June 15, 2006: 6:16 am: Helpful Hints, Personal

When the masks come off, the rules change. When a mask comes off after 44 years, the game changes, and we can learn something in the process.

Spider-Man’s mask was so different in its time, because it covered the whole face. No open eyes, no exposed jutting jowl. It was the perfect cover. Stan Lee needed that mask to be an all-enveloping cocoon for his angst-ridden teen hero, still developing and finding his way.

If you haven’t picked up a comic an issue of episodic graphic literature in quite a while, keep an ear out for this development: the mask comes off.

This might not rise (or fall) to the level of coverage over the re-launch of Batwoman as a lesbian, nor any of the other “shocking” comic revelations of the last few years. But it might be more instructive.

The seven-issue “Civil War” series, launched in May, sees Marvel’s writers taking on the topical issue of civil liberties.

Following a showdown between a group of superheroes and supervillains in which hundreds of innocent civilians are killed, the government passes the Super-Hero Registration Act, requiring all superheroes to reveal their identities and register as “living weapons of mass destruction.”

Marvel’s roster of invincible crime fighters is split into two bitterly opposed factions, with one camp — championed by the likes of Spiderman — in favour of the new law and the other, including Captain America and his ilk, refusing to relinquish anonymity.

“It’s about which side you are on and why you think you are right,” said Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada.

The biggest gain in transparency comes in the department of trust.

The biggest pain in transparency comes as you get judged not just for what you do, but for what you don’t.

Once others know where you have been, and what opportunities for “good” you have passed up, you are accountable for sins of omission, not just commission. Without the mask, a tired and hurt Peter Parker could whistle past danger and not be faulted for righting the wrong. Not anymore.

It will be interesting to see how the comics’ world deals with the new reality: With great transparency, comes great responsibility.

June 14, 2006: 5:22 am: Blogiversaries, Personal

Happy 1st Blogiversary to Steven Silvers over at Scatterbox. Steven’s one of those guys that isn’t worried about momentum or schedules. He just writes very profound things and doesn’t pad them with filler. He’s a must-read.

Here’s a link to his first post in the archive, talking about the San Francisco 49ers’ media training debacle.

June 8, 2006: 12:36 am: Big Blunders, Rants

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? (And how much further would you have gone with a little “help”?)

Baseball is in big, big trouble. While everyone has been patiently waiting to boo Barry Bonds on his drawn-out quest to hit his first clean 40 homers in eight years, America’s pasttime is about to come crashing down. Not at the hands of a titan, nor a fallen hero. Just a journeyman named Jason Grimsley.

Fans have been forgiving for far too long. As embarrassing as last year was for Mark McGuire and Rafael Palmiero and Jason Giambi, at least there was no “smoking gun.” Rampant rumors were not accompanied by reams of positive drug tests stacked on Bud Selig’s table. Any excuse was enough to make season-ticket holders and a syncophant press wink before looking the other way.

Party’s over. A no-name known as Jason Grimsley has not only been raided and questioned over illegal procurement of HGH, but he’s turned state’s evidence by supplying names of other players to investigators. Turns out there is no good test for HGH abuse, even though doping it is against the rules.

Once this floodgate opens, there is no plausible deniability. There is no savior on the horizon — like Cal Ripken salving the wounds of a season-killing strike, or Sosa and McGuire whipping up a home run frenzy in 1998. Oh yeah. That’s a lie too.

This may go down as one of the greatest “reputation management” jobs of all time. Years of promises and spin about maintaining a clean sport are ready to fall on baseball’s noggin, like too many secrets stashed on the top shelf of a crowded closet. It’s too big now to pin on individual players.

To make matters worse, the very nature of the American love affair with baseball is at stake: those geeky statistics that supposedly stand the test of time are now in jeopardy. (Stock tip: find the company that manufactures asterisks and invest now!)

