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Online Public Relations Thoughts

Daily entries on Public Relations and communications ideas and trends

Updated: 2016-12-09T07:54:34.764-05:00


Abusing Customers


Airlines today are in a curious marketing position.  They are seeing how far they can abuse their customers and get away with it.  How else can one explain United Airline's decision to charge for overhead bin space on its planes?  Flying has become an exercise in discomfort unless one is willing to pony up extra dollars for leg room, for example.  Having flown United recently, I can testify to the absurdly cramped spaces that the airline packs people into.  Anything to increase revenue.  This is opening an opportunity for other airlines to steal traffic from the majors through providing a better flight experience.  Several have tried and failed to date, but that doesn't mean it is impossible.  The major carriers are alienating their customers and acting as if they are the only option available.  That is bad PR and sooner or later, it will haunt them.

Curious Metric


The "Waffle House Index" is a curious metric of hurricane severity.  Waffle House is a chain of restaurants in the southeastern section of the US that stays open 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.  Its executives gauge the severity of storms before landfall and announce which ones will close for the duration, if any at all.  Disaster responders have used this as one indication of the damaging nature of a coming storm.  The media picked up on it and the Waffle House Index has become part of storm reporting.  It is testimony to the planning and logistics of the Waffle House managers that its restaurants can stay open during all but the worst storms.  As such, it is a PR coup for the company and its goal to remain open at all times.  

Bold PR


Google has announced that in 2017 100 percent of its power needs will come from renewable  sources -- wind and solar.  That might not seem to be much but the size of the commitment comes into focus when one reads that Google is purchasing 2.6 gigawatts of power a year.  That's enough to keep a good-sized city running, and it is more than some US utilities produce annually.  Google far outdistances any other user of renewable energy.  The company's action is an example of bold PR.  It believes in global warming and it is determined to do something about it.  What could be better than to run its gigantic servers on wind and solar.  Google is featured often in this blog because it pursues a range of break-through PR activities that serve society.  It is a role model for corporations.



We have entered a time when politicians lie without being condemned.  It is an era of post-truth.  For many reasons, PR practitioners should be concerned and frightened.  We depend on accuracy to maintain credibility, but when others prevaricate without being called for it, it puts us in jeopardy.  The truth might not be as forceful or colorful as spin and standing by facts might make one look foolhardy.  It takes courage to maintain a scrupulous hold on evidence.  The temptation is to lie and join the crowd.  Doing that makes us instantly of no use to the media nor to other stakeholders.  We become part of the fog that distorts debate over issues.  We are communicators without morals adding to noise levels but not serving as guides to the facts.  Let politicians perjure themselves.  Eventually, their lies will catch up to them.  We should continue to stand by facts come what may.

Cooperation And Crime


It took four years and the cooperation of dozens of law enforcement agencies to bring down an international computer crime ring.  The malefactors had victimized people in 180 countries and reaped hundreds of millions of dollars by one estimate.  This take-down has a lesson in it for the legal community and that is the need to work together, the need for proper relations among agencies to focus on crime and eschew backbiting and bureaucratic infighting.  It is not a matter of who gets the credit for bringing down computer crime.  It is whether it is done or not and people are protected.  With so many agencies involved, there was inevitably miscommunication and misdirection in the process of tracking down the thieves.  International authorities will get better over time as they concentrate on disrupting botnets but not if they stress local concerns over world-wide fraud.  Cooperation requires a world-view, exactly the opposite of the populism and nationalism sweeping western countries.

PR And Earthquakes


Oil exploration companies have pumped wastewater into deep wells in order to dispose of it.  This has caused earthquakes in states like Oklahoma and Kansas.  The tremors were not large but they were frequent and they did damage to buildings.  Once Oklahoma and Kansas put regulations on wastewater disposal, the quakes began to drop.  While correlation is not causation, the link between regulations and declining tremors is too large to ignore.  This is why exploration companies should show good PR and find other ways to get rid of oil/gas well water.  It won't be easy, but it is necessary.  Continuation of earthquakes could easily put the energy companies out of business in both states.  Citizens won't stand for continuous rattling of their houses, wall and foundation cracks and brick falls. A new and safe method of wastewater disposal would be a PR coup for the company that comes up with it.  

