Archive for May, 2005

May 31, 2005: 7:27 pm: Uncategorized

Good PR isn’t an accident: it’s a matter of finding the right people to carry your best message to an audience that needs to hear it.

As much as we tout PR as an essential element of any campaign, there are times when the “silent support” can bite you in the hiney.

Take the situation brewing in Jefferson County, Alabama.

The county is already under fire for runaway sewer rates and unnecessary upgrades, and several members of the sewer department are under federal indictment for kickbacks. That’s the climate you need to understand the following:

A year ago, after a number of public miscues (and before the fraud charges) the county decided to contract with PR firms to help with messaging and strategy. Among other things, the firms are creating a media database, logging media hits, and publishing newsletters for neighborhoods.

Except now we find out those same firms may have been used to promote a referendum on a 1-cent sales tax increase — and paid with public funds to do so.


The county is in a real pickle, because there is a paper trail showing that the PR firms had started work on the project before any votes to proceed, and before the notion had gone public.

Oops oops.

Part two runs in Wednesday’ Birmingham Post-Herald — and I’ll keep plumbing this story for object lessons. (Such as, there are times as a PR practitioner that you need to recognize the potential for conflict of interest, and know that your mere presence could be a liability.)

Update: Part two of the series.

May 27, 2005: 7:55 am: Uncategorized

If rules govern the game, then meta-rules govern the rules.

If definitions describe words, then meta-definitions define definitions.

So what is “meta-publicity?” It’s any publicity one accrues not from the act of directly seeking publicity, but instead from merely starting to organize a campaign. This isn’t that alien a concept. Think of the headlines a politician gets from establishing an “exploratory committee.” Or even headlines about how much money has been raised/allocated to sway votes or public opinion or consumers.

There’s a bit of gamesmanship in trying to ride meta-publicity for maximum effect. There’s even a big risk in the political arena, where allowing your opponents to disparage your efforts can be as bad as tipping your hand too early.

I got to thinking about this as I stumbled upon the most brazen and well-executed case of meta-publicity I’ve ever seen: A Main Street music festival in Rogers, Arkansas, got a big write-up in the local paper… for getting its first-ever Public Relations Intern.

“This is not running errands and getting coffee,” Wolf said of the new intern’s position.

Most interns feel great about writing a press release or two — this guy got placement before he even officially joined the team! Talk about results!

Working on the public relations needs for this year’s festival is exciting, Conley said, but added that he’s also receiving a couple of credit hours for the internship. He’s a public relations major who will be a senior this fall.

“This is the kind of environment I want to work in,” Conley said. Working in public relations for a worthwhile nonprofit organization, such as Main Street Rogers, can be particularly fulfilling, he said.

Conley just went to work this week, but Wolf said she’s already had him design an advertisement thanking supporters of Main Street’s golf tournament earlier this month. He’s also starting to work on advertisements for the festival, she said.

Yeah — this all sounds really silly. “Small-town rubes with nothing better to put in the newspaper.”

Truth be told, it’s really no sillier than all of the mainstream media fawning over anything with the word “blog” in it. (There is nothing magical about the word — which really isn’t a word at all, but instead is a headless portmanteau.) Blogs aren’t a panacea, and they aren’t the best thing since pre-fab de-crusted peanut-butter sandwiches for the lazy picky eater.

Blogs are a tool. And nothing more.

Although a lot of people are going to get burned by trying to “allocate resource matrices” and “leverage communications synergies” by adding a damned blog to the company site. Blogs are a great way of being heard and getting feedback, but you have to have something to say.

Don’t get sucked into the meta-publicity of blogging. The fact that your company is starting one up won’t be newsworthy for long. Unless you post some crazy things that get you the wrong flavor of publicity.

Speaking of flavor — I’m hungry for a pre-fab de-crusted peanut-butter sandwich. I simply don’t have the time or patience to trim away all that crust. And don’t get me started on the crust — that’s the first part of the bread to mold. Nothing but the tasty middle of the bread for me, Jack. And my sandwiches are so fresh when I want them, thanks to this cool new Uncrustable’s Sandwich Keeper. (Which is an awful lot like most blogs. Pretty on the outside — seemingly perfect for the job — yet either empty, or filled with something that at best you don’t need, or at worst might harm you.)

Edit: Well, what do you know? This item from USA Today slipped right under my radar. Seems I am not alone.

Have a safe Memorial Day weekend, everyone.
May 26, 2005: 3:12 pm: Birmingham, Scrushy

To save his reputation, ousted HealthSouth founder Richard Scrushy has to win in court twice — once in a court of law, and the other in a court of public opinion. It’s not enough to earn a mistrial or a hung jury. Getting off on a technicality won’t restore his luster.

