Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Crisis Communications taken by storm

As public agencies nervously prepare for the worst of California's storms and the East Coast growls at a snow forecast from heck, it's a timely reminder about that one thing we tend to forget: Crisis communications planning.


Since it's currently raining snakes over my house, it's too late for planning. Now (borrowing from one of my favorite movies), it's more like: "Effie, Brace Yourself."

Below are four tips for last-minute crisis "bracing" as they relate to disasters or other approaching events that can turn ugly quickly:

Boot ready. Sounds silly, but do you have waterproof hiking boots? You'd be surprised how many times this piece of clothing comes in handy. What else? Warm, rainproof jacket. Extra clothes and socks. A hat. I have a backpack ready to go, stuffed with a charged netbook (and portable modem with my Verizon wireless account - assuming wireless won't be accessible) and flashdrives with important contacts, documents, sample press releases. Extreme measures? Put a tent and sleeping back in the car, along with some non-perishable food. This could take a while.

Connect ready. Is your Blackberry/iPhone/Evo/? currently charged? Do you have a plan on how to reach people if a cell phone dies or the cellphone system goes down? In an earthquake or major disaster, the hands-on team crisis team knows it must go into "automatic" mode and keep managing the situation without electronic communications. If the company email goes down, does everyone have everyone's personal email addresses? (Been there, done that with my Yahoo account).

Geographic ready. Will you rely on your Garmon to get you to a disaster scene? What if Garmon (I have VZ Navigator on my Blackberry) goes down? Do you have an old-fashioned map (in LA, we used to love those bulky Thomas Guides)?

Body ready. At a case study presentation, I was impressed by the story of a PR manager who knew a storm was coming...and headed to bed to grab few winks. Why? Because he knew that in a few short hours, he probably will be awake for a very long time. He knew he would be his best with a few hours of sleep. A sharp mind is critical in these cases - whether to offer advice or when speaking to the news media. Too many PR folks will stay up....waiting, monitoring, prepping... and forgetting to rest.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A fiesty newspaperman leaves us

Sad news today that Mike Tetreault, a former colleague at the LA Daily News, passed away Sunday night from a battle with cancer.

He was, simply, a great editor. He loved newspaper work.

I had the privilege of working for Mike and alongside him for a brief time. As an editor, he was among the tough ones. He questioned everything in your story, which was his job. His editing advanced your story. It wasn't a wordsmithing effort just to please his own sense of style. He treated every story on its own unique merits. He simply wanted to make sure the story was, first, factual, then read well.

He was, as others have said, "wickedly funny." I was the victim of a few of his jokes and pranks. Such as the time when I left the office for an assignment and also remained logged into my computer. We had clear instructions to log off if we were leaving our computers. I'm sure, back then, there were good reasons for this. Seizing the opportunity and, perhaps, wanting to make a point the hard way, Mike began sending Daily News staff some very peculiar messages under my name. I got the point.

As an editor, Mike rarely had a byline. He was behind the scenes, but his role was critical to the Daily News publishing credible stories and sending reporters off to cover events that he knew mattered to the public. For this, I had much respect for Mike.

Tetreault (pronounced without the "ult" at the end) will be missed.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

How to make enemies

As a young newspaper reporter, a wise editor once offered some great advice. If someone calls you, upset about a story you did and accuses you of libeling them or printing false statements - don't go into a defensive mode. Instead, calmly listen to the complaint, tell the caller you will look into it and, if true, will discuss a possible apologize and possibly print a correction.

It's not about your ego, he said. It's about conflict resolution.... which weren't the exact words he used, but essentially it meant the same thing.

It's much easier to diffuse a touchy situation than to keep your guard up, do battle and really tick off the other party. The harder stance and more defensive you become could lead to a lawsuit. The "understanding" stance will bring the heat level down by several notches. Angry people file lawsuits or find other ways to make your life miserable.

"Diffusing" the situation is advice I've given multiple time to clients. Sometimes in the course of everyday media relations, sometimes in the heat of a crisis.

I was reminded of this after reading a story in The Wall Street Journal about financial support for Lance Armstrong and U.S. cycling.

In this story, it becomes clear an early supporter of Lance and his quest for Tour de France titles later became an enemy bent on revenge after a business dispute. The dispute is now very visible, which has put Lance under more intense scrutiny (about doping allegations. Based on what you read, which is all we have, it appears the initial steps in this business dispute could have been handled differently - and, if so, Lance may not be facing a more public, broader set of allegations. (For the record, I am a Lance supporter. The guy worked his tail off and won 7 TDF titles - after beating cancer.)

Sure, examining the dispute - via a news article - is second guessing and arm-chair quarterbacking. And, who knows? Even if the parties were more gracious at the start, the results may have stayed the same.

There is, however, plenty of other similar examples where diffusing a tricky situation at the start saves you plenty of headaches later.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The worst crisis scenario?

Update: 1:50 p.m. see below
Disasters occur daily, but the worst involve death.

Perhaps the worst crisis communications scenario for death is an officer-involved shooting (OIS in police lingo).

Yet, many police departments are limited in how they can communicate a response.

Consider an OIS shooting this week in Long Beach. A man is shot dead by police after the man pointed at them what they thought was a real gun. It turns out the man was holding a garden hose nozzle.

Here is the official news statement. The news reports, while factual, are highlighting the obvious. The reactions from family, the general public..are predictable. See video for more. This is not the first time someone was killed by police for pointing something that "looked" like a weapon.

Public relations professionals prepare countless clients for the worst, including death. Potential litigation prevents some information from being revealed right away. If a situation turns into a crime scene or police investigation, a company's communication options are further limited.

In the corporate world, PR pros many times tussle with attorneys about what can be disclosed and when.

Now, consider the greater frustrations for a communicator within a police department.

The investigation will take a while. With a long absence of updates and details, the outcries can get louder and the speculation more rampant. Our PR training and experience frequently counsel clients to provide regular updates as quickly as possible - to fill the void and not let a situation get out of control.

An investigation will conclude the shooting and officers' conduct were justified - or not. A lawsuit will follow. The tragedy will be publicized many more times. The department's reputation will be battered for weeks, perhaps months, maybe years.

As unfortunate as this is, there are many predictable cycles to this crisis situation.

Some police departments have responded well to these type of incidents. In some cases, policies need changing or improved training is required. The public can more readily accept these steps because they have the appearance of contrition, accepting blame and responsibility and a desire to perform better. However, if a shooting falls within department policy, many will still demand change and the time to rebuild trust and reputation will take much longer.

Unlike most other crisis situations (like an oil spill or bank failure), an "OIS" holds a special place in the minds of the public - because we "see" them weekly on TV shows. The plethora of TV crime shows has, in effect, infused the public with a perception about what happens on the streets. This has given rise to "arm chair quarterbacking" and second-guessing. Add in the number of shows that portray "bad cops" and, well, the public is now more inclined to assume the worst when real-life police shootings occur. Sure, there are real-life incidents of wrongful deaths and "bad cops" but statistics show there are fewer and fewer of these. And, as police departments will tell you, there are also cases when an officer hesitated and was killed.

So what additional PR steps can police departments take?

Community meetings are known to help, because these settings permit police leaders to explain things outside the immediate emotions of the latest incident. Ride-alongs with reporters used to work when more people read newspapers, and were able to get a more in-depth look at the risks, dangers and split-second decisions that cops make daily. There are balances to be struck between seeking sympathy and simply wanting greater understanding.

And, I'm sure, there are plenty more options for departments. Branding? Yes, police department associations have examined this, as well as other measures to improve their overall public image.

But in the case of an OIS resulting in death, it would seem departments would - at a minimum - need to develop a specific strategy that includes multiple objectives and tactics.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

A legend passes

I never had the opportunity to truly learn directly from Joe Cerrell.

But his lessons were easy to find.

