Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Top 6.573 things

It's the time of year for 2010 predictions, musings and rants. Among the many, I'll add mine.

1. Shorten your top # list.

Top (fill in the number) lists are growing shorter. Do you remember "Top 20"? Today, if you come across a top 100 list, you will skim the top 5, maybe the top 10. A few gallant efforts are trying to keep the Top 10 list. (David Letterman will be the last holdout).

Many bloggers are trimming to 5 or 6 points.

Short attention spans? Too many blogs? Smaller computer screens (like my cool new netbook). The scrolling resistance movement?

Let's face it: The fast pace of Twitter and other social media sites is literally leaving you with only 37 seconds to read a linked story before you have to check Tweetdeck again.

The love affair with lists won't entirely fade because bullets and numbers seem to package info very nicely for us. Journalists seem to love them.

So, keep manufacturing lists to get attention.

But, really, we simply don't have time to read any list longer than, say, five things.

(Um, gotta go. I just got 14 new emails, 300 new tweets to check and a long lost high school classmate who just found me on Facebook.)

2. Pithy works. The English language continues to suffer. Spellcheck is used less. The watchdogs we grew up with (i.e., William Safire) are no longer around to beat on us for bad grammar and stupid phrases.

Somehow, we no longer cringe over bad writing, just bad pitches. If it's glib, we'll read it. Substance will continue to take a back seat. But, as long as Snopes is around...Sigh.

3. Sensitivity training needed. Please keep the sensitivity training in court orders and other judgments handed down to public figures, like overpaid athletes who run into stands to fight with fans or a barely audible rapper who beats on his girlfriend.

You see, when the TMZs and the Perez Hiltons of the world rule by shock value, there needs to be a balance. Our only reminder that values still have, well, value is when someone is ordered to do community service. The sentencing phase in celebrity court cases still draws huge amounts of attention.

Side benefit: Cutting the anointed idols down to size is our only hope in slowing the pace of reality programming. (Did you hear about the "marriage referee" show coming next year?)

OK judges - time to be even more creative. Wouldn't an appropriate sentencing order in 2010 require a drunken, out-of-work actress to work five days a week at a Rescue Mission to feed the homeless? Or for a new reality show to be created on Court TV to follow a wannabe-boxer-who-plays-right-tackle in the NFL as he picks up trash along the freeway or talks to young boys about the dangers of pre-marital sex?

4. Aggregating continues. The cry of "I just need one site that gives me everything" will continue as millions of more blogs and Web sites appear and strain the world's server capacities. Anyone or any company that delivers this solution will be placed next to Ben Franklin or Thomas Edison and hailed as delivering the eighth wonder of the world. Yeah, I know: Google, Bing and others are trying.

5. "Instant" moves into "future." Today, I can use a Droid to scan an item at my local clothing retailer and compare the price online to find the cheapest price. Instantly. If the online price is cheaper, I can actually stand in that retailer's store, order the same product over the Internet and somehow escape without the store manager giving me angry stares or spraying me with a cologne sample. I can use the GPS function of my phone to hunt down a reporter attending the same conference, or become the "mayor" of a coffee shop. My Google page is automatically refreshing my current search with Twitter updates.

Now is now.

So, what's next? Telling me what's going to happen. Now, that will be cool. Heck, the Weather Channel has been doing this for years.

Think of all the time I will save if someone can tell me that my PR pitch to the Wall Street Journal (online edition, of course) will fail or succeed before I waste my time crafting that perfect pitch.

6.573. Four jobs. Multitasking and working from home were simply training and a precursor to morphing a single job description into three or four. Employers won't hire one person. They will hire a fourth of a person. We'll all work from home, answering to 3 or 4 bosses or "paycheck providers" (as the new mantra emerges). The possibilities under the new economy are endless.

Still with me? Then you must not have a Twitter account.

Happy Holidays.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Muddy waters?

Public disclosure and public relations can and do co-exist. But in recent examples and with another "big game" at stake - the matter is not resolved by any stretch.

The health care debate has cast attention on deception and "front groups" created by the health care, insurance or pharmaceutical industries. A prominent public relations executive detailed at the 2009 PRSA conference why he left a cushy insurance industry job for this reason.

The next ethical spotlight could very well be cast in California in 2010.

California water wars are notorious. As soon as a drop falls from the skies and lands in the Golden State (as well as other Western states), it is "game on" for control.

California is "water rich" in the north and "people rich" in the south. Hence, the need to build canals to send water hundreds of miles from mountains and rivers to population centers. The most notable skirmish is the city of Los Angeles' epic takeover of Owens Valley water rights (as portrayed in "Chinatown").

Numerous books have been written about how various parties - from the state's large farming concerns to urban water agencies to well-organized environmental groups - wage intense, high-priced battles over this precious resource. I once worked for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which was created to build and manage a 200+ mile pipeline to transport water from the Colorado River to one of the largest populations in the world.

This year, California's lawmakers passed a series of monumental bills designed to protect the major faucet in our our massive water system - the Delta.

This was big. This was huge. It's been more than 30 years since acts of similar magnitude were accomplished.

Passage came after major political battles. I mean, major political battles. This column can't adequately summarize the extent of these multiple negotiations except to say that anytime you mix legal rights (like property rights), the country's biggest agriculture concerns, some of the most cunning environmental groups, millionaires, lawyers, lobbyists, the governor, public affairs strategists - each with their own agenda to carry - it is, well, manic and complicated. Trades and favors are exchanged in mostly painful ways.

California's water picture involves a mix of public relations, public affairs and lobbying. And, money. Water is perhaps one of the most complex issues in California.

Given the stakes, many public relations and public affairs firms in CA have been called upon to develop and implement various campaigns.

Now comes an article from an independent news organization about "front groups" apparently created and managed by public affairs firms or similar interests. A few "Friends of the.." popped up in the latest CA water battle. This is old stuff in California. With this state's predisposition for legislation through ballot initiative, we've seen these "Friends of..." or "Citizens for...." groups suddenly emerge to support their side of the issue. Heck, voters in California will see four or five "firefighter" organizations endorsing ballot measures or candidates. Firefighters consistently earn the most trust among citizens, so their endorsements are continually sought. But it's now difficult to figure out which firefighter group to follow.

While not new, front groups can pose issues in terms of public disclosure or creating public confusion. The Public Relations Society of America has guidelines, ethical standards and periodic bulletins that practitioners should follow when conducting business on behalf of a client, company or organization.

One thing should be clear: A public affairs firm or public relations agency is best suited to develop and manage an issues campaign.

In most cases, a firm is hired by an existing organization and there is no question whose side is being promoted. But in cases where multiple entities or individuals have a "case" to make and no organization exists, a "Friends of.." group is created. Or, call them "front groups." Now comes the tricky part in terms of disclosure - and the source of the recent news examination as to who funds these groups and their true intentions.

"Pop-up" groups that don't fully disclose their financial supporters or intentions cast an unwanted negative shadow over the other organizations that do disclose. They also can "muddy the waters" in a legitimate debate of the issues.

As the media director for a CA ballot initiative in the 1990s, I made it clear who I represented and their financial support. Once I disclosed this with reporters and editorial boards (and disclosure was made upfront), I was able to have a better discussion of the issue with news organizations. I believe our honesty - combined with a well crafted campaign - earned us points at the polls.

As 2010 approaches in California, we now brace for more "pop-up"groups to form in the debate over an $11 billion bond measure to fund major water projects in the state. Yes, I said "$11 billion." On the ballot in November 2010.

This is the final piece of the massive battle over how to fix the state's water system. With this kind of money at stake, it's easy to conclude that my public affairs colleagues will be gainfully employed next year.

Already, we have seen some groups forming their opposition to the measure, or using the bond issue to redirect public debate toward their issues. Strategies are being formed. Money collecting has begun to pay for advertisements and public affairs strategists.

Confusion is ahead. Scare tactics are inevitable.

The question relevant to the public relations profession and the hundreds of public affairs professionals doing business in CA is whether all front groups and organizations provide full disclosure. It would be sad if an agency or strategist is gambling or taking a calculation: Either that mainstream news organizations no longer do this kind of investigative reporting or, even if they do publish a "money trail" article, no one cares.

The CA electorate - and the public relations profession - will be better off with full disclosure.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My podcast about the past, future PR


Here is a podcast from my interview at the 2009 PRSA International Conference in San Diego where I offered some discussion about the state of PR, the future of PR and the exciting announcements we made.

Community Outreach RFP due Dec.09

The County of San Bernardino has issued an RFP for community outreach services related to its Department of Airports.

