Archive for January, 2006

January 31, 2006: 9:16 am: Housekeeping

Light PR content here — just a few thoughts about why I’m here and why you’re reading it.

Those thoughts and more are in the “About this blog” section near the upper right of the page:

This is inspired by some of my PR-blogging colleagues who have addressed their reasons for being on the web.

This makes sense. Before you can persuade anyone of anything, you have to tell your story. If you don’t lay your motives on the table immediately, you’ll never get past those initial questions of “Why is he here? What is he selling? What’s in this for him?”

Consider yourself warned.

: 5:53 am: Blogiversaries, Personal

This marks one year of PR blogging for John Wagner over at On Message.

He’s worth the read if you are so inclined.

January 30, 2006: 9:23 am: External PR, Helpful Hints

How do you know when you’ve gone too far — and how do you keep from getting there?

That’s really the question posed by Peter Himler in today’s post on “The Flack.” (Peter brings his A-game every day, and is on my short list of must-reads.)

Today, he looks at the cycle of bad decisions surrounding the Peace Mom, Cindy Sheehan.

Without getting all-political, her message started to dilute itself when she got off the “peace for peace sake” bandwagon, and onto the “Elders of Zion Bush puppet regime and anything else I can come up with” path. Peter rightly points out that her latest visit to Venezuela’s “Mr. Smiles and Sunshine” Hugo Chavez stands to get in the way of connecting with any average American again.

My comment actually started sounding more like a post in and of itself so I brought it here — but I invite you to go to Peter’s blog and carry the conversation there. And bookmark him.

Peter, is it just me, or does it seem like every time the Democrats catch lightning in a bottle, they break the bottle?

A grass-roots agent drops right in their laps, one that by far comes across as more human and real than anything they could create — and they destroy her with packaging.

She would have been far more valuable over the long run if they hadn’t burned her out and used her up. She hit her sixteenth minute about, oh, 16 minutes in. Her handlers have devalued her as a human being — she is now a symbol. “Cindy Sheehan” the human is long gone and deceased. Her bones are now in a modern day Ark, being carted around by “The greater cause.”

Lesson: when you start treating your clients as objects and props, your message becomes self-parody.

January 26, 2006: 1:28 pm: External PR, Helpful Hints

A sundae with everything, including instant culpability.

A Delaware woman has filed suit against a McDonald’s franchisee, on the grounds that her son’s sundae had blood drizzled on the top.

According to court documents, Jara bought food, including four hot fudge sundaes, at the restaurant’s drive-thru window on Dec. 30, 2004.

Her son, now 13, dug into his sundae and “recognized the taste of blood and, upon careful inspection, noted a red substance on the side of the sundae cup as well as mixed into his ice cream,” the lawsuit claims.

Jara then went into the store and spoke to a swing manager, who confirmed that it was blood, according to the lawsuit. The manager, Joshua Ferrell, said the employee who prepared the sundae had an injured, bleeding finger, and told Jara that he had advised the employee to keep a bandage on his finger, according to the lawsuit.

Here’s where it gets interesting:

Michael Meoli, owner of the McDonald’s franchise, said the claims are unfounded, and that strawberry syrup probably had clogged the sundae machine.

Ferrell, who no longer works at the restaurant, should not have said the substance was blood, Meoli said.

What is he, a botanist? No, he’s a 21-year-old assistant manager who saw her screaming in the lobby and said ‘whatever you say lady.’

I’m lovin’ it! There may still be some issues in court (or more likely in settlement) because of that statement, as someone in management ought to know better than to make a statement like that.

Two lessons here:

  • Don’t say things like the kid said, for legal reasons.
  • Do say things like the franchisee said — short, to the point, and even somewhat aggressive when warranted.

Meoli was also right to end with this…

“I hope she gets the same thing the Wendy’s lady got,” he said, referring to a woman recently sentenced to nine years in prison for planting a severed finger in a bowl of Wendy’s chili to extort money from the fast-food chain.

