Wednesday, January 31

Kicking Dead Dogs: Tom Murphy

One of the definitions that Tom Murphy assigned to his catch phrase "kicking dead dogs" is the continual wave of posts that declare something as dead. I first stumbled across the phrase when I was curious to see what other communication experts might be saying about the concept that the "press release" is dead.

Well, first I would like to clarify that kicking dead dogs is certainly not limited to posts. It wasn't that long ago that Wired Magazine declared newspapers dead. Before that, of course, radio was declared dead with the advent of television. And more recently, blogs were declared dead by John Pretto, who, not surprisingly, is the president of Mr. Podcast, Inc.

Anyway, after awhile, it does make one wonder just what the heck isn't dead. The answer, very simply, is: nothing is dead.

Of course, I already knew this because Bruce Spotleson, publisher of In Business Las Vegas and a self-described "old newspaper" man, is a frequent guest speaker in my Writing for Public Relations class. He has an uncanny way of stating the obvious: no new media has ever replaced another media.

Spot on. Nothing is dead, no matter how much some people might declare it is, press releases included (though I still hate that public relations folks insist on calling a "news release" a press release). What I also find interesting is the number of public relations and communication professionals who are defending the "news release." Most of them, no ill will intended, are speaking passionately enough about press, er, news releases that they are looking at things emotionally instead of objectively.

Shel Holtz is a stand-up guy, for example; he's been in the communication business since the 1970's and I've attended a function or two where he has spoken (we're both accredited business communicators and all). Anyway, Holtz normally defends the concept of a social media release, but backtracked a few days ago by giving Jeremy Pepper's idea some praise:

“What people don't get—especially non-PR people—is that, oh, the majority of PR is done at the local level, where people don't care about blogs or RSS. The local level is done with a press release—sometimes sent over the wire, often not sent over the wire—and done with one-on-one contact," said Pepper.

Murphy jumped on board and says it is the audience that matters "That's why a press release is useful — yes, I know they can be spam — yes I know they can be badly written — but they provide information in a common format that, in most cases, provide the same types of information."

I have to chuckle a bit, not at anyone in particular, but in general. While some public relations professionals are indeed calling for the death of press, er, news releases in favor of social media releases, who really wants this silly issue to become polarized. Is that where public relations is heading? Are we either "for them" or "against them?"

Not here, thank goodness. Maybe we see it all differently. We already know where new media fits in with the old. It's not that hard to figure out.

Here's the bottom line: The social media release concept is a long overdue format to send information to bloggers and social media outlets. The news release still is equally useful (even on the national scale) because, yes, newspapers, magazines, radio stations, television stations, etc. continue to evolve, and have yet to be proven dead.

Come to think of it, I know a couple of companies that still have employee communication bulletin boards too, and use them quite effectively. So what? Big deal if public relations folks have another tool. So what if some ad guys like to be cliche and call everything dead? Since when do communication professionals care about that?

The truth is the only problem with public relations practitioners having another tool is that too many of them are not good enough with the ones they have right now. A news release that is poorly written? Why? A news release that is spam? Why?

If you are a public relations practitioner (like the ones Tom Murphy is talking about) who is sending out poorly written spam as opposed to well-written relevant news releases that are only sent to journalists who might actually want them, then please spare the rest of the world and stick to news releases. Trust me. It won't take long before bloggers will be as unforgiving as editors, tossing those e-mails, letters, statements, and pricey media kits into the trash.

In fact, I just received a news release yesterday. It contained "news" about nothing that I write about or have written about, anywhere, for any magazine or blog. It was poorly written, typos and all. It wasn't even news, really, by any definition. It was spam, pure and simple. Well, it gave spam a bad name. You get the point.

All this leads me back to Murphy's second definition for "kicking dead dogs," which is: why people talk about the same thing over and over and over again. That's easy.

It takes 80 impressions before readers remember good information and another 640 impressions to erase any bad bits of information they read 80 times. Great stuff, by the way, Murphy. Enjoyed your new digs, grumpy and all.

Tuesday, January 30

Fighting On New Fronts: iPhone


When two companies decide to wage a trademark battle, interesting things always happen. People choose sides. Smaller skirmishes ensue. Loose alliances are forged between unlikely players.

USA Today reports Verizon, probably because Cingular got the Apple iPhone deal, tossed in its hat with Jim Gerace, vice president of corporate communications, saying, in one breath, “We have nothing bad to say about the Apple iPhone. We just couldn’t reach a deal that was mutually beneficial.”

In Gerace's next breath, he says the demands were “steep,” including revenue share from service fees, distribution rights and much more. “They would have been stepping in between us and our customers to the point where we would have almost had to take a back seat … on hardware and service support,” he said.

Gee, so much for not having anything bad to say. His message was almost written by Cisco, which also claims the biggest stumbling block between the Cisco/Apple trademark negotiation was about sharing technology. Ho hum, you don't have to be a Fortune 500 executive to know that Apple does not like to be open about its innovations.

Some people don't like that, but whatever. Frankly, if it did share everything, I'm not so sure that there would be an Apple around to shake up the market like it does. So, I don't blame them. (Besides, they tried sharing once, if you recall, and it failed miserably).

Although Cisco has since backtracked on that idea that all this was about wanting Apple technology, it was part of the equation. Moneyweb published an early quote from Mark Chandler, Cisco's general counsel, saying "Fundamentally we wanted an open approach. We hoped our products could interoperate in the future."

Was that the deal breaker? If so, then Cisco knew the deal was going to fail all along because I really don't believe such a media relations savvy company would be so naive that it would think Apple is going to jump to interoperate with Cisco. For the reason I already stated above, it would be "silly."

Even sillier is the misnomer being floated by some analysts (those applying for Cisco fan status, I imagine) is that Apple is doing all this for the publicity. Yeah, right.

Apple has never been a company to think that all publicity is good publicity. Given that the iPhone launch was one of the most anticipated tech announcements of the decade, I hardly think Apple needed a Cisco lawsuit to jazz things up.

But, of course, that didn't stop someone at ThinkEquity Partners LLC from dreaming up this non-reality: "As this trademark infringement case escalates, we are taking the stance that 'any publicity is good publicity.'" Oh well, it's an easy way to get your name in the paper, I suppose. File under not thinking in New York.

You see, Apple and Cisco have always understood that there is a fundamental difference public relations and publicity. Neither have been big on employing the latter because it carries more risk and is generally reserved for companies without name ID or brand value.

In fact, the resulting lawsuit has drawn attention to some subjects neither company wanted to talk about: Cisco's recent violation of an open source license (which it has since thanked everyone for, er, pointing out the oversight) and Apple's iPhone mark up (which prompted some sideline banter that Apple has yet to set a final price). Darn publicity. You cannot control it. I doubt either wants it.

Specifically, the license violation made Cisco look not so good about sharing, which was the case it wants to make about Apple. And the profit margin of an iPhone made Apple look a little less "taken advantage of" by Cisco hoping to cash in on the trademark.

Hmmmm. I think Technewsworld called it right like I did when they said this one has "the potential to turn very ugly." Why any company, Verizon included, would want to comment on this is beyond my comprehension.

The bottom line is that Cisco kind of holds the higher ground, but I'm unconvinced it can keep it, especially as other companies come forward to challenge Cisco's hold on the trademark (which benefits one of Apple's arguments that the the term iPhone should be shared because other companies have been using it for years). Besides, as I said before, the public seems to want Apple to have the name.

So what is this really about? More and more, it looks to me as if this is nothing more than a high stakes game of "you're not playing fair so I'm going to sue you, nana nana boo boo." And in this game, there will be no winners, but a whole lot of losers.

But then again, it might seem obvious to me to because as a journalist student in the 1980's, I learned everything I needed to know about law (as a non-attorney) while writing my very first article for The Sagebrush. To the ire of the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), I asked what some consider my very first "dangerous" question: "Could UNR find itself caught in a liability suit for injuries related to adminstration-approved events run by private organizations such as fraternities?"

I found my answer by calling every attorney in Reno until one of them gave me the answer. His answer was "yes" (to the chagrin of the UNR). Simply put, however, he also told me, novice that I was in the ways of business at the time, that anybody could sue anybody for anything. He then went on to explain that he could, in that instance, build a strong case against either side.

"Whether or not the plaintiff would win the case would be up to the courts to decide," he said.

This was also my first real lesson in the power of reporting and the importance of public relations. The lesson learned for public relations came from how easy it was to ask questions from the coordinator of campus standards and receive answers that lent well to the story, but did not lend well for her.

My intent was not to harm her (we were friends for heaven's sake). But as I said, I was pretty naive at the time. The fact is, the damage done to her by what was a "good story" became one of the reasons I leaned toward corporate communication and public relations as opposed to reporting. These people needed help, I concluded.

Of course, that's not to say I'm afraid to call a duck a duck either. And the iPhone lawsuit is exactly that. It's a duck. Or, more appropriately, if you are a company thinking of taking sides, you better duck. The publicity is not worth it.

