Dec 07

Don’t weep for Rummy

Rumsfeld_cartoon_75pc_2 Newly named Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has received positive reviews and immediate Senate confirmation for his new Cabinet gig. Nearly universal praise is being heaped on Gates for being open and honest about the nightmare that is the War in Iraq.

Simultaneously, deposed chieftain Donald "Rummy" Rumsfeld is being pilloried for an obviously misguided military strategy and implementation. But, as bad as things in Iraq have become (even Matt Lauer is calling it a ‘Civil War’ for heaven’s sake, as Rummy himself would say), the erstwhile Secretary will probably be best remembered for his evasive, vitriolic and just plain rude exchanges with the media.

The guy refused to ever admit there were problems, said that "… goes to war with what one has" and predicted, along with the vice president, that U.S. troops would be showered by flowers and greeted as liberators by Iraqi citizens. But, hey, that was then and this is now. Like Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and other "celebs" who have shot themselves in the foot (sorry for the quail-hunting analogy), Rummy can afford to just sit back and wait for the dust to settle. Happily for him, he has tons of options in the short-term future. He can do absolutely nothing (unlikely). He can go on the lecture circuit a la Messrs Welch, Clinton and Giuliani, and pull down a cool $100k per session (possible). Or, he can pen his memoirs for a huge, multi-million dollar fee and do a media tour of the morning talk shows (probable).

Either way, Rummy is sitting pretty. He may have left behind a car wreck of a situation in Iraq that could take years, if not decades, to correct. But, even his most ardent supporters should keep their handkerchiefs warm and dry. Rummy will be back (and better than ever).

Feb 27

TV may not be hurting our kids, but it sure doesn’t help

A new University of Chicago study shows "very little difference and if anything, a slight positive advantage, in test scores for children who grew up watching TV early on, compared to those who did not."

Now, I’m not qualified to comment on the impact of TV on test scores, but I do feel qualified to discuss what I see as the impact of TV and computers on the ability of young people to write.

Poor writing (make that horrific writing) is PR’s dirty little secret. And each year it gets a little worse. I cannot tell you how many of my peers at the senior ranks of our profession lament the state of writing among next generation publicists entering the field.

I’d have to be equal parts sociologist, anthropologist, economist and educator to even begin to guess at all the reasons for the stark decline. But, in my mind, it comes down to a profound lack of reading and a proportionately high increase in TV viewing and reliance on the computer. Television and computers tend to "dumb down" the language and encourage grammatical short cuts and outright bastardizations of the language.

Sadly, the situation only seems to be getting worse. So, while I’m glad TV doesn’t hurt test scores, I can tell you it’s directly contributing to the rejection of many job candidates we interview who, in their writing tests, mangle the proper use of "its," "there" and "to," and love to use the phrase "should of" instead of "should have". It’s almost enough to make me want to not watch tonight’s episode of "24." Almost, but not enough.

Feb 16

Maybe we should just pack up our tents and go home

First comes the news that a low fat, high fiber diet makes absolutely no difference in one’s health and well-being. Today, we learn that calcium and vitamin D supplements provide no benefit whatsoever to women over 50 hoping to stave off the horrific effects of osteoporosis. Nor do the supplements prevent colorectal cancer. And, and here’s the kicker; calcium and vitamin D supplements actually increase one’s risk of kidney stones.

Isn’t it comforting to know that, in today’s uncertain world, pretty much everything we’ve been told about our diet, health and fitness has been wrong? Or at least seriously flawed? It makes me feel like running over to the nearest McDonalds and supersizing myself.

It seems like we can’t trust our doctors and scientists. We can’t trust our elected officials (although that’s nothing new). We have grave doubts about our religious leaders. Our sports and entertainment heroes are doping themselves up with steroids, gambling on games and being arrested for all sorts of lewd and lascivious deeds.

All of this bad karma reminds me of one of my all-time favorite business war stories from the dotcom days. At the time, we were representing a dotcom that aimed to provide vision testing over the web. Once we were hired and dived into their business model, however, we uncovered any number of fundamental flaws in the way in which they’d actually administer the traditional vision test. One day, our account manager was really laying into them about the site’s shortcomings. The conversation became so heated that, at one point, the marketing manager sighed and exclaimed, "Maybe we should just pack up our tents and go home."

That statement nails my feelings about the diet and fitness news. And, yes maam, I’ll take an extra large order of fries to go with my supersized Big Mac.