…if for no other reason than to remind the public that many of these claims are unfounded.

Bonus look-see: Will McDonalds address franchisee issues like this on its brand-spanking new “Corporate Responsibility Blog?”

January 25, 2006: 5:15 pm: Birmingham

All things considered, Birmingham is not a bad place to be. It’s small for a big city, and too big to be a town. The lack of super-skyscrapers downtown is a direct byproduct of having an airport within sight — and that’s a rare thing these days.

The air is a lot cleaner these days, that the major industries are education and healthcare. And Birmingham has one of the most impressive underground fiber-optic infrastructures in the country.

Yet when you mention Birmingham outside of the region, most people are still stuck on discrimination, hoses, police dogs, dirt roads, and outhouses.

What has not changed is Birmingham’s success in telling its own compelling story to national and international audiences. As a result, there is little perception in key national markets of the Birmingham region as a place that not only exemplifies the possibilities of progressive change, but is building on the foundation of that change by seeking to develop its financial, logistical and human resources to the fullest extent. Yes, Birmingham has changed; but most of the nation – or, more to the point, most key corporate location decision-makers, most would-be entrepreneurs, most skilled talent in high-growth business fields – does not know that, or care to know it.

click here to view this videoTechBirmingham is out to change that, and is actively pitching emerging tech industries. In my past life, I did a couple of features on these businesses that thanks to the internet could locate anywhere. Why not pick a place where you could set up in a historic brick building with character — enjoy a comparitively low cost of living — take a 15 minute drive to the airport if you need to fly — and still plug into a T3?

TechBirmingham is hitting this project on several fronts, including a local television PSA campaign aimed at educating locals about the advantages they enjoy. It’s volunteers have also embarked on a project to showcase all 199 (and counting) wireless access points within the metro. (Which includes all 5 acres of Vulcan Park. Free.) They are blogging about it here.

I’ll be tracking their efforts as they go, and may even pitch in as my schedule allows. (Although among my full-time job, my freelance consulting, my family, and my Kung Fu students, there’s not a lot of time left.)

January 23, 2006: 1:42 pm: Birmingham, From the Front

When crunch time hits, you have to think in terms of communications in both directions. When people can’t reach you, they either leave disenfranchised or outright disgusted.

When Hurricane Katrina sent tens of thousands of people to Birmingham, we were getting deluged at the Red Cross office with people trying to call in to offer “something.” The biggest complaint was that “we weren’t answering the phones” and “we weren’t acting fast enough.” The worst PR we faced early on was the swarming and overwhelming of our communication system.

The year before, we faced a similar dilemma on a smaller scale, as local media pounded us for shelter information and updates with Hurricane Ivan. We got around that issue by pushing the assignment desks and producers to a page on our website that was updated every hour. We even pushed that information to police departments and other dispatch agencies to use as an online resource for people calling from the evacuation routes. It worked like a charm, and within a half-day our incoming media traffic was again manageable.

That wouldn’t work as well for Katrina, because “the public” is magnitudes larger than “the media,” and the expectation level was far higher. So we went a different route.

Through our media partners, we urged the general public to not bring us random items and non-monetary donations — but to register them with us on the internet. We set up a special e-mail address, and asked that they put the “proposed in-kind donation” on the subject line, and their personal and contact info in the message body. Those without internet access were sent to a volunteer who would take their information and send it in e-mail form for them. We set it up on a free gmail account for some key reasons:

  • It kept the bandwidth off our server
  • Our volunteers who needed to access it could do so without a special network connection
  • It is easily searchable, allowing us to get exactly what we needed without looking at every message
  • We could use what we needed, and not collect a bunch of items that would have cost us to store or even dispose of

(In the end, we had a nice database of folks that we can discreetly call on in the future for training opportunities…)

This did have a measurable impact on our incoming phone traffic. The message we delivered with this move was “We want to be responsible stewards of your donations, whatever they might be. By registering your wish to donate an item, you can rest assured that we will only call if it is really needed — and you don’t have to wonder whether your charitable effort was wasted.” That message really hit home with people, and I think it enhanced our overall stewardship position within the community.

