Archive for December, 2005

December 24, 2005: 12:14 am: External PR, Rants

‘Tis the season to jack up some free publicity, using an attorney, timing, and hungry journalists.

The days in and around Christmas are bad for newspeople, because most of what they cover and do dries up. If you’ve got anything that might merit attention, you can maximize it by dropping it in the dead zone from Christmas to New Years.

That’s what Jews for Jesus has apparently done.

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Christian evangelical group Jews for Jesus is suing Google Inc., saying a Web log hosted through the Internet search leader’s Blogspot service infringes its trademark.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in New York on Wednesday, seeks to force Google to give Jews for Jesus control of the site as well as unspecified monetary damages.

“We have a right to our own name and Google has allowed the use of our name on Blogspot without our permission,” said Susan Perlman, associate executive director with Jews for Jesus.

“Our reputation is at stake,” Perlman told Reuters.

Yeah, their reputation is certainly at stake. The guy who had the site had a whopping three posts on there, all between January and June. Apparently, the organization contacted him a while back about getting the rights to the blog name. Funny that they should wait until almost Christmas to file the suit…

Actually, there is a pretty substantial legal issue here: Do corporations and organizations have the right of first refusal when it comes to the naming of subdomains? If I suddenly have an infatuation with Jennfier Aniston, can I be prevented from storing my pictures at http://jenniferaniston.positiveposition.com?

December 23, 2005: 8:40 pm: Birmingham, External PR, Scrushy

I hereby apologize for setting in motion the chain of events that got Paul Finebaum sued.

(Thanks Wade, for bringing this to my attention.)

We’ve documented Richard Scrushy’s legal battles — not so much for the courtroom fireworks but instead looking at his stated goal: repairing his civic and corporate reputation. Having won an acquittal from a jury in his HealthSouth fraud trial, the founder and CEO has been keeping fairly low on the second part of Operation Renewal. For the most part, he’s even heeded the advice I laid out months ago.

Now, he has filed suit against both the Birmingham News and radio talk-show host Paul Finebaum, for separate statements and allegations he feels are false and damaging.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Libel suits filed by former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy accuse The Birmingham News and Alabama radio personality Paul Finebaum of defaming him in reports or commentary about his relationship with a black church that he joined.

Scrushy’s wife, Leslie, is a plaintiff with her husband in the suit against Finebaum.

In both suits, Scrushy, who is white, accuses the defendants of unfairly portraying his decision in 2003 to leave his longtime church in Vestavia Hills and join the Guiding Light Church, a predominantly black church in Birmingham. Scrushy changed churches while under criminal investigation.

A November 2003 story in the News quoted a legal expert as saying that by changing churches, Scrushy was “laying the groundwork for endearing himself to African-American jurors.”

The suit claims the statement was libelous because it “made Scrushy sound like a devious hypocrite and heathen.” McPhillips said Scrushy changed churches as a result of his “own faith walk with the Lord.”

The Scrushys’ suit against Finebaum, who also is a sports columnist for the Mobile Register, cites a radio show in which Finebaum and his callers discussed who might play Leslie Scrushy in a movie about the couple.

“Who is the fakest actress in Hollywood? I mean the one with the fakest smile — that would be Mrs. Scrushy, wouldn’t it?” Finebaum said during a radio show in February.

According to the lawsuit, Finebaum “publicly described Mrs. Scrushy as plastic, as a gold digger, as a fake, as a phony, and as an air head.”

Three years ago, when the SEC was trying to clamp down on Scrushy’s assets, I was a regular contributor to Finebaum’s show. During a long segment on a slow news day, Paul asked me how the reporters stayed awake with little to do. I told him how we were already casting the Scrushy movie, and gave a few examples. (Andy Garcia as Richard Scrushy, Courtney Cox as Lesley, Samuel Jackson as Donald Watkins…)

Who would have thought it would come to this?

December 22, 2005: 2:11 pm: Big Blunders, Rants

Or maybe a million of them? Or 5,700,000 of them? That’s how many people ultimately got the rootkit spyware injected into their computers as a part of a copy protection scheme.

Angry consumers have already started stirring the pot with talk of a HolidayChristmas season boycott, and now the news gets worse for Sony. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is adding charges that the company violated anti-spyware laws.

cNet NewsThe new charges brought by Abbott contend that MediaMax software used by Sony BMG to thwart illegal copying of music on CDs violated state laws because it was downloaded even if users rejected a license agreement.

Wow.

That’s going to take a while to recover from right there.