Earlier this week, I documented the extent of his public relations campaign. In some respects, it’s all the old messages but done through alternate media.

The first part of that battle is leaning his way. Jurors have indicated they are deadlocked on the key charge of conspiracy. That bodes well, as it tends to hang doubt on all of the rest of the charges that follow. If you can’t prove he was part of the creation of the scheme, it’s hard to prove “what he knew and when he knew it.”

May 25, 2005: 9:08 am: Uncategorized

Just when it appeared Newsweek might be getting past the fallout from the backtrack on the Koran abuse story — The Washington Post Company has a more difficult situation to handle.

A blogger with an interest in learning Japanese stumbled across that nation’s version of Newsweek.

Pictures being worth thousands of words and all, this cover does demand your attention, with the American flag in the trash can.

But before you rush to judgement about what Newsweek was thinking, you really ought to look at the translation of the cover text.

In case you can’t make out the text, click on the cover to the left to open it in a new window.
Rick Adams translated the page, and it certainly is an eye-opener:

“The Day America Died”

“With Bush Remaining in Office, the Ideal of “Freedom” is Dashed to the Ground”

The supporting text inside isn’t much friendlier:

From the editorial staff

“Since Newsweek is an American magazine, why would it tell us of problems with Bush?” we are occasionally asked in an ironic tone. However, we do not take sides, but only analyze the meaning of events from various viewpoints. Perhaps this has led to misunderstandings.

What have Americans lost due to the Bush administration in the last four years, and what will the world lose in the next four years? Verified facts, not opinions from any viewpoint, are laid forth in the special report in this issue.

You think Newsweek will get complaints about this? How many Americans will interpret this as pandering to anti-American audiences, or even worse, a possible cause of anti-American global sentiment. And why would Newsweek carry these “verified facts, free from opinion” in international editions instead of say, I don’t know, publishing them in the United States?

Step carefully, Newsweek.

May 24, 2005: 5:04 pm: Birmingham, Scrushy

This blog is about media relations, and how shaping public opinion (through positive positioning) can help you. It’s also about how neglecting to defend your image can backfire.

So, why have I intentionally avoided the elephant in the room? My own backyard, even?

HealthSouth founder and CEO Richard Scrushy was on trial for his knowledge of a $2,700,000,000.00 (billion) accounting fraud. Over a number of years, HealthSouth fudged the numbers to meet Wall Street expectations. Fifteen former officers (including five CFOs) have reached plea agreements with the feds, in exchange for their cooperation against Scrushy.

(I will say that unlike the Enron’s and the Tyco’s of the corporate fraud world, HealthSouth was actually a profitable company delivering tangible service. Just not nearly as profitable as most were led to believe.)

The jury is now in its fourth day of deliberations, having to sort through 55 days of testimony and 6,000,000 documents. So again… why have I held off?

The Scrushy indictments and SEC hearings were among the last big stories I covered in my previous life as a journalist. That $2.7-billion figure came out of my addition and reporting. Needless to say, I know a heck of a lot about what prosecutors were up to, as they fought to freeze Scrushy’s assets. With my new job, I didn’t get the chance to directly see or hear a lot about what the defense was up to in the legal realm. But it’s been interesting to see what’s been happening on the public relations front.

I’ve maintained all along that Scrushy faces a monumental task: winning his freedom while keeping his reputation intact. He always had a corporate swagger of control, and was known for the degree to which he micro-managed certain aspects of HealthSouth. Richard Scrushy is a proud man, and intensely proud of the company he dreamed and established from nothing.

It takes a lot of moxie and ego to bring all of that together — and those are exactly the sorts of things he had to let go of during the trial. How can one maintain that reputation, when the defense amounts to a lot of “I didn’t know” and “I guess I’m not a great judge of character to have had such crooks in my trust.”

The Scrushy saga has been the elephant in the room — and now that it’s in the hands of the jury, I can feel more comfortable as an ex-journalist to comment. And this particular missive has to do with Scrushy’s playing of the race card. (I know what you’re thinking… what’s a white billionaire know about being black?) Throughout this ordeal, Scrushy has positioned himself as a simple man who grew up poor on the wrong side of the tracks in Selma, Alabama. A high-school dropout with no formal education, he made his way into the medical world as a respiratory therapist, married young with kids he could barely feed.

