You used coins to do what?

08 February 2010

Someone brought up pay phones in a meeting yesterday.  Golden memories for me as a young media relations professional: conducting panicked searches for operational pay phones.  Then, one day, I was handed a phone the size of my shoe and the need for pay phones quickly became a distant memory.


The sudden jolt from pay phone to cell phone is akin to watching the shift from traditional to social media.  As a member of the “old-dog” generation, I’m trying to make sense of how I want to interact with social media. As a parent of three daughters under 10, I am also on the front lines of watching kids grow up in a generation where information can be accessed anywhere and the idea of a coin-operated phone is unfathomable.


With interactive channels now taking charge as the de-facto source of information, I enjoyed looking through in the research study last week from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (here).  I was particularly taken with their findings on LOCATION and INTERACTION.


Eighty-one percent of adults between ages 18-29 are wireless Internet users vs. 63% of 30-49 year olds and 34% of people over 50.  With 58% of 12-year olds owning cell phones (page 9 of report), these findings amplify the importance of going beyond thinking globally to think MOBILELY.  For more and more people, there is going to be little tolerance for “what do you mean I can’t access that?” Your brand needs to both everywhere AND anywhere.


Teens are also more interested in networking than broadcasting.  Just eight percent of teens are using Twitter (cool graphs in Washington Post), but 73% are using social networks.  One researcher posits that teens are becoming more protective of their personal information (here) and just want to stay connected to their friends.  It’s not enough to tell the world about your brand: you have to find a way to become meaningful across a rising number of smaller networks. 


My takeaway: spend more time thinking and studying where and how the interactions you want to be in are already taking place. Once you have a handle on those, you have a much better likelihood for credibly getting invited to the party.  What do you think?

Let’s hear it for the Supremes!

07 February 2010

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Last month the Supreme Court did what courts do; the justices issued a verdict based on the law. In the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment applies to corporations, non-profit organizations and labor unions just as it applies to individual persons. Rarely do we find issues that come so close to our profession as fodder for the Supremes so I couldn’t let this pass without a bit of punditry.

But first, a time out to note that within a week of their moment of clarity, the Supremes found themselves on the sharp end of an Obama ambush. While sitting as invited guests of the Congress at the State of the Union Address (just feet from the rostrum where the President delivered his remarks) the Court was subjected to a shocking insult from the President of the United States. It seems that the President’s progressive  view of the Constitution is out of synch with the interpretation of the founders intent provided by the Court. So President Obama decided to humiliate the Court in front of the entire nation. Classy move but I digress.

The decision doesn’t seem all that complicated and yet it was a 5-4 decision with a blistering condemnation from the dissenting justices. Writing for himself as well as Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor, Justice Stevens argues that the First Amendment right of free speech does not extend to corporations, labor unions and the like.

What the justices said in this case is that a union like the Service Employees International Union or a corporation like IBM could engage in their own political speech. So if the SEIU wants to buy radio or television commercials advocating the election of a candidate, they may do so and the money they spend is not subject to the limitations of the Federal Election Commission so long as they don’t coordinate with any candidate in the process of making their ads or their speech. So, as long as they’re on their own, they can say whatever they want. That is what the First Amendment says, according to the justices. Case closed.

One of the things that has been most troubling in the aftermath of the decision is the confusion about what it really was. I’ve heard a dozen smart pundits on television and radio describe it as opening the floodgates for money to pour into campaigns; I’ve heard supposedly serious journalists say that now corporations can give unlimited money to candidates whereas individuals are still limited to a couple of thousand dollars; even the White House predicted that now foreign corporations would be pouring money into campaigns here in the US. All of that is patently false and I believe those who have uttered those fearful predictions knew they were false.

To their credit, the White House “clarified” their remarks after a couple of days.

Back to our saga… The case was a challenge to provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform legislation enacted in 2002. The congress made a mistake by thinking that it was okay to limit political speech and the judges had the courage to assert the Constitutional protections of the most precious First Amendment. I’m glad they did. Not because I like the idea of corporations, unions and others spending scores of millions of dollars on political advertising. I hate that idea. But I love the Constitution and free speech and I don’t like the idea of the government limiting what anyone can say, particularly when that limit is aimed at political speech. I just don’t trust the government to be fair or objective in a thing like this.

