Previous month:
December 2013
Next month:
February 2014

Reputation vs. character

CharacterMy latest column for the Conference Board Review is out.  You can read it here. It draws a distinction between "reputation"  and "character."

As Abe Lincoln once said, "“Character is like a tree and reputation a shadow.”

Too many PR people are fixated on reputation when they really ought to be concerned about their organization's character.

That's not a new idea. In addition to Old Abe, the Arthur Page Society has published several papers making the same point.

My column is just a modest effort to draw more attention to it. 

How to knit an argument.

Knitting toolsThere isn't a better lab for studying the mysteries of structuring arguments than Washington, D.C.

Consider this item from today's Wall Street Journal.

The Treasury Secretary yesterday predicted that the government debt limit would have to be lifted by the end of February. According to the Journal, some conservative Republicans -- chastened but not deterred by the public reaction to the last government shutdown -- are exploring potential concessions they might extract for agreeing to raise the debt limit.

One potentially attractive demand is changing an element of the Affordable Care Act known as "risk corridors." Those are payments which help offset the risks insurers assume in selling policies to all comers, without regard to things like pre-existing conditions.

Few voters know or care what a risk corridor is, but they overwhelmingly favor the elimination of pre-existing conditions. In less skillful hands, that would seem to make this argument a non-starter. But that's where the rhetorical brilliance comes in.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R., La.), chairman of the conservative  Republican Study Committee, side-stepped the intricacies of risk corridors and pre-existing conditions and focused on these poll-tested facts:

  • Americans think the government has too much debt.
  • They don't like insurance companies.
  • They hate government bailouts.
  • They're suspicious of China. 

With all the embroidering skill that went into the Bayeux tapestry, Mr. Scalise came up with the following:  

"We shouldn't be bailing out insurance companies
with money that's borrowed from China."  

Thirteen words any fifth-grader could understand and a master class in how to structure an argument.

Liberal or conservative, you have to admire the rhetorical skill.



Content creation at its best

Trust-Around-the-World-300x140For an excellent example of brand journalism, look no further than the annual "Edelman Trust Barometer," released just in time for the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. 

The 2014 report shows the largest ever gap between trust in business and government since the study began in 2001.

It will undoubtedly garner more media coverage than most PR initiatives. And despite all the other studies and surveys in the field, it will once again emerge as the go-to source of macro data for journalists and academics writing about reputational issues.

It's the perfect example of intelligent content creation:

  • It's proprietary. Edelman has owned these industry and sector specific measures of trust since 2001. The earliest surveys interviewed a few hundred "informed publics" in a handful of big countries and were of dubious import. Later surveys have had 33,000 participants in 27 countries.
  • It's newsworthy. The results always come out just before the Davos shindig so journalists have a natural news hook. A Fox News story, for example, led with this: "Ahead of the gathering of political and business leaders in the Swiss resort of Davos, the public relations firm Edelman found that only 44 percent of university-educated people participating in the survey trusted government, down 4 percentage points from the previous year." 2014-Edelman-Trust-Barometer-Infographic
  • It's well produced. Far from the dry statistical reports lying around your officein unopened binders , the Edelman report is well-written and designed to be easily accessible through white papers, slide shows, and snappy infographics. 
  • It's at the intersection of the agency's competencies and its clients' needs. Trust is the holy grail of any PR effort. The Trust Barometer is the manifestation of Edelman's capabilities. Plus, all those media mentions tend to serve as a de facto endorsement of its unique know-how. It makes the head of every Edelman office an "expert" on the nature of trust in his or her country.
  • It's relevant. Each year's survey explores issues of interest to senior clients in the public and private sector. The 2014 survey, for example, probed public attitudes toward regulation of business. "By a 3 to 1 margin, informed publics called for increased regulation of financial services, energy, and food and beverage industries," the report notes.
  • It has legs. Edelman executives will give speeches based on the survey  for the whole year. It harvested 16 "attributes" of trust from the survey results and has developed a system for applying them to individual clients in report cards and prescriptions for improvement.  