We also used the e-mail and webpage to explain our policies about donations, as well as the sorts of things we might could use versus the things we could not accept second-hand. That in itself did more to educate the community than anything else. In the end, we had more than 170 bona-fide offers of goods and services that people registered with us — and we availed ourselves of a few of those offers.

January 21, 2006: 5:35 pm: External PR

Here in the South, college football is king… and no other sport is even worthy to join the court. (Unless you are Kentucky, and it’s not been a great basketball season thus far by Big Blue standards.)

The big storyline going into the bowl season was hyped up as the USC Trojans attempted a “three-peat” as national champions. ABC promoted the Game of the Century. ESPN asked if this USC dynasty was the greatest of all time, with fans picking the outcome against legendary undefeated teams. So you could understand how a few folks might get their knickers in a twist over being “left out.”

Take LSU fans, for instance. The Bayou Bengals won the 2003 BCS championship over Oklahoma, while the Trojans got the AP media vote. Yet it was as if LSU’s championship had been blown out by Hurricane Katrina, never to be seen again.

Enter “Onepeat” — the mad mixture of LSU alumni, UCLA fans, and a Mobile, Alabama, ad agency with a soft-spot for lost causes. The goal of Onepeat is to raise $10,000 to buy a billboard, smack in the middle of Trojan-land. “Shouldn’t dynasties win more than one?”

It didn’t take long to raise the $10,000 — and any additional funds collected will go to the American Red Cross designated for Hurricane Katrina relief activities.

From the site:

We do not possess hatred for USC. The media’s constant “three-peat” hype had just gone too far. As we’ve said time and time again — we are here to set the record straight. Simple as that. And as for our chosen location, where better to gain national media attention than near the USC campus? {smirk}

It just goes to show that if you force your message hard enough, you might trigger a gag reflex. Forget “blogs” and “citizen journalism” and the like. Today’s media consumer is empowered to use traditional media and shed the “pajama guerilla” label.

January 19, 2006: 3:12 pm: Birmingham, Scrushy

You can buy a paper for fifty cents… but buying the content will cost you a whole lot more.

It appears now that part of Richard Scrushy’s PR campaign has surfaced. While his unspoken strategy was well-documented and transparent, what wasn’t so well-known was the people on the payroll:

Audry Lewis, the author of those stories in The Birmingham Times, the city’s oldest black-owned paper, now says she was secretly working on behalf of Scrushy, who she says paid her $11,000 through a public relations firm and typically read her articles before publication.

Documents obtained by The Associated Press show The Lewis Group wrote a $5,000 check to Audry Lewis on April 29, 2005 — the day Scrushy hired the company. The head of the company, Times founder Jesse J. Lewis Sr., is not related to Audry Lewis.

The firm wrote another $5,000 check that day to the Rev. Herman Henderson, who employs Audry Lewis at his Believers Temple Church and was among the black preachers supporting Scrushy who were present in the courtroom throughout.

Audry Lewis and Henderson now say Scrushy owes them $150,000 for the newspaper stories and other public relations work, including getting black pastors to attend the trial in a bid to sway the mostly black jury.

Scrushy is denying personal knowledge, and the prosecutors say this doesn’t warrant action. After all, while it may be unethical, it isn’t illegal — and they are satisfied that the jury wasn’t swayed by news coverage anyway. Reporter Jay Reeves described Scrushy’s reaction to the news about the news about the news:

In an e-mail response to questions from the AP, Scrushy denied authorizing payments to Henderson or Audry Lewis for any work on his behalf.

Scrushy said he “hit the ceiling” when he learned that the PR firm had paid Henderson but added that he had considered Audry Lewis to be “a nice Christian woman that thought we had been treated badly and she wanted to help.”

Now he said he knows they are both “about the bucks.”

