Friday, October 31, 2014


This blog will be taking time off from Nov. 1 through Nov. 16.  

Spin And A Plague 

Hysteria over the arrival of Ebola in the US has pushed states to impose quarantines on anyone who has worked in health care in West Africa.  At least one quarantined nurse is protesting and openly defying the ban on her movement.  Commentators have noted that states have a right to quarantine in order to protect their citizens and they have done so since their beginning.  Others have noted, however, that a state must have evidence that a quarantine is necessary -- and this is what the nurse is protesting.  She has no symptoms of Ebola although she is checking her temperature twice a day to be sure.  She says the state has no right to hold her in her house.  The state disagrees.  It is over-reacting to calm the concern of its citizens.  Call it medical "spin".  "See what we're doing to guard your health."  It takes courage on the part of politicians to work within the limits of science and medicine.  They would rather go the easy way and put a ban on anyone who has been near the source of infection.  There is less to worry about, and upsetting one citizen is easier than panicking the majority.  But, it is narrow-minded and wrong.  Yes, there is a chance of Ebola spreading in the US, but it is a vanishingly small one.  Other diseases take a greater toll each year -- cancer and heart failure, enteroviruses, etc.  Government should be communicating the necessity to remain calm and collected rather than quarantining.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Strange Diplomacy 

When you call an ally, "chickenshit", you are engaged in strange diplomacy. That was what an American government official called the Israeli prime minister.  Gutter language is not a part of diplomacy, even if one hates the opposition.  One must always leave a door open for talks and for peacemaking.  It is a fact that the Israeli government pounded the Palestinians in the latest outbreak between the two countries.  America advised against it, but Netanyahu went ahead.  So too, the decision to build new housing in Jerusalem territory claimed by Palestinians.  Bad and self-interested behavior is a norm in diplomacy.  One should hardly be offended by it.  Countries and their leaders think of their own security first.  That is as it should be.  It takes unusual circumstances and a leader with courage to put a country into potential jeopardy in order to seek peace.  In Netanyahu's defense, Palestinians haven't merited much outreach with their continuous effort to rocket and mortar Israel.  One would think the American official would understand that.  At least to the point where he would not have called Netanyahu poultry manure.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Long-term PR Problem 

Just as the Exxon Valdez caused multi-decade problems for Alaska, BP's Deepwater Horizon well in the Caribbean has left a wide bed of gunk on the ocean floor.  The damage might not be visible but it is there on the seabed where marine creatures can ingest it to what effect is unknown.  This means that for decades, BP will be defending itself in the court of public opinion.  Every time a new study comes out, the image of the burning, tilting platform will recur along with black lakes tarring the shores of multiple states.  There isn't much BP can do about it.  The damage is done and whether it is permanent or not is a question that will keep scientists busy for years.  How does a company come back from such a devastating accident.  BP in advertising has tried to rejoin the Gulf Coast community with testimony from its workers, but it also has lashed back at those who would take advantage of its restitution money.  The company has adopted a "moving on" stance that seems hollow given the damage, but what choice does it have?  It does the company and the public no good to continue wallowing in the accident and its aftermath.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Burden On Reputation 

The University of North Carolina has imposed a burden on its reputation that will last a long time.  This comes from an academic scandal in which athletes could take courses that did not require them to show up for class.  The university is in the process of cleaning up the mess it made, but it hasn't done so willingly and it took after the whistle blower who exposed the fraud.  It is sad because UNC was once known for its academic standards.  Now it is just one more university mesmerized by big time sports and willing to do anything to reach the winner's circle.  What is worse is that it has violated its bargain with its student athletes.  Play for us and we will give you an education.  It would have been better if its athletes had gone directly into professional sports and skipped college.  The only PR tactic that will work for the university now is for it to set down tough standards for its athletes and to enforce them year after year.  

Monday, October 27, 2014

Slow Aggression 

Israelis are using slow aggression to move Palestinians out of Jerusalem.  The government has just approved 1,000 new homes to be built on land that Palestinians consider to be theirs.  Once settlers are embedded in the territory and have the defense of the Israeli army behind them, there is little chance that Palestinians can regain the districts.  Meanwhile, Israel's allies oppose the move but not so strongly that they are willing to break diplomatic ties with the country. Israel is concerned for public opinion internally and the new housing is an act of PR for its citizens. It is hard for countries like the US to complain too loudly.  After all, we were believers in Manifest Destiny, and we systematically uprooted, slaughtered and contained native peoples on reservations in the 19th Century.  One can say that Israel is imitating the US.  The outcome of building new housing in Palestinian territory is more violence that will occur in months and years to come.  One wonders if there isn't a better way?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Great PR 

