guaranteed results, consistency of message.  They don't want to take a chance that a blogger might not write about the product or that the blogger might say negative things.  They are advertisers in another form.  True PR and publicity rely on persuasion and news judgment.  PR asks and answers what the importance of a product, company or individual is and then seeks to persuade others to see it that way as well.  It is a messy business, full of ups and downs and frequent failure, but when successful, the power of credibility is far greater than advertising.  So, here is a wish that such companies see the light and stop offering to pay off bloggers.  Bloggers should be -- and are -- offended that they are considered shills.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

What Now? 

The Washington Redskins are appealing the loss of trademark for their name, but the larger question is what now?  What if they lose the appeal?  The team's image has long been bound to the name and a picture in profile of an Indian brave.  To Native Americans, both are derogatory and the federal trademark board agreed with them .  This raises a reputational and positioning challenge for the team's owners.  They can elect to move ahead while losing control of their brand, or they can change the name of the team, an expensive endeavor.  If they do move ahead, they have a long-term PR challenge to make the name respectable again, if that is possible.  It is unlikely that American Indians will eventually consider the name "Redskins" as a compliment.  College teams have already changed their names to accommodate the sensitivity of Native Americans.  So there is precedent for a new name.  The question is whether the Redskin's owners see it that way.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Sovereign Credibility 

It was once thought that a country would always pay its debts.  It would do so because it did not want to get shut out of international credit markets.  We know now that isn't true, and some debtor countries resist what they call "extortion" by creditors who want to get repaid.  The perpetrator is claiming to be the victim.  A sovereign state that plays to constituents but snubs the world's financial markets will lose credibility.  This is a case in which political spin will work against it.  Argentina will find the cost of its debt has risen along with the risk of repayment..  It might not reach junk levels, but repayment of principal and interest will strain the treasury.  Is it worth it?  A politician who seeks short-term solutions might think so, but it turns the country into a pariah.  Like it or not, countries cannot exist on their own.  Even North Korea is dependent on the world for essentials such as food.  It is risky business to toy with sovereign credibility.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tighter And Tighter 

Wikipedia is tightening its rules for editing entries into the encyclopedia -- as if they weren't rigorous already.  Now anyone who is paid to edit an entry must disclose that fact.  This is to discourage phantom hacks from adding material that buffs the image of a person or organization.  Full disclosure.  I'm one of those hacks.  I've added an entry on behalf of a client, but I told the editors I was doing so.  I'm almost sorry I did.  It was a two-month fight with them to allow the entry to stay.  I learned the hard way that one must footnote everything against secondary sources, preferably newspapers and magazines.  Only after I put 10 footnotes next to the name of the individual who was profiled did they let me keep the entry without further acrimony.  I appreciate the rigor, but it seemed excessive then -- and now.  When Wikipedia started, it trumpeted the fact that anyone could edit entries.  I wrote then in this blog that it wouldn't be successful without editors who controlled the flow of material into the system.  That is exactly what happened, although the editors are volunteer.  I'm proud that I was finally able to scale the Wikipedia mountain but it took 35 footnotes for just nine short paragraphs.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Running Away 

Yet another US company is seeking to change its tax status by moving its headquarters out of the country.  This time it is Medtronic, the medical device maker.  It wants to shift its corporate headquarters to Ireland where its potential acquisition is domiciled and taxes are much less. There isn't much the US government can do.  Corporations are not patriotic entities.  They are businesses with interests around the globe, and they can move where they wish when they wish.  One can attempt to besmirch a company's reputation for leaving a locale, but it rarely stops the company from doing so.  Politicians need to remember this when they diddle with tax structure and seek to raise more money for the government.  With global communications systems and fast travel, corporations are more mobile than at any time in history.  Their public relations are not community-bound but worldwide.  That is as it should be.  The era of state-identified companies is largely done, China notwithstanding.  