You can throw out all of the original apologies, because now it seems Sony had to know that it was digging around hard-drives. You don’t “accidentally” create an installer program that ignores the EULA.

The readers at Slashdot have already played out the same scenario, involving catfood.

December 20, 2005: 11:52 am: Big Blunders, Helpful Hints, Rants

Some have perfected the art of the stunt, and some haven’t.

One entity that has played the stunt card well is GoldenPalace.com. The internet casino has paid people to streak, box, and climb buildings wearing temporary “Golden Palace” tattoos.

You might be more familiar with the company’s rather unusual collection of weird eBay items, made famous at the end of most local newscasts.

The Jesus Cheeto


$22.50

The Christ Pierogi


$1,775

The Monster Flake


$156

Gigantor the Lemon


$29.99

The Pope Hat Dorito


$1,209

The Grilled Cheese Mary


$28,000

Well, here’s the latest:

The bat that all-time baseball hit leader Pete Rose used for his 159th home run will be sawed in half to determine if it was corked, according to the Internet casino that purchased the bat at auction for $103,631.

Mike Heffner, the president of Lelands auction house in New York, said before last week’s sale that the black Mizuno bat showed signs of having been corked.

GoldenPalace.com, the betting Web site, said in a statement that it will saw the bat in half to see if it’s been enhanced, an event that will raise money for charity and draw media attention for the casino.

Good for them. Not so good for Donald Trump.

Yeah, I’m picking on him again, for mixing his messages like he wants us to mix our drinks.

On this morning’s radio commentary, Trump talked about his late brother Fred who had problems with alcohol. He talked about his agonizing decision to lend “Brand Trump” to vodka, having seen the effects in Fred Trump’s life. Donald reasoned that someone else would be selling vodka if he didn’t, so he announced he’d be giving all of his vodka profits to MADD.

Funny — none of that altruism was mentioned three weeks ago when it was initially announced.

Sounds like a backstroke, Donald. Your PR people are fired. Again.

December 19, 2005: 5:34 pm: Helpful Hints

Spin is about shifting the blame, or framing the issue — it rarely gets associated with accepting culpability and moving on.

Kudos to Warner/Chappell Music, for having the guts to admit it was wrong.

Last week, music publisher Warner/Chappell Music sent a threatening letter to independent Austrian programmer Walter Ritter, complaining about a free piece of software he’d developed that scoured Web sites for song lyrics and imported them into Apple Computer’s iTunes software.

The software was designed to find lyrics to the songs on your iPod, and download them so you could read along with your songs. Initially, Warner/Chappell saw this as a copyright violation, and sent threatening “cease-and-desist” letters.

Here’s a link to the apology, made public… and the parties may soon be in talks to work together on a way to do the same thing in a manner that doesn’t cloud the legal landscape.

Here’s the bonus — it’s not like Warner/Chappell had a lot to gain by pushing the issue. Others would have sprung up to do a similar thing in a different way, and corporate lawyers would have spent the next couple of years swatting flies. Rather than fight a Pyhrric battle, the company ended the fight without looking like a loser. By phrasing things toward collaboration and partnerships, they disengage as an equal.

“Sorry” can carry such a golden tune…

December 16, 2005: 9:51 am: Big Blunders, From the Front

With a hurricane season of this past year’s magnitude, there are bound to be a lot of little lessons learned.

From communication lapses for communications companies, to the artful use of worst-case scenarios to manage expectations, you’ll find a mixed bag of PR success in the wake of Hurricane Wilma.

December 15, 2005: 1:11 am: Birmingham, External PR, Helpful Hints

More signs that Media Relations people need to update the old models…

…with a tip of the hat to Corante‘s ‘Rebuilding Media‘.

First, a great media shift is already underway. 2005 saw the end of more than 2,000 newspaper jobs in the United States (including several folks down the street at the Birmingham Post-Herald.)

Combine that with the recent announcement that the Pulitzer committee is now accepting online content submissions, and the new president of the Society of Professional Journalists teaches online media at the University of Florida.

When the dudes with inky hands are filling out job applications, and the internet dudes are running the guild, and the dudes who hand out the hardware are changing the rules… maybe it’s time to take a hint.

B.L. Ochman’s mantra: the traditional press release is dead. It won’t happen tomorrow, but the “traditional press” is slowly heading that same direction. If you’re still promoting yourself the same way you did five years ago, you might still be okay. If you’re not looking for new ways to engage your current and future customers, you’re making a big mistake.

