Archive for March, 2006

March 30, 2006: 10:26 am: External PR, Helpful Hints

Duke University has tried and succeeded in becoming the East Coast equivalent of Stanford — an academic institution that excels in athletics. (Stanford has won the all-sports trophy 11 years in a row. No one else with that kind of academic record comes closer than the Blue Devils.) Their emerging success has been enviable, to the point that Duke is one of those schools a lot of people love to hate.

In the last few weeks, a lot of people have found a new reason to hate Duke: several members of the lacrosse team are accused of raping an exotic dancer at an out-of-control party.

I’ll let you ferret out as many details as you’d like, because it’s quite easy. The school is taking a very proactive step in becoming a hub for information. Some would balk at the idea of linking to so many negative articles and editorials, but by establishing their website in the center of attention, they are positioning themselves to ensure their messages and apologies will take center stage.

That’s a textbook example of “filling the void.” If you don’t get out front with transparency, you let your detractors define you.

March 29, 2006: 11:18 am: Helpful Hints, Personal

Small companies and organizations don’t have the budgets or the know-how to play the total PR game. These days, you don’t have to. You can play on the cheap. And sometimes, you need to.

Here’s a textbook example that hits close to home for me. I attend a Church of Christ, and actually have come back to the church after an overly-long hiatus. There are a couple of things you need to know about churches of Christ, should you encounter them:

  1. There is no national or regional structure.
  2. They are independent and self-governing and the congregational level.
  3. They are like Forrest Gump’s box o’ chocolates: you can’t be sure what you’re going to get until you open one up.

That’s an important bit of background you need to be able to understand the problems with the following broadcast on CNN’s Nancy Grace.

The topic was the Tennessee minister murder. Very tragic, still quite mysterious, and a lot of attention because of the religion angle. Nancy Grace, being the hard-hitting investigator that she is, decided to bring in an “expert” to help explain the mindset of this minister’s family. Who does she get? A Southern Baptist minister (the underlining is mine for emphasis):

GRACE: I want to go to pastor Tom Rukala, joining us tonight, a special guest, a Baptist minister. I’ve been researching the Church of Christ. I don`t know that much about it. What can you tell me?

PASTOR TOM RUKALA, BAPTIST PASTOR: Well, the Church of Christ is a relatively new church. It was started about 150 years ago by Alexander Campbell (ph). And it’s, unfortunately, a very legalistic sect, and they tend to use methods of intimidation and pressure tactics. They claim that they are the only ones going to heaven, and all other people are condemned to hell. So in case…

GRACE: Uh-oh, I’m in trouble. But I already knew that.


GRACE: Now, wait a minute. What more can you tell me?

RUKALA: Well, they claim that if you`re not baptized by one of their ministers, that you`re doomed to hell, even if you`re a believer in Jesus Christ, which, of course, breaks completely from the traditional Christian view that all those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved because we`re saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose again. For the Church of Christ folks, that`s not enough. You have to be a member of their narrow sect. It`s a very exclusive group. And if you`re not a member of their sect, you`re condemned.

GRACE: You know, Pastor, you keep saying “sect.” “Sect.” You make it sound like a cult.

RUKALA: It kind of is a borderline cult, unfortunately. I don`t want to make it out to be some kind of Hare Krishna group, but it has cult-like characteristics and…

GRACE: In what sense?

RUKALA: Well, in the sense of the exclusivism, the attitude that they are the only ones who know the truth. The tactics that they use are sometimes just — not only un-biblical but unethical, and they can be very ungracious, unfortunately.

Wow. A pretty damning pronouncement about a movement that doesn’t even have an organization to defend itself.

I’m a former journalist, and I’m pretty sure I know what happened. Some low-level producer tried the rolodex looking for a high-level Church of Christ contact. Since there is no organizational structure, the producer got desperate and went for the first person with a pulpit robe.

