Fedex takes swipes at social media marketing–the SM backlash begins

Judging from the content of all the email newsletters and PR publishers, social media is the only thing worth talking about. It’s much the same in marketing these days. All the “how tos” are focused on how to increase your likes or how to replicate the Oreo coup in the Super Bowl blackout.

But social media is not the be-all and end-all of PR, marketing or even crisis communication.  The new Fedex commercial takes a big broad swipe at social media, and in the process, at the youngsters who are dominating this world in the corporate and organizational circles.

Tell the truth, I don’t exactly see how Fedex is a better strategy for building the radiator valve business the company depicted is in. But, I don’t care. The point is very well made. The key to effective marketing, PR and crisis communication is having a clear, reasonable goal in mind and choosing the best strategy to achieve that. Often it includes, or may even focus on, social media. But more often than most would admit, the knee jerk reaction is to launch a new social media platform and hope that does the trick.


Privacy and the Internet, an honest assessment, but is it good or bad?

Bruce Schneier in this CNN opinion piece makes it very clear: privacy is gone. He uses three examples of people who all the reason in the world and the technical savvy (including our former CIA director) to maintain privacy and how it proved impossible for them. Take all the security measures you can think of, and those who want to know about what you do, who you are, how you spend your time will find out.

“Big Data” is a term we are going to be hearing much more about.

News headlines last week said that our defense analysts now consider cyberwarfare a greater threat to our national security than terrorism. That’s is saying a lot.

Sometime I think I’m about the only person in the world not absolutely terrified by the loss of privacy. It’s a little to me about the fear or animosity toward cops. Some people seem to treat police like enemies. Sure, occasionally I panic a bit when driving and I see a patrol car with radar checking speed. I only panic though when I’m not in cruise control and may have not been watching my speed. Other times, I’m wishing they would catch some of these yahoos flying by me as I am maxed out at 76 mph in a 70 zone.

I’m certain there are a lot of people doing things using the Internet that they are not particularly proud of. Is it possible that this lack of privacy may help keep people from doing the things they just as soon their spouse or children or friends or pastor not know about? I was raised with the understanding that somehow, somewhere an eternal record was being kept on my actions. That I will face a day when that record will be replayed in full view of the ultimate judge and perhaps all of humanity. Talk about big data! For many, being given that kind of thought as a young child may seem cruel and lead to vast guilt. Not really, providing that forgiveness and grace are also part of that picture. Buried in the deepest sea and all that.

We seem to have sort of lost the value of teaching about right and wrong, including the thought of some kind of record being kept and some possible disclosure of that record. But, that religious teaching is being replaced by a secular equivalent. No doubt the growing recognition of what Schneier is talking about is triggering a lot of fear and guilt. Perhaps it is also serving in some cases as a restraining force. When someone thinks about logging onto that porn site, will they now start thinking about who will know about it when?

There is a difference in the old idea of big data (religious) vs. today’s idea (secular)–I’m not sure where forgiveness and redemption comes in. Wait and see on that one I guess.


More Carnival trouble, and a modest proposal for the cruise industry

Carnival Cruise is in trouble again. This time having to fly passengers home from the Caribbean because the ship can’t sail from port. More stories of human waste in the hallways of a luxury liner.

I was asked for my thoughts on this problem and how it relates to the entire industry by PR Daily, and here’s what I submitted:

As you suggest its not just Carnival that is being hurt by these unfortunate events. I read recently of a reputation survey that showed all the major cruise lines were suffering from significant drops in trust metrics. There’s an old saying “bad things come in threes” and Carnival can hope that the Costa Concordia event counts in that three and they are done now. I suspect not because one of the interesting aspects of this kind of problem is that Carnival will be under increased media and regulatory scrutiny for some time. So, for that matter, will all other cruise lines. And that means that even minor hiccups that normally would not come to the attention of the media will receive major coverage. And that means that trust will further be eroded.

