Friday, June 27, 2008

Friday Freakin'

Outside Inside the Box Edition

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Dominant Narrative Begins with Framing the Debate

Among the attorneys we work with regularly, litigators by far have the greatest understanding of what PR is trying to accomplish. Their job is to persuade people, whether those audiences are juries or jurists. Sound familiar?

When we’re called in before a filing, I always ask to speak to the litigation counsel. Horse’s mouth, and all that. One phrase they love is “getting to the courthouse first.”

In a court of law (as I understand it – not a lawyer) the court considers the initiating motion first. The poor sap who gets to the courthouse second has the challenge of first refuting everything that the petitioner said, and then replacing it in the judge’s/jury’s mind with something completely contradictory to the 30 or so pages they’ve just read.

This is why writing is such an important skill for attorneys. It’s also why, after a few hundred years of common law and case law, legal writing became all-but-unintelligible to the rest of us. But I digress.

Still, ceteris paribus, he who gets to the courthouse first usually wins because his case becomes the dominant narrative that must be displaced.

A few weeks ago I commented on the “clean coal” campaign being waged in adverting and media relations. In Ohio, where I live, this is a big deal because coal not only means jobs in mines and mills &c., it generates most of our electricity. With petroleum – and therefore gasoline, heating oil – and natural gas prices going through the roof, “clean coal” seems like a pretty good deal.


Calm down. This isn’t politics. “Clean coal” is a technology, not an energy source.

The phrase (or at least the campaign) was created by some individual who understands the dominant narrative theory. The coal industry has managed to introduce a new term to the debate and now anybody who wants to play has to use their (preferred narrative) term to participate in the conversation.

How can anybody be against “clean” coal? It’s like being against “fluffy” puppies.

Even when they grow up to be Pit Bulls.

Damn, I love this job.

Last evening a major national network (as opposed to those minor ones) ran a story examining the issue. They even had “NASA’s leading expert on global warming” on to refute the claims.

It really doesn’t matter, because Andrews or his interview subjects said “Clean” and “Coal” in the same sentence more than a dozen times.

Are YOU against clean coal?

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Nerds will rule the world!

Friday Freakin' Argonaut Edition

But they won’t reproduce at rates necessary to hold onto power.

There’s our advantage.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Starting Your Own Rumor

Christopher Beam offers a primer:

From: [Redacted]
To: [Redacted]

There are many things people do not know about BARACK OBAMA. It is every American's duty to read this message and pass it along to all of their friends and loved ones.

Barack Obama wears a FLAG PIN at all times. Even in the shower.

See the rest at the link.

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Flacker Speak. You Listen.

Goes Without Saying, but needs to be said still.

Consider your audience.

Fortunately, we've got Patrick to say it.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Communication Lessons from the Dalai Lama

Are you a snob?

Are you good at it?

Example: If you only listen to the classics – whether you define that as Dylan and Muddy Waters or Mozart and Prokofiev – you’re missing a lot.

You're not a good snob.

A few years ago the ball and cha wife and I had a few days in Manhattan sans short people. Naturally, we planned on seeing some art, eating some interesting food and catching a show. Imagine the horror that I, a snob, experienced when I learned she had gotten tix to see Mama Mia.

What? No Ibsen? No Williams? Not even a Sondheim for jeebussakes?

I had no intention of seeing of Mama Mia. I simply refused. This was a monstrosity of pop culture being fobbed off as art.

If you’re married you can skip ahead because you just KNOW we’re going.

It. Was. A. Blast.

Was it Wilson or Albee? Or even Shepherd? Of course not. But neither did it pretend to be. It was just one helluva a good time and well worth the investment.

What does this mean for professional relationship builders and communicators?

There are rules. Then, there are THE RULES. The small cap rules – proofreading, list hygiene, email etiquette – these are [for the most part] sacrosanct. They are intuitive and any outsider to your chosen profession would recognize it when you violate them.

