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Online Public Relations Thoughts

Daily entries on Public Relations and communications ideas and trends

Updated: 2017-04-27T08:35:15.509-04:00


A PR Test


Google's Waymo is finally offering test rides in a real world environment -- Phoenix, AZ.  It is taking applications from citizens now for travel in its self-driving vans (that will still have an attendant sitting by the steering wheel.)  The experiment is both a final step before the technology hits the road for everyday  use and a PR exercise to demonstrate the validity of the system.  If there is any one company that deserves to be successful in its endeavor to invent the future, Google would seem to be it.  The company has put three million miles into test driving its technology and thus far, it has passed every goal with few hiccups.  Other companies are in hot pursuit of the same objective as Google so Waymo dare not stand still.  With 600 minivans on the roads of the Valley of the Sun, millions will get the chance to see self-driving vehicles and more importantly, drive along side them..  

Wages Of Failure


CEOs have a PR problem and it stems from their compensation. Even if they fail in their jobs, they are rewarded, sometimes excessively.  Consider these wages of failure.  For being unable to turn a company around, the CEO walks away with $186 million.  Compensation consultants will argue that the amount includes her stock holdings, but how did she own so much equity?  The board endowed her with huge holdings on the premise that she would make good and save the company.  Instead, she sold it for a tidy amount.  There are reasons why average citizens are cynical when it comes to executive pay.  It seems to be a heads-I-win, tails-I-win game.  Boards have been struggling with the compensation issue for decades and they seem no nearer to a solution.  In defense of Yahoo's CEO, one can state that shareholders were served by the sale and that is all that matters.  Is it though?

Cute Science Publicity


This is a cute event -- racing nano-vehicles under the gaze of a scanning tunneling microscope.  Who says science can't be fun and educational?  The molecular "cars" will be pushed along a gold track by pulses of electricity and eventually, one molecule will win.  That the size of the things is less than one thousandth of the width of a human hair and the chamber for the race has to be cooled to -450 degrees fahrenheit only makes the contest more interesting.  What is amazing is that humans can build machines at an atomic scale that actually work.  There is no known practical use for them yet, but it is early in their development.  This publicity event is designed to make the work better known -- and have fun in the process.  I'm sure there will be betting on the outcome.  

What People Don't See


It has been a long-standing truism that what people don't see, they don't care about.  That is especially true of most of the features of first-world culture.  One of those is the cell phone that comes from mammoth factories in China where workers are treated like mindless robots.  One can only imagine the boredom of the worker who puts in one screw in hundreds of cell phones daily while bosses shout at them to move faster.  It would justify a strike in the US, which is one reason why those factories aren't here.  Adding to the demeaning labor is the small wage factory workers receive.  The average citizen goes to the store, buys a phone and gives not the least thought to the human machinery behind it.  Yet if he did, would he be any less motivated to own one?  We assume others are there to answer our beck and call.  We get upset only when an item is not available.  Then we ask why.

With Press Like This...


No one wants a review like this one.  The reporter goes out of her way to reach for the most toxic terms she can find to damn Starbucks' Unicorn Frappuccino.  There is nothing PR can do in a case like this.  It is hunker and let it pass.  Starbucks' revenge will be to sell out of the product before it takes it off the market, since it is only a short-time offering.  There is something titillating about reviews like this.  One continues to read to see what she will say next.  And, say she does.  The company is cut down in every possible way for daring to offer a drink "made with 'rainbows.'"  If other reviews are as bad as this one, Starbucks might think twice before it attempts another sugar-filled drink.

Can't Shoot Straight


After the dramatic White House announcement that the US was sending a carrier to the coast of North Korea, we learned that the Carl Vinson was steaming off Australia, thousands of miles from its supposed destination.  This was apparently not the Trump Administration's fault.  There were bungles in the military chain of command.  Still it gives Trump and his advisors a reputation of a gang who can't shoot straight.  Another administration might live down the embarrassment but there have been so many gaffes already in the Trump White House that this adds to a perception of chaos and ineffectiveness.  It is hard to break the string of missteps once the media gets used to reporting them.  The White House can protest that it is being treated unfairly, but it will do little good.  The only solution is to get the news right from now on.  