Let me give an example. BP suffered a series of events that drew major media attention including the to be expected questions about their safety culture. These included the Alaska pipeline corrosion issues and then the Texas City refinery explosion. Any other event happening to BP following that kind of attention would have received major focus (of course, the April 2010 oil spill did and it would have even it happened to another company because of the scope.) But in February 2010 another lesser known refinery company experienced a devastating accident with seven fatalities. it received very little national media attention. In that time period if BP had had even a small accident with injuries let alone fatalities, the media focus would have been very significant. For Carnival, it is one plus one equals six. And it will be even worse if/when the next thing happens, even something minor.

The fact is, cruising is an increasingly popular activity for millions. My parents have been on nearly 50 cruises on many different cruise lines and we have enjoyed several of them with them. No doubt these events and the major coverage they receive will give a lot of people pause. But for most the good memories will overcome the increasing fears. I do believe these events will cause a measurable decrease in cruising in the short term. But the industry will recover.

I think the big lesson for others watching this is that this is not just Carnival’s problem. It may very well be devastating, possibly even fatal, to Carnival. The brand is seriously tainted. But this is an industry-wide problem and one the industry as a whole needs to address from a public confidence standpoint. I suspect the industry is already working on ways to recover public confidence. If I were advising them (which I’m not) I’d suggest the cruise industry association, assuming there is one, announce in the not too distant future and new inspection standard that is more rigorous than any regulatory standard. That it offer a sort of Good Housekeeping seal to those ships that pass the test. This in addition to a pretty aggressive promotion campaign aimed at reminding people who cruise of the wonderful memories created.

Time does heal most wounds, and this serious wound to the industry is recoverable. The future of cruising is beyond Carnival’s control–they can hurt it more by poor communications, but they can’t do much to help it. the industry needs to work together to restore confidence, and then let time do its healing work.





Can a law improve accuracy of news coverage? We may see in Texas.

ABC News might wish it was headquartered in Texas, if a new Texas law goes into effect. The Disney Company’s news network is facing a $1.2 billion lawsuit for defamation brought by BPI for the networks “Pink Slime” coverage.  (see previous post). The proposed Texas law could protect it by giving ABC, and all other news outlets the opportunity to retract false reporting to avoid defamation damages. (This story from Nieman got the sub-head wrong I believe, suggesting they could retract to “receive” punitive damages, when I think they meant to say “reduce.”)

Anyone who visits here frequently knows that one of my main beefs is the sensationalized and often mightily inaccurate reporting that constitutes one of the greatest risks for those concerned about their reputations. So, this would seem good news. Yet I am also philosophically highly skeptical of legal and regulatory responses to problems. We can’t remove all risk and take away everything that bothers us through legislation or ever more powerful government regulations.

So, is this Texas idea a good one or a bad one? I think the law of unintended consequences may take effect here. If this kind of legislation is widespread it will no doubt give encouragement to any and all who have a beef with the way they are covered in news reports. And, as has happened far too much in our legal system, the cost of litigation becomes a primary driver in making decisions what to do about it. That means that news organizations will quickly retract, correct, and go along with a complaint about their coverage even if they feel the complaint is not justified. The threat of being dragged into court is just too expensive. The end result of a bunch of these “business decision retractions” will be to stifle press freedom and cause further loss of trust–both in the press and the organizations complaining.

I honestly don’t think we need a legislative solution to the problem of “ratings chasing” and the often disgusting news coverage that results from it. What we need is an informed news viewer and the ability of those aggrieved to take their case directly to the only court that really matters: the court of public opinion.  But as Elon Musk recently showed, brands and organizations have that ability now. They just need to exercise that freedom–and keep the legislators out of it.



ABC News’ $1.2 billion “pink slime” lawsuit may affect journalism for years

ABC News slimed the beef industry, and producers of “lean, fine-textured beef” (LFTB) in a series of news reports about the product made from beef trimmings and used as an ingredient in much of the ground beef supply. I highlighted it in several posts because it was in my opinion a classic example of scare tactics and false reporting aimed at ratings that resulted in real harm–not just to the company, but the public. As such, it was an example of the kind of media coverage that I think is hurting us as well as an example of what the food industry overall is in for.