Public relations professionals who have subscribed to the free state BidSync services will find that this RFP is only posted on the BidLync paid RFP search service. (Ouch, $400 a year!).

But with a little searching (thank you Google), you can find the public posting here.

Submission is due Dec. 30, 2009.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Value of public relations

Once again, the public relations industry finds it must defend its value as a legitimate business for government and public agencies.

This will be the first in a series of occasional entries about demonstrating the true value of public relations.

The good news is the Public Relations Society of America recently launched an advocacy effort, called "The Business Case for Public Relations," that should "level" the discussion about an important, international industry sector.

A recent attack arose at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. (Full disclosure: I was the Media Services Section Manager in the External Affairs department at MWD for seven years until 2008. The section is, essentially, the public relations arm of External Affairs, running the press office, publications, etc. And, I chose to retire to enable me to take advantage of my "big" pension of $1,500 a month - after taxes. For these reasons this entry won't attempt to justify the now-dead pension change. Well, just one comment: Realize those pension benefits are taxed. Reduced pensions will mean less tax revenue.)

Articles in the Orange County Register and columns in the Daily News and San Diego Union Tribune, along with some tasty blogs, all used common "action" words to describe public relations in a negative light. "High priced consultant." "Politically connected." "Spin." "Slick public relations campaigns." And so on.

When I was a journalist, I was among the many who held a healthy skepticism of public relations specialists calling me with "information" or a "story idea." But, that is the nature of journalists. They are skeptical of everyone.

But when a healthy skepticism moves over to easily thrown and outdated accusations in public, the only ones served are those pulling the school fire alarm during finals. It is all too easy to take a swing at "PR" because, gee, aren't these guys simply trying to spin us? And, wow, look at how much money they are being paid. Why do any pure, deep examination of "why" a public relations consultant was hired? Why examine the information that actually is being disseminated - let's just focus on the "hiring" of a public relations firm. It's much easier to capitalize on old images to get a reader nodding their head. Lazy reporting. Lazy editorializing. An easy way to get your story noticed.

So, public relations professionals, don't quietly take our lumps. Perpetuation of bad, incorrect images will create hesitation among potential clients. Challenge the "conventional" wisdom.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Time to go

So, we're beyond the fence-sitters and the financially strapped.

Now, I'm left with only this: Will you kick yourself for missing it?

I'm speaking, of course, about the PRSA 2009 International Conference set to begin this weekend in San Diego.

If you haven't heard the latest news: Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a last-minute addition to the Monday general session. Whoa. How many times have we seen the Chairman at an event like this? How many times has he been speaking in public?

The other last-minute addition is to Sunday's opening session when guest speaker Arianna Huffington interviews health-care advocate Wendell Potter, APR.

OK, so the military has one of the biggest public affairs/public information departments and the head guy is speaking to us. On top of that, we have one of the biggest "insiders" to how the health care debate is being scripted.

And, you are not going?

Single-day tickets are still available. Bargain hotel room rates still available. Airline travel is still cheap.

You have to ask yourself: What is the one thing that will give me a truly competitive advantage going into 2010? How about this conference?

80+ sessions over four days. Exclusive speakers. Networking with thousands of your colleagues. No audio tapes for sale - so you must go in person to gain the advantage.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Major PR firm sale

News that Michael Sitrick is selling his Los Angeles-based firm to an Orange County-based turnaround firm creates an interesting question about whether more deals could occur.

This story in The Wall Street Journal explains why Resources Connection is creating a one-stop shop for firms in distress. (Note: Some may find it interesting that Michael agreed to be interviewed by the Journal, the same paper he was battling just a few months ago after the Journal broke a major controversial story about an Orange County financier who may have been conducting a Ponzi scheme. But if you know Sitrick, he is a master of dealing with the news media.)

For a couple of reasons, the Sitrick-Resources merger/acquisition makes sense. Most obvious is that companies will continue to be in distress and will need consultants who can offer expert services.

Offering a single location for multiple, related services has been the mantra for major media giants like Omnicom and WPP. Advertising, marketing and public relations all seem to go together, allowing for like-minded management and business operations.

The Sitrick-Resources marriage appears to step out of the safety of symbiotic operations. Yes, the model looks logical. It made sense to the firms involved. But, the question is whether two very different types of businesses can blend operations, two different types of mindsets can aim in the same direction?

How many times have we seen mergers fall apart? AOL-Time Warner seemed like a good idea. How many major corporations are forcing non-core business units to prove themselves? Look at Proctor and Gamble putting the challenge to their acquired units.

One thing the Sitrick-Resources marriage lacks is Investor Relations. I mean, real IR expertise. An IR firm was probably behind the scenes of the acquisition. IR firms do well in both good times, when companies are buying other companies, and in bad times, when companies are buying struggling companies. The merger and acquisition pace has only slowed for brief periods.

IR firms, like Abernathy MacGregor, also specialize in the same kind of crisis communications that Sitrick offers, but most only do it quietly. They have to keep the volume down because they usually are working for publicly traded companies.

Which now leaves us with another question: Is the Sitrick-Resources marriage limited only to private companies and other organizations?

If so, what will the market bear in terms of similar mergers? Will a WPP or Omnicom begin to search for the kind of firm filled with the counselors and specialists at Resources?

Stay tuned. Comments welcomed. Prediction: A few more "like" mergers are coming.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Six things THEY don't have

You are picky when it comes to professional training. I don't blame you.

Especially when money is tight. Which organization do I join? Which conference do I attend? What online seminar is worth the money?

If you are a public relations, communications or marketing professional, either at a company, an agency or on your own - how do I make sense of the multitudes of offers I see daily?

Let me give you six factors to consider when it comes to a convention or conference. In no particular order, here you go. (This should work whether you are a seasoned pro or starting out).

1. The experts. Check out the bios of the panelists. Are they tied to major accounts? Do they look like they have some years on them? Have they moved up quickly in their career? Are they quoted in the trades? Do they hold positions in the trade association or with other organizations? A quick Google search can tell you whether this conference has collected the "top of gamers" or the "desperately seeking credibility" types. Do the descriptions try to "sell" you their credentials or does it become clear you have someone who is going to give you some meat on the bone?

2. The keynote speakers. Yeah, it would be nice if every conference had the complete "A" list, like it would ever happen that Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell and the other gurus were all in one place next to a Steve Balmer or another CEO or two from a Fortune 100 company. But keynoters are just the icing on the cake. Some of the best conferences are the ones that focus on great panels, seminars and programs and, maybe, get you an well-known name.

3. The range of programs. I don't know about you, but it seems conferences today are becoming more and more specialized and singularly focused. I used to plan on attending 2-5 major conferences a year with the public relations industry, but because of time (less of it in this economy) and money (same), I need to be on the lookout for the one conference that gives me the full complement of programs. Today, I can't afford to be highly specialized. Today, it pays to get a range of training and experiences under your belt - if only to borrow ideas from another field or medium. A health care tactic or strategy just may be applicable to some of my public affairs work.

4. The networking. Let's face it, it's not only the training, but the networking and the parties that make a conference worthwhile. OK, so the day is ending and you have every intention of running back to your hotel room to get some work done, or read the book you brought along. But, that person from Memphis you just met at the morning session sounded like he/she had some intriguing life stories and was going to grab a drink at the bar across the street. And, he/she invited you to meet her/his friends. Forgot the book. Network. The odds are generally in your favor that you'll meet a lifelong connection who will come in handy someday. After years of attending conferences, I have friends across the country - each with the right, specific answer to the most unique question or dilemma I come across. And, they all know where I work so my company's reputation and name recognition is marketed with just a couple of beers.

5. The location. Vegas? Been there. New York? OK, still have fun there. But, why not pick somewhere new and different? When a conference pops up in a city you've never seen - it's the one and only chance you likely will see this town. At least, not as a layover to somewhere else. I have been fortunate to have seen some very important sites in Philly only because a convention was there. I've managed to see football games in Detroit's and Philadelphia's new stadiums because of conventions. I've been to well-known museums. And, of course, some famous bars. Go ahead. Dream.

6. The price. If you are considering a conference that lasts 2 or 3 days, there are probably 30, 40 or 50 sessions. Maybe more. Now, consider the asking price for a teleseminar or webinar. Take the lowest price webinar and then multiply that by the number of likely sessions you'll attend at a conference. Now, do you start seeing the economies of scale? A packed conference will have a much higher rate of return. Let the boss know this when you ask to have the company pay for this training.

Bonus: An extra tip. Leadership training. Look for the conferences that have sessions designed to make you a manager. Even if you never become an EVP or team leader, these sessions will make you a more valuable member of any team.

