Thursday, July 31, 2008

Election Year DNT Parable - Facts are The Enemy of Truth

The Penultimate Part (we think - there is a weekend coming)

So what do our two parables have in common?

- They both involve former vice presidents running for president.

- They both involve embarrassments that happened in front of lots of people with access to the tools of mass communication.

- They both are based on …

… wait for it …

… lies.

In our first parable, Bush’s fascination was not with the existence of barcode scanners but with a software product that was able to read UPC codes even when torn or partially obscured. Judging by the performance I see in the self-scan aisle of my local mega-low-mart, this technology remains intriguing. I swear, a single drop of condensation on the frozen peas and, well, you know.

In our second, it seems that Erich Segal had NOT based his character on Al Gore. What?

But he had told him he had. That is actually what Gore said to the folks on the plane: That Segal had TOLD him he had based the character on him.

In fact, Segal told anyone else who would listen that the Ryan O’Neill character (for you movie fans) was a composite of Gore and his college roommate. Some guy named Tommy Lee Jones.

Tommy Lee Jones as a roommate still doesn’t punch your “cool” ticket? I give up.

But what about Gore’s claim that he invented the Internet?

Well – surprise! – as it turns out he didn’t.

I mean he didn't claim that he did.

What he actually claimed was to have “taken the initiative” to create the Internet. That claim, by the way, was supported by no less than who most people say is the guy who actually did invent the Internet.

What Gore was probably talking about was his authorship of the legislation that made it all possible.


How could so many people be so wrong?

Next … How to Avoid (Maybe) Falling into the Wrong Dominant Narrative

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Election Year DNT Parable -- The 2nd Part

In 2000, Al Gore was running for election as president. As a sitting vice president, he too lacked the luxury of running against the current administration. In Al Gore’s years in Washington he had been many things: a VP, a senator, a congressman, the son of a prominent senator … and a killjoy. Tennessee-bred and Harvard-educated Albert Gore Jr. had a well established (and earned) reputation as a policy wonk. A nerd. A worry ward. I could go on.

Cut to: A casual conversation with reporters on a campaign plane. Gore mentions that the novelist Erich Segal – a professor at Harvard during Gore’s college years – based his character of the male lead in the screenplay-cum-novel-cum-screenplay Love Story on … Albert Gore Jr.

Obviously, in a desperate attempt to make himself less of a square, Gore had latched onto a pop culture icon from his youth in an attempt to make himself seem less of a nerd. The pressure of the election had made him a fabulist.

Cut to: An impromptu speech Gore gives to some supporters in which, asked about the “information superhighway” (remember that?) he says he invented the Internet.

Torrents of laughter. He’s a politician for pete’s sake! A nominal lawyer, but inventing the Internet?


A combination of Clinton fatigue and the lack of any overriding national issues (plus some well-placed social referenda and a few shenanigans in ballot-counting) would cost Gore that election. But the image of Al Gore, Fabulist played a large part. Even after an Academy Award (screw ‘em, I’m not putting the trademark on it) and a Nobel Prize, it dogs Gore’s reputation to this day.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

An Election-Year Dominant Narrative Parable ...

... in Four (or so) Parts

Part The 1st

In 1992, George H. W. Bush was running for re-election as president. During his years in Washington, Bush had been many things: a president, VP, congressman, DCI, the son of a prominent senator, chairman of the RNC. He also had a well established (and earned) reputation as a stick-in-the-mud fuddy-duddy. In primary debates eight 12 years earlier, Bush, himself, had called the supply-side economics of Ronald Reagan “voodoo.” His strategy – and that of his party – was to tell the people, and therefore the voters, that the corner had been turned. Kind of like “prosperity is just around the corner” but without the emotional commitment. The knock on Bush was that he was out of touch. This scion of New England aristocrats and darling of the Texas oilmen simply didn’t understand the life of common people.

Cut to: The grocer’s convention. At a display of the latest technology, dutifully videotaped and broadcast by the networks that evening, the sitting president of the United States seemed mystified by a simple barcode scanner. Now anybody who had been in a supermarket in the ten years prior knew how a barcode scanner worked. Clearly this guy was just as out of touch as his opponents said, right?