To Mars, To Mars


NASA and rocket vendors like SpaceX are beating publicity drums for travel to Mars.  Never mind colonizing the moon.  What America needs is an 18-month round trip to the red planet.  The problem with the hype is that it ignores mental and physical challenges, such as astronauts losing vision during extended periods in space.  The lack of gravity and exposure to electromagnetic rays do bad things to the body.  NASA knows this but assumes it will be an engineering challenge to be overcome.  Another issue is cost.  It will take tens of billions of dollars to build a rocket, a capsule and deep space propulsion.  Then it will take millions more to design and build suits suitable for excursions on Mars.  Finally, NASA will have to figure out how to keep astronauts healthy physically and mentally.  In light of these challenges one wonders why NASA isn't satisfied with the current robotic program that is examining Mars.  Deep space is meant for machines that can go where humans can't. Hype doesn't change physical facts.

Out Of Favor


Cold fusion is the laughingstock of the scientific world.  Researchers who pursue studies into the mystery need strong hides to deflect criticism.  Yet, some continue because there is something that causes excess heat to be created in electrolysis.  Why do scientists risk their careers by pursuing such an out-of-favor technology?  Some think they are delusional and see what isn't there. Others are dispatched as charlatans like those who propose so-called perpetual motion machines.  I've witnessed  this kind of science.  Years ago, I was introduced to a researcher who believed nickel was the future of fuel cells.  He would brook no opposition to his thinking or questions for that matter.  The fellow was an established scientist who had convinced himself of the validity of his approach.  Thus far, his view has not gained universal favor and his company continues to putter.  Nickel-based fuel cells do work, but the technology hasn't broken through.  Cold fusion is steps below the nickel fuel cell.  Anyone attempting to do PR for Cold fusion is instantly branded as a crackpot, and perhaps, that is as it should be until there is hard evidence backed by theory for the process.

Smart PR


This is both smart PR and smart publicity.  Domino's Pizza is using reindeer and sleighs in Japan when the snow is too deep for other types of delivery.  It is smart PR because the company has figured out how to serve customers during adverse weather.  It is smart publicity because the idea has sparked reporting and stories worldwide.  One wonders if the idea can be replicated elsewhere and off hand, it seems possible in Northern Europe.  The challenge of the idea is getting the reindeer to cooperate.  How does one steer a reindeer and get it to stop?  



Lies like this are sad, and it is hard to take them from the President-elect.  Trump is a PR practitioners nightmare.  Using lies to make a point is not what PR does.  It bases persuasion on facts rather than falsehoods.  There is little worse in PR than an untruth because the media will inevitably discover it and will attack the individual or organization that has promulgated it.  It is fatal to correct inaccuracies by spreading more.  The result is a lack of credibility for the message sender that renders him useless to PR. There are only three rules to the PR business - accuracy, client service and deadlines.  Accuracy is essential because the media believe we lie, and  we need to guard our credibility at all times.  Client service is of two kinds -- service to the paying client and service to the media that needs correct information.  Deadlines are essential to meet the demand for accurate information in a timely fashion.  Trump has failed on two out of three of these rules.  He is timely but he lies and has no credibility with the media.  

Fake News And PR


This news story shows that anyone can be a victim of fake news circulating the internet.  PR practitioners should be concerned.  What they need is comprehensive monitoring of both legitimate and fake news sites.  Much of this can be done through search engines, but the goal is to stop fake news before it goes viral.  Once it transports to the larger internet, there is little one can do to block it.  Like a weed, it is best to uproot it before it propagates.  There isn't much that victims of fake news can do other than to sue, but that costs money and time and a business has to keep running to pay for litigation.  Corporate targets can strike back, and should.  It is unlikely that a progenitor of fake news has resources to pay a judgement against him, but the publicity will help alleviate the fraud.  The First Amendment doesn't protect deliberate lies.

Media Bias


The media are biased against president-elect Trump.  They don't like him and the feeling is mutual. This is affecting their reporting about him, especially when it comes to the transition.  There have been stories that the transition team is in disarray and unable to announce cabinet picks on time.  A look at history shows this to be false.  Trump brought this kind of reporting onto himself with his ongoing attacks on journalists.  He has motivated them to look for mistakes, whether true or not.  This has created a pattern for the next four years.  The media will hunt for peccadillos and blow them out of proportion in a game of gotcha.  Had Trump shown the least sympathy and understanding of how the press works, they might have cut him some slack.  Since he hasn't, it is open warfare.  Pity his press secretary.   

Global Warming


Those who would deny global warming need to explain facts like these.  How is it that the Northern arctic and pole are running 36 degrees above normal?  One can indulge in spin to push away the reality for a time, but hard truths keep returning.  Eventually, the public will accept facts and spinmeisters are abandoned. We saw this turn happen with smoking.  The tobacco industry sowed fear, uncertainty and doubt for decades until the hard fact that smoking can cause cancer was accepted by most citizens. Then government turned against tobacco and the industry has had a hard road since.  Global warming is a broader issue and will take more time but the evidence of a public shift is there, politicians notwithstanding.  The next administration will deny global warming and will take restraints off the coal industry.  Look for intense criticism when that happens and not just from environmental advocates.