Thoughts, people?

: 7:48 am: External PR

William Shatner at the Emmy awards in 2005

The next time you think about “going to great pains” to get noticed, don’t undertake that enterprise literally.

Our friends at Golden Palace have once again added a pop-culture treasure to their vast vault of auction bounty:

Captian Kirk’s kidney stone.


As painful as that sounds, it’s actually a win-win-win.  Shatner gets another boost of weirdness to attatch to his re-invigorated career.  Golden Palace once again gets not-entirely-free-but-worth-more-than-they-paid-for publicity.  Habitat for Humanity (supported by the cast of “Boston Legal“) walks away with $25,000, and the free publicity generated by this Bermuda Triangle of medical-waste disposal.

(Sorry.  I just couldn’t pass this by.)

January 18, 2006: 12:46 pm: External PR, Helpful Hints

…but only if you are aware it is there to begin with.

Browncoats misbehavin'This is the cast of Firefly, a wonderful show that the fates of television dealt a losing hand.  The characters and storyline were recently resurrected in a theatrical release, Serenity.  The creator, Joss Whedon, has hinted that it might come back if someone will back it.

Well, now the “browncoats” are “aimin’ to misbehave,” and it appears a couple of them have.  The pair from San Diego started a website pitching for donations to raise the millions of dollars it would take to finance a miniseries or a new season.

With little buzz, the site raised less than $1,000 in two days before shutting down collections and returning the money.  Could it be that Whedon didn’t like what appeared to be a weak posture, and asked them to stop?  Or maybe the thought of raising a substantial sum but not getting quite enough would be awkward?  Either way, there were a lot of ways this could reflect badly on Whedon, and not very many good outcomes.  (This is what I preach, trying to stay in a Positive Position.)

Companies with a reputation to maintain need to monitor the internet, and it doesn’t just end with the public relations department maintaining a clip file.  The above case was scuttled in a matter of days, avoiding a lot of potential embarrassment — even from those who are well-meaning.

We faced a similar circumstance recently within the American Red Cross:  a producer made a public pledge on national television that he would give 100% of the profits from the sales of certain videos to benefit Red Cross Disaster Relief.  When you’re faced with a billion-dollar project, that kind of news is welcome.  Unless the gift is coming from Joe Francis, the entreprenuer behind “Girls Gone Wild:

“Year after year the city of New Orleans and its citizens have welcomed us with open arms, and we have looked forward to our yearly trip to the Big Easy. The utter destruction of New Orleans and many parts of the Gulf coast truly saddens us,” said Joe Francis, founder and CEO of Girls Gone Wild, in a statement.

The Mardi Gras-themed DVDs and videos include such titles as “Mardi Gras 3-Pack,” “Mardi Gras 2K4,” and “Girls Gone Wild Doggystyle” with rapper Snoop Dogg.

With friends like that, your reputation doesn’t need enemies.

January 14, 2006: 8:12 am: Birmingham, Scrushy

One would certainly hope that Richard Scrushy is truly following his heart.

If not, he is certainly following his public relations rehab prescription to the letter:

The Anniston-Calhoun chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference lists “Minister/Evangelist Richard Scrushy” as special guest speaker at its 4 p.m. MLK program. The church’s pastor, Rev. N.Q. Reynolds, is the group’s president.

Scrushy will be accompanied by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, which is filming a documentary on Scrushy and his faith.

His spokesman, Charlie Russell, said Scrushy will speak on the topic “Creation vs. Evolution” and “how God moves man to speak God’s word and make it reality.”

Maybe God moves man to speak by humbling him before federal judges, and stripping him of his worldly desires.

I’ll say this… I certainly hope and pray at this point that Richard and Leslie are sincere about their faith. Because if they aren’t, keeping up an act for public appearance’s sake is its own hell. This is the equivalent of O.J. running around with a magnifying glass and a sidekick, actually looking for the “real killer.”

Hat tip again to Wade, for reading the paper more thoroughly than I do.