His attorneys have equated this to a civil rights case. Even now, you can’t find Scrushy walking to or from the courthouse without an entourage of black attorneys, pastors, and supporters. Some think the display a little transparent, and will not affect the jury (split 6-6 black and white.) Some point to the timing of Scrushy’s relationship with those inner city pastors, and a $1,000,000 gift he gave one influential congregation. Some even point to the executives Scrushy surrounded himself with, none of whom were black.

Richard Scrushy has spent a lot of time in and out of the courthouse on reputation managment. He and his wife Leslie did a religious talk show for more than a year, he had a website to refute the bias and false claims he saw in the media. From a trial standpoint, he bluffed jurors and reporters alike into believing he was prepped and ready to testify on his own behalf — which he ultimately did not do. (I for one was not fooled, and I have witnesses to back that up.)

The prosecution’s strategy was to play against Scrushy’s need to rehabilitate his public image. Play his own ego against himself. It’s not easy to win simultaneously in Federal court and the court of public opinion. We’ll see how it works out.

: 4:30 pm: Uncategorized

Update to a previous post:

Looks like the Boy Scouts are having problems in places other than Birmingham. Now, the Feds are investigating allegations that the Atlanta area Scouting operation may have artificially inflated its minority membership. For the time being, the United Way in Atlanta has withheld its allocation to the Boy Scouts while the charges are pending. (United Way contributions that were designated directly for the Boy Scouts are being passed along.)

Hint: Scouting supervisors across the United States better start brushing up on that crisis communications plan…

May 23, 2005: 3:45 pm: Uncategorized

It appears as though Wal-Mart’s 180-degree shift on speaking to the media will pay off — but that hasn’t yet popped up on the bottom line.

Despite strong retail numbers, Wal-Mart missed Wall Street projections recently.

“Management distractions can have a tremendous effect on a company,” said Craig Johnson, retail analyst with Customer Growth Partners. “The good news is that Wal-Mart took some action and they’re putting more effort into their public relations.”

For starters, Wal-Mart invited the members of the media for a first-ever two-day meet-and-greet with senior executives in early April.

But that’s not likely to be enough to help pull the world’s largest retailer out of its funk.

“Wal-Mart has to redefine itself to consumers,” said Johnson. “If the lowest price pitch is its only value proposition, that’s yesterday’s news.” In other words, it needs to come up with something new and fresh instead of just rocking along like it’s the 1980s.

By contrast, Target exceeded expectations.

Even though the CNN reporter touched on a good bit of Wal-Mart’s problem, there’s another theory floating that gets greater play. The notion is that Wal-Mart does better in a bad economy, because shoppers are more interested in value. (Rather ironic for those politicos and experts who tout this as “the worst economy ever.”)

We’ll see if the economists change their tune in a year or so, when we can quantify coverage as good hits and bad hits, and compare it to the stock performace. (Which has been for the most part flat since long before Wal-Mart’s first news conference in Bentonville.)

May 20, 2005: 12:05 am: Uncategorized

(I’ve been hanging onto this article, because it just feels like a weekend piece… Have a safe one, by the way.)

We’ve seen a radical shift in what we sell and market. You sell an object or service — you market an image. In that same vein, automakers sell you a car, but market a lifestyle.

Major automakers played it safe for a long time, with a lot of models identified by letters and digits. Now at least the pendulum is swinging back toward actual names for vehicles. And as such, there is a lot of research into finding a name that will market well in multiple places. For instance, you’d hate to spend a lot of ad and development dollars only to find out your product means “masterbation” in another language.

Don’t laugh. It has happened. Forbes recently compiled “The Best, Worst & Weirdest Car Names. Take a few minutes, it’s pretty interesting.

Oh, and one more thing.

It’s not enough to research those words, but by all means, think like a Junior High Prankster.

(I’m long past that age, but if I were working for Publix, I’d better have a contingency plan for what to do if the “L” burns out.)

May 19, 2005: 11:31 am: Uncategorized

Steve Nash has had one heck of a year. The Little-Canuck-that-Could is still hustling, and adding to his improbable MVP season. Last night, the 6′-3″ guard went off for 34 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists in 42 minutes. Jason Terry couldn’t stop him. Marquis Daniels couldn’t stop him. Michael Finley couldn’t stop him. Even former teammate Dirk Nowitzki couldn’t stop him.

Nothing short of an NBA lockout can stop Steve Nash.

Oops. I spoke too soon.

You’d think that with all of the steroid talk, and that whole NHL season in the toilet, that the leadership of professional leagues and the players’ associations would have figured out by now that not having games tends to hurt the fan base and the merchandising. We still don’t know if hockey can recover. It took the once-in-a-century effort of Cal Ripken and a subsequent home run exhibition from Sosa and McGwire to being baseball back from the dead after a similar gaffe.

