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Preview: Online Public Relations Thoughts

Online Public Relations Thoughts

Daily entries on Public Relations and communications ideas and trends

Updated: 2018-03-20T10:09:36.693-04:00


Another PR Crisis


Uber doesn't need any more PR crises, but it has another one.  The company's self-driving Volvo mowed down a woman in Tempe, AZ and killed her. The vehicle had an operator on standby but was driving autonomously at the time.  This sparked international news and threw a wrench into the move to driverless vehicles. The PR crisis is not only Uber's but also Waymo's and General Motors' and Ford's and every other entity working on engineering questions for self-driving vehicles.  The fundamental question is why the system didn't see her pushing her bike along the edge of the road?  Since it didn't register her, what other people and objects can it miss? Is its failure common to other systems and if so, can any of them be declared road-ready?  Authorities will be looking closely at the incident, and development of autonomous vehicles might be slowed for months, if not years.  

Sometimes It Happens


Consumer-facing businesses are always subject to a sour customer.  This is the person who rages at the staff and is unhappy no matter what one does -- like this. The workers' attempts to mollify the person go for naught.  The best one can hope is the customer leaves quickly before upsetting the rest of the people in the store.  McDonald's did the right thing by upholding its staff and calling for respect in economic transactions.  That doesn't mean it will be the case, but at least workers on the line know the company stands behind them.  It is good internal relations and too often forgotten.  Companies should remind employees that sometimes it happens and it isn't their fault.  There are angry people in the world and nothing assuages their ire.

Confronting Morality


It is time for weapon manufacturers to account for the morality of their business.  Guns in and of themselves are neutral technology but what is done with them carries responsibility. It is telling that Smith & Wesson, the builder of semiautomatic weapons used in several massacres avoided speaking with demonstrators outside its corporate offices.  The company is not ready to talk and might be hoping the issue goes away once the hubbub of the Parkland shootings subsides.  But, even if it does, that does not change the issue.  Too many of its guns are being used to murder people.  It needs better safeguards for who purchases its weaponry.  This will not be easy to do.  The company loses control over its rifles once they leave the factory and are shipped nationwide.  What S&W can do is to take a public stance on gun control and stop selling the AR-15-like rifle.  Admittedly, it would be a hit to the company's bottom line, but like restrictions on the purchase of tobacco, it needs to be done.

The Wages Of Hype


Elizabeth Holmes, the former CEO of Theranos, is earning the wages of hype.  She is paying a $500,000 fine and is barred from serving as an officer or director of a corporation for 10 years.  All this comes from overstating and lying about the efficacy of her company's product for blood testing.  She raised $700 million from investors through telling tall tales.  She deserves what she is getting and is lucky that so far, she won't be suffering jail time.  This should be a warning to publicists and PR practitioners who are tempted to bend facts to make a case.  Don't do it.  The consequences when they come are severe and one will carry a stain on reputation for the rest of a career.  I suspect Holmes did not set out to lie.  She felt pressure to perform and began to exaggerate.  The exaggeration grew until it no longer had a factual base.  She then had to lie more to show progress when her analyzers fail to perform adequately.  She felt she couldn't tell the facts because her company might collapse.  Instead, she fed the hype until the truth came out and the game was over.  Now she must bear the burden.

Sending A Message


At General Electric, you know when you haven't done well if your bonus is cut.  Imagine doing without it at all.  That is the case this year at the ailing conglomerate.  Only one of the top executives received any merit compensation.  The others are doing without.  This was a shot across the bow of GE's managers to right the ship before it sinks.  Their attention is concentrated now, and either they are working harder or they are looking for ways to get out the door.  There won't be much traction for them if they stay and manage as they have.  There is no argument any longer that Jeff Immelt left the company in a mess.  The focus now is to find a way forward even if that requires selling off divisions and shrinking the enterprise.  Can GE be great again?  Probably, but it won't look the same.



The governor of California, Jerry Brown, decided that what the high-tech state needed was a high-speed train.  So, he promotes relentlessly a proposed link between Los Angeles and San Francisco that will pass through the Central Valley.  As most boondoggles are, it was under budgeted and far too optimistic in timing.   The project is already a PR disaster. The next governor will have to decide if the state will keep funding it or will let it die a natural death.  The plan was never thought through or its boosters lied about the timing and cost at the beginning and are only now fessing up to the real numbers.  This is another feature of boondoggles.  The objective is to get shovels into the ground so a project takes on a life of its own, which is hard to stop.  Right now, the California High-speed Rail Authority is building a line to nowhere without any key links in place.  It is too early to say the project will end with the next governor, but it is on its death-bed.



