Public Relations

Housekeeping Department


Time for housekeeping. Between now and the start of the new year, I'll be following up on prior postings.

A few weeks ago, I posted about a firm that purported to practice "dark PR," generating negative stories about competitors, opponents, and anyone else who has crossed you or constituted an enemy. I was appalled, and so were many readers.

Now I've heard from the owner of that outfit. It turns out his firm specializes in Search Engine Optimization and the page to which I linked was simply a means of demonstrating his ability to manipulate Google results or, as he acronymically put it, "optimize search results."

"Please google 'negative public relations' or even 'negative pr,'  we are at the top, before wikipedia," he wrote. "The irony is that we are now, an 'authority' in negative campaigning." The irony, apparently, is that his firm doesn't actually do negative PR, it just claims to -- all in the interest of tricking Google. 

It seems his firm does help clients "clean up" negative information about themselves, but most of its work is optimizing search results. The promotional page he created simply took advantage of a quirk in Google's algorithm.  "Google loves negative information," he claims. "They rank it on top, because they make more money from negative search results, than positive."

All this was a relief on two levels. First, apparently his firm is not a gun for hire, spreading negative information across the web. And even better, I don't have to worry about being its latest victim.


Is the EPA Guilty of Propaganda?

EPAThe U.S. Congress attached strings to its annual appropriation to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Namely, the agency was prohibited from engaging in "propaganda" and "grassroots lobbying in support or opposition to proposed legislation."

Suspecting the EPA violated that rule, the Republican chair of the Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO)  to investigate.

The GAO  report, issued on December 14, declared the EPA had violated both rules. Make of that what you will. What we find interesting is the logic the agency used in reaching that conclusion.  

First, the GAO defines propaganda as disguising the source of communication either by omission or mis-direction. So far, so good.

The EPA allegedly engaged in propagandizing when it used a crowd-sourcing web site, Thunderclap, to post a message on the social media "pages" or "timelines" of self-selected supporters who have an estimated 1.8 million followers.

The message -- "Clean water is important to me. I support EPA's efforts to protect it for my health, my family, and my community." -- included  a hyperlink to the EPA web site. But the GAO declared the message "covert propaganda" because the EPA's role in originating the message was not made clearer to the ultimate recipients.  

In addition, the GAO found that hyperlinks within other EPA social media campaigns constituted "lobbying" because they led to third-party sites such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Surfrider Foundation which, in turn, included hyperlinks to contact members of Congress in opposition to pending legislation that would overturn the EPA's rules on clean water.

The GAO found that by including those external links on its own web pages, the EPA was "clearly associating itself" with efforts to lobby Congress in violation of the law.

Hiding the source of information is clearly unethical. And while we don't believe it's unethical to encourage the public to call on legislators to vote one way or another, it's clearly a violation of the law, which in itself is wrong.

The real question is whether the EPA's use of social media was a cynical attempt to circumvent the law and hide behind intermediaries. In my opinion, that's a stretch. And I see no concrete evidence to support that position in the GAO's report. 

Social media, by its very nature, harnesses the power of networks and is ever-changing. If an agency were held responsible for the incidental content of web sites it links to, much less second and third-hand Facebook or Twitter postings over which it has no control, it would have to avoid social media altogether. 

What does seem unethical is to limit any agency's ability to communicate with the public within its areas of competency and authority.  By the same logic, members of Congress shouldn't be allowed to use public funds to explain their positions on legislative matters through social media. 

As a matter of ethics and law, the government's bias should be towards full and open communications through all available media.






Break the Islamic State's Brand

CalmSince 1941, the Ad Council has mustered creative talent and donated media to tackle problems from fire safety to drug addiction. As far as I know, the public relations industry has no equivalent organization. But the need is great and at the top of the list: terrorism.

I know when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I also realize many people consider public relations frivolous at best and evil at worst.

But does anyone doubt the Islamic State is winning the public relations war?

I don't mean it has convinced the majority of the world's population the west is bent on destroying Islam. I don't think it has even convinced a significant number of Muslims of that.  But it has created a toxic environment that, in itself, threatens the values of modern society.

It is forcing a false choice between liberty and security. It has reframed every debate that matters, from the U.S. presidential elections to immigration policy. It has thrown fuel on long-standing controversies like the meaning of the second amendment and the legitimate limits of personal privacy. And it is using the techniques of modern communications to further its cause.

The F.B.I. warns that the Islamic State is “crowdsourcing” terrorism by using social media to leapfrog our defenses with a poisonous narrative that Islam is under attack by the west. And as we have seen, its message is strong enough to mobilize a small number of gullible and disaffected to take up arms and counter-attack. 

The very randomness of those attacks magnifies their terror and makes Islamic State look more attractive and successful to the disaffected. Terror becomes both a weapon and a recruiting tool.

And because the media correctly tie terror in the homeland to the larger conflict overseas, it seems more pervasive than it is. For example, since the Sept. 11 attacks about the same number of people have been killed by Islamic terrorists on U.S. soil as by  right-wing extremists -- 45 and 48 respectively. 

All of this sounds like a public relations problem to me. And I don't mean it's simply a perception problem that can be messaged away. But our response has to be more than dropping more bombs, deploying more troops, tightening border controls, and increasing surveillance of targeted groups. Political and social changes in the countries where the Islamic State has built havens are also part of the solution. And so is a smart, global public relations campaign.

The Obama administration has begun outlining some of its essential elements.  Head of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson wants to build stronger ties to the U. S. Muslim community, which is uniquely positioned to counter the Islamic State's extremist propaganda and to de-legitimize its claims to statehood by exposing its barbaric treatment of fellow Muslims.

Lisa Monaco, the president’s counterterrorism adviser, wants the private sector's help. “Frankly, we’ve got to do a better job of approaching this in a way that allows us to break the brand of ISIL’s message,” she says.

The public relations industry should take a cue from the Ad Council by putting its best minds on the case, validating or redrafting current assumptions and pulling together a long-term strategy for dealing with global terrorism.

The Road to Hell

GlassrMilton Glaser is one of the most celebrated designers in the world.

He created the "I💗NY" logo, designed the psychedelic Dylan album cover, and founded New York magazine with Clay Felker.

He also came up with a quiz he called "The Road to Hell" that he gave to young designers.  Here it is:

Would you—

  1. Design a package to look larger on the shelf?
  2. Do an ad for a slow-moving, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy?
  3. Design a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it’s been in business for a long time?
  4. Design a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent?
  5. Design an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring?
  6. Design a package for a cereal aimed at children, which has low nutritional value and high sugar content?
  7. Design a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer who employs child labor?
  8. 8. Design a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work?
  9. Design an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public?
  10. Design a brochure piece for an SUV that turned over more frequently than average in emergency conditions and caused the death of 150 people?
  11. Design an ad for a product whose continued use might cause the user’s death?