Kick 'em


One tradition in the media is regrettable, and that is the habit of tarring individuals after they have experienced a loss.  Here is an example.  Hillary Clinton lost the election, and now a book proclaims it was all her fault.  There might have been culpability on her part, but did the authors need to kick her while she is down?  It is a destructive approach to reporting and only partly true.  Would the reporters have written the same book had she won?  Individuals and organizations have to steel themselves for Monday quarterbacking once they have experienced a major loss or failure.  People want to know what happened. The temptation to heighten the drama by reporting the worst aspects of the situation is too much for some journalists.  They stoop to the juiciest details and fail to maintain a balance.  There isn't much an individual or organization can do but to ride it out and try to rebuild one's reputation later.

A PR Failure


It turns out that against all advice and counsel a huge percentage of people use their cell phones while driving.  Despite warnings against distracted driving, they continue to dial and chat.  The urge to communicate has overpowered common sense even among those who know better.  This is a PR challenge of major proportions.  It is akin to the campaign to stop people from smoking.  So far, the campaign has been a failure.  Even laws on the books have not been enough to stop drivers from punching buttons.  What will it take to stop this habit?  Constant messaging is not enough.  Education has not been sufficient.  A multitude of voices delivering the message has not worked.  The urge to communicate is more powerful than PR methods being used.  One possibility is to declare failure and to live with the outcome, but more than 3,000 lives are lost a year due to distracted driving and using one's mobile phone frequently means both hands are off the wheel for a time.  A second possibility is to amplify the warnings so one can't avoid the message, especially while driving.  This will cost more.  A third possibility is to keep hammering away at the present level. although this hasn't worked to date.  There might be no good answer, but giving up is not an option that anyone wants to take at the moment.

Killing Credibility


Some of the toughest PR problems occur when a company has not been transparent.  Consider this case.  St. Jude Medical did not reveal that battery failures affected some of its defibrillators and had caused at least one death.  The company hid the fact from its medical advisory board and from medical management as well.  St. Jude did eventually recall the device, but the Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter as a result.  There is no good defense in a situation like this.  The company can't say it didn't know.  It did.  It can't say no one was hurt.  One patient died and others were affected. It can't even blame the battery maker who accepted that batteries were a problem.  Perhaps it is a good thing that St. Jude was bought out by Abbott Laboratories.  Abbott has inherited the problem but is handling it better than St. Jude.  About the only thing PR can say in situations like this is "I'm sorry, and it won't happen again."  Meanwhile, tort lawyers hover.



Give Burger King points for a clever way to promote its Whopper hamburger sandwich.  As you can see, BK employs Google to explain the make-up of its product.  Google is not amused and has put a stop to it, but the publicity value for BK far exceeds the initial reach for the ad.  It is an ingenious method to exploit multiple media in order to get a message across.  Look for others to follow BK's example.  

Smart PR


One amenity the homeless lack is a place to clean clothes.  Anyone who stands near a homeless person on the subway can attest to that.  The pope also understands the issue and did something practical about it.  He opened a free laundromat for the homeless of Rome.  It seems a small gesture but it means a lot to those living on the streets.  They now have a place where they can spiff their clothes and feel like an ordinary person again.  Smart PR engages in practical solutions like this.  It is not just words and persuasion but deeds.  This pope is action-oriented, and he uses his own example to motivate Catholics around the world.  It is visible leadership setting achievable goals for others to follow. 

Story Stock


Sometimes a stock with a good story will be valued more highly than traditional competitors.  Consider Tesla.  Investors have pushed its worth higher than Ford and nearly the equal of General Motors.  Yet, Tesla lost $674 million last year while GM made $9.4 billion.  PR practitioners should be skeptical of such enthusiasm for a company.  Fundamentals still apply.  A business that can't make money consistently is headed for a fall.  Eventually reason returns and investors realize the the "king has no clothes."  Only a few companies have been able to grow with marginal earnings and investor support.  Think, which deliberately took losses for years as it built out its distribution system.  Amazon, however, had and has strong sales.  Tesla is still proving it can turn out autos efficiently.  Let Tesla show the least weakness, and it will plunge in value.  Elon Musk is balancing on a needle point.

PR Disaster


By now, if you haven't seen this video and story, you don't pay attention to news.  It is a PR disaster of United Airlines' own making.  The first error was overbooking the flight. The second was forcibly removing a passenger from the plane in front of passengers' cameras.  The third was dragging the passenger down the floor.  United's CEO was apologetic but it is going to take a lot more than words to wipe the video from people's minds.  This comes under the heading of "what were they thinking."  Surely there had to be a better way.  Putting the passenger in a transport chair.  Carrying the passenger off the plane.  The employee who did the dragging was imposing his will on the passenger and not thinking about the consequences.  At the very least, the employee needs training and for that matter, all of United's gate agents and security need rules and equipment to prevent this from happening again.  

