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Online Public Relations Thoughts

Daily entries on Public Relations and communications ideas and trends

Updated: 2018-04-20T05:37:08.365-04:00




I'm taking time off from posting until May 1.  

Black Eye


The Internal Revenue Service has a PR black eye.  Its payment system went down yesterday at the height of tax filing.  The IRS said it didn't know what the problem was but it gave taxpayers an extra day. That was the least it could do.  There are systems that have to work 24/7 such as electricity, water and sewer.  The tax system is one of those utilities.  Government can't function without a flow of dollars through its bureaucracies, even if some of those greenbacks are the creation of the Federal Reserve. The IRS is working again at this hour, but it is an embarrassment that it glitched in the first place.

Coffee Crisis


Starbucks' CEO should be commended for handling a crisis swiftly and sensitively.  He responded to an incident in Philadelphia where a store manager called the police to remove two African-American men who were waiting for a person in the store.  There was no justification for an intervention, and the men were not arrested or charged although one was led from the store in handcuffs.  Kevin Johnson, the CEO, went on national TV and apologized for the incident.  He asserted that Starbucks would review its policies and training, and he offered to apologize directly to the two men.  There were demonstrators yesterday at the Philadelphia store, but there was no push for a larger boycott of the chain's venues.  It could have gotten ugly.  It didn't.  Credit the CEO's fast action.

Getting Even


James Comey, former FBI director, is getting even with the White House for his sudden and embarrassing firing while he was in a field office in Los Angeles.  He is calling President Trump out with his new book, and Trump's reaction has been understandably negative.  Trump has called Comey a "slimeball."  From a publicity perspective, Comey has to avoid overplaying his contentions so he can maintain a perception of honesty rather than a personally hurt former office holder.  It is extremely important that he hew to facts and avoids interpretations open to criticism.  A sense of detachment and modesty will help his case, and the fact that Trump is unpopular and chaotic will bolster Comey's views.  It is hard for the testimony of one man to overcome the power of the White House, but Comey has a chance to do so.  It doesn't help that Comey is roundly disliked by both Republicans and Democrats for his actions at the FBI, but Comey insists his loyalty is not to any one party or view but to the American people.  His book will sell, which is good for him, and Trump haters will purchase it.  Comey, meanwhile, needs to remain cool and dispassionate.  

Blaming The Victim


It's a risky PR tactic to blame a victim who was using a company's product.  Sometimes it is necessary, especially when lawsuits are pending.  Tesla finds itself in this predicament: It is blaming the driver of one of its cars for a fatal accident.  This has put a strain on its relationship with the accident investigator, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Board tossed Tesla from the analysis of what happened.  At issue is the semi-autonomous driving mode in the vehicle.  It has been behind several accidents when drivers took their attention off the road and the system failed to note another vehicle or a barrier.  Tesla already has problems reaching production goals for its mid-priced sedan.  It doesn't need more pressure, but it is getting it.  The company and Elon Musk are teetering on the edge of failure.  Any more bad news like this can push them over the edge.

Abandoning Ship?


Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is retiring from Congress.  There are bets being taken already that this presages a defeat for Republicans in the next election.  If so, the Party is in crisis due in no small part to the President.  Ryan is putting a positive spin on the future, but it seems hollow.  As for his reasons for leaving, he says he wants to spend more time with his family and stop being a "weekend Dad."  That might be true but it is one of the oft-used excuses in the book.  Republicans have little time to find viable candidates and gear up for looming elections.  They are in a bind and they know it.  Democrats are gleeful, but they too have work to do.  It will be a publicity battle from now to November.



Experts say we all lie.  Some lies are big and some small to protect ourselves and others. However, when we get the chance to be honest, we tend to be.  In PR, as I have preached since the beginning of my career, lying is deadly.  The reason is the media believe we lie and the only way to overcome their distrust is through relentless honesty.  PR practitioners have to be scrupulous about facts, and guide the media with regard to them.  We are allowed interpretation of data, which the media dismiss as "spin," but here too we must be careful.  Always taking the positive side can destroy credibility.  We serve clients through transparency and not through cover-up.  It is difficult to do, especially when clients are demanding that we prevaricate.  We have to remind and convince them that in the age of the internet, there is no keeping of secrets for long. It is better to take one's lumps up front rather than later after a search for truth grinds on.  Every one might lie, but in PR we can't afford it.

Ag Relations


The Bayer-Monsanto merger has put a spotlight on relations with their principal customers -- farmers.  They are concerned and fearful that the combination will increase prices of seed and fertilizer.  Only time will tell if they are right, but in the meantime, the merged companies will need to cultivate good relationships with the agricultural base.  Almost certainly there will be price increases for genetically modified seeds as there should be.  That would have happened whether or not there was a combination, but farmers might not see it that way.  This might provide an opening for competitors but there is only one that can take advantage. An oligopoly is no comfort for farmers and would only make their fears worse.  