Glazer thought it important for designers to think about "what we actually do in life." He believed you could get pretty far down the road to hell if you didn't think about the ethical implications of the choices you made, especially the clients you took on.

The same could be said about public relations. So with apologies to Mr. Glaser, here's "The Road to Public Relations Hell":

Would you --

  1. Promote an old product as "new and improved" if the only real difference was the packaging?
  2. Promote a slow-moving, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy?
  3. Position a new vineyard to suggest that it’s been in business for a long time?
  4. Promote a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent?
  5. Do public relations for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring?
  6. Publicize a cereal aimed at children, which has low nutritional value and high sugar content?
  7. Do public relations for a manufacturer who employs child labor?
  8. Promote a diet product that you know doesn’t work?
  9. Represent a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public?
  10. Publicize an SUV that turned over more frequently than average in emergency conditions and caused the death of 150 people?
  11. Promote a product whose continued use might cause the user’s death?

 The point of both tests is to see how close we come to what Glaser considers the "function of art," which in many ways is also the true function of public relations -- to enable people "to understand what is real."



Where's the pain?

Trusted-brand-370x229A friend commented on my VW post (not here, but over at LinkedIn):

"While VW certainly has a big internal issue and culture to fix," he wrote, "I am predicting that the consumer sentiment will not be harsh or long lasting. After all, GM's culture of secrecy and stupidity (re key systems) resulted in many deaths -- and no PR backlash that appears to have hurt revenue. Same with the airbag fiasco and Honda and Toyota."

Sales figures seem to confirm his perspective: in October, Chevrolet had its best sales in 11 years and GM overall posted its seventh consecutive increase in retail market share. Toyota's October sales also increased 13% over 2014. For its part, Honda broke all October sales records with a 9% increase. Even Volkswagen, which couldn't sell diesel models, eked out a 0.2% sales gain, thanks to hefty discounts.

Where, you might ask, is the pain?

Could be it's masked by the combination of lower fuel costs driving truck and SUV sales, heavy promotions and cheap financing getting people into showrooms, and an improving economy making customers feel better about trading up from the clunker in their driveway.

As Automotive News put it: "The final months of 2015 are expected to see widespread incentives and promotions, especially among luxury brands, and on cars, where consumer demand has been weakest. Buick, for example, is offering $6,000 off select 2015 Regal models that have been on dealer lots the longest."

By one calculation, incentives increased 14% to $3104 per vehicle compared to 2014.  In other words, the industry is riding on pricing.

I worked in an industry that let pricing dominate people's purchase decisions. It was not pretty. The alternative, of course, is to sell on brand values. Another word for "brand" is "trust."

VW, GM, Toyota, and Honda are on the equivalent of opiates to mask the pain of of losing customer trust. They all need to work hard to regain it.







VW tries to win back trust

VwSometime this week, Volkswagen will announce a giveback to customers stung by its manipulation of emission data on its diesel-powered cars.

Affected owners will get two prepaid debit cards, one they can use anywhere, the other at a VW dealership. The cards will reportedly be worth $500 each. Plus, the company will add three years of free roadside assistance. And there will be no strings attached. Customers who accept the cards will still be free to join the inevitable class action law suits that will emerge.

It's all part of a plan to regain public trust.

I dealt with a lot of crises when I was at AT&T (though thankfully none that involved corporate larceny). And I learned the importance of (1) accepting responsibility for the problem, (2) apologizing for it, (3) fixing it, and (4) giving something back. 

Volkswagen is apparently working its way through all those steps.   

I credit my former boss, Marilyn Laurie, for point 4.  She realized that trust had emotional as well as rational elements. When a problem grew to crisis proportions, it was not always due to the size or even the notoriety of the problem.

What makes a problem a crisis is the level of betrayal involved. That's largely an emotional issue that can't be addressed with facts, figures, and engineering diagrams. Trust is not only what people think of you, it's how they feel about you.

When AT&T's telephone network went down for several hours, we immediately took responsibility, apologized publicly, fixed it quickly, and then gave our customers discounted calling on Valentine's Day. That last bit was Marilyn's idea and it became part of our response to any major crisis.

Note: Sometimes "giving back" means publicly punishing those responsible, especially if they knew what they were doing was wrong. Before this is over, Volkswagen will have to do some of that too.




How PR can get a seat at the table

Table.001Corporate public relations people want nothing more than a seat at the table where decisions are made. But their path to that station is increasingly unclear.

Shannon Bowen, a professor at the University of South Carolina, warned back in 2009 that "a fight for the soul of public relations" would ultimately lead to its splintering.  

She characterized the battle as "advocacy versus counseling" and suggested it was being fought "both in the academic discipline and in the industry."

If so, I was a non-combatant for my more than 30 years as a practitioner. I had both responsibilities at AT&T. Of course, I worked at Arthur Page's desk, and his philosophy so imbued the company in those days, it was understood the head of public relations would report to the CEO and participate in the company's top councils, what academics call "the dominant coalition." 

I was certainly expected to be a vociferous advocate on the company's behalf in the marketplace and the corridors of power. But I was also supposed to provide objective counsel to its leaders on both what we did as well as what we said.

Since retiring in 2003, I've learned how unique that was. In fact, the person who succeeded me quickly discovered the new CEO she inherited didn't see it that way at all. She soon left, and her successors have reported to marketing ever since. Across industry, about two thirds of public relations organizations report to someone other than the CEO.

That doesn't mean they never offer counsel on their company's policies and practices. But it does suggest their internal clients are more likely to see them as hired guns paid to advocate on their behalf, not to advise them on what to do.

Bowen suggested this state of affairs would result in the splintering of public relations into separate disciplines. Those who see themselves as advocates would retain the public relations moniker; those who fancy themselves counselors would rechristen themselves as commmuications or public affairs officers. 

It seems to me that's exactly what happened. But it wasn't inevitable -- it is possible to be both an honest advocate and an objective counselor. 

Bowen suggested what could bridge the two disciplines:  

"Clearly, those who see themselves as counselors to senior management need academic study of moral philosophy before they are thrust into ethical decision-making in jobs with frequent ethical dilemmas.

"Those who see themselves as pure advocates also need to study ethics because they are both the first and last line of ethical decision-making in their relations with publics."

Most importantly, an in-depth understanding of ethics -- along with deep business knowledge -- could be a practitioner's ticket to a seat at the decision-making table.

Yet, according to one study, seven years after a commission of academics and practitioners recommended more attention be paid to the study of ethics in public relations programs "few programs require an ethics course or even recommend one as an elective." Instead, most "embed" ethical considerations into other courses through "case studies, simulations, and small group discussions."