So, now look at the PRSA 2009 International Conference and see how these factors line up.

Hurry. The conference is less that a month away. Go to

Thursday, September 3, 2009

PR pro handling Jaycee Duggard family

Based on her resume, Erika Price Schulte is a likely choice to act as the spokesperson for the Jaycee Dugard family. Erika is shown here during the OC Register's exclusive interview with Jaycee's aunt.

Based on a cursory search, it appears Erika has some experience with missing children issues. A resume shows she is on the board of trustees for the Joyful Child Foundation, created in the memory of Samantha Runnion, who was kidnapped and murdered in 2002.

The rest of her resume is below, as it once appeared on Dailey Marketing. (The Daily Web site does not list her).

An experienced public relations professional with a broad, fifteen year background in both corporate and agency environments,Erika has directed corporate communications and public relations initiatives for premium brands such as Canon, Toyota andBosch, as well as entrepreneurial ventures and local organizations.Her expertise in media relations and special events has earned recognition and awards from leading organizations such as PRSA, IABC and the Bulldog Reporter, but much more important, she is known for getting results and achieving success for her clients.

Erika prides herself on a high level of professionalism, and maintains solid working relationships with top reporters, editors and journalists at both a local and national level.Her strong verbal and written skills help ensure clarity and accuracy when communicating with the media.

She also is active in several philanthropic organizations, including The Joyful Child Foundation - In Memory of Samantha Runnion, where she serves on the board of trustees, volunteers as spokesperson and communications director and advises founder Erin Runnion on all communication strategies and media appearances.Erika also serves on the board of directors for the California Conservatory of the Arts, providing communications guidance and support for the school.

Erika earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications/Public Relations from California State University, Fullerton.

Where are the stories?

(My apologies today - veering off the PR blog for a journey into my past as a journalist)

Perhaps one fallout of the decline in print journalism and the rise of electronic and social media is the ability to capture the drama. The rush to get news out fast via blogs, Twitter and 24-hour TV news cycles is, by this observer's opinion, leaving us with less of the emotional aspects of a story. Is speed killing the ability to tell us the complete story? Are we simply OK with tidbits?

When I began my career as a journalist, I was captivated by dramatic stories and the writers who could convey a great story. I was told by journalism teachers (like my friend Joe Saltzman and the late great Bill Farr) and some editors to always "paint a picture" so the readers could feel they were actually next to you, observing what you were seeing at the time. This was always my challenge as a writer.

As a journalist, you usual arrive to a story after it happened. If you are fortunate, you can report and collect facts as a story is unfolding before you. However, since you are usually reporting about something that you didn't directly observe, it was (is?) incumbent to probe, ask questions and collect information to write "a story."

Some of the greatest news writing occurs in catastrophes, when the human spirit is tested, when conditions are extreme. Wars provide opportunity to convey the human struggle, the drama of the moment, the extreme tests, the sadness, the glory and the pure, raw emotions. Nobody likes war. But, news stories about war are necessary because human lives are at stake, countries are anguished, leaders are questioned, and so on.

In Los Angeles these past few days, we had our own little war - the largest wildfire ever. What began as a small brush fire in the hills above La Canada at 3:30 p.m. Aug. 26, soon grew into a deadly monster. Two firefighters lost their lives. At least six people were injured. Nearly 100 homes were lost. Nearly 5,000 firefighters battled flames on three or four major fronts. Smoke choked a city. What began as a small hillside fire that was originally 20% contained within 300 or so acres, soon became an uncontrolled beast that wiped out a major national forest.

Yet, for the most part, local journalism covering this major dramatic moment lacked drama. Sure, we had occasion stories of drama - like rescues of wild and exotic animals at refuges or the battle to save radio towers and historic observatories. But, when you have thousands of firefighters spread out over 150 square miles and flames more than 100 feet high, it's time to get into the field as a reporter and get the news. (Note: Many great news photographers did not let us down in this one).

I don't mean to pick on an particular news organization or reporter, but I will offer one story to exemplify my point. Today's article in the Santa Clarita Signal tells the story of two animal trainers in Acton who saw the fire coming, forcing them to relocate bears, deer and elephants (yes, Elephants!) before they got trapped by 100-foot flames. With him were firefighters who also were trapped and they used his stone house as protection while the flames roared past. The owner stayed in his stone house. Everyone survived.

This may not be the MOST dramatic story of this fire, but is certainly could be in top five. There is so much more to tell in this story, so much more emotion and "color" to paint the picture. (Could you have at least asked the normally silly question: "Were you scared?").

Worse? We're getting this story nearly five days later. The drama happened Saturday, Aug. 29. The only other news outlet to interview Handley (from a quick Google search) was the CBS network news two days earlier - and that was only a story about residents refusing to evacuate. Hardly a mention about the drama that came across Handley, his neighbor, the animals, the trapped firefighters.

Perhaps one of the greatest stories about a deadly wildfire was in a book, about the 1994 Colorado "South Canyon" fire that killed 14 firefighters. What made me read the book was an excerpt in a magazine. Even the excerpt was storytelling at its best, providing me the picture and the drama as if I was there. That story then was a new benchmark for me as a writer, a new challenge to write better.

So, what's your view? Are we losing the ability to capture a story in our rush to get news out via the Internet? Maybe we're OK with the tidbits via a blog or RSS feed and will be OK to get the story much later when the book is published? Not me.

Next up will be how we take all this into consideration as we do our public relations jobs.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Swine flu mistakes, again

Here we go again with swine flu controversy.

It wasn't too many months ago that health officials were being ridiculed for sounding an alarm over swine flu.

After the initial warning, the numbers trickled in. Based on what they viewed as a relatively low infection/death rate at that time, critics immediately blasted the swine flu warnings as bordering on yelling fire in a crowded theater. Comparisons were drawn to other deadly epidemics and ailments and, boy, it appeared to the naysayers that the swine flu was just a minor bug bite compared to the big boys of killer viruses.

Travelers were soon complaining about restrictions. Folks made fun of people wearing masks. I read many Tweets critical of the warning and for what many viewed as creating an unnecessary hysteria.

As the public relaxed and swine flu faded from the news, health organization reputations were taking a beating. Did they sound an alarm too early or too loud? Was a more measured warning appropriate at the time?

The reputation of these organizations and the credibility of the message were undermined. Depending on how deep the damage, the setback could hinder future educational efforts. If indeed a majority of the population felt that health officials were "crying wolf" earlier this year, would the public really listen to the next warning when swine flu was expected to make a comeback in the fall? For public relations professionals developing future swine flu outreach strategies for health organizations, the issue of public acceptance was likely a major focus this summer.

Fast forward to Monday, Aug. 24, when the White House issues alarming news about swine flu making a strong comeback. The warning: As many as 90,000 Americans could die from swine flu in the coming months. The virus could also infect half of the American population. Hospitals would be overwhelmed.

Wow. Talk about taking control of the message in a big way. Certainly, an announcement of this magnitude would make everyone forget the previous "cry wolf" episode. Scary estimates should stimulate the masses into taking precautions. Right?

The White House warning, which was preceded by a rash of stories about an expected jump in swine flu cases because schools were going back into session, was among this week's top stories (until Ted Kennedy died). Actually, the White House did a nice "warm-up" job in terms of communications - primarily through a couple of key press releases from the Department of Homeland Security. And, when you think about it, the World Health Organization began in June with renewed warnings.

With a few press releases "heating up" the conversation followed by the White House's incredibly dire prediction and a relatively slow news period, the swine flu story gained significant traction in recent days. News reports included medical experts giving advice on how washing your hands was critical to slowing down the spread. Tips were offered for employers.

Raise your hand if you know when vaccinations will be ready and how many doses you will need? (Answer: swine flu vaccines will be available in October. You will need two separate doses for the swine flu, along with a third for the regular flu).

What we had was a great educational effort. If you could design this as a public relations campaign, it's almost a perfect case study. A few key announcements to the public from mostly respected organizations, specific and direct warnings to key stakeholders, followed by a major announcement from a trusted source - the executive branch of the federal government.

But, whoa, hit the brakes. There is a new conflict, as pointed out today by a report that the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control disputes the Obama Administration's estimates. Dr. Frieden now believes the White House estimates are too high. Even officials within the White House are disputing the estimates.

Now what? What are we to believe? What are we supposed to do?

Based on reports from across the country, school administrators have been taking the White House and DHS warnings seriously. Policies are in place or being formulated to isolate children with symptoms and to call in parents to retrieve their sons and daughters. Teachers are reminding students about washing their hands.

