Thursday, March 26, 2009

TMI - Three Mile Island or Too Much Information?

This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the Three Mile Island meltdown. Without a doubt, people a whole lot smarter than I will be discussing and dissecting what happened and what should have happened from both a communications and operational point-of-view.

The meltdown led to several new "truths" in crisis communications and nuclear energy. Specifically, the world was taught the importance of preparing for the former and the hazards of the latter.

But is nuclear power dangerous? The common perception is that it is. (You can read an article from The Washington Post about the relative safety of nuclear power. You can also read about the critical hours of the meltdown here. ) In many ways, that's all that matters.

To be sure, the world of communications has changed drastically in the past 30 years and, while there is a lot to learn from the events of Three Mile Island, it's important to remember that at the time, there were no cell phones or Blackberrys; internet or email. Information could be released in a controlled, deliberate manner that I'm sure some communicators look back upon with envy.

I think the lesson for today's communications environment is attitudinal in nature. It's important to remember that companies and organizations much do what they can to prepare for a crisis situation. They must be ready to communicate effectively and avoid stonewalling. Information will always find a way out, either through deliberate or accidental action.

Take the steps you need to now by examing what your organization's exposure to risk is and determine how you can prepare to deal with a crisis when it happens.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

New Light on AIG Bonuses

If you didn't yet read The New York Times, there's a fascinating op-ed - a resignation letter from an AIG executive.

This is a smart public relations move by Jake DeSantis, the author. He is making his case in a clear and understandable manner and, in so doing, he is setting himself up, in a very public way, as a good guy.

The letter also serves to educate those who thought - myself included - that the bonuses recently paid were obscene. The case put forth by DeSantis is that AIG double-crossed its executives - overpaid as they may be - who had absolutely nothing to do with the unbearable collapse to which we are all bearing witness.

DeSantis points an accusatory finger at Edward Liddy, AIG's current CEO for speaking in one way and behaving in another.

Already, it seems the rhetoric in DC vis-a-vis the AIG bonuses is dying down. Why? Because of the dissonance between what people are saying and what actually took place. DeSantis, I think, wins points for consistency of word and deed.

Again, public relations is about what you do and NOT about what you say.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Selling luxury these days

Most of us, it seems, are preoccupied with paying rent, mortgages and other basics. Why then - or more accurate, how - can a company such as Bugatti possibly sell any of its $1.5 million Veyrons?

I'm not a car guy but even I can appreciate a machine that can go a tad over 250mph. (The fastest I've ever gone was 100mph in a Datsun Stanza while pointing downhill on I-87 with the wind at my back. The car was shaking more than Chuck Yeager's "Glamorous Glennis" on October 14, 1947...) Practical it ain't. But that's not the point. The point is they're selling!

Forbes Life - it's amazing the publication even comes out at all - has a fascinating feature on how Bugatti does it. It is a case study in one-to-one marketing and worth reading. Here are the salient points:
  • You don't buy a Veyron; you apply for one;
  • Most of the marketing budget goes toward shipping a demo car to a prospect, along with a professional driver who will show what the machine is capable of doing;
  • The number of people in the world who might buy one is tiny and the company actively seeks them out to talk to them, one-on-one;
  • The car is constantly being watched, via satellite, where every parameter of the car is monitored.

Granted, most of us don't have products or services that are appropriate for such a tiny portion of the planet's population. Nonetheless, the artcile got me going because it points out some important marketing tips:

  • When you can, aim for exclusivity.
  • Demonstrate what it is you have to sell.
  • Determine your audience and speak to them directly.
  • Overservice and exceed expectations.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go hit the open road.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Dear Kind Friend. If you deposit $10,000 into my account in Nigeria...

My friend Aparna, a graphic designer, forwarded to me this wonderful Reuters piece about Nigeria rebranding itself.

The country, known for its emails and various other forms of online scammery, is hoping to shed its seamy image with some t-shirts and caps with the power to restore self-confidence.

I wonder if a US-based firm is helping and, if so, they were required to deposit some money into a third-party bank account, secure in the knowledge that a huge payday awaits.

Bill George is only half-right

According to Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic (NYSE: MDT) and now a professor at Harvard Business School, the worst thing a CEO of a company is crisis should do is "hire a PR firm and ask it to restore your image." (March 16 issue of Fortune)
Far be it from me to tell Mr. George he's wrong. But he's only half right.
Hiring a public relations firm can be the smartest move a CEO makes. A smart PR firm will work with its clients to figure out how to build their reputations in times of "peace." Diligently working to help spread the clients' gospel through all forms of media, speaking engagements and so on, is what a good public relations firm does.
Why? (1) To help grow and protect business and (2) so that in times of crisis you have a reputational leg upon which to stand as you make your case for what went wrong (or not) and how things will be changed moving forward (or not). If your company hasn't been making its PR investments, how could it possibly reap the benefits of any dividend?
The mistake so many managers make is assuming that hiring a PR firm can wait until a company is in crisis. I've said this is this space too many times to count: public relations is about what you do; it's not about what you say. If your company screwed up, you have to own up and demonstrate the way out of the mess.
Public relations professionals are not magicians and don't "spin it" for a living. PR pros help build well-deserved reputations and play a critical role in their defense.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Heeeeere's Barak!

