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Online Public Relations Thoughts

Daily entries on Public Relations and communications ideas and trends

Updated: 2017-08-18T08:58:27.479-04:00


Dumb, cont.


How can a politician make this mistake -- talking openly to a reporter without going on background or off the record?  Steve Bannon did it and now will suffer the consequences.  He directly contradicted his boss, President Trump.  He openly acknowledged his internal fights with other White House staff.  He talked as he were the President and able to change the White House team at will.  Bannon has enemies, plenty of them, and they will use the interview against him.  Of course, Bannon might well have known what he was doing and wanted the interview to be on record.  There is always that possibility, but it doesn't look that way and perception counts.  Will Bannon avoid the media from here on out or will he continue to lobby publicly for his views?  That is a question for Trump and Bannon.  Certainly, if the interview was in error, someone needs to explain off-the-record and on-background to him quickly.



It is a tough PR and leadership position to be in when one is isolated from his constituencies. It is especially difficult when the isolation is self-induced.  This is the position President Trump has thrust himself  with the disbanding of two business councils advising him.  Trump has progressively cut himself off from one citizen demographic after another.  All that remains for him is his base -- small as it is.  The fewer defenders he has the greater the danger to him and his position.  No one has found anything illegal in his operations -- at least not yet -- but there is a grand jury probing the Russia meddling and his staff's complicity in in it.  At this point, one can almost sense the Republican party begging for a good reason to impeach him and move on.  One needs supporters to accomplish anything in the corporate and political world.  Trump has yet to learn that as president.  



One wonders how a sophisticated company like Costco can make a dumb mistake like this.  Surely the company knew it was misappropriating Tiffany's name and brand for the diamond rings it was selling.  Its defense in court was lame, and the judge imposed a fine of  more than $19 million on the company.  The fine hurts but not as much as the ding to Costco's reputation.  One can ask what other products has Costco mislabeled.  If it was "cavalier" with Tiffany, why not with others as well?  Surely this wasn't the only instance of brand theft.  Costco has a task now of auditing its products and making sure its marketing of them is honest.  If not, look for more lawsuits against the company, which it will have trouble defending.

Communicating To The Unknown


It has been 40 years since two gold-plated copper records were affixed to two spacecrafts and blasted into the universe.  Voyagers I and II are now far away in interstellar vacuum.  It will be hundreds of years before they reach another solar system and by then, who knows what the earth will be like and if it will even be here.  The chances of another civilization retrieving one or both of the craft is exceedingly slim.  Yet, NASA tried to communicate to the unknown.  What was put on the disks was instructive.  The scientists tried to summarize life in sound and pictures.  There was hubris in the attempt, but idealism as well.  We may never know if there is life on the exo-planets being discovered weekly now.  We do know there are thousands of them, but learning whether they have a solid surface and water is a slow and sometimes impossible process.  The challenges of communicating to the unknown are nearly insuperable.  Even if another civilization were to intercept a Voyager, would it know what the disk is for and would it be able to decipher the instructions for playing it? Scientists took their best guess.  NASA has not tried to communicate to the unknown again, but it should be honored for making the attempt at least once.



Cooler heads are speaking out over the standoff with North Korea.  The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said military options are ready but the preferential course is diplomacy.  Strong words are useful only to get the other party to the table.  The ball is now in North Korea's court.  Will it conduct another ICBM test and will it aim at the vicinity of Guam?  That was the threat last week.  Words wound but they also can heal.  The tragedy would be a total loss of communications between the rest of the world and North Korea.  Then any chance of diplomacy would go off the rails and war would be inevitable. As long as each side is threatening, there is still an open line and a chance one or both will back off.  North Korea isn't going to stop developing its nuclear capability and long range missiles, but there is a chance of making them a potential rather than real threat to the world.  There is a rationale behind mutually assured destruction.  The North has to understand, however, that it might never reach the number of missiles and bombs that the US possesses, and it is a much smaller country where a nuclear conflagration would have more serious consequences.  Continuous communications are a key to peace.

Bombast But Dangerous


President Trump, apparently without telling his advisers, delivered a bombastic warning to North Korea that hinted of nuclear war.  He has talked this way before but now he is in charge, and he should be watching his words more carefully.  He doesn't seem to realize that words are dangerous if they provoke another to action.  Certainly North Korea is violating limits set by the rest of the world, but bombast is not a guarantee they will step back.  Rather, it serves as a spur to build more rockets and nuclear devices.  It also gives the North more excuses to repress its people in the name of security.  It is a hopeless dream that the country will liberalize its policies and set its citizens free.  The top echelon is living too well for that.  Trump's words implied the destruction of the command chain that controls the country, but that would result in the deaths of tens of thousands of men, women and children.  There is no good way to free North Korea from its communist overseers, and bombast is definitely not one of them.

