There are a lot of trophies and honors to shoot for in life. Trophies gather dust, honors can be forgotten. You make it into the language, and you’re remembered forever — when your name becomes a verb or an adjective.
Think “Ruthian” home run, “Wagnerian” epic, “Freudian” slip. Even “Goliath” is a name that came to mean something else.
Just make sure your lexical legacy is a good one. Richard Scrushy is close to that, and not in a good way.
It’s starting to show up in the coverage of the Ken Lay/Enron prosecution. Apparently, Lay is trying to reclaim a 7-figure gift to the University of Missouri. At first, he asked the money be re-allocated to churches and relief organizations responding to last year’s hurricanes. By this February, his attorney’s were back in Columbia, seeking to tap that endowment to cover legal expenses.
What interested me was the description of a strategy that involves a great deal of public pre-trial philanthropy:
“This has all the smell of a Richard Scrushy effort,” says Mizzou alum Thomas Battistoni, a New York litigator who until recently sat on an alumni board for the MU College of Arts and Science, overseers of the economics department â€” and hence the chair. Scrushy, the former head of HealthSouth Corp., poured over $700,000 into Birmingham, Ala., churches and ministries during his felony trial in 2004, a coincidence noted with more than a little skepticism by his prosecutors. (Scrushy was acquitted). Battistoni raises similar questions about Layâ€™s attempt to divert the money to charities in the fall before his trial started, but he doesn’t believe the money is “tainted” since it was donated before the shenanigans at Enron began.
The adjective “Scrushyesque” has only appeared once before this post, in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, used by former federal prosecutor Jacob Frenkel to describe the effect of home-court advantage on fraud cases:
Frenkel said it’s too early to know if the government was smart in bringing the (Ken Lay) trial to Houston, where there has been a huge loss of jobs. “It’s a different jury pool, different facts, a different city. There’s no way of knowing if the verdict is going to be Scrushyesque.”
Reputation management is all about protecting your name and your brand. And if it’s your name on the line, there is no reset button to switch to change it, a move Scrushy’s old company is considering.
Pundits and forward-thinkers are still wrestling with questions about “citizen journalists” and “mainstream media.” There are many hands being wrung, many stones being turned, much low-hanging fruit being picked, and a plethora of inappropriate analogies languishing in the passive tense.
Let me save you all some time. “Citizen journalists” (or “those bastard bloggers in pajamas,” if you are on the other side of the ideological chasm,) will never replace mainstream Journalists — at least as long as mainstream Journalists hang on to their only edge:
I know. I am now a heretic within the blogging community. A pariah. Simmer down.
The fact is that what makes for a good blogger doesn’t necessarily make for a good journalist, and vice/versa. Blogging is all about using the power of social media and networking to be transparent. You air it all out, and count on others to forgive your warts. It happens most of the time, because the users/readers passionate enough to invest themselves in your online community will usually value your honesty moreso than your lack of perfection.
Big-J mainstream Journalism doesn’t enjoy that luxury. Tampa reporter Don Germaise found that out in a very big way. While trying to nail down an interview with an elusive white separatist, he agreed to a reciprocal interview. Not just allowing the subject to jointly record — he was the subject for a separate interview for a National Vanguard website. The site included the reporter’s candid quotes about illegal immigration, free speech, and editorial decisions.
Let’s not focus on the views of the website, but instead on the reaction:
“I can state unequivocally that there is nothing about this group that I like. I was naive … to let them use my words to make it appear the way they did. I was wrong.”
Objectively speaking, if a political blogger posted those same words, there would be no issue. Bloggers are given the green light to have opinions and be transparent. It is expected. So why is Germaise apologizing?
“We are supposed to be the messengers and not the story,” said Germaise. “Here, I’ve become the story, which is wrong. It does a disservice to my viewers.”
Because he recognizes that ultimately, he barters in truth, and not honesty.
- Truth is more objective, honesty is more subjective.
- Truth is compromised by errors of comission, honesty by errors of omission.
- Truth is telling your wife that no, those jeans don’t make her butt look big. Honesty is telling her that her butt looks big without the jeans.
Humans have a need for both truth and honesty. And even in a fractured and partisan age where we can cherry-pick our reading assignments, there’s something validating about seeing our pet point of view getting treatment from the objective Big-J types.
Citizen journalists, generally-speaking, tend to be fired up about and handful of issues. They step forward with knowledge, skill, and brazen honesty. Big-J journalists know they have to keep their biases as private as possible. They are the non-eunuchs we trust to guard the harem, because once their cover is blown, we (ahem) cut them off.
Part of our bumpy transition into this new media landscape is we’ve bought into the idea that something will “replace” something else. While we are now swimming in far more honesty than we’ve ever had, all that honesty won’t change the need for objective fact-crunching.