Then, to a mantra of “It’s the Economy, Stupid” the out-of-touch tag would send Bush into retirement four years earlier than he had planned.

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Next: Does the Show Fit the Other Foot?

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Friday Freakin' Sells Out

I will forgive Bobby Sherman for selling out like that ... NEVAH!

Just sayin'

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Selling Out

Earlier I took excessive umbrage at Jim Morris’s characterization of pop icons being “ruined” by their use (or over use) in advertising. This is not about that point, but rather about my defense of artists for making exactly as much money as possible from their work.

Why does that irritate people? A perfect DNT narrative right at my feet and I missed it.

One of the great challenges of what we used to call new media is that if you want to play, you have put some skin in the game. The business schools may still talk about managing a brand, but all you really can do is guide it. Then it goes out in the world and becomes its own thing.

Companies don’t own the brand anymore. At best, it’s like one of those joint custody decrees where she keeps buying them the latest cell phones and telling you the wrong time for the soccer game and … and … I digress.

But parents of teenagers will recognize this pattern.

Customers, just like music fans, feel ownership of the brand. I know guys who were Porsche aficionados for 30 years who scoffed at the thought of “their” brand introducing an SUV. They swore it would never fly. Well the Cayenne did. And it does. And it carries your groceries, too. Now, no matter where you live, you can get home before the ice cream melts.

The guys I knew, the Porsche fans, weren’t prepared for the change. Not a clue where they are now on the acceptance curve, but at that moment, they were disappointed. The Porsche brand meant something to THEM that was violated by four-wheel drive and room for groceries.

Just like Beatles fans and gym shoes.

So what about your audience? What’s their expectation? What’s their dominant narrative about your brand? And how do you get them to where you need them?

Still …

Springsteen? Really?

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sadly Ecstatic That Their Heroes Are News

Over at Advertising for Peanuts, Jim Morris has a bug where one prefers a bug not to be. He’s got a rant up about all the images and songs and idols of his youth that he believes have been “sold out,” willingly or not. He takes on falling pianos (a staple of Warner cartoons), morphing (that was cute the first time), talking babies (ditto) and – for reasons I swear I don’t understand – Bruce Springsteen.

Them’s fightin’ words.

There’s no argument that mass media advertising is in serious need of another creative revolution. Talking babies. Talking animals. Yadda-yadda-yadda. As Hal Walters observed [at a link I can’t find], it’s like the 1995 Super Bowl was a campaign and now all we’re seeing are the pool-outs. But sometimes (see image) it’s done right.

Still, Morris’s rant against artists like Dylan and The Who (among others) is beyond the Pale. There’s a dominant narrative that something is either “art” or “commercial.” This narrative must be refuted at every opportunity.

What was the Sistine Chapel if not advertising? Did Mozart compose what he liked or what the Habsburgs would fund? Who paid Toulouse-Lautrec’s bills, anyway?

Writers tend to focus on songwriters in these arguments. When was the last time you heard a writer complain about Fitzgerald going to Hollywood or Arthur Miller reworking scenes after previews?

Me neither.

As Dr. Johnson famously wrote: “No one but a fool ever wrote except for money.”

Present company excluded, of course.

But anybody with a beef against Townsend or Dylan or Beethoven for that matter for profiting from their own work ought to re-examine their understanding of what a work product is.

Or, if it’s easier, I can provide an address where they can mail their paychecks if it helps them sleep at night.

I’ll assume that burden for them.

P.S. – Springsteen? Really?

Image Cred: Hal Walters

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Monday, July 21, 2008

A Seat at the Table

Bill Sledzik goes after that windmill one more time and it looks like he’s building speed. Based on his other posts, he just may get it started. Started, but not done. That will take another generation and we only have ourselves to blame.

A few years ago I was invited to participate in a PRSA panel discussion called “Getting a Seat at the Table.” I was invited by somebody who knew me specifically for my contrarian perspective on this issue.

The thesis of the discussion was that PR counsel should be involved in corporate decision-making. How can we manage an organization’s reputation effectively if we don’t get to influence the decisions made by senior management? Obviously every organization should immediately promote its senior PR … whatchamacallit … to the executive committee or board of directors.