Elon Musk is his own best PR practitioner.  His most recent appearance at SXSW over the weekend allowed him to talk about his vision for settling Mars.  It seems outrageous and utterly impractical, but he said he will have his Mars rocket ready by next year and he will start testing it in short flights.  He is also working on his spaceship that will be ready at the same time.  It is hard to bet against Musk.  He is the founder of Tesla and SpaceX.  His Falcon rockets are taking off regularly from earth and putting satellites in orbit.  But, colonizing Mars with a million people is a dream.  Mars is closer to Antarctica where a few dozen people winter over at the South Pole.  It has never proved practical for large-scale development.  The environment is too hostile.  Still, the man has his dream and he is willing to put his millions behind it.  One hopes he doesn't go broke pursuing it.



The news that the doors to the office of the Interior Secretary will cost $139,000 has raised concerns, especially after the HUD secretary spent $31,000 for a table.  The spokeswoman for Interior made a strong case for the replacement and emphasized that the Secretary didn't know the cost of the project.  Still, it is a matter of perception.  The expenditure seems outrageous, and therefore, in the minds of many, it is, despite a lengthy explanation for it.  This is an ongoing PR challenge to anyone working in Washington DC.  The news media are merciless in reporting what appears to be self-interest on the part of political appointees.  The Secretary of the Interior now has a flap on his hands, not of his own making, that he needs to handle.  He can cancel the project but that will harm the building.  He can let the work go ahead but restrict its budget, but that might result in a poor job.  He can let the repair proceed as is and take the heat.  There is no good outcome.



In my opinion, weather forecasters have low credibility, particularly when it comes to storms.  They tend to hype the possibilities.  The real-life situation on the ground may be, and often is, quite different.  Over the years, I've tended to ignore them and go about my work.  Yesterday proved to be an eye-opener.  The forecast was for a major nor'easter to hit the Tri-state area with six to 12 inches of snow.  I left for work in the morning and there were barely flurries.  During the day in Manhattan there was a mix of rain and snow. When I left for home and exited the train tunnel to New Jersey, there was about six inches on the ground.  By time I got home two hours later after commuting snafus, there were 18-21 inches of snow in the front yard.  The weather forecasters had called it correctly for our state.  My family was upset with me for going into Manhattan.  It turns out my credibility was shot and today, we're trapped in the house since the plows haven't come to open our road. Next time, I'll pay closer attention.  



I wrote about an MIT study of Uber and Lyft and the low income of their drivers.  It turns out the study was wrong, and its author has publicly admitted it.  He is now in the process of recalculating his work.  The two companies promptly rebutted his research because it was a PR threat to them.  Well they should have.  The problem was an ambiguous survey question.  It is difficult to write clear questionnaires and the researcher proved once again that even experts have problems.  The paper will go back to the academic mill and might be reported out in a few weeks or months.  By then its impact will be mitigated.  The lesson here is that PR challenges come from anywhere and need immediate and factual response.



United Airlines is embarrassed for what it almost did to employee bonuses.  It had proposed to take away individual rewards and to conduct a lottery in which one employee would win $100,000 each quarter and other employees would win vacations, cars and/or cash prizes.  Needless to say, the proposal didn't go down well with its workers.  They revolted and the airline put the program on hold.  The message was clear.  Don't take away my bonus.  An external observer might say the unhappiness was to be expected.  Individuals depended on the bonus and to see it turn into a game of chance was maddening.  It meant that most employees' hard work would go unrewarded.  United blundered internal relations on this one.  It was smart to pull back as quickly as it did.  

End Game


The end game for many Uber drivers is poverty.  They don't earn enough from driving to make a living.  Uber is not alone in this.  Its competitor, Lyft, has the same challenge.  This presents a PR problem for both companies.  If drivers become convinced that ferrying passengers is a mug's game, they will no longer do it.  Then where will the two services be?  Statistics show an extremely high turnover in drivers per year.  On the other hand, if fewer drivers work for both services, their average income will rise and they might make a living.  This would lend credence to limiting the number of drivers in a region to make sure they can survive.  So far, neither service has appeared to do that.  High tech is not always better.

