Category Archives: Public Relations

Some thoughts about the changing nature of public relations

Just when I was pondering the thoughts presented in Houston by PR father Harold Burson (see crisisblogger post and Force for Good post), a co-worker gave me a copy of the New Yorker article on Howard Rubenstein, the well known New York PR man.

There were things that bothered me about both of these deservedly much-honored gentlemen of the profession. Let me try to explain.

Ken Auletta in the New Yorker quotes Alan Harrington who said, “Public relations specialists make flower arrangements of the facts, placing them so that the wilted and less attractive petals are hidden by sturdy blooms.”

Then Rubenstein was complimented by former Governor George Pataki who said that “had Howard Rubenstein been around to represent rats during the bubonic plague the headlines would have read ‘Rodents Unfairly Accused of Mild Rash.'”

Now, I could attribute this to the general antipathy that reporters feel toward PR people, flacks, as they say. But most PR people would agree with Rubenstein when he suggests there job is to put the client’s best foot forward. And that is largely how I have understood my job with clients as well, particularly when there are those who are insistent on either putting the client’s worst foot forward, or making up a story about how bad their feet really are.

But, I must say I am increasingly uncomfortable with this view of PR. No, arranging a pretty bouquet is not untruthful or unethical. But it reminds me of a package of strawberries I bought at a high quality grocery story a few years ago. The berries on top were all pretty and red and big and delicious looking. I opened the package and found rotten, gray, small ugly berries underneath. I was not happy. I felt deceived. I lost trust in a grocery story that had an excellent reputation and high prices to go with it.

And that is my concern. In my view, particularly in this day, PR should be primarily about building trust, not putting a best foot forward. If there are rotten berries in the package, I’m not suggesting put those on top. I’m saying get rid of the package. And the best PR advisers have access to the people who can make those kinds of decisions.

What is strange about this way of thinking, and I’m even hesitant to suggest it but I think it is right, is that if there are wilted flowers, they should be visible. And perhaps it is the PR person’s responsibility to help make sure they are visible–because when they are discovered trust will be lost. And any time trust is lost, the organization loses. I have found myself on more than one occasion advocating strongly to a client that the bad news come directly from us. “But the press may not find out about, why should we give it to them?” Because if we don’t and they do find out about it, it will be that much worse for us. Trust will be lost. More than that, an opportunity to build trust by saying, we found something wrong, we are sorry, it should not be like this, is also lost.

Does this mean the days of putting best foot forwards is gone. Yes, I think so. Today’s stakeholders want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If something is wrong, fix it. Tell them that you are fixing it. Tell them you understand their perspective on it and what you are doing about it. That is called transparency. Being transparent, even when painful and difficult, is what building trust is all about.

Geriatric1927–the latest hit on YouTube

A 79 year old man from England sits down at this computer and records a video about the new phenomenon of young people sitting down at their computers and recording videos of themselves talking about their world. What happens? A half million people watch it. Then dozens, if not more, send their own video message to the sweet old man who promises to “bitch and grumble” about life in his video postings. He posts more and tens of thousands watch his every video. 6500 subscribing to his feed so they won’t miss a word the old codger has to say.

The story hits the MSM (mainstream media). Suddenly thousands of others become aware of a lonely old man in England who just seems to want to talk to the world and learn about the new ways of communicating.

If you are in communications, you are probably sitting up and taking notice. If you aren’t sitting up and taking notice, let me suggest a few implications of this:

– there’s a nice old man in England who needs some PR help. It appears he is so inundated with emails that he wasn’t able to return an email from Reuters. When you get to him, tell him that next time he needs to be better prepared to deal with a media and stakeholder onslaught if he suddenly finds himself the subject of internet and MSM attention.

YouTube is a phenomenon because it has established a strong position as the central place for just about anyone to post and view videos.

– If you are in communications and particularly crisis communications–you better get prepared to deal with video as a PRIMARY means of communication. Pictures tell the story and particularly in a global information environment where the messages can be conveyed universally. Take a clue from the Coast Guard who not only knows how and why to use video, have put in place the technology that makes it possible and easy for their communicators to do it quickly. Nearly everyday the TV news carries video provided by the Coast Guard doing their job such as in the Cougar Ace rescue.