It has been interesting to read the coverage of this case. Much of the ire has been directed at “corporations” who, it is presumed, will now spend millions of dollars on behalf of their favorite candidates. Little mention has been made of labor unions who have been already doing that for decades. I can’t imagine that very many corporations will open their own election advertising departments. It just isn’t the nature of corporations to do something like that. They’d end up offending nearly half of their customers (perhaps more), just for making the attempt.

So let’s all take a moment to applaud the justices for giving the First Amendment a little due. And if the corporations and unions let forth with a barrage of useless advertising in the next election cycle, let’s punish them by ignoring it.

Character and counseling clients

25 January 2010

There is a little known philosophy about the way we render counsel to our clients that we should be shouting from mountain tops. Not only because it was articulated and embraced by our founder, John W. Hill, but more importantly because it renders real value to our clients. And delivering client value is what keeps us in business.

John Hill believed in something he called the attorney adversary model of rendering counsel and practicing public relations on behalf of our clients. Based on what I’ve read, John was fond of analogies to the practice of law. He liked to note that while lawyers and judges who could cite precedent case law to bear a point; we are left with experience, judgment and our values and character as individual counselors or collectively as a firm. That raises a high standard and it is another reason I’m so very proud of my firm and the legacy on which we stand. It also allows for a wide spectrum of subjectivity in any particular challenge that we may be addressing with a client.

John Hill’s attorney adversary model saw the need for advocacy in context of the free enterprise system. He believed that our role was critical to driving consumer preference and behavior and, thus, ensuring vibrant competition and ultimately, commercial success. He was a big fan of free enterprise but he was also committed to working only with the clients were ethical and responsible as well as commercially savvy.

How important is character and integrity to what we do? John Hill thought it was paramount and I’m inclined to agree. When our clients believe that we are acting as an extension of what they see of themselves – when we become the functional “conscience” of the corporation – we are seen to be more essential and our relationship with the client is strengthened. Now, all that presumes that we are producing the results that we and the client agreed were appropriate and attainable. No results and the gig is up.

Obama delivers for organized labor: better late than never

04 December 2009

Although some might think that the timing is a bit off, others will see that the timing is right on target. While the country is obsessing about Tiger Woods, unemployment, health care reform, climategate, Afghanistan or – for those of you outside the US, the World Cup draw – organized labor has just received an early Christmas present from the White House.

The US Labor Department has given notice today that it will rescind rules that require detailed financial disclosure for labor unions and others with whom they are affiliated. Remember that this is the very same administration that championed greater transparency and claims that a lack of visibility has enabled Wall Street execs to walk away from the current financial mess with their pockets stuffed full of ill-gotten gain.

The financial disclosure that is about to be rescinded for labor union leaders is exactly the protection that union members and working people need so that they can see where their dues money is being spent. Why would you rescind that? Public companies have to comply with onerous Sarbanes-Oxley requirements for the good of shareholders; the current financial disclosure requirements that unions have to comply with are far less stringent and transparent.

This move is a slap at working men and women and it is a license for labor leaders to steal or misappropriate funds taken from the backs or the wallets of their members. Labor leaders do not want to be accountable for how they spend the money that they take from the working men and women they are supposed to represent and serve. They have fought for this change since it was implemented. They even issued a demand for it in a letter delivered to the President on January 20, 2009, his inauguration day. They wanted the change in the first 100 days. I suppose that in delaying it, the administration has decided that a year’s worth of transparency and accountability is enough.

As a further insult to working people, this sleight of hand has received virtually no intention in the media. On the Modified Mercalli scale, I’d have to give this a level VIII “damage considerable for the ordinary…” It is a major shift away from what could best be described as modest transparency and not a word from the major media. A couple of searches on Yahoo! and Google found one substantive blog post as well as a link to this same post on a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canada’s national public broadcaster

As I seem to say at least once a day, thank God for Canada!