Good PR


This is good PR while at the same time a rebuke to the Trump administration.  The key, of course, is not just the sign but acceptance of foreigners when they arrive.  The xenophobia demonstrated by the government is not the way the country was built in spite of past exclusion laws.  We know what Hispanics bring to the country.  They have added food, culture and hard work to the American mix.  We might not understand yet what Arabs and Muslims will bring but if we deign to look, we can surmise what a large population would add to our neighborhoods.  If history remains true, each new ethnic group has given more to the United States than it has taken from the government and its citizens.  These signs are testimony to that fact and are more accurate than the administration's attitude.



This kind of speculation needs to be shot down quickly.  Left unchallenged, it is damaging to the company and its customers.  The reporter used slim pretexts for a thesis that Apple is a company divided against itself.  There was a name for this when the Soviets controlled Russia and were silent about their internal dealings -- Kremlinology.  It is the same kind of guessing used today for North Korea.  Apple has never been transparent when it comes to product plans, so reporters and analysts resort to opinion.  That their personal beliefs might not be accurate is beside the point.  They write anyway.  Apple's public relations department should be on guard for this kind of story and ready to disabuse the commentator.  But then, if Apple chooses not to reveal its developments, the PR department is ham-strung and unable to act with any kind of credibility.  It's a difficult position to be in.  

Medicine Men


In the 19th and early 20th Century, medicine men selling potions made their rounds of large towns and small.  It made no matter to them that their cures were fake as long as a gullible public would buy.  That same fraud and naive public continue to exist today in the supplement industry.  There are good manufacturers and distributors of supplements that actually work, but along side of them are shysters who put anything in a bottle, make extravagant claims and reap sales from those who hope more than they think.  The government doesn't regulate the field and insist on blind studies as it does for the pharmaceutical industry.  Hence, anyone can get away with just about anything.  It makes for poor PR for the supplement industry, and it demonstrates that the business is incapable of regulating itself.  What is needed is much-dreaded government oversight of the business.  It is safe to say many supplements marketed today wouldn't pass a test for efficacy.  They are no more than hope in a bottle.

PR And Typefaces


How do you invent a typeface that looks the same in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, English, Cyrillic and Greek?  Google and Adobe have done it with the help of a number of type foundries.  What's more, the developers have open-sourced the typeface for others to use.  That means multi-lingual web pages can look like they are in the same family without the jarring mishmash of fonts that were needed until today.  It might not seem like a big deal but it is important in relating to one's audiences that one use fonts that are familiar to the reader.  The detail that the designers navigated was extraordinary, but they worked it out patiently. The result, Noto Serif CJK, is destined to become as common as Arial or Helvetica.  It might seem odd that PR can encompass such small detail but it does.



The Los Angeles Times has torn into President Trump for Trump's habit of lying.  The editorial is devastating and one wonders how anyone could recover from its words.  Trump probably won't worry about it.  He doesn't care.  The editorial posits that Trump lies so frequently he hasn't a grasp on what is the truth.  If one lie doesn't work for him to reach his constituency, he lies again to regain his stature with those lost in anger and conspiracy theories.  It is sad to have the nation's leader disregard facts.  There is no PR solution for such behavior.  First of all, PR is built on accuracy and lying is antithetical to its core.  PR is persuasion based on facts and what an individual or organization has done.  For Trump, the practical effect of his lying is to impeach his character and to cause loss of control of his agenda.  Already in light of his failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, naysayers are predicting doom for his effort in tax reform.  If the US is fortunate, Trump will be a one-term president and maybe, we will get a new president who has respect for the truth.

Proof Of Performance


It is easy to talk about difficult feats.  Doing them is proof of performance and at the core of public relations.  This is an example of walking the talk.  Never before has a company or space agency flown a second-hand booster into space and then recovered it for use again.  It promises to slash the cost of launches to millions of dollars from tens of millions.  Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, has a right to crow about the performance of his rocket.  It is not hype if one can do it, and he has.  Musk predicts that it will change the industry, but it is a little too early to know if that is true.  Other companies will have to adopt the same philosophy for their boosters and master the mechanics of flying a spent rocket to a location then setting it down gently.  Still, Musk is close to cornering the commercial market with his better and cheaper way of handling launches, and he deserves the revenues he will reap.