January 13, 2006: 11:51 am: Helpful Hints, Rants

Friday the 13th has brought forth a traditional media meme: how to parlay silly, outmoded superstitions into “lifestyle” news.

Disney has taken it one step further, actually commissioning a survey to find out “What scares you?” As happy coincidence would have it, Disneyland is opening its new “Monsters Inc.” attraction.

The survey seems somewhat useful, in a slow-news-day kind of way:

The survey found that 86 percent of adults and 91 percent of youngsters admitted to being very scared of something. Nearly one-in-five adults (18 percent) also said they are scared of more things now than they were as a child. Adults admit to other scares, including snakes (38 percent), fear of heights (36 percent), watching scary movies (22 percent) and the dark (eight percent).

Of course, when this gets reported (as I saw on the full-screen Good Morning America graphic), it winds up as:

Biggest adult fears:

  • 38% – Snakes
  • 36% – Heights
  • 22% – Scary Movies
  • 8% – “the Dark”

Gee… what ever happened to “public speaking?” Wasn’t that conclusively proven to be the number one fear, above death?

Thanks to this, my new number one fear is that newsfolk don’t have the brains or patience to sort through statistics and surveys, and will basically pass on whatever someone hands them. “This just in… two out of three teevee newscasters cannot handle simple fractions. Mary, that’s almost half.” (Maybe it’s time to move beyond aspiring to be an interview coach/media consultant. The real market is in snake removal.)

January 12, 2006: 11:37 pm: Rants

Thank you, Oprah. For redefining what it means to be “true.”

As I feared, what people feel is more important than what they reason. She called the Larry King Show Wednesday night, and relayed a carefully-crafted statement in between softballs:

“But the underlying message of redemption in James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me, and I know it resonates with millions of other people who have read this book.”

“What is relevant is that he was a drug addict who spent years in turmoil from the time he was 10 years old drinking and tormenting himself and his parents, and stepped out of that history to be the man that he is today and to take that message to save other people and allow them to save themselves.”

“To me, it seems to be much ado about nothing,” she added.

So, I guess it’s okay to lie as long as your story is compelling enough. (Helluvablog draws parallels to partisan political attacks that don’t have to be true, just sound bad.)

Which doesn’t bode well for us at all. Think I’m overreacting? Then please bookmark this page, and come back to comment the next time a client of yours gets libelously trashed, and you can’t refute anything because the lie “resonates” with “turmoil.”


The Associated PressNEW YORK Jan 12, 2006 — Future hardcover and paperback editions of James Frey’s disputed memoir of addiction, “A Million Little Pieces,” will include a brief author’s note that refers to the content of the book, his publisher said Thursday.

Doubleday spokeswoman Alison Rich declined to offer details about the note or to comment on why it was being added. She would not say if the note was an acknowledgment often found in memoirs but not in “A Million Little Pieces” that names and events had been altered.

January 11, 2006: 5:16 pm: External PR, Rants

Public relations professionals have a hard enough time getting people to accept messages, even the ones that are incontrovertibly true. For many people, the idea that we are paid to pass along information immediately makes the truth value of the message suspect. Now, we have another threat to our effectiveness — a declining standard of truth.

It’s now coming to light that “A Million Little Pieces” author James Frey played fast and loose with the truth of his account of addiction and redemption. (Think “VH1 Behind the Music,” without any actual, you know, music.)

While Smoking Gun ferreted out the truth, questions about the book go back to 2003, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

(From Editor and Publisher): “Twin Cities public relations executive Jon Austin said he was hardly surprised when he read about the Smoking Gun findings this week in USA Today. ‘I remembered that there were problems about the veracity of his story when the book came out,’ said Austin, a former spokesman for Northwest Airlines.’

“In July 2003, shortly after the book was published, Austin told the Star Tribune that ‘no way, no how, nowhere’ would Frey have been allowed to board a commercial jet covered in blood and vomit, with a hole in his cheek and four front teeth missing, as the author claimed in the first paragraph of ‘Pieces.’