Shoddy journalism aside, this is the sort of thing that can be a real problem for these congragations (and any other group too small or too unorganized to fight back). Yes, the murder brings negative and unwanted attention, but things happen to any group or company. But in this instance, there has traditionally been no one to step up and tell the truth, and steer the dialogue. I say “traditionally” because the internet and free blogging has given many small voices a larger reach. Individual congregations no longer have to stay small and eat their lumps in the media. Many are in the process of writing rebuttals and correcting the mistakes made in this report. It may take a couple of days to propgate, but eventually those who Google this tragedy will get a more balanced picture than Nancy Grace provided.

In the internet age, the management of your reputation is your job, and no one else’s. If you can afford to delegate it, then do so. If not, pick up your tools and get to work.

Update: 20 years ago, this sort of thing would have been met with useless hand-wringing. Now, others are sounding off:

Update #2: Here’s the transcript to the follow-up segment, where Grace utterly fails to clear up anything.

More blogosphere reaction…

E-mail me if you know of any additional links to this issue…

March 28, 2006: 2:44 pm: Dr. Wordsmith, Helpful Hints

Ike is taking the day off from blogging, so I have agreed to fill the void in his absence. I plan to use this platform to exorcise some verbal demons. After all, if reputation management is really about doing what you state you will, then it’s important that we agree on terms.

Let’s start with a dangerous word: ‘promise.’

A declaration assuring that one will or will not do something; a vow.

There are a couple of key components there that make this a strong concept indeed.

  • A declaration — meaning a proactive statement. Something you had to go out of your way to do. Not implied.
  • Assuring — strictly speaking, a guarantee made to ease another’s ill feelings or misgivings.

Your institutional reputation is a function of what you promise.

For some reason, this word “promise” carries a stronger connotation than many related words:


An earnest promise to perform a specified act or behave in a certain manner; A declaration or assertion.


A solemn binding promise; A token or sign

In both instances, the definition of “vow” and “pledge” starts with the concept of a “promise,” but with more restrictive modifiers like “earnest,” “solemn,” or “binding.” Yet each of them “weasels down” with additional meanings like “token” or “assertion.”

Because the other words can be more ambiguous, “promise” tends to resonate as a stronger word. I mention this, because companies can “pledge” to get better with customer service, can “assert” better financial auditing and controls, and “vow” to initiate diversity programs. But “promise” is a tough one to live up to. You either putt it into the clown’s mouth or you don’t. A public promise to rectify a mistake reeks of sincerity. A broken promise just plain reeks.

Every level of your company, from the CEO to the receptionist, needs to understand what’s at stake when a “promise” is made. It can be a very effective word. It can also blow up in your face.

That’s a guarantee.

March 27, 2006: 3:04 pm: Big Blunders, Birmingham, Helpful Hints

Today, we get an object lesson that cuts both ways. Literally an “up” and a “down” in the same breath.

Alabama’s amusement park, VisionLand, is getting a new name. The name was coined by then Fairfield Mayor Larry Langford, whose grand(iose) vision was a local destination for kids, and an economic engine for western Jefferson County. The name “VisionLand” was appropriate for the task of selling several municipalities on the project. (Say what you will — no one else could have pushed it through with sheer force of rhetoric and will.)

After a few seasons of missed projections and bad luck, the park authority found a buyer. The California-based Southland Entertainment Group bought the park three years ago, and becomes of the focus of today’s “lesson.”

First of all, a name change is a good idea. The park is in need of a fresh look from potential visitors, and this is a great platform from which to launch a campaign. The park will now be known as Alabama Adventure.

At a news conference, the company stated that it wanted to change the park first, and then the name. This makes sense — don’t just sell us on an image or a slogan; give us a new and compelling reason to come, then hit us with the campaign. Southland claims to have invested $20-million in improvements since taking over, including a steel rollercoaster, a wave pool, and other attractions.

Lesson one: Don’t just play semantics. Give us a real change, and let the name be an extension. Good move.

However, there’s absolutely nothing (as of my posting) on the VisionLand website indicating a name change. Zero. Zip. Nada. Worse, I tried in my browser, I Googled for it… and nothing. Not exactly the complete rollout one would want.