As the study notes, that makes it "difficult to assess ethical knowledge." And since what isn't measured is seldom done, many practitioners leave school without the ticket to that proverbial seat at the table.







The ethics of nudging

NudgePublic relations people are widely considered "nudges," i.e., those who encourage others to do something. (This is opposed to "noodges" which Merriam Webster defines as "pests" but that's for a different posting.)

Nudges, as it happens, are practitioners of the highest form of behavioral science. 

Daniel Khaneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for driving a stake through the heart of homo economicus, the imaginary human being who only made rational decisions. Although a psychologist by training he was midwife to the new field of behavioral economics.

Economists may have been late to the party, but public relations practitioners have long understood human thinking and behavior are shaped by cognitive illusions, unconscious urges, and hidden biases.

Edward Bernays, for example, consulted psychoanalysts in preparing public relations campaigns for clients ranging from American Tobacco to United Fruit. (In the first instance, he was advised that cigarettes are a symbol of male power, i.e., the penis, and proceeded to attach smoking to the suffragette movement.)

Behavioral_scienceWhether Bernays's success was due to psychoanalytic insight or a good nose for publicity is arguable, but there's little question understanding how the mind works can help increase an message's persuasiveness. For example, create the illusion of scarcity ("Only four seats left at this price.") and people feel pressure to click the "buy" button. We know more about human decision making today than ever before.

Richar Thaler and Cass Sunstein wrote a book called Nudge to show how the government and other institutions can capitalize on these behavioral insights to "improve decisions about health, wealth, and happiness." For example, "A school cafeteria might try to nudge kids toward good diets by putting the healthiest foods at front." 

But recognizing that these techniques can be used for bad as well as good -- and perhaps outraged by his personal experience being nudged by airlines and publishers -- Thaler recently set forth three rules of ethical nudging: 

All nudging should be transparent and never misleading.

It should be as easy as possible to opt out of the nudge, preferably with as little as one mouse click.

There should be good reason to believe that the behavior being encouraged will improve the welfare of those being nudged. 

That last point in particular is a good reminder of our ethical responsibility as public relations practitioners.




Write the right thing

Wright thingSay you're a speechwriter for a large animal health company and your CEO calls you into his office. He wants you to put together his remarks for an upcoming speech to the 10,000 attendees of the Future Farmers of America annual convention.

He lays out the main point he wants to make: "The world’s growing demand for meat, milk, and eggs is a more urgent priority than American consumers’ desires for food that is organic, antibiotic-free, or pasture-raised. Industrial farming is not only necessary but also a moral imperative to feed an estimated 9 billion people by 2050. We don’t need more animals. We need productive animals.”

Corporate speechwriters are often in this position, though their clients' direction is not always as crisp and articulate. And as they leave their CEO's office, if they aren't auditioning opening lines in their head, they're probably running through the resources they can tap to flesh out the speech with gee-whiz factoids and heart-warming anecdotes. 

How many consider the ethics of what they've been asked to do?

Speechwriters often joke they make corporate policy with the words they put in their clients' mouths. In reality, few CEOs are meek enough to simply read what's put in front of them in 14-point Arial type. And once they review, edit, and approve a speech, they own it even if they didn't come up with any of the clever turns of phrase themselves.

But speechwriters should be more than wordsmiths; the good ones are also guardians of the corporate character and values. And that is a decidedly ethical responsibility.

The "client input" above is based on a BusinessWeek story about Jeff Simmons, president of Elanco, Eli Lilly's animal health division. Except for the last two sentences about not needing more animals, he didn't say those exact words, but it's representative of his perspective. And he definitely sees his business in a moral dimension.

Meanwhile, food activists as well as some scientists and regulators oppose the use of some of the antibiotics and growth enhancers his company makes. Consumer sentiment seems to be moving away from food grown on industrial farms towards more "natural" and "organic" versions. Fast food chains like McDonalds are moving towards using largely antibiotic-free beef, chicken, and milk. 

Does that mean animal health companies need to get in line?

In some ways they have. Both Elanco and competitor Zoetis have agreed to the Federal Drug Adninistration's voluntary guidelines on the use of antibiotics in farm animals. They recognize the ethical importance of keeping human antibiotics out of the food supply to avoid the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria. In fact, Elanco is applying the FDA guidelines worldwide.

But the ethical implications of giving human antibiotics to animals falls into the category of settled science, meaning there's a scientific consensus that the preponderance of evidence indicates it's dangerous to human welfare.

There is no such consensus on other issues -- like the development of animal-only antibiotics and genetically modified seeds, the use of muscle growth drugs, or indeed tconsuming animal meat itself. 

As long as Elanco  doesn't fudge facts or tell lies, respects those who hold opposing views, and doesn't try to undermine people's ability to consider all sides of the issue intelligently, it is perfectly ethical to present its perspective as forcefully as it can. And that includes framing it as a moral issue.

Which is what a good speechwriter would do.



Dark PR or Killing by Web

UhohYesterday, I ran across a company that offers "negative public relations services" a.k.a. "dark services."

"The objective in Negative Public Relations," the company explained, "is to discredit someone else, who may pose a threat to the client's business or be a political rival. Common techniques include using dirty secrets from the target, producing misleading facts to fool a competitor."

This has to be a joke, I thought. After all, the company calls itself "Webcide," obviously a play on "homicide," "suicide," and other forms of "killing."

So I went to the website -- -- and, sure enough, it seemed to be an ordinary reputation management company. Its home page describes its services this way:

" Reputation Search Engine empowers you to find accurate, precise and relaible (sic) negative information about a person or a company.   

"Our sophisticated searching tools will show you all lawsuits, bankruptcy, legal issues, negative articles, negative comments, negative customer complaints, scam reports, fraud alerts, arrest records, negative blogs, negative forum posts, negative mentioning, negative reviews about the person or business searched. 

"Webcide is also the first and only online reputation management company that permanently removes negative information about you and your business from Google Search Results."

The ethics of all this depends to a large extent on the use to which all that negative information is put, though manipulating Google Search results sounds unethical on its face.  

But wait. There's more. Lurking in a description of the company's full range of services is dark PR itself. 

Webcide offers to "persuade the public, prospective customers, investors, partners, employees, and other stakeholders to maintain a certain negative point of view about [a competitor or business enemy], its leadership, products, or of (sic) political decisions." And it promises "to execute such a campaign in the most discreet and confidential way, while using only and exclusively legal methods ."

In fact, these "top level professionals in the field of Negative PR" offer to produce "negative corporate and financial communications, negative investor relations and negative opinion research." As they point out, the mistrust this negativity produces "can take years to repair."