December 13, 2005: 10:15 pm: From the Front, Rants

You know, when I was putting together the previous entry, I thought I had done my due diligence…

I did a Google News search for “Marty Evans” just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.

Well, lo and behold, just a little bit later stuff start spilling out on the Red Cross Congressional hearings, and the resignation of “Marsha Evans.

Yeah, her resignation is going to raise a hell of a lot of red flags for those people who aren’t plugged into the reasons I outlined previously. But what are you to do?

Well, first of all, you take on some of the assumptions in the Brian Ross piece on ABC.

After both hurricanes, many local officials complained the Red Cross was often missing from the worst-hit areas. Survivors found it impossible to get through on the organization’s phone hot lines. And witnesses today claimed the Red Cross turned away victims who were disabled.

“One Red Cross official told me, ‘We aren’t supposed to help these people, we can’t hardly help the intact people,’” said Marcie Roth, executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association.

First of all, you aren’t going to find Red Cross volunteers in the “hardest-hit areas” because as a rule, they aren’t safe. We don’t set up shelters in places that are inherently dangerous.

Phone problems? You betcha. Point taken.

As for the remark about the disabled being turned away… I’d like to know more about that specific allegation. Speaking on behalf of what I know with regards to Alabama, the Red Cross here does not operate medical needs shelters. If there are any folks with specialized needs for life-saving equipment, power, or medical supervision, it’s not our thing. Couple that with the fact that there were so many untrained spontaneous volunteers pressed into service, and I can see where someone was directed to an appropriate facility by someone who did not have the knowledge nor the sensitivity to explain why.

(Side note: find me any organization with 220,000 “associates” where there are absolutely no customer service issues raised.)

More from the ABC piece:

Leaders of other charities say Red Cross’ ability to raise money — $1.8 billion after Hurricane Katrina — outpaces its ability to spend it wisely. “Their reputation is that of a charity quick off the mark to raise funds but very slow in spending it effectively,” said Richard Walden, president of Operation USA.

For anyone with knowledge of how the Red Cross operates and the role it plays, this statement is laughable. From Day 1 with Katrina (and going back to pre-landfall) the organization was spending the money just about as fast as it came in. “Other charities” aren’t tasked with immediate response. “Other charities” don’t open evacuation shelters. And in what is the ultimate slap, “other charities” work hand-in-hand with the Red Cross, which is able to coordinate assitance to eliminate duplication of services. When you’re asked to be the first link in the chain of recovery, you don’t sit back for several days and wait for the checks to clear.

I cannot claim psychic knowledge of the balance sheet for every day of the operation, but I’d be willing to bet that the dollars coming in didn’t sit for more than a day or so at most. In fact, there were several days the ARC was operating on float. That’s not something you’d ever want to publicize to donors, because no one likes the idea of their contribution going to retire a debt — they want it to go to direct service.

Sorry for the rant — but man, this crawls under my skin. Bring the criticism, but bring it from a level field.

: 4:50 pm: From the Front, Helpful Hints

Knowing when to hold them and when to fold them is better than knowing why to fold them…

The CEO of the American Red Cross, Marty Evans, is stepping down at the end of the year. In the light of criticisms over the entire response to Hurricane Katrina (mostly pointed at the government), some might look at her leaving as a parachute landing or a forced resignation. I don’t buy that interpretation for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s not uncommon within the Red Cross for “disaster burnout” to claim those in key positions.
  2. Marty is a retired Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy, and it follows from the natural rythym of things that officers don’t set roots for very long.
  3. Of the tiny fraction of the hurricane response criticisms that even mentioned Red Cross, most all were focused on local chapters — not the national organization.

In her statement, Evans explains that it was her desire to retire after her third year at the helm, August 5th. Had she left in the middle of hurricane season, the organization would have been in a lurch, and there would have been big questions. Had she bowed out any sooner than she did, there would be all kinds of people digging around looking for the “smoking gun.” Announcing her intentions now, in a time of calm, will at the very least provide no new fuel to those who like to criticize.

Timing is everything…

December 12, 2005: 10:47 pm: Big Blunders, From the Front

Like when Rome is burning, for instance… or when New Orleans is flooding.

The after-action reports on Hurricane Katrina are still quite preliminary, but already we’re getting a better view of exactly what did and did not happen in the days leading up to landfall. Worse, it seems as though the after-landfall response might have at times taken a backburner to political theater.

Even worse — a new batch of e-mails released by a congressional panel seems to suggest that the Lousiana Governor’s office was a little too preoccupied with perception, and not spending enough time on the actual reality.