Monday, January 29

Spinning The Spin: Spin Thicket

What's not to love about Spin Thicket? They do what I sometimes do here, but with much fewer words — usually about one sentence to highlight the most memorable public relations mistakes of the day and then a link to the point of origin. Not surprisingly, there are always an abundance of mistakes to pick from.

More than 20 (and counting) are highlighted today (and every day): everything and anything from Donald Trump and Paris Hilton to Domino's Pizza and YouTube. If you are smart (or at least have common sense), you'll always strive to be the comment cited and never the subject. People who think they know spin — celebrities and politicians — appear often. But more and more companies, it seems, want to give those who think they know a run for the money.

In sum, Spin Thicket is one of several great places to go when you want to see "what not to do." They're often spot on when it comes to what's wrong with spin when all there is spin and no substance. Is all publicity good publicity? Hardly.

Selling Sausage: Marc Gobe

Marc Gobe likes to be called a “conceptual provocateur,” which he defines as "a mind that never rests, that never stops seeking ways to look at things from a new and totally different point of view." He has a lot of interesting ideas that come from his stream-of-consciousness approach, but the one I read in Communication Arts, yesterday, is baloney.

That is what happens sometimes: instead of finding stream-of-consciousness inspiration, we end up selling baloney.

Gobe writes that the designer is the mirror image of the consumer, calling it a revolutionary idea, but mostly, it seems, it's revolutionary because he claims it is his idea. He says that designers are the consumers, understand visual communication better than anyone, and basically, if the researchers would step out of the way, then designers could reach down deep and pull out innovation to jazz up those brands. (Not surprisingly, his design firm, he says, fully endorses this approach. Eh hem, it would be a shocker if it did not.)

Sure, everybody in the industry "feels" this way from time to time: free the creatives from the shackles of research, give them unlimited access to the consumer, and add more weight their opinion, because, after all, they are consumers too. But just because we "feel" this way, doesn't make it so.

Case in point. How many professional organization meetings have we attended when one person floats an event idea, a bad one, but inevitability, someone else on the board says "Ooooo, that's a good idea ... I would go to that" despite the fact that it flies in the face of everything the organization knows to be true from its own member research. The logic: board members are members too. When the event flops, everybody stands around scratching their heads wondering what happened.

What happened? Simple. They fell into the trap that board members are the mirror image of members, despite the fact that there are fundamental differences between them. Board members and members are different audiences because one is engaged while the other is optionally engaged. In business, we often remind clients that no one is more interested in their product than they are. In other words, once you're engaged, you're automatically different than the target audience.

The same holds true for designers and other commercial creatives. Sure, some will find brilliance by becoming emotionally engaged by their own perspective and ego similar to artists like Paul Guanguin. But like all great philosophical approaches to art, design, and even business, there is another direction that's given less attention but has a superior effect. Staying with artists as the analogy, it would be the path taken by Michelango.

Michelango understood that if you destroy the ego and view the world as a third-party observer, looking not for that not-so-elusive emotional jazz, but for the truth, inspiration will flow through unencumbered and touch a greater audience. Right. Take yourself out of the equation and you'll end up with better design. Likewise, you'll end up with better communication that achieves the only real result: changing behavior.

Besides, when designers are given the shot to be the consumer, something else happens. Not all, but most fail. For evidence, look at the abundance of overproduced Flash-heavy agency and design Websites out there and you'll see what I mean. Their self-promotional work has more consumer appeal to their competitors than it does to the businesses they hope to win over.

Denis Du Bois with P5 Group Inc. in Seattle made the case nicely. He didn't have an article in Communication Arts like Gobe did, but he did send in a letter critiquing that designers are becoming too addicted to Flash. While I'm not a fan of the P5 Group Inc. Web site (that's okay, I'm not a fan of mine yet either), I am a fan of this thinking: "When our only tool is a hammer (Flash), every problem looks like a nail." Now only if he would concede that budget has nothing to do with whether or not you can make great communication, we might be friends.

Anyway, here, I'll give Du Bois what he asked for that Communication Arts didn't deliver and also illustrate my argument against Gobe's notion that all designers should be counted as the ultimate consumers (nor do all of them have intuitive superiority). ScuderiaO2 produces an simple, probably cost-effective design Web site that seems to appeal much better to its business target audience than most agnecies without any Flash whatsoever. Smart.

In conclusion, let me clarify a few things so there is no confusion: Flash is cool and works for a lot of products and companies (just not all products and all companies); Gobe has floated some great ideas before (but he's not as innovative as he thinks by feeding designer egos this time around); and Du Bois seems like a nice guy with some smart ideas (though I hope he abandons the "it's all about the budget" excuse). And ScuderiaO2, well, I'm still learning about them ... there seems to be a lot to be liked ... they seem like the kind of folks we would like to work with. But then again, we like everybody. Grin.

Friday, January 26

Moving Beyond Bad News: Jobster

If Jason Goldberg, CEO of Jobster, is wondering why HouseValues didn’t have to endure a blog swarm over layoffs while Jobster remains the poster child for inappropriate blog posts (made about a month ago), the difference can be found in their approach to crisis communication, inside and out.

Ian Morris did it 89 percent right. Goldberg did it 99 percent wrong.

As a result, from a communication perspective and not necessarily a product review, HouseValues is in a much better position to move beyond its recent bad news than Jobster. The difference is clear.

Whereas the Lukaszewski Group Inc. might call it mismanaging the victim dimension (the treatment of the victims will maintain or destroy trust) and I might call it demonstrating a lack of empathy for those who were impacted, the outcome is the same.

If you do it right, the public is satisfied and their interest wanes. If you do it right, your company might even find protection from having the issue resurface a month, a year, or ten years later.

In politics, it’s called inoculation: a clearly defined explanation of what happened, what was learned, and what was done to rectify the situation. With a good candidate, bad news can even be reframed as good news, all assuming they handled the bad news properly and actually learned something from the mistake.

Companies can move beyond bad news too, assuming the same. While this only touches on the surface, there are a few questions you can ask to guide yourself away from reliving the same bad story over and over again.

Did you acknowledge something went wrong? At Jobster, Goldberg never really apologized for his blog posts regarding the layoffs, which he still muses over today, even referencing that he blogs about what is on his iPod.

Did you apologize? At Jobster, Goldberg didn’t apologize for the posts that caused his former employees to wait on pins and needles through the holidays.

Do you offer explanation? While others have speculated on Goldberg’s behalf — that he was torn between keeping the layoffs under wraps and letting his employees know — he never really said.

What did you learn? It’s difficult to say whether Goldberg learned anything based upon his questions about blogging after the situation unfolded. Contrary, it seems he missed that the situation had little to do with CEO blogging and much to do about hinting at but denying layoff rumors.

Have you satisfied the public interest? If you want to move beyond bad news, you have to commit to regularly reporting additional information until no public interest remains. This includes all positive steps being taken to address the situation and any remedy for the victims. To his credit, Goldberg has done some of this by profiling former Jobster employees.

Did you verbalize empathy, sympathy or even embarrassment? There seems to be no time for that at Jobster, given that Goldberg and some crew have been too busy playing with the office’s new camcorder.

Did you seek outside consult? While Goldberg did ask people to hire his former employees, he remains dead set against turning to his public relations professionals for counsel, likening it to being “handled.”

Did you offer restitution? There seems to be little evidence that Goldberg has gone beyond community and victim expectations in order to remediate the problems.

Of the eight, Goldberg seems to have done one and a half, which was further overshadowed by bouts of arrogance, unpreparedness, and ignorance.

For example, as if he read a line right out of what not to do, Goldberg at one point asked (paraphrased, as this is actually a line from a Lukaszewski example): "Why are the bloggers interested in this anyway? It's nobody's business, but ours. They'll just get the story all mixed up; they simply can't get it right. We certainly can't let our employees talk about this!" One of Goldberg's actual posts is here.

In complete contrast, Morris at HouseValues sent a memo that details to employees (first) everything that will be done, why it will be done, and what measures are being taken to ensure the solvency of the company going forward. There is a certain amount of empathy and regret.

While it seems to me that the release that followed placed too much emphasis on the addition and promise of Barry Allen as chief financial officer and executive vice president of operations, among others, in order to bury the bad news of cutting its workforce by about 12 percent, its overall communication as summed by John Cook of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer — the internal memo, quotes to journalists, etc. — are just enough on par to avoid the ire of the public.

Case in point: "Today is a truly difficult day. And the departure of friends and colleagues is very painful for all of us," Morris said in the memo. "But the decisions we have made -- to focus 100 percent of our energies on the success of our real estate agent customers -- are the right ones and they will enable us to profitably grow HouseValues in the future."

All this seems to indicate, in my opinion, that HouseValues is in a better communication position to avoid reoccurring stories about layoffs. Jobster, on the other hand, continues to demonstrate a communication strategy that will be written about over and over again as how "not to do it." It will very likely be immortalized and will certainly resurface every time Jobster has even marginal news (let alone bad news) again.