–  Geriatric1927 (the screen name of our old video star) demonstrates a number of the key points of the book “the Long Tail” By Chris Anderson. He is pretty far up the tail, definitely into the “micro-hit” category. An example of an amateur (to the extreme) make a few videos that have far more views than about 99.8% of the 13,000 films made each year and shown at festivals. This would be a great case study in the Long Tail phenomenon. Can one manufacture such interest? Is this just the “fifteen minutes of fame” that we all can expect to get?

– The enthusiasm of many of those responding to their new friend in England is interesting in itself. Young people are welcoming him into their world. “You rock, dude!” is the message. Please make more videos. They are intrigued that someone clearly from another world (almost from another planet it may seem) has entered their world and attempted to communicate if not in their language then at least in their media. The response is overwhelmingly positive. The crankiness and nastiness that seems to permeate this world is not tolerated as those few who attempted to mock the gent were soundly booed by the others. There’s a message here from the predominantly young crowd on YouTube and other places like MySpace” “Come on it, the water’s fine.”

Apple's ipod: What to do when the media creates a disaster?

The Chicago Tribune reporter blew it. Doing a story on the ipod they quoted an Apple spokesperson as saying the ipod would last only four years. Actually, the spokesperson, Natalie Kerris, said it would last “for years.”

Now this is on the one hand and understandable mistake. On the other hand, potentially devastating. The reporter and editors have an obligation to get something like this right. The implications for Apple on share price, on views of the company by its customers and competitors can be enormous. Planned obsolescense is an idea that was never very popular and that’s exactly what it sounds like Apple’s plan was.

The question for crisis communicators is what do you do about it. This came to my attention via AppleInsider. Here’s the story.

In my view, here is one of those relatively rare occasions where crisis pr and traditional pr can come together. I would broadcast as far and wide as possible the mistake made by the Chicago Tribune reporter. Get as much coverage as possible. It helps the brand. It’s good advertising. It clarifies the misunderstanding. It makes reporters covering Apple in the future far more cautious because they know the company is not going to simply allow poor reporting and editing to go unnoticed. Get the word out there. Why is this known only to “insiders?”

Aine McDermot and Purposeful Journalism

I am a fan of newsvine and the model it presents for the global “watercooler”. By that I mean the real time discussion of current issues by those participating. Aine McDermot is a familiar name to newsvine junkies. And here is a very insightful and thought provoking article posted on newsvine by this talented writer and thinker. Purposeful Journalism.

I especially appreciate the comments about how mainstream media has blurred the lines between entertainment and journalism, driven by their need to run profitable businesses. For those interested, this is a major topic of my book “Now Is Too Late: Survival in an Era of Instant News” and the soon to be published second edition, Now Is Too Late2.

Her comments on “Social Journalism” are equally relevant but I sense are just touching the surface of this fascinating and incredibly important topic. Everyday I become more convinced that the world of public information, news, reporting, public affairs, corporate issue management and crisis communication is changing dramatically and the change is driven increasingly by the blogosphere and the huge culture changes that the blogosphere represents and is leading.

If you are in corporate communications, or are a CEO or senior leader of an organization that operates with a public franchise, I encourage you to check out Newsvine but also read this intriguing article.

Crisis communication planning made easy

Meeting with a client shortly to put a simple crisis plan in place. He’s a contractor with sizeable projects in multiple states. So this is kind of help me prep for that.

Every crisis consultant does things differently no doubt, but here is my approach with a client like this.

1) What are your goals? How do you define winning in a crisis? The answer usually comes down to wanting to minimize damage. I will remind him of the Chinese character for crisis which can be read as “risk” and “opportunity.” A crisis represents a great risk of damaging or destroying reputation and potentially the enterprise, but it also represents opportunity to enhance that reputation according to how the crisis was handled and communicated. What do we need to do in a crisis to help people think of us more positively?