Mark Zuckerberg understands great PR and he was caught engaging in it during his visit to China.  He spoke to college students there in Chinese.  It was, according to Chinese speakers, a halting performance with incorrect tonals and a heavy accent, but the students loved it, and his effort immediately went viral around the globe.  Zuckerberg later explained that his study of Mandarin was influenced by his wife who is Chinese, but no matter.  Here was the CEO of a huge company in the US who was struggling to make himself understood in a difficult language and succeeding.  Give him credit for great PR and for the courage to try.  He has set a high standard for the rest of CEOs in their efforts to carry their messages around the world.  English is the global language for now, but there is a strong chance that Chinese will be in coming decades.  At least one CEO is ready.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sunk By A Supplier 

Honda and every other auto manufacturer that used airbags from the Takata Corp. is involved in a massive recall.  They have been sunk by a supplier who made a defective part.  The recall will involve tens of millions of dollars, most, if not all, of which will come from Takata.  Takata also will face lawsuits over the defect that will drag on for years.  At issue will be whether Takata knew or should have known that its airbags will blow up under certain circumstances and injure rather than protect a passenger.  One can feel sympathy for the auto builders in this instance.  The recall is for something they didn't do.   The industry has been involved in massive recalls this year and doesn't need another one.  But, it is here, and the auto companies have to deal with it.  The PR departments of the affected manufacturers must be working at full speed to handle both this and the introduction of new vehicles.  It won't help them much to point a finger at Takata.  Consumers drives Hondas, not Takatas..

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Succession Planning 

This is the reason why every organization should have a succession plan in place for its CEO and other top executives.  It is also the reason why the PR department should have a crisis plan that envisions the loss of the CEO.  Death at the hands of an allegedly drunk snowplow driver is unusual and might be a first but mortality itself is not unheard off, especially through disease.  This is another reason why CEOs should not be put on pedestals and worshiped by their organizations as Steve Jobs was, for example. The chief executive is the visible leader of an organization, but in the end, has no more power over his or her destiny than anyone else.  Understanding of the tenuous nature of leadership has increased with more active boards that are now independent of their CEOs.  If a chief executive is removed today, it is more likely though poor performance or a scandal.  Most of the time, PR is far removed from boardroom deliberations, but that doesn't absolve it from having a plan in place and rehearsing how to handle the news of the death or departure of the CEO.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Change And Inertia 

Chief Marketing Officers are complaining that they are supposed to measure everything in marketing but they don't have tools or authority to do it.  It seems company executives want measurement but they aren't willing to change behaviors to get it.  Welcome to cultural inertia.  Public relations practitioners are intimately familiar with bone-deep reluctance to adapt to shifting environments.  Too many of us are dismissed as press release factories, incapable of advising managers on larger issues.  An organization's leadership might not have gotten counsel from the PR practitioner before, so why trust him now?  This circular argument keeps PR in a cubby writing ledes.  CMOs.on the other hand, are supposed to be at a level where they can order compliance, but in reality, they can't.  They must obtain cooperation from multiple departments in addition to their own and time spent building credibility is onerous.  Change comes glacially, and it might prove too slow for CMOs to keep their jobs. Inertia frequently wins, especially since mid-level managers needn't do anything different to keep their jobs. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Celebrity Comes -- And Goes 

In the news this morning a story about President Obama on the stump in Maryland before an audience that was decreasing as he spoke.  There may have been many reasons for people leaving, but Obama must be aware that there was a time not long ago when voters would queue to hear him and would cheer until hoarse.  The lesson here is that if one depends on celebrity to make his way, he should be ready for the day when the public's attention wanders to something else.  Only a few performers have mastered the art of renewing themselves constantly in order to stay in the public eye.  Among politicians, there aren't many who can command a camera and an audience whenever they want it.  When they do, they become tiresome in time, and one wishes they would go away, give it a rest, step down... shutup.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Peril Of A Poor Reputation 

Comcast, the cable TV company, is learning the fallout of a poor reputation.  The city council of Worcester, MA not only said no, but "Hell no!" to Comcast's petition to serve the town of 180,000.  This isn't going to hurt Comcast's bottom line, but it must sting to have verbal brickbats thrown at company representatives.  Were I an employee of Comcast, I would urge management to mollify the Council and to implement good service to the town. Having been a Comcast subscriber for a number of years, I didn't have much to complain about, but my family did.  Outages were frequent and cut into my wife's business and my daughter's study time. Comcast's system was unstable, even with upgrades.  Today we use Verizon and have no complaints.  Verizon has its own issues, but not when it comes to internet delivery.  This is a reminder that reputation is paramount.  Reputation is hard to win and easy to lose, and one can never rest in providing good service.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