Lesson two: If you’re building a campaign around changes and fresh buzz, then make it easy for people who want to find out more.

And like a roller coaster, that’s the kind of up and down that will make you sick…

Update: the website now reflects the new name, and the address forwards to the site as well. (I’d like to take credit, so… thank you!!)

March 24, 2006: 4:03 pm: Big Blunders, Rants

Transparency. It’s as simple as acting the same way in private that you would in public. It’s living in the glass house, warts and all. And it’s a pretty good guiding principle for building trust.

Check out this article from Grade the News. It looks at transparency in television newsgathering, and includes some rather candid comments from those in the business about how economics and cutbacks have forced some changes in the way it’s all played.

Selfish pitch: I preach about the need for media training, if for no other reason than I know there are fewer journalists trying to do more work. Some get lazy, some get sloppy, some just get overwhelmed. The more you can make their job easier, the better your encounter is going to be.

I don’t advocate doing their jobs for them — because it can come back to bite you if the news-entity has not been transparent.

Speaking of “transparency,” our friend “Larry Pamper” from is trying to perpetuate the idea that he is not connected to the Birmingham Steeldogs.

Bottom line:

  • Be Yourself
  • Tell the Truth
  • Be Transparent

March 23, 2006: 2:53 pm: Helpful Hints

Those charged with reputation management know they are one bad headline away from headaches and sleepless nights. However, there are those rare occasions where you catch a lucky break instead of a media bullet.

(Think “The Matrix.” When the bullets come so slowly that you have time to manuever and react accordingly.)

The spokespeople at MacDill Air Force Base are working on that borrowed time as we speak. This news article out of Tampa is getting national attention for the stupidity of the criminal:

TAMPA – One minute a pair of Tampa police officers were trying to catch a couple of loose dogs Tuesday morning, the next they were fielding a unique request from a man.

Would they test his crack pipe to make sure he was getting the real thing? According to an arrest affidavit, Phillip Williams wasn’t convinced he was being sold actual crack cocaine. So about 11:15 a.m., he approached Officers Wayne Easley and Gary Filippone to verify he was getting real drugs.

Reporters and editors love “dumb criminal” stories, because they have that “Hey Martha” factor that rewards readers. In this case, the “Hey Martha” moment trumped the real question which is lurking just two paragraphs down:

The officers tested the pipe, which, sure enough, had cocaine residue. Williams, who is listed on jail records as a security worker at MacDill Air Force Base, was arrested.

Okay, MacDill Public Affairs Office — you’re on the clock. How are you going to handle the questions about background checks for your staff? How are you going to answer questions about drug screening? What sorts of “Homeland Security” issues are potentially compromised here?

Is Williams a former employee? Is he telling the truth? How much of his personnel record do you release? What do you instruct your people to say if pressed, asked, or casually quizzed?

MacDill today. It might be you tomorrow.

And the bullet with your name on it will likely have more juice coming out of the barrel.

March 21, 2006: 11:13 pm: Big Blunders, External PR

The San Francisco 49ers offensive line didn’t protect the quarterbacks well last season, but the biggest sack came in the team’s PR office.

With all the trouble athletes can cause their employers and fans, more organizations are turning to media training. (Remember, the 49ers used to have Terrell Owens.)

However, the in-house media training video backfired big time. The humor of the “How Not To” approach was completely lost on the diverse Bay audience, which did not warm up to stereotypical portrayals of gays and Asians in a sensitivity video. All humor was lost when it was discovered that top brass sat on the tape for months, and didn’t press for heads to roll.

Public relations director Kirk Reynolds was cannedresigned the moment word of the tape eventually leaked. Now, just a scant nine months and three weeks later, the San Francisco Chronicle has obtained the video for everyone who wants to be offended in the privacy of their own cubicles.

For those of you who don’t feel like updating your Quicktime again, the action is captioned for you:

Segment 2 of 8:
On a sidewalk in Chinatown, Reynolds-as-mayor asks a man walking past him (played by former 49ers trainer George Chung) to help him read an Asian language newspaper. Note: clip contains racial stereotyping and suggestive language.