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you know that President Obama appeared last night on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. It was a big deal. A sitting president has never done that before. And, of course, everyone has an opinion.

Including me.

It wasn't a mistake for him to schedule the appearance and, in retrospect, it went well. The only gaffe came when the president compared his bowling ability to the Special Olympics.

So, does this mean that sitting presidents now have to do the late night circuit? No, and we can all learn a lesson. Every media appearance and speaking opportunity for any spokesperson or chief executive needs to be judged in terms of importance and weighed against the person's ability to handle the situation. Obama did well because he thinks on his feet and doesn't seem to have to rely on thoroughly canned talking points. Also, he's usually rather funny.

Imagine if President Bush had tried the same.

Bottom line: it went well and it was a positive experience. As my favorite television president says, "What's next?"

Thursday, March 19, 2009

NEWSFLASH - People are watching their money!

Old story - A number of years ago, I helped a furniture remanufacturer with key messaging. They thought they sold on value; turns out the "green" issue was their customers' hot button with value a close second.

They're in luck because, according to Mark Penn (about whom I've written before), "green" is no longer increasing heart rates; value is.

In an incredibly long-winded piece, Penn explains that consumers now are watching their pennies and, yeah, being green is still cool, but saving green is where it's at.

I guess that makes it official.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Everyone Knows Everything and No One Knows how to Shut Up

Well, we're finally here. Everyone knows everything all the time. And, aparently, a lot of people don't know when to keep their proverbial mouths closed.

Cases are ending in mistrials because jurors are blogging, twittering and otherwise talking about the cases for which they are seated. Everyone knows that jurors are not supposed to talk, yet talk they do, and in ways that are much, much more impactful than casually mentioning something over dinner. Jurors are broadcasting. What makes no sense is that judges surely tell jurors they may not talk, blog, email, research, etc., the cases they are to decide. Yet people do it anyway.

But can you blame the juror? He or she is a regular person who now lives in an online world. "Google" and "friend" have become verbs; Wikipedia is the most successful encyclopedia. (My 10-year-old can't be blamed for not knowing how to research something in the library; he has everything he needs at his fingertips.) Anyone - ahem - can have a blog.

Yes, I say, blame the juror. Having the ability to communicate is not the same as having the responsibility to communicate. In fact, successful, responsible communication often means saying nothing at all.

I'm reminded of an article I once read about SUVs during the height of their popularity in the U.S. Owning one, the writer suggested, wasn't about the need to drive off-road; it was about the ability to do so. After all, he said, how much off-roading does one do on the way to buy some milk?

Don't get me wrong: I think it's great that communication is no longer in the hands of those who have the ability to buy ink by the barrel. Mass communication has truly become accessible to all. But I think many people have yet to learn that having the means to do something does not necessarily mean they should.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Further evidence of the winds of change in DC

President Obama is doing what no president since Grover Cleveland has done: he is shunning the Gridiron Club's annual dinner. I'm not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing.

But definitely IS a thing.

It's widely recognized that the election of President Obama marks a shift in the relationship between the establishment and the media. He is the first president to have made successful use of "new" media. The white house web site has been revamped and is being used in ways akin more to a startup than the executive branch of government. If I'm not mistaken, the first question in the first press conference given by the new preisdent was asked by a blogger.

Now, the Gridiron representatives say they are not effended and the president's people say none was meant. But one has to admit, the excuses offered are somewhat weak.

No matter what your opinion - good or bad - you have to agree that this administration is doing everything it can to change the way news is reported in DC and around the world.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Discovering your key messages

What's the best way to figure out your key messages?

Many executives think long and hard about this. And, more often than not, they think about it in the wrong way. It's very tempting to say, "We offer Service X, therefore, our primary key message is that our company is a leading provider of Service X."

Maybe it is. But what about what the customer wants or needs from you? Your customer likely wants to hear about how you can HELP them achieve a certain goal. Sure, it may be implied within the message of being a leading provider of X. But why imply? Say it outright!

Put another way, your audience doesn't want to hear what YOU think is important; they want to hear about what THEY think is important.

Here's an example. I worked with a furniture remanufacturer on their corporate messaging. When I asked the president and the VP of sales why their customers buy from them, they both said, "price."

So we went to work talking about who their audiences are, what their concerns are and how the company addressed those concerns.

Know what? Price wasn't the primary reason customers were buying. It was environmental -- a "green" thing.

The first step in marketing communications always has to be about discovering the right messages. If time isn't taken to appropriately explore what your target audiences want to hear, they won't listen when you start talking.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Here's a little company that could use some help getting its messages out

One would assume that with all the money flowing from the US government to AIG, there'd be something in the budget for the communications department.

Apparently not.

The recently re-rescued company has found money to pay bonuses to some executives. AIG argued the bonuses "were promised last year before the crisis and cannot be legally canceled." Also, it's argued, the money is "retention" money. Maybe they need to pay out that money to retain talent. But, if they're so talented, why are they in this mess?