And that’s the honest truth. Opaquely.
Any reference to “wife,” “jeans,” or anatomical features is done within a construct of creative license. Such statements are works of fiction, and any resemblance to a person living or deceased is strictly coincidental. Honestly honey, it’s the truth. I swear!
The second verse is apparently NOT the same as the first.
After years of ignoring public relations and the media (and, to their credit, growing like crazy), Wal-Mart changed directions last year. Tired of being on the short end of every comparison with media-friendly Target, the Arkansas retail giant hosted a “get-to-know-us” camp at headquarters last year.
The media that did get that access treated it with a healthy dose of skepticism, and Wal-Mart came away no worse than it was going in.
This time around, the “PR for the PR machine” is already spinning a new line — that reporters will drive the sessions. Wal-Mart is pledging to spend more time “listening” to find out what journalists want and need, and a better way of delivering it.
Expect to see some coverage of the Wal-Mart detractors, who have built a healthy cottage industry of their own. And expect Wal-Mart to get better at this PR thing as it goes. Baby steps, baby.
Some cows are so sacred, you have to go out of your way not to touch them. And if you accidentally do, you have to be careful about washing your hands.
I’ve got a beef with what I call “bumper sticker” politics. Typically, they make for great key messages, but miss a lot of substance beneath. And the right “rallying cry” can be almost impossible to stop. Case in point: say “for the children” after just about any proposal, and you put an unfair burden on the other said.
Same goes for the phrase “For the Troops.”
The Hilton Hotel group has found itself grinding the spin into overdrive, after a viral e-mail campaign accused them of goring a sacred cow. Fran O’Brien’s, a DC steakhouse, has been giving free steak dinners to veterans recovering up the road at the VA hospital. Many of the vets are amputees, and the Friday dinners have been a sight to behold.
Only now, Hilton is evicting the restaurant, and wants to do something else with that property.
The rumor mill states that Hilton is worried about rising insurance premiums, and doesn’t want the liability of having all those disabled people around. Yeah, it even sounds fishy, but the “for the troops” bandwagon makes for a compelling story — and as such, the meme gets passed along.
Hilton is responding quickly to the rumor, pointing out that this is strictly an issue of a lease coming due, and how it has nothing to do with veterans, the disabled, or insurance matters. Hilton is also trying to find a new home for the dinners at one of the other restaurants on the property.
The PR folks at Hilton have an uphill battle here. Patriotism and outrage are intense emotions, and a lot of the anger and bitterness is channeling through blogs and websites. Kudos to the PR department for engaging bloggers, who have a better chance of correcting the record — but alas, there is still a lot of heat over this.
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.
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.”
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 www.scienTOMogy.info to the tune of $100,000. Let’s also remember that the daily postings on www.tomcruiseisnuts.com 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.”
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:
â€œI 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,â€ said Sparks. â€œThe cow was tested as part of the enhanced BSE surveillance program that has been in place in Alabama,â€ said Sparks. â€œEven 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.â€
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.
Birmingham-Southern College is stepping out with a statement about the arrest of its students implicated in the Alabama church fires.
It’s not earth-shattering by any stretch, but when your sky is already falling you’re better off playing it safe. There are some obligatory points you have to hit in these situations. The key is to be humble, sincere, and apologetic without admitting any culpability or liability. You don’t want to over-apologize to the point of a guilty posture.
The quotes from Birmingham-Southern College President Dr. David Pollick run the gamut from …
â€œIn response to the two students having been charged with arson of nine Alabama community churches, Birmingham-Southern College has suspended each student from the college and immediately banned them from campus awaiting further action by the authorities. The students, faculty and staff of our college are at once shocked and outraged, and we share the sorrow of our neighbors whose churches represent the heart and soul of their communities.
â€œThese cruel and senseless acts of destruction have profoundly touched our college community. Where there once existed such a clear line between the harmless and playful and the harmful and cruel, we increasingly see young adults throughout our nation incapable of distinguishing between healthy and destructive conduct. Boundaries are all too often exceeded. The social use of alcohol moves easily and too frequently to dangerous irresponsibility. Innocent and healthy stages of interpersonal social encounters too frequently degrade to violent and personal acts of violation. We see symptoms of a culture of personal license so powerfully magnified in the actions of these young men.”