So, let me hear from you:

  1. Can baseball be saved?
  2. How do you handle it?
  3. Does anyone really care anymore?

June 5, 2006: 10:46 am: Personal, Rants

When I was in my teens, I fell in love with the Omen trilogy. Okay, not “in love” as in “watch me burn puppies and mutilate my flesh,” but more alone the lines of appreciation for good storytelling and mastery of suspense. Here was a movie that used very subtle clues and cues, and a wicked soundtrack to scare the bejeesus out of you.

Then they had to ruin it all with a re-make.

I’ve got nothing against the actors involved — I think Liev Schrieber and Julia Stiles are okay, if not a little young to replace Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. I haven’t seen it, but one telling clue indicates to me that this is nothing more than marketing gone amuck.

The thing that got me about the original trilogy was the sly use of the biblical undertones. The way the plot rolled out and used prophecy made your hairs stand up. Not that I for one minute believed that an Antichrist would show up like that, but any scary tale that borrows a couple of millenia of backstory gets my vote.

I don’t think we’re going to break any new ground with the remake, and I base that on the timing. The first hint I ever had of the movie was the poster:

Omen moive poster

Coming, 06/06/06.

This was not a movie that was begging for a remake. It was not flawed in its execution. It was not time to revisit the theme. Instead, it’s as though some marketing genius figured that 06/06/06 would be a great release date for a movie — now let’s go option a script! Already I have misgivings that this thing is being rushed to meet the release date, and won’t live up to the meager potential. Seriously, would you go to see a remade “Omen” if it came out on Memorial Day?

What’s this mean for you? Timing can be an issue for communicators. When you speak (and stay silent) can be an important factor concerning your effectiveness. Are you running beer ads opposite the Super Bowl? Are you planning an event or grand opening on a day when the media is already booked out with other coverage?

However, timing is icing. It does not fill you up, and does not guarantee success. A perfectly-timed piece of crap is… well… you can polish it, but it still stinks.

(Disclaimer: 06/06 is my birthday. That’s not why I liked the original movie, however.)

Update: Ebert didn’t entirely dislike it. Three out of four stars.

June 2, 2006: 10:09 am: Birmingham, Helpful Hints

There’s an old saying in the legal profession. “When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the law is on your side, pound the law. And when neither is on your side, pound the table.”

As crass as that sounds, there is a large element of truth — and that is the consistent triumph of emotional massages over rational ones. It’s also why one good story can squash a statistical proof.

This came to mind in the last couple of days, as I was thinking about the impact of a very public and high-profile carjacking in downtown Birmingham. Sandra Gregory was kidnapped just outside of her loft apartment, and forced to drive to several ATMs before her rescue Wednesday afternoon.

One element that got attention was the fact that she lived in a newly rejuvenated loft community, one that is actively recruiting professionals to return to urban lifestyles. Her morning commute to the office was generally a two-block walk.

I covered the crime beat in Birmingham for several years, and know first-hand that the crime rate downtown was perhaps the lowest in the entire metro. But all it takes is one high-profile and emotional incident to enflame stereotypes and set back the image and reputation. I didn’t have time to write this yesterday, but I was curious to see who would go back and proactively offer the counter-story — placing this attack in proper context.

This time, it was a cooperative sponsored by downtown businesses that stepped up:

“We have struggled with a perception of downtown safety,” said Teresa Thorne of the City Action Partnership, or CAP security program, a city-operated service that provides escorts and vehicle assistance to residents, workers and visitors downtown. “In the past 10 years, the downtown crime statistics have dropped 59 percent.”

Teresa Thorne is a retired Birmingham Police Captain, who once ran a precinct. Her CAP unit provides escorts and additional presence in the downtown business community. While her job isn’t “PR” per se, it is her job to make people feel more at ease about the safety of that neighborhood.

Other city-promotion agencies like Operation New Birmingham are being proactive in providing the statistical proof of safety. Unfortunately, facts and stats need to be backed up with individual stories, or they will not overpower quotes like this one:

Former downtown resident Edd Dover, who until February lived in the Watts apartment building where Gregory was abducted, said CAP officers help a lot, but problems begin after 5 p.m. and continue overnight, when CAP officers are off duty.