Yet, now, with the CDC doubting the White House estimates, the situation can quickly turn into public anger. Depending on how much news coverage is given to the CDC director's opinion, the entire swine flu education campaign could unravel.

Does it get worse? Yes. Even the CDC, whose leader is publicly doubting death rates, is embarking on a major education effort -including using Facebook and Twitter - to get us inoculated against swine flu.

Hmmm. The threat is not as big as I once heard, but you want me to get vaccinated anyway?

Conflicting messages, again, could seriously ruin efforts to stop the spread of a very deadly virus. Could a public relations leader at one of these agencies take charge and offer a coordinated, singular public information campaign? Please?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Confusing Town Halls and Health Care Attacks

A favorite Warren Zevon song is "Lawyers, Guns and Money." Motivation and means to get what you want, or the tools to wage battle.

In the case of our current health care debate, all we need to do is simply replace "Guns" with "Words."

Unless you've been on vacation in another country with your Blackberry turned off, the big news these past few days has been the disruptions at town hall meetings to discuss health care reform and an almost hourly claim-counterclaim avalanche of stories about the bill before Congress.

Accusations are flying. Fingers are being pointed. Police are being called in to help escort members of Congress out of nasty town hall meetings. Aides and staffers are staying up late to counter statements and brief reporters on background.

It's a classic disinformation campaign, for those who have followed national politics the past century.

Yes, Americans could do their own digging and get the facts about the proposed legislation. And, they could also see whose goose could be cooked. Or, you can let others do that.

For instance, reporters and special interests are digging, eventually discovering what appears to be some old-school dirty politics. Check out how the Sierra Club is battling this and turning up some interesting information. Fascinating that an environmental group could find their niche in this one.

This incredible trail of information (or misinformation) campaigns is helping (hurting?) the quest to bring this issue to the forefront of our collective consciousness. BBQ and cocktail party discussions include personal stories that point out what's wrong with our nation's health care system. Some of us are even watching "Sicko" again just to see just how England's National Health Service really pulls it off.

So, what does this tell us?

Simply - this health care initiative must be really, really important. And it's time to pay attention. It's time to understand there are major disinformation efforts under way to deliberately confuse us.


Never in this century has a president come this far to a major overhaul of the nation's health care system.

It's not like we didn't know this battle was coming. This was a priority for Obama during the campaign, and the essence of his pledge to Sen. Ted Kennedy that earned him Kennedy's endorsement.

If anything, this is a battle for mindshare. And, communications are at the heart of this battle.

So far, the tactics and strategies cover the gambit.

On the opponent's side, there are these examples: Disrupt town hall meetings with either "plants" or with citizens who have been fed scary, but wrong, information. Overwhelm the news media with claims and "facts" to the point that proponents are forced to respond, thereby causing the news media to cover the battles rather than provide us clear, unbiased information about the bill's contents.

Or, feed the media with juicy tidbits about who is behind the campaigns and, again, it draws attention and time away from discussing the merits and fine points of the bill.

The White House has been aggressive, particularly on the social media and Internet fronts. The Reality Check Web site is too hard to resist (Nice to see former Los Angeles television reporter Linda Douglass in one of these clips). Yet, some want the White House to fight harder and, perhaps, dirtier.

Frankly, these strategies are nothing new. Just the execution, the channels and the frequency are different.

So, where will this go? Will we see a new communications strategy?

My instincts tell me: No. The old tactics still seem to work. At least, for the opposition.

Even as the best communications and political strategists on both sides are, right now, plotting the next move (in what seems to be an almost hourly process), it seems we will continue to see a strategy of: Punch, then counter-punch. Claim, then counter-claim. Fact, then the real facts.

Why no new thinking? The fundamentals -- money and fear -- are still present and too easy to resist.

And, so, money and fear will drive the rest of this debate.

Can opponents create enough confusion, fear and anger among the populace to start a small revolt or significant letter-writing effort to further stall the reform bill or generate enough compromises that this is no longer a "reform" initiative? Will special interests opposed to the bill calculate that being exposed - eventually - about their large cash outlays to front groups and questionable tactics is worth the risk? Is there enough cash among proponents to wage an advertising campaign once the August recess is over?

Lawyers, Words and Money. I'm sure Warren would approve.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Will the new home sale surge last?

Today's news about a stronger-than-expected climb in national new home sales shouldn't be a surprise. There was plenty of inventory to be sold at affordable prices and plenty of federal and local stimulus money (in the form of tax credits).

Don't let the good news give you comfort.

There are plenty of indicators that suggest we still have a long way to go before the homebuilding industry returns to a sense of normal. For starters, the tax incentives will be going away.

Recent reports indicate another round of foreclosures - caused by more people losing their jobs and continued difficulty with loan modifications - likely will keep prices depressed and open up more opportunities for purchases of existing homes far into 2010.

A recent report on SoCal Connected, a great public television news show on KCET, offered some interesting confirmation of this.

Also, a recent column in the WSJ points out how long it takes for home prices to climb once they reach bottom. At this stage, many builders simply can't start new construction on approved lots because they would lose money on every home they sell if offered at today's market prices.

So, the struggles are not over, particularly in places like California, Arizona and other states with high foreclosure rates and other rough local economic indicators.

As this column is devoted to public relations, the next question is: How will this continuation of a negative cycle impact colleagues connected to the homebuilding industry? In recent weeks, I've seen two great, smart colleagues either lose their jobs or have their jobs downsized to a contractor status. There were others before this. I'm sure there are more. I just haven't heard about it, yet.

The industry knows recovery is a ways away, so they continue to downsize. And, when this happens, the public relations and public affairs departments take big hits.

It is very likely some of the smartest communications professionals will be lost forever to the homebuilding industry. They can't afford to wait for the recovery and are taking posts in other industries. Sure, when the homebuilding industry recovers, there will be PR and PA openings, but the pool of applicants will be largely inexperienced, in my opinion.

Will recruiters be necessary to lure back the trained, seasoned pros? I hope so.

Current trends and analysis tell us two things about the importance of communications to any industry: That public relations is critical to a company's bottom line in any economic cycle and the profession plays an even bigger role during a period of recovery. You will hear a lot more about this at the 2009 PRSA International Conference.

What's more, the homebuilding industry will continue to face significant challenges in the years and decades before us: Environmental regulations are increasing, water supplies are questionable, communities are better organized thanks to social media, etc. Public relations and public affairs professionals will play important roles in the continued success of this important industry sector.

And, that should mean attractive compensation rates, whether you are an agency or an individual getting hired internally.

The homebuilding industry recovery is several months, if not more than a year away. But when it does recover, it likely will be financially attractive to PR pros.

In the meantime, stay current and remain engaged in the homebuilding industry (Both can be accomplished by joining an association like the Building Industry Association, reading the industry news and attending events). The homebuilding industry will be robust, again.

And, don't forget to arm yourself with the tools and information to build the business case for PR. Right now, it's difficult to make that case with a homebuilding CEO. In early 2010, his or her receptiveness will be markedly improved.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Political ads 24/7

The political broadcast advertisement cycle is no longer confined to the election cycle. The obvious political video, with all the trademarks of an election-year campaign, is now appearing on You Tube and on paid television advertising with more frequency and regularity. In California, the governor is making a direct appeal to the people for his budget stance. Nationally, various groups are making their appeal regarding the President's health care overhaul.

We have Obama to thank. Well, actually, we have Arun Chaudhary to thank.

About this time last year, the Obama team led by Chaudhary - the young film school professor who took a leave from New York University - was clearly demonstrating the power of the video to wins the hearts and minds of Americans. A new book due out next month explains the political power of You Tube and offers a case study on the Obama campaign.

Obviously, the premise for why politicians used You Tube and other social media channels 2008 still holds today: Skip the traditional news media and speak directly to the public. If you have a compelling message spoken eloquently by a charming and mostly respected figure, the chances are better than 50-50 you can turn sentiment in your favor.

Because the President's video team, which now is led by Chaudhary, hasn't stopped posting videos, we are seeing a continued use of this medium in non-election periods.

Consider that since the President took office, the White House has used the medium in various ways to persuade, inform and to keep the momentum going. Perhaps among the most notable post-inauguration videos has been The President's and First Lady's plea for volunteerism (Which actually is about the 6th most viewed You Tube video on the official White House site).

In California this month, the governor has gone to the airwaves to make his case about the next (and overdue) budget. Schwarzenegger's effort has been countered by paid advertisements by the California Teachers Association, for starters. I feel like I'm in a time warp because I used to think these videos were used only when candidates sought office.