Worse, despite hoping they could get over it, it is quite possibly too late for Jobster to regain any semblance of being credible with its communication. While the company may succeed, it will always have this dark piece of history lurking over its head.

Thursday, January 25

Adding Financial Experience: Copywrite, Ink.


From investment plans and ATM cards to banking services and mortgage products, our work in the financial industry has produced some remarkable returns for dozens of companies. In addition to our communication experience in this industry, one of our lead executives has an additional 10 years' experience in banking management for Bank of Boston.

You can download our financial work overview by visiting Copywrite, Ink.

For experience in other industries beyond those highlighted in our pdf portfolio pages, review our account experience lists. Our next scheduled pdf portfolio overview will feature our work in the entertainment industry.

Wednesday, January 24

Pitching Public Relations: Monster

Jim Durbin was a recruiting blogger back when he was an account manager for staffing firms, but he says in his profile that the crazy success of blogging led him to start his own blog consulting company Durbin Media. Indeed, Durbin has about a dozen or so clients and the blogs look pretty darn good.

At Recruiting.com, he recently wrote a pointed post called How Many PR folks at Monster Does It Take To Send An E-mail? It's a spot on lesson for public relations professionals sporting a second job title, something like "spam e-mailer."

Instead of writing about Monster's contest, Durbin shares the pitch letter. If you want to read the whole letter, he published it in his post.

I won't post it here, but I will focus in a few highlights: there was no greeting, which is indicative of a spam e-mail (Monster should know better ... I mean, gee, at least buy a program that fills in the names); it's a social media release pitch that screams: try our game and write about it (they say let us know what you think, but they don't care unless he writes about it); and it closes with "public relations account executive," which is a sure bet as to the intent of the e-mail to begin with. It was a poorly written PR pitch.

Durbin did exactly what Monster wanted him to do, but not the way it wanted him to. He wrote a post on a well-read blog in the recruiting industry, chastising the e-mail. His response starts: "There are so many things wrong with this e-mail that I feel the need to correct you." Good for him.

You see, right now, public relations professionals are making a long overdue push into the world of social media and most of them are going to fail miserably if they do things to bloggers like they do with traditional journalists — send news releases and pitches that are impersonal, impractical, and irrelevant to what the blogger is writing about.

As editor of a concierge and hospitality trade publication a few years ago, I saw (and still see despite selling the publication years ago) mountains of poorly crafted public relations pitches that are supposed to attract my attention. My response (assuming I just didn't file the release or pitch letter in the trash) was pretty similar: if you have not read the publication, which is obvious based on the pitch you're sending me, why on earth do you think I'd publish it other than to let people know why I didn't want to publish it ... or, in other words, before you blast e-mails and faxes (which was the rage back then), you should really consider reading the publication or connecting with some concierges to build a relationship.

Sound familiar? It should. Durbin writes: "Before you blast off e-mails to bloggers, you should really consider joining the community, contacting them, or building a relationship."

Durbin might not know how some public relations professionals answer, but I do. Those who practice "spam pitching" profess that they are "too busy to read everybody's publication (or blog) and certainly too busy to cultivate a relationship."

Yeah, right. And every editor or writer on the planet isn't busy. Nope. They just sit in front of their faxes, phones, and computers waiting for someone send them a pitch that has nothing to do with what they write about ... so they can spend an hour or two figuring out a way to write about your client.

The most common response to this revelation? "Do you mean I should take them to lunch and then pitch them?"

Oh, you mean bribe them with food? Yeah, that will help. It will help you lose even more credibility.

Sure, there are some strategic uses for pitching a story under some circumstances, but most pitches are nothing more than a novice public relations professional unable to find a real story about their client. So, they call or e-mail with the hope that the writer just might.

If you're a blogger, get used to it because it's going to get worse before it gets better. As public relations professionals set their sights on social media, expect mountains of pitches to come your way. Nothing will change it. I've been telling public relations professionals not to spam pitch for years and they just don't believe me, until fine people like Jim Durbin teach them the hard way. Of course, even then, they still don't get it.

Tuesday, January 23

Turning A Corner: SCO

If you ever wondered whether there is a point of no return — a time when you lose control of your message forever — SCO might provide the answer. The company's primary message has been so public and so narrow for so long, it's difficult for anyone to see past it.

Sure, CEO Darl McBride wants people to look at SCO's new product releases — UnixWare and OpenServer, and the fledgling Me Inc. suite of mobile messaging applications. I don't blame him, but it's too little too late because everyone else wants to talk about what SCO wanted to talk about in 2003: its ongoing (and failing) lawsuits with IBM and Novell. Some journalists, like Bob Mims of The Salt Lake Tribune, even define the company this way: "SCO, best known for its ongoing US $5 billion federal lawsuit alleging that IBM leaked proprietary Unix code into Linux..."

From a communication standpoint, this illustrates why, sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for. In 2003, McBride wanted the world to know that "SCO is in the enviable position of owning the UNIX operating system." But that was the year that SCO had so much news, it issued about 90 news releases and its "News About The SCO Group" page had at least that many entries. By comparison, in 2006, it issued about 30 new releases, but only a paltry five stories are included in the "News About The SCO Group" section, probably because all the rest are unfavorable and about the lawsuits.

Over at LWN.net, for example, the editor summed up a recent SCO conference call as: The answer is somewhat unsurprising: more of the same, with the main point being that SCO claims to own the Unix copyrights and believes that Novell is "trying to curry favor with the Linux community" by pressing its claims. SCO believes it will prevail on this point.

No, it isn't surprising, primarily because SCO has wrapped itself up so tightly in lawsuit communication, its executive team can no longer help themselves. You see, the conference call began with a statement that they would not talk about the lawsuit. But, of course, that was exactly what it was primarily about, with exception to some details about declining revenues and workforce reductions, which everyone except SCO seems to think is linked to, well, you guessed it, the lawsuit.

Which brings me back to the idea of reaching the point of no return. If SCO loses the lawsuit, assuming it can continue to operate with ever-diminishing returns, it seems to me it will be sunk. If, on the other hand, prevailing opinion is wrong, and somehow it wins the lawsuit, then it will forever be linked to winning a lawsuit no one seems to want it to win.

Ho hum. Sometimes when you win, you lose anyway. And that, to me, is the point of no return. You can have your day in court, but it's a short day when winning costs everything else. Addictions are like that.

Monday, January 22

Making The Times: Jobster

There are many reasons for a CEO to be excited when his or her company makes the pages of The New York Times. Unfortunately for Jason Goldberg, it was for all the wrong reasons.

Just when Goldberg probably thought that all the flack about posting was over, Damon Darlin of The New York Times decides to rehash the 20-some day old news. The article is titled "A Boss Takes to His Blog to Deny, Then Confirm," which pinpoints the original problem for those few who still don't get it. No, it wasn't that he had a blog or writes about foodie sites. It wasn't about whether his "handlers" check his posts or that sometimes he considers capital letters optional. It was all about hinting at the inevitable when it was clearly the wrong thing to do.

The reason I say this is unfortunate is because a lot of people in the recruiting industry seemed excited about Jobster's new features. Forty-one people voted for his write-up covering the Jobster's new features at Recruiting.com. I was one of them, mostly because I've been covering Jobster for a few weeks now and secretly hope, er, not-so-secretly hope, that it can patch up the hull of its ship and sail on to better things.

But unfortunately, it seems some journalists have different ideas, preferring instead to make Goldberg the poster CEO for inappropriate posts in contrast to Jonathan I. Schwartz at Sun Microsystems. Darlin even cited Goldberg's own words as to why this has come up once again: "It’s the nature of Web 2.0 and new media that if you don’t embrace openness, it will come back and bite you.”

Ouch. Shakespeare could not have written a better foreshadow.

As Jobster remains a living case study, I'll post some notes on "moving beyond bad news" when you actually have some good news ahead (this Friday). I mean, Exxon got over it. And while the handling of Jobster's layoffs were deplorable, they were nowhere near as bad as Valdez. Unless you were laid off, I suppose.

Personally, I'm starting to think Goldberg should take his own advice and hire a public relations professional from his job bank. It seems to me they need someone on the inside who really knows this stuff, inside and out.

Not everybody needs someone inside. For many, a consultant or outside firm is perfect. For Jobster, a company that relies so heavily on daily blog posts as a preferred method of communication, inside could very well be a "must have." Besides, his current public relations team couldn't even get The New York Times to write up something nice in between Darlin's post show commentary. Post show? Right, we're saving that one for after the Superbowl.

Breaking All The Rules: AdAge

As the 20th century was coming to a close, Advertising Age (AdAge) launched a major chronicle, the history of the era's advertising industry. It's a remarkable piece of work that can be seen online and contains the top 100 ad campaigns and people, along with the top 10 jingles, slogans, and icons.