Cerrell's passing this past week brought praise from many corners of the world.

As a Republican, I was usually prevented from piercing the "club" of Joe and his tight circle of Democratic friends. But it was clearly evident - both as a journalist and later practicing my craft in the same arena where Joe was held in high regard - that most people held very positive opinions about Mr. Cerrell.

The praise was not by accident.

Like many I hold in high regard, Joe was down-to-earth and accessible. He personally greeted you as if you were lifelong friends. He would provide a thoughtful response to your question. He would be concerned for the bigger impact of his actions or the actions of his clients. Any photograph of Joe Cerrell would immediately tell you that you were observing a friendly, caring individual.

Joe's stature and influence could have easily been used recklessly and ruthlessly in the high-stakes game of California politics. It's not that Joe didn't know how to wield some "tough influence" when needed, but it wasn't to demoralize or dehumanize, to belittle or to humiliate.

Fortunately for all of us, there are plenty of living, accessible examples of Joe's character and principles. I hope they remain visible for a long time. These are valuable lessons.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What would you do with $$

Newspapers can right the wrongs. A journalist gets a call from an angry member of the public or a whistleblower (usually because the person hasn't received "justice" from an organization or government agency) and the battle is under way.

Sometimes, no, check that, most times these stories engage public relations professionals.

Case in point with today's Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (one of my favs). His column focused on a homeless vet who found a wad of cash (nearly $1,000), turned it in to authorities (LA's bus agency) and was hoping to claim it after the 30-day waiting period.

Of course, these stories only appear because things didn't go according to plan or logic.

The actual bus agency policy, as Lopez found out, does not return found money to the finder if no one else claims it. Lopez, who has a special place for homeless (remember "The Soloist"?), pursued this story with the intent of helping the homeless vet. Had he been on a mission to discredit the bus agency, this story could have turned out a lot worse for the agency.

Lopez' pursuits eventually took him to Marc Littman, a PR pro in the executive offices of the bus agency. Littman is a true veteran of managing many significant stories at one of the nation's largest transit agencies. In this case, Littman apparently realized this story needs his boss' attention.

As one might imagine, public agency policies occasionally defy logic. (I know, I worked a public agency). If what Lopez wrote was true, the reasons behind the found-cash/don't return policy were right up there is the head-scratching stratosphere.

Whether through PR counsel or his own calculations, the bus agency CEO did the right thing. He returned the found money to the homeless vet and vowed to change the policy because it didn't make sense to not reward honesty.

PR pros know this was the right choice. They would almost universally have counseled this decision in this direction.

However, the story also points to another issue at the bus agency: Internal communications. Again, if Lopez was on a mission, he really could have blasted the bus agency for not making sure their employees know policy. A front-line customer service representative thought the original policy was to give the money back to the finder. Hopefully, the communications staff at the bus agency will make sure the word on the new policy is clearly articulated, reaches all critical staff and is clearly understood by all who deal with the public.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Appearances and Opinions

Two reporters. Two water stories. Same newspaper. Much different writing styles.

And the result?

On Thanksgiving, the Los Angeles Times published a story about the proposed canal or tunnel around the Sacramento Delta. In this story, the reporter draws focus on the state and federal pumps as the main reason for negative impacts on Delta wildlife, although recent science is indicating that ammonium from agriculture runoff is perhaps having a bigger impact. The reporter acknowledges there are other "players" causing problems, the reporter chooses to paint the pumps as "the most conspicuous villains."

Conspicuous villains?

The next day, the LA Times publishes a story about another water CA water canal. Although the focus of this story is safety, the tone of describing this water system is much different. The reporter describes this water system as "an engineering, hydrological and agricultural wonder." Yet, anyone who has involved in water issues will tell you that this canal also has its environmental baggage, particularly being another "straw" that takes water out of the Colorado River and leads to downstream environmental issues in Mexico.

Engineering wonder?

Two different reporters. Same topic. Same newspaper. Vastly different writing approaches.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Here's a tricky question

It seems I wasn't alone.

The Better Business Bureau is a "non-profit" organization that issues letter ratings to businesses reflecting how they treat consumer, customers and vendors. These ratings apply to all types of businesses, including public relations agencies such as mine. (I happen to have an A- rating).

Yet, where is the oversight for an organization that hires telemarketers to hound businesses with high-pressure tactics to sign up for memberships? Following an investigative piece on ABC's "20/20" program, the Los Angeles Times reported on this and the high salaries earned by some BBB executives.

Ever since I formed The Wolcott Company more than two years ago, I've been hounded by the BBB Southern California chapter. They found me through my membership at a local chamber of commerce. And, boy, were these telemarketers good at their job. They offered all sorts of reasons why I should pay a membership ($400), starting with this - a membership - is the primary way they produce income. So, they started with the "poor is me" approach.

As a solo PR consultant, I calmly informed the BBB telemarketer that my reputation was based on my own personal reputation that I had carefully crafted and managed over nearly 20 years of being in the business. But that launched an entire different tactic for the telemarketer about other reasons I should join. Most of this reasoning was flawed. However, I recall my dad, a PR leader and owner of his own firm, mentioning he supported the BBB. Back then (1970s), I can only guess the BBB was a different organization. So, based on my dad's memories of "supporting" the BBB, I thought I would "test" a membership for one year. With some reluctance.

After a year, I let the membership expire. And, thus, began the hounding. Over the past 12-14 months I have been called about a dozen times and my responses have become increasingly R-rated. Despite my pleas to have my name removed from their call list, I still get called. The last one began with "Well, we see you've been checked out by 22 people and we would love to tell them more, but your membership is.." If I did this to my potential customers, I'm sure they would complain to the BBB and my rating would suffer.

As the ABC report highlights, the BBB of Southern California essentially ran a "pay to play" operation. This is pretty evident given my last phone call from them. I can only assume I have an A- because I'm not currently paying a membership.

Now comes the damage control. I searched, but could not find an AOR for the Southern California bureau. However, they do issue a lot of news items on their website, suggesting they have an AOR and a great in-house staff.

The BBB of Southern California has two major crises to deal with - the salary of their top executive and their membership tactics. It will be interesting to see how this one is handled - especially given the BBB's reputation is based on "rating" others on their business practices. This is an incredibility HUGE credibility/trust/reputation matter to handle.

Any takers?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sticker shock for water

What happens when you blend a bad economy, labor costs, an effective outreach campaign and a drought?

Of course, higher water rates.

What happens over the next year or two will be worth a look for any PR professional and, for some, worth a deeper venture to offer your expertise. A bold prediction but this could be the next big "consumer experiment." The laboratory we like to call public sentiment could see some new tests, twists and turns from water rate increases.

Until now, water utilities have escaped serious consumer backlash from periodic rate increases. As the cheapest bill on one's desk, water doesn't generate the level of anger or frustration that, say, our phone bills do or another increase in health insurance. For sure, there have been sporadic consumer protests, but they remain scattered and short-lived.

Widespread consumer revolt is also muted because water is "local" and mostly unregulated. Gas and electric utilities have 100 times or greater number of customers, are more regulated and have major consumer watchdog groups going to battle over every rate increase request. Although private water companies are regulated and have combined larger customer bases, lower water bills generally keep consumers quiet.

Soon, I believe, the angry consumer will focus their frustration on the water bill.

Why? Water (and corresponding sewer) rate hikes have taken hold, a lawsuit already has been filed, a massive water bond was delayed but will likely come back, the economy is impacting water use, and perhaps some really big whammies are just around the corner.

It's easy to see that what we pay for water will soon be at the level of our other utility (commodity) bills. In some places, it's already at that level and if you own a large amount of land, the water bill could exceed the other utility costs.

It is a public relations conundrum.