… to an extension of …
â€œWe also are deeply concerned for the families of these young men, knowing the pain they are experiencing. The entire community of Birmingham-Southern Collegeâ€”students, faculty, and staffâ€”pledges to aid in the rebuilding of these lost churches through our resources and our labor. Together weâ€™ll stand as a reminder of the strength of communities that transcend the differences of religion and place, as well as the effects of mindless cruelty.â€
Campus Police Chief Randy Youngblood added the obligatory comment designed to demonstrate transparency and a commitment to justice:
â€œThe college cooperated in every regard to the investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and the state Fire Marshallâ€™s Office, and we will continue to do so as needed.â€
To be honest, those cop-talk bites are fairly rote and scripted. I’m fairly certain part of the “cooperation” entails saying just this much about the investigation, and no more.
Thoughts from the peanut gallery, anyone?
Fires are a staple of television news — and church fires are a symbol of outright hatred and violence. Put them together, and you have a compelling combination that draws attention from around the globe.
The ATF and FBI have arrested three college students — charged with the intentional torching of nine churches in central and west Alabama. The first five happened in rural Bibb County. The other four were scattered in other counties a few days later, in an attempt to throw a wrench in the investigative track.
In one sense, these communities can start putting these events behind them. Knowing that it was dumb college kids and not race-or-religion-based hate is a slight comfort. Unfortunately, past history tells us that public perception on the national scale will not catch up to the facts. If asked, most people outside of the state will tell you that the last round of hyped church burnings (mid ’90s) were a racial plot, when in fact most were set by members. A year from now, others will insist the Bibb County church fires were set by the Klan. (A funny thought, considering that all five of the Bibb churches were white congregations.)
The state of Alabama has a long way to go in changing perceptions, and its people are at the mercy and whim of those who are content to carry the stereotypes. Those minds won’t be changed until they are ready.
While the state’s image is the indirect “loser” in this affair, the PR staff at Birmingham-Southern College is working to avoid direct fallout. Two of the three arrested are BSC students — and that is not exactly the top-of-mind impression you want to leave. Already, the school is fielding questions about the investigation, part of which occurred on campus:
â€œI can confirm the FBI was on our campus last evening conducting an investigation,â€ school spokeswoman Linda Hallmark said today. â€œAt this time, we know nothing more than that. Weâ€™re waiting on information and instruction from the FBI.â€
UPDATE: Birmingham-Southern is going out of its way to come out of this in as positive a position as possible:
At a press conference this afternoon, Birmingham-Southern President David Pollick pledged to â€œaid in the rebuilding of these lost churches through our resources and our labors.â€
Pollick said it was too early to determine whether the aid would be in the form of money or labor. â€œWeâ€™re hoping to find the best way to help.â€
The embers of perception burn long after the fires of hate go cold.
If you can’t beat ‘em, beat ‘em to the punchline. That’s the tack White House spokesman Scott McClellan is taking to mitigate “Hunting-gate.”
McClellan took it on the chin Monday, no doubt. The White House press corp savaged him soundly, trying to construct a “what-did-he-know and when-did-he-know-it” timeline regarding the Vice-President’s hunting mishap. McClellan wasn’t exactly getting forthcoming information from Cheney’s staff, and had to suffer the slings and arrows alone. (Good thing Cheney isn’t a bowhunter.)
Anyway, as you can imagine, Monday was a watershed night for the Daily Show, Leno, and Letterman.
What’s not so funny is the slow response from Cheney’s people. A simple appearance from Cheney to field the questions would have done a world of good. But instead, we’re treated to another day or so of mountains out of molehills (that are of the administration’s own making.)
McClellan is doing his best to take the steam out of it all, though. He delivered a pitch-perfect punchline of his own, using a topical peg: the White House visit by the National Champion Texas Longhorns:
“The orange that they’re wearing is not because they’re concerned that the vice president may be there,” joked White House press secretary Scott McClellan, following the lead of late-night television comedians. “That’s why I’m wearing it.”
Well-crafted, timely, and in a self-effacing way, somewhat humble.
Considering it was a lack of forth-rightness and humility that got them into this mess to begin with, it’s a good start. Best case scenario, the story starts to fade, to be replaced by a recurrent punchline.
(I wonder if the left will stop complaining about Justice Antonin Scalia’s hunting trips with Cheney, and start urging more of them instead.)
Dick Cheney is the first Vice-President to shoot a man since Aaron Burr popped a cap in Alexander Hamilton. However, the real duel is being waged now in the media.
The first volley, much like the bird shot that hit Harry Whittington, is coming from the comedians. After all, this is fair game for comedy.
What may be more problematic is the response from anti-gun advocates James and Sarah Brady:
“Now I understand why Dick Cheney keeps asking me to go hunting with him,” said Jim Brady. “I had a friend once who accidentally shot pellets into his dog – and I thought he was an idiot.”
“I’ve thought Cheney was scary for a long time,” Sarah Brady said. “Now I know I was right to be nervous.”