Among the techniques they use:

  • "Improving the tagging and search engine optimization of  negative published materials, such as  negative customer testimonials in order to push up negative content. 
  • "Publishing original, negative websites and social media profiles, with the aim of outperforming negative results in a search.
  • "Submitting online press releases to authoritative websites in order to promote negative brand presence and promote negative content. 
  • "Creating fake blogs pretending to be a different person that shares the same name in order to push up negative search results on the actual person or brand. 
  • "Using spam bots and denial-of-service attacks to force sites with positive content off the web entirely. 
  • "Creating anonymous accounts that create negative reviews or lash out against positive ones . Proactively offering free products to prominent negative reviewers."

But not to worry,  Webcide claims to "practice ethical forms of negative reputation management." Empasis added.

I'm not making this up. See for yourself at!negative-public-relations-/cp1 

Unless Webcide itself was the victim of malicous hacking of its website, this is probably the most unethical form of public relations I've seen in a long time.

And if, by chance, anyone at Webcide sees this and wants to explain how any of it could possibly be ethical, I invite them to comment.  

Or will I become a victim of Webcide myself?



Why do good people do bad things?

Right way wrong wayA friend of mine is a prominent financial columnist who has written about the misdeeds of many executives. Even when he's sure he has the goods on someone, it's tricky stuff to write.

I once asked him what ethical principle guided him in his work and he told me, "To never write anything I'd be criticized for on the front page of the New York Times." When I asked what ethical principle he thought public relations people follow, he said, "Not to get caught."

I don't think he realized the two principles are functionally equivalent.

Actually, I suspect he put his finger on the reason for current interest in public relations ethics. No one wants to get caught doing something wrong and, in recent years, the papers have been full of examples 0f just that.

But public relations practitioners should be motivated by more than the risk of being caught. Because public relations by definition involves some kind of exchange between two parties, it's an inherently ethical undertaking.  So everything we do involves some kind of ethical choice, whether being truthful, respecting the human dignity of others, or fulfilling our duties as citizens and practitioners.

Those happen to be the drivers of three major ethical theories-- considerations of virtue, consequences, and duty. Most recently, a feminist approach to ethics has put additional emphasis considerations of care.  But whatever ethical theory you follow, applying it to life in the real world is a challenge.

For example, what do you do when duties conflict, as they almost always do? Which consequences matter more, those affecting the client or those affecting customers or society as a whole? Is it better to be caring or fair? And, to quote an acient Roman, what is truth? Isn't it a public relations person's job to present the client's conception of truth?

The PRSA, IABC, and other professional associations have done a pretty good job of articulating the practical implications of those ethical theories. They all admonish practitioners to serve the public interest, for example. But practitioners are pretty much on their own to define just what the "public interest" means and what to do when client and public interests collide.  

Navigating ethical questions like those require more than memorizing codes of conduct, as thoughtful as they may be. It requires understanding the thinking behind them.

As I've discovered in ethics workshops I've conducted over the years, almost every practitioner knows it's wrong to lie, but when pressed the only reason many can offer is because that's what they were brought up to believe. Unfortunately, if you don't know why something is wrong, the chances of recognizing it when it presents itself diminish rapidly. And knowing what to do is even more problematic.

But according to a recent report on public relations education, "Overall, educators perceive ethics instruction to be very important for PR students, but few programs require an ethics course or recommend one as an elective." Instead, ethical considerations are supposedly woven into discussions of current events. That non-systematic approach is almost guaranteed to be incomplete and makes assessing students' actual knowledge of ethics quite difficult. 

That's why my friend Don Wright and I wrote Public Relations Ethics: How To Practice PR Without Losing Your Soul.  

Don is Harold Burson Professor of Public Relations at Boston University and has written broadly on the topic over his 40-year career. We both hope our book contributes to the study and practice of ethics within public relations.

Of course, no book can pretend to be the last word on the subject so we've also created a website to update the cases covered in the book and to make other observations that illustrate the concepts it covers.

Take a look for yourself at Updates.PRethics.comAnd join the conversation by commenting on the posts already on the site.



Got beef?

BeefThe meat industry has a beef with the World Health Organization, which just accused its product of causing cancer.

What is a public relations practitioner in that industry to do?

We saw how industries from tobacco to soft drinks reacted -- they did their best to cast doubt on the research. In fact, Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for Science in the Public Interest, claims, “The playbook of every industry under attack is to instill doubt in the evidence.”

So how should the meat industry respond to the World Health Organization's recent meta-study, which according to the Wall Street Journal, concluded processed meats like bacon and salami are "carcinogenic" and fresh meats like steak and pork chops "probably cause cancer." 

The ethical principle that should guide public relations people in this case is to ensure customers have all the information they need to intelligently interpret the research and guide their behavior.

Not incidentally, that means dealing with sensationalized headlines (New York Post: "OMG! Bacon causes cancer.")  that suggest eating processed meat is as dangerous as smoking a cigarette or sucking on a diesel exhaust. 

Interestingly, the New York Times'  report on the research had all the elements of an ethical response:

It put the research in context, quoting third party experts with no axe to grind, and explaining the World Health Organization's categorization system.  For example, it pointed out that although research put processed meat into the same category as smoking and air pollution, its actual risk was "relatively small." Most importantly, it said experts not involved in the report advised people to "moderate" their consumption of processed meats. 

No meat industry spokesperson is likely to suggest its customers eat less of their product. But it wouldn't be out of the question for them to advise people not to over-indulge in it. The alcohol industry has been doing that for years. 

Nor would it be unethical to refer reporters and even customers to experts who can provide context and advice. But it would be unethical to refer anyone to experts who are far outside the mainstream of scientific opinion, not to mention publicizing their reports. 

And it would be perfectly ethical to highlight the benefits of eating red meat in moderation. Red meat is, after all, a good source of protein and vitamins. It might even be in the industry's own interests to conduct research into the mechanisms making processed meats a health risk -- is it the nitrates or something else?

But it would be unethical if the sole purpose of the research were to cast doubt on the consensus findings that eating large quantities of processed meat is unhealthy. 

In general, an ethical response would focus on what's best for customers and society at large. 

Not an easy task. But one that deserves great thought and attention. That's where the real beef is.




The Prize

PrizeI had the pleasure yesterday of participating in a discussion with Dale Russakoff, author of The Prize.

Her book reports on what happened in Newark, NJ, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million towards an overhaul of the city's failing school system.

The idea was to use Newark as a "national model" from which other urban school districts could learn.

Russakoff drew many lessons from her 5-year investigation, but two especially resonated with me:

  1.  A top-down effort to change an entrenched system doesn't work,  It has to be bottoms-up. The people affected need to be part of finding a solution.
  2. If you want to improve the education of students in disadvantaged areas, you have to focus on more than what goes in the classroom. You have to address their family and social environments as well.