The NBA collective bargaining agreement runs through the end of June, and negotiations are off for now. I’d like to tell you that you could learn a lot about the art of spin from watching each side pin the blame on the other.

But you won’t. Because the fans don’t have any sympathy for the ultra-rich. They don’t particularly care which group of rich men (owners vs. players and agents) has to bite the bullet. They aren’t interested in hearing about how hard it is to raise a family on less than $9,000,000.

Lesson learned? Before you read your prepared statement, do a sound check from the front row to the cheap seats. You might be surprised to hear how hollow your words can echo when you’ve lost touch with your customers.

May 18, 2005: 11:15 pm: Retail Detail

As a rule, I don’t generally try to rip off other people’s blogs, but B.L. Ochman’s “What’s Next Blog” has a great cautionary tale about getting too cute with your decorations.

Let’s just say that if you’re a major retailer trying to score major publicity at a media opportunity that you are in full control of… and that event involves dressing up the venue with a bunch of toilets… you really ought to let people know they aren’t hooked up to anything.

“We have had people use this nonfunctional bathroom all night, which does not even have any plumbing,” lamented Samuel Coplan, who helped install the display in the pre-fab rooms set up to showcase Target’s home furnishings. “Some poor [people] will just clean it up in the morning.”

May 17, 2005: 5:14 pm: Uncategorized

By now, you’ve probably heard about the British boy who found a snake in his cereal box. (No doubt, this story got more attention after the month-long “Fingergate” that Wendy’s so valiantly fought.)

While many agencies and PR professionals will advocate a quick response, some miss the boat by not complementing it with a slow one.

Check out this Google News search done on the words “snake cereal box”, on May 17th. (I preserved it, just in case a few links change order.) You’ll see a lot of the coverage hit within a day of the incident, May 4th. Look at the outlets: ABC Online (Australia), CNN Internaional, Reuters, MSNBC…

Now sort by date, and see what you get. The online edition of India’s “The Hindu” didn’t pick up the original story until the 13th, nine days later. Now, if you don’t have a customer base in India, you might not care. But your quick response won’t show up on this page at all, and those who are curious about your actions in this matter will have to dig to find it (and most aren’t inclined to do so.)

There’s a fine line to cross here, where you might be “giving the snake story more legs” by pushing your denials and mea culpae. You don’t want to over-apologize. Just do your due diligence, and continue to monitor what’s being said after the initial venom wears off.

May 16, 2005: 4:01 pm: Uncategorized

It hasn’t exactly been a great year for Mexican President Vicente Fox.

He’s already been blasted for his tantamount encouragement of Mexican citizens to illegally cross the U.S. border in search of work. He’s drawn ire for suggesting that millions of Mexican immigrants will be necessary to shore up America’s Social Security plan. He’s railed against the building of any wall on our southern border, and threatened to seek global sanctions if U.S. citizens tried to monitor illegal border crossings.

Then again, he isn’t running for office here.

Still, you’d have to know that this kind of statement would become a problem:

“There’s no doubt that Mexican men and women — full of dignity, willpower and a capacity for work — are doing the work that not even blacks want to do in the United States.”

In a situation like this, the smart thing to do would be to play up cultural differences in mis-interpretations, and let the statement fade into the footnotes. Mexico City’s Catholic leadership didn’t make things any easier:

Even Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, the archbishop of Mexico City, criticized the U.S. policy as ridiculous and defended Fox’s comments, saying: “The declaration had nothing to do with racism. It is a reality in the United States that anyone can prove.”

So what did we see in the way of a backpedal? Through a spokesman, Fox said:

“The purpose (of the comment) was none other than to show the importance Mexican workers have today in the development and progress of U.S. society.”

Not exactly a strong retraction. The CNN article attempts to highlight the cultural differences:

While Mexico has a few, isolated black communities, the population is dominated by descendants of the country’s Spanish colonizers and its native Indians.

Comments that would generally be considered openly racist in the United States generate little attention here.

One afternoon television program regularly features a comedian in blackface chasing actresses in skimpy outfits, while an advertisement for a small, chocolate pastry called the “negrito” — the little black man — shows a white boy sprouting an afro as he eats the sweet. Many people hand out nicknames based on skin color.

Victor Hugo Flores, a 30-year-old bond salesman, cringed when asked what he thought of Fox’s comment, but said it isn’t too different from popular sayings celebrating what Mexicans see as a strong work ethic among blacks.