Feb 15

I’ll take Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, too. Oh, and throw in some NYC-branded condoms to go

Just when one thinks he’s seen and heard everything comes news that the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is "…currently developing the first NYC-branded condom."

The department spokesperson says the branding effort was created so they "…can later track the effectiveness of our distribution."

The announcement obviously ticked off the more conservative elements of New York society such as religious institutions and social conservatives because, they say, it promotes "certain lifestyles."

As far I’m concerned, though, this is an absolutely brilliant branding strategy by the City, and fits in beautifully with the way in which they’ve merchandised NYC police and fire department merchandise.

I have no doubt the condoms will become incredibly popular and generate significant revenue for the City’s coffers.

I have to believe the hoards of tourists visiting the City will snap up the branded condoms in bushel loads. And, I can just imagine the conversation. "C’mon Fred. We have to buy a six pack for the gang back home in Omaha. Just imagine Marge’s reaction when I give her a NYC-branded condom."

Beautiful. Just beautiful. And, it could only happen in New York….

Feb 14

Talk about strange bedfellows

There’s no doubt that truth can be stranger than fiction. Take this example. An Italian company called Edizioni Musicali Terzo Millennio has purchased the rights to 23 prayers written by the late pontiff, Pope John Paul II.

According to a company spokesman, the Rev. Guiseppe Moscali, the goal is to have international artists set the prayers to music. So far, so good. But, here’s where the tale takes a bizarre twist.

Among the artists interested in recording the prayers is Michael Jackson. Talk about a moth being attracted by the flame that kills it. What must Jacko be thinking? Having barely escaped being convicted on pedophilia charges, he now decides to sing songs from the erstwhile leader of the Roman Catholic Church, an institution staggered by countless charges of pedophile priests running rampant in their ranks?Mj

And what must the Church be thinking? One wonders if the Vatican spinmeisters had Jacko riffs in mind as they began carefully nurturing John Paul II’s legacy? (i.e."Say, Fabrizio, can’t you just picture Michael Jackson moon dancing his way through the pope’s prayer to the Blessed Mother?").

Either way, this has to be one of the most bizarre partnerships in recent memory. And a very questioinnable image and reputation move on the part of both Mr. Jackson and Rev. Moscali.

Feb 12

Me thinks the media doth protest too much

There’s nothing like a good old snowstorm to whip the media into a heightened state of frenzy. Each local channel seems bent on outdoing the other with “live team coverage” from Route 17 in Ramsey, the Saw Mill Parkway in Westchester County or Jericho Turnpike on Long Island.

In each instance, we see the intrepid reporters bravely battling the elements to let us know that, yes indeed, it is snowing. And, yes indeed, it’s probably a good idea to stay inside and ride out the storm. They use words and phrases like “the blizzard of ’06,” and “it’s bearing down on us like an out-of-control freight train” and “we should all just hunker down and ride it out as best we can” to heighten the gravitas of the moment. At the same time, the daring field correspondents seek out local residents and sanitation roadcrews in every area and seem genuinely depressed when the interviewees say things like, “It’s really not that bad,” or “I’m able to get around pretty easily.”

When the wind-and snow-whipped reporters turn things over to their peers inside the warm studios, the latter make sure to express their concern and admiration for their daring counterparts braving the raging snowstorm.

What must “real” journalists covering “real” crises like the war in Iraq, mass genocide in Africa and the ever-more scary bird flu think of these local yokels?

It’s one thing to accurately and responsibly report weather as a news story and then move on to other, more pressing matters of the day. It’s quite another to “blanket” the airwaves with 24×7 hype and hyperbole aimed at heightening ratings and scaring the bejesus out of viewers. One wonders how these same local “journalists” will respond if, and when, a truly calamitous event besets the tri-state area? Back to you in the studio, Maurice..

Feb 03

The mother of all media gaffes?

The recent controversy thrown up by the decision of several European newspapers to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed gives us an interesting insight into the editorial policies of many media outlets.

The row originated in Denmark when the Jyllands-Posten newspaper commissioned and published a series of cartoons, one of which shows Mohammed wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse and another portraying him holding a sword and his eyes covered by a black rectangle. Islam forbids the Prophet to be depicted in any way, let alone in such a degrading manner. The illustrations, published on the front page, were republished in newspapers in Norway, France, Germany, Spain and Italy and have created uproar in the Middle East where Danish products have been boycotted, bomb threats have been made and Syria and Libya have taken diplomatic action.