Never Ending


Some crises never seem to go away.  They just get worse.  Such is the case of Equifax, which bungled a mammoth hack last year in which 145.5 million customers had their data stolen.  It has now confirmed that an additional 2.4 million consumers had their names and partial identifications taken.  As outrageous as this is, the knowledge that Equifax was entirely responsible for the successful hack is even worse.  The company failed to update a server and left a gaping hole in its security that thieves exploited.  It will be a long time before consumers trust the company again and that is as it should be.  Equifax was lax about protecting data, the one thing it needed to have.  It destroyed its reputation in the incident and it can't seem to recover.  One almost wishes the company would go away and let other credit reporting agencies take its place.

Good PR


The mayor of Oakland, CA warned undocumented immigrants that the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) was about to make arrests in the town.  She did it because Oakland is a self-proclaimed sanctuary city.  ICE was furious with her and said 850 targets had slipped away.  The mayor put her reputation on the line and that of Oakland  as well.  It was a courageous act and good PR -- what one does and not what one says.  Maybe the next time ICE will leave Oakland alone.  That is surely the hope of the mayor and immigrants there.  ICE is running roughshod over the lives of the undocumented and creating havoc where there doesn't need to be any.  It is good that it has had its comeuppance and perhaps the mayor's act will be emulated elsewhere in the US.

Taking The Leap


California is taking a technological leap of faith.  It is now allowing self-driving cars to go on the roads without an attendant behind the wheel.  This could be a PR/Marketing triumph or a disaster.  It depends whether the autonomous autos negotiate the roads without accidents or other run-ins.  The engineering companies, such as Waymo, have been working toward this day for years.  They are eager to start sending vehicles on the road by themselves.  One unknown in all this is the sentiment of the passengers.  Will they be tempted to seize the wheel if they get nervous?  Can they sit quietly in the passenger seat and let the car proceed as it wishes?  The issue is not so much the automated vehicle but drivers around it who weave in and out and cut off others then panic stop.  Humans are the problem, not machines.  

A Newer Technology


Telephone equipment suppliers are on the verge of a massive roll-out of 5G cellular systems, which will deliver data faster than ever to phones.  One CEO is estimating 5 billion 5G subscriptions worldwide by 2023.  It is not too early for marketers and PR practitioners to begin to strategize how to use the increased speed to advantage.  It might take some creative thinking but those who arrive first with the most effective ways to use content will be the winners.  One thought is that it will be useful for individual targeting.  A person passing by a retailer's store will receive an instant message to drop in for special savings.  This can be done now but it will be faster with 5G.  It will take time to create services that can take advantage of faster speeds.  There is no profit in waiting.

Words Matter


The US Citizen and Immigration Service has changed its mission statement.  It has eliminated reference to immigrants being customers and it now stresses protection of America.  Words matter.  It is clear that the agency has pushed the immigrant to the background while focusing on security.  There wasn't anything wrong with the old mission statement other than it was too long, as the present one is as well.  Making immigrants secondary to security and preservation of American values implies that migrants infect rather than build our society.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  One hopes that once Trump is out of office and nativist leanings are reined in that the Service can return to its original spirit and recognize once again a nation of immigrants.

Best Defense


There is an old saying, "The best defense is a good offense."  The National Rifle Association apparently believes it and is striking back hard at gun control advocates.  Wayne LaPierre, the face of the NRA, delivered a forceful speech in defense of the Second Amendment and the right to own guns.  He trotted out the old trope, "The best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."  He called for hardening schools by arming guards and teachers.  He gave not an inch.  There is a feeling, however, that this time might be different.  Even the President is calling for outlawing Bump Stocks, which turn a semi-automatic into a machine gun.  At least four governors have agreed to work together to increase control over flows of weapons to their states.  If the Federal Government will do nothing, states might have to move for themselves.  Expert opinion believes it will be a long, slow slog to gain a more effective grip on stopping arms reaching mass murderers, and the NRA  isn't about to help.