It struck me that addressing issues like those is what the function of public relations is all about. 

Not the kind of PR that deals in schmoozing public officials, issuing news releases, or staging photo ops, though all those tactics play a role. But the kind of public relations focused on building and nurturing dialog with communities.

The Newark experiment had some notable successes, such as bringing in a number of new school principals who were able to coach and develop their teaching staffs. But it never achieved its lofty goal of serving as a model for other school districts.  And as Rustikoff vividly describes, its biggest mistake was trying to shove a pre-conceived solution down the throats of  local communities.  

A good public relations counselor would have advised against a top-down approach and would have made community outreach the engine of the process. It would have been messier and taken longer, but it would have had a better chance of working.

The Prize is a terrific book I can highly recommend to anyone concerned about America's schools or  the larger issue of social mobility.


PR is dead. Long live Public Relations.

RIP PR.001I just finished work on a book about public relations ethics. (Out next month. See left sidebar.) One of the lessons I re-learned in the process is that, whether used as a noun or a verb, the term "PR" carries so many negative connotations, it's beyond repair.  

To most people (in and out of the industry), "PR" means spinning, hyping, obfuscating, green-washing, do-gooding, word-smithing, party-planning, and otherwise distracting or misleading an unsuspecting public.  A friend who is a prominent financial columnist told me PR people adhere to an ethical principle best summarized as, "What can I get away with?"

Maybe that's why so many PR people are rebranding themselves as "Communications Officers." 

It's a fine title, with the added advantage of working well with "Chief," greasing the holder's way into the ranks of the C-suite.

But it suggests public relations is all about "communicating," defined as moving information between people, especially through the mass media. Even if the communication is two-way, that shortchanges the function's true purpose.

Real public relations encompasses all the ways an institution "relates" to its various "publics," defined as all those who contribute to its success and bear the risks of its failures.  Such "relating" depends even more on what an institution does than on what it says. 

I don't think there's any hope of resurrecting "PR."  But there is a chance we can help better define "public relations." And it has to start with what we actually do. 


Crying at the desk

Cry at deskThere used to be a saying, "Never pick an argument with someone who buys ink by the barrel."

One would think that old saw didn't apply in the digital age. Everyone is a publisher now, right?

Wrong.  Case in point:

About two months ago, the New York Times published a highly negative story about Amazon's work culture. Among other things, it reported it was common for Amazon employees to be so stressed out they  cried at their desks.

That prompted Jeff Bezos, the company's CEO, to tell his employees he didn't recognize the company the paper described and hoped they didn't either. And his public relations team, led by Jay Carney fresh from a stint as White House spokesman, did its best to handle the second-day stories that inevitably appeared.

Not surprisingly, a brouhaha of epic proportions ensued, with claims and counterclaims flying back and forth between Amazon supporters and critics, including its own employees.  

The story became one of the paper's most-read pieces of the year, racking up more than five million views. But the New York Times reporting for that story was criticized, praised, and mocked.  

The paper's  public editor even put her own oar into the churning waters in a column gently criticizing the paper for basing its story on largely anecdotal evidence. That column ignited an unusual public disagreement with the paper's executive editor who rejected "the notion that you can report a story like this in any way other than with anecdotes."

And so the story lay until yesterday when Mr. Carney published a 1,300 word essay on the website Medium challenging the paper's reporting. Most damning, Carney claimed the paper's most vivid anecdote about employees crying at their desks came from an employee who "had attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records." According to Carney when the employee was confronted with the evidence, "he admitted it and resigned immediately."

Within hours, the Times' executive editor Dean Baquet published his own 1,300-word rebuttal in Medium, reiterating his support for the article and saying that the employee who supposedly resigned because of misdeeds denies it ever happened. 

I hesitate to say Carney had the last word because this could go on forever. But he published a brief response to the Times' response. "The bottom line is the New York Times chose not to fact-check or vet its most important on-the-record sources," he wrote in Medium. "When an anecdote or quote is too good to check, it’s usually too good to be true."

So who won?

Not Amazon. All it succeeded in doing is to call more attention to the Times' original story. I say this from experience. I once wrote a letter to the editor of BusinessWeek challenging a negative story about AT&T.  My letter was even longer than the original article. It made the company's supporters feel better, but I doubt it changed any minds. Even though the facts were on our side.

In an argument between corporations and the media, it's the rare company that can come out on top. 

In his rebuttal, the Times' executive editor acknowledged that he and Carney had been exchanging email about the story. Since it took only three hours for the Times to issue that rebuttal, it's likely Carney had already laid out his case in that email exchange, including that the employee who had made the most graphic accusations had previously been dismissed for cause and had an axe to grind.  

That the Times' rebuttal accepted the employee's word with little or no fact-checking seems to buttress Carney's principal complaint. But coming from Amazon, it rings hollow.

A smarter move for Amazon would have been to bring the complaint to a respected third party, like the Poynter Institute or the Columbia Journalism School.  

Instead, Amazon gave the story legs. The Amazon executive suite may feel better, but it's hardly cause for high-fives. 





Myopic service

MyopiaCapitalism in America seems to be infected with a nasty case of "short-termism," a myopic focus on next quarter's results at the expense of long-term growth.

Back in 2009, a blue ribbon panel of CEOs and academics traced the roots of short-termism all the way back to the leveraged buyouts of the 1980s. They issued a clarion call for a "more responsible approach to investment and business management." Yet, just last summer, the venerable Economist magazine suggested it was now a structural problem inhibiting economic recovery.  I have no doubt that's the case.

But it would be a mistake to think short-termism shows up only in a company's financial results. It reverberates through customer service too. Consider these two examples a friend brought to my attention just this morning:

According to the Washington Post, American Airlines threw a passenger off a plane, apparently because she wasn't moving fast enough through the crowded aisle (and the plane was over-booked). The whole episode was so patently unfair, the rest of the cabin broke out in boos and shouts of "I'll never fly American again." So if the crew's motive was to accomodate a frequent flier, as some suspect, it may have had short-term benefits, but long-term costs.

According to the LA Times, an AT&T customer sent the company's CEO some service suggestions and all he got for his trouble was an officious letter from a company lawyer.  "AT&T has a policy of not entertaining unsolicited offers to adopt, analyze, develop, license or purchase third-party intellectual property ... from members of the general public," the lawyer said.

I remember the policy well from my days at AT&T. Its intent is to avoid getting sued by people who think you've implemented one of their suggestions. In fact, in my day, most letters like that ended up in my inbox for reply. I like to think I made the point without an undertone of "get lost." I also think I could tell the difference between unpatentable, uncopyrightable suggestions and the kind that can stimulate suits (i.e. genuine intellectual property).  But then I'm not a lawyer.