It's almost as if the campaign season is in full swing in California - but we're still a few months away from the next race for CA governor. (Arnold's final year is 2010). It's interesting to note there are some cynics who believe the CA governor is using the video medium in a pull-out-all-the-stops effort to end his term on a positive note with some sense of accomplishment.

So, this brings me to some questions.

Like, are we approaching video overload and saturation? In a world where attention spans are approaching the goldfish stage and we can't wait for the latest technology or social media channel, it would seem the video format - at least through You Tube - might be approaching "old school" status. Most pundits say we're not there, yet.

The other question is "true impact." This is an item closer to my heart since public relations professionals continually must examine social media efforts to provide expert counsel to clients.

So, if the most popular You Tube video on the White House site (the inauguration) shows only 1 million or so views compared to the current all time leader - "Evolution of Dance" video with 122 million views - are political videos really making an impact?

Yes, some would argue, since the Obama campaign videos - either those done by the campaign or by independents in support of the future president - were viewed as least once by a third of the country. Note, the "Yes We Can" music video with celebrities created in February 08 has the second-highest viewership (18 million) of all "News and Politics" videos on You Tube.

How can we measure this? Where is this headed? More on that in a future post.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael was a great show

True to some of the features that Michael Jackson held - being a showman and knowing how to create the next big thing to capture our attention - Hollywood was a bizarre scene on the day of his death Thursday.

I was there for a meeting, but could have easily had been drawn there to pay respects. As the sun was setting outside the Chinese Theater, Hollywood Boulevard was blocked for the premier of Bruno. Sasha Cohen's entrance, on a silver tank with scantly clad women marching behind him, probably would have garnered a nod of approval from MJ.

But, the premier blocked MJ's memory. The lights, barricades and stages meant no one could get to MJ's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Not for several hours.

I'm curious to know whether Cohen's team thought about cancelling the premier or at least getting the stage and lights removed quicker so fans could be at MJ's star?

More scenes from Hollywood that night: street musicians quickly adapted and began playing MJ songs on saxophone or guitar. Hawkers raised framed photos of MJ. All of this began unfolding within a few hours of his death. It was interesting to see the look on everyone's faces. Not all the tourists understood what was going on around them - they had not heard of his death yet. They soon figured it out and were in disbelief.

More bizarre scenes: Once I figured MJ's star would be blocked for a while, I went to my car. A woman with a small pet dog had somehow got the dog stuck on the parking lot escalator at the Hollywood and Highlands complex. The poor woman was desparately holding her dog, trying to get the stuck leg out, while a team of security guards simply looked on. It held up pedestrian traffic for a while and created a huge crowd of onlookers. Did not stick around long enough to see if the dog was rescued without harm.

So, I went home and played MJ music all the way. Sad. Sad. Sad.

The passing of Michael Jackson means there will be a very long gap until the world sees another superstar musician/entertainer who brought the world together like he did.

And, we will start living with comparisons. If the questions about drugs (painkillers) are true, it could remind us of Belushi's and Elvis' deaths.

Too soon, Michael.

Monday, June 15, 2009

$1 million for a parade in a broke town?

Too many fans want a Lakers victory parade this Wednesday (June 17). That response likely will muffle any anger and resentment over the $1 million the city will pay to have the parade.

Yet, the city and the Lakers must consider the long-term consequences, rather than live for the moment.

((UPDATE: Today (Monday, 4 p.m.) The Mayor announced he is seeking private donations to pay for the city's share and believes he will get all the needed money.))

read on original posting....

From a public relations professional perspective, this one is truly a gamble both in terms of reputation (Lakers) and further decay in public trust (City).

The arguments against are already being made.

For instance, why must the city shell out $1 million when, say, teachers are being laid off?

Why can't the Lakers, who will reap a windfall from the NBA Championship, pay the entire estimated $2 million it will cost to pay for extra police, traffic control, etc.? (Granted, some of the windfall will be spent paying on clauses in contracts that reward a trip to the finals. And the owners will likely need to shell out some dollars to keep a couple of key players who are free agents).

The question before the Lakers is whether they truly risk losing millions of dollars worth in earned reputation. Or, to look at it another way: Will $2 million earn them a lasting, positive bond with millions of fans? Will the city significantly hurt its chances to win future votes from its residents by shelling out $1 million for a parade in a down economy?

How easy a call is this from a public relations perspective? Let's consider the potential scenarios.

The Lakers pay all the costs of the parade.

The players and the owner of an incredible franchise could score significant benefit from showing a little bit more compassion in a down economy. While we're at it, let's ask the owner of the building to chip in, too.

The city of Los Angeles is hurting. Fans are hurting. Unemployment rates in CA are among the highest in the country. Teachers are being laid off and class sizes are doubling in some schools. The risk of antagonizing a large sector of the population is higher than normal.

Some of the biggest Laker fans are those who will never be able to afford a ticket to a game. That kind of loyalty is hard to achieve, but can be quickly lost with a few bad moves.

If left as is - with the city paying $1 million for what seems like a frivolous one-time event when compared to the longer-term pain suffered by teachers - the anger and finger-pointing could last for months. Perhaps all the way into next season.

The anger could go off in several directions - at the city, the players, the team's owner.

Let's evaluate one source of that anger. All too often we hear debates about why professional athletes get paid millions while some of our most important individuals - teachers - get by on scraps.

Granted, it's an old debate and there are valid arguments and justifications about professional athlete salaries. Yet, it's still a comparison that conjures up feelings about what is right. These feelings can linger for years. Let's not forget there are thousands across the country who still boycott baseball because of the player's strike just a few years ago.

This same sentiment, the same kind of argument is starting to bubble up today. On one side we have highly paid athletes - on the other we have teachers in classrooms filled to capacity. Depending on our budget issues and the amount of coverage given to athletes' salaries, the sentiments could last for a while.

If you are a professional basketball player in the largest media market in the world, why add more fuel to this fire?

For the city, the matter comes down to earning broad, long-term support from voters. Do city officials want to see protest signs during the parade? Do they want TV crews to interview teachers, police officers, mothers with strollers -- who showed up for the celebration only to spew anger at the city for paying for a parade?

Or would you rather see nothing but "Thank You, Lakers" and "We Love You Lakers" signs?

Now, as a public relations professional, it would be our responsibility - if we were working for the city or the Lakers - to point out all the net positive impacts the Lakers have on the city. I just have to throw this in here, because it's our job to communicate our client's side. It would go something like this: The Lakers are a net positive economic force in the city. They generate millions of dollars in retail sales from clothing alone. They employ hundreds directly and thousands indirectly. We also know that the Staples Center was a catalyst for the incredible downtown investment that is now highlighted by LA Live.

OK. But in this economy, in this setting - it's a very difficult journey to come up with arguments and reasons to counter the darkness surrounding the city budget - and laid off teachers and higher classroom sizes, and reduced social services and, and.....

So, where does this leave a city that wants to celebrate?

If the Lakers really don't have another $1 million, then why not scale down the parade? It is, after all, a down economy and most everyone should "get it." A more modest celebration in a recession will be understood. That is a much easier message to convey, a simpler feeling to convey because the public is ready and willing to accept it.

A celebration is a celebration, after all.

The question now is whether it's a decadent and extravagant one, and will be ridiculed rather than remembered.

Again, think about the long-term consequences. Look beyond the parade.

After Wednesday's parade is over. After the warm and fuzzy feelings quickly dissolve into our normal worries about putting food on the table, after the smiling faces in photos and on TV fade away, after the confetti is swept up and we hang up our 24 jerseys because Manny's back in the lineup - one piece of this parade will linger and haunt City Hall for a long time.

Try this: "Well, we can't pay for firefighting services, but we could sure afford a parade."

Fill in your own: "Well, we couldn't afford ----------, but we could sure afford a parade."

Trying to defend spending $1 million of city money we don't have on a parade in this economy is much harder work with longer-term pain that trying to bring everyone's thinking along about why our parade was just a bit smaller than the last one.

The reasons for a $2 million parade may sound good now - to those who are supporting it.

These reasons just won't make sense six months from now when the city puts up a ballot measure, or DWP raises rates or more teacher layoffs are announced.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Just like Nevada's water

When we launched the "California Friendly(r)" campaign at Metropolitan Water District a few years ago, we emphasized that we were "not like Las Vegas" and going to extremes to save water.

Of course, it helps when you are not in a drought and don't have to shout "warning" in your message.

Back then (was it only 2003?), we considered those extremes to be the "cash for grass" rebates offered by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, giving homeowners money for ripping up their lawns forever. Southern Nevada provides the water to Las Vegas, and was being forced at the turn of the century to deal with massive residential growth and limited water supplies.