Madison and AT&T's Blind Spot

Madison Google glassesIn today's New York Times' "Sunday Review,"Jeffrey Rosen shines light into a gap in the Bill of Rights on issues of privacy.

Taking a cue from recent court decisions citing James Madison on the issue, he points out that the author of the Federalist Papers had a blind spot when it came to assessing threats to liberty. He was far more concerned about government abuses than anything private actors could do.

Considering that, in those days, the printing press hadn't changed very much in the three centuries since Gutenberg invented it, that's not too surprising. But today's situation is different in kind not just quality.

"Now that Google and AT&T can track us more closely than any N.S.A. agent," Rosen writes, "it appears that the Madisonian Constitution may be inadequate to defend our privacy and dignity in the 21st century." Indeed, based on my own experience at AT&T in the very earliest days of the Internet, he's right. 

Back then, the company hadn't yet anticipated the Internet's full impact on itself, not to mention society. But the executives responsible for gaining a beachhead on the shores of the world wide web immediately understood the value of all the customer information that would be flowing through our servers, e.g., what web sites they visited, what seaches they conducted, what products they bought, etc.

However they had a problem -- the privacy policies the company had developed for the telephone business put all of that data off limits for any purpose other than billing and service. Under a strict reading, it couldn't be used to target advertising to customers. And under any reading, it couldn't be sold to other companies.

A committee of senior executives was convened to address the issue. I recommended that we maintain the same strict privacy standards unless customers to "opt in" to their use for other purposes.

It wasn't a popular position and the company eventually decided customers would have to "opt out" if they wanted to limit the use of the data we accumulated about their Internet usage. 

The AT&T I worked for has since been absorbed by another company that assumed its name and, I fear, Madison's blind spot.  



Pay for play

Pay for playI ran an ethics workshop yesterday for a group of PR people from around the world.

It was an interesting and fun session designed to encourage the participants to think more deeply about their ethical principles by confronting them with no-win situations and dilemmas.

They seemed to take it all with good humor. But at the end one of the participants described a situation he apparently faces all the time in his home country -- the "brown envelope" of money reporters there expect in return for running a news release.

It came up at the very end of a two-hour session, three minutes before a hard stop so everyone could get on a bus for a trip to the New York Times. So I don't think my answer was all that satisfying.

I told him I thought it was unethical to make the payment.

One of the other participants countered that he didn't consider it very different from tipping a waiter. "Reporters in some countries don't make much money," he said. "These payments are considered part of their compensation."

That may be true, as far as the bribe-taking reporters are concerned. But I stand by my answer with an explanation I didn't offer yesterday. It seems to me that paying reporters to run a news release violates a number of ethical principles.

In terms of consequences, it harms the reporter's readers. When they read a newspaper, they expect articles free from outside influences. Even on the assumption that the news release contained no misleading information, its very appearance in the paper gave it news value it might not otherwise have, which is in itself misleading.

It also violates a PR person's duty to engage in fair and open communications. Hiding the payment deprives readers of information that would almost certainly influence their opinion of the resulting story. PR people are supposed to contribute to the free flow of information. This behavior corrupts one of any democracy's key instutions -- a free press.

And on the level of virtue, it's clearly dishonest; otherwise, why the brown envelope? Tipping a waiter is done in the open for everyone, including the waiter's employer (and the IRS) to see. But the waiter's employer would likely frown on a gratuity quietly slipped to a server prior to the meal to ensure priority service. Such behavior would put other diners at a disadvantage and endanger the employer's reputation. I think that's more analagous to the situation at hand.

I admit cultural differences complicate the situation. It's true that pay-for-play is condoned in some countries. But I'll bet that even in those countries, newspaper readers would consider it corrupt and unethical. Why else would it be kept secret?

At minimum, an ethical PR person would insist on disclosure of the payment so readers can draw their own conclusion about the resulting article's newsworthiness and read it with full knowledge of its sourcing.

I don't think the practice of pay-for-play is really an accommodation to cultural differences; it's capitulation to a dishonest practice no culture should accept. What do you think?