That’s not the ol’ perfesser’s point, but that’s what some will take from it. So I get to tell my story.

This was roughly 2003. The dot-com crash was behind us but most organizations were still feeling their way around the whole digital thing. [Weird that seems so long ago.]

S’anyway …

The dominant narrative about PR folks is that we are really good communicators but lack judgment. We don’t get respected and we don’t get consulted. After all of the usual arguments, it was my turn to speak. I had some hastily prepared remarks but hearing the applause lines my colleagues had exploited, I felt obligated to offer a little quiz.

“Let me see a show of hands,” I began. “Who thinks PR should own the corporate Web site?”

Nearly every (other) hand in the place went up.

“How many of you with your hands up know how to write code?”

Hands went down. I was on to something.

“How many of you think general management should consult PR before changing its distribution model?” Again, lots of hands.

“Great. How many know what your company spends on inbound and outbound freight as a percentage of net revenue? Or on telephone service?”
There were a few knowing giggles, but mostly silence.

What I was trying to get at was that if professionals of any discipline want to get involved in general management – if you want a seat at the proverbial table – you have to earn it. You can’t earn it as a profession, but as an individual. You don’t get invited to the board room for what you can learn, but for what you can offer.

If and when you get a seat at the big kids’ table, pay attention. Meanwhile, learn as much as possible about your entire business so when you get there you have a perspective that matters.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Customer Service is Public Relations

Eric brings up an interesting point. An industry with an outdated business model has a couple of choices. Filing lawsuits against its customer would not be my first choice but ... not my business.

On the other hand, it ain't just the music business.

And me without a camera: I was in a fastfood resaurant today and saw a sign -- printed in black in 32-point type black on standard letter:

Problem with your order?
Call 614-xxx-xxxx.

How hard is this? Isn't it already the dominant narrative that people who work in food service are powerless? Now the management of this particular franchise is telling me they can't even fix a missed order of fries without an escalation.

Thankfully, my fries arrived on time and just as soggy as ever.

But still ...

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Commitment Issues

OMG!! It’s teh MAD MEN!!1!

I watched it once last year. It was fine. Actually, it was better than fine, but I have commitment issues when it comes to well written television dramas.

Especially when they’re on free TV or basic cable.

Every new season (or summer season as the case may be) brings a new “serious” drama that all the “serious” people are watching. Last year it was Madmen. I checked it out once (the episode where the one guy won the one award and then he and the one gal [his wife?] got all liquored up and fell asleep about dawn).

Yeah, that was good one.

Okay, maybe I wasn’t paying as close attention as I should have. But can you blame me? Usually this year’s “serious” show is next year’s “hey wasn’t that guy in that one thing …?”

Let’s make a bargain: I’ll be more open to committing when the networks are. Tell us up front you’ll give a show a solid run … eight, 10, 12 episodes … and I’ll think about giving it a serious try before it gets all those Emmy nominations.

If I can stay up 'til 11:00.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Weekend Add-a-Link

Three new sites added to the Better-Than-This-One roll to the right of your screen.

Steve Boyd is a professor of speech communication at Northern Kentucky University. Although I've never met Steve, his office is all of about 15 miles from where I sit staring blankly at my computer screen every morning. About a dozen times when I went looking for the academic term for a principle of communiciation I was trying to describe, his site came up. After it came up on back-to-back searches this week, I figured he was due for some link love.

Tough Sledding is the Web site of another academic named Bill Sledzik. He's a professor of public relations at Bowling Green State University. I know the good doctor through his work, namely one of his former students who is a colleague of mine. Plus, he has the sort of holistic approach to PR that warms my heart and infuriates my marketing friends. That makes me smile.

Romensko is, well, Romensko. Not sure why it wasn't there in the beginning, and not sure Jim really needs the link. Still, well worth a read and surely fits into the category.

In case you're wondering (and I am sure it is absolutely killing everybody) the links are simply in chronological order. Except for PRblog. I'm just trying to ruin his reputation.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Friday Freakin' -- 12-Bar Edition

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Deep Thought*

If you have young children in your house, your business is in the street.

If you [have] employees in your company, your business is in the street.