Friday, June 13, 2014

Divided We Stand 

Everyone wants Congress to forge a consensus and move forward, but it remains divided.  As this poll shows, the country is as split as Washington DC.  Division in Congress is a reflection of diverging views of citizens.  This presages a long-term split.  It also raises the question of the kind of communicator needed to find a common ground.  Where is a Democrat or Republican who can successfully find a middle that doesn't lose both ends of the spectrum?  This leadership is rare and often, is a product of the times.  We might not be in an era when there is pressure on Congress to do something.  There are too many voices, too many interests, too many conflicting issues.  How does one navigate through the cacophony without alienating large segments of voters?  It seems Obama hasn't succeeded, but then could anyone?  Perhaps there is a leader in the ranks who can assume the mantle of the presidency and move the country in a direction it needs.  We're about to find out, but the greater likelihood is bitter campaigning, name calling and trash talking -- in other words, anti-PR and a hell of spin.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

PR And Protests 

What do you do when your business sets off massive protests?  This is the PR black hole in which the transportation provider, Uber, finds itself.    It does little good to make peace with London cabbies.  They have one goal and one only -- get rid of the company on city streets.  There can be no peaceful coexistence.  This is frequently the fate of business disrupters who bring a whole new way of operating to hidebound segments of the marketplace.  Uber has to work to see that it isn't shut out because of regulation then it needs to advance bravely in the face of opposition.  It won't be easy.  London cab drivers must pass a stringent exam before they are allowed on City streets.  They have to memorize the "knowledge" -- every street in the city, which is cut up in myriads of ways.  Uber threatens that, especially if anyone suddenly can become a driver for hire with GPS on the dashboard.  There are some things PR can't do, and this is one. Mortal enemies are only conquered through force.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Failure To Coordinate 

It seemed like a good idea -- team with the Alzheimer's Foundation of America and provide free memory tests to anyone worried about contracting the disease.  It is, but someone at Rite Aid Corp forgot to include the medical establishment, which doesn't like the idea at all.  Doctors are saying the exam doesn't work well when conducted by non-professionals, and it is needlessly scaring people.  So, who is right?  It makes no difference because any PR boost to reputation has been covered by a cloud of controversy. The medical establishment might be self-interested and wants to hold on to the testing, but it carries the weight in the argument.   This is a reminder that in any issue, there are numerous constituents who should be included in decision-making and implementation.  PR practitioners know that, but someone made the decision to go ahead either without informing doctors or in the face of their opposition.  It is understandable that a physician doesn't want a waiting room clogged with nervous individuals who fear they are losing their memories.  Doctors have enough work already.  One wonders what Rite Aid should have done before launching the program -- perhaps getting the support of a coalition of doctors first.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

It's What You Do 

The Veteran's Administration can say nothing right now to alleviate its problems.  The only proper PR is for the VA to shrink waiting lists and to provide promised service.  However, to do that, it needs more doctors, nurses and technicians to handle veterans' needs.  That is assuming these professionals are available.  All this, of course, costs.  It can never be said too often:  PR is what you do and not what you say.  Once you have done, you can take credit for having accomplished something of value to the relationship between the organization and its constituents.  The VA appears hunkered at the moment, and probably that is best.  It is behind by 57,000 appointments.  It needs to make up ground.  What the VA can do is to announce steps it is taking and progress it is making, but before it gets there, it needs to understand the dimensions of the shortfall.  That might not be easy to do given the abuse of the scheduling system.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Tough Assignment 

If you are a Republican, how do you recruit racial and ethnic minorities?  It's a tough assignment measured in ones and twos and not groups of voters switching party allegiance.  It requires the recruiter to ask fellow minorities to forget the Party's traditional aversion to blacks and immigrants.  What is the argument that Republicans can make and what PR steps should they be taking to show that they are ready to accommodate everyone under a big tent?  For one, the House can pass an immigration bill to signal that it is serious this time about minority votes.  The chances of that, however, grow slimmer by the week in which there is no action.  So, what can a recruiter say other than we need your vote to change the Party's attitudes?  Join now and be part of the transformation.  That isn't much of an inducement.  Democrats, on the other hand, could get themselves into trouble if they assume they have the minority vote, and they don't work hard to keep it.  While a member of a minority group might not become a Republican, he could become an independent lost to both parties.  

Friday, June 06, 2014

How Do You Handle A Satirist? 