THE RULES – the ones that only we marketing snobs appreciate: no more than two fonts on the slide, five words or less in the headline, show the logo near the end – these are things we all KNOW. They have become the dominant narratives of the business.

And they mean absolutely nothing to your audience.

Your audience cares only about the transaction: what they get for in exchange for paying attention to whatever it is you’re trying to say. Useful information? A bargain? A chuckle? A story?

There’s a quote attributed to the Dalai Lama that says something like: “It’s important to know the rules so we can know when we break them.”

Goes for THE RULES, too. Know them. Violate them at your peril. But occasionally, when it’s right … break ‘em.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sappy Sunday – Father’s Day Edition

Watch this:

If that doesn’t do it for you, see this:

Then call your dad.


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Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday Freakin’ -- Dominant Narratives in Music and Fashion

Love Dwight Yoakam’s Music, but still …

Why is it normal for this guy to dress like an urban cowboy …

… yet weird for this guy to dress like a friggin’ pirate?

Just sayin’

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Dominant Narrative and Public Relations

There are a number of services to hook up journos who have a question with PR folks who have an answer. Or a client.

The better ones (I recommend Peter Shankman’s HARO, which in addition to being useful and timely is also FREE) vet pitches and pitchers because we all KNOW there are some reellystoopid PR folks out there who will try to sell their story no matter what the query.

Two counterpoints to that one-sided narrative:

1. If you’re a journo and your query has a POV, don’t jump up on your J-school soapbox when you get responses that dispute your obvious thesis. For example, let’s say you post a query that says something like “I’m looking for patients with brain tumors caused by excessive cell phone use.” Now – in this purely hypothetical situation – we’ll stipulate that you get replies telling you that there’s no actual … what’s the word? … oh, yeah … SCIENCE supporting the basis of your story. You might be tempted to complain that you’re getting off-topic responses. My advice as your unpaid PR counsel in this case is simple: Seriously, STFU.

2. Because we all know how reelystoopid flaks can be, there’s even an entire Web site set up to enshrine our stoopidness. Thanks, again, guys. When does journalism reciprocate? Where is their shrine to their own professional folly? I’ll leave the whole Iraq thing out of this and nod to the CJR’s collections of stuff that actually makes it into print, but what about the dumb questions, reminders of their deadlines we can’t control and general obnoxiousness when CERTAIN of them don’t get their way?

Consider this from a recent query many of you probably noticed:

"I've got an editor asking for a list of common kitchen foods that can give
you food poisoning or make you sick if you eat them when they've spoiled."

Umm … other than honey that would be everything we call, ya’ know, food.

"These are foods that you would store in the refrigerator, freezer and pantry cabinets."

But the stuff I just leave on the counter or in the passenger seat of the car is cool, right?

"I've got a couple of easy ones already, like milk, eggs and chicken, but I'm
wondering if there are any other food products in the fridge or a pantry that,
when past their prime, can make you sick?"

No, that's pretty much it. Pork is always good. And mayonnaise. Seriously, a ground pork and mayonnaise salad is good all day long. Perfect for your family picnic, in fact. Have at.

"Besides a foul odor, what would tip you off that a food has spoiled?"
Well, there is the whole DYING thing. If you decide to try pork tartare, feed it to your friends first. If they don’t call you (or answer their phones) chances are you’re fine.

"Conversely, ... "

"... I would like to write a sidebar on food that has seemingly spoiled, like mold on
cheese, but which is still safe to eat (I believe you can just cut the moldy
part off)."
That works with pork as well.

Wha’d’ya’ got? Don’t use names. We all have bad days.

DMN Still Not Getting It

You really have to wonder sometimes if some of these people actually want to stay in business.

h/t RK

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Sunday, June 8, 2008

Weekend Meta Bloggin'*

PRBlog takes 300-plus-word look at the evolution of a writer.

Everybody needs an editor. I‘ve never been able read anything I wrote more than six months prior without wincing. Once, while driving through different city late at night, I heard some brochure copy I’d written four years earlier read back to me as part of a radio spot. I almost had to pull over deciding whether to laugh out loud or get sick.

