I don’t usually review unsolicited books in the mail, but this one is worth comment. In spite of its unfortunate title, Spin Sucks, the 146-page volume is filled with useful information for the digital communicator. Every practitioner should have a copy of it on the desk until its lessons are memorized. The author, Gini Dietrich, runs her own integrated marketing agency in Chicago and is a speaker and lecturer. The book in 10 chapters has many examples of what to do and more importantly what not to do to tell a company’s story, generate content and handle the dark side of the internet. Most books are rehashes of the same ideas. This one is different. Chances are you will find yourself taking notes from page to page and wondering why you didn’t know that fact or idea. Dietrich is on the leading edge of where communications is going and where practitioners must be soon enough if they are to have careers while the older generation of media relations specialists shuffle off the scene. If there is one lesson she makes again and again, communications without spin is a marathon. It takes time, dedication and hard work. Those looking for a quick fix won’t find the book useful. The rest of us will.
What Would You Do?
What would you do as the PR leader of Herbalife? An activist hedge fund manager has bet a billion dollars that you will fail then launched lobbying campaigns to make sure that happens. There isn’t much precedent for such an overwhelming assault on the reputation of a company. The New York Times article yesterday might alleviate the pressure on the business, and it might break the stranglehold William Ackman has used to get his way. Even so, Herbalife can’t rest. The company’s mission has been compromised. It will have to work its way back to the graces of consumers if it can. And, who knows but Ackman might be right that the company is a pyramid scheme. However, his heavy-handed way of attacking Herbalife solely for the purpose of making money has made him look worse than the company. I’m sure the PR department already has reprints of yesterday’s article and is sending them out to influentials. It must seem like cool water after days in the desert.
It is no insight that people do not understand large numbers. Many can’t grasp a million, fewer still a billion and at best, a handful, a trillion. So, what is the import of $100 trillion of indebtedness? Journalists and communicators would strain almost any analogy to explain that. Using deep space distances would be as unreal to the average individual as the number of times dollar bills would stretch around the earth. The size strains imagination. Yet, that is what the world owes in debt. Perhaps the question should be, “How is the globe going to pay for it?” What does $100 trillion mean in terms of individual indebtedness and where is the money going to come from unless governments print it? The implications for inflation are there as well as economic collapse for some countries. To make the number real, it should be expressed in terms of “What it means to me?” Even then, an individual can’t quite understand a debt of $14,000 for every one of seven billion people on earth.
Legacy of Fear
The cultural fear of nuclear waste is so deep that even a minor incident can spark calls for removing a storage facility from an area. The nuclear industry has a public relations problem that it never has really solved and probably won’t. It is a NIMBY business in which there are no safe places to store waste because it is always too close to someone’s backyard. Yet, it has fission products with half-lives of hundreds of thousands of years. It has to store this material somewhere, and even if no more nukes are built, there is enough spent uranium in ponds through the US and elsewhere to create a disposal nightmare. It seems that most of society would prefer not to think about it — as long as it doesn’t come here. Sooner or later, the government must confront the problem head-on and by time that happens, there is a good chance of leakage into soils and more serious problems. The legacy of fear is buried deeply in the psyche of citizens and there is no answer for it.
The regional airline industry has an emerging crisis and reputational issue. It’s called crappy pay for pilots. The carriers pay so little that pilots won’t or can’t afford to work for them. This, of course, means those who do are flying either out of love for the craft or out of desperation. Let one plane plunge to the ground as a result of inept pilot error and the industry is going to be held accountable. The airlines plead poverty for themselves. They say they can’t afford to pay better because they need to hold down costs in order to win contracts from major carriers. Something is fundamentally wrong with the business if that is the case. A pilot’s skill and responsibility demands better pay than that of a janitor. Local airlines are gambling with the lives of passengers. One wonders why pilots and passengers haven’t rebelled yet.
Innocent but Guilty
Chevron won a long-standing fight with Ecuador’s native peoples by proving a court judgment against it for polluting was obtained through fraud. The case was egregious, but that doesn’t help the company much in the court of public opinion. There it stands convicted of fouling the Amazon rainforest. The public case against the company has run on for so long that those who are aware of it assume Chevron was at fault because it took on the liabilities of Texaco, which it acquired. It will take a prolonged effort on the part of the company to prove that it wasn’t, and even then, activists won’t accept the court’s ruling. This is one of those cases in which the company can’t win. Granted Chevron might be satisfied to avoid paying a $9.5 billion judgment and could live with the reputation of a polluter. Still, no company wants a black mark against it that it doesn’t deserve. Look for the company to play up its environmental consciousness in months to come.
When the Dam Breaks
One principle PR holds is never to get too high and mighty because there will come a time when things change. Then, arrogance is rewarded with revenge from those who have suffered under the overbearing presence of the haughty. Take this person. He dominated politics in New Jersey for several years with his bullying, take-no-prisoners style. Then, he slipped with a scandal now called “Bridgegate” when his people shut two lanes to the George Washington Bridge to punish a mayor of a town. Since then, the governor has been on a down-slope, doing damage control, trying to hold back flood waters of bile roaring his way. Had he been more accommodating in the first place, there is less likelihood the political position he is in today would be as severe. Of course, this isn’t always true. The President started by trying to get along with Republicans, and it got him nowhere. Still, had New Jersey’s governor been more persuasive than blunt, citizens would have been more supportive. Now voters wish he would go away, but there are four more years.
A medical marvel is always great publicity for the institution that produces it. Take, for example, this case. A surgeon at the Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville Kentucky used a 3D printer to build a model of a child’s defective heart so he could determine how to operate on it safely. It was a novel use of the printer and creative medicine. The hospital can justifiably take pride in the breakthrough and the publicity puts it near the forefront of medicine where researchers are building body parts out of human tissue. Moreover, it is good PR because it demonstrates what the hospital and its surgeons can do — a plus for worried patients and parents. Hospitals have never been slow to take marketing advantage of the breakthroughs produced in their wards. It is tried and true technique and still best.
Impostors and Reputation
For three years, Goldman Sachs has been embarrassed by a person who was posting comments heard in its elevators. Except, the person wasn’t in Goldman’s elevators nor was the person in Goldman. He is an impostor. Goldman was victimized not by a rogue employee but by someone who has never worked for the firm. While this might seem trivial, it is nonetheless a reputational problem. On the internet, anyone can pose as anyone else and vilify, mock or otherwise compromise the image of an organization or an individual. If the impostor is clever enough in covering his tracks, there is no reason for readers to believe that he is anything other than what he says he is. And, how is anyone to prove that he is not? There have been impostors through history. There is nothing new about them. The difference now is that they have a vast audience. This fellow had 600,000 followers. It seems that PR needs more than monitoring to protect clients. It needs good online tracking skills as well. Nothing would have stopped this impostor except exposure. Goldman was successful this time, but what about the next?
It is hard to argue for a state lottery. It is self-taxation that the poor and less educated inflict on themselves in pursuit of an empty dream. Yes, they should know their odds are slim, but as advertising says, “You never know.” So they buy tickets and governments raise funds rather than imposing new tax revenues. Everybody should be happy. The poor have an outlet for their dreams of entering high society. The state can pay bills. But, not so fast. States feed the dream to the poor and amplify it time and again to boost ticket sales. That runs on the edge of ethics. If a state were honest, it would publicize the chances of winning—e.g. 1 in 300 million, or the population of the United States. But, they aren’t honest, and they clothe games in cash, jewelry, houses and expensive cars. All this could be yours if you hit the jackpot. One would hope governments would be more honest with citizens than commercial entities with customers, but that isn’t the case. States hype and they are proud of it.