Jeff Bezos of Amazon is finding out.  Stephen Colbert has taken him to task for blocking access to a book publisher with whom Amazon is negotiating.  The TV sequence is funny and angry (Look at the whole segment.)  Amazon has remained silent because it is in the middle of negotiations with Hachette, which coincidentally publishes Colbert's books.   Should Amazon defend itself?  It should.  Boycotting books is a direct strike against the firm's reputation of being the world's most complete bookstore.  It also smacks of arrogance.  If Amazon can throw its retail weight around, what happens to publishers?  They become a vassal of the merchant.  It would not necessarily be dangerous for that to happen.  Publishers can still select manuscripts to usher into print, but there is a risk that Amazon will eventually dictate what they can sell.  That would gag new and innovative voices looking to be heard for the first time.  Whatever the reasons for Amazon's boycott, it should end it as quickly as possible before the company's reputation is marred permanently..

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Blame The ISP 

Netflix has started leveling blame publicly at internet service providers whose downloading is slow.  Verizon is not amused.  This raises an issue of the risk of taking on vendors openly.  It is no guarantee that the vendor will change its ways and the bad relations one has fostered against the vendor might come back to hurt the company.  Perhaps Netflix can get away with criticism because it is one of the largest pipeline users in the world with its multi-gigabyte downloading of movies to millions of customers.  Netflix might be frustrated and tired of hearing customer complaints over an issue about which it can do nothing.  One can say this much for its public warning.  It caught ISPs' attention.  One will now have to see if anything is done about download speeds or whether Netflix's PR move has backfired.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Don't Trust Memory 

As this article relates, memory can be altered in a number of ways, and one never knows it is happening.  That is why in journalism as well as in PR that one fact checks constantly.  There is rarely a time when one dare trust recall to be entirely correct.  What did that executive actually say?  How did those events unfold?  Memory under stress is worse.  One holds on to a particular point but forgets the rest.  The first rule of PR is accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.  That rule remains unchanged because journalists think we lie for a living.  The way to gain their credibility is to be more correct than they are..  Hence, we take notes.  We document.  We check everything repeatedly before publishing it.  We don't trust memory to get it right., even if our memories are good.  Such fact-checking becomes part of institutional memory.  When successors check back into the files years later, they can trust what they find because of the careful work that went into making the files in the first place.  

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Science Publicity 

One lesson a scientist should learn is not to announce too loudly a discovery.  Future facts might humiliate.  This is what is happening now to the gravitational wave study that was bruited globally earlier this year.  Doubts are creeping in about the meaning of the data.  Did the astronomers see polarization in the cosmic microwave background or in cosmic dust?  If it was dust then the discovery was not so earth-shaking.  Scientists may have to change the experiment to allow for the fine particles of deep space then try again.  Meanwhile, news of their discovery becomes an embarrassment.  One can't blame scientists for being excited and convinced of what they have detected.  Years of instrument building, searching, and interpretation of data prepare one for finding something.  It is hard to stand back and examine evidence objectively, even with safeguards built in.  How will the searchers answer the argument that what they have seen is dust?  We shall find out in the days to come, but we're seeing now peer-review in action and doubt growing.  Science should, but often does not, confer humility.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Win One, Lose One 

Sometimes PR is a zero-sum activity.  One might win respect and reputation from one audience but lose it with another.  That happened over the weekend with President Obama.  His Taliban prisoner swap for an American POW was looked upon positively by many Americans but not all.  Several senators and congressmen considered it a bad deal, and the president of Afghanistan is miffed.  One rarely can please everyone, but Obama took a decision based on a moment's opportunity, showing that he is capable of rapid action.  Now the issue is the former POW himself.  There is rumor that he should never have been caught in the first place had he stayed where he belonged.  Some say he deserted, but the circumstances are unclear.  If the President knows, he isn't talking.  If it turns out to be true that the young man was derelict, the President will earn a black eye for turning over five top leaders to get him back.  And, as one critic pointed out, the Taliban now know an American prisoner is valuable.  Expect them to try to capture another.  Should they do so, the net result will be negative and not zero sum. 

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