Seth Godin leaves out the part about the briefcase helicopters and the cool uniforms, but otherwise offers a vision that may become a point of reference for the new frontier.

Just to make Gapingvoid happy, we’ll call it Futurism 2.0.

PrSquared has a funny about a linked life that's insightful, too. You'll have to go there to see it.

Finally, something I set aside when it was topical but I don’t think I ever got to it. Generally it takes a long time for a dominant narrative to turn 180 degrees. Individual results may vary. See store for details.

*UPDATE because I forgot the one in which Meredith F. Small over at LiveScience takes a perfectfully normal Intro to Biology question and turns it into a creepy -- and surprisingly SFW --- fantasy about Harrison Ford's manboobs. Think very carefully before following the link.

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Friday, June 6, 2008

Thursday, June 5, 2008

In Cincinnati It’s Pit Bulls …

Remember 2001? The Summer of the Shark?

In a couple of ways … tangentially I had a teeny bit to do with it … it also was the summer of West Nile Virus. And the Mosquito.

And I was right.

Still, you have to admit that shark attacks make a much more compelling narrative.

At least until Spielberg announces casting for Proboscis!

Yeah, me neither.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Principles of Crisis Communication and Issue Management

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a prominent attorney on behalf of his client. They were anticipating some bad news and wanted advice on getting out in front of the story. Before engaging us, he wanted to know what – in general – is our approach to adversarial situations.

There is only so much I can share with a prospective client without … well, you know. But as I mentioned a while back, I've always been fascinated by how principles from other disciplines can be applied to communication.

Now, everybody’s heard of the Red Barron. Heck, they even named a pizza after the guy. But the most respected German pilot of World War I was a guy named Oswald Boelcke.

While training other pilots, he developed what is now known as the Dicta Boelcke. These are the rules of engagement used by pilots from biplanes to supersonic jets.

And with a little adaptation, by PR pros.

Dicta Boelcke

1. Try to secure the advantage before attacking. If possible keep the sun behind you.

2. Always carry through an attack once you have begun.

3. Fire only at close range and only when your opponent is properly in your sights.

4. Always keep your eye on your opponent and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.

5. In any form of attack it is essential to assail your opponent from behind.

6. If your opponent dives on you, do not try to evade his attack but fly to meet him.

7. When over the enemy's line, never forget your own line of retreat.

8. For the Squadron: In Principle, attack in groups of four or six. When the fight breaks up into single combats take care that several do not go for just one opponent.

It might be interesting to keep these dicta handy as you watch contested issues – and elections – unfold.

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Monday, June 2, 2008

Blame Public Relations Redux

So Andrew Cohen at CBS piles on in the Scott McClellan slap fight and PRSA responds by … well … taking it.

Oh Jeffrey Julin sat down and wrote a very strongly worded letter. He even waved his Code of Ethics around to show he was serious. It’s almost as if they thought they could convince Cohen of their sincerity by lightening it up with a pithy turn on Cohen’s original “turkey is an eagle” zinger.

They’re cute.

The audience the society should be playing to is not Cohen or even his corporate masters at CBS Corporation. The audiences that need convincing are PRSA members, unaffiliated practitioners (ugh), clients, employers, corporate managers, boards, shareholders … you get the picture.

This is what Joshua Micah Marshall referred in another context as the Bitch-Slap Theory.
One way -- perhaps the best way -- to demonstrate someone's lack of toughness or strength is to attack them and show they are either unwilling or unable to defend themselves -- thus the rough slang I used above. And that I think is a big part of what is happening here. Someone who can't or won't defend themselves certainly isn't someone you can depend upon to defend you.

PRSA offers no evidence other than its own credibility – the questioning of which was the entire point of Cohen’s original rant. No suggestion that the organization Cohen represents has any culpability in any of the mess. Not a word about the number of PRSA members and other PR … folks CBS employs. Or the company’s investment.