Segment 3 of 8:
In a sendup of same-sex marriages, Reynolds presides over a mock wedding between two women staged inside the Mitchell Brothers theater on O’Farrell Street in San Francisco. [Nudity has been deliberately blurred by Chronicle staff]

Segment 4 of 8:
Back out on the street, Reynolds tells a beggar (played by Julian Peterson) to “get a job.” At SBC Park, the ersatz mayor emphasizes the importance of giving interviews to the local media, then throws out the first pitch. Afterward, the catcher thanks him for supporting “hookers and booze.”

: 4:04 pm: Big Blunders, Birmingham

Viral marketing is spreading like a bad disease, and sometimes those with “guerilla marketing fever” just aren’t immune to the temptation to lie.

We’ll find out soon enough if the Birmingham SteelDogs are barking down the path to the dark side.

A few days ago, billboards started popping up around Birmingham, stirring support to shut down figure skating. The billboards linked to a companion website:

Support those who offer wholesome alternatives to figure skating. In Birmingham, Alabama, an arena football team is making a difference. By building their field on top of the largest ice rink in the state, they have assured there will be absolutely NO figure skating on these dates. There will only be exciting football games with plenty of fun for the kids. Even though the Birmingham Steeldogs have not returned any of our calls, we have included a link to their website because we want to support their obvious anti-figure-skating stance. Buy your tickets now and STRIKE A BLOW AGAINST THIS PSUEDO-SPORT!!!

Now, with all the talk about transparency, you’d think the Steeldogs would own up to it when asked. Instead, the statement from managing partner Scott Myers feigns total ignorance:

“The Birmingham Steeldogs are in no way opposed to figure skating,” Myers said. “In fact, I have really enjoyed watching the ‘Skating With Celebrities’ television program that airs before ‘24′ on Fox 6.”

“We are in full agreement, however, that the Steeldogs are a great family entertainment value,” Myers added. “We believe that all sports fans, regardless of what their favorite sport is, should come out and enjoy arena football this season.”

(Myers ought to be a skating fan — he’s the former General Manager of the Birmingham Bulls ECHL franchise, which rode a bear market out of town years ago.)

The thinly-veiled disguise of Larry Pamper was used to kick off the whole buzz on the Steeldogs’ message boards. Apparently, “Pamper” is such a big fan that this is hiis one and only post.

In light of all the recent gnashing of teeth about transparency in public relations, will the SteelDogs go to the doghouse over this? Probably not. When it comes to minor-league sports, the only real controversy you ever face is if you bungle the selection of a mascot.

(No, John, I’m not talking about Houston soccer. Vince McMahon’s XFL came very close to dubbing its Birmingham franchise the “Blast,” a great alliterative name that just doesn’t set to well in a town known for a fatal church bombing.)

March 20, 2006: 3:34 pm: Big Blunders, Helpful Hints

A few tornados, no hurricanes, no earthquakes or ice storms to speak of. Dallas has not been linked to many disasters, but the clock is ticking now that T.O. is in town.

This guy is just a bomb waiting to go off. He’s self-destructive and contagious.

Warning to the Dallas Cowboys’ PR staff: Digg up anything and everything you can on this guy. Here’s a good starting point. Use these events now to draft template news releases:

  • apology to Coach Parcells
  • apology to team
  • apology to fans
  • apology to Metroplex Community
  • apology to sponsors
  • apology to NFL
  • apology to Paul Tagliabue
  • apology to Drew BledsoeWhoever T.O. cons Parcells into signing
  • apology to Hall of Fame
  • apology to Hall of Famer that T.O. disses
  • apology to broadcast teams
  • apology to Jerry Jones
  • apology from Jerry Jones, to all of the above

Warning #2 to the Cowboys’ PR staff: Start prepping your guys to be total Boy Scouts. Anything and everything that goes on in that locker room is fair game once T.O. takes his ball and goes home.

