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Online Public Relations Thoughts

Daily entries on Public Relations and communications ideas and trends

Updated: 2017-12-11T16:32:41.846-05:00


Well Handled


A budding but incompetent terrorist set off a pipe bomb in a New York subway this morning.  Authorities handled the incident well and over-communicated, as they should have, the particulars of the event to ease public concern.  Only three people were hurt, apparently none seriously except the perpetrator who was burned and is in the hospital.  Fortunately, New York emergency respondents had recently rehearsed what to do in the case of a terrorist attack so they were ready.  The lesson here is that crisis handling and communication don't work well on the page.  One needs to run through everything that needs to be done from securing a scene through transporting victims, communicating to the public and collecting forensic evidence.  It won't be the last time this happens.  The next incident might  be serious.  It is good to know that New York is ready.



The greater fools are bidding up the price of Bitcoin by the hour.  It is not going to stay that high and might even be breaking as I write. Some are going to get hurt badly, but that is the outcome of all mania.  The Dutch Tulip Bulb bubble ruined thousands of investors.  Bitcoin is no different and wise Wall Streeters have been counseling people to stay away.  Yet, many are not.  They see instant riches and they crave wealth.  it is crowd psychology and there is no communication other than supportive that the audience will listen to now.  Criticism is rejected out of hand.  Anyone who isn't on board with the mania doesn't understand or is a hidebound conservative.  When the price fever does break, and "I told you so" is ringing in their ears, they still won't listen but will go on to the next surefire way to riches.  Some people are gamblers always on the hunt for the next big thing.  They rarely win.

Fake PR


The internet has made one type of fake PR easier to do.  That is putting names onto phony comments to the FCC.  The Federal Communications Commission has been deluged with opinions for and against net neutrality.  It turns out many of them were made up with names stolen from databases.  Unfortunately, one of the taken names was that of a reporter who blew the whistle on the ersatz grassroots campaign.  The result of the fake PR is that FCC commissioners can more easily ignore the public reaction to their voting.  The campaign backfired.  The problem is larger than a government agency.  It means any solicitation of public opinion is open to distortion and falsehood.  One cannot simply count comments for and against and arrive at a public sentiment.  There needs to be stricter standards for asking the public what it thinks.  



President Trump's apparent decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital isn't going down well with Israel's neighbors.  They are frothing at the mouth even though Jerusalem has been the de facto capital of the country for decades.  Trump is about to cross a line that will turn Palestinians against him since they claim Jerusalem as well.  Symbols matter to ordinary people.  Jerusalem is a symbol of heritage for Zionists and so too Palestinians, although the Jews have a longer claim.  Anywhere but the Middle East it probably wouldn't matter.  In the millennial enmities of the Arab-Israeli world, it does.  As long as the US Embassy was in Tel Aviv, the fiction of Israel's capital endured.  Once the embassy is moved to Jerusalem, the make-believe can no longer be accepted. There are other situations like this where communications gloss over reality.  Notably, there is Taiwan whom the US has never recognized because Beijing claims it as one of its provinces.  It makes no difference that Taiwan has been its own country for decades.  Diplomatic language and understandings make for odd bedfellows, but they endure when it suits the world to use them.

The Ultimate Crisis


There is, perhaps, no greater crisis in the life of a company than its CEO dying by his own hand.  Suicide leaves many unanswered questions about the executive, the executive's family life and of course, the company.  Even if the CEO leaves a note, it might not stop the fear that the company is in trouble.  The communicator and surviving executives' first duty after expressions of sorrow is to assure employees,vendors and customers that the company will continue.  If the company is in difficulty, it is time for a take-charge leader to guide the company out of it.  If it isn't, the assurances should be that the company will continue on its present course for a time.  Suicide is an extreme act.  Usually circumstances are dire to cause a CEO to take it as a way out.  It might be depression, hopelessness or frustration, but whatever the root, it leaves everyone associated with the company hanging with their own dark fears.

The Tax Bill


If the Republican tax bill irresponsibly takes from the poor and middle class and gives to the rich, as is widely reported, the party will have a major communications problem in an election year.  How do you explain to constituents that you have worked on their behalf?  It is an issue tailor-made to put Democrats back in power, especially with a wildly out of control President.  It will be interesting to see how Republicans spin  implications of the bill and what they do, if anything to clean up sections that are unintentionally hurtful.  They won't have much time given demands of campaigning, and there is a good chance Democrats will block them from making the bill better. The communications practitioners on both the House and Senate side will be working overtime trying to find messages that make a bad bill palatable.  If on the other hand, the bill is not so damaging, senators and congressmen will still have a major communications challenge to turn around the conventional belief in time to be elected.  Either way, I wouldn't want to be a Republican operative now.