On the one hand, some really effective public outreach campaigns in CA have successfully changed water behaviors. Although precise studies are lacking for the region, individual cities like Los Angeles and Long Beach are reporting per-capita reductions. A few dry years, nearly a decade of persistent water conservation messaging, the imposition of mandatory water restrictions (only water your lawn 3X a week), greater acceptance of "green" calls to action and some unique rebates have combined in such a way that consumers have permanently changed their water habits.

Now add a bad economy into the mix. Consider the number of homes lost in foreclosure, sitting idle without any water use. Consider former homeowners now renting homes - and choosing to save money by letting their lawns die ("Why should I care? It's either I'm paying the water bill or the rent - can't afford both" - actual quote from a renter I know).

When consumers use less water, that means a drop in revenue to water utilities that are stuck with huge fixed costs - like labor - and rising costs - like pipeline maintenance, power and water treatment supplies. Don't forget pension commitments, either.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (my former employer - and yes, full disclosure, I get a meager pension and health benefits through an option to "retire") already has raised rates nearly 50% and has no plans to stop. A preview of "how bad" water rates could be for nearly 20 million people may occur next week (Nov. 23) when a special board committee looks at the future. Just how do you handle a $120-150 million revenue shortfall?

What happens at MWD spreads out at practically every local water agency between Ventura and San Diego. The rate structure MWD adopts now will be felt in a year or two at the local level. MWD supplies about half the water needs for Southern California.

As evidenced this week in Oceanside, changing political landscapes will also enter into the blender of water rate discussions.

Perhaps water will need to take pages from the playbooks of other utilities. Cost cutting is a major focus of energy as are the advantages of a Smart Grid and putting the responsibility of energy management in the hands of consumers. But will water agencies be able to cut costs fast enough to avoid the major rate hike?

One more item to add into the discussion - the long-standing perception among individuals that water is different from other utilities. One needs water to live.

Stay tuned. Stock the fridge and find a comfy chair. This show will be a good one. Watch this blog for more on this topic.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Firing off a volley?

Missile mystery, Part Two. Is our government hiding something or what?

Where are the hard questions from the news orgs?

OK, since my previous post, a few more news orgs and bloggers are picking up the story. But, so far, my disappointment in the news continues. Where is the good journalism? Where are the hard questions?

Here are the questions and pursuits I'd be taking.

Pentagon says "they don't know" whose missile it is. Well, then, did our detection systems catch this launch? Did our jets scramble? Did NORAD pick this up on their radar last night? They can spot a launch anywhere in the world.

If our jets didn't scramble and the alarms didn't go off, then what does that mean? Either it tells me that the military really does know, this missile launch never happened (KCBS? Any explanation?) or some other explanation. I'd hate to think this launch was not detected, because that means my fears from the Cold War days are finally realized - anyone can launch a missile off our coast and take us out before we can say "Hunt for Red October."

Look at the carefully worded statements from NORAD. Not a complete denial.

What about Congress? Has anyone checked with our reps with oversight in defense?

Again, where is the aggressive news reporting to help us understand what the heck is going on?

News when you beg for it

Update (9:56 a.m.) The LA Times updated its story. And the "reporting" only gets worse.
As a former journalist and newspaper editor, I long for the good ol' days. You know, when newspapers really dug into a story. When news organizations reported on stories that people "should" know about, and not the stuff that tickles their fancy.

As circulation declines continue and the corresponding rise of "fluff" appears on local TV news stations, as viewership on the major TV news stations decline, as news magazines grow thinner or simply give up and become an online-only "publications," one has to wonder about the future of news gathering and reporting. And our sensibilities.

As much as I become encouraged that good reporting is not dead - as evidenced by this year's aggressive and solid reporting by the Los Angeles Times in uncovering financial corruption in Bell and other local cities - I come across situations like a mystery missile launch. And, I get depressed all over again.

My journalist "antenna" (you really never lose the instincts) is buzzing with this. So is my disgust.

Last night as the sun was setting (Nov. 8), the KCBS (Los Angeles) television news helicopter records a missile launch off the coast of Southern California. We're used to a few of these a year because of the nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base, where sometimes secret military satellites rise above the earth and give us interesting looking contrails. But this missile wasn't coming from Vandenberg. As best anyone can tell, it came out of the ocean south of Vandenberg.

So far this morning, this story is still a minor one in the news cycles. MSNBC is almost laughing it off. From what I can gather (via Google) so far, only an enterprising TV reporter at the CBS affiliate in San Diego has dug a bit to give the curious a hint of what happened. SAN DIEGO! The Los Angeles Times offered only a brief this morning. As of 8 a.m. (PST), there were only 25 stories in a Google search. The story wasn't even on the web site of the TV station that "broke" the story..until just a few minutes ago.

Am I just an aging, former newspaper reporter longing for the old days, or is this lack of reporting an indication of all that ails news today?

The KFMB reporting opens up the door to the bigger story. The President is in Asia. Perhaps the U.S. fired a test ICBM from a submarine just to demonstrate we have a presence in the Pacific? As a visible show of strength to the countries the President is visiting, or near?

On the one hand, it's "comforting" to know we still have a pretty good missile system. But, when was the last time one our submarines "exposed" itself with a test launch? Isn't the whole idea of our "triad" missile system (land, air, sea) to be a bit stealthy in the ocean? One has to assume that the U.S. alerted a few other countries that we were only doing a "test" because an ICBM launch like this would certainly get a few of them on alert.

You can see where my line of questioning would go...if I still had my press pass and a desk in a newsroom.

Just because the rest of Southern California did not get alarmed by this missile launch (the LA Times brief used the word "gorgeous" ! and we were more intrigued by a truck crash that closed a freeway!), shouldn't mean this is a story that gets easily passed over with a "hmmm..that-was-strange" level of reporting.

I go back to this: When was the last time the U.S. fired an ICBM? From a sub? Off the coast of a major U.S. city? While the president was out of the country?

We get better reporting with Hezbollah aimlessly fires missiles into Israel. Here in the U.S., the top five stories this morning included how well Conan did on his opening night return to TV. (The local CBS TV "news" lineup also included another "story" promoting Hawaii Five-O).

So, is this lackluster reporting a symptom, an indicator? In the old days, when news departments felt responsible to give the public the news it "deserves" to know about, the public responded. As much as the public expressed negative sentiment toward the "all you write about is negative news" argument, journalists went to sleep knowing they fulfilled their responsibilities.

Now, when news decisions are based on what "we think" the public wants to know (i.e. which movie won at the box office, which celebrity was arrested), it strikes me as feeding into an overall decline that further contributes to the death of good journalism. And a public without all the news they "should" know.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Miners and the news

It's been a few weeks since 33 miners captured the world's attention. Yet, how the story was covered is a valuable PR lesson. It's worth a look back to prepare for the future.

When it became clear the miners would finally escape their tomb, television news went into overdrive. As they should. It took almost 24 hours for all of the miners to travel more than 2,000 feet in a metal escape tube to their freedom. In the build-up to the first rescue and the ongoing coverage as each emerged, CNN, MSNBC and others scrambled to keep information fresh.

Prior to 24/7 live news coverage, these stations and cable news outlets would cover a drawn out news event by relying on an anchor sitting at a desk and the occasional cutaway to "the scene." Today, with computer graphics, web cams, and plenty of "experts" for commentary and insight, the story of the day will don multiple layers.

Consider what we saw as the world waited for the rescue to begin and in the minutes between each miner's rescue:

  • CNN made a replica of the rescue tube in their studio and had an anchor go inside to get a sense of how tiny it was;

  • MSNBC found a U.S. astronaut who was "trapped" in space and determine he was the closest thing to someone surviving an ordeal like this.

  • CNN interviewed magician David Blaine, known for his "escapes" from situations that put stress on his body.

In between we had experts talk about the miners' mental and physical health, what kind of let down they would feel once the world's attention went away, the intricate procedures to drill the rescue shaft, the kind of medical attention they were getting and so on. Then, the president of Chile decides to put live cameras in the cave where the miners were trapped and in the rescue tube.