I've said it many times before and I'll continue: public relations is about what you do and not about what you say.

Dire economy? Innovation!

This piece from yesterday's New York Times is certainly heartening. Here is (not are) a handful of souls who, thanks to pink slips, all find themselves accidental entrepreneurs.

It is exactly for these folks - who will be driving the economy in the near future - that we've launched a new web site that helps young companies create their first PR materials. We also take it a step further with the Marketing Communications Starter Kit.

Sure, there's plenty of doom and gloom out there. (The Chinese prime minister just reported that he's worried about the money his country has lent the United States.) But if you look hard enough, you'll see people doing what people do when their backs are up against the wall: getting creative. If nothing else, it will be fun to see the next great thing that comes out of this depression.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Crafting versus Discovering

Yesterday I mentioned that I prefer to talk about "discovering" messages versus "crafting" them.

Here's why.

The word "crafting" implies that you're making something up. To me, at least, it means spinning something from nothing. ("Spinning" - there's another one!) The language I use is that of "discovery" - not in the legal sense, but in the literal sense.

My experience over the past 18 years has taught me that every single company, individual, organization, etc., has a story to tell. The challenge is to figure out what that story is, who needs to hear it and how you can get them to listen. True, sometimes it's difficult to earn publicity, but more often than not, that's not the challenge. The challenge is in figuring what to say and to whom.

At BCI, we talk about discovering key messages. For us, that's the first step in the PR process. Without dedicating the appropriate amount of time to ascertaining what it is clients have to say, everything else is for naught.

If you'd like to start that conversation, please let me know.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Of PR and "Flackiness"

I saw two interesting blog posts yesterday about the "flackiness" of PR and I thought that, together, they offered what to talk about.

First, Seth Godin held forth on the difference between public relations and publicity. His bottom line: PR is about discovering the story that will help drive publicity. (Actually, Godin says "crafting" the story, but to me that's a negative thing. More on that in a subsequent post.) Publicity is, well, publicity. The latter, according to Godin, is a lot easier than the former. Clients would do better to allow their PR firms to help frame the message as opposed to commanding them to go forth and publicize.

Second, was Gawker's not-so-veiled disappointment that Facebook co-founder and former Obama guy Chris Hughes has elected to join a DC PR firm. According to Owen Thomas, Hughes is now reduced to a "flack" - ranking possibly just above used car salesman.

Should Hughes be lambasted for simply joining a PR firm? How does Thomas already know what Hughes will be working on? Is it impossible to fathom that there are PR firms that work hard to counsel clients on the messages they will broadcast?

I don't know the firm Chris Hughes is going to. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say he'll be the "social media expert" and be brought in on new business pitches. But, he could very well play a role in important future campaigns that will shape public discourse in the United States.

Godin says PR pros have to do a better job at showing clients that public relations is a lot more than just publicity. Owen Thomas says that all PR pros are flacks.

Apparently, the PR field can use a little PR counsel.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Church murderer may have been suffering from mental illness.

Yesterday, a gunman walked into a St. Louis area church and started shooting. Reports today suggest the gunman, Terry Joe Sedlacek, was suffering from mental illness due to lyme disease. The news comes from his family.

Since when are murderers sane?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Facebook continues its global takeover

Can anything stop Facebook? A recent issue of Fortune points out that Facebook is taking over our lives, "but is it a real business?" I don't know the answer to the question, but I can certainly agree with the statement.

I have yet to succumb to the sweet siren call of Facebook, but I imagine I won't be able to resist much longer. Both my wife and daughter are devotees and countless colleagues have invited me to become their friends. (I certainly hope they are still my friends, even if it is only in the real world and not online.)

A couple of weeks ago, Facebook was in the news for changing its terms of agreement. Naturally, privacy was the issue. Then, last week, my wife (the one on Facebook) sent me a link about some cops in Rockland County, NY, who were suspended for posting what can be called, at best, locker room humor about their town supervisor and President Obama.

So, the question is: Does posting offensive thoughts on Facebook deserve the protection of free speech, as suggested by one of the suspended cops as well as his chief. Uh, yes, as long as it's not inciting hatred or violence.

As far as I know, Facebook hasn't taken the postings down - I assume they would have to cross a certain threshold of indecency to do so - and I don't think they should. Then, again, I'm no legal expert.

But I do know a few things about communications and I feel that just about every time someone opens his or her mouth, literally or figuratively, there is something to be learned. In the case of the cops with bad attitudes, I think we can learn that - in addition to being juvenile and in all likelihood unfit to serve their community - when left to their own devices, some people have no clue how to communicate effectively and can sometimes end up humiliating themselves.

How do you avoid that? Think about what you want to say and what you want to accomplish by saying it.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

I should point out

I've moved my blog from

I'm trying to figure out how I can move my old postings from there to here. If you know, and can tell me how to do it and I do it successfully, you get a present.

You know it's a slow news day...

That The New York Times and both have as their lead items the graying of President Obama can only mean one thing: it's a slow news day.

Given the current economy, wars and everything else, I guess it's good news that the most important item of the day is that the President has a stressful job.