PR Disaster 

The Center for Disease Control has a PR disaster on its hands after a second Dallas hospital worker came down with Ebola.  The CDC had projected control of the situation, which proved illusory.  Now it says it will station one of its officials at any hospital in the US caring for Ebola patients.  It probably should have done that at the beginning of the situation.  It is unclear how nursing staff and other workers are contracting the disease.  All we know is where.  The CDC needs to examine hospital procedures and their implementation minutely to determine how the virus is slipping through the prophylactic barriers.  It might not be easy to find the breakdown and it might be something simple that no one has thought about until now.  Either way, the CDC has a distance to go to win back its reputation for protecting Americans against disease. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Attack, Attack 

There appears to be no limit to the attack ads politicians aim at one another.  Consider this one.  A disabled candidate confined to a wheel chair is no safer than anyone else in eyes of the opponent. But, the public is another matter.  If voters conclude a politician has gone too far, they will vote against rather than for the attacker.  From a PR perspective, attack ads are tricky and not that helpful.  One wants to build a relationship with a candidate and not be regaled with the failings of the other side.  Citizens want to know what a candidate stands for rather than not-the-opponent.  People want to like a politician rather than tolerate his or her bomb throwing.  But politicos continue to use attack ads because they believe they work, and maybe they do to a degree.  But, don't be surprised if the public stops listening out of disgust.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Culture Change 

The auto industry, an engine of economies around the world, is facing a culture change with nary a clue how to handle it.  The shift? Teenagers are no longer eager to get their licenses, to drive and to shell out for a car.  Blame for this has been placed on social media but that isn't necessarily so.  Many factors might be a part of the change, including the cost of gas, the initial price of cars, high insurance rates and more.  But whatever the causes, the outcome is harmful to the industry, which depends on nurturing a new crop of drivers annually.  What kind of PR program does the industry need to encourage teenagers to get behind the wheel?  There probably isn't one message nor one program but several.  Hanging out with friends is probably not part of the communication because teenagers spend hours a day on social media meeting and talking to friends.  Adventure might be part of the answer.  Love of the automobile is probably not.  Teenagers consider cars just a mode of transportation and have little sentiment for the curves and eye-catching design of sheet metal.  What is needed now is an in-depth study of this new public and how to relate to them. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Stepping Into It 

A nurse caring for the now -deceased Ebola patient in Dallas has come down with the disease.  The Center for Disease Control proclaimed publicly that the hospital failed to follow protocol.  This has ignited a backlash of criticism against the CDC and the care of Ebola patients.  Some say US hospitals are not equipped or trained to handle the disease.  The CDC says any hospital following the right procedures should be able to handle an Ebola patient.  Let one more nurse in Dallas come down with the disease and the CDC will have a major challenge on its hands.  Should it, as some critics said, set aside a hospital in each city and region to handle Ebola patients after rigorous staff training?  It will be hard to avoid that advice if another nurse or doctor in Dallas with access to the patient becomes ill.  It is more than a PR crisis for the CDC.  It is a systemic situation in which US hospitals have been found wanting, and it will require wholesale changes in operations to bring them up to the standard for handling rare diseases. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Perils Of Email 

This article discusses the difficulty of expressing emotion in emails.  Readers who don't know one well inevitably misunderstand what one is trying to say.  The solution is to avoid emotion and to write as rationally and objectively as possible.  The objection to this approach is that it fails to deliver the feeling one has about an issue.  While that is true, one can express feeling in other ways by listing reasons why one thinks the way one does.  It is a fact-based approach. This is the lesson I teach business school students who find it hard.  They like nearly everyone else are used to dashing off emails and replies with nary a thought about how they will be read on the recipient's end.  One should think carefully even about the shortest e-mail to make sure the audience will understand it correctly.  It is a habit PR practitioners also should develop.  Email is the foundation medium of business today.  Treat it well and save yourself trouble.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

PR Versus Panic 

One of the essential roles of PR is to maintain communications and transparency during panic situations.  For example, this one.    Because Ebola systems are close to the flu in initial stages, people are frightened and are burdening a medical system that needs to  be free to deal with real cases. Without constant communication from hospitals, the Center for Disease Control and governments, fear would increase exponentially.  A public driven by fear is capable of many regrettable acts and usually engages in some of them from shunning to forced quarantine of people with no symptoms of the disease.  PR doesn't prevent ugly behavior but it provides the information needed to ameliorate it. to inject reason and evidence into stressful situations and hopefully, self control.  