UPDATE: Scott over at Media Orchard says T.O. is spreading his goodness with a ‘cheesy’ rap.

: 5:12 am: Blogiversaries, Personal

Happy Blogiversary to the Media Orchard, from Dallas’ Idea Grove.

(Sure, the first entry goes back to February of 2005, but that was a backdated item. The Orchard’s first fruit was a year ago today.)

Scott Baradell is a kindred spirit — a former newsie who uses his skills to help others communicate. There’s nothing ignoble about that.

March 17, 2006: 11:15 am: External PR, Helpful Hints

Life isn’t perfect, and neither are public relations strategies. If you’re getting a reputation for being too greedy, you can show some philanthropy. If you’re getting a reputation for being to soft, you can toughen the image. If you’re accused of being overly-sensitive and litigious, then by all means whine and sue!

Okay, that last one was just a joke. Unfortunately, Tom Cruise is becoming his own punchline.

Cruise has become his own worst enemy. From blasting psychology to mud-stomping a hole in Oprah’s couch, he has systematically convinced most of the world that he is really out of touch. Or maybe from another planet.

When the couch-jumping and Brooke-bashing didn’t fade, he apparently went on the offensive. The latest rumored victim is Comedy Central’s South Park. This past Wednesday was supposed to feature a repeat of an episode in which Tom literally lives “in the closet,” and Scientology gets revealed. Instead, the episode was yanked at the last minute. Some are reporting that Cruise put the screws to Viacom, threatening to sit out the Mission Impossible 3 publicity tour.

Meanwhile, he has already filed suit against the New Zealand operator of to the tune of $100,000. Let’s also remember that the daily postings on abruptly ended on December 6th.

All South Park did was make fun of Scientology, with the same irreverence shown to Christians, Jews, Muslims, and everyone else. It made fun of Scientologists as out-of-control and litigious. It made fun of Cruise as out-of-control and litigious. So what does Cruise do? He plays right into their hands.

South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have a low tolerance for this sort of thing. Expect Cruise to reappear on the show in coming weeks — probably as Saddam Hussein’s next girlfriend in hell.

UPDATE: Matt and Trey have issued a statement to Variety:

“So, Scientology, you may have won THIS battle, but the million-year war for earth has just begun! Temporarily anozinizing our episode will NOT stop us from keeping Thetans forever trapped in your pitiful man-bodies. Curses and drat! You have obstructed us for now, but your feeble bid to save humanity will fail! Hail Xenu!!!”

The duo signed the statement “Trey Parker and Matt Stone, servants of the dark lord Xenu.”

March 15, 2006: 1:39 pm: Big Blunders, Rants

Apparently, the fake news item about Will Ferrell’s non-existent death has finally snapped Google News awake.

After determining that just about anyone can submit and distribute information through i-Newswire, Google has cut the source out of its news mix.

Just before the plug was pulled, a 15-year-old boy “made news” by announcing that he’d been hired by Google.

At least the kid has apologized.

March 14, 2006: 5:01 pm: Big Blunders

“Reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated.” Apparently, so were reports that Will Ferrell died in a paragliding accident.

i-Newswire took that bait. It’s since been quickly debunked, and they’ve taken out the erroneous information.

Stay tuned to their explanation for this one…

: 1:36 pm: External PR, Helpful Hints

When faced with a potential crisis, the natural reaction is to get all defensive, and forget about all of the good things you did leading up to the moment. You forget about your training.

There are a number of philosophies and analogies people like to fall back on in these situations. I like martial arts.

There are a number of approaches to defending an attack. One is to go head on, meeting force with force in a linear fashion. Other arts use a “softer” style, absorbing the energy, re-directing it, and putting it to use against the attacker. (Of all of the martial-arts movie guys, Steven Segal’s Aikido skills most match this.)

Take the negative energy, and focus it to your advantage.

The Alabama Department of Agriculture executed this tactic perfectly this week. Faced with America’s third confirmed case of BSE (or “Mad Cow Disease,”) it would be easy to shrink from the fray. Previous reports have led to plummeting meat consumption, export controls, and a host of irrational fears.