It's been about 40 years to a comparable news event. A lot has changed. Some hasn't. When the world watched Apollo 13 take four days to limp back to earth, television news focused mostly on the scientists and engineers scrambling to find solutions, and on the astronauts' families. But they also:

  • Created a scale model of the Apollo spacecraft and lunar landing craft to demonstrate how the astronauts were surviving on limited oxygen, energy and heat.

  • Took us into a full-scale replica of the spacecraft to get a feel for the cramped conditions

  • Interviewed former and future astronauts about their training and experiences

The PR lesson? Think about how "you" would fill the news, minute by minute and hour by hour - and keep it fresh. This is not an exercise for the timid. The tendency among many PR professionals is to avoid the appearance that you, on behalf of a client or company, are trying to capitalize on someone else's tragedy by suggesting an expert to interview or an angle to cover that leads back to your company in a positive way.

But, TV news is not timid and they are looking for all sorts of stories, as evidenced above. So, "feed the beast" in these prime opportunities. Chances are, a good showing will mean TV news will look to you again, and again.

Monday, September 20, 2010

PR firm or advertising agency?

History books will tell you that the modern public relations agency was born within advertising agencies.

So, what happens when an advertising agency tries to offer public relations? Or, vice versa.

Will the agency lose its advertising brand when trying to call itself a public relations agency? Will a public relations agency lose any appearance of its primary focus by also offering advertising services?

Many advertising and PR agencies have figured the best course of action is to create a separate company within a company - to ensure distinctive brands. My old firm - Stoorza - did this when they acquired an advertising agency.

Without the "separation" clearly defined, existing and potential clients can be confused. Worse, an agency risks diluting its strengths and brand image.

Case in point this week: A Southern California boutique advertising firm is called a "PR Agency" in a story. Adding insult - the reporter accepted on faith statements that this firm was one of the "best known PR firms" in the region and didn't bother to check there were at least three other true PR agencies in that region with higher billings, a longer client roster and higher name recognition. (Disclosure: Stoorza's office in this region evolved into one of those agencies. And, I provide consulting services to another one of those firms.).

I'm sure this advertising agency does great work. The diligence required for anyone seeking PR services is to, well, look first for a PR firm whose core strengths are PR.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cause celebrity: Aniston and bottled water

Since I live in the LA basin, my non-California colleagues (or recent arrivals) ask about how to attach a celebrity to their cause-brand-product, etc.

I usually defer these questions to my good friend Rita Tateel - who does this for a living through her highly successful The Celebrity Source company.

But if you live and work in LA, you need to keep track of this stuff. The hard questions for PR pros are:

  • Credibility: Does a celebrity really help your product or organization if consumers questions that celebrity's actual private commitment to your product or cause;

  • Impact: Will a celebrity really make a difference to your cause?

  • Trends: The public can be fickle. (see below).

Old school thinking: Consumers are getting more savvy about celebrities and causes. Consumers were generally skeptical of celebrities who appeared out of nowhere to support a cause.

New school: Celebrities have become more savvy, in part to Rita's coaching, I'm sure. It can't be a one-and-done appearance for a celebrity. They need to demonstrate a lengthy commitment to a cause.

RE: Trends. Celebrities have led the way in environmental causes. Toyota's newly introduced Prius took off after a Los Angeles PR firm successfully convinced about a dozen well-known actors to show up at the Academy Awards in the fuel efficient vehicle (instead of gas-guzzling limos) as a pledge to help the environment.

But are all celebrities linked to environmental causes?

Just as it shocks us to learn not all actors are Democrats, it shouldn't shock us when someone as famous as Jennifer Aniston promotes bottled water. Gasp!

The furor over bottled water is still there. But will it harm Jennifer? Will it cause other actors to abandon their bottles?

No, not for now.

Although Peter Gleick went after Aniston in a recent Huffington Post piece and Peter has a good track record of starting a battle that he can win (and he has his own book to promote), the bottled water industry is not going away.

The news media (and, presumably, Jennifer's fans), were much more interested in Jennifer's "abs" in the photo spreads for her Smart Water advertisements. (Just Google Jennifer and Water Smart and see what I mean).

Which reminds us that our interest in celebrities begins and ends with their...well, celebrity.

Sure, celebrities - in their off hours - can have an impact on a cause. The "Stand Up To Cancer" show this Friday is fueled by celebrities. George Clooney was honored at the Emmys for his charitable efforts.

But Madison Avenue can still win over the color of ribbon you wear on a jacket, or the wristband.

At least, as I said, for now.

It's a matter of the economy. In good economic times, the public will be more receptive to making decisions based on the environment and other factors related to corporate social responsibility. When the economy still sucks, the public will look at price - and, in the case of bottled water - a beautiful, athletic and well-toned actress.

My only advice to Jennifer, and the rest of the acting industry keeping the bottled water industry in business: Be ready for the mood shift. Have your plan ready to explain how you also are taking extra steps - far beyond what most humans do - to recycle those bottles.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

How to pause on TV

Brain freezes happen.

As a reporter covering the Midwest campaign loop for the 1980 U.S. President election, I had writer's block for nearly 2 hours after a Ronald Reagan speech. Obviously, this was before the 24/7 news cycle or I would have been looking for a new career the next day.

Having coached dozens of executives and others for public appearances and on-camera interviews, I watched - like all of us - the recent awkward "silence" of AZ Gov. Jan Brewer during a live TV debate. (CNN covered it well here).

Two points from my end as a presentation coach.

1. The instant recovery. We are human. We make mistakes. We shouldn't expect perfection, even from polished politicians. (But, we do.) The trick is to be armed with a standard line when you stumble (and, you're going to stumble) or when asked a tough question. With a rehearsed line embedded into your brain, you can easily "fall back" to the defensive position, and use a trusted phrase to fill the "dead air," and give yourself a chance to recover .
Also, set your clock. The "trigger" for "dead air" is at three seconds. Practice this timing, so your brain knows when to bring up the instant "back-up" line.

There are straight-forward recovery lines such as: "Let me try this again." Or, when asked a tough question: "That's a good question. Let me make sure I understand exactly what you are asking."

But humor is better in the "brain freeze" moments because it quickly eases the tension and can evoke sympathy and empathy. "Well, that was a warm and fuzzy moment, wasn't it?" Or, "In the replay, I know this is going to sound better."

2. The longer recovery. Gov. Brewer did not have an immediate line at the time of her brain freeze. But, she did try to recover on a subsequent radio interview by confessing "It was the longest 16 seconds of my life." Fortunately for Gov. Brewer, the news media stayed interested in her (it is, after all, a governor's race in AZ) and she had opportunity to explain herself.

As much as we all want everyone to "move along" and forget a past mistake, some folks (like the news media and opponents) won't let go. The clip is now permanent and if it's good enough, it will make it to the Daily Show.
To win the "final word," you need to evoke poise, confidence and, again, a bit of humor. Also, gently insinuate that there are bigger issues to discuss by asking questions and putting others on the defensive.

If you don't take immediate control, then opponents have room to question your character and intellect.

The key is to not be defensive, not admit you made a mental mistake, nor dwell on the mistake. Address it with a quick reply, and transition to your message. It's not: "Look, I know I stumbled and had a brain freeze. We make mistakes, don't we? Can't we get on to the real issues?"

To appear you're in control and have collected your poise, it's: "I'm glad I can show that I'm human. (Or, with a grin on your face: "I'm glad you enjoyed my warm and fuzzy moment.") But did you catch the point I was making? We need to (create jobs/improve the economy/etc.)?"

And, it doesn't hurt to have staff providing the news media context and background about, say, how great leaders like to reflect on matters before making big decisions.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The young, the CSR and the Brand

What good is your effort to be a Socially Responsible corporation when a large sector of the population simply ignores that factor in their buying decisions?