Plane Publicity


NASA has always been adept in generating publicity for itself and its activities.  Ever since the beginning of the space age, it has found ways to generate headlines.  Here is the most recent example.  Should its new plane prove to be as quiet as planned, it still won't guarantee that plane manufacturers will build the craft and airlines will buy it.  The promise of supersonic air travel has been short-circuited by inadequate technology and physics for decades.  There is no guarantee this test vehicle will dampen sonic booms as planned.  Still, the contract to build an X-model is news, and NASA has once again proven its worth to the American public.  Smart publicity.  

Internal Crisis


Google is facing an internal crisis with more than 3,000 employees objecting to its work with the Pentagon.  The workers signed an open letter to top management calling for cessation of applying artificial intelligence to the Defense Department's drone imagery program.  The activity is not designed to help identify targets on the battlefield, but it could be, and that is what distresses employees.  Google's management now has a choice.  It can back out of the contract and preserve its employee base or it can move forward and risk losing valuable engineers to competitors who will be happy to recruit them.  There isn't a good outcome in all this.  Either way, Google stands to lose revenue or much-needed talent.  How they respond will determine the PR of the company.  It will be interesting to see what Google decides.

Bad Idea


It is a bad idea and poor PR to ignore a regulator.  This is what happens.  The company, Triangle Pharmaceuticals, blew off the FDA's requests for a recall of their kratom herbal supplement.  The FDA wasn't worried about kratom, itself a controversial remedy, but about salmonella food poisoning, which had contaminated the ingredients.  Who knows why Triangle refused to cooperate?  They are now the subject of an unprecedented mandatory recall and the weight of the government is on their shoulders. They are also a case study in poor PR.  They put customers at risk by not complying and they have given themselves a bad name.  If the company survives, and that is questionable, they had better not do it again.

Not Worried


Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post, is being verbally assaulted these days but he hardly should be worried.  The attacker is President Trump, and as usual, the President has his facts wrong.  The criticism has hit the price of the stock, but that should be passing as the financial community, the public and politicians understand how wrong Trump is.  Most companies have been put into a penalty box unjustly at some point in their history.  This is where PR comes to the fore -- defense using facts to counter rumor, error and misstatements.  Bezos has yet to publicly rebuke the President, and he might not need to.  The media are doing a credible job for him.  It is a tremendous help when the press supports one's contentions.  It is even better when the attacker has no credibility.

Hearst Redux


Sinclair Broadcast Group is receiving criticism for having its approximately 200 local TV stations read "a message about bias and fake stories in news outlets."   It is seen as a pro-Trump move since Trump inveighs frequently about fake news.  Sinclair, the critics say, is flexing its conservative political muscle and there is a general alarm.  Critics forget that in his day, William Randolph Hearst, a media mogul, reached one in four Americans with his newspapers, syndicates, magazines and newsreels.  Hearst took every opportunity to promote his agenda and to blast opponents such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Hearst didn't succeed, and eventually his empire shrank.  Give the public some credit for an ability to see through what a medium is doing, especially when other reporters point it out as they did this time. Sinclair has produced a PR faux pas, and it has put journalists on alert to examine its pronouncements and actions.  Not a good way to operate.



Tim Cook of Apple and Mark Zuckerberg aren't getting along.  The two are sniping at one another through the news media.  Cook says Apple wouldn't have been put in the position of losing customer data since it doesn't monetize users' information.  Cook is calling for increased regulation.  Zuckerberg is defending Facebook's advertising model and merchandising of personal data.  There doesn't seem to be a way to get the two of them on the same side.  There is an increased chance the government will regulate corporations now that privacy has come to the fore, and a company was using customer information to sway the last election.  It is a major PR issue for Facebook and Google and the advertising model on the internet.  Tech industry executives need a unified front, but they are unlikely to get it.  Look for regulators to have their way.

Multiple Meanings


Words have multiple meanings and their essence depends on the person saying it.  Such is the case with "denuclearization" and North Korea.  Experts have already said that what Kim means by the word and what President Trump understands are far apart.  Any summit meeting between the two would have to come to an agreement as to the time and action of getting rid of nuclear bombs and inspections necessary to insure North Korea is abiding by the agreement.  North Korea might insist on the removal of American troops from the Korean peninsula and cessation of war games that the North sees as advance training for an invasion.  It is hard to see Trump agreeing to that.  The implications of the word are many and fraught, especially since the North has not always honored agreements.  Among specialists there is little hope for a summit or for successful negotiation.  Surprises happen, but it might not be this time.