In one e-mail, Blanco’s assistant chief of staff, Johnny Anderson, complained to her executive counsel and other staff members on Sept. 2 about the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s evacuation of thousands of Louisianans to other states.

“I think that we should make every effort to keep as many of our evacuees in state as possible,” Anderson wrote.

“It is not acceptable to allow FEMA to send more people out of state than in state. That will come back to haunt us,” he said. “You send that many black folks out of state, we will have a perception problem. Why can’t we make every effort to send folk to the northern part of the state. Word is already (sic) that we are only sending blacks out of this state. We are make (sic) a strategic error. FEMA will not have to answer the people, we will.”

It seems as though the new release was meant to level things out, as the committee didn’t want to create a perception that then-FEMA director Mike Brown was the only suit thinking about suits.

Today’s release of e-mails seemed to signal a new line of criticism — one aimed at creating parity among Brown and Blanco, equally preoccupied with their images and equally detached from the suffering unfolding around them.

“Please put KBB in casual clothes, a baseball cap, etc. she needs to visit a shelter in prime time and talk tough, but hug on some folks and be sensitive,” consultant Liz Mangham, of the Southern Strategy Group of Louisiana, messaged Blanco’s press office five days after the storm hit.

“She looks tired, but too comfy in her suit,” Mangham advised. “Please put the secretaries in caps and jeans….I don’t care if they are in the field or not … they should look like they are.”

Of course, there are claims by both Blanco’s and Brown’s camps that these selective releases of communications are distorting the real picture.

I can certainly understand the importance of projecting an image of calm and of unity. You want the public to have confidence in what you are doing, or else you’re allowing an unnatural panic to hinder the effort. But this is just the sort of event that can make the public at large distrust the motives of a PR practitioner. Wrapping truth in easily digestible bites is an art, and a necessary one — as long as you aren’t substituting the wrapper for the truth.

So much of this could have been mitigated with a simple e-mail response that said “I’m a little busy to worry about clothing right now…” Anything that would have indicated a semblance of the sort of priorities the people would expect.

For future reference: Keep PR in the proper perspective… and remember that the internet leaves a wonderful paper trail.

December 7, 2005: 4:32 pm: External PR, Rants

Everyone can be a spin doctor — just be prepared for your past to jump into someone’s web browser.

A little exposure for Jennifer Aniston? Who’duhthunkit?

While most people are reading about the “Friend Next Door’s” newest nudist nuisance suit, let’s look a little closer at the “innocent paparazzi” who says he didn’t break any laws.

Brandt denies he broke the law, and claims that the incident took place at Aniston’s Hollywood Hills home three weeks ago, and not at her more secluded residence in Malibu, as some accounts have suggested. He claims he was standing on a public street, about 300 yards from her house, hoping to get shots of Aniston with Vaughn, who is reported to be dating the actress.

“She has no fences around her backyard,” he said. “I did not trespass.”

“When I saw her come out topless, I go, ‘Oh, God, this is not what I want, this is not what people want to buy anyway,’” he said.

What a nice guy Brandt is. Not your garden-variety slug. He really feels sorry that he accidentally sent those topless shots to those magazines that wouldn’t print them anyway. Really. Really sorry. But he didn’t do anything illegal.

But even now, after Aniston filed a lawsuit, Brandt says he’d be within his rights if he wanted to publish the topless photos. “I didn’t think I did anything illegal,” he said.

“She exposed herself to everybody in the neighborhood,” he said. “I happened to have a camera so I wouldn’t have had a problem.”

Brandt’s celebrity photos have appeared in People magazine and the New York Post, among other publications. He says he once worked for The National Enquirer, but he says he’s grown to loathe paparazzi photographers.

“There is a group out there today who are extremely aggressive and I hate them, I’ll say that to you,” he said. “They have made the so-called paparazzi business as it is, the worst that it’s ever been.

In the publicity circles of yesteryear, this would qualify as a victimless crime. Aniston wins by finding out how much her nude layout would fetch without risking her reputation to openly ask. Brandt wins by being a nice slug.

Only, now there’s this internet thing, which totally destroys Brandt’s credibility.

It has been said that members of the paparazzi enjoy a lucrative trade. Candid celebrity photos can be sold to gossip mags like National Enquirer – which sells over two million copies a month – for between US$150 ($268) and US$150,000.

Or, sometimes, millions of dollars, as in the case of the late Princess Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Al-Fayed.

Small wonder that one infamous lensman, Peter Brandt, was willing to part with US$15,000 to trail Noah Wyle on a private beach holiday.