A recent study of Canadians may upset the prevailing thinking about how companies improve their brand and their bottom line.

Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR, is an increasingly expensive branding proposition for companies. Most research shows consumers are increasingly looking at a company's reputation in their purchasing decisions. Even in a poor economy, more and more consumers are looking beyond just a good brand name or a discount.

While the actual percentages of CSR-based product purchases are still low, the trends tell companies they must keep examining which social causes to support. Like, saving the environment or cancer research.

However, research released this week by a Canadian advertising firm indicates the under-30 crowd are more ambivalent about a company's reputation in their purchasing decision. (Which seems strange to me, since I perceived all Canadians as being ultra-sensitive about the environment).

What's more, it seems social media has had a huge influence on how the younger audience developed a lack of interest in social issues. (Insert rant here about twitter and the devil).

It shouldn't be too much of a surprise that younger audiences are more swayed by "flash" and glitter and "coolness" versus whether a product is made by a company that wants to save the rainforest. If you've had a teenager in your life, you don't need research to tell you this.

But with this Canadian study examining a broader prime buying audience all the way to, gasp, age 29, the conventional wisdom is in a mild turmoil. Yeah, we can see how a 22 YO is not looking at social causes. But a 29 YO?

Prediction: Watch for a slew of more research diving into both of these issues (CSR among young folks and the influence of social media on social causes).
So, are you among the many professionals are scrambling this week - wondering if they need to recalculate their CSR recommendations based on one study, or wait for other research to come in?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Client Win - UCLA Extension

The Wolcott Company recently earned two positive and prominent placements in the New York Times on behalf of its client - UCLA Extension.

The first was an extensive piece about the value to mid-career professionals of returning to university for continuing education.

Click here to read some insightful quotes from UCLA Extension Dean Cathy Sandeen, and the perspective of a student.

The second story looked at how schools like UCLA Extension are offering foreign language courses to meet the growing demand among adults for a quick "immersion" in a language.

Monday, August 23, 2010

August 23, The Week

The national and international public relations scenes are busy. Pros are scrambling more and morewith crisis projects than product announcements. From tainted eggs, to a tainted cyclist, to the economy to reviving off-shore drilling to international work, like helping a company with a rash of suicides.

This sort of work is a blessing because of so many projects being shelved.

In California, the world seems to revolve around electronics (all things Silicon Valley), energy, politics, unemployment and going back to the school. Look behind the headlines and you'll find teams of PR pros hard at work on these subjects.

The biggest story in the works is the economy. Look for a rash of stories being developed and pursued this week and next about back-to-school sales as any sign of hope for our economy. Followed by news of layoffs and store closings. Message points are being crafted now to demonstrate the strength of chain retailers - in spite of the gloom. Can Christmas be saved as the ships begin to land in the LA and Long Beach harbors with goods from China?

Meanwhile, PR pros are doing their best to keep the "home energy" story in the news. Somewhere, there is a belief that consumers have the ability to buy or install more efficient devices. What? Not throw away my money on an iPad or new cell phone?! Watch for unique campaigns in the coming weeks to convince consumers to buy energy efficient washers, refrigerators and similar consumer goods. What? You haven't noticed these items being pushed into the main aisles at Lowe's and Home Depot?

Cities, businesses and utilities are required to buy more "green" energy. As the City of Los Angeles scrambles for cash to develop more wind and solar projects it will own, it will be forced to rely on buying green power from existing sources. Case in point is today's announcement about a nearly half-billion-dollar debt sale to "pre-purchase" wind energy from ...Washington. What happened to all the wind farms and solar projects in the Southern California desert?

Mid-term elections are keeping many communicators busy across the country. In CA, the final push begins for the multiple ballot measures and our two big races - Governor and Senator. Public affairs pros are putting the final touches to the annual post-Labor Day surge. Get out your goggles and rain coats, the mudslinging will reach hurricane strength.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A good person

One hopes the memories don't fade quickly.

A capacity crowd jammed the chapel at Forest Lawn in Glendale last Friday (Aug. 13) to pay their final respects to Lynne Doll, the president and partner of The Rogers Group.

Aside from the shock of her early passing - she was only 48 - it became clear to the audience that Lynne had "left her hand print on the hearts of everyone she met" (as one speaker noted).

Aside from her incredible achievements as a public relations executive, it became clear that Lynne was a dedicated and loving mother and wife, sister, daughter and more. As I and others know by being within her presence over the years, Lynne made everyone feel special, like you were a good friend, your suggestions and ideas were to be treated with respect and dignity and the time to live is for today.

It became very clear that Lynne packed two normal lives into one. She just had that much drive and zest for life. And, for that, there was a large turnout.

As many of us commented afterward, the mark of a good life is how many people turn out at your funeral. Hers was an envious one for all the right reasons.

Aug. 16 Week Ahead

It's back to school for many. And, with Labor Day approaching, we're just a few weeks away from California's final big election push.

So, let's look at one upcoming story important to public relations professionals.

Land development
California has received much attention over a November ballot measure to suspend a state law requiring reductions in greenhouse gases. Backers of Proposition 23 argue that it doesn't make sense to force companies and institutions to spend large sums of money on greenhouse gas reductions in a bad economy. The state ballot measure, if passed, would suspend "AB 32" until unemployment rates drop to 5.5 percent. (The current jobless rate is more than 12 percent).

However, another state law is on the books, not subject to a "recall" ballot initiative and is on its way to make life more challenging for cities and builders. "SB 375" is designed to "influence" local governments in planning decisions to reduce urban sprawl and encourage more "transit friendly" cities. To read more about the impacts of this law, read a recent Riverside Press-Enterprise story.

While the next few weeks of attention will be on the state ballot measure to suspend one greenhouse gas law, perhaps the more far-reaching law is proceeding.

After water, greenhouse gases are the biggest environmental story in CA. The state will continue to grow, so laws are being written to make communities more sustainable. In general, this means reducing commute times and improving public transportation to reduce air pollution.

Public affairs professionals, mostly those within the building industry, are doing their best to influence the design and implementation of the rules and "targets" surrounding SB 375. The draft plan covers 18 metropolitan areas. The CA Air Resources Board will consider these rules at a Sept. 23 meeting. As you read this, many public affairs officials in the Golden State are busy drafting comments for their clients.

For now, the immediate impact of these proposed rules is with the multi-million-dollar building industry. However, other industries and organizations are gearing up to help cities comply. These will include the public transportation sector, energy devices and others. In short, a lot of industries and private businesses that have or will need public relations help.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The lawyer in me

As a journalist, I think I had to sign a pledge to hate attorneys.

Most were always in the way, blocking the path from the information I wanted for a story. A few I could work with and get off-the-record background.

Yet, I understood attorneys had a role to play: To protect their client.

As I transitioned into public relations, "protecting the client" was among my new duties, too.

I soon learned many of the tactics used by attorneys also worked well in public relations. (Please, don't tell them I said this).

Among these lessons that came in handy were:
  • Short statements. We call this: "Staying on Message." For attorneys, the less "information" out there, the less room for interpretation and innuendo. This is especially helpful in crisis communication situations. If we put out too much detail too soon, we're giving the story more life than it needs at the moment.

  • Investigation. Some of the best defense attorneys and prosecutors I know (I covered many high-profile criminal cases) and some great detectives always assume nothing. Usually, the first story changes as facts are gathered and the investigation proceeds. What may appear to be solid "facts" invariably change.

These two lessons were in play this week for JetBlue and their former flight attendant who received a lot of attention for his use of multiple "f" bombs and an emergency chute to resign.

JetBlue didn't say much right away. First statement was standard. Then they had a little fun with their blog and reminded everyone that the rest of their flight attendants really do care about customer service, passengers, safety, etc. They gave out $100 vouchers to the passengers.