There are times to use news pegs to plant your take in the media, but are these comments from the Bradys even on target?
Which is it? Is Cheney a deliberate danger? Or is it really an accident?
Sarah’s comment also seems out of place. She thought he was dangerous, as though he had ever invited her hunting?
It’s also not as if Cheney was using a controversial automatic assault rifle, or even a handgun, which was at the center of the Brady cause and mission for so long:
The Brady Campaign, the Million Mom March and the Brady Center believe that a safer America can be achieved without banning all guns.
If you’re not going to ban all guns, then which ones do you leave in society? Hunting rifles and shotguns are too big to be concealed, and too specialized for criminal work. Cheney’s bird gun is the type of weapon that usually attracts the least concern and political heat (unless you’re from PeTA.)
That’s why the Bradys’ comment on this situation seems a little forced, smacks of partisanship, and could dilute their future impact. It plays to choir, and doesn’t appeal to the middle.
What one word best describes the state of PR today?
Would you believe… Alaska? (sorry. bad pun.)
Apparently, the ham-fisted pork-barrel antics of Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens has left the state with a reputation for being a little… piggish?
An extended tip of the ten-gallon to Tex over at Watching Washington, for keeping up with all of the links:
Governor Frank Murkowski (R-AK) wants to change America’s image of Alaska.
So the Governor has suggested the state hire a public relations firm to change Alaska’s image.
It’s nothing new to see government spending money on image and positioning. It’s especially vital in the competition for landing new industry and bolstering cash-cows like tourism.
Gov. Frank Murkowski says it is time for an image makeover. He wants the state to hire a public relations firm to change the perception of Alaska and its people as greedy for federal dollars and all too willing to plunder the environment for profit.
Ultimately, he wants to sway public opinion in favor of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
Most Alaska politicians favor drilling in the refuge, which would fill the state’s coffers like the trans-Alaska oil pipeline has done for decades. But environmentalists have fought back for a quarter-century, and in December the state was thwarted again in Congress.
Would this fly as a legit expense? You have to examine both the source of the funding and the desired target of the campaign — and that’s one thing I love about Terry’s work at Watching Washington.
Wonder how long until Alaska’s Congressional delegation pay for it with federal dollars?
Alaska already got federal money for a PR film on the state’s roads and bridges. And more federal dollars to paint an airliner to promote the state’s salmon industry.
Trust me. He’s got it all documented.
Even if the PR practitioners hold to recognized professional ethical standards, there is no hard and fast rule about what passes the “taxpayer smell test.”
Taking public money to sway public opinion about the fact that you do more than just take public money… well, that’s really bringing home the bacon.
We’re told that ignorance is no defense… except when the law is so poorly defined that it “really is.”
Case in point: Richard Scrushy, the ousted founder of HealthSouth.
During his fraud trial, some pundits wondered whether he could put away the ego and admit to “not being in charge of the ship.” It was his only real defense, as five former CFOs took the stand to implicate him.
Some would go down swinging, especially those who are so concerned about their reputations and public personae.
The dynamic that played out here was a quirk of the new Sarbanes-Oxley law: it required “proof of knowledge.” One had to knowingly violate it — and science-fiction aside, there is no way short of a paper trail of proving what is going on in someone’s head.
So the state couldn’t make a case, Scrushy was acquitted, and now he’s touring state pulpits as a reformed man. He recently appeared on Hannity and Colmes, painting himself as a cockolded spouse:
“I think the buck stops with the people that are guilty,” Scrushy said. “In any situation you can be deceived. Take, for example, a husband and wife, live together for many, many years. The wife finds out the husband was having an affair. They sleep in the same bed every night. They brush their teeth in the same bathroom. They eat together every day for years. So, if you’re deceived, if something is concealed and not shown to you or if no one tells you about it, you shouldn’t be held responsible for something you had nothing to do with.”
Scrushy said a company as large as HealthSouth makes it more difficult to monitor what everyone is doing.
“I do know that when you have big corporations and you have a lot of people – the CEO – there is no way that he can know everything,” he said.
The folks over at CFO.com took a different read, calling it the “Sergeant Shultz defense:”
Scrushy didn’t need to break a sweat in reprising his ”Sergeant Schultz” defense â€” that he ”knew nothing” while his rogue underlings, including five former chief financial officers, committed a $2.7 billion fraud at HealthSouth.
The pathetic bipartisan duo allowed Scrushy to say things like “the buck stops with people who were guilty,” to compare his innocence to the person who is unaware of their spouse’s transgressions even though they share a bed, and to assert that the government didn’t spend that much time investigating his case.
Why the fuss? The Scrushys still aren’t out of the woods yet, with civil suits (and a lower burden of proof) still looming. Expect the positioning to continue.