Personally, I was very happy to see BPI, the company nearly bankrupted by the attacks, fighting back with a defamation lawsuit against ABC News. A lawsuit that could conceivably cost The Disney Company, owner of ABC, $1.2 billion. This article from Reuters does a great job of exploring in detail the claims and counter claims involving this case. I think it is one that crisis communicators need to be watching carefully. Here are some key issues:

– our laws protect the news media against defamation to a very great degree. This is great giving our high value on free speech. This case has more potential because of state law designed to help protect agriculture. While news media can do just about anything they want, they need to be careful about intentionally saying things they know not to be true. This is largely where this case will hang.

– The tweets of ABC reporter Jim Avila are critical to BPI’s case. So there is going to be an important question raised here. In those tweets he said in effect that pink slime was not meat. But he knew it was meat. But, he didn’t say it wasn’t meat on the air. Is there a difference in defamation between a tweet and an on-air broadcast? This will be very important to watch.

– There is much the ABC reporters did not say that would have contributed to the balance in the story. One example: the prime former BPI employee who they used to attack his former employer lost a wrongful termination lawsuit and the company got a restraining order against him for his threats against the owner. He threatened to find another way to get even. None of this was included in the ABC report–instead they treated him as having high credibility.

– The core question is, is name calling defamation? It’s interesting to read the Reuters article to see how opposing attorneys are using dictionary definitions of “slime” to bolster their case. The law protects the media against name calling, so calling it slime in itself would be protected speech. But to knowing say that something is harmful when you know it isn’t constitutes defamation. So, if somebody says to you, “don’t eat that, it is slime,” is that saying to you it is harmful? I think so, but I am clearly biased. The point however is how cautious journalists need to be in labeling something they are covering. And I think journalists all over are watching this and the result will be a little more caution about the use of “rhetorical hyperbole” which ABC’s lawyers are using to justify their coverage.

Whether the Roths win this case or not, I for one am grateful that they brought it forward. There is far too little accountability on the damage done by journalists. There is a trend developing here, such as Elon Musk and New York Time’s John Broder’s nasty review of the Tesla. Where there was a great imbalance in power in the mainstream media, that power is shifting. In part it is shifting because of irresponsible ratings chasing that has resulted in extremely low trust ratings But the biggest reason is that the monopoly on information distribution and sharing has been forever broken.


Snark comes to big corporateness–the Budweiser lawsuit and response

Snarkiness rules in this age of Internet-driven conversation. I participate far too often and decry its affect on our discourse and society. But, it is a big and increasing part of how we communicate. What is snarkiness? David Denby wrote a book called “Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal and It’s Ruining our Conversation.” The reviewer (link provides a review) notes that it’s hard to write about snarky without being snarky.

Mediabistro’s PR Newser almost epitomizes snarky in many of its comments about what is going on in the world of PR. Editor Patrick Coffee is strong left leaning, anti-corporate sentiments which color nearly every article they write about the PR world. And its clear from this post about the Budweiser lawsuit accusing the world’s largest brewer of watering down its beer, that he is no Budweiser fan–in that I share his opinion even while wishing he’d tone down the snarkiness.

His intense desire to show his taste in beer is far more refined than those poor saps who drink Bud Light (how am I doing on the snarky scale), he misses what to me is the main point in this story: how Budweiser is responding to its lawsuit. The company seems to have taken a page from the TacoBell playbook about how to respond to a lawsuit against your product. You may recall in that situation TacoBell took out large ads in major newspapers with the headlines: Thank you for suing us. It gave them the opportunity to tell the world that its meat was actually 88% beef or something like that.

Budweiser is responding to the claims of watered down beer with an even more aggressive and even snarky response that also very cleverly contains a promotional message about the good it is doing in the world–CSR in PR technical terms.