Is it just coincidence that both these examples come from companies with "American" in their name?




NFL Update

Nfl dom vioAbout a year ago, in reaction to the off-field behavior of some players, the National Football League promised to do more to fight domestic violence. 

ThinkProgress recently assessed the league's efforts and found the NFL has indeed devoted a lot of money and time to the issue. But significant gaps remain.

"The local domestic violence and sexual assault centers that provide direct service work — the ones that the national groups rely on for the on-the-ground assistance — are still struggling to stay afloat," it concluded. "And while the NFL is trying to address its internal issues through training and regulations, changing the culture of the league is far easier said than done, particularly with the same leadership intact."

The NFL consulted about 150 experts and organizations. It committed $5 million a year  for five years to a national hotline for domestic abuse victims. It donated $2.5 million in cash and equiment to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and an additional $1 million to 58 local anti-rape organizations, amounting to about $20,000 each. 

To get its own house in order, league teams scheduled educational sessions on sexual violence and domestic abuse during its annual training camps. 

But the NFL's highest profile effort was a series of public service announcements to increase awareness of domestic violence. Amounting to about $40 million of airtime, it was by far the league's biggest investment in the issue. To some it seemed like a classic "PR move." 

Critics said the league needed to move beyond awareness to action. For example, despite the NFL's $1 million contribution, local organizations are still seriously under-funded and support from individual teams is uneven. There was little followup to the training sessions all players were expected to attend, beyond a 24-hour "crisis hotline." Meanwhile, while the league is gotten a bit tougher on players arrested for sexual assault, its stances have been inconsistent. 

Furthermore, in December 2014, the NFL directed every team to form a "Critical Response Team" by the end of 2015. These teams were to be trained to deal with crisis situations and work with domestic violence organizations in their communities. When ThinkProgress followed up with all 32 teams, it found very uneven progress, not only in establishing the Critical Response Teams, but also when it comes to vetting and responding to instances of domestic violence or sexual assault.  

"As Domestic Violence Awareness Month kicks off this month," ThinkProgress notes, "the NFL's initiatives to address the issue remain a work in progress."  Meanwhile, the NFL's annual breast cancer awareness campaign kicks off in a flurry of pink ribbons and pom poms on October 13.

Timing Is Everything is everything. In life and particularly in media relations. But when does it cross an ethical line?

Once upon a time, it was considered smart to issue bad news on a Friday afternoon to minimize coverage. But that rule of thumb went the way of print media's dominance. In an always-on, 24-hour news cycle, it hardly makes a difference. 

Nevetheless, faced with a request from the New York Times for information about concussions incurred in mandatory boxing classes at West Point, the Army Surgeon General recommended delay.

"Timing is everything with this stuff," she reportedly told the Army public affairs staff. Delaying the release would give her time to interest other publications in doing more favorable stories about the same subject.

Advocates of greater transparency in government called the incident "disturbing." Reports that the Army Surgeon General had used the same tactic in the past to manipulate news coverage probably didn't allay their concerns.

So is this smart media relations or is it unethical? 

The New York Times, for its part, thinks it "undermines the news media." The whistle blower who brought the story to the paper's attention says he did so because not being open with journalists "damages democracy."

We're with them. 

The kind of behavior described here goes way beyond putting information in context. First, it's unfair to the reporter who requested the information in the first place. But even more importantly, it attempts to create an alternative version of the truth, which undermines a free press and, ultimately, violates the public's right to reason. It's time such behavior stops.



What Were They Thinking?

Good bad chouceThe question was posed in the headline of a New York Times editorial.  It concerned Volkswagen, accused of rigging auto software to manipulate emission readings and evade regulatory limits.

But it could have just as easily applied to the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals who bought the rights to a drug used to treat a rare but life-threatening infection and promptly jacked the price up from $13.50 a pill to $750.

It could even have applied to Ben Carson, neurosurgeon-turned-presidential-candidate, who said Muslims aren't fit to seek the office.

Carson sought shelter in the current campaign against "political correctness." The ostensible concern, explains the New Yorker's Jelani Cobb, "is that the parameters of polite (or at least non-bigoted) discussion get in the way of truth-telling, leaving us with good feelings and palliative falsehoods."

Of course, as Cobb also points out, there is no necessary relationship between truthfulness and offensiveness. One does not naturally flow from the other. A lot of what passes for political correctness -- e.g., using gender neutral sentence construction, avoiding racist and homophobic slurs, etc. -- is actually an effort to conform our language to more enlightened ethics. Carson's offense was not failing to respect political correctness, but engaging in religious bigotry. 

Similarly, Volkswagen and Turing's behavior represent ethical failures. Some will argue that Turing was simply attempting to price its drug to what the market will bear. The "market" reacted and now the company will adjust. That's how capitalism works.

It will be harder for Volkswagen to cloak itself in the principles of the free market. Even Milton Friedman, outspoken apologist for capitalism, cautioned that, in the pursuit of "shareowner value," companies had to "follow the rules of the road." 

Unfortunately, the only limit most companies put on trying to shape those rules is what they can get away with. And it isn't a long leap from that to trying to circumvent the rules entirely. Especially if you think your basic purpose -- or reason for being -- is to generate profits.

That, alas, is what the people at Volkswagen and Turing who were ultimately responsible for this behavior were thinking. But they misunderstood their purpose. Sure it's to create value, but not just for the people who own the company. They also need to create value for everyone who contributes to their company's successes and bears the risk of its failures.  

That is a company's true ethical purpose. And that's what should guide every capitalist's thinking.






Web journalism arrives

Journalism.001The Internet ran over journalism. And a lot of people are just waiting for the victim to stop twitching so they can bury it. 

There are plenty of reasons to despair that it was a hit-and-run. Advertising and readers fled print media to go online. Traditional newrooms emptying or shutting down completely. PR people now outnumber reporters 5 to 1 and make 40% more.

Worse, most of what runs on the leading "news" websites are repurposed stories from the remaining legacy media. Endless "listicles" seem to be the web's most signifiant contribution to the trade. Otherwise, partisanship reigns in online echo chambers of conspiracy hounds and smear mongers. Elsewhere the newsweb exhbits a weird fascination with cute pets, ordinary people being stupid, and celebrities behaving badly.

But now a ray of hope has emerged from that dark cloud -- a one-man story factory named Steven Brill partnered with Huffington Post on invesigative journalism worthy of the likes of Upton Sinclair and Seymour Hersh at their best.

 "America's Most Admired Lawbreaker" is a 15-part narrative about Johnson & Johnson's marketing of the anti-psychotic drug Risperdal for "off-label" ailments like dementia in the elderly and autism in children. 