One Word


Sometime words matter to a point where there is news if one uses a one or not.  This is the predicament the pope has put himself in.  Western media expected him to tell authorities in Myanmar to stop persecuting the Rohingya, but he didn't.  He instead called for general peace and reconciliation.  His critics are battering him for it.  It makes no difference that he is visiting the Muslims' refugee camps and spotlighting their dire needs.  He kowtowed to the sensitivity of Myanmar power brokers, they say.  The pope did not need to get himself into this vise.  He could have stayed away.  However, he is not one to back down in the face of poverty and distress.  He called for solutions to the migrant crisis in Europe and he led the way in spotlighting their terrible situation.  He is known for his concern for the poor.  So, he didn't use the word Rohingya.  He still got his point across, but he has taken a reputational hit for not saying it.

Handling A Crisis


This is a good case study for handling a crisis.  When brush fires bore down on the households of Keysight Technologies' employees, the company sprang into action.  It's first job was the safety and care of employees, many of whom were burned out of their homes.  The company set up care centers and systems to reach affected workers and ensure their safety.  This was in the face of incinerated land lines and cell service.  The second action was customers who were concerned they could not get technologies they had on order with the company.  Senior executives visited their offices and assured them they would get delivery on time and in full.  The third action was to forestall competitors who were swift to take advantage of the company's misery.  Keysight had to knock down rumors and outright falsehoods about its ability to service customers.  Communications was at the heart of much of what the company did.  It went all out to reach those affected and to learn what their challenges were.  Although no companies could be prepared for the scale of the disaster that Keysight encountered, they could take a lesson from how Keysight prioritized its response and moved forward.  

Mea Minima Culpa


After 11 years of court battles, denials and evasions, cigarette companies are now being forced to run ads that tell the truth about smoking.  They are not putting much effort into it.  I saw one of them recently and it referenced the government requiring that the ad be run.  It was inartfully large black type run on a plain background.  There was no hint of design nor of the marketing prowess used to sell cigarettes in the first place.  It is clear that the companies are taking minimal responsibility for their actions.  When questioned about it, one company executive said they are working to develop less risky tobacco products, barely an admission that the "coffin nails" they still sell are dangerous.  They also wrangled with the regulators to avoid showing photos of the effects of smoking.   This after paying billions to victims and states for their bad behavior in the past.  They haven't reformed, just changed their tactics.  



Amazon and Walmart are in a battle for supremacy online.  The winner will have consistently lower prices than the other and will win market share as a result.  It is a tooth and tong war with each shaving prices to upend the other. The winners will be consumers. The losers are retailers who don't have the marketing muscle of these two heavyweights.  It is hard to stay out of the way because both companies carry a broad and deep inventory of consumer goods.  Chances are virtually everything a store will sell is featured on Amazon and/or Walmart.  The only upside for the smaller retailer is that some customers like to touch goods before buying them.  The rest -- and soon the majority -- prefer the ease of shopping online and delivery of goods to their doors.  It is uncertain at this juncture who will win the battle between the two, but it is interesting to watch as it changes the retail landscape.

A Fool


A fool for a leader puts a strain on everyone who works for and is associated with him.  One is constantly covering for the boss and bending ethical guidelines to explain that he did not mean what was said or he did mean it but in a selective way or he was right in a sense.  One is left twisting mentally trying to make a wrong a right.  The consequences of stupid statements and positions is that one is forced to justify what isn't justifiable.  It is a lousy place to be in for a PR practitioner, especially when the boss gets facts wrong and persists in flogging them.  Fortunately, there aren't too many fools left in leadership positions at American corporations.  In fact, they are a rarity because they have been vetted on their way up the career ladder.  Errant missiles are usually founders of corporations who never have been reined in by their boards, but even these are getting their comeuppance, as was demonstrated at Uber.  Donald Trump is painful because he never acknowledged defeat in his business career and he never left off self-aggrandizing. He could twist any disaster into victory and expected those around him to support his position.  As President his behavior has continued and he has put the country under strain.  He is a fool who gives both business and politics a bad name.

Annual Publicity Stunt


The annual turkey pardoning at the White House is a long-time publicity stunt that has endured under Republican and Democratic Presidents.  It hangs on because it is cute and is a reminder that millions of turkeys give their lives on Thanksgiving so humans can celebrate.  Citizens line up at the White House to watch the ceremony and the media faithfully cover it.  One would think the stunt would get old and at some point a President will give it up.  That time hasn't come yet, and each year the pardoning reinforces prospects for the event in the following year.  It's an automatic renewal, as silly as it is.  It is also a reminder that the Commander-in Chief can have fun along with the rest of the country, and of course, it gives social media something to talk about.  