Another Scandal


Wells Fargo bank can't avoid scandals these days.  Here is another one.  The bank was clearly out of control in its consumer insurance and lending departments and only now is the dysfunction coming to light. How the bank has fallen in reputation.  It came out of the 2008 financial meltdown on a high and with operations that seemed to be working well.  Since then, little has gone right.  Responsibility for the scandals rest with the CEO whether he likes it or not and even though he wasn't in the chair when the misdeeds occurred.  He now has to investigate every department and root out marginal managers and errant employees.  It will take years for the bank to hold its head high again, and that's as it should be. One scandal was enough.  Three is well out of bounds.

Class Warfare


The mayor of New York wants to impose a tax on the wealthy ($500,000 and up in annual income) in order to pay for subway improvements and to subsidize low-income riders.  There are an estimated 32,000 individuals who would fall into this category,  Predictably, lower and middle class riders favor such an approach.  It isn't money out of their pockets.  The wealthy have yet to be heard from but they have options, including leaving the city.  This crude kind of class warfare is part of a liberal approach to legislation.  Income redistribution is at the heart of the message.  It is dangerous for the mayor to play with this kind of fire.  He is up for re-election and he needs the money of the wealthy to pay for campaigning.  The mayor is right that the rich should pay more, but they already are.  It is a question of balance.  How much more should they give?  There is no right answer.  It is what voters permit ultimately. The mayor is playing to the masses, and he just might win.

Empty Words?


North Korea has said the US would "pay dearly" for new sanctions imposed on it by the UN Security Council.  In reality there isn't much the North can do and its threat is largely empty words.  Yes, the country could launch hacking attacks against the US, but security personnel are ready now for such interruptions.  The North, if it has lost reason, could launch a missile toward US shores, but were it to do so, it would ignite a war it could not win.  So too if the North directed force against the South.  So, what is left? The North will have to get creative to punish blockaders and restore its trade with China.  One shouldn't put it past the leadership to find a new way to strike back, but it is likely to be petty.  The lesson here is that one shouldn't use threats unless he is prepared to back them up.

Lie For Me


Too much has been written already on the rise and swift fall of Anthony Scaramucci.  There is one aspect that hasn't been covered much and is worth a note.  That is Mooch's demand that a communications person or PR firm "go to the mat and lie for him" if necessary.  That would make him ineligible to be a client at many PR firms who insist on facts and persuasion.  Certainly there are practitioners for whom facts are fiction, and they give the industry a bad name, especially when it finally comes out, as if often does, that they failed to tell the truth.  The first rule of PR should be "accuracy, accuracy, accuracy."  One accepts a body of facts and tries to present them favorably for a client.  Sometimes this can't be done, but often there are multiple sides to an issue and there are interpretations that highlight positives.  Insisting that a PR firm lie for him compromises the business as much as it focused a negative light on him.  When I entered the business decades ago, I was told I didn't have to lie for anyone.  That has remained true in my career.  I am thankful that I've never had a client that expected me to tell falsehoods.

The Wrong Horse?


What happens when one places investment, R&D and manufacturing on the wrong technology?   German automakers are about to find out.  They are all-in for diesel engines at a time when the rest of the world is looking into electric.  They have staked their reputations on diesel and come up short.  Now they are facing a catch-up game in Europe and elsewhere as one country after another places the motor in the polluting column.  It didn't have to be this way.  German car builders cheated to make the diesel meet air pollution standards, and they were caught.  Now, they have to further refine the engine's technology to pass muster or they will have to give it up for good.  That is a tough choice, but their place in the market and their sales depend on it.

An $8 Billion Lesson


Two South Carolina utilities have abandoned two nuclear reactors they were working on in the state.  The construction project has cost them $8 billion so far, and it was nowhere near completion.  Estimates were as high as $25 billion to bring the reactors online, and given the dropping cost of power, it no longer made sense for the utilities to continue.  The episode is a blow to the reputation of the nuclear industry, an impact from which it might not recover.  Nuclear generation has been on its heels for some time.  After a burst of reactor building, construction largely stopped for decades and those projects that were tackled were often problematic. Now the industry can add two more reactor shells to projects around the US that have never been completed.  One should ask why any utility would consider splitting atoms given the headaches that result.  It is still early to call the nuclear industry dead, but it is on life support.