Brill is a lawyer-turned journalist-turned entrepreneur who founded American Lawyer magazine in  1979 and Court TV in 1989. After that, he turned his attention to other ventures, some of which failed (e.g., Brill's Content) and some of which succeeded (e.g., Journalism Online, sold to R. R. Donnelly for $45 million in 2011). Inbetween, he has written book-length invesigations into everything from America's public schools to its healthcare system.

Brill can type faster than most of us can write. His output is prodigious and its quality is first-rate. When he dives into a subject, he descends to the depths of an unmanned submarine and he turns over rocks embedded in the seabed for millennia.  

I should add here that I have no idea if the accusations he makes about J&J are accurate. But I should also note that the company has settled federal, state, and private suits over its marketing of Risperdal to the tune of more than $2.5 billion. 

But what's remarkable about Brill's story is not only its length, but the way it exploits all the capabilities of the web. This story was carefully constructed with sidebar links to videos, trial transcripts, depositions, and other primary source material that expands on the narrative and gives readers an opportunity to make their own judgments.

It's a devestating chronicle, exactly the opposite of shoveling content online. And an example of what web journalism may one day be. It also represents both a challenge and an opportunity for public relations practitioners. 

The opportunity of course is to use the same techniques to tell an organization's own story. The challenge is what to do when someone else uses them to tell a story about you.

J&J alas may be a case study of the latter. And every public relations practitioner should read and view "America's Most Admired Lawbreaker," not for schandenfreud's sake but as an object lesson in the power of new media.




Beth Comstock

Comstockgreyseat-2The big danger in writing a book that profiles leaders in any field is that they won't be in their current position by the time the book comes out. That's especially true in marketing where the lifespan of the typical CMO is about the same as a fruit fly's.

So I started writing Secrets of the Marketing Masters with some trepidation. Sure enough, by the time the book was published, only one of the six marketers I profiled was still on the job. 

But my book's lonely exception proved my contention that marketing is not about downstream functions like sales or advertising but about satisfying customers' upstream needs, values, and aspirations. It's less about selling something than figuring out what customers need and how to provide it.

Beth Comstock had just become GE's chief marketing officer when I interviewed her more than a decade ago. And that was clearly her philosophy, not only in rhetoric but in practice.

She's not only still at the company, she was just appointed one of four vice chairs reporting to CEO Jeff Immelt.  She's still CMO, but her responsibilities have been broadened to include the entire purview of "Business Innovation." 

This excerpt from Secrets of the Marketing Masters helps explain how it came to be:

In a company with fabled bench strength, [GE CEO Jeff Immelt] made his top public relations executive the company’s first chief marketing officer since Welch had abolished the position 20 years before.  Immelt charged her with driving innovation throughout the company’s ranks. 

At first, her appointment as CMO had people outside the company, as well as some GE lifers, scratching their heads.  The fast-talking 42 year-old had begun her career covering the Virginia state legislature for a local news service, and later moved to GE's NBC, working in media relations in Washington and New York. ... By 1996, Ms. Comstock was NBC's chief spokeswoman, before becoming senior VP-NBC corporate communications. ... About two years later, in August of 1998, perhaps thinking about the imminent launch of his successor, Welch appointed her the company’s vice president of corporate communications.

An autodidact throughout her career, when Immelt broadened Comstock’s responsibilities to include marketing, she gave herself 90 days to figure out what she was supposed to do. She studied best practices at companies from Procter & Gamble to FedEx and 3M. She brought in a raft of marketing gurus and peppered them with questions.  And most importantly, she spent time with the company’s business leaders.

GE’s structure was the other reason people wondered why the company needed a chief marketing officer. Each of the conglomerate’s divisions handled its own marketing and was fiercely independent. Their mantra was “if you tell me what to do, you can also take responsibility for my numbers.”  That’s what had led Welch to eliminate the position in the first place. What would a chief marketing officer do at GE, other than preside over quarterly show-and-tell sessions that led nowhere?  

But Immelt had a little more than that in mind. ... In the fall of 2003, Immelt emerged from a series of long-range strategy sessions with his division leaders and told Comstock he was struck how often the environment and climate change came up in their discussions of emerging trends that would impact their businesses over the next five to ten years.  “I think there’s something there,” he told her, but I don’t know what. See what you can do with it.” 

To Comstock, taking on environmental issues seemed like a big leap for a company that had spent much of the previous decade refusing to excavate toxic chemicals it had dumped into the Hudson River (which was legal when GE did it).  What was widely perceived as the company’s “arrogance” had made it one of the environmental movement’s favorite targets.    

But she dutifully began an 18-month investigation of the issue, bringing in some of GE’s biggest customers for what she billed as “discovery sessions” with the company’s top leaders. In the course of the two-day sessions, 35 customers at a time, in industries such as energy, aviation or water debated market and technology trends with senior GE executives, including Immelt.  In effect, they were asked to imagine life in 2015—and the products they would need from GE.

Comstock and the other GE executives took away a clear message: rising fuel costs, ever tighter environmental regulations and growing consumer expectations will translate into demand for cleaner technologies across all of the company’s infrastructure businesses, which represented nearly 90 percent of revenue. ...

The company’s “ecomagination” campaign grew out of these sessions.  But Comstock hesitated to move too quickly.  Instead she began a year long “listening tour” among employees, customers, investors, activists and public officials. The basic idea had come from customers, but they cautioned the company not to get too far ahead of them, especially in talking to public officials.  Not too surprisingly, the other constituencies were all somewhat skeptical, especially the company’s own employees. 

“Our internal audience was the toughest,” Comstock remembers.  “They were worried it was just a PR campaign, that it wasn’t real. Some doubted we could deliver.  And they were all aware of the company’s very public battle to keep from removing PCBs from the Hudson River.”  To Comstock, this was a make or break issue.  “If employees don’t buy in, customers won’t either,” she says. “Marketing is all about culture — internally and externally. You can’t create something that sticks unless you get into the culture.” 

Skepticism was not limited to lunchbox toting rank-and-file employees.  Immelt told Vanity Fair magazine that by his count eight out of ten of the company’s senior executives “were against the plan” when they first heard about it in December of 2004. Comstock remembers the boardroom presentation as an audience of frowns that got deeper with every PowerPoint slide.  Over the following months, Immelt and Comstock laid out the argument for the program.  The company had already invested in it – as the number one producer of power-plant equipment, airplane engines and locomotives, it had little choice. 

Years of R&D had already given it the most efficient large-scale energy technologies on the market.  ... With the exception of the Hudson River controversy, GE actually has a good record on environmental performance.  Yale University's Center for Environmental Law and Policy gave the company plaudits for setting high standards and for holding managers accountable for meeting them. Finally, clean energy was vital in the overseas markets GE had already targeted for 60 percent of its growth and where major customers were subject to the Kyoto Protocol. 