Budweiser’s response shows a can of water (with a Anheuser-Busch logo) and the headline says: “They Must Have Tested One of These.” The ad then goes on to say that Budweiser has donated 71 million cans of drinking water to the Red Cross and other disaster relief organizations. Clever, isn’t it. Highlight the good they are doing. Leverage the publicity and attention from the lawsuit. And communicate the idea that they are looking at those who sue them with disdain and sarcasm.

I have to say I like the response alot (I suspect Patrick Coffee dislikes it because he’s hoping the plaintiffs win). But, I’m also a little uneasy. There’s a trend developing here. Remember how Bodyform responded to the online criticism about its advertising for its feminine product? I loved that too. (3.7 million views on youtube so far). I am an advocate of large organizations getting away from the officious sounding communication that is typical, and adopting a more personal, informal and humorous writing style (doing some training on that right now). But, my unease comes from further encouraging a trend that I find distasteful and harmful when taken to an extreme.

There’s a fine line and good judgment is called for. Kudos to Budweiser. But, like any other very strong denial, you had darn rights better win that lawsuit and prove those suing you are indeed bozos because if you don’t, the snark you threw will land on you.

Groupon CEO’s farewell letter provides lessons in messaging and writing today

If your CEO or GM was fired and wrote a farewell message to the troops, can you imagine what it would be? Lots of officious BS and dishonesty–like I’m leaving to spend more time with my family. Lots of spin, lots of putting lipstick on the pig.

But when Groupon’s CEO Andrew Mason was fired for the disastrous performance of the company he founded, he wrote in the “new style” and in the process shows some important lessons for writers and “messagers.”

Here’s what he wrote:

(This is for Groupon employees, but I’m posting it publicly since it will leak anyway)

People of Groupon,

After four and a half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding – I was fired today. If you’re wondering why… you haven’t been paying attention. From controversial metrics in our S1 to our material weakness to two quarters of missing our own expectations and a stock price that’s hovering around one quarter of our listing price, the events of the last year and a half speak for themselves. As CEO, I am accountable.

You are doing amazing things at Groupon, and you deserve the outside world to give you a second chance. I’m getting in the way of that. A fresh CEO earns you that chance. The board is aligned behind the strategy we’ve shared over the last few months, and I’ve never seen you working together more effectively as a global company – it’s time to give Groupon a relief valve from the public noise.

For those who are concerned about me, please don’t be – I love Groupon, and I’m terribly proud of what we’ve created. I’m OK with having failed at this part of the journey. If Groupon was Battletoads, it would be like I made it all the way to the Terra Tubes without dying on my first ever play through. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to take the company this far with all of you. I’ll now take some time to decompress (FYI I’m looking for a good fat camp to lose my Groupon 40, if anyone has a suggestion), and then maybe I’ll figure out how to channel this experience into something productive.

If there’s one piece of wisdom that this simple pilgrim would like to impart upon you: have the courage to start with the customer. My biggest regrets are the moments that I let a lack of data override my intuition on what’s best for our customers. This leadership change gives you some breathing room to break bad habits and deliver sustainable customer happiness – don’t waste the opportunity!

I will miss you terribly.




A few comments:

– it was a private message that he went ahead and made public because he knew it would be anyway. Which means, he wrote it for a public audience. Big lesson: everything is public.

– he pokes fun of the officious BS, which resonates well with “the Internet” today

– he is honest, funnily and brutally honest, making both his sorrow and pride very clear

– he does nothing to duck his responsibility or even hint that those lousy busybodies on the board don’t know what they are doing

– he gives credit to the success they enjoyed to his employees–and challenges them on to greater things.

I’m doing some training right now with a major client on writing for the web. What I see is that it is a struggle for many in larger organizations to understand and adapt to the remarkable change in communication style. I am convinced that one of the reasons large companies earn the disdain of too many young people is that the continue to present themselves publicly covered in that officious BS. They can’t relate, and they mistrust as a result. Let Andrew Mason show how such writing should be done.