What’s in a name?

26 November 2009

At long last we’ve settled on a name for our blog page emanating from San Francisco and we hope it raises a few eyebrows. The Modified Mercalli Scale is the precursor to the more familiar Richter Scale — the measure of the intensity of an earthquake. We like the Modified Mercalli as a name for our blog, not just because it will cause people to say “what’s that?” but because we believe it is a clever expression of our insight and ability to evaluate the intensity and impact of events in our world.

And it’s fun.

The Modified Mercalli replaced the Mercalli scale in use at the beginning of the 20th century. It contained twelve levels of intensity, marked by Roman numerals, to describe an earthquake. So, instead of a magnitude 5.8 on the Richter scale (as we would describe an earthquake today) the geologist using the Modified Mercalli might have called that same event a “level V - Rather Strong: Felt outside by most, may not be felt by some outside in non-favourable conditions. Dishes and windows may break and large bells will ring. Vibrations like large train passing close to house.” That’s how the scale describes a level V event. It may not be the kind of precision we’re used to of late but you definitely know what happened when you read that description!

So as my colleagues in San Francisco and I observe and share our assessment of our world in this space, we may, from time to time, invoke the Modified Mercalli to paint a picture of intensity and impact. We might, for example, describe COP15 as a level IV event; one in which “some are awakened” if that is a reasonable assessment. We’ll have fun with it and we’ll call upon it when and where it matters. We hope that our readers will do the same. If you think we’ve over or under-estimated the seismic intensity of an event, we want to hear from you.

“Unions Get Snarky With Big Banks”

23 November 2009

I was impressed with the job that this journalist did with her story on the SEIU’s campaign against the Bank of America. While I don’t believe, in this case, that the union is seeking to organize B of A employees, their tactics bear the hallmark of a corporate campaign. In this case, I believe the union is simply using the bank as a target of opportunity to demonstrate their relevance on an issue that is in the spotlight of late. I believe that they (big labor) want to show the administration and the congressional majority that they will be in the middle of every issue of interest.

I’m not sure that spending money – reportedly hundreds of thousands of dollars of union members’ dues – to beat up on the Bank of America is a good use of working people’s money. But labor unions in general, and this union in particular, are never hesitant to spend the money of their members – working men and women – to advance the political agenda of the union leadership. I think that is what this was about.

I am sharing this clip because I believe it is good positioning for our firm and I believe that Alice Gomstyn has done a good job with the subject.

Thoughts? Comments?

Words matter. Maybe more when they’re not spoken.

14 November 2009

We know that words matter but the words that are being self-censored from the network news coverage on this Fort Hood shooting are a little disturbing. I have noticed reluctance among television news coverage in particular to use the words terrorist or terrorism. The Culture and Media Institute (CMI) apparently saw the same thing and dug into it a little bit deeper, issuing a report on November 11 on the topic.

In reviewing network news coverage of the story from November 5 through November 10, CMI found that 85 percent of the network news stories on the shooting didn’t mention the word “terror.” The evening news programs of the three broadcast networks referenced terrorism connections to the Fort Hood attack just seven times in 48 reports. The authors challenge the media for what they see as a dangerous manifestation of political correctness.

I’m concerned about this. We know that words matter and that in mass communication, they should be chosen with care. But I’m concerned that out of a fear of offending anyone, the media are self-censoring and depriving the public of a clear understanding of facts and context around an important news story. I believe that if this is a trend, we and our democracy are the worse for it. I don’t think I’m alone on this. Is there a trend here or are we just afraid to say that we have almost certainly just had the first terrorist attack on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001? Am I misreading all this and worrying unnecessarily?

Major Nidal Malik Hasan is in serious trouble but I fear that the peril for our nation may be just as gravely serious.

“Four out of five dentists” may have misled you. But the government is going to save you. From yourself.

24 October 2009

I’m not enamored of silly and useless government regulation. I’m particularly uncomfortable with the variety of regulation that is designed to save me from myself.