2) Who will speak? Identifying spokespersons and making certain they are properly trained and prepared is essential. Also, preparing those who are not spokespeople to understand the policy and to learn how to “refer and defer” is also very important.

3) Who are the people whose opinion of you is most important to your future? That helps identify and prioritize stakeholders. Reporters are important, but their opinion is not the only one that counts. Key managers, employees, customers, suppliers, bankers, subcontractors, neighbors, potential opponents, industry influencers, government officials, etc. Know them, prioritize, and build lists to enable you to phone and/or email very quickly. I usually create lists of Level 1, 2 and 3. Level 1s get phone calls. Level 2 get emails and letters. Level 3 get more general emails and direct to website.

4) How will you communicate? Through media only? Big mistake. Prepare to manage message development and distribution to multiple critical audiences. And prepare to do it from wherever and when you’re entire IT infrastructure is down. This need is what led to the development of PIER, still the only web-based crisis communication control center. It is the reason why the US Coast Guard was able to continue to communicate non-stop during Hurricane Katrina despite having a distributed team and all IT resources under water.

In this, don’t forget your website. It is just about your most important asset for communications in a crisis. If you can completely control it without having to do go through some ridiculous chain of command and IT management process, you are flat out dead in the water.

5) How will you respond to and manage inquiries? Who will do it? Are they capable? Do you know where the inquiries will come in? How will email inquiries be managed? Who will prioritize and make sure of the responses and speed of response. Again, this daunting problem is why we created PIER which also fully integrates and manages the inquiry function.

6) Remember, now is too late. To try to put these pieces in place during an event means you will not communicate in time. It’s an instant news world and that means virtually instantaneous response. That can only be done through appropriate preparation.

The meat industry and Eric Schlosser get bloody

For those interested in reputation wars and the new battlefronts of such wars, looking at the war between Eric Schlosser and the meat industry is very interesting and instructive. Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation, a very popular and highly critical book about how we produce and sell food and how we consume it. Now he is the co-author of a children’s book called Chew On This, published by Houghton Mifflin.

Now I have not read either Schlosser book so I won’t comment on whether he is right or wrong, factual or not. But it is clear that the 18 associations representing most in the meat and restaurant industries don’t think too much of what he has to say. They are obviously concerned about his impact on children which seems to have prompted much of their counter-propaganda efforts. They have launched as a coordinated means of dealing with the “misinformation” they believe is being promoted.

I read the site and like the straightahead approach to what the critics say. I think they could have done a much better job in many of their answers and they lose some credibility by not expressing some recognition of validity for some criticism. It looks like they think everybody in the industry has only done perfectly right in all circumstances.

But what I find particularly interesting is Houghton Mifflin’s response to this “public relations attack.” Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. The company through its VP says that the industry (or rather its PR advisers) are launching personal attacks against the message and the messenger. But I didn’t see any of that, except in the publisher’s broadside. They do exactly what they accuse the industry of doing. It is a diatribe of name calling, guilt by association and politicizing that does nothing helpful in a very important debate.

What I find especially curious and interesting is their interest in politicizing this. Clearly the publisher wants to make this a red vs. blue issue. Why does everything need to be politicized, partisanized and polarized?

My advice:

To the meat industry–you are showing you are out of touch with the changing values of consumers here. Show that you recognize that not all that has been done in the name of making a safe, affordable food supply has always been right or doesn’t need re-evaluating. Don’t just defend. Give some credence to your critics–it is through them that the industry can improve.

To the defenders of Schlosser– don’t be so ridiculously defensive. Your hero is apparently making strong accusations and goring a few sacred cows. Don’t be so surprised and stunned that someone would want to defend themselves. Stick to the issues about the important topic at hand. Do as you say your opponents should do, and don’t do what you seem to be falsely accusing your opponents of doing. And stop politicizing, for goodness sake. Don’t you think Republicans read books too?

A sidenote–Wikipedia continues to damage its credibility by overt bias as well. They join in the Houghton Mifflin pity-party by complaining about the public relations “attack” contained in bestfoodnation. Sorry guys. Didn’t know it was against the new rules of the blog world to attempt to defend yourself and try to set the record straight. Apparently it is.