An aspect of public relations for Miami Beach is white sand.  The problem is the sand is disappearing as rising seas erode the beach.  Without dredging, Miami Beach won't have one and sucking up sands offshore to sluice to the beach is a temporary fix at best.  The town isn't the only place having this problem.  Up and down the coastlines of America the challenge is the same.  Those living at the shore are faced with beach erosion and potential flooding from storm systems, and it will only get worse as the century progresses.  Eventually, people will have to abandon stretches of coastline or build seawalls that will cut off ocean access.  There is no good solution.  Global warming has progressed to the point where stopping the ice melt in the arctic and antarctic is probably impossible for decades to come.  There is no one to blame but ourselves, but millions don't see it that way.  They depend on the Army Corp of Engineers to replace missing sand with dredged material and they continue to live in denial.  The outcome will not be good.



The media were upset that president-elect Trump went out for a steak dinner without telling them.  Now they are worried and complaining about press access in the new administration.  As much as I defend the media, this situation strikes me as whining.  There is no need for reporters to hover over every minute of a president's day, and if a president wishes to have time for himself, then let it be.  There is concern that Trump will stiff-arm reporters during his tenure, and that is quite possible.  He has made no effort to cultivate journalists, and he has made attacking them a sport.  Hence, the elevated sensitivity to the man and his actions.  It will be interesting to see whether Trump attempts to mend his negative relationship with the media.  Both sides have flung abuse at each other, and it is no secret that reporters can't stand him.  Given that, Trump might attempt to end-run journalists using social media tools -- Twitter especially.  If he does, it would open a new era in communications.

Polling and PR


If the most sophisticated pollsters missed a key group of citizens in the election, how can PR practitioners remain comfortable using surveys to drive and assess their work?  The fact is that most polling has been and will continue to be broken.  The problem is with getting a universal sample.  Phone and online polling both lack representative samples and are largely junk.  Pollsters can no longer depend on home phone numbers for reaching the populace.  Most people are on cell phones.  Online polling is inherently biased toward those who take the time to fill out questionnaires.  While the author of the article expresses optimism that polling companies will figure out how to tap into universal samples, the last three elections have shown that polling has gone awry and no one has found a way yet to fix the problem.  Right now, surveys are caveat emptor. 



PR has a challenge if it wishes to take it on -- apathy when it comes to voting.  Tens of millions of Americans didn't bother to vote in the most recent election.  Most had reasons for staying away from the polls but whatever the excuse, it is hardly good enough.  What is a democracy when citizens neglect it?  Apathy is not new.  Elections have suffered for the lack of participation for decades.  One can only assume those who fail to vote are satisfied with the way things are and have no interest in the future of the country as long as they are left alone.  Candidates strive to overcome lack of participation with GOTV operations, but that still isn't enough to dent the ennui of the apathetic citizen.  How could PR help?  By structuring communications and machinery to reach these citizens and convince them their vote counts.  Many won't listen but some will and perhaps in the next general election the vote tally will be higher.



How potent are protests to those who aren't listening?  Such is the predicament of crowds demonstrating against Trump's election to the presidency.  They are five days into their rage against the poll results, and Trump has paid them little, if any, attention.  He called them professional protesters.  It will be interesting to see if the demonstrations continue or whether they peter out as people adjust to the president-elect and his style.  Trump and his family were on 60 Minutes last night answering questions from Lesley Stahl, and for the most part, Trump handled himself well and reasonably.  It is not a side of him we are used to seeing.  If he backslides into his vicious campaign rhetoric, demonstrations might take on real meaning to Congress and his opponents there, and he will get nothing done.  People voted for him because they are tired of seeing inaction in Washington.  Trump promised change, and voters will hold him to it.  

PR And The News


Facebook has a problem with fake news.  False stories keep appearing on its web site news and Trend feeds.  Since a majority of Americans now get their news from social media, there is a premium on authenticity.  Facebook understands its PR problem but it hasn't yet defined algorithms that capture fake news before it is reported.  It might never achieve this.  Humans are creative in finding ways around systems. What Facebook ultimately might have to do is to warn readers of the presence of phony news and counsel them to use judgment before accepting a story at face value.  That would be a poor substitute for software, but it would be honest.  