I have shared segments of it in my public relations class for several years, under the auspices that public relations needs to work hand-in-hand with advertising (or vice versa if you prefer). The other reason I share it is simple. I like to show public relations professionals what they miss out on because for all the "rules" they have to follow, the best in advertising does not.

No, I am not talking about "rules" like whether or not there needs to be a call to action (although, I suppose, maybe there doesn't need to be). I'm talking about rules like those parodied in a Communication Arts classic article "Nine Ways To Improve A Volkswagen Ad," which, not coincidentally, targets the very ad that AdAge calls the best in history.

Here's an example: rule Number One from the classic parody touts the idea that we must always "think positive" in advertising. Applying this rule to the Volkswagen ad is easy enough: instead of the headline "Think Small," the headline should be "Think Big." And so on goes the list of rules, until one of the best campaigns in advertising history is nothing more than a shell of its former glory because it ends up looking like everyone else. In a previous post I link to the 2006 version of the Volkswagen parody, which uses Apple and Microsoft. The idea is the same.

I guess it's for this reason, my background in advertising, I also prefer the term "process" to "formula" with the distinction being that one guides you through strategic thinking (like a core message) while the other is nothing but a bunch of rules. The net result is that my favorite answer to most broad communication questions is "it depends." Because it really does depend.

For me, everything becomes more clear when it is applied to a single case study, because the answers are frequently different in one case study than another. Blogs, for example, are much like that. Lots of people are trying to invent formulas as to what makes the best blogs better than average blogs. The answer is actually pretty simple: the best blogs have a strategy. Everything else, whether it's online chat or cluster maps or anonymous comments, depends entirely on each specific blog.

If you don't believe me, perhaps you'll believe Bill Bernbach (1911-1982). Bernbach never read a blog, but there's a reason he emerged as No. 1 on AdAge's 20th century honor roll of advertising's most influential people. "Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula," he said.

That's good enough for me. But just in case it's not good enough for you, take a look at all 100 campaigns featured by AdAge. They all have one thing in common. They all broke whatever rules were being enforced at the time. The same holds true for businesses in general, I suppose. The biggest success stories always seem to be innovate ideas no one else is doing.

Counting Web Pages: Tootsie Rolls

We were (are) playing with the idea of robust site for Copywrite, Ink., but then we started asking ourselves a few crazy questions like “how many clicks does it take to get to the center of a ...?"

Fortunately for me, Tootsie Roll Industries has a story board featuring the classic Tootsie Fable "How Many Licks" commercial. And that's where I found the answer.

Of course, for everyone else — how many pages does it take to make a Website — it depends on the company. But for us, for now at least, we defer to Mr. Owl.

Friday, January 19

Lacking A Message: SCO


As an investor, you might think twice about a tech company that seems to spend more on legal counsel than on research and development. In the communication world, we might wonder too, when the only news to offset the company’s continued losses is an audio postcard for mobile phones.

I’m not saying an audio postcard isn’t interesting (though I don’t think I’m in the target audience), it’s just not enough to offset what amounts to a net deficit in good news vs. bad news. (I sincerely hope they get something else off the drawing board).

You see, while I don’t enjoy reading about companies in trouble, there seems to be growing cause for coverage from Slashdot and Groklaw that suggests SCO is in deep trouble, with the company saying very little to correct the idea. (Although there is one denial, reported by CNET reporter Graeme Wearden.)

What is odd about SCO's lack of a message is that it has a history of correcting people, an entire page of its Website is dedicated to “recent” media corrections (most pertain to events in 2004). The page makes me wonder about the public relations logic in making media corrections a permanent part of their communication strategy, doubly so because they called it “recent,” as if to allude that more corrections were expected.

Sure, some might give the company kudos for correcting flawed reporting, and in some cases, I might be one of them. However, if erroneous reporting seems to be the rule as opposed to the exception, it’s time to start asking if "you" might be part of the problem.

When assessing what the media says about you or your client, here are a few questions to ask: 1. What did I say (or not say) that might have contributed to the inaccuracy? 2. Was the story fair, given the context and depth of the story, allowing for opinions from both sides? 3. Did the media give the story appropriate time and space and, if not, why was I unable to make my case that certain points were critical to the story?

These are just a few from a longer list, but suffice to say that when the media gets it wrong, spokespeople and public relations professionals have to accept some of the responsibility. Why? Because the truth is that most spokespeople are unprepared for interviews and few have any objectives outlined before they take the call. In fact, almost no one tries to correct what they said immediately after an interview (probably because they don't remember what they said anyway).

That's too bad because if you do listen to what you are saying, there might be time to follow up. You never know when a quick post interview e-mail to a reporter might be readily welcomed. Most reporters just want to get the story right.

While I am not sure that a few bad interviews started the communication problems at SCO, it does seem safe to say that there is an abundance of miscommunication surrounding the company and that miscommunication has irreparably damaged its brand.

Thursday, January 18

Killing Press Releases: Ragan

Lawrence Ragan Communications, Inc. (Ragan) is considered by many to be the leading publisher of corporate communications, public relations, and leadership development newsletters. Today, it began promoting a new webinar, teasing with journalist Tom Foremski's famous 2006 blog post: "The press release is dead."

Is the press release dead? Not dead, perhaps, but wounded. Certainly social media has caused public relations professionals to reevaluate many long-standard practices, including the press release (though I prefer the term "news release").

Going further, public relations professionals have been busy developing a new standard, which Ragan and some others call the "social media release." According to their webinar description, this standard takes into consideration blogs, RSS technology, and the emerging breed of citizen journalists.

Personally, it seems to me that what we're seeing in communication is a random mutation in one species, but that is not to say that other species are extinct. Right now, news releases, "social media" releases, and corporate blog entries can all be employed strategically for different purposes. A quick example: a company can send out a new release to traditional outlets, include a variation to select bloggers, and then augment the information with personal comment by executives or other team members on their respective or shared blogs. (Or sometimes, maybe some "news" or semi-interesting tidbit is not fit for traditional media, but is certainly suitable for a blog. The other way around works too.)

Looking back over some recent commentary, maybe that was part of the answer in the recruiting world: perhaps Jobster's initial communication to address media speculation was more fitting for a news release and TalentZoo's "jab Jobster" news release more fitting for a blog entry.

Or, if you prefer, using Cisco and Apple as an example, as they seem to be right in step with this thinking: Apple sends out a release on the iPhone; Cisco sends out a release about its lawsuit. Then, Cisco augments its argument on its blog and Apple addresses the lawsuit with analysts, which is then filtered to social media outlets.

Regardless, there seems to be no argument that corporate communication and public relations is changing. The only question now is what to do about it. It will be interesting to see what comes out of the Ragan webinar.

In the interim, I'll be telling some professionals tonight that it is not enough to be a "public relations" practitioner. Nowadays, you have to think like a journalist, act like a business strategist, and write with the passion of a creative writer. And, given social media today, appeal to the casual reader who just happens to visit from time to time.

Wednesday, January 17

Ratcheting Up The Language: iPhone

If you think corporate image and brand positioning should be consistent, then no one can accuse Cisco and Apple of not knowing who they are in their public battle over the "iPhone" trademark. The language their executives use in discussing the iPhone trademark dispute tells a story behind the story.

"We've been following our iPhone trademark issue in the blogosphere closely and it's been interesting to see the commentary from some posters suggesting that somehow Cisco either in the US or Europe didn't meet the requirements to maintain the iPhone trademark. Our response is pretty simple: We have met all elements required by all authorities to maintain our mark. We've been pretty direct about the fact that we've been shipping the iPhone since last spring." — John Earnhardt, Cisco, on their blog.

"It's silly." — Tim Cook, Apple, about Cisco's lawsuit during a conference call with analysts today. He also noted how several companies use the same iPhone name for their Internet-based phones.

Asking Strategic Questions: Maister


David Maister recently posed a great question over at Passion, People and Principles: what does a company need most? And then he lists: mission, vision, values, direction, culture, rules and obligations, or purpose.

Since I have two answers and needed additional space beyond the confines of a comment box, I thought I would reintroduce the question here.

Although I’ve worked with dozens of start-ups and venture capital companies, one of the better models I’ve seen was not presented by a client. It was presented by L. Robert Kimball & Associates, an architectural and engineering company, who lent it to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) a few years ago. The graphic on this page provides the basic concept, but I’ve adapted some terms to better suit my needs.

Anyway, NENA gave me this strategic plan model because I was about to conduct what I call a “core message system” session for the association, and several board members were unclear where a “core message system” might fit within the scope of a strategic plan.

So where does it go? I explained that it fits comfortably in one of two places: a core message system can be implemented as part of a communication plan at the strategic level (strategy). Or, it can positioned to precede values, making it the "foundation for the foundation." But the decision, where it fits best, is largely based upon where the executive team wants to implement it.

The difference between either location, in terms of outcome, is the potential benefit to the organization. Some companies prefer to limit the “core message system” to their communication plan while others want it to infuse into other aspects of their company or organization, ranging from hiring practices to product and service innovation.