In covering the story, most European media outlets seem to have adopted one of two strategies. First, front page reprints of the cartoons with accompanying editorial declarations about freedom of speech. This was the the path taken by French newspaper France Soir – and it led to the sacking of the editor. On the other hand, outlets such as the BBC resorted to blurry shots of the cartoons and descriptions of what they show. This, for once, seems to be an example of responsible and tasteful reporting by the media. Whereas some publications have chosen to become part of the story, many have chosen to confine themselves to their primary role, reporting the news.

Hat tip to Carl Foster in Peppercom’s London office for his thoughts.

Jan 04

Crisis demands swift, but accurate, communication

The unfolding West Virginia mine disaster is a textbook example of poor crisis management. As we now know, the victims’ families were originally told by officials that 12 miners had survived. Three hours later, they corrected themselves and said only one person was still alive. The effect on the families can only be imagined.

As I was getting off my train this morning, I was horrified at the sight of several newspaper headlines. "Miracle!" was featured in large print on the front page of the NY Daily News and USA Today shouted "Alive!" when in fact all but one of the miners had died. From what I’ve read today Usatoday (who knows what to believe at this point), it looks like the majority of these reports were based off rumors that were spread at the scene from one person who obviously didn’t know what he was talking about. The media, who should know better, were so caught up in the hysteria and meeting print deadlines that they were willing to trust on-site chatter instead of waiting for an official confirmation.

Although the press jumped the gun, the WV state officials are even more at fault. According to several reports, WV Governor Joe Manchin visited a church where the families of the men were gathered, and declared "miracles do happen!" As the church bells rang, family members embraced one another and ran out with tears of happiness in their eyes. This premature announcement certainly generated a wave of excitement and false sense of hope amongst the local community and the entire nation. It will be interesting to see how the governor responds to the surge of criticism heading his way.

Regardless of who made the incorrect decision on the miscommunication, today’s incident is a painful example of the need for all organizations to prepare for different types of crises by doing advance simulations and to be sure the correct policies and procedures are in place BEFORE "the next big one" hits.

Dec 15

All I Want for Christmas is a… Massive Transit Worker Strike!

Like most New Yorkers who rely on mass transit to get to and from work, I’ve been closely following the story of the looming strike of all NYC transit workers, which would essentially halt all subway traffic and many of the commuter trains in and around NYC. Transit_strike_1

While I’m sympathetic to the workers’ desire for higher wages, increased pension benefits and more healthcare coverage, I’m appalled at the Union’s position of being hell-bent on striking and holding the City of New York as their hostage. Unions, in general, have not done well keeping pace with the changing face of business and the role they play in it. They claim to protect the rights of workers, and attempt to do so by threatening strikes and work slowdowns, in an effort to disrupt the businesses that employ their members.

However, I wonder how many MTA workers, aside from the people at the staged rallies, really want to strike, especially in light of a contract offer that does bring them considerable pay increases over the next two years. Are they really looking to be out of work with no income right before Christmas? Do they think the hundreds of dollars they pay each year in union dues are worth all of this? Furthermore, do they realize that a strike will cost small and medium-sized businesses in NYC hundreds of millions of dollars? The strike would hurt all the wrong people, including members of the union.

Unions, in their current state, are becoming more and more irrelevant in today’s economy. To survive, they must reinvent themselves and prove their value by better understanding the economic issues that drive considerations for wage increases and educating their members on how to protect themselves and diversify their capabilities as workers. Unions have a reputation problem and the theatrics being played out in NYC are not helping matters.

Aug 15

Navel Gazing at the Network Level

I was amused to read the various articles concerning ABC’s angst over who they’ll select to fill Peter Jennings’ shoes as nighttime network anchor.  Among the front-runners is Diane Sawyer who, insiders say, doesn’t want to do the evening gig because she’s too obsessed with overtaking arch nemesis Katie Couric in the morning talk show slot.

What amuses me is the thought of these executives weighing their various alternatives as their share of overall ratings continues to be dismembered by the likes of cable, the web and high-profile bloggers.  It’s akin to Nero’s fiddling while Rome burned.

Although there have been reports of the "Big Three" networks exploring alternative means of staying relevant, the fact remains that Sawyer, Couric, et al, are a slowly dying breed.  The less navel gazing about who fills the Jennings slot, the better.  It’s time to remove those Ostrich-like heads from the sand and figure out what current and next generation Amercians want in terms of their news and "infotainment."  Sad to say it, but Katie, Matt, Charlie, Diane, Brian and their ilk are the T Rex’s of broadcasting’s Jurassic Period.  And their reign as masters of the universe is fast coming to an end.