Immelt summed up his pitch in a slogan that may have sealed the deal internally, as well as among other skeptical constituencies – “Green is green,” he says.  One thing GE employees do understand is the company’s relentless focus on revenue and profit.  “Ecomagination” was not being adopted because it was trendy, or even the moral thing to do.  It was about making money by giving customers what they need.

Immelt himself launched the “ecomagination” campaign in mid-2005, repeating his “green is green” slogan during simultaneous news conferences in Washington, DC, Brussels and Tokyo. Comstock says it resonated even more powerfully than she expected.  There were a few critics who sniffed “greenwash,” but by and large the environmental community took a wait and see attitude.  Immelt’s decision to negotiate an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the Hudson River obviously contributed to the cease-fire. 

But the campaign also rang true to most people.  The case histories were modest and believable.  GE salespeople were armed with “score-cards” that told customers in dollars and cents exactly what the lower emissions and higher fuel efficiency of a new GE product meant to them in fuel savings. And, in typical GE fashion, the company integrated the campaign into its business processes ... with targets and metrics to track progress.  Overall, GE set a very public goal to increase revenue from clean energy products from about $10 billion in 2005 to $20 billion in 2010. 

GE beat that goal. By the middle of 2014, the Harvard Business Review was able to declare, "The company has reaped $160 billion from the program since 2005. These revenues grew twice as fast as total company sales, providing a critical crutch in the post-financial-meltdown years (GE gets about half its business from financial services)."

And that is why Beth Comstock was made vice chair of GE. 

By the way, Secrets of the Marketing Masters was just published in Mandarin. Somewhere in China some young marketer is looking at Beth Comstock as a model to imitate. Not a bad idea for us all. 




TrumpPoor Jeb Bush. As if his last name were not enough of a millstone, he has to put up with advice like the following from a so-called "image expert," as conveyed by the Wall Street Journal's "Think Tank."

To win the White House, Jeb should: 

  1. Dress for success. Wear a crisp shirt and nice tie.
  2. Ditch the glasses. Wear contacts.
  3. Set the stage.  Make sure you have the right backdrop.
  4. Use pre-packaged sound bites. Don't wing it.
  5. Get a better slogan. "Right to Rise" isn't working.
  6. Be more fun, like The Donald.

Well, think again.

I can understand why Republican candidates are frustrated. They're being Trumped by the P. T. Barnum of real estate developers turned reality TV star turned political candidate. And according to some political analysts, while his lead may be over-stated, it looks like he'll be around for a while. 

But beating Trump will require more than slicker packaging. The guy's speeches are incoherent, his policies no more sophisticated than the guy's on the next barstool, and his hair is a joke. Still, he's ahead. 


In marketing terms, I think it's because professional Republicans and Democrats have wrecked their category. They've given politics an even worse reputation than it had. Something Will Rogers would have thought impossible.

Everyone knows political polarization hasn't been this bad since the Civil War. The inevitable consequence is less well understood.  

In a 2012 Pew Research study, 76% of Americans agreed: “it’s time for Washington politicians to step aside and make room for new leaders.” And Republicans are even more likely than Democrats or Independents to want new leaders, "even if they're less effective than experienced politicians."

Well, Trump certainly appears to qualify.

His competitors, including Jeb Bush, need to figure out how to tap into voters' anger about politics as usual without appearing to be, well, politicians. 




Unlocking minds

Closed mindNothing is harder to change than a made-up mind. We're hard-wired to protect our pre-existing attitudes and beliefs by ignoring data that contradict them and paying more attention to those that agree. We like people of like mind and, by and large, that's who we hang out with, online and in the real world. We wear our opinions like a badge.

In fact, strong opinions carry strong feelings.  Back in the 1920s, columnist Walter Lippmann observed “Opinions are not in continual and pungent contact with the facts they profess to treat.  But the feelings attached to those opinions can be even more intense than the original ideas that provoked them.” Attack my opinion about something like the dangers of childhood vaccination and you're attacking me. Not to mention my kids.

Now it turns out those feelings may be the trap door through which opinions can be affected.  A recent study shows it's more effective to appeal to oponents of childhood vaccination through their emotions, by showing them photos of children sick with measles, mumps or meningistis. A New York Times writer calls this "a reminder that subjective feelings are still trusted over scientific expertise." 

Come to think of it, politicians seem to have tumbled to this many elections ago, as demonstrated by the current leader in the GOP primaries. Maybe it's time for companies to pay more attention to it.



Like a girl

Bic adEveryone knows sexism is wrong. Yet company after company stumbles into situations like the ads Bic posted on Facebook and then took down in the heat of a subsequent firestorm.

Is it because sexism is a matter of taste and highly subjective?  Or is it because, like many ethical issues, few people understand the principles by which to judge something right or wrong, good or bad? 

Make no mistake: sexism is an ethical issue, not simply a question of taste or manners.

Bic's ad is sexist because it's built on a demeaning series of stereotypes - literally de-meaning because they rob women of what it means to be female. It denies their full human possibilities.  It essentially says that to succeed women have to dress and act like pretty girls, while hiding the fact that they can think and work like men.  

That violates the three major ethical theories of virtue, duty, and consequences. Not to mention contemporary feminist ethics. It is uncaring, unjust, and obnoxious.

Like a girlAt the other end of the spectrum are ads promoting Always feminine hygiene products.

I have no inside information on the thinking behind the Always campaign, but I suspect it wasn't entirely idealistic.

Always' marketing team probably despaired of convincing women to switch away from the brand they had been using since puberty. So they chose to focus on their daughters and selected a message that would resonate with both -- girls can do anything, and they shouldn't let anyone put them down by saying they throw, run, or do anything "like a girl."

It's great branding. And ethically, it was a home run.  




Deja vu all over again

CokeOne of the cases in my new book about public relations ethics concerns the tobacco industry's 20-year effort to sow doubt about the dangers of smoking. It was a diabolically clever campaign dreamed up by the Hill & Knowlton PR firm back in the 1950s.

The idea was to create a scientific-sounding group with two goals: first, to raise questions about research linking cigarettes with cancer and heart disease and second, to find and publicize other causes such as pollution, bad diets, and genetics.

The Wall Street Journal called it "the longest-running disinformation campaign in U.S. business history." 

I included this case with some trepidation because it happened so long ago. Apparently, that concern was unwarranted because just this week the technique resurfaced on behalf of a new industry: soft drinks.

Coca-Cola  is sponsoring the "Global Energy Balance Network" to suggest exercise -- not cutting calories -- is the best way to control obesity. 

Faced with declining sales, Coke -- like the tobacco companies before it -- is trying to sow doubt about the major contribution surgary soft drinks make to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. 

It's the 1950s all over again.