After considering this, the board members commented that it seemed more fitting to call the process a “core values session.” With so many business terms being bandied about today, I agreed. For you, I said, it’s core values.

In all honesty, I probably would call it “core values” all the time if not for the simple fact that most business executives balk at the idea that some guy wants to monkey around with their core values. (It’s hard enough to add “strategic” to their “communication.”)

But then again, I never put too much weight on semantics. Instead, I listen to each company’s language and adapt. From what I’ve seen in the field, the difference between a purpose, mission, and vision is all in the eyes of the audience, which brings me back to Maister’s question.

Technically, you can’t choose just one because they are all interconnected. However, if I was going to force an answer, I would lean toward core values.

The only problem in doing so is that we fall into a trap of which comes first: the chicken or the egg?

More to the point, does our culture influence our values or do our values influence our culture? But what about our mission? Mission? Isn’t that dated? Everybody is using “purpose” nowadays. Dated? You mean like stone-washed jeans? I thought we were talking about business? You know, where are going? Ah, vision?

What a mess! I think this is precisely why I fell in love with what I call the core message (but you can call it something else if you like).

I have a much better definition, but for this post, let's say: It’s a process that pulls together key stakeholders (usually defined by the CEO), who are already immersed in the existing corporate culture, to reach a consensus about the company as it exists and will exist in the world. From this understanding, it's easier to establish values. And from values, it's easier to define a purpose, mission, and vision (or direction, I suppose).

Of course, this assumes we’re applying the core message as the foundation for the foundation. As I said earlier, you don’t have to. A communication department can limit a core message to communication with equal success.

So my second answer is a core message system, because it considers everything, including the environment in which the company operates and it's competitors. Of course, since few people have heard of it, I didn’t want to make it my first answer. Besides, it wasn't even on the list.

In closing, just to add clarity to the quick graphic I pulled together, think of it in its simplest terms, working up the pyramid: core values (foundation); purpose (why); target (where); strategy (what); tactics (how); timing (when); and accountability (who). Or, since this is about strategy as opposed to semantics, plug in your terms and see if it fits.

Tuesday, January 16

Courting Brand Value: iPhone


Some writers shy away from attorneys, but I never have. They almost always lend an interesting perspective on communication. Sure, there are a few who get carried away with calling themselves “wordsmiths,” but the one who left a comment on my last Apple vs. Cisco post is not one of them.

If you missed it, Rick suggested the real question will be whether the term iPhone will be considered a trademark or generic term for a type of telephone.

“This question ultimately turns on the understandings of the relevant consumer market,” he wrote, “So I expect Apple and Cisco to introduce consumer surveys in addition to evidence from dictionary and media sources and references to the status of other ‘i-noun’ terms.”

If that is the case, it seems to me that Apple’s apparent dominance over “i” anything may carry the day, because the public seems to want the Apple phone to be an iPhone. Likewise, there seems to be public resistance to the Cisco iPhone, even after it was explained that it owned the trademark. Of course, that is a communication observation; a judge could just as easily rule against Apple and that would be that, er, until the appeal.

On the communication front, we ask, to what end? Sometimes you can win a lawsuit but lose consumer appeal.

In attempting to address “what is,” it seems to me that Cisco has two battles on its hands. It wants to win the lawsuit because it acquired the iPhone trademark in 2000 after completing the acquisition of Infogear, which previously owned the mark since 1996. But, I suspect, it also wants to win over public perception that this is the right thing to do.

"Cisco entered into negotiations with Apple in good faith after Apple repeatedly asked permission to use Cisco's iPhone name," said Mark Chandler, senior vice president and general counsel, Cisco. "There is no doubt that Apple's new phone is very exciting, but they should not be using our trademark without our permission.”

Outside the courtroom, it becomes tricky. First, Ed Bernette at ZD Net wrote an interesting article on the case, noting that Cisco may not own the mark as claimed. Second, in order to sway public opinion on this issue, someone is going to ask under what terms was Cisco willing to grant Apple permission to use the name iPhone. And third, if it was in negotiations over the name, why did Cisco suddenly make a push on a complete line of iPhone products?

According to the aforementioned article, it had to push iPhone products: “If Cisco didn't launch a product using the iPhone name, their trademark registration would be canceled and they would have no bargaining chips with Apple. So in order to keep the trademark active, they had to file the Declaration of Use, and start selling a product under that trademark.”

Add to all this a recent blog post from Chandler: “Was it money? No. Was it a royalty on every Apple phone? No. Was it an exchange for Cisco products or services? No.”

While the post shows how seriously Cisco takes public perception, it also focuses more attention on that other unanswered question: what were the terms that prompted Apple to abandon negotiations and launch an “iPhone” without an agreement? Or was it something else, an eureka moment from Apple’s legal team perhaps, that killed the deal?

At the moment, only a few know. What the public knows is that several people have laid claim to iPhone over the years, including a Toronto-based company that has been marketing voice-over-Internet services under the registered trademark iPhone since 2004 and even has a wireless device called iPhone Mobile.

How a 2004 claim could potentially supersede Cisco’s claim, I am not sure (unless the ZD Net article is right). However, based upon the comment contribution referenced earlier, it could potentially assist Apple if Apple is looking to turn the trademark iPhone into a generic term, which it may or may not do.

What we also know is that Apple and Cisco have appealed their cases to the public; Apple by releasing its product as an iPhone and Cisco by publicly stating it expected Apple was onboard with those mysterious terms. How good a case both sides can make to the public will be decided by the public or perhaps by investors, who never like to hear the term lawsuit associated with their investments, especially when risks seem to outweigh the advantages.

Sure, Cisco is right to challenge Apple over a trademark it considers an asset. Apple is also well within its rights to look for some wiggle room on a name that has been associated with its product concept before it even landed on the drawing board. But given that the courtroom is not the only place both companies have made a case, public perception may weigh in more heavily than the letter of the law. That’s not good, bad, or indifferent — that is "what is."

All the while, both companies have to be careful not to damage their respective brands that have far and away more value than the potential brand value of an “iPhone.”

Monday, January 15

Missing Noble Causes: Martin Luther King, Jr.

When 250,000 people peacefully marched on Washington, D.C. in 1963, to whom Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his address, "l Have a Dream,” most knew he was a leader of the American civil rights movement, political activist, and Baptist minister.

Most people also knew the march made specific demands upon government, including: a law prohibiting racial discrimination in employment; protection of civil rights workers from police brutality; a $2 minimum wage for all workers; and self-government for the District of Columbia, then governed by congressional committee. His speech, considered one of the greatest addresses in American history, and the outcome of that march, led to King being becoming the youngest man to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (for his work as a peacemaker, promoting nonviolence and equal treatment for different races) in 1964.

A lot can be learned from King, a man who was more interested in promoting civil rights as opposed to censoring those whose aim was to deprive them of those rights. A lot can be learned from the people who followed him to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, because they understood why they were marching.

Certainly not in every case, today’s activism seems to have changed, and not always for the better. Nowadays, some activists use “we just want to make a point and be heard” as a shield for alternative agendas that their marchers might not understand or agree with.

Addressing “blog swarms” specifically, an activist’s message might be carried forward on thousands of blogs before anyone has gathered the facts. Indeed, the mere volume of posts may make it appear as if the protagonists are telling the truth, even when they are not.

There are many reasons “blog swarms” catch fire, ranging from those who are curious to see why a certain search term has suddenly been driven to the top to those who simply repost an inaccurate recap in order to stack their stat numbers. Even for those who understand a portion of the topic they write about, sometimes the best intentions often bring out the worst behaviors.

Indeed, for these reasons, the phenomenon is probably the most misunderstood and least written about in crisis communication and public relations today. As my class, which usually consists of 15 to 20 students and working public relations professionals, begins this Thursday, it will certainly make for a worthwhile point of conversation in how to apply new and traditional crisis communication strategies to what has possibly become the greatest communicaton threat to businesses today.

Happy birthday, Martin Luther King, Jr. I, for one, miss your message that a true common man could become a civil rights leader, without the benefit of the Internet or anonymity, and move a nation with a noble message that all people, not just some people, could be equal and have a voice.

Saturday, January 13

Missing The Mark: KSFO

If someone ever writes a white paper about why modern media needs strategic communication help from the same “handlers” they used to loathe as the gatekeepers to corporations and public figures, KSFO will certainly be a mention in the lead paragraph. Its message on a 3-hour special broadcast was weak, probably because it didn’t have one.

While I did not listen to the show because it conflicted with a client meeting, I did spend some time reading the various commentaries about it, looking for the relatively few grays in a sea of blacks and whites. Among the best lines anywhere came from Joe Garofoli, staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, who called it right when he summed: “The controversy, fueled by liberal bloggers, showed the increasing power of new media to affect traditional outlets by going after their advertisers.”

