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.

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