“In that part of downtown, there’s barely any police presence,” said Dover, who said he moved out partly because of vandalism and vagrants in that apartment’s parking lot. “I’m 6 feet 5, but I was always on guard. There were people in the Dumpster when I’d go take my garbage out, and people asking me for money when I’d walk my dog at 5:30 in the morning. Everybody wants this downtown to succeed, but until they clean it up, it won’t work.”

I borrow again from Annette Simmons in The Story Factor:

“People have more facts than they will ever use. They need a new story to give those facts context.”

The book comes with my highest recommendation.

May 31, 2006: 1:50 pm: Rants

Reputation is built by the matching of deeds and words. You make a promise, you back it up. Reputations are destroyed by hypocrisy — breaking a promise you have made.

When the broken promise stems from faulty execution, the mea culpa is easier. When the broken promise develops from selfish motives or a lack of character, the damage takes much longer to repair.

The ACLU has some explaining to do.

The organization for decades has tried to become synonymous with “free speech,” yet now is cracking down on stray messages from within. The new guidelines are there to prevent board members from criticizing any aspect of decided policy. Stephanie Strom writes in the New York Times:

“Where an individual director disagrees with a board position on matters of civil liberties policy, the director should refrain from publicly highlighting the fact of such disagreement,” the committee that compiled the standards wrote in its proposals.

Yes, it is important for an organization to speak with one voice. The reason, in this instance, becomes particularly telling:

“Directors should remember that there is always a material prospect that public airing of the disagreement will affect the A.C.L.U. adversely in terms of public support and fund-raising”

As in many cases, the bottom line really is the bottom line.

Of course, the policy is not sitting well with some current and former board members, who feel strongly that free speech is free speech is free speech:

Nat Hentoff, a writer and former A.C.L.U. board member, was incredulous. “You sure that didn’t come out of Dick Cheney’s office?” he asked.

“For the national board to consider promulgating a gag order on its members I can’t think of anything more contrary to the reason the A.C.L.U. exists,” Mr. Hentoff added.

Later in the article, a board member recounts getting privately chastised for a facial expression. Another was voted off for publicly debating a position.

For an organization that lays claim to non-partisan support, this is a clear violation of vision. This can’t be fixed with a “my bad” press release. This is the sort of crisis that only regime change can repair.

This would be a good time to look at your corporate mission statement. Or update it, even.

: 9:05 am: Helpful Hints

Following up on yesterday’s theme, body language is the essential component in communications. If they can see you or hear you, how you look and how you sound matters more than what you say.

Want proof? Look at the reviews for Tony Snow’s start in the White House briefing scrum:

McClellan’s style—a few posts ago I called it “strategic non-communication”—was the big loser in press accounts of Snow’s debut.

* Financial Times: “Snow, a former Fox News presenter, brought a new, idiosyncratic style to the daily briefing that had regressed to an arid showcase of administration talking points.”

* Dana Milbank in the Washington Post: “Rather than repeating rote refusals to answer questions, Snow had a quick comeback for every occasion.”

* William Triplett, Daily Variety: “Unlike his predecessor, Scott McClellan, who developed a rep as a brusque stonewaller, Snow, his hands casually holding the podium sides, generally engaged questioners with eye contact and a seeming desire to answer.”

* Vaughn Ververs at CBS Public Eye: “Where McClellan often appeared robotic and repetitive, Snow was much more expansive, getting into areas of broad strategy and seeming engaged as much in the debate of the immigration issue as in an explanation of the president’s position.”

* Michael Scherer in Salon: “[Tony Snow] is, in other words, a human being, and that makes him a dramatic departure from his predecessor, Scott McClellan, the doughy master of equivocation and non sequitur who behaved most days like a misfiring automaton, barely betraying any light behind his eyes.”