New York Times goes native

The-New-York-Times-buildingThe New York Times introduced a new design for its web page and, in the process, showed everyone how "native advertising" should be handled.

Native advertising is content prepared by an advertiser and semi-integrated into a publication.

The first company nestled into the Gray Lady's bosom is Dell. Its ad runs on the paper's home page, next to the stock market quotes and just below a tease to the paper's own opinion pages.

I call it "semi-integrated" because no one would mistake it for anything but a paid ad. It's in a box bordered in blue with the Dell logo and "Paid Post" in even bigger type than the copy, "Can government become entrepreneurial?"

Click on the box and you're taken to a new tab or window where Dell holds forth more extensively, again within a light blue border bearing a warning "Paid For And Posted By Dell," plus a Dell logo hitched to the byline of the author, to avoid any confusion that he's a member of the Times staff.

Navigational links at the top of the page point to other sections of the paper; a string of links in the middle of the posting point to related articles from the Times' archives ("selected by Dell"); and links at the bottom of the page point to other Dell and run-of-the-web postings on varied subjects.

There's no way anyone could mistake this for anything but "sponsored content" akin to the sections on Nigeria or Cincinnati that occasionally run in the dead tree version of the paper.

In fact, this native ad isn't treated much differently than the ad blocks for Capital One and American Express that seem to be running in rotation further down the paper's home page.

Does this ad do much for Dell? Hard to tell.

It's a pretty straightforward report on "Entrepreneurship in Residence Programs" being proposed by some members of Congress to embed technical experts in government agencies. That probably gets the company browny points on Capitol Hill and supports its government sales effort, since at least some of the entrepreneurs in residence any program would fund would presumably come from Dell. And the posting associates the company with innovative ideas for improving the way government functions, which could help its overall image.

But the posting also falls short in several respects.

It isn't really contextually relevent. It's nice to be on the Times' front page, but placement next to links to the Opinion pages is kind of a crap shoot -- sometimes one of the paper's pundits may choose to write about the topic of the posting; most of the time, they won't. There's a better chance readers of the Opinion pages or stock quotes will glance to the right or down and get hooked, but I wouldn't take that to the bank.

There's nothing particularly compelling or newsworthy in the report. For example, it makes no mention of widely-reported technical problems with the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act. While the posting mentions a number of states and agencies that have implemented executive in residence programs already, it describes few concrete results. 

Dell itself is mentioned a few times at the end of the posting, but there's at least one curiously incomprehensible sentence in the version I read. "Ingrid Vanderveldt, Dell’s entrepreneur-in-residence, helps the company the needs of smaller businesses and how to cater its products and services accordingly." (Sic.) What Ms. Vanderveldt -- and by extension, Dell -- is helping to do could be a little clearer.

(I shamefacedly admit that I have been guilty of similar gaffes in this very blog, but I'm not paying tens of thousands of dollars for the space.)

So I think this first venture into native advertising for the New York Times is a solid win for the paper and an incomplete for Dell.

Success awaits a brand that breaks the code on how to use the platform the Times has provided.


It's been 50 years

50 yearsThe media love anniversaries.

At worse, they're a lazy way to generate copy. Predictable in a way real news isn't. And they attract the built-in interest of anyone who was around when the original event occurred.

Since Baby Boomers are the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S., we can expect a spate of stories over the next decade or so about things that happened in the 1960s and 70s.

Those tumultuous decades have all the elements for a steady stream of anniversary stories keyed around themes like "where were you when it happened?" (e.g., the Kennedy assassination) or "look what's happened -- or not -- since."  

Today's front page story in the New York Times is a perfect example of the latter and anniversary wrting at its best. A retrospective on President Johnson's declaration of War on Poverty, which occurred 50 years ago come January 8, it's more than an exercise in nostalgia. It examines a full range of current controversies through the lens of history, including income inequality, Obamacare, food stamps, corporate welfare, racism, the minimum wage, globalization, the high cost of college, unemployment, and the future of Social Security and Medicare. 