The reason they didn't want to say much is that investigations can turn up some interesting details. And, investigations take time. Especially, when police and others need to interview passengers, collect evidence ($25,000 to replace a chute), etc. And, to find out more about Steve the flight attendant.

And, for JetBlue, there was an unexpected bonus: A surge of sympathy for all flight attendants and the crap they have to put up with.

So, now, it seems, after a little more investigating.... the pendulum is swinging against our working class hero. The lovable image, the thousands of Facebook friends, the sympathy from others who feel just the same, the "Free Steve" t-shirts and a nation who seemed to embrace this guy....may soon fade as we begin to hear reports that our former flight attendant may not be so much a victim as a perpetrator. Heck, even Donald Trump is calling this guy a lousy employee and raises a great question about whether we all could count on a potential unstable flight attendant in an emergency.

Time will tell if he remains a folk hero. Much of this depends, I reason, on whether he makes it on Leno, Letterman or one of the morning TV news shows. And, how soon he does this. The longer he waits, the better his 15 seconds of fame disappear.

The PR community is going nuts on this one, with every expert offering their advice. If I were JetBlue, I would read these blogs and comments on trade articles - because it's all free. Some great ideas are out there -- just for (Hey folks, stop giving away this stuff).

From a corporate perspective, JetBlue has been handling this perfectly. They said little and let investigations take their course. And, guess what, the story is changing.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Politically correct political donations

As we PR veterans know all too well, one act can undo years of good work.

Following negative media coverage and store protests, Target's CEO last week apologized to employees for a $150,000 donation to a Minnesota organization that supported a Republican candidate for governor, who happened to endorse a constitutional amendment supporting "traditional marriage."

It is pretty clear Target's intentions were narrowly focused on supporting an organization that was pro-business. The challenge for any major, highly visible corporation is, therefore, to conduct the due diligence and secure the agreements that ensure the organization being supported with such a large check doesn't venture too far off the farm.

A company can't expect the organization receiving the funds to automatically recognize all parameters of how the donation is to be used, or evaluate all the repercussions of the organization's actions. An organization may think it is acting responsibility, but it's up to the company to explain every last detail and practically direct the organization's political movements.

The Wall Street Journal on Friday covered the dangers of new campaign finance rules for companies. Target seems to be the first test case, although it would seem a company the size of Target would have known better.

Although Target clearly states (on its web site, primarily) the intentions of political contributions, the rules of the game work differently. It's impossible for a company to donate to a cause or candidate and add "we only support 'this' side/part of the candidate." A candidate's "total" platform is taken into consideration for any donation.

Thus, Target soon was placed on the mantel of supporting an anti-gay candidate for the donation to a pro-business organization, which then happened to endorse a GOP candidate who....

The single donation has nearly wiped out Target's previous stellar reputation as being an LGBT-supportive employer.
So, what does this all mean?
Well, I'm sure over the next few days, you'll hear all sorts of suggestions for PR, such as:
  • Target should ask for its donation back.
  • Target should reinforce its ties to gay organizations.
  • Target should support a pro-gay candidate.
  • Target should embark on a subtle gay outreach advertising effort (following the first two efforts).
Fact is, Target shouldn't change too much. The much-publicized boycott won't work, they never do. So, there is no need to over-react. The apology letter should work, for now. And, I'll bet my next paycheck, Target is working this behind the scenes with all its existing contacts in the established (read: moderate) gay community to maintain dialogue.
Plus, Target has invested heavily over the past 5+ years in corporate social responsibility and being a progressive employer and buyer. This "bank" of goodwill is available and will eventually pay dividends in this latest detour.
An over-reaction by Target could do serious harm to the rest of goodwill bank. An over-reaction could make Target look like it's "scrambling": unorganized, afraid, doesn't know what it's doing, weak, etc.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Week Ahead: Aug. 9-13

New Feature

Starting today, PR in LA will post every weekend its best (ha!) predictions about a few, select anticipated events, news and other actions that public relations professionals should watch, run away from or will be unable to avoid because they are part of it. (Feel free to tell the editor what he's missing)

So, here goes:

Water in California
Monday, Aug. 9.
In an unprecedented event, the CA Legislature is expected to vote on bills to remove the $11 billion water bond from the November ballot. Opponents want to keep Prop. 18 on the ballot... so it can be defeated. Prop. 18 was shaping up to be another famous and expensive CA ballot battle, which meant good revenue news for a few public affairs agencies, video companies and advertising agencies. Organized labor was gearing up to defeat it, which meant the same good revenue news for those agencies on that side. This battle was growing. It even had DC-based groups getting into the act.

WHY IMPORTANT: Hundreds of local water agencies used the ballot measure - and the multiple news stories about "dire" water future - to ask customers to reduce water use. It's a lot easier to get people to act when water is in the news all the time. With the "buzz" gone, agencies must scramble to find new ways to catch the attention of their customers to keep them "water efficient." Plus, the ballot measure had loosely defined money for education and outreach programs, which could have meant contracts for PR/PA agencies for at least 5 years or longer. (Unless these funds get "lost" like relief aid to Haiti).

PREDICTION: Legislature will pull it from the ballot. Opponents will now gather themselves for less visible and more scientific-based battles, like the "Delta Stewardship Council" and water flow reports (Read: only the water geeks will follow). Water PR goes local and will be spotty, at best. Agencies would be smart to start meeting with local water utilities to plan for 2011 outreach plans, develop budgets and convince utility officials of the importance of "investing" in customer good will now for future rate hikes and, perhaps, a ballot measure in 2012.

Thursday, Aug. 12.
The city of Los Angeles is still limping along trying to shed its dependence on coal and natural gas as a source of power, and keep up its efforts to create more green energy production. The battle plan for this is the agency's "integrated resource plan," just released last month. No surprise: it's going to cost $3 billion or more to not only seek new, greener power, but to also maintain aging infrastructure (i.e. "reliability."). Translation: rate hikes.

WHY IMPORTANT: Public outreach is critical. The LADWP has been beaten up severely in the past for not doing enough to warn customers or get them engaged in the rate process. Add to this the battle between the City Council and LADWP over the last rate request. DWP has a new leader and how he handles this IRP and outreach effort will likely be highly scrutinized. (We hope someone notices). A kick-off workshop on Thursday, Aug. 12, should garner some news media coverage, unless another celebrity is thrown in jail.

PREDICTION: It's still a no-win situation for LADWP. The November CA ballot has Prop. 23, designed to remove aggressive greenhouse gas emission reduction efforts promoted by our governor. This battle is raising doubts about green mandates hurting economic recovery. Uncertainly over how hard to push for alternative energy sources, at least for the next few months, will make it extremely difficult for LADWP to promote a realistic energy plan to the public. And, the IRP is a complicated document to communicate. Plus, most utilities simply hold "workshops" (rather than aggressively promote them) to "comply" with outreach requirements. If Thursday's initial workshop gets a large turnout (public and media), then public opinion may turn toward LADWP's favor.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Services set for Lynne Doll

UPDATE: Services are now set for 2:30 p.m. Aug. 13
Here is the release from The Rogers Group about Lynne's passing. Services are set for Aug. 13.

Lynne Doll
Public Relations Industry and Community Leader Dies at 48

Lynne M. Doll, president of The Rogers Group and widely-respected leader in the public relations industry, died Aug. 3 of a stroke at Glendale Adventist Medical Center in California. She battled cancer for three years and was cancer-free at the time of her death. Lynne was 48.

For more than 25 years, Lynne was instrumental in expanding the breadth of The Rogers Group’s expertise and leading a series of high-profile and award-winning campaigns for major corporations, brands and government agencies.