What is most troubling is Frey’s blatant disregard for criticism over his tomfoolery.

At the time, Frey brushed aside questions about his book’s accuracy. ‘I wrote what was true to me,’ he told the Star Tribune. ‘If people want to pick apart the facts, they can.’

What. Was. True. To. Me.

Is there no objective standard of truth anymore?

Well find out in the coming days. The book is part of Oprah’s club, and website has not yet acknowledged any of the controversy. And it damned well better, because far too many people will take a cue from Oprah that “feelings” are more important than “facts.” In that nightmarish future, no amount of truth will save a PR practitioner as long as people “feel” their employer is evil or unfair.

Maybe she can flash “Writer’s Embellishment” underneath Frey like Letterman used to do.

Update: Random House is offering refunds for people who bought “A Million Little Pieces” directly from them. Other retailers may follow suit.

January 6, 2006: 5:42 pm: Big Blunders, External PR

I’ve been fighting a nasty virus for the last few days, and have missed out on the chance to pipe in on the West Virginia mine tragedy, and the media disaster that followed. So here are a few opinions before I get to my take:

The Flack: “Should we blame the messenger? I don’t think so.”

Mason Cole: “In a chaotic situation, it’s terribly hard to get a good grip on the steering wheel. The more that can be done, though, the better the communications process usually work, and the more everyone affected can have assurance about what they’re dealing with. “

Kami Watson Huyse: “Clearly the International Coal Group, the company who ownes the mine, did not have an adequate crisis communications plan.”

Jeri Cartwright: “If nothing else, this tragic event should remind every CEO and PR person to assign someone to develop a communications crisis plan.”

Scatterbox: “There is no question that International Coal Group violated every standard of crises management. The company’s lack of preparedness and incompetence in managing communications both within and outside the unfolding tragedy will unfortunately be studied by PR and management executives for decades to come. But much of that lesson will focus on the increasingly understood possibility that competing news interests will run with miraculous but unconfirmed headlines like a raging herd of snorting, blind buffalo.”

Jeff Jarvis: “But now, in our age of instant news and ubiquitous communication, the public sees this process as it occurs. It’s not the news that’s live; it’s the process of figuring out what to believe that’s live.”

(Most of the above are found in my “Sez WHO?” reading list to the right. If you are one of those authors and I haven’t told you so, you guys are great.)

Let me now share my perspective.

During the initial aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I was working 18-hour days (In my Red Cross capacity.) I was literally chain-phoning, and the vast majority of my communication was incoming-external, to media. The remainder was internal, tracking down the latest information to feed those requests.

I am not a techno-boob. I was using Blackberry and e-mails to push as much information as possible. We were pushing media to a webpage, updated hourly with new shelter information. I was posting actualities and e-mailing them to radio stations, and that worked like a charm. I was leveraging everything I had.

What I couldn’t do was monitor everything that was going out. And sure enough, when a reporter (more likely a disc jockey) went crazy with imaginary information, it took me a while to find out about it. And it will drive you crazy, doing hours of interviews explaining why you can’t accept in-kind donations, only to find out a radio station is telling people what items to bring to your shelters.

Reporters will run with what they have — and many of them will do so based on their feeling that they “have enough.”

I’m not absolving the owners of the Sago mine for their lack of preparation. Lord knows there have been enough mining accidents to get national attention to prompt one to create a better plan. I am wondering, though, if preparation would have made a bit of difference in this case. Yes, the families had three hours of false hope. Do you think the media would have cared if it had only been an hour? Only 15 minutes? The “crushing heartache of false hope” still would have been the lead.

Had Sago corrected the issue promptly, there still would be the same criticisms going on right now. (Notice that no one is looking on this affair and saying “thank God it didn’t stretch to six hours.”) It’s unfortunate. Let’s learn from it. Let’s be prepared.

And God rest the souls of the lost, and the left behind.