To us at MWD, we felt our California Friendly approach was, well, more friendly. Through advertising, public relations and media relations efforts, we were successful in convincing consumers that they did not have to sacrifice beauty in their landscapes to save water.

Through this persuasion technique, we appeared to have removed the "punitive" stigma associated with water conservation - that consumers were "losing" something. The old "xeriscape" image was still haunting us - one that promoted rock gardens, ghastly looking stick bushes and cacti. California Friendly provided a nice comeback, a very positive new image. Even Sunset magazine approved!

In Las Vegas, we reasoned back then, homeowners were losing in the transition from lush landscapes to bare-looking desert layouts. We proudly, but quietly, told ourselves that we didn't need to do that in Southern California. We could still reduce large sums of water used for irrigation - and keep our landscapes looking beautiful.

The plan worked in a non-drought period. Consumers liked the "soft-sell" approach and we began to see major changes in behavior. More "California Friendly" plants - either native ones or low-water-using non-natives - were selling well at retail nurseries. Rebates for smart water controllers were flying out the door. Major homebuilders used our California Friendly designs at their models. California Friendly was even featured as part of an "Extreme Makeover Home Edition" episode.

Fast forward to today. California's drought is in the third year, reservoirs are dangerously low, court restrictions won't allow us to get all the water that is rightfully ours from the north and mandatory restrictions are in place in cities through Southern California.

And now, this. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced Monday a "cash for grass" rebate program.

So much for the friendly approach. Good thing we didn't boast too loudly at MWD.

Although the LADWP's press release emphasizes the replacement program wants to keep landscapes looking lush in the city, it will be interesting to see how consumers respond. Will they tear out just a couple of square feet of lawn? If someone rips out their entire front lawn and put in nothing but natives, will they suffer the same backlash and inter-governmental turmoil that families suffered in Glendale? (The water department encouraged it, but the code enforcement folks took a family to court). Or, will they run out of money like MWD did recently for its artificial turf replacement rebate program?

Any large-scale water conservation program is complicated and requires well-thought-out strategies. Consumers want to save water, but they also want to do it in a way that is easy - very easy. MWD's research showed that consumers simply want to be told where to go, and what to buy. ("Go to Home Depot, look for this plant or that sprinkler nozzle.") Step-by-step videos are needed, in some cases. There will be many questions, like is it better that I install artificial turf or take advantage of the "cash for grass" rebate?

And since we're speaking about how best to save water, how many of you would go the extremes that Los Angeles Times reporter Susan Carpenter went through to recycle her "gray water" at home?

If prior experience tells us anything, it will take a multi-faceted program to induce consumers to participate in this and future rebate programs to save water. For starters, there is still a large percentage of people who simply don't believe there is a drought, or believe that water is theirs for the taking and shouldn't be restricted.

LADWP has and will need to take several steps. Penalty rates will begin to have an affect on those who don't conserve.

Keep the information flowing. For starters, look at Southern Nevada's Web site to get some ideas on how to make it easy for consumers and to answer their questions. remains one of the most comprehensive sites for water conservation information.

We're two days into mandatory restrictions in Los Angeles, and several days or months into it at other cities in CA. Will permanent changes occur? Or, once the drought is over, will consumers revert to water-wasting ways?

Check back at the end of summer. Or, perhaps, next year at this time if we have a really bad winter.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

When PR is in the news

Occasionally, we in the PR industry will find ourselves in the middle of a story rather than trying to assist a client with one. These situations will generally test an individuals skills in handling the scrutiny. And there is scrutiny from all corners. If we, as public relations pros, are not able to help ourselves in a crisis or otherwise difficult situation, then how can we help others?

Patrick O'Reilly is a good friend. He and I worked for the same firm - Stoorza. Now, he's in the news and, so far, seems to be riding it out well.

As this story points out, Patrick has many supporters. This is no accident. The good will Patrick has built up over the years with a large audience is paying off.

This fact, and a few other thoughts, prompt me to offer an observation.

Should a PR executive hire his or her own outside PR counsel in times like these? Attorneys do, so why not us? The reason to hire outside counsel is simple: if you are under a cloud and being questioned, you usually can't offer objective advice to yourself. Yet, in our industry, we know that hiring a PR counsel actually can increase the scrutiny. "It must be bad because he's hired a PR company."

Well, no one really needs to know about whether you hired outside PR counsel. Chances are, most of us would call a respected colleague, someone we trust would give us honest, unvarnished advice. Free advice is OK, but if the situation requires it - paid counsel should be considered. We would insist with clients to hire us to manage a crisis. It's no sign of weakness to hire counsel. It simply goes back to the simple fact that you can't look at your situation objectively, thus increasing the risk that you may do or say something that makes matters worse.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Reporters and Twitter

Talk about breaking news..

It wasn't too long ago I thought I would receive "up to the minute" news by signing up on CNN, The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC and a few other sites for breaking news. The alerts would come into my emails. Bam. I would be getting news as it breaks.

But with Twitter, breaking news is traveling even faster - as the editor of LA reports.

And with Twitter, most reporters offer some interesting tidbits and observations that never make it to the final story.

So now the question becomes, how many reporters do you follow on Twitter?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Will newspapers charge for stories?

If you did not catch this, listen to (or read) today's (May 28) story on NPR about how newspapers and traditional news media outlets are now starting to look at ways to charge readers to see their stories online.

Ironically, you can listen to this for free or read it for free. NPR simply asks for a donation. Hmmmm. What if the NY Times asked for donations?

Twitter and the Swine Flu

The still-active-story on the swine (oops, the H1N1 Virus) flu is creating much debate and discussion about a vital part of the public relations process - how to effectively communicate with the general public.

Scientists, especially those at the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization, are concerned that the significant attention (some argue it was needless "hype") given to the initial outbreak may have actually created a "cry wolf" scenario that will make it even more difficult to convey warnings and information when the flu is expected to make a strong comeback in the fall. (See today's Wall Street Journal about what we may be facing).

And if indeed we now have a general population who won't heed warnings and messages in a few months because they felt over-sold at the initial outbreak, how will public relations strategies be crafted to ensure an effective information campaign when it's really needed?

Let's start looking at this from the beginning.

It appears the public relations situation we now face is rooted in two phenomenons:

1. The "Body Count" and comparisons. The public is keeping track of how many have been "stricken" and how many have died. A low number of deaths (95 so far worldwide, 11 in the U.S.), seems to tell us that this flu is not all that bad - especially when you look at what other diseases are doing! (A few of my colleagues like to make these comparisons, and others like to make jokes about people wearing masks). We PR types sometime compete against one another, especially when it comes to health issues. For instance, it's difficult to conduct a swine flu informational campaign when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation receives a lot of worldwide public attention (rightfully so) for spending millions to prevent the nearly 900,000 annual deaths from malaria.

2. Speed of news and attention spans. Our concern for issues is now resembling the memory capacity of a goldfish. As we get news faster (from Twitter, especially), our capacity to maintain a focus on any story is diminished. If we begin to talk to a friend about a story that happened last week, we immediately get dismissed for bringing up something that is "old news." (My favorite line among my Twitter-savvy friends is "Yeah, I read this yesterday" as if I was being told to "move on" to a new topic.)

Did we over-react to the swine flu warning?

If you listen to various pundits or even some of my colleagues, their conclusion is: Yes.

If you can get some scientists to talk publicly about it, they would say: thank God we did over-react.

What some scientists and public health officials privately say is that their "heightened" attention and the level of concern publicly displayed at the start of the outbreak actually did its job. Because so many people took precautions and countries, like Mexico, took drastic measures - the flu was effectively contained. The low numbers of infection and death are the result of people actually taking steps - because they were warned to do so.

So now, these scientists and health officials say, they are being penalized for a job well done. The current discussion should be turned around from one of unnecessary hype to job well done and let's remain vigilant.

For my colleagues who are using Twitter for their marketing and product campaigns, take a look at the ongoing study by two Stanford researchers who are tracking Twitter responses to the flu. So far, this study provides a fascinating peak into what may be a momunental shift in public perceptions and behaviors.

Also, keep track of online surveys, such as the one is conducting, begging the question: Are you afraid of the flu? (Spoiler alert: Most responses say "No" because they feel it's an over-reaction.)

Finally, to my PR colleagues who will be involved in developing and implementing flu-related information campaigns later this year, I envy the lead time you have to develop an effective strategy. It will be educational to watch the fall informational campaign and how you overcome the obstacles I mention here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

More about water and public sentiment

Perhaps the San Jose State University survey was correct. (see earlier post).