When PR Fails


Airlines with any kind of customer listening know customers are complaining about space. The incredible shrinking seat. But the carriers have done nothing but skinny the chairs some more.  It is a failure of PR and the courts are now involved.  "Judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Friday directed the F.A.A. to “adequately address” a petition that raised safety concerns about the increasingly cramped conditions on airplanes."  It didn't have to be this way.  The airlines could have controlled their greed and allowed adequate seat room for all customers, even those in economy, but they continued to press their luck.  Now the government is involved, the power has been taken from their hands and there will be regulation.  The F.A.A.,which had ducked the issue, is under orders to examine the situation and act.  The agency is examining the ruling and determining what it is going to do.  Maybe next time passengers have complaints there will be a sympathetic ear.

Smart PR


A company can react to online trolls in a number of ways.  They can pretend to ignore them.  They can respond in kind.  They can threaten to sue.  Or, they can laugh them off their critical game.  Arby's, the sandwich chain, took the last course and made a PR success of it..  First, they did their homework and kept an eye on the twitter account until its author was unmasked.  Then, they flew an executive to Chicago to meet with the troll at his place of work unannounced.  When the troll came out to greet them, he found several Arby staffers, a bag full of sandwiches and a black labrador puppy.  The message, ""Cheer up, buddy. You live in a world with puppies...and sandwiches."  The PR tactic predictably made a splash in the marketing/advertising community and well it should.  Arby's had fun with the troll and the troll appreciated it.  He told his 300,000 followers about it thereby adding more impact to smart PR.  It is a lesson other companies should follow.  



The Senate Republicans effort to get rid of Obamacare has foundered and sunk.  There is no guarantee any kind of compromise will be developed and enacted.  The problem was the Republicans had no plan, just the effort to repeal, and the American public was not fooled.  Here was a classic case of the need for powerful persuasion.  It was missing for nearly all of the push-and-pull over repeal.  The Republicans came off as "aginners" who wanted to replace the law simply because it came from Obama's administration and not because of manifestly clear faults with its regulations.  Nearly everyone was against them from doctors through health agencies to common citizens.  Yet, the House and Senate persisted.  This kind of coup de main might have worked in a company dominated by a CEO who has also cowed the board, but it is much more difficult in the political realm, as it should be.  So, now it is on to tax reform where chances of comprehensive change are slim at best.  Maybe this time the Republicans will use the tools of persuasion rather than once again attempting to ram through new legislation. 

Great Story: No Product


This article is proof that PR is what you do and not what you say.  The company had a great story about making a drone that anyone could use.  It collected millions in advance orders.  It wasn't able to make the product so it shut down and left tens of thousands of potential customers in a lurch.  It bamboozled everyone, including the media who were only too willing to believe the hype.  Publicity is what you say about yourself.  PR is what you do and then say.  The distinction is lost to most of the world.  



When a technology disrupts a market, the fall-out is usually anything but pretty. Vendors, lenders and others are caught in the same whirlwind of change.  That is what is happening to the taxicab industry in New York City.  Uber and Lyft have cut the value of taxi medallions and left drivers and credit unions under water with no chance of surfacing.  The metal badges once valued in the millions are now worth a few hundred thousands, but lenders allowed taxi drivers to take out loans against the previous imputed value.  There is no way for drivers to pay these debts back.  The taxi industry can communicate with the city council and try to rein in the disrupters, but the damage is done,  The monopoly that the taxi industry had over local transportation is destroyed, and a new era has begun.

Poor PR


So, a young, concern citizen finds a major bug in a public transportation authority's web site that could cost it millions in lost revenue.  He reports it.  What does the organization do?  It swears out a warrant for the citizen's arrest.  How dumb is that?  Were the authority any other entity, it would have at least thanked the young man for uncovering it and maybe, even compensated him for discovering it.  But no.  The organization trumpeted the capture of a hacker at a press conference and declared its system to be secure.  Outraged hackers have now attacked the authority's web site for real and discovered holes, which they are publishing on the internet.  It didn't have to be this way, but for a stupid decision in the first place.  The transportation authority must be filled with bureaucrats who have little familiarity with the web.  They are learning the hard way.

Intent Vs. Reality


Jared Kushner, the President's son-in-law, will tell a Congressional investigative committee that the meeting he took before the election with a Russian lawyer was a waste of time.  That may be so, but the perception is that he was ready and willing to cooperate if the meeting produced damaging information about Hilary Clinton.  The reality was nothing but the intent verged on criminality.  Powers smarter than I will determine if intent was enough to transgress the law, but in the court of public opinion, Kushner is damaged.  He is a symbol of those who will do anything to win, including walking on the dark side.  It is the ultimate in pragmatism and gives no quarter to ethics.  It will be interesting to see if Kushner is driven out of the Trump administration.  Chances are good that he won't be.  Trump is defending him at the moment, but Trump is mercurial.  If Kushner becomes too much of a liability, he will be gone.