Indeed, the landscape has changed and, for better or worse, traditional media has been the slowest to respond. You see, it used to be that the media (both objective reporting and op ed writers/broadcasters) was charged with the responsibility of “setting the agenda” for local, state, regional, and national discussions. Their underlying ethical guidelines were simple (much simpler than public relations professionals) because it was their job to “find the truth and shame the devil.”

Certainly, most good reporters follow ethical guidelines that include objective reporting and not accepting bribes, etc. But good reporters, the best of them, also perceive all ethical guidelines as secondary to "getting at the truth" whereas the worst of them, KSFO included, spend too much time trying to “shame the devil,” a label they seem to apply to basically anyone who does not agree with them. (My apologies to good reporters who might take exception to seeing radio talk show hosts lumped in with them.)

As I said, the landscape has changed and Julian Seery over at Exceler8ion presents some good points for newspapers to consider. More to the point: in today’s world, there seems to be an underlying movement by bloggers to take over the media’s job of “setting the agenda,” with the net result being that any biased reporting and reckless shaming the devil will be ever more scrutinized by a public that has much more power to communicate than a letter to the editor or calling into a talk show.

It seems the old adage “never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the pound” is dead or dying. Today’s social media is only limited by the time it takes to post anything it wants: objective, biased, or completely polarized. With increasing fervor, every day, traditional media is finding that it is being subjected to the same scrutiny it is used to subjecting upon its topics of interest. Given KSFO’s performance on Friday, as well as many other examples out there, it seems to me that the media is not prepared for the job.

From a communication perspective, KSFO chose the wrong messages to make its case. The idea that a critic could not campaign against it was na├»ve, especially because it has campaigned against other people. The argument that its rival is anonymous was ludicrous, given that the media has long protected anonymity when it serves its purpose. And the concept that it can choose “not to address the subject again” is hypocritical, given the media shames people into talking about things they don’t want to talk about every day.

KSFO would have been better served to craft a message that was much more powerful and readily at its disposal.

First and foremost, its people needed to apologize for the threat of the lawsuit, recognizing that their rival does have a right to campaign against their show, although perhaps mentioning it was an attempt to teach someone a lesson between the difference of being a critic and attempting to censor critics (which is what Melanie Morgan herself learned a few years ago).

Second, they could have mentioned that their critic is equally guilty of colorful and hateful language, pointing out that he is sometimes a hypocrite in his argument (it seems as if they never read his blog ).

Third, admit that they have, at times, been radically harsh in their criticism but that must not overshadow Charles Bradlaugh’s warning that it is “Better a thousand abuses of free speech than the denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day, but the denial stays in the life of people.”

Last, but not least, that despite what people say during passionate discussions about their beliefs, we can all agree to disagree on these overly polarized issues. As Australian-born Robert Hughes once wrote years ago: “If they (Americans) are fraying now, it is because politics has, for the last twenty years, weakened and in some areas broken the traditional American genius for consensus, for getting along by making practical compromises to meet real social needs.”

The one line remains as haunting to me as the first time I quoted it in 1994. It haunts me because none of the players in this debate has ever heard it. How could they? They are too busy yelling at each other. And that is something for all members of the media to keep in mind as they make a choice: do you want to get back into the business of “geeting at the truth” or do you want to join the ranks of millions who enjoy yelling about their polarized issues on blogs, vlogs, and broadcasts?

I hope you pick the former, because if the media (print and broadcast) continues to simply join in the shouting matches or host them, then who will be left to find the truth? Obviously, no one in the case of Spocko vs. KSFO.

Friday, January 12

Branding Term Primer: iPhone


According to BusinessWeek, Cisco Systems Inc.'s global brand value tops $17,532 million whereas Apple Inc.'s global brand value is $9,130 million. Both have seen gains in the last year, with Apple moving up almost 14 percent.

With Cisco now suing Apple over use of the name "iPhone," something I intend to dig deeper into on Tuesday, the terminology might get a little muddled, given that people in the communication and advertising industry often use pertinent terms interchangeably without meaning to (myself included). Here's a quick term primer that might help keep it straight:

1. A brand refers to the general impression of a person, place, or company (total global awareness of the brand, along with the net sum of positive and negative impressions).

2. A logo is the design and/or name that represents the brand.

3. A trademark is a logo and/or name that has been registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office or other government trademark offices.

4. A mark is the design element of the logo, apart from the name (eg. the Nike swoosh).

5. An identity is the presentation of company's communication material, which usually includes the logo (eg. an identity package).

This may be helpful in the months ahead as Cisco and Apple spend millions of dollars in a high-stakes legal battle over the "iPhone" trademark. However, if it gets equally ugly outside of the courtroom, the trademark may cause both companies "brand" damage.

Helping Companies Help People: NBCB

There are many bloggers (and companies) who want to change the world, hopefully for the better. Their reasons, motives, and methods are as different as the variety of causes they take up, whether it is within their community, industry, interests, or something else entirely, like tracking the seemingly infinite details in the life of Britney Spears. That's okay too.

My point is that everyone is passionate about something and, with luck, that passion will lead you to answer one of the most important questions you can ask yourself: is my fundamental motivation as a person to be a beneficial presence in the world … in the lives of all those I touch, whether it be at home, at work, in the community, and on the Internet?

It's not a trick question. I am not alluding to any myriad of issues, critiques, politics, religion, and whatnot. Nor am I asking anyone to ask it of someone else. It's a personal question void of all that. With luck, you can answer “I hope so.”

In June 2002, a diverse group of business leaders came together to create Business Strengthening America (BSA), which established a self-directed, multi-year, peer-to-peer effort to engage thousands of America's business leaders in a campaign to encourage civic engagement and service. If you visit the site, you'll see it's largely static, with the freshest content dating back to 2003. What is not static, however, is the idea nor are the hundreds of non-profit endeavors of more than 700 companies and business organizations that joined BSA years ago.

Much more active and up-to-date is USA Freedom Corps, which is an excellent resource for individuals who want to become involved in something. It's endorsed by President George W. Bush, but you don't have to like him to appreciate the larger body of work. In fact, a good part of the concept came from AmeriCorps, which was the one program that President Bill Clinton (it's okay, you don't have to like him either) asked President Bush to keep around. On that, they agreed, even if their parties did not.

Anyway, I know a little about AmeriCorps because I serve as a state commissioner in Nevada. My experience on this commission as well as dozens of other non-pofit organizations and associations is what drives me to maintain another, much less read, blog called the Nevada Business Community Blog. In truth, it's probably less of blog than a newsfeed, highlighting at least one company's charitable action every day (with luck).

The blog doesn't take much effort, really. And, I would strongly support anyone duplicating the idea in their home state: a community web log and news feed for businesses releasing information about their non-profit contributions and volunteer efforts. Why? Well, there really are many ways to change the world and by sharing a daily example of business giving, it might inspire more companies to do so. After all, strategic philanthropy, a concept and practice of business giving has existed in the United States since the early 1950s, has always received a return that exceeds investment. Some companies just don't know that. They also don't know that, if done correctly, strategic philanthropy fits nicely into a strategic communication plan.

Who knows? Perhaps business giving could even inspire some employees (or other interested individuals) to funnel some of their more creative passions into other activities that have a direct, positive, and lasting impact on people, animals, the environment, or whatever else they might think up. I've taken up a few over the years; too many sometimes, I am told. But that's not so bad.

You see, I always hope such efforts (even when I use a living case study in communication as an example on this blog) will eventually lead me to the same answer at the end of the day, a chance to say “I hope so.”

Thursday, January 11

Protecting Free Speech: ABC/Disney

Believe it or not, the public relations arms of KSFO, ABC, and Disney can learn a lot from Jason Goldberg.

Sure, everyone knows that I tossed in my fair share of communication flack about how Jobster handled its crisis communication situation (not enough, it seems, to warrant a hit), but I also believe in giving credit where credit is due. Although Goldberg seemed to create his own “blogswarm,” largely spurred by his own posts, he didn’t hide from it. He talked about it.

KSFO, ABC, and Disney aren't talking. When Online Media Daily asked, Julie Hoover, a spokeswoman for ABC Radio, declined to comment. Brian Sussman, the KSFO radio talk host under fire, told CBS 5 by e-mail that he is not doing any interviews about the broadcasts. As much as I have searched, none of the stations and companies under fire has really said anything.

Public Relations 101 says “no comment” is an admission of guilt, unless you clarify. There are several instances when it is permissible not to comment, the most obvious that could have been used in this instance: legal counsel has advised against communicating on that subject while the matter is before the courts or pending court action. Unfortunately, they missed it, along with the most basic truth that their misguided nemesis preaches censorship above all else.

If you take the time to read his pained posts, you’ll see a consistent story: this guy has tried everything, including government intervention through the FCC, to shut down one talk show host after the next. Failing to impact the higher-rated hosts, he finally found some wiggle room at KSFO.