Ag. Commissioner Ron Sparks dealt with the news quickly and professionally:

“I was very concerned to find out that the samples that tested positive for BSE were from a cow in Alabama, but this is exactly the reason that we emphasis the importance of BSE surveillance,” said Sparks. “The cow was tested as part of the enhanced BSE surveillance program that has been in place in Alabama,” said Sparks. “Even cows brought in from other states get tested for BSE before they would have a chance to be sold as food. I cannot stress enough how important this testing is to protect consumers. Also, having the Premises ID program in place in Alabama means we are able to trace the origin of a diseased animal. The cattle producers of Alabama understand the need for these precautions as well and we will continue to work together closely to protect consumers.”

Later, he summed up the key point:

“Beef is safe, and we can continue to consume beef as we did yesterday. This is just an example of the firewalls that we have put in place the past few years.”

Interesting use of analogy, and one that communicates to a lot of people. It also stresses that the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries is on the job, and that this was an internal discovery. Everything worked like it is supposed to.

Be truthful — lay it all out — and take credit for doing your job. The only thing that makes that recipe hard is the attitude of the messenger. Get all defensive, and you are your own worst enemy. Just like in martial arts.

(Also — props to the department for putting the news conference online in both Windows Media and RealPlayer formats.)

March 13, 2006: 11:53 am: Rants

Blogs are a technology, and nothing more. There is nothing magic about the word blog. Blog, blog, blog, blog, blog. See, I did not turn into a frog.

What is a little frightening is the lack of perspective about where bloggers belong — and that goes back to fundamental misunderstandings about journalists.

Here’s the example de jour: as Congress starts shutting down national security loopholes, the lines they tread are blurry at best.

Ohio Senator Mike DeWine is drafting a bill that would make it illegal to disclose information about either terrorist surveillance, -or- any activity carried out under the 1978 wiretap law that is cited as authorization. A draft of the proposed legislation got leaked to the Associated Press, and there are a number of concerns about it.

The bill is apparently still rather broad in its language, which leads some to believe you could be prosecuted for reading an article about surveillance and telling a friend about it. Highly doubtful.

It’s not uncommon for these drafts to float out as “trial balloons” as part of the vetting procedure. You find out what is troubling, and you fix it before the final release. What is disconcerting to me is the attitude of the policy wonk who is helping write this thing:

“It in no way applies to reporters – in any way, shape or form,” said Mike Dawson, a senior policy adviser to DeWine, responding to an inquiry Friday afternoon. “If a technical fix is necessary, it will be made.”

Reporters love to brag about how they are the “Fourth Estate,” and bask in their special privileges. But are they really that special? Doesn’t the same First Amendment apply to all Americans?

What worries me is how exactly Congress is going to go about defining what is and is not a “reporter.”

Blogs. Blogs, blogs, blogs, blogs, blogs. Nothing magic about the word, but there is something magic about what people put in them. Especially the ones with lots of letters and words and stuff. There’s no telling what kinds of thoughts and opinions can be expressed. And that’s the problem.

This is not a salvo in the debate about whether blogs will ever be on par with the mainstream media. This is about fairness. This is about free speech.

How do you define what a “reporter” is? By their activity? Is one who gathers facts and summarizes them in a publishable form a “reporter?” Is it defined by the medium? Radio-TV-Pulp okay, Blog bad? Whatabout those writing for “online magazines” like Slate? Surely, they must be considered reporters.

Well, maybe we look at it from a professional definition. Does that mean that you have to have a press pass from an “approved” entity to be a reporter? Does it mean that you have to be “professional” in the sense of making money at it? What about people with AdSense on their blogs? Do you have to make certain amount of money to be considered a pro? What if your newspaper hasn’t made money in five years, and some blogger is raking in six-figures?

There is not yet an adequate definition of “reporter” that could not conceivably include every U.S. citizen. There is no “test” you have to pass, no professional certification, no government regulation.

When there is, you have my permission to be scared.