I know that cheeseburgers aren’t good for me so I don’t need a warning label on a Big Mac. I do kind of like the scary information on calorie count and fat content that I saw on all the menus at the food court the last time I was waiting for a flight at JFK. That was useful information and I appreciated it.

The latest from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), however, is just silly. The FTC announced that it has approved final revisions to its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials (Guides). A very complete review of the Guides was provided to the Council of Public Relations Firms by the venerable law firm of Davis & Gilbert. The text of that review is available here.

So if a blogger receives a mobile phone from a company along with some encouragement to do a review and write about it, said blogger is expected to make full disclosure of what she or he received and what the value of that consideration might be. Failure to do that could result in a fine.

The government is trying to protect us from unscrupulous writers who are flacking for someone without informing the reader or the viewer. That’s just silly. I’ve long appreciated Walt Mossberg’s product reviews in the Wall Street Journal and I just presume that Walt gets a lot of free stuff. What matters to me is that his review is thoughtful and substantiated. I don’t swallow every word and if I’ve ever been unhappy with something that Walt recommended, I don’t blame him.

If I wanted the inside view of Bank of America products, I’d probably ask someone who works for the Bank or another customer that uses the product. That one is paid and the other may be feted is of no concern to me. I ask people whom I trust and who I believe to be critical thinkers. Why does the government need to have a role here?

What bothers me is this notion that we all have to be protected from our own lack of intellectual rigor. If we’re going to go down this path, I don’t know why we shouldn’t know the political affiliation of every journalist who is writing about healthcare or the Administration’s economic program. I read an AP story today that was about President Obama renewing his pledge to have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by next August. Great.  A story about the President planning to keep a promise. Well, there was no by-line on the story at all. I would like to know if the reporter is an Obama supporter and if she or he voted for the President last year. Given that the President is struggling with lagging job approval ratings – and the fact that this isn’t really news – I’d like to know the motive of the person that wrote it.

Actually, I could care less. Because, I believe that I’m a critical thinker. My point is that the FTC Guides are silly and useless. They protect us from the one thing for which you cannot ultimately protect us from and that is our own naiveté. There is plenty of other stuff for the FTC to be worrying about. Whether some blogger got a free phone or a DVD to review just doesn’t rise to that level for me.

While we’re on the subject, who are those “four out of five dentists” and did they get any free chewing gum?

David Letterman blew it. He traded a short-term win for long-term sacrifice in his Q score

15 October 2009

Protect the brand. Do the right thing. Those are our mantras in risk communication and David Letterman failed on both accounts.

Letterman’s recent awkward confession over his serial infidelity was, in the eyes of some, a stroke of genius and an example of brilliant timing. I’ve had fellow communication professionals opine that his ability to get in front of the story, to shape and own the message and to set the tone on his own terms is exactly what we all counsel our clients. I respectfully disagree with that view.

Letterman made a conscious decision to shape the story into something that served his near term objectives. He made himself the victim and he made a laugh out of his infidelity, his workplace misconduct and just plain creepy – some might say, predatory – behavior. His on-air revelation was a story about an extortionist. He told us a story of someone else’s criminal misconduct that ended with the other fellow’s arrest. His own misbehavior was buried in a punch line.

His decision to go the way he did will have scored him a short term win but he’ll suffer for it longer term. This is sure to be the defining moment of Letterman’s career. It will be his epitaph, metaphorically speaking. His viewers who laughed uncomfortably when they realized that he wasn’t kidding have seen through his spin and the replay of his decision to do something other than just ‘come clean’ will give the more thoughtful consumer of television entertainment time to see the narcissism of the approach.

It was not a good chapter in the career of a comedian at the top of his game. Just as he managed to pick up the opportunity that NBC left on the table with the shift in their lineup, he found a way to undo that opportunity with his own human frailty compounded by a self-centered non-apology. With all due respect to those who have tipped their hats to his attempt to deflect his indiscretion and control the message, Letterman failed to accept one of the fundamentals of risk communication – one of the “five Rs” as I like to call them. He failed to accept responsibility appropriately. In so doing, he has sealed his own fate.