Space War


Among scientists there is a war of ideas.  Should man return and colonize the moon or reach for astronauts on Mars?  There are arguments for both sides and it has become a PR battle -- who can be the most persuasive to target audiences.  In this case the message recipients are Congress and the White House, both of whom would have to appropriate the billions to get either job done.  The scientific community isn't helping itself by its division.  What is needed is a concerted and unified effort to get government to move.  Arguments for the moon are that we have been there although it was 50 years ago and the technology exists to return -- this time to stay.  Arguments for Mars are that it is a living planet although unfit for human habitation.  Science on Mars promises greater rewards than science on the moon.  While the scientific community debates, years pass and nothing gets done.  Man is stuck in low earth orbit in the international space station.

Cool Toys


NASA has a built-in publicity advantage over other government agencies or commercial businesses.  It has the cool toys every journalist wants to play with.  The systems and training devices the space agency has developed for its astronauts are fun to experience, and reporters line up for a chance to try them out.  NASA is only too willing to oblige their requests.  These then become positive stories that naturally promote the idea of space travel and NASA's role in it.  Credit NASA for knowing how to use its machinery to good effect.  The agency has had dark moments in past years with astronauts dying from fire, explosions and disintegration of space vehicles, but it is hard to remember that when one is playing with the training equipment.  

More Bad News


Wells Fargo Bank can't escape a cycle of bad news.  It was hit again by regulators for discriminatory community lending.   The bank's reputation had already taken a blow for its mortgage lending practices and for unauthorized customer account origination.  One wonders how many more strikes against it the bank can endure.  It is hard to believe Wells Fargo is so badly run.  It sailed through 2008 when other large lenders were humbled.  It was looked upon as a conservative and savvy institution.  Then bad news began slamming the bank and it hasn't ceased.  One wonders what the morale of its employees must be.  The familiar red stage coach and horses of its brand have become a mockery.  Wells Fargo executives have a tall order to turn the bank's reputation around.  It will take years, but it can be done, and it needs to start with better controls

PR And Online Retailing


This fast-growing internet store has discovered a secret to online retailing -- deep customer involvement.  It goes beyond feedback and ratings in and rewards customers for participation. The site has online contests, comments on items the company is considering selling and online photos of customers with the distinctive company bag in hand.  The site makes shopping fun and personal and as a result has reached $30 million in revenue in three years.  A lesson for PR practitioners is to let the public have a say.  Yes, that opens a site to trolls as well as customers, but input should be curated.  Most web sites today are little more than brochures that get updated occasionally.  For some companies that have no b-to-c involvement that might be OK, but for consumer-facing businesses, it is missing an opportunity to build closer relationships.  

Fighting Propaganda


Little Estonia is giving a lesson to the world on how to fight propaganda.-- fake news coming from Russia.  The country quickly checks Russian news stories then debunks them if they are untrue.  Estonia's media will not interview Russian politicos because they know that a story is already written.  The country maintains vigilance and acts fast.  The same ought to be true with fake news in the US and Europe.  The longer it survives in the marketplace unchallenged, the greater damage it can do.  People start to believe stories if they see them coming from two or three sources or if they see support in the form of "likes", even though the "likes" are from robo software.  Educational institutions are trying to combat propaganda by training students to be skeptical of news they read, but that only goes half-way.  The rest of the lesson is vigorous exposure to facts -- transparency, as Estonia is doing.

Science Crisis


There is a PR crisis in science.  It has to do with publishing.  There is now an abundance of fraudulent science journals on the market.  They are pay-to-play, charging scientists for getting their papers printed.  They are not peer-reviewed.  They have no credibility to the knowledgeable, and they are a trap for the less aware.  Scientists caught in the publish-or-perish cycle are using them to buff their resumes, and there is no way to know whether their data has been vetted.  There is a reason for examination of one's experiments by other scientists.  Science is hard, and there are many ways for experiments to go wrong.  There are also unscrupulous scientists who make up experiments and invent data solely for the purpose of getting published.  The cure for phony journals is transparency.  The scientific community should unmask them and expose them to ridicule.  Papers published in them should be discounted, and authors put on notice.  There is no excuse for letting this kind of dishonesty continue.