Macy's, according to this article, is entering a make-or-break Christmas selling season.  The store has been discounting to compete with Amazon, but it would like to reposition itself as a taste-maker, a leading-edge retailer that has gifts and clothing people want and are willing to pay full price to buy.  It's a tough road for a retailer to take.  Department stores as a class have faded in the American consumer's mind and habits.  Getting them excited to return to a store and brave crowds is a tall task.  It is too early to predict whether Macy's strategy will work.  But, once one has learned to shop online and compare goods and prices, it becomes harder to pick through racks and shelves.  Macy's is not attempting to compete with Amazon, which has everything, but to feature the one or two best products of a type and the right clothing at the proper price point.  It will take savvy buyers to pull this off and creative merchandising.  One wishes the chain good luck.  

Narrow Focus


It has always been true that the media have a narrow focus. Reporters and editors will ignore an issue then suddenly illuminate it with a deluge of stories only to drop it again after a time.  This has been a headache for media relations practitioners since the beginning of modern PR.  An example of this is the media's concentration on proposed tax reform in Congress while overlooking an even more important issue of funding the government to avoid a shutdown.  CNBC has made an issue of it but few others have.  Turning the media's attention to the funding vote will come as the deadline looms.  Meanwhile it takes a back seat.  Media relations requires a sense of timing -- knowing when to push an issue and when to let it rest.  Practitioners need to maintain close attention to the arguments of the hour in order to hook their news to them if possible.  It is a dicey business and often unsuccessful.  

Intrinsic Value


What is a painting worth?  The materials that go into one cost a few dollars.  The labor cost of the painter is gauged by demand for his work. Most do poorly or barely make a living.  But in the secondary market, long after they are gone, hype can increase a canvas' value many thousands of times.. Thus the Leonardo Da Vinci Salvator Mundi sold for $450 million.  The art world has been shaken by the extraordinary amount.  It was achieved through clever marketing by Christie, the auction house.  Will the buyer ever recover his money if he goes to resell the painting someday?  There is no way of knowing, but one should not be surprised if he doesn't.  Values rise and fall with market sentiment.  There are times not to put a work up for bid and other moments when the fever is at a new high.  There is no way to program a machine to forecast accurately what a painting might bring.  The same is true for other markets like real estate.  Value is what one is willing to pay.  Time will tell whether the buyer of the Leonardo paid too much.

Conspiracy Theory


Sean Hannity has been cited as the top conspiracy theorist on TV.  He is not one whom a PR practitioner would want to approach.  Those who see deceit under every rug are not given to sticking with facts. They have to spin them into a web of insinuation and outright falsehood.  One's client is at great risk of being caught in a warp of opinion presented as truth.  It makes no difference whether conspiracy theories come from the political right or left.  Both are bad.  The media we should approach have a respect for facts and for the most part, avoid opinion. They go where facts lead them, and if facts delineate wrongdoing, they report it.  They don't exaggerate.  They are willing to listen and to report both sides.  What should one do for a client caught in a web of conspiracy theory?  Assemble the facts and communicate them fiercely.  Fight fire with fire.  

Why Regulators Are Needed


The argument that markets should be free and unregulated has never been true.  Human behavior is not always honest.  Consider cryptocurrency.  It still is an open and wild marketplace where scams and schemes are prevalent.  For digital coinage to be of general use, it will need to be regulated and cheaters controlled. So too with every other marketplace.  That is why when companies call for free markets, they really do not intend for the them to become Darwinian and capitalist.  They want fairness and equal competition.  This government provides.  Communicators who profess to be free marketers need to be honest with themselves.  Rather than calling for less regulation, they should opt for effective rulemaking that guides behavior but doesn't squelch it. And, there should be penalties for the dishonest.  Free markets have never been free of bad operators.

Lost Reputation


When one loses his reputation, people abandon him -- even if he is on the cusp of victory.  That is the case here.  Five women have now come forward and claimed that Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate from Alabama, had molested them as teenagers.  Moore is refusing to leave the race even though Republican senators in Congress have already disavowed him.  He is a man twisting in the wind.  Even if his contention that he is the victim of "fake news" proves correct, there is little to no time for him to recover before election day.  If he should be elected, Senators have already said they will move to deny him his seat by expelling him.  If he did molest these women, that is the least he deserves. Sexual harassment has become the new social sin. There is a confluence of power and sex that many have gotten away with it until now.  More reputations will be lost in the coming months.  

The Mighty Fall


Not so many years ago, General Electric was a colossus striding the land.  Its management techniques were imitated widely.  Its former executives went on to run large companies. Now the corporation is struggling to survive, and it has lost $100 billion in market value.  The downfall was relatively swift.  After 2008, its financial arm was disassembled and largely sold off.  It was the former engine of earnings outstripping the industrial arms of the business. Now, GE looks mortal, and there is speculation it might not survive as a conglomerate.   If so, it will be an epic flameout equivalent to the demise of ITT decades ago.  It is a reminder that there is no safety in size or in balance sheet.  Market power can erode stealthily or of a sudden.  A CEO needs a healthy paranoia and to remain on alert for trouble.  Communications should retain a sense of humility and a clear recognition that what goes up can come down -- sometimes hard.