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Smart Move 

Jeff Bezos of Amazon is in the middle of a smart move online.  He is preparing to make a subscription to the Washington Post, which he owns, a part of the Kindle, the reader Amazon invented.  This will provide content to news consumers nationwide and extend the Post's reach far beyond the Beltway where it dominates today.  The Post in one stroke will become a national newspaper, which it desires to be.  The only possible problem is that sales of the Kindle might dwindle and kill the experiment.   Bezos tends to be in the marketplace for the long-haul, so that is unlikely.  Besides he is configuring the newspaper for other tablet platforms as well.  From a PR perspective, Bezos is turning the Post into an essential newspaper to be in alongside The New York Times.  That is a coup.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Feeding The Hungry 

The world population is growing towards 11 billion people.  To feed them will take a revolution in agriculture.  But, progress in developing new methods of growing crops has lagged.  It seems that world governments have other priorities at the moment.  Not only that, but crop developers like Monsanto are under pressure from activists who disdain genetically modified organisms.  Yet these are the seeds we need if the world is to nourish its people in just 85 years.  Progress in agriculture is slow and timed to growing cycles.  Today is already late in finding answers to the 11 billion challenge.  With large farming, the production cycle has increasingly become automated to the point where a farmer no longer has to steer his tractor.  It steers itself.  The problem lies with millions of subsistence growers who need tools and seed that can produce a surplus.  We know it works when they get them.  The Green Revolution proved that.  The challenges are to change people's minds about GMO at the same time influencing governments to spend more on research and development.  There is PR opportunity in both of these goals, but it won't be easy, especially when segments of the world refuse to eat GMO-based foods.  It will take generations of PR practitioners working the problems to change hearts and minds, but if the world is not starve, it must be done.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Unguarded Mouth 

Vice President Joe Biden is notorious for off-the-cuff remarks that regularly get him into trouble.  He has done it again and angered allies in the fight against terrorists.  So now he is apologizing to the countries involved and causing domestic observers to wonder if he is up for a run for president.  It is not that the VP has been warned.  I'm sure his handlers are telling him regularly what to discuss and what to avoid.  It appears that Biden is incapable of following advice.  In the cutthroat political arena that passes for a presidential election, that is fatal.  Biden has had numerous chances to control his tongue.  He hasn't taken them.  Perhaps he feels free as VP to speak his mind.  If so, he is mistaken.  Past errors will return to haunt him in future campaigns.  He has created a PR nightmare for himself.

Friday, October 03, 2014

How Do You Do PR For This Industry 

Mobile games are a marketplace of one-hit successes followed by little to nothing.  How do you do PR for a company or the industry at large?  PR and publicity resting on a one-hit wonder is a foundation of sand on the edge of an ocean.  Once the public tires of the game, there isn't a bulwark left to protect the company, and it subsides into mediocrity or goes out of business.  Strategically, a company should fear too much success with a game because that means it needs to strip the rest of the business of talent to support the hit.  When the public moves away, there is little time to reassign engineers and developers to other products. Hence, layoffs and shrinkage.  The computer games industry in general has had hard times surviving and it doesn't look as if this will change much in years to come.  The public is fickle and when it comes to games, it is especially uncommitted to any company or title.  

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Inadvertent Bumble 

The Boston Herald ran a cartoon of Obama brushing his teeth and an intruder washing in the bathtub.  The image was a jab at the Secret Service for letting an intruder into the White House.  The words in the balloon, however, inadvertently exposed the Herald to politically correct criticism.  The intruder asks if Obama is using the new watermelon-flavored toothpaste.  The editor said she didn't catch the reference to watermelon and the cartoonist himself said he was referring to a flavored toothpaste he had heard about.  Neither took blame for making a racist remark.  What this exposes is the need for multiple eyes on copy to look for words that can offend.  Newspapers particularly should be careful but every copywriter of public material needs a sensitivity to words so they don't offend.  Political correctness can go too far, and there is a time when one can say enough and move ahead.  However, in a situation like this, it would have made little difference if the toothpaste tasted like cucumber.  I'm sure the cartoonist is mortified, as is the editor.  Inadvertent bumbles happen. One can only pick up and move on.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Show Trial 

Congressional hearings are naught but show trials.  For example, this one.  Everyone can understand the mistakes the Secret Service made in allowing an intruder to the White House.  So, Congressional leaders dusted off their best insults and quotable lines and flung them at the director of the agency all the while hoping they would get TV camera time.  The Secret Service director didn't handle it well.  She said among other things that it will never happen again.  Little does she know whether it will or won't.  There is always a chance that an event like this could happen again -- and probably will.  The question is whether the Secret Service will be on its toes or caught napping.  The Service has taken a number of reputational blows in recent months.  It needs better PR, but that, of course, starts with apprehending intruders at the White House.

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