Another Worry


As if PR practitioners did not have enough to worry about, science has come up with a way to make convincing fake videos of people talking.  They used AI to create a video of former President Obama speaking in a new context.  While the researchers see positive uses for the breakthrough, others are concerned that it can and will be used to create fake news.  What could be more devastating to candidates or office-holders than a video of them making racist or other derogatory comments.  They can claim rightly that they never said the words ascribed to them, but meanwhile the public has video to prove them wrong.  It is the ultimate of dirty tricks.  One hopes the researchers use their new technology wisely and do not make it available to the world readily.  It can distort elections, compromise CEOS and play havoc with one's reputation.  

Crisis Advice


Experienced PR practitioners will know intuitively the guidelines set down in this article, but it is worth reviewing them before the next crisis occurs.  The problem with crises is they rarely come at anticipated times.  They tend to blow up suddenly in unexpected places and circumstances.  In the frantic first hours, PR is trying to find out what happened while responding swiftly to media inquiries.  There is no good way to do it even with machinery in place and rehearsed.  Crisis manuals tend to sit on shelves unread and not consulted when an actual event occurs.  The best advice in a crisis is to keep the machinery simple and effective.  A war room should have the powers to override protocol and bureaucratic barriers to get data it needs.  A public or employee response should not be picked clean by nervous attorneys.  The CEO should be engaged and not distant.  These are simple steps but they are often not followed.  It is up to the crisis manager to make sure that basic rules are honored and no audience is left in the dark.  It sounds easy but it isn't.

Hat tip to Peter Shinbach for making me aware of this article.



Sometimes it is hard to believe the endurance of myths.  Here is one that has been disproven by science but still people believe it.  At best there might be microbial life buried beneath the radiation-blasted surface of the red planet.  The proof of that is still wanting, but there is no evidence of any kind for an advanced civilization having resided there.  Still, people want to hold on to the myth.  They don't want to accept that in this solar system we are alone.  They speculate about the existence of rational beings on other planets in distant solar systems.  So far, nothing has come of it, but it is early in the investigation of exo-planets.  And, even if there is a discovery of some life form light years away, there is no practical way of getting there.  We haven't the rockets or the physics to propel humans at 186,000 miles per second and there is no good way to provision humans for years at a time.  Reaching Mars now is testing the limits of engineering, psychology and logistics.  And, once we get there, there is no good way to get back.  Yet, myths persist because people refuse to face reality.

Firing Back


Does it ever pay to fire back at a vocal and dissatisfied customer?  Delta Airlines is finding out.  It is in a public tiff with conservative commentator Ann Coulter who is upset that the airline gave her seat assignment away on a flight from La Guardia airport, NY to West Palm Beach, FL  Coulter was given another spot on the flight but she took to Twitter after landing and began bashing the airline.  Delta was not amused.  It refunded her $30 seat charge, but it also called for civility.  That is not what it was getting as Coulter let loose a barrage of criticism through a succession of Twitter posts.  Chances are Coulter will fly Delta again, but the airline probably would be happy if it has seen the last of her.  Who needs a disgruntled passenger anyway?

Unusual PR Challnege

2017-07-17T09:11:48.603-04:00 has an unusual PR problem.  It has become the delivery service to rural America, and when it no longer provides Prime to distant locales, it leaves them in a lurch. It seems people who live on the edge of the grid have become dependent on  Amazon because local retailers either do not provide goods they need or charge more than Amazon, even with Amazon's annual membership.  This says a lot for Amazon's near-ubiquity. has become a retailer of last resort.  But, rural users apparently have been abusing the system by ordering large amounts of bulky products.  One can't blame the company for backing off.  It seems that there is no replacement for local retailers in remote locations and for the high prices they charge.  One can't blame Amazon but the company has a reputation problem in rural districts.

Wearing Out One's Welcome


Cities around the world are turning down the opportunity to host the summer Olympics.  They have good reason to do so.  The games are over budget, hugely expensive and they leave cities with purpose-built venues they cannot use in the future.  For the short duration of the event, the expenditures are a colossal waste.  The International Olympic Committee has worn out its welcome globally.  What is needed is a succession of the games in which the programs break even or even make a little money.  The prestige of the Olympics might return and cities start competing for them again.  The IOC needs to exercise stern budget control and if the magic of the games slips a bit, so be it.