Cue The Lawyers


AT&T"s CEO has publicity stated he will fight the Justice Department if it tries to get him to spin off CNN before merging with Time Warner.  This sounds like a legal, lobbyist and PR full employment move.  AT&T needs to gain high ground in public and legal opinion and do so quickly.  Thus, President Trump's allegations of CNN producing "fake news" have already become an issue.  It is hard to say at this point who is favored to win the war, but it is unusual.  Normally, when the Justice Department indicates it is not pleased with a merger, there are negotiations and agreements to do spin-offs or the combination is called off by the two parties. AT&T wants content to flesh out its huge distribution platform.  Hence its will to fight to the bitter end.  It might be a long road.  These issues can take months if not years to settle.  

Acid Test


Waymo, the Google company, is putting its reputation on the line with the announcement that it will send out driverless vans in Arizona as an acid test of its technology. The company has been working toward this day for more than 10 years.  Now that it is here, there are still unanswered questions beyond the robustness of the technology.  Who will insure a driverless vehicle if it is in an accident or suddenly goes rogue?  Are customers ready for driverless technology or will they freak and attempt to steer the vans themselves?  Can the vans find their customers on busy streets where GPS might not be as accurate as needed?
Waymo will be confronting these challenges as well as others that have not been foreseen.  If it is able to conquer fears and to run without drivers, it will be the first in the world to have achieved it and to open a pathway to commercialization.  That's a huge step, which its competitors have yet to come near.  

Dumb PR


The Walt Disney Cos. are masters of marketing PR.  That is why this is so dumb.  No one wins when an organization tries to blackball the press. Certainly, Disney did not in this case, and it is unlikely to do so in the future.  File this one under "What were they thinking."  If the company is upset with reporting on it, it should meet directly with the reporters and editors and work out a solution. In this case, Disney was angry with the LA Times for reporting on its relationship with the city of Anaheim where Disneyland is located. See "Company Town" below.  The first rule of media relations is never to pick a public fight with the media.  It is only on the rarest occasions where someone might try to punish a reporter for gross inaccuracies. That should be done quietly with an appeal to the journalist's editors along with the accurate information that the reporter ignored.  A company has every right to set the record straight, but for its own sake, it should not shut out the media.  



The leak of a trove of papers from a law firm is revealing the extent of finagling that corporations do to avoid taxation.  Apple, it turns out, is a skilled practitioner in avoiding taxes.  It shielded hundreds of billions of dollars from its overseas accounts through domiciling on an island with 0 corporate taxation.  Apple has every right to do what it did, but it still leaves a bad taste in one's mouth.  The perception is one of a rogue corporate citizen.  There is no guarantee with the pending tax reform act that Apple will repatriate any of its mountain of cash to the US.  The money it made overseas is out of reach of the US taxman.  US citizens have a right to inveigh against such corporate sleight of hand.  It places a heavier tax burden on individuals, and it appears unfair although it is legal.  Apple's reputation may take a ding as a result of these revelations and well it should.

Company Town


When a business is the largest in a city and employs a significant number of its citizens, it becomes a company town.  Anaheim, CA is one such instance with the presence in its borders of Disneyland.  Anaheim has extended tax breaks for Disneyland in the millions and built a vast parking garage for visitors.  Now, after 50+ years, The city is starting to take a harder look at its relationship with The Walt Disney Cos. There is a growing sentiment that it ought to be paying more into city coffers, especially since the Anaheim has some significant budget shortfalls.  Disney has responded that it has done a lot for the community and will continue its open-handed ways.  There is a beginning of a stand-off.  From a PR perspective, Disney ought to be paying more, especially for the parking garage.  The company can't move its operation easily to any other place.  It needs continuing good relations with the town. At some point, Anaheim will ask too much from the company, and then, Disney will have to consider a battle with the community.  The situation doesn't appear to be at that point yet, but as long as the company can ward off a fight, the better for it and Anaheim.

Continuous Crisis


The large social media and tech firms are facing a continuous crisis with Russia meddling in US elections.  If they shut one door to interference, hackers will find another to penetrate.  Added to these problems is the role model Russia has become.  That is, if Russia can intrude, why not another country or political entity?  Google, Facebook and Twitter have a long and difficult journey ahead of them to shut off spigots of fake news and propaganda.  They can tweak their algorithms, but that will only go so far.  They can hire editors and researchers, but that is expensive.  Chances are they will settle on a solution that is a bit of both, but they will have difficulty with experts gaming their systems.  They are now in a protracted war to provide truthful information to users, and it is possible they will be hailed before House and Senate committees after the next election for the same meddling.