If your talking points sound like talking points, the message you are really sending is “I’m clueless, I’m hiding something, and I’m out of touch with reality.”

A little sincerity goes a long way, even when delivering news (or not delivering it) that one might not like.

May 30, 2006: 11:06 am: Big Blunders

Of all of the reasons not to do an on-camera interview, Jiffy Lube execs have found one that is the most honest and most transparent — even if it is wrong.

A hidden-camera expose by KNBC recently nailed several Southern California Jiffy Lube shops caught charging for repairs that were never made. It’s a well-done and well-documented piece, and the stores are absolutely nailed. Worst of all is the “district manager” who lies about not being a manager, and claims to be a customer instead.

At the end of the piece, Jiffy Lube promises to make a number of changes, including the installation of cameras in 31 stores that will allow customers to watch the crew at work. Six employees (and the district manager) have been fired, and several stores closed for internal employee training.

However, one thing you won’t see is a Jiffy Lube executive or spokesman issuing an apology. The reason, according to reporter Joel Grover:

“They will not speak to us on camera — they say it wasn’t to their benefit.”

Instead, all the viewers saw was a full-screen graphic from a written statement, which amounts to a clip-and-paste of PR/spin cliches:

“We take KNBC’s allegations seriously… will investigate this matter thoroughly and take appropriate actions… to prevent further occurrences.”

Will the public buy it? Very doubtful.

For apologies to work, you have to appeal to the consumer in an emotional way. You have to make a connection for real contrition, and that means communicating with all of your tools: body language, posture, voice tone, facial expression. Most of communication is non-verbal, and it’s damned near impossible to “sell sincerity” unless you open yourself up to be seen.

For Jiffy Lube to take a stand that an on-camera reaction would be of no “benefit” speaks volumes about a complete lack of understanding about communication. To get stung this way for the third year in a row speaks volumes about not really caring to begin with.

May 26, 2006: 10:17 am: Birmingham, Scrushy

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 — 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 Lay’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.

May 22, 2006: 9:24 am: From the Front, Personal

Don’t think I’m spiraling down for another funk.

I’m headed to Atlanta for most of the week, to help with this year’s Red Cross Hurricane Communicator Conference. I’ll be doing some training, and presenting information about the Birmingham Chapter’s Alert System.

The goal is to get everyone up to speed and ready to handle communications for what shapes up to be a busy Gulf/Atlantic hurricane season.

I’ll blog as I can, but if I don’t — no big deal. And thanks for sticking around.

: 7:47 am: Personal, Rants

Boy, did I ever forget the punchline. It’s not that information-seekers are so fond to “transparency” or even “opacity.” They just abhor “translucence.”

Each extreme along that continuum plays an important role. Those who are stuck in between are of no use to consumers, who either wonder about a real agenda, or choose some other means of validation that carries more objective weight.

Duh. That’s what I get for posting so late.

: 12:45 am: External PR, Rants

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:

Opacity.

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!

May 19, 2006: 3:19 pm: Birmingham, From the Front

I didn’t sign up to become an expert on RSS implementations. I just know a lot of people who can use it, and know even less than I do. So I do what I can.

Today, that meant leading about a couple dozen American Red Cross chapter communicators through an ad-hoc teleconference about the Alert System we put together in Birmingham. Not having a budget for a real Webex, I made a 50-page “slideshow” made up of relevant screen captures. Arg. (I felt like “Mr. Filmstrip,” telling everyone to click “next“.)

I hope I did enough explaining to get them interested, and not so much to scare them out of it. These PR folks are scattered across most of the Western U.S., minus California and Hawaii — and a great deal of land to cover. Any tech tool to push critical information out more quickly can make a big difference.

Anyway — as to the shameless part. As part of my evolution from “media relations guy” to “real PR guy,” I’ve been doing the metric thing. In this case, I’ve been counting the number of downloads from various outlets. For instance, if you download the customized RSS reader from our chapter website, you trigger a counter. If you download it from the Alert Page itself, it triggers another counter. That way, I can keep a log of where the real traffic is, and where to focus the interest. (And I can have a neat little project for my APR certification process, whenever that might be.)