As much as I think it was wrong for Internet provider 1&1 to cancel his account for reasons already mentioned, it is equally wrong to think that this “offended” blogger represents the spirit of the First Amendment. I suggest he hit the books and study up, starting with Ray Bradbury:

“… minorities, each ripping a page or paragraph from a book, until one day the books were empty and the minds were shut and libraries were closed.” — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

While I might not be an attorney, I do know a few things about the First Amendment and have been directly and indirectly involved in several productive free speech cases over the years, including the amicus brief taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1996, which was one of the first real landmark actions in preserving a poster’s intellectual property rights from Internet providers by defining them as passive carriers as opposed to publishers. It also prompted America Online to provide a free speech area, monitored by the ACLU, that was not subject to the company’s terms of service.

Back then, a few years before the term “blog” first graced the pages of the Internet, I spent ample free time attempting to educate people on merits of free speech, frequently citing one of the best quotes on the subject by Charles Bradlaugh, who warned us: “Better a thousand abuses of free speech than the denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day, but the denial stays in the life of people.”

How true is that. And how sad it is that KSFO, ABC, and Disney have yet to make the case that maybe, just maybe, despite their ill-advised legal letter (note: the threat of legal action and actual legal action are light years apart) from a public relations perspective, KSFO needs some First Amendment protection. How interesting would it be to see the Electronic Frontier Foundation and ACLU face off on the issue? I’m all for that as long as the risk doesn’t wack away another piece of "fair use."

Of course, if KSFO, ABC, and Disney are not inclined to wrap themselves up in the Bill of Rights, then they should drop any legal action all together. Sure, some folks will toast to being triumphant for a day, but will quickly become irrelevant without the lawsuit. Or maybe, you can take a page from the AOL case and host a blog for bashing Sussman. (Once AOL folks had a free speech area, few, if any, posted.)

I suspect this guy is the same. Sure, he has a right to complain about this and that with speech that I find no less hateful than his so-called “right wing prosecutors,” but his agenda is hardly pure with today’s post entitled “Their time is over,” meaning people with a contrary view to his own. Likewise, his personal quote — which once read “I just want a piece of the action,” er, until he noticed that being a public figure for 15 minutes isn’t as easy as being an anonymous blogger — revealed. It was deleted this morning. Go figure.

So is the glass half full or half empty? I suggested ice.

Wednesday, January 10

Learning From Social Media: Spocko

Much has already been written about Spocko vs. ABC/Disney so I almost passed by this page in social media history. But then I scanned the various posts and saw something missing from most of them. With all the backlash aimed at ABC/Disney, the missing link seems to be 1&1, an Internet provider.

Sure, Disney had sent a cease and desist letter to 1&1 about Spocko's Brain, but 1&1 took action, not Disney. And that's not good for anyone, with consequences that reach much further than Disney's misguided attempt to silence a critic. (It's not the first time they've failed at it.)

You see, for a long time now, most Internet providers have been extremely careful to label themselves as distributors, which, simply put, provides them a certain amount of legal protection to avoid getting caught in any content crossfires. It can be likened to the United States Postal Service, which cannot be sued for the magazine that arrives in your mailbox, or your cable company if you prefer.

Of all people, Andreas Gauger, 1&1 chairman of the board, Ralph Dommermuth (now CEO of United Internet, the public parent company of 1&1), and Achim Weiss (now CTO of 1&1) should know this, given that they handle about 5.87 million customers and 7.2 million domain names worldwide (minus 1). Or maybe they don't, given that they are a relatively new player to the United States, crossing over from Europe.

As a provider, the allure of 1&1 is relatively cheap Web hosting services and its big break into the US market by offering three years of service for free in 2004. I guess the old adage "you get what you pay for" is true. Despite a significant net worth and global presence, 1&1 barely blinked before buckling to ABC/Disney, potentially damaging every other Internet provider in the world by making them unnecessarily responsible for content.

Look, I am not saying it was prudent of ABC/Disney to send the letter to begin with, but I also appreciate that companies and public figures do it all the time. They send letters to various publishers and editors, sometimes from their lawyers, saying cease this and desist that and "oogie boogie no advertising dollars for you."

To that end, Spocko and other bloggers could learn a lot from print publishers, who are a bit more familiar with fair use and whatnot. As a blogger, always be prepared to face the reality of blogging: you're a publisher with much less overhead, but not necessarily much less risk.

Any time you critique people, someone is going to try to shut you down. In fact, when you get down to it, that is what Spocko was trying to do in the first place: shut down KSFO's morning talk show because he didn't like what they were saying. In some ways, ABC/Disney just followed suit by shutting Spocko down, temporarily, sort of, not really.

I suppose I might clarify that I'm talking about "what is" and my personal take on the situation is a bit different, but not much. You see, I believe very strongly in the First Amendment and have been an activist on that front more times than I care to talk about.

But as a First Amendment advocate, I think of this mess a bit differently. First and foremost, I don't particularly care for what I heard listening to clips from these so-called "right-wing" talk radio hosts, but then again, I don't begrudge anyone their right to act like idiots as these drive-time hosts obviously do. It's a shame that listeners support the show by driving up the numbers, but I don't pick what people play on their radios.

I also believe very strongly that Spocko had every right to critique the show in the court of public opinion, even by using clips to illustrate the point. And given what Spocko wrote, I think that advertisers had a right to buy or pull their ads based on that, because frankly, most just buy the numbers until someone tells them what they are buying. I don't agree with forcing people to be "PC" — and that is a personal choice.

Anyway, given Spocko was targeting advertisers in an attempt to censor KSFO, I suppose ABC/Disney had every right to try to take action too, even as ill-advised as that action was (because it led to suicide by public relations in what is being labeled "David vs. Goliath" as opposed to "Will the real censor please stand up...").

So that leaves us with 1&1. If 1&1 wants to continue to increase its presence in the United States, it needs to learn not to knuckle under the pressure of a legal letter.

While I am not an attorney and appreciate this is still being sorted out in some sectors, I believe Internet providers in this country owe it to themselves and their customers to be carriers, with each blogger solely responsible for his or her content. Shame on 1&1 for not sticking by what seems to me to be the single most important definition of Internet content in the last decade.

Likewise, kudos for "The Daily Kos," along with YouTube, Blogintegrity, Firedoglake, and others for trying to teach Mr. Gauger that he is not a publisher. His customers are publishers. Let's keep it that way.

As for ABC/Disney, I'm tracking this as a living case study to see how it handles the fallout. That's more telling than a legal letter that worked, temporarily, sort of, maybe.

Then again, at the end of the day, I think ABC/Disney would have been better off limiting any legal letters to only Spocko so Spocko could have it framed and then blogged about it. Better yet, the radio hosts that went crying to their bosses might have used the airwaves to talk about Spocko's plight to make the world PC. Had that happened, this might have remained a regional story instead of potentially impacting us all.

Tuesday, January 9

Branding Agreement Soon: iPhone

On December 19, I posted about a potential brand war over the trademark "iPhone" shortly after Linksys (a division of Cisco Systems, Inc.) launched an "iPhone" family of products.

Reuters reported that Cisco Systems Inc. expects to reach an agreement with Apple Computer Inc. later today on its "iPhone" trademark. They said it shortly after Apple unveiled a phone with the same name.

So why would Cisco reach an agreement with Apple after fending off so many foes from grabbing up the "iPhone" brand? In the December post, I said that Apple would be wise to sit this one out (they did for awhile without comment), letting others fight it out for the right to use a trademark that Apple might not own, but clearly dominates. Today, Steve Jobs showed the world how much it dominates "i" anything by releasing the product before any agreement was signed.

While Apple could have easily called it something else, I am not surprised. Apple is no stranger to the value of a brand nor litigation over brands. In fact, Apple's earliest court action dates to 1978 when Apple Records, The Beatles-founded record label, filed suit against Apple Computer for trademark infringement, a case that has resurfaced several times over the last few decades. You can read more about it at Wikipedia.

It just goes to show you that — right, wrong, or indifferent — owning a trademark and owning a brand are two different things. And today, it's very obvious that Apple knows it too. Clearly, Cisco does too.

Missing News Opportunities: TalentZoo

Yesterday, I called Talent Zoo's "press release" a demonstration in communication ignorance, largely because it failed to meet any measurable objective and partly because it was in poor taste. More than anything, it was a missed opportunity that could have captured a few headlines.

No one really cared, except John Cook gave it a comment-less mention, probably because proximity is one of the many ingredients that journalists use to define news. Really, it would not have been difficult, in an industry that estimates more than 50 percent of corporate recruiters have been laid off or reassigned since November 2000, to do a better job.

There is news here. Plain as day. Based on its release, Talent Zoo is one of a handful of recruiters out there that is hiring people instead of laying them off. It's a nice contrast and makes people wonder "What's up with Talent Zoo?"

Except Talent Zoo did not include this in the release. Their communication contrast was between themselves and Jobster. Okay, so they are hiring a few days after Jobster laid people off. Oh yeah, they obviously have a grudge against Jobster, which seems more memorable than the mention that they are "aggressively" hiring 20 people.