A story in today's San Diego Union Tribune points out that consumers are snapping up water conservation rebates so fast, the program operated by my former employer is running out of cash.

According to the people quoted in the story, they want water-saving devices and products because (a) they understand the value of water conservation and (b) it saves money in the long run.

These were the two prime motivating factors among respondents to the San Jose State survey.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Motivating the public to save water

Convincing Californians to save water is no easy task.

Ever since the state received a "wake up call" in the early 1990s about water supply and how to manage the state's periodic droughts, dozens if not hundreds of smart, experienced communicators and public relations professionals (me included) have developed and managed various programs to get the average resident and the typical business owner to use less water.

Success with these programs is varied, yet more outreach campaigns with various themes and messages are being launched this year. (What's your reaction to this one?)

Public outreach programs are critical to the success of water conservation programs because, like save energy, saving water is controlled largely by individual choice. With energy, we humans turn off the lights, make a conscious decision to buy CFL bulbs or turn up the thermostat and live with a warmer house or office. With water, we humans control water consumption by how often we water our lawns or replace lawns with native plants, the length of our showers and using a broom instead of a hose to sweep the driveway.

As with any public relations/public outreach campaign, research is critical to the process in terms of figuring out what will motivate people to change behavior, run to the home improvement store to buy drought-tolerant plants or take advantage of a rebate program to install low-flow toilets and other water-saving devices.

Today comes a study from San Jose State University's Survey and Policy Research Institute that suggests prime motivators to conserve water in 2009 are protecting the environment and saving money.

We'll see.

Right now, a handful of cities and water agencies are declaring water emergencies to force conservation. The list will grow as the impacts from the governor's drought declaration continue and our reservoirs dry up.

The state recently launched a "Save Our Water" program based on the success of the "Flex Your Power" program for energy (which was born from a statewide energy crisis). Behind the Save Our Water program are some fundamental issues about our state's water supply, how it is managed and the well-documented need to invest billions of dollars in water infrastructure improvements. It also is part of the state's response to the governor's executive order for a permanent 20% water-use reduction in urban areas by 2020.

So, it will be interesting to watch public reaction in 2009 and beyond. Will grand social experiments work? Will mandates be the answer?

In some regions, residents will change behavior because they are forced to (like in Long Beach and other cities with emergency declarations).

If we believe the San Jose State study, many of us will use less water because we are reducing our expenses, or because we are living a "green" life. Or, a combination.

And will water-saving behavior remain a permanent way of life? Or, like in the last drought that ended in 1992 - will we forgot all this as soon as the reservoirs are full again and the emergency declarations are removed?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Change the RFPs

Public relations colleagues have long complained about the complexity and investment of submitting a response to a public Request for Proposal.

Now, it gets worse.

In the current economy, some public agencies have cancelled bids AFTER the deadline to submit.

I experienced this situation not once, but twice. One with a California water agency, the other with a state north of California. In both cases, the agencies woke up suddenly and realized they would not have the money to pay for the services due to the recession. At least, that's what we were led to believe because the agencies did not disclose the reasons for suddenly cancelling the bids. Just a dry statement - "Cancelled. No rebid."

Sure, it's understandable that a public agency suddenly realizes the economy is screeching to a halt, revenues are declining and it's time to eliminate projects. But how these situations are being handled pose two problems.

First, be open and honest. If you are going to cancel a bid, tell us why. Actually, we will understand that "hiring a PR firm" when revenues are down and you're cutting services may create complications. We get it. Public perceptions about PR agencies working for government are tough enough in a good economy.

Secondly, try to make this decision BEFORE we spend considerable time and money in preparing a bid. A down economy hurts us, too. To take time away from paying work - or the search for work and our own desperate marketing efforts - hurts our pocketbook, too.

Now, let's look to the future. In this down economy, one can assume there are fewer bids being prepared. With some extra time on your hands, this is a perfect time for the contract departments to review the bid process and make it more business friendly. The lengthy process actually discourages some of the best and brightest from submitting. We know you have heard this before, but give us a call. We'll give you some constructive suggestions.

And, let's use this "down time" to have open and honest discussions about the value of using public relations services.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A company's asset is brand equity

In this article in PRSAY (the PRSA blog) about the financial status of the public relations industry, PRSA President Mike Cherenson reminds us that nearly half of a company's net worth is tied up in intangible assets like brand equity and reputation.

Who manages these assets?

How many unemployed in PR?

While I track down the Labor Department statistics, we may get a good idea of the employment scene in Los Angeles when the Public Relations Society of America/Los Angeles chapter on May 20 holds a unique (and rare daytime) session called "Don't Get Kicked in Your Career."

I am hopeful that colleagues - whether they are out of work, struggling to get by on freelance jobs or fear they are next - will put aside any pride issues and show up.

From personal experience, I know that half of 2008 and all of 2009 have been a rough time for all levels of practitioners. Agency owners tell me of the difficult task of laying off valued staff. Budget cuts have transitioned dozens into new eras of their careers. Newcomers to Los Angeles are nervous after spending months looking. College graduates entering the marketplace this month and next are perhaps the most concerned.

One group that doesn't appear to have too many problems are former journalists. At least the veterans. Agencies, governments and others are quickly snatching up these former reporters - primarily for their connections. (Who wouldn't want a business reporter who was on the phone with corporate CEOs?)

One thing PRSA and other organizations can provide, besides a shoulder to cry on, is networking. And that leads to jobs. Case in point: At a recent PRSA/LA social mixer, I introduced an unemployed transplant to the owner of a start-up PR consultancy. Within a few weeks, the transplant is back doing what she loves. It's not full-time work, but it's a start. Mediabistro recently discovered there is a place called LA and held a social mixer here last month.

I would like to hear your stories on what you are doing to survive. Started your own firm? Changed careers? Start now.

Monday, May 4, 2009

It's here, but too late

For those who have known me since college, I always dreamed of the "next step" for newspaper delivery. This would be one that saves costs and eliminates the minimum-wage delivery system. No offense to the paperboy or the guy who is trying to get a little extra cash for the family (heck, my brother-in-law did this to help make ends meet).

But if technology could find a way to get me a newspaper to my home without the occasional interruption or failure, that would increase a newspaper's net worth. At least, that's how I viewed it. Think about it. A newspaper spends a considerable amount of money on reporters, editors, photographers, printing presses, paper, etc., and leaves the final step to some poor kid on a bike or a guy driving a beat up car. And you hope his throw doesn't send the paper onto to the roof, or that one puddle in front of your house.

Saving money. Increasing reliability. Improving customer service. Keeping up with technology. For those who knew me back then, you got sick of this former journalist's rants about delivery improvements.

When I worked at newspapers, I kept a hope alive in my thoughts that technology would help advance newspapers in some way. With college lectures about how Ted Turner's 24-hour TV news service would spell the end of newspapers still vivid in my psyche, I always held a fear that other forms of communication would someday have a negative impact on the profession I so dearly loved.

My dream was to use cable, telephone lines or some other "electronic routing" to homes to somehow magically make a real newspaper appear inside your home. There would be some kind of tube where the printed edition is formed and I would just reach in and grab it. Gone would be the middle guy. Reliability was improved. Costs are cut. Everyone wins. (Well, except for the delivery folks).

So, now, as newspapers collapse around us, comes Amazon and a new Kindle to handle newspapers. This was the dream. It's here.

But, I think it comes too late.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Ashton gets 1M Twitter followers

And the winner for the most Twitter followers is.....Ashton Kutcher.

Domino's continued

PRWeek does a follow-up on the Domino's You Tube fiasco and the PR response. Interesting how Domino's used its advertising agency to launch the online (Twitter, mostly) effort. Where was the AOR for PR? It once was Ketchum, then Splash. Anyone? Were they caught without an agency on board?

And, it's interesting to see how a NYC PR agency markets itself via the comments area of this story. The agency used the comments are on PRWeek to alert folks to its interview on Inside Edition. Nice!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

When will they learn?

As if we didn't need more reasons, the recent Domino's and Amazon screw ups are continuing proof that many corporate CEOs and COOs have not elevated their in-house public relations pros far enough in their rankings and executive strategy sessions.

Or, they simply haven't heard how a social media effort can drive a stock price down quickly.

Is someone, please, preparing an article for INC. magazine or Fortune or Forbes or The Wall Street Journal to offer a little reminder to our corporate executives about the importance of public relations in the c-suite? Note: make that someone who is a PR professional? I'm not pleased by how many advertising types are getting their stories and blogs on this topic published and repurposed.