A nationally recognized crisis communications expert, Lynne was known for her handling of tough challenges in public relations and risk management, and was sought out by top corporations for her counsel. Lynne also directed the agency’s public sector practice, serving as a key strategist for several major social marketing campaigns and leading the agency to win numerous awards and national accolades for public education campaigns in the areas of health, environment, education and early childhood development.

For her professional and community contributions, Lynne was recognized with several awards, including: “P.R. Professional of the Year” by the Public Relations Society of America’s Los Angeles chapter; Los Angeles Business Journal’s “Women Who Make A Difference,” for her commitment to non-profit organizations; and the “Distinguished Alumni Award” from California State University, Northridge (CSUN).

Of equal importance to Lynne was being a hands-on manager known and loved for her integrity, keen insights, and sharp wit. Under her leadership, TRG cultivated a working environment that values camaraderie and innovation along with a commitment to ongoing professional development, leading the company to be named one of the top agencies in the country to work for by The Holmes Report.

Lynne’s passion for community involvement and volunteerism was a driving force behind the development of the agency’s Community Involvement Program, which encourages staff to contribute time, talent and money to organizations in need, with support from TRG.

“Lynne was one of a kind, “said Ron Rogers, chairman of TRG. “For 25 years, I have treasured our friendship and our mutual trust, loyalty and business partnership. I have always admired her and will miss her beyond measure.”

Lynne served on the Boards of Directors for Planned Parenthood Los Angeles and The DAISY Foundation. Previously, she served on the national and regional Boards of Directors for the National Conference for Community and Justice, an organization that fights bigotry and racism, as well as the Los Angeles Fire Department Community Advisory Committee and the Advisory Council for the president of CSUN. She was also past president of the Board of Trustees for The Walden School, a private elementary school in Pasadena, where she served on the Board for six years.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Lynne was married to her husband, David Lans, for 24 years. Her 13-year-old daughter Natalie carries on family traditions of philanthropy, culinary prowess and good humor. Lynne also is survived by her mother, Carol Doll, and three sisters.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Lynne’s name to Planned Parenthood Los Angeles (www.plannedparenthood.org/los-angeles) and/or The DAISY Foundation (http://www.daisyfoundation.org/).
Services will be held at Forest Lawn Glendale on Friday, Aug. 13 at 9 a.m.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Good One Leaves Us Too Soon

Lynne Doll was one of those rare individuals. Not only was she smart, quick, a proven leader and thoroughly knew her profession, she also possessed that rare quality of being a nice person.

I don't know any other way of describing her.

The business world is full of executives who've stomped on others on their way to the top, or found sport in humiliating others in public. Lynne was not in that category, not even close.

Don't get me wrong. She was no pushover. But, she never saw the need to degrade anyone or "position" herself as better than others to prove a point, excel or emerge the winner in a debate.

Lynne, who died suddenly last night (Aug.3), left us way too early. Hers is a devastating loss for many reasons.

She was among the first PR executives I encountered in my second career. She wasn't quite president and partner of The Rogers Group, but she was getting close. I was used to hard-nosed managers, having come from the newspaper world. I heard stories about similar managers and executives in the corporate and agency public relations world. As a rookie in the PR business, I expected to get criticized for mistakes or not having a complete strategy or idea to share.

So, I was braced for abuse, tough talk and more.

In my first job at an agency, my firm shared an account with Lynne's. My first experience with her was the same as my last - pleasant, easy to work with, encouraging ideas no matter how stupid. She appeared genuinely interested in you and what you had to say.

So, I responded in kind and a professional relationship ensued that has lasted nearly 18 years. As I got involved in other PR activities, including being on the board of the Public Relations Society of America/Los Angeles, I would find the occasion to call on Lynne - usually for a favor. She always answered my call, or returned it that same day. She wasn't upset or somehow concluded that I was taking advantage of her pleasant demeanor. Perhaps I was. But she didn't mind.

Her career as a public relations professional was marked by many successes, and giving back to her profession. So, it's no mystery why the PRSA/LA chapter honored her, when she was still executive vice president at Rogers, in 1999 as PR Professional of the Year.

A recent telling quote about Lynne's professional accomplishments was in this week's Los Angeles Business Journal interview with the guy who hired her. Ron Rogers said the best decision he made in his career was hiring Lynne.

We will miss you. And, I hope all who you touched will remember the lessons you left behind.

A true class act.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Just wait for it...

Tracking - and anticipating - public attitudes are fundamentals to public relations.

But, with quicker access to information via Google, Twitter and other online resources, are attitudes changing faster? And, if they are, is the conventional wisdom to "go with the flow" and adapt your strategies as soon as the shifts occur?

Or, do you take the "long view" and promote a steady, more constant message or program with the understanding (hope?) that opinions will eventually come back to the point where they started?

It's like that history lesson - do you win the battle but lose the war?

It's also like driving Los Angeles freeways. (OK, it's like war). You can hold steady at 65 mph - in a lane other than the "fast lane" -and let all the others whip by you at 80. If you've done this before, you know that eventually, you'll catch up with the speeders because traffic moves in groups. The "blockage" formed by the next "group" of motorists will cause the speeders to slow down and allow you to catch up - at your nice even pace of 65. You may have lost the temporary battle, but you won the war.

But if you drive in LA, it's hard not to speed when given the chance.

So, are we then "tempted" to speed up and change our PR habits because everyone around us is moving faster? Or, is the better action to create a message and stick with it through the rough spots, knowing the war will be won?

Check out what has happened in cities around California when it comes to using treated wastewater and turning it into safe drinking water.

Almost 10 years ago, this idea was dead in the water (sorry for the pun). A Los Angeles City Council candidate (he didn't win) wanted an edge (publicity grab?) and coined the phrase "toilet to tap" in his singular campaign platform to block a proposed wastewater treatment experiment by the city. Although the science backed the city's idea and state regulations would prevent any direct use of treated wastewater in the city's water system, "Toilet to Tap" did the trick. It was easy to say. The phrase created an ugly image and, bam, the idea was killed. The city was ill prepared for the public anger created by a simple phrase, and never got the chance to recover from the initial blows.

But rather than totally abandon the concept, other public agencies stuck to their guns and proceeded with the same plan. The science and the process were improving. And, it also helped that California's water future was becoming more and more dire.

The first agency to succeed in changing public opinion on "treated wastewater" as a drinking water solution was the Orange County Water District.

This summer, it was the City of San Diego's turn to demonstrate how a proposed water supply solution, bolstered by a consistent message and unwavering strategy, allowed an idea to reach its proper destination.

As chronicled by a San Diego Union Tribune writer, not only was there no public opposition to the decision to proceed with a "toilet to tap" plant, the city received support from some very notable and high-powered environmental organizations, among others.

For sure, success for Orange County and San Diego was attributed to other important public relations tactics - primarily in coalition building and, in the case of Orange County, significant public outreach. And, for sure, they had the benefit of evaluating past failures and making adjustments.

More importantly, in my opinion, was that public agencies did not change course for the early, easy wins. Even with the speed of information at supersonic levels over the Internet, and the risk of public opinion getting out of control because a few well-placed antagonistic comments, these public agencies demonstrated the value of holding onto the long view.

Does this mean you can't make adjustments? Of course not. But as these examples have proven, public opinion can shift back to your favor - if you allow it.

Presidential perspectives and an update

If you missed it, the recent PRSA/Los Angeles presentation of "Presidential Perspectives" with four current or past White House communications officials was a smashing success. For those of you who did not plunk down some money and hoped to see it on a video somewhere soon...the wait is going to be a little longer.

My hope is that this one event did demonstrate to non-PRSA members the value of being a member. If the rare insights into communicating from an international platform were not enough, then consider the chance to mingle with many "heavyweights" in the PR industry in the prime networking hour before the start of the program.