He said: ‘I get triple that amount (after selling the pictures).’

Slug, indeed. So much for your image makeover, Pete.

December 5, 2005: 9:55 pm: Big Blunders, From the Front

Within a week after the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, and while I was still deep in “Red Cross mode,” I got a lot of questions about FEMA.

Actually, the questions were more along the line of “Whose fault was this,” and more often than not, they were pitched my way from our shelter guests.

The best answer I could give them was that it really wasn’t anyone’s fault. When pressed about FEMA’s role, my answer today is the same as the answer I had then — “FEMA probably would have messed some things up, but it was already botched before it got to that level.”

Now, a congressional inquiry is examining thousands of documents related to that time frame.

The Louisiana documents released late Friday revealed delays and state claims that requests for federal help weren’t received, and reflected partisan battling between the Republican Bush administration and Blanco, a Democrat.

The Mississippi documents, though only a handful were released, showed no political tensions between local officials and Washington. But FEMA officials in the state were among the first to admit that needs weren’t being met.

The most serious external issue here is the total political breakdown between levels. I call that an external issue because there’s only so much an organization can do if another can’t or won’t cooperate.

The most serious internal issue for FEMA — the one they did have the power to handle — was their poor management of public expectations.

There’s a big public perception of FEMA as this superhuman agency, with tens of thousands of relief workers, and helicopters that drop gold dubloons. “Here comes the cavalry, to shower us with money and freshly built replacement homes.” In reality, FEMA is a ragtag band of anti-bureaucrats, who collectively have a better track record than most red-tape-jockeys when it comes to actually getting things done. There just aren’t enough of them (nor is there a need for enough of them) to meet the impossibly high standards we’ve imagined.

FEMA did a poor job of communicating what it does, plain and simple. Residents in hurricane zones wouldn’t be shaking their fists in anger if they understood that a lot of the lack of movement was someone else’s bailiwick. They’d be more understanding if they understood the process — and here is where FEMA failed horribly.

Actually, that’s just one place FEMA failed. But I’ll have something to say about Mike Brown later…

: 1:06 pm: From the Front, Housekeeping

One of the reasons I moved to WordPress was the flexibility to divvy up my categories. And one of the catergories I wanted to highlight on the return of the blog was stories from my Red Cross experience.

I probably should have been logging and blogging a lot of those experiences as I was in the moment. But had I done so at the time, I would have been failing at my job. There are very few times when communications are that critical — and during the first few days of Hurrcane Katrina I was running through 18-hour days of critical decisions on the fly. There were some good lessons there — and this is the place where I will share them.

December 3, 2005: 8:43 pm: Big Blunders, External PR

Months after the Armstrong Williams debacle, the Bushies are getting slapped for a Pentagon program that is designed to influence Iraqi media.

There is a key difference, though. The article describes the plan as “propaganda,” and rightly so. However, this CNN article dances a little around the notion that we are somehow throwing money at Iraqi reporters:

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Virginia, said the program, which pays to plant favorable stories with Iraqi journalists and newspapers, is a serious problem.

The idea of “paying to plant stories” is made out to be the equivalent of moral bankruptcy. Yet, isn’t that what businesses and governments do to the tune of billions of dollars every year?

Setting aside any partisanism — this article sets a bad precedent for the modern PR practitioner. Why would firms bother keeping track of media hits if it wasn’t part of their job to effectively place stories?

One of the companies involved — the Washington-based Lincoln Group — has at least two contracts with the military to provide media and public relations services. One contract, for $6 million, was for public relations and advertising work in Iraq and involved planting favorable stories in the Iraqi media, Defense Department records show.

If we stashed cash in the hands of Iraqi reporters and editors, then shame on them and shame on us. Given the newfound freedoms after decades of being a state-run media, it frankly wouldn’t even surprise me to see the opportunism rear its ugly mug. But looking at what was written in this piece, I don’t even see this as an allegation.

Paying PR professionals to do there what they are free to do here is not a contradiction. We are long past the day of the bomber dropping leaflets — fax machines and e-mail are the smartest bombs of all.

: 1:18 am: Housekeeping, Personal

My boy.... he loves the camera.But as long as I am at it, I might as well introduce you to my boy.

This is Ryan at 15 months, and he likes to charge at the camera. I’ve tried to tell him that the “hand in the lens” tactic is so overdone, but he doesn’t care what the public thinks.

It must be nice to be a toddler. Food is for play, and you get to watch a lot of Blue’s Clues.