When an unexpected event happens, a large component of reaction to it is fear -- fear of the unknown and what changes it holds.  That is the response to the Trump election.  It shows in media stories like this, this and this.  Dread consumes those whose wishes were not granted.  But, the important point to remember is that surprises do not necessarily portend negative action.  One has to wait to find out, and in the waiting there is time to adjust and influence.  Paralysis helps no one, least of all the individual who is too frozen to respond.  The proper PR approach is action, forming coalitions, communications to supporters and friends, movement that will hinder or block negative outcomes.  If public affairs practitioners and lobbyists in D.C. aren't motivated yet, they should be.  They've got slightly more than two months before Trump takes the oath of office.  Fear should motivate action and not stasis.

Now What?


The unthinkable happened early this morning with the victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton for president of the United States.  Individuals, organizations and companies have to come to terms now with a president-elect whom they did not support.  But, that is true every four years.  Trump is different in that he made few promises other than to build a wall on the border of Mexico and to make America great again -- (whatever that means.)   Trump is helped by low expectations for his governance.  Anything positive he does will have a significant upside for his image.  Anything negative will affirm the poor reputation he has already.  From a PR perspective, the Republican party must accommodate him whether it wants to or not.  Congress can put the brakes on him by refusing to pass legislation it considers inimical to the public.  It is hard to accept such an untested leader, but we must remind ourselves that the current president was a novice as well when he stepped into the role.  He hasn't done badly over eight years but last night's election was a repudiation of him, which must hurt deeply.  

Evil Rumor


Rumors are the hardest communications to control, especially with consumer products.  A falsehood will get started and nothing a company can do will batten it down.  Consider this case.   Corona, a Mexican beer, was gaining market share rapidly in the United States when someone, perhaps Heineken, started a rumor that the golden lager had urine in it.  Sales plummeted.  Corona sued a distributor of Heineken for starting the false statement and settled with it to include a public admission that the rumor was not true. But Corona's sales continued down. Even today, there are some who believe Corona has urine in it.  It is maddening for the company because there is little one can do or say to stop people from repeating evil tattle. Well-meaning, gullible people repeat such trash and give rumors a continuing life. It is a never-ending PR nightmare.



Sometimes a store is more than a store.  It is a symbol of the health of a community and a point of pride.  So when the store closes, it sparks anger and disbelief.  That is what is happening with a book store in the Bronx.  It is the last general interest book purveyor in the borough and residents are taking its loss hard.  Never mind that its departure is the result of a rent increase.  The business decision to close stings residents who are underserved by government and commerce.  The same has happened in thousands of communities around the nation when Walmart opened its giant stores on the outskirts of small towns and bled local merchants to death.  There is still a deep bitterness against the company as a result.  When a store becomes a symbol, management should treat it differently.  That doesn't mean it should be carried when loss ridden but it shouldn't be closed immediately, as this Barnes & Noble wasn't.  It took two rent increases to drive the book dealer out.  The landlord is determined to get a better yield on his property and he has already lined up a clothing chain to take it over.  If anyone, residents should be outraged with the landlord, but it is easier for them to focus their ire on management.  The result is an undeserved PR debacle for the book chain.

PR And Courage


Sometimes PR takes courage in the face of intense criticism.  Consider Chobani Yogurt.  The founder-owner, an immigrant from Turkey, is making it his mission to hire immigrants to work in his factories.  Right-wing commentators accuse him of employing muslim terrorists and endangering the security of the US.  He could bend to their wishes and fire the immigrants he has on staff, but instead, he has doubled down and is working to make the plight of the newly arrived less onerous.  This could cause him a loss of business and put the company into a bind. He clearly understands the potential difficulties he faces, but he continues to work on behalf of immigrants. He trusts that the larger body of the public will support him, and so far, it seems to be doing so. Still, that doesn't take way from the fortitude he has shown in the face of ugly nativism.  For that, he is a true American.  

When PR Doesn't Work


Here is a case where careful PR and abiding by rules and regulations hasn't worked.  A determined group of activists has stopped the thirty meter telescope (TMT) from being built on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.  There is no appeasing the protesters who believe the mountain is sacred to their religion and scientists are defiling it.  It makes no difference that other telescopes have already been built at the peak of the mountain.  For some reason, the TMT has sparked anger.  No amount of rational discussion, fact finding, persuasion has dented the implacable opposition.  So, the leaders of the project are now talking about moving the instrument to the Canary Islands, even though the peak there is not as desirable as Mauna Kea for stellar observation.  The project heads could try to bull their way through objections, but they will need the backing of Hawaiian courts to do so, and so far, they haven't had it.  It would be a pity for the US to lose the TMT for religious reasons, but determined opposition can still win the day.