In The Pit


A politician must feel comfortable about his re-election to speak before a hostile audience.  Senator Marco Rubio of Florida endured a town hall during which he was booed and lectured by angry participants.  It was a PR disaster for him, especially since he upheld his support for the National Rifle Association and would not agree to a ban on assault weapons.  Time will tell if it erodes his support in Florida.  One wonders why a pol would willingly go into the pit at a time of heightened emotions and furious anger.  If he thought he would gain from doing so, his judgment is suspect.  If he was there out of concern for the public, then sticking to his positions showed he wasn't listening. Either way, he lost the audience and probably many observers as well.  The Democrats need a credible candidate in Florida for Senator, and Rubio could see his political career at an end.

PR/Marketing Problem


Kentucky Fried Chicken has run out of chicken in the UK.  It has had to close 2/3 of its 900 restaurants in the country because of the shortage.  The chain is making light of it but the situation is serious.  There is no faster way to lose customers for the long-term.  Once they get out of the habit of going to a KFC because it isn't open, they won't come back easily.  The real question for the company is how the logistics failure occurred.  It is more than a simple mistake.  Somehow their suppliers weren't communicating to the company.  KFC will fix the gaffe but the ongoing problem is what needs to be addressed.  It shouldn't happen again for any reason. 



Not Invented Here is a frequent slam used by entities facing unpleasant competition. They cannot take seriously a product or service, which they did not discover and develop.  NASA is facing the NIH syndrome with SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket.  Rather than welcoming the new propulsion system, NASA is doubling down on its Space Launch System, which will cost more to build and fire off than SpaceX's machine.  It seems the agency is living in the past and unable to accept that a commercial entity has beaten it to the finish line with a better and cheaper product.  The Falcon Heavy will now go about its business of launching satellites and retrieving boosters for reconditioning and reuse.  Meanwhile, Boeing, which is building the SLS, has much to prove that its giant candle will actually be better than the Falcon Heavy, which is here and working today.  SpaceX has won the PR war and NASA is scrambling to catch up.

Can We Learn?


The NRA is once again defending ownership of guns while relatives prepare to bury 17 murdered students and teachers. An unanswered question is: "Can we learn from other countries what to do?"  Notably, Australia.  The Land Down Under banned rapid fire firearms in 1996 after a fatal mass shooting in Tasmania. It hasn't had a fatal mass shooting in which five or more people have died since then.There is no good reason for semi-automatic weapons in the hands of civilians. They fire with each pull of the trigger without needing to reload because they have a magazine of bullets.  Even though they are the most popular long gun sold in America, they deserve to be banned as Australia has done.  One can remain secure, have fun on a rifle range and still hunt with breech-loading weapons.  The NRA's publicity has gone too far for too long.

Tough Sledding


If you are Huawei, how do you persuade the US government to use your telecommunications equipment?  The FBI, NSA and CIA have all cautioned Americans not to use its phones because of a chance of espionage.  Huawei is successful throughout the world but not in America because of security fears.  It has tried time and again to rebut charges that the Chinese government can use its equipment for intelligence gathering.  So far, nothing has worked.  The company is in a PR black hole from which it seemingly cannot get out.  Persuasion for Huawei starts with the government.  If it can't convince the intelligence agencies that it does not work for the Chinese government, then there is no place else to go.  America's cellular companies aren't about to work with it and risk the wrath of the Feds.  It's a tough position to be in and one for which there are few answers.

He Knows


If there is one tech leader who knows about corporate hubris, it is Bill Gates.  Microsoft battled with the Federal Government for years over its monopolistic approach to marketing.  That is why his warning to the tech community should be taken seriously.  He sees companies on direct paths to regulation if they don't control themselves.  He tells companies they have to cooperate with the government more than they are doing.   He cautions that tech leaders should not hold to their views over that of the Feds.  Gates skated around the Free Speech argument some companies are making.   Regulators will transgress the First Amendment when they feel justified to do so, and tech giants should resist when that happens, but otherwise, Gates words should be taken to heart in Silicon Valley. 

10 years?


The CEO of The New York Times is predicting that the print version of the paper has only 10 years before it is gone.  That may be optimistic.  Older technologies have a way of hanging on long after their expiration date.  Still, it is a surprising statement that paper might not be around that much longer.  The Times has a thriving digital presence, and it is pouring resources into it to improve it constantly.  In 10 years time, it is likely the web site will be driving all of the news, culture and arts reporting. What the Times' needs is advertising on the web site that supplants the full-page spreads in the paper.  I, for one, am not ready for the day the paper edition goes away, but I'll adjust when it comes, if it does.