Those of us who practice public relations (or write about it) would be wise to consider the string of 50th anniversaries yet to be marked this year:

The Beatles landed at JFK for their first U.S. tour (Feb. 7),

Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in NY but no one in the nearby apartments reported her screams (March 13)

President Johnson launched "The Great Society," a set of legislative priorities aimed at eliminating poverty and racial injustice (May 22),

Three civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi after being released from jail (June 21), 

President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act (July 2 ),

Race riots raged in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Pennsylvania (summer),

President Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act creating a domestic Peace Corps (August 20),

President Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act (August 31),

President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act ultimately protecting 110 million acres of federal land from development (Sept. 3),

The Palestinian Liberation Army formed (Sept. 10),

The Warren Commission released a report saying that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone (Sept. 27),

Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize (Oct. 14),

The U.S. Roman Catholic Church replaced Latin with English in masses (Nov. 29),

Lenny Bruce was convicted of obscenity (Dec. 22),

The U.S. Surgeon General linked smoking to lung cancer (June).

Not to mention the introductions of Ford's Mustang (April 17), IBM's System 360 (April 7), the first Arby's restaurant (July) and, at some point in the year, General Mills' Lucky Charms, PepsiCo's Diet Pepsi, and Hasbro's G.I. Joe action figure.

So there you have it: a preview of some of 2014's major stories. And, for some, the stuff of thought leadership, executive speeches, Tweeting, and -- if they still exist, news releases.


Understanding the right

5159439310_bleeding_heart_liberal___wingnut_conservativee_xlargeIn addition to spending more time on the treadmill, one of my New Year's resolutions is to read more from the other side of the political spectrum. It's part of my personal program to move beyond a bumper sticker understanding of the political right. (Sadly, watching Fox News while on my treadmill won't do that. So much for two birds with one stone.) 

I got off to a good start with an essay by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner in the National Journal. Gerson was a speechwriter for Bush 43; Wehner was an advisor to Gov. Romney's presidential campaign

Their essay is an erudite and insighful explanation of conservative principles. 

Following an obligatory excoriation of the Obama administration as a "travesty" and a "federal power grab," they pause to catch their breath and ask, "what is the proper and appropriate extent and purpose of that government?"

To their credit, they distance themselves from the "rhetorical zeal and indiscipline" of some conservatives "in which virtually every reference to government is negative, disparaging, and denigrating." They agree with the Tea Party view that we should return to the founders' ideals of government, but they disagree that Madison and company viewed the central government as "an evil, or even as a necessary evil."

"The Constitution did not simply create limits on government, as some of today's conservative rhetoric seems to imply; it created a strong if bounded central government," they write. "It is important to speak up when those boundaries are breached, but it is important, too, to remember the aims of that government."

They then describe those aims in broader terms than I would have imagined, with specific reference to the writings of Madison, Hamilton, and Lincoln.

In the process, they identify America's main political battlefield as "the space between the individual and the state" where "the family, civil society, and local community" have historically operated. 

Those institutions have traditionally been responsible for our citizens' moral formation. And they believe most of our current disagreements boil down to a disagreement about the state's role in the formation of the people's moral character. The loudest voices on the right believe the federal government has no role; those on the left believe it has an unfettered role.

Gerson and Wehner believe the state has a limited role in people's moral formation, though they caution modest expectations.

They even go as far as to declare, "Government holds some responsibility for creating the ground for that equality of opportunity, which is not a natural condition." Indeed, they describe our current condition in terms that sound downright leftish:

"... equal opportunity itself, a central principle of our national self-understanding, is becoming harder to achieve. It is a well-documented fact that, in recent years, economic mobility has stalled for many poorer Americans, resulting in persistent intergenerational inequality. This phenomenon is more complex than an income gap. It involves wide disparities in parental time and investment, in religious and community involvement, and in academic accomplishment. These are traceable to a number of factors, including the collapse of working-class families, the flight of blue-collar jobs, and the decay of neighborhoods that once offered stronger networks of mentorship outside the home."