So far, here are some key stats to date:

  • Downloads from chapter website: 303
  • Downloads from direct e-vites: 29
  • Downloads from March newsletter: 8
  • Downloads from April newsletter: 20
  • Downloads from this blog: 91

We didn’t get much in the way of local media on this until after the April e-mail, so we’ll see how much steam this generates going into the May newsletter.

May 18, 2006: 8:39 am: Birmingham, Rants

Well, it’s down to two on American Idol. And for the third time in four years, Birmingham has one of the finalists. (Four if you count Diana Degarmo, who was born here but raised elsewhere.)

For the past few weeks, there have been a slew of articles and blogs and broadcast pieces about why “the south” does so well in the world’s most-hyped karaoke contest. Some account for the Birmingham success with the “church factor,” some with other cultural and anthropological underpinnings. Jake Tapper at ABC did a piece looking at Idol votes through a political lens.

So far, nobody has it right, and we see such mind-numbing stereotypes as this:

“Perhaps most intriguing, as the fifth season continues, is to consider how much more talent remains out there in the hill towns and dust buckets of the South, and will rarely be heard past the local 4-H show, halftime at the high school football game, or at Sunday church.”

Amateur anthropology aside, there are a couple of important factors that get overlooked… a major key and a minor key, if you will.

Minor key: The South still has an underdog mentality.

If you know anything about college football, you know that the SEC takes it more seriously than anyone else. Lives revolve around football season. To know why, you have to go back 80 years to the Rose Bowl. Southern football teams were often disregarded and ignored by the pundits and voters in the northeast. That is, until the University of Alabama finally broke through with an actual invitation to the Rose Bowl, where it upset a highly regarded Washington team. That was a milestone achievement in Southern pride — and that’s why college sports get royal treatment, befitting the first arena where the region levelled the post-Reconstruction playing field.

Take it to the bank — Southerners are competitive in everything else, too. (And they also keep score on who “gets it” from the outside. I’m sure there is a lot of grumbling over the fact that Tapper included Oklahoma and Texas as part of “Dixie.”)

Major key: Ratings, ratings, ratings.

Lost in all of the analysis is the fact that Birmingham has the highest-rated Fox affiliate in the country. WBRC was a powerhouse long before Rupert Murdoch purchased it in 1996. Nearly ten years later, it remains locked in a close battle for number one in each newscast, each sweeps period being a tossup. Outsiders will claim that Idol props up Fox-6, but it’s really the other way around. WBRC has been savvy and effective in promoting and hyping American Idol, and has the viewership to make a difference.

The point? You can spend a lot of time musing, pondering, and cogitating about a situation that you can’t explain — but often the answer is simpler than we think.

May 17, 2006: 12:53 pm: Big Blunders

The GOP-appointed GPO better start answering PDQ.

No doubt discovered by reporters looking for a fresh immigration and citizenship angle, what might have been an oversight is being spun into a whole lot more.

The Government Printing Office produced a set of flash cards for aspiring citizens. No doubt a lot of native-born Americans might have some troubles with the questions. But there is a glaring omission on one of the cards:

Simple First Amendment question

Something's missing...?

Something is missing — like the Freedom of the Press.

Already, a number of blogs are picking this up, some commenters calling it an intentional policy of the Bush Administration:

“Yep, that’s your GOP, eliminating freedom–one civil right at a time!!!!”

“The right is inalienable, (In the US at least) and to delete the reference foreshadows the mindset of this administration and all its efforts.”

This has yet to hit Google News and such, so it will be interesting to find out how quickly GPO can react, explain, or spin if necessary. If they don’t answer, the conspiracy meme will further entrench.

Oh… and I have e-mailed the press office to see what they might have to say about this matter. The clock is ticking.

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