The release gets worse before it gets better. Here are a few gems (ignoring grammar and usage errors):

"Talent Zoo’s growth has come largely due to increased employment needs among marketing, advertising, and public relations companies." Translation: We're lucky to have picked the right niche, um, unlike Jobster, who we don't like.

Personally, I would have placed more emphasis on the fact, according to Talent Zoo, that "both job boards and recruiting firms typically fail to offer the services of the other" while Talent Zoo does. Certainly, there is a better way to write this too.

"'Our strategy has always been to steadily grow our business by filling customer needs with superior products and services,' says Rick Myers, founder and CEO of Talent Zoo.” Translation: We lifted this off a thousand other company news releases because it sounds slick, even if it doesn't mean anything.

"Myers attributes Talent Zoo’s success to maintaining it’s self-funded existence rather than using venture capitalist financing to grow.” Translation: The company communication folks attribute the growth to the industry, but Myers does not. He says the reason for this growth is because, er, they are not like Jobster. On the plus side, only a few folks invested in us.

“Myers adds, 'I’m sorry to hear about the misfortunes of Jobster’s staff. It always frustrates me to learn about hard working people who lose their jobs. Talent Zoo is always interviewing and we are always interested in talking with anyone, whether they are fresh out of school, on the unemployment line, or just looking to join an exciting and growing company.'" Translation: I can hardly contain my glee, and, oh, by the way, feel free to call me if you worked at Jobster, but don't expect to be hired because we talk to a lot of people, anyone, in fact.

In all, of seven paragraphs, not counting the cutline, six can be directly or indirectly attributed to Talent Zoo talking about Jobster. Not too bad for Jobster, considering it didn't pay anything for all this name recognition in a release that "pokes fun at" but doesn't do any real damage. If anything, Talent Zoo lost some credibility points and the few that read the release ran over to Jobster's Website to learn more about its new direction or potential sale to Monster, if you want to entertain rumors.

Imagine how much more effective the release would have been if Talent Zoo would have stuck to its news: We're growing in an industry that BusinessWeek says is poised for consolidation. We must be doing something right. Hmmm... if they did that, then maybe, just maybe, BusinessWeek would have been interviewing Myers instead of Keith Stemple.

Who knows? If the release had been written better and gained some traction, then Myers could have slipped in some of his bloodlust for Jobster in a national magazine, maybe even a few, during some interviews. Then he would have looked as if he was just commenting on current news or citing one example of a hundred he could have chosen. Maybe, if he was really prepared, he could have struck a death blow, driving negative Jobster impressions through the roof on national television.

Ho hum. Instead, Talent Zoo's release is destined to become a mere footnote in the annals of The Seattle Times and maybe a brief conversation point on how not to write a release in my class at UNLV.

In conclusion, even if the primary objective was to smack Jobster around in the media, the release still fails. On this measure, I liken it to throwing punches in an empty ring and without an audience. Worse, Myers gave all the advantage to Jason Goldberg. Goldberg can choose to ignore it or toss in a much harder-hitting punch at his leisure. Either way, Goldberg wins.

I dare say, had it happened differently, Talent Zoo may have gained some recognition, made some money, and the recruiting industry's wrestling fans would have been much more entertained.

Monday, January 8

Feeding The Animals: TalentZoo

If you ever wondered whether communication ignorance is contagious, visit Talent Zoo. There you will find a news release that attempts to one up Jobster, not at being a better company, but by demonstrating its people lack the most basic understanding of public relations and strategic communication, which is ironic given they serve "communications" executives (they mean communication, but let’s not split hairs). The release opens:

“Award winning niche job board and recruiting agency and former Jobster rival, Talent Zoo has announced plans to hire an additional 20 people in the next four to six months. Talent Zoo’s hiring plans announced today are directly contrary of those declared yesterday by venture capital funded Jobster, who announced it was laying off 60 employees, or nearly half its workforce.”

The need for style and usage edits aside, it seems to me that Georgia would expect more from a company led by someone recently named one of Atlanta's 40 Under 40 Most Promising Young Stars by the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Instead, the Jan. 4 press release (which excludes electronic media outlets, since electronic outlets do not have presses) reads as nothing more than one child thumbing its nose at another.

As much as the lead sentence sets up the news release as an opportunity to show a fair contrast between it and the rest of the industry, the second sentence takes it all away, changing the entire thrust of the release into “let’s show everyone how smug, vindictive, and possibly unethical we can be because the lawsuit we filed in 2005 was not enough.”

After searching for results, the only mention of this release (beyond MediaSyndicate, a news release distribution service) was by Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter John Cook, who calls it mostly right in saying that “Talent Zoo Chief Executive Rick Myers tosses a few darts at Jobster” in the release. Cook is kinder than a former editor of the Las Vegas Business Journal, who once lambasted a public relations representative for the local Girls Scouts for trying to capitalize on a court ruling over the Boy Scouts.

Now, it’s pretty obvious that I am no fan of the communication savvy or lack thereof that Jobster demonstrated in the midst of its restructuring, but it’s almost forgivable because I have come to believe that Jason Goldberg honestly didn’t know better (he may have, but it doesn’t seem so). In fact, he has since made a conscious effort to improve in this area. But Myers, founder and CEO of Talent Zoo, who gleefully participates in this release offering quotes like “It always frustrates me to learn about hard working people who lose their jobs,” knows exactly what he did. And in addition to being possibly insincere, he knows it was wrong to do.

If we take my first Jobster analogy, that alludes to the sinking of the Titanic, then this release can be likened to the captain of the Titanic's sister ship, HMHS Britannic, saying “I’m sorry to hear about 1,522 who perished in the accident, but maybe they should have sailed with us.”

If Forbes, which once awarded Talent Zoo with "Best of the Web" for niche job boards, doesn’t write this release up as “Best New Release Blunders,” then I hope The Wall Street Journal picks it up because Myers deserves his 15 minutes of fame on this issue. Luckily, most editors filed the release under "amusing, but trash."

Tomorrow, I'll offer how Talent Zoo could have turned this release into major headlines instead of a forgettable heckle; they didn't have to mention Jobster to do it.

Friday, January 5

Polarizing The Issues

Jonathan Adler's The Volokh Conspiracy recently noted the New York Times article pointing out that there is much more to the climate change than "believers" and "heretics" in the debate about global warming. After presenting what he calls a great step toward the "middle ground," the post spirals away into 90 comments that are largely polarized on this issue once again. It's a shame because polarization is non-communication and it's all too common in the United States.

Regardless of the issue, any time two sides become too firmly entrenched in their views and opinions, screaming that they are right and all dissenters are wrong, any potential action on this becomes paralyzed. And unless things change, the debate is already pointless because nobody is listening anyway.

It's the same same in any group environment, whether individual, political, or commercial. If an argument becomes a battle of wills in the household, community, business, or industry, then the debate is already over. And, once labels are attached to the opposing sides, there is hardly ever any room for the middle ground.

Although what author Andrew Revkin calls a "third stance" emerging that "challenges both poles of the debate" hardly seems like a third view to me (suggesting that since we're unwilling to fix the problem we may as well invest in disaster preparedness), a more tangible third view is unlikely to surface as long as the polar views are willing to drown out new voices. As I said, non-communication.

Perhaps with a hint of sarcasm, I blame Al Gore. He had an opportunity to share facts in “An Inconvenient Truth" and mostly he did, with exception to several moments of political bitterness. One would think, after running for president, he would have learned by now to stay on message. If it was about global warming, then maybe that would be enough.

The American media could use a shot in the arm on this issue and others too. Do we always need two talking heads taking the polar position on each and every view? Sure, I appreciate "controversy" is one of a dozen or so definitions of news, but I dare say the public is becoming addicted to rubbernecking accident scenes. Based on blog searches alone, controversies seem to rule the day.

Meanwhile, as we play polarization in the United States, the British government announced a 100 million pound fund to help the National Health Service in the battle to beat the global warming crisis. The fund is intended to help hospitals and other health sector buildings cut carbon dioxide emissions, increase energy efficiency and reduce energy consumption.

"Whilst there is much more we need to understand - both in science and economics - we know enough now to be clear about the magnitude of the risks, the time-scale for action and how to act effectively," Sir Nicholas said, who recently released a review that global warming could shrink the global economy by 20 percent.

It's a global review that is gaining traction elsewhere in the world, even if it is not so in the United States. The only reason it is over there and not here, in my opinion, is because the the British, although they too disagree, seem less addicted to polarization to such a degree that politicians will actually switch positions on an issue once they learn it is embraced by an opponent or opposite party. Sure, contrast messages work in politics, but not so much when they are fabricated for the sake of contrast.

From a communication observation that can be applied anywhere, keep in mind that polarization is non-communication. Whether it is a small issue like "should blogs allow anonymous comments or not" to very big issues like "should we store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain" or not.

In conclusion, on the issue of global warming, the debate is over. Everybody lost. Now that it is over, can we please get to the business of saving people from global warming, because it seems to me that people will need more saving than the planet.
 

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