“It was bad, but it really isn’t racist,” he said. “Maybe the president shouldn’t have said it. But here we say things like, ‘He works like a black person,’ and it’s normal.”

What’s our lesson here? There’s a court of law, where you are home free if you can prove a fact. The truth, indeed, will set you free. In the court of public opinion, there are some truths that can lock you out of consideration and opportunities. People, by nature, are not always forgiving.

Are Fox and the Cardinal correct in what they say? The question is irrelevant. What matters is they didn’t have the foresight to see they had no business raising the question. Fox could have made his point without using a racial example. Particularly in a race-conscious society.

May 14, 2005: 7:33 am: Uncategorized

You know… some professions require everyone have good public relations skills.

Enjoy your weekend.

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Ice cream vendor ordered to cool off

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

A Good Humor man was served 18 months’ probation Tuesday for losing his cool with a foul-mouthed teenager.

Nazzareno Didiano, 44, stopped dishing out peanut butter bars and Blue Bunnies last May 12 and began pummeling a pudgy-faced Bloomfield teen during a meltdown.

The teen, now 14, told Allegheny County Judge John A. Zottola during a brief trial that Didiano grabbed him by the arm, yanked him from his bike, punched him in the face and slammed him into a wall.

The attack came after the boy berated and cursed Didiano over the cost of his cones.

“I wanted to tell him I didn’t appreciate being talked to like that,” said Didiano, who denied punching the boy.

Zottola ruled he did not believe Didiano and convicted him of simple assault. In addition to the probation, Didiano must take anger management classes and reimburse the teenager $20 for damage to his bike.

The teen giggled as Didiano recounted the obscenities directed at him.

Didiano, who worked for Paul’s Ice Cream Co., served up his own frosty insults.

“I told him he didn’t need any ice cream anyway because he’s fat,” said Didiano.

The teen, about 5-foot-5 and 140 pounds, responded by calling Didiano a “bald (expletive) ripoff.” Didiano later attacked when he found the boy sitting on a bike two blocks away.

Assistant District Attorney Dan Regan presented photographs of a red-faced victim with a cut inside of his mouth.

“He instigated the whole thing,” said Didiano, who is looking for a new job.

The teen’s mother said she’s satisfied with the verdict, but complained that her son is now self-conscious about his weight.

“This has been a nightmare,” she said.

“I told him he didn’t need anymore ice cream because he’s fat.” Classic customer service. Great kick-start for a new campaign: “Paul’s — the ice cream you want, but only if you really need it. Our team of mobile health professionals will help you stay on your weight-loss target.

May 10, 2005: 9:19 am: Uncategorized

Let’s get some feedback here.

A former student at an all-girls Catholic school in Chicago is suing her teachers for discussing her case of mono with several classes — describing it as “a disease that whores get.”

Pretend you are hired to do damage control for this lawsuit and the resulting publicity. What can you do at this point to regain institutional integrity?

Keep in mind, a lot of time has passed since the incident. Contrast that with the case of the Columbus, GA high school student who was suspended for 10 days for talking on his cell phone during school hours. (It was his mother calling… from Iraq.) That boy’s suspension was lifted after two days, and he won’t be penalized for missing any tests or assignments. (That might have something to do with a tide of public sentiment.)

So, back to the schoolgirl with whose mononucleosis led to a bad rep. What would you do?

May 5, 2005: 8:46 am: Uncategorized

ABC News: An Illicit Affair on ‘American Idol’?: “May 3, 2005 — A former ‘American Idol’ contestant told ABC News’ ‘Primetime Live’ that Paula Abdul, one of the judges for the hit reality television show, provided him with off-camera tips and assistance while he was a contestant, even helping him select some of the songs he would sing.”

Let’s look at what Fox had at its disposal to counter the allegations.

First, Paula Abdul’s blanket denial was expected. Now that there is public evidence that Corey and Paula didn’t have proper professional distance, there will be more questions. (The cough syrup may be the key, moreso than the phone stuff.)

Second. a lot of people though the “Fallen Idol” show would have some of the current information about Bo Bice’s drug arrest record. That information hit the Smoking Gun website about a week and a half ago. Makes you wonder whether Fox leaked Bice’s record as a pre-emptive strike.

It certainly wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility. He properly warned them about his arrest record… they had easy access to the documents… a well-timed release might blunt the interest in the “Fallen Idol” expose… it might even generate sympathy against ABC for even doing a piece (which it did in Birmingham.)

Like a lot of good PR strategies — we may never know.

Paula Abdul, on the other hand, might still have some ‘splainin’ to do.

Straight up. Your thoughts?