So are they lefties in disguise? Hardly. If they sound reasonable, it may be because they are.  

Here's what they have to say about the role of government:

"American citizenship has evolved around the exercise of liberty in a complex, mutually dependent web of institutions. One of those institutions is and must be government — effective, respected, and limited.

"The purpose of the state is to keep society safe and strong; to protect us from outsiders and from each other; to maximize freedom in a way that is consistent with security and order and that advances the common good; to provide society's 'mediating institutions' the space they need to thrive; to encourage equal opportunity for all citizens; and to make a decent provision for the poorest and most vulnerable. All of this is meant to allow people to flourish and to advance human happiness."

It seems to me there's plenty of room for reasonable people to agree in words such as those.  

Globalization requires more than a passport. Walmart's latest problem: selling donkey meat that is actually fox meat. It happened in China and apparently will result in heightened DNA testing at the butcher counter. (They might also talk to Ikea.) For more, see: .

Happy New Year.

New-Years-Resolutions-for-College-StudentsA new year and a new start.

I plan to continue these second-and-third-thought postings in 2014, though on a less regular basis.

That's really just a recognition of reality. It's hard to write 500 to 800 words every other day, while tending to other projects, not to mention doing the research necessary to feed such an output.

I don't have any illusions that this will leave much of a hole in my regular readers' schedules. Even 500 words is on the long side of what people read today.

But I will continue to blog when the spirit moves me. And to fill time between postings, I have started a new Twitter feed -- @PrReader.  

My plan is to tweet links to articles and other information I run across that might be of interest to PR practitioners. Hence, the title "PrReader."

I will focus on information and insights that have value in counseling, strategy development, and program design. 

My tweets will hopefully reflect my New Year resolution to broaden my reading to political and social views that differ with my own. 

And, hopefully, this lighter writing schedule will eliminate the last impediment lying between me and my other New Year resolution -- to put my unused treadmill back into service. 

So happy 2014 -- off one treadmill on to another.


Our trust deficit

Trust deficitThe new year will bring the familiar gnashing of teeth over financial deficits, from kitchen table and bar stool to cable news studio and Congressional hearing room. But the deficit that should exorcise us the most is the decades-long decline in the trust we place in our leaders and our institutions.

That trust deficit is the biggest drag on the economy and on the effectiveness of government.

The causes are understandable.

Political leaders misled us (Vietnam War, Watergate, Lewinsky affair, Iraq, Wikileaks, Obamacare rollout, etc.). Business leaders betrayed us (shifting risk to employees for healthcare and retirement, accounting scandals, product recalls, offshoring and outsourcing, etc.). Religious leaders violated our trust (sex scandals, coverups, etc.).

The free market failed us (income inequality, wage stagnation, joblessness, Internet and housing bubbles, bank failures, etc.). In recent years, we found lead in our childrens' toys, salmonella in our peanut butter, and steroids in our sports heroes. Nothing seems genuine and honest anymore.

That alone would be bad enough. But political partisanship has been a kind of flywheel feeding on and nurturing ever higher levels of distrust. 

Consider how Americans feel about political parties.

US Political Feelings.022

The National Election Survey has been tracking people's feelings about political parties on an imaginary thermometer since the 1970s. People generally feel warmly about their own party, reporting San Diego-like temps in the range of a balmy 75 to 80 degrees. 

Not surprisingly, people don't feel as warmly about the other party. Those temps hovered around a chilly 50 degrees for about 20 years. Then, around 1993, they fell by about 10 degrees before plummeting to below-freezing temps in 2008.

This not only makes political discussion more fractious, it also colors how people see our problems. Climate change is either hoax or armaggedon. Inequality is either a problem or the goal. Food stamps are either a crutch or a lifeline. Government itself is either the problem or the solution.

My wish for 2014 is that we break the shackles of this binary view of the world. That we find business, political, and religious leaders who can effect a slow, steady restoral of trust in our elected officials and our institutions.

That would make for a truly happy new year.