Nowhere does their complaint point out that in addition to being a TV news commentator … an occupation only slightly less trusted than public relations, Mr. Cohen is a lawyer. As a lawyer, maybe once or twice he represented a client. (Hard to say for sure as he wasn’t at it very long.) Maybe a client or two wasn’t completely clean. Or honest. Or innocent. Perhaps he prepared a witness for a deposition. (‘Just answer the question. Don’t volunteer information.’)

Julin mines none of this material. He sticks to his code of ethics and his high road.

If PRSA is not going to fight back, they should at least learn to duck.

Image cred: (I think)

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Sunday, June 1, 2008

When in Doubt: Blame it on Public Relations

Mediabistro brings word that public relations ethics are at stake in this whole What Happened dust-up.

Let’s face it, as much as people complain about reporters and supposed media bias, in the Pit-Bulls-and-Labradors equation, journos are the Labradors and PR practitioners are the pit bulls. (PLEASE, a better word than practitioners)

So Gary Weiss piles on, wondering if PRSA should … what? … file a grievance or something about Scott McClellan admitting in his new book that he lied to the news media about Iraq and the administration’s response to Katrina.

Mr. Weiss seems to be the last person in the English-speaking world to come to the insight that – brace for passive voice – lies were told.

Codes of ethics are good and everything. The Sermon on the Mount comes to mind. But this journo finger-wagging at PRSA ethics is ridiculous. As in the dictionary definition. Blaming the messenger is a coward’s game.

Every three years or so this idea that public relations – whatevers should need licenses crops up. Every time somebody brings this reallyreally bad idea to me I have to ask them where in the First Amendment they find the notion that points of view require some sort of qualification. “That’s a great point, can I see your card before I consider your opinion?”

Yeah, me neither.

So now, a journalist wants the public relations community to hold the messenger accountable for the failures of his own profession. See, these journos are all in a bunch because HOW were they to know what we all knew all along?

The First Amendment is pretty straightforward:

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.

Covers a lot of ground, eh? But very little room for ambiguity. As I read it relative to the situation at hand, people can think or say whatever they want.

Pretty sure Scotty’s covered, too.

Oh, yeah: people can print whatever they want, too. And maybe even ask questions. And print the answers. Ya’ know … if they WANT to.

Also, I’m confident that you get to broadcast and blog and maybe even shout out the window, too. But I’m not a lawyer: maybe that’s what the Supreme Court is for.

Or journo blogs.

I am no defender of Scott McClellan. I cursed him for days on end not too long ago. But to hold him responsible for repeating was he’s told? What does that do to the rest of us? Should we put our clients to polygraphs before accepting an engagement?


Who really didn’t do their job to the highest ideals of their profession here?

Over at McClatchy, they have an idea:

The news media have been, if anything, even more craven than the administration has been in defending its failure to investigate Bush's case for war in Iraq before the war.

Here's ABC News' Charles Gibson: "I think the questions were asked. It was just a drumbeat of support from the administration. It is not our job to debate them. It is our job to ask the questions.” And “I’m not sure we would have asked anything differently."


Or this from NBC's Brian Williams: “Sadly, we saw fellow Americans — in some cases floating past facedown (after Katrina). We knew what had just happened. We weren’t allowed that kind of proximity with the weapons inspectors [in Iraq]. I was in Kuwait for the buildup to the war, and, yes, we heard from the Pentagon, on my cell phone, the minute they heard us report something that they didn’t like. The tone of that time was quite extraordinary.”

And this: "“It’s tough to go back, to put ourselves in the mind-set. It was post-9/11 America.


Dissenters, or even those who voiced worry about where the policy was going, were ignored, excluded or punished. (Note: See Gen. Eric Shinseki, Paul O'Neill, Joseph Wilson and all of the State Department 's Arab specialists and much of its intelligence bureau).

So, Gary, whose professional ethics are at stake?