Tesla In Freefall


Elon Musk's Tesla automobile company is finally facing reality, and it is ugly.  The corporation has lost and continues to lose billions in its pursuit of manufacturing and merchandising electric vehicles.  Musk is aware of the cliffs he has to climb to put its mid-priced Model 3 on the road.  So far he hasn't reached his targets and it looks like he will continue to miss them in the months to come.  The financial markets, which have been extraordinarily patient with him, are now beginning to circle like buzzards over a carcass.  Musk needs money, plenty of it, and he's going to have a hard time getting it.  Meanwhile, his competitors in the auto industry are coming out with fully electric vehicles and threatening his market share.  There is now open predictions that the company will collapse in the near future.  If so, it will be a loss to the economy, but it will also be Musk's own fault.  He knows he has to put dollars on the bottom line, but he hasn't done it.  He has lived on positive publicity for too long.  It's time to produce.

Waymo's Answer


Publicity and perception of autonomous autos has turned negative since an Uber vehicle mowed down a bicyclist in Arizona and the company suspended tests.  Waymo, Google's company focused on self-driving cars, is confident it would have seen the person and avoided her.  It has driven a stake in the earth with the announcement that it will purchase and equip 20,000 Jaguar electric SUVs in 2018 as a prelude to its ride-hailing taxi service to be initiated in 2020.  The cost will be in excess of a billion dollars.  That is either deep knowledge or arrogance.  Waymo has driven its test vehicles millions of miles and it has simulated driving for hundreds of millions of miles more.  The company believes it knows the subtleties of driving without someone behind the wheel. If it succeeds in deploying its vehicles safely without accidents across the US, it will be first to market ahead of auto manufacturers and in a prime position to dominate.  But, it is being held to a high safety standard, higher than even that for human drivers.  That is as it should be.



One way to achieve gun control is to stop buying guns.  It is the ultimate form of economic communications.  This is what happened to Remington Outdoors, which went into Chapter 11 yesterday.  The company experienced a 30 percent sales slump in 2017 that started with the Trump Presidency.  The reason, apparently, is that weapons collectors saw less need to stockpile arms under Trump.  If that is the case, then there are millions of Americans who have multiple weapons in their homes.  They might all be members of the NRA or they are persuaded their Second Amendment rights had been under attack.  It is an irony that when they feel more comfortable about their rights, gun manufacturers suffer.  Bankruptcy is a statement that a business is no longer viable under its present organization.  It is a chance for a company to start over and see if it can thrive with less debt, fewer factories and changed structure.  Remington is fighting severe headwinds with the growing voice of anti-gun advocates.  It might not survive even after reorganization.

Positive PR


When it comes to the plight of refugees in Europe, Pope Francis has acted on his words of support for them by taking families back to Italy on his own plane. This is what public relations is all about -- deeds not claims.  The pope is an example of one who looks out for the poor and who stands as a reminder to world leaders that the helpless need our support.  He is the opposite of the current administration in Washington DC and a rebuke.  For that, he is called powerful yet he has no armies nor anything other than his actions and words.  He is a lesson for PR practitioners and for CEOs.  Spin is lying and lying is evil.  Stick to who you are and what you do and your PR will have the force of truth in it. 

Perception Can Kill


Police in Sacramento, CA shot down a black man who appeared to be carrying a weapon.  It was a cell phone.  The officers on the scene mistook the black slab of a cell for the barrel of a gun.  It was a case of biased perception.  Patrolmen are taught to respond quickly to danger.  They are put through courses where in an instant they need to identify weapons or not and shoot or not.  In this case, it was night and the officers probably couldn't see that well.  Someone was seen breaking into cars before the shooting and he was about to be arrested when the officer thought he saw a gun.  Would this have happened to a white man?  It is hard to say under the circumstances.  But, one thing is certain.  Perception can kill.

The Mighty Are Falling


Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune and Money are on the auction block.  Meredith Corporation doesn't want them.  These four orphans were once mighty kings, but now they are weak and slowly vanishing.  There was a time not so long ago when PR practitioners would be happy to get their news in any one of the four magazines.  Now they risk being split up as they sink into a black hole of consumer consciousness.  Ad revenue is just not there for any of the periodicals, and they are faced with cutting deeply into editorial to make up for the loss.  One can argue that Time Inc. lost its way in the internet age, but so too did other news magazines.  Look for the four titles to shrink further and perhaps, disappear over the next five years.  It would be a loss if they do, but the Darwinian publishing market has no pity.  

When it rains...


Mark Zuckerberg must feel like he is in the middle of a never-ending storm.  His latest data contretemps has the Federal Trade Commission looking into it along with authorities from Britain.  So far, investigations haven't slowed the growth of Facebook, but they are a distraction that could prove costly in monetary terms.  The question now facing the company is how it let all this happen.  It seems an arms-length transaction went terribly wrong.  It trusted an app developer who then sent millions of individuals personal information to Cambridge Analytica.  It wouldn't be so bad had CA not used the data in the Trump campaign to influence voters.  It would seem the lesson here is in the matters of personal information, trust no one.  Facebook has to become paranoid about security, and it is not there yet.  What happened to Facebook can happen to every other company that collects personal information.  They might be breathing a sigh of relief that it was not them in the penalty box, but their time will come.  

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.