Meanwhile, one of the panelists is moving on. Camille Johnston is leaving the White House to become Siemens Vice President of Corporate Affairs. The release is here. It's a great move for Siemens, which is moving its corporate headquarters to Washington, D.C. Glad we caught her when we did for our panel.

The best question posed to me that night was: "Is this an annual event?" Whew! It was a miracle pulling this one together, but I'd be open to an annual event of this magnitude. Send me your ideas to denis@thewolcottcompany.com

Monday, July 12, 2010


Is it a dance, a battle, a friendly joust?

As a former journalist, one the toughest decisions in my entire adult life was to switch careers to "the dark side."

Sometime early in the course my life as a reporter, I was given the adage of "don't trust PR people." They will try to spin you, keep you from the person you are trying to interview, and are generally not to be trusted. It's a credo, born from the inherent trait of all good reporters and editors to be skeptical, that spreads and morphs through newsrooms and many times ends up in the reporting of men and women who profess to be unbiased.

I many times have to explain that a public relations professional's job is to not tell lies or hide the truth, but to simply make sure the other side is well represented. Or, in the case of a crisis, make sure the client is protected and to prevent greater damage. Of course, it doesn't help when PR colleagues make a bad pitch. Tolerance levels are predictably low among many reporters.

Paul Holmes makes a great point about transparency in light of the Pentagon's recently issued guidelines.

When I switched careers nearly 20 years ago, my integrity remained very important. I carefully chose to work for a PR firm that epitomized my principles of openness and to represent only upstanding clients. My firm PR firm made it clear it would never represent tobacco companies, for example.

Despite my ethical commitments, I found a few former colleagues couldn't comprehend my move and suddenly cast me into that category of untrustworthy flak.

Skepticism is fine. It's needed in journalism. (A great lesson from a former editor: "When I look at the ingredients on a box of cereal, how do I know they list everything that is in there?")

Yet, permanent distrust with no ability to consider or evaluate the information that I, a PR person, am giving a reporter - is not healthy. Journalists need to uphold their credibility, and so do I. I'll tell a reporter why I can't give out certain information. They don't like it, but many times they understand. My hands are tied. I routinely give out background information "on background."

Good media relations begins with us, the PIO, or PR specialist or anyone charged with holding conversations with the news media.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Fake Press Release copy cats

Well, it seem there are copy cats out there.

The latest fake press releases announced the deaths of CA Senators Boxer and Feinstein. Good thing we have enough veteran reporters left at newspapers to begin investigating and fact checking before "running with it."

See here for earlier posts about other, more elaborate fake releases, their potential to harm and how you should be preparing for them. And see here about one other recent fake press release.

Are you ready for an attack, even if it's a hoax? Probably not.

This sounds very familiar, especially for us in CA. We know we live in earthquake country, we hear constant reminders to be prepared and to have our emergency kits ready. Yet, most of us are not truly ready for The Big One. I don't think the oversized box of granola bars and the hiking boots in the trunk of my car get me even close to "prepared" for a major quake.

Like yesterday's little shaker in Southern California, the latest fake press release is another wake-up call for preparation. So, why don't we, as PR professionals, take action for this and other potential crisis scenarios?

Try these simple tips:

  1. It's like dieting. Losing weight requires discipline. Life is full of multiple deadlines and tasks always right in front of our faces. But, many experts tell us, losing weight can be tough because we lack control to take steps "every day" to reduce weight. Losing weight comes in small, but consistent doses. The same principle applies to crisis planning. A little bit of it each day will eventually show results. So, spend 15 minutes every day (or, at least once a week) on crisis planning.
  2. Dream. Now is the time to consider possible responses and the "what ifs." Today, it is fake press releases. Tomorrow, it could be a social media attack on your client's product. In the calm, it's much easier to visualize how you would respond. The best crisis communications pros do this all the time. That is why CEOs turn to them, because THEY HAVE THE ANSWERS at their fingertips. Because they played out a scene in their heads.
  3. Read. Every week, search for a crisis, either current or past. Track back any press releases. Examine the outcomes, including longevity of the crisis. Analyze what went right, what could be done better. Discover the nuances or factors that you never considered. Avoid the impulse to critique or play "Monday Morning Quarterback."

Friday, July 2, 2010

Rebuilding images and empires

Stories about Tiger Woods are fewer and far between.


Things should change in the coming days, however. If the divorce court hearing proceeds as planned in Florida, pundits will once again evaluate whether image rehab is on course.

At least one reporter got the ball rolling early with an excellent overview.

Expect it to be a tough time for sports writers - given the World Cup finals, the All Star Game and the Tour de France all occurring at the same time. That would leave radaroline, TMZ, the NY Post and others of similar ilk to provide coverage. Yuck. (And, then there is Mel Gibson).

So, what is - or will be - missing from the analysis? Again, this is a column about public relations, so the examination is focused on the impact of reputation, and the lessons we in PR can learn to counsel our clients.

No. 1: Total impact. The Woods empire crumbled. No one has really looked at how many people lost their jobs or the revenue lost by businesses as endorsement deals ended, tournaments saw lower turnouts, few Nike golf balls sold, etc.

No. 2: The kids. No, not Tiger's and Elin's. What lessons were learned by the thousands of youngsters who began playing golf because of Tiger? The ones who play golf through his foundation? The ones who bask in the gifts and events from his foundation? Yes, we know this was another example of why children should not idolize athletes. (One exception: You can go ahead and idolize recently deceased UCLA basketball coach John Wooden). But Tiger shows no sign of slowing down his foundation or his visibility with it, as evidenced by a recent gig with Bon Jovi. While most pundits will focus on whether Tiger can rebuild his image through his golf play and examine how other athletes-in-trouble have fared, they haven't examined how TW Foundation scholarship recipients are reconciling who is giving them money for college, or why Woods is even still connected to a foundation that presumably promotes and rewards ethics and good behavior. Who is showing up at fund-raisers to be part of Tiger?

For PR professionals, the Woods saga is a gold mine for education and experience. Some of the takeaways, so far:

  1. People still want to forgive. If you are representing someone who has a "hint" of goodness that's demonstrated in public, the masses will wait to see that person "come around." Contrite works. Apologies work. "I've changed" works. Give it some time. Just look at Elliott Spitzer. Yet, if someone appears to be a permanent bad boy or girl (i.e. Lindsay Lohan) with no hope for recovery, feel free to bail.

  2. Attention spans are growing shorter. Our world is so wired, and overflowing with information, that we constantly "move on" to the next saga or story. Our fascination with individuals and their tribulations are either compartmentalized ("I'm not one to dwell in this area") or there are plenty of celebs who just seem to get into trouble. For all we know about Tiger, the latest Mel Gibson saga seems worse - right now!

  3. History softens the image. Although anyone can research a sorted past on Google, the public doesn't lift a finger to "go back" on someone's life. As time passes, a person's past is reduced to fewer and fewer lines of definition. We define our Presidents in assigned adjectives. FDR was the "New Deal" president. Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson and so on. Tiger will be remembered as a sports figure, first. His personal travails will become less and less important as his wins amass.

  4. Losses can be calculated. Although every PR pro criticized Woods' actions (or, inaction) early in the scandal, the silence and hiding seemed to work. Refusing to issue statements or answering media questions quickly eliminated the major aspect of the scandal - the numerous women telling their side of their alleged relationship with Tiger. If Tiger acknowledged anything more than "transgressions," additional details would simply provide more fuel for the fire. Whether this tactic works for the next person in trouble should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

All of this now tells us that if you have a client in trouble or a crisis communications problem that doesn't involve a publicly traded company, the following rules of engagement may be in play:

  • The public and the media may not pursue all penetrating questions, or explore more in-depth "societal" questions. Of course, be prepared for them.

  • Unless you are representing someone like Octomom or Bernard Madoff, you stand a very good chance of counseling your client through any crisis or reputation nightmare. Preach patience and sticking to message.

So, now about BP........