Anyone up for a little social media training? My friends Eric Schwartzman and Sally Falkow, plus the seemingly almost monthly training sessions on PRSA, are all available in case you need some nuts and bolts understanding.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

How will he be treated?

Today's front-page Wall Street Journal story that questions the operation of an Irvine-based private equity firm could easily have all the same recent discussions about the propriety of a public relations professional representing a questionable client.

From "octomom" to Wall Street to arrested public officials. Public relations professionals are at the front lines of some of this year's major news. In some cases, these professionals, such as the Killeen Furtney Group and their early representation of "octomom," evaluated their situation and concluded they must resign the account or go to lengths to tell the world they did not represent them in the first place, as was pointed out in a recent PR Week editorial.

Now, we have famed crisis communications specialist Michael Sitrick representing an investment management company in California.

First, let's be fair. Danny Pang of Private Equity Management Group has not been charged with any crime. He is, however, the subject of a highly researched investigative piece by the Journal. For many of us who have handled a Wall Street Journal story, or another news investigative piece, we know we are bound to provide professional representation to a client in these kinds of situations.

We who are members of PRSA are bound by our code of conduct to represent clients by following a range of ethical ideals and guidelines.

This sort of high-stakes situation is perfectly suited to Sitrick, who has become the "go-to" firm for many high-profile individuals and companies when a crisis erupts. Sitrick's business is doing well. In recent years, he has hired a couple of highly respected former news reporters and editors. And while Sitrick has actually earned respect from many news reporters, there are a few in our profession who privately question his usually aggressive and assertive style with news organizations. But you cannot deny Sitrick is good at what he does.

But Sitrick's representation of Pang, and perhaps a few of his past clients, also raises many of the same questions and concerns that faced Joann Killeen and Mike Furtney in representing Nadya Suleman, the mother who gave birth to eight babies and since become a tabloid sensation.

The point here is to frame the discussion. The sniping and criticism that were leveled at Killeen and Furtney - the "how-could-they-represent-this-person" accusations from PR colleagues - could easily be aimed toward Sitrick and taking on his latest client.

On its face, The Wall Street Journal story raises some serious questions about the integrity of Mr. Pang, not the least of which includes the circumstances of his first wife's murder.

However, if we are to have intelligent discourse about the issues surrounding a PR professional's representation of a potentially questionable client, then we should have a fair examination of real and potential scenarios. The PR profession should equally evaluate, debate and examine the Sitrick/Pang relationship as it did the Killeen-Furtnery/Suleman one. That is, if you want to have a debate and discussion about this.

The point here is to also withhold judgment until the facts are in. In the octomom case, the public and the PR industry still do not know all the facts. They will get more inside information when Joann and Mike get to tell their story.

Certainly, in the Pang/PEM case, this story is just now unfolding. But, I predict, a debate and discussion will eventually arrive in our profession about this one.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Making sense of GM and marketing

Did marketing play a role in GM's current status?

As one read the stories, the reasons cited by President Obama rest with operations: Fundamentally flawed. Not moving fast enough. Not enough concessions. Didn't meet the deadline. A business model doomed for failure.

“Year after year, decade after decade, we’ve seen problems papered over and tough choices kicked down the road, even as foreign competitors outpaced us,” Mr. Obama said in announcing his decision at the White House. “Well, we have reached the end of that road.”

The President's auto team produced a 5-page viability report that is the basis for a well-respected CEO to lose his job and set up the likely prospect that GM will be in bankruptcy. In a way, the President acted as a one-person board of directors or a very large shareholder (Think Carl Icahn).

So, how is it that one of the world's biggest corporations ended up like this? When a one-man board of directors issued a directive earlier this year ("shape up or else") and within weeks, the head of this country's fourth largest (ninth globally) company is gone for not living up to the terms of a loan?

What went wrong?

In Obama's view (and that of his auto team), hard decisions were not made and the ones that were made were bad. In Obama's view, the writing was long on the wall for this day. Somehow, everyone ignored the pending doom. How else can you explain how GM lost such market share and ended up in such financial straits? How else is it that an American manufacturer got nailed by Asian competitors?

Somehow, some of the best business minds in the world got it all wrong, stuck their heads in the sand and ignored the obvious. All that was needed was a near-depression economy to eek out the truth, to expose these bad decisions.


How much of GM's current state of viability is due to marketing? (This is, after all, a blog about PR and marketing).

Sure, there are critical operational issues, like the salaries of autoworkers. By extension, wanting a decent wage and benefits package are the reasons why so much of the goods we buy are made in other countries. But unlike a shirt or a toy, it's not that easy for a U.S. automaker to have all its products manufactured overseas and shipped back to this country.

There will be plenty of analysis on this one. For this column, we'll stick to marketing.

The basics rule of automobile sales is marketing. It begins with good design. Great car designers follow marketing trends and reports to figure out what will be attractive. Certainly, good manufacturing enters into the picture. One must believe that you're driving a well-made auto. But this is a feature that will be marketed, too, regardless of the actual "truth" of durability.

As GM's bailout money was being cashed, Business Week ran a great article that dissects bad business decisions. If I had to bet, someone on Obama's auto team read this article and used it as additional justification or the basis of their report.

What the article basically said was: Toyota and Honda tried harder to get customers.

Toyota and Honda had to build a car that consumers wanted. And, then, market the fact that it has better cars.

In reality, GM had and still has very good cars. But, Toyota did a better job at telling American carbuyers that its products were more attractive. Sure, Americans could tell subtle differences in style, like better placement of cupholders. (By the way, Chevy invented the modern cupholder). Honda had metal in areas where GM put plastic. Small appeals, really. The true success was in how Toyota and Honda convinced Americans these subtle differences were better.

I recall how this marketing campaign kicked into high gear in the 1970s. Remember the stories of how Japanese workers were a highly dedicated lot? Quality and care were their main focus, we were told. We'd read with envy about the "Japanese management" style and how executives at Toyota and Honda received paltry salaries compared to their American counterparts. Fascinating reading. But, nonethless, a marketing effort.

Meanwhile, the durability effort by American manufacturers was focused mostly on pickup trucks. GM and Ford locked themselves into an epic battle over whose pickup was tougher, more durable. It was an important effort because these trucks represented a huge profit area.

This all worked until $4-a-gallon gas prices, greenhouse gases and the green movement came along, followed by the worst economy since the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, the marketing effort by Japan had already made significant inroads to American carbuyers' permanent psyche. Decades of this "impression" that Japanese cars were made better led us to where we are today. Forget that American cars were just as durable. We now were convinced that things like "resale value" were important because that somehow indicated a more durable car, when in fact this measure had more to do with "marketability" than reliability. Through "resale value" we have all been given the "impression" that this car was more valuable than the next one. Mercedes Benz uses "high resale value" as a selling point to buy a new - or even a used - Benz. But ask a owner of a Benz built in the 1990s and you'll hear a lot of complaints about repairs. BMW and its "German engineering" will be an attractive status symbol to drive until the first repair bill.

Again, marketing strategies were at play to give carbuyers certain perceptions about the desirability of a foreign made car.

The sad part is that GM's new marketing efforts were just beginning to take hold. Veteran auto writers were actually touting the new designs and features of many GM lines, most notably the Chevy Malibu. One could get a Malibu with all the bells and whistles at the same price of a base model of a Nissan Altima without all the extras. And, the Malibu's warranty was longer. The Malibu was clearly the better car than the equivalent Japanese model.

Demographics also played into this. The "greatest generation" - those very patriotic "Buy American" types - are either dead or too old to drive. The younger carbuying set are more impressed by tricked out Japanese sedans shown in such movies as the "Fast and the Furious." The middle generation desires an Aston-Martin or Jaguar because that's what Agent 007 drives.

Again, marketing.

If there wasn't an economic downturn, GM likely would have turned things around on its own.

It is now easy to look back and determine that GM's decisions at the time (in the 70s, 80s) were bad. But at the time of those decisions, GM had very intelligent teams and executives. At the time, these decisions were well regarded. Now, everyone can look back and analyze the flaws. It's easy sport. And, there are plenty of white papers that have and will analyze the marketing mistakes.

Among the decisions that were made, the ones that "worked" were related to marketing. GM sold a lot of trucks because they knew how to market them. More recently, GM was gearing up to market a new electric car later this year. It already had a huge "buzz" for the Chevy Volt because of early marketing efforts.

How best to sell a car? Toyota's and Honda's decisions and strategies are not being questioned. And the end of the day (actually, three decades), they scored the marketing victory.

And now, with GM's total business model upended, it will be up to marketing to help keep this large automaker financially viable.