*[edited to add that pesky verb]

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Soliciting Commitment - epilogue

It’s one of the reasons if I call you in the middle of the day I’m likely to ask, “Is this a good time?”

Asking, “Is this a bad time?” invites you to object.


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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

And Furthermore, or ...

... Commitment the Third

Lee Iacocca is known today as the chairman who engineered the rescue of Chrysler. Before that he was the number-two man at Ford who championed the game-changing Ford Mustang. But he got into that position as head of sales at Ford in the early sixties.

One of his innovations was the follow-up call. He didn’t invent the follow-up call, of course, just the strategy.

It was – and still is – traditional for a car salesman [yes, in those days a man] to call a buyer at home and ask what they thought about the car. Iacocca’s great innovation was this: He instructed salesmen to ask, “What do your friends think of the new car?”

The beauty of that question is that you’re not asking for complaints. You’re asking for compliments.

You’re asking for commitment.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Commitment 2

Adding to below:

Human beings are funny creatures. We tend toward consistency. Unless suffering from some sort of sociopathic disorder, once we make a promise it takes a strong reason to change our minds. I learned this early.

One of my first jobs – still in college – was working in electoral politics. The official I worked for told me that the key was to ask: Can we have your vote?

It’s human nature to justify a commitment, which makes it that much harder for competing messages to change your mind.

The Obama campaign goes beyond commitment all the way to involvement.

This is the future, no matter what your politics.

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Deep Thought

All debates concerning the price of petroleum on talk radio ultimately dissolve into a shouting contest between those who do not understand the economic theory of supply and demand and those who don't understand anything else.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Soliciting Commitment

[The Caller ID said Dayton, Oh]

“This is Kevin,” said the youthful voice on the phone. It was about 7:30. The perfect time for an unsolicited call: not smack in the middle of supper and not in the middle of most people’s favorite shows.
“I’m calling from Barack Obama’s headquarters in Dayton.” [geography
lesson: about 50 miles north of where I work Cincinnati and 25 miles north of
where I live] “On behalf of the campaign, I want to thank you for your help in

It should be noted that my help in March consisted of voting in the Ohio primary. Although my precinct uses Diebold machines, I’m pretty confident the campaign is not privy to my actual ballot. I try to be conscious of other people’s time and job requirements so, figuring he had dozens of calls to make before the end of his shift, I tried to cut him off.

“Thanks for the call, Kevin,” I said. “I can save you some time. I don’t donate
money over the phone, but if you want to send me something in the mail

“No,” he retook control of the conversation sounding genuinely
embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I should have been more clear. We’re not raising money,
just looking for advice from some of our friends in the community.”

This is key: He didn’t insult me by calling me Senator Obama’s friend. Earlier he thanked me on behalf of the campaign, not the senator. What rational person would believe that in the middle of a presidential campaign, the presumptive nominee had singled me out for special recognition?

Back to the play-by-play:
“… We’re not raising money, just looking for advice from some of our friends in
the community.”

Advice? The Obama campaign wants MY advice? Okay, I’ll listen.
“We’re opening a new office in Butler County [where I live] and were wondering
where you thought we should open first. We were thinking about Hamilton,
Middletown, or West Chester. Not all of use are familiar with the area so we
thought we’d ask some of our friends what they would recommend.”

They actually want my advice! Still, this is where I became a difficult caller.

“Kevin,” I interrupted again [I do that], “I work in the agency business

“Oh, cool,”
he responds. [I think he would have said that if I
had told him I bite the heads of live bats for a living. This kid was THAT good.
Still, this is where I became a difficult caller.]

“I have to tell you, this is the best patter I’ve heard in a long time. Is this a script you’ve been using all spring?”

“I actually just got here after finals. They told me to call some of our friends
in your area and ask for their advice since none of us on the staff right now
are very familiar with your neighborhood. Some canvassers gave us your

This was not a script. This was genuine outreach. And what did it get them for the cost of the call and pittance they must be paying this motivated college student? Well, for starters it got them the next 45 minutes of my time. We talked about retail locations, major employers, cultural issues …

I don’t talk to my only sister for 45 minutes.

What they got was commitment. What are the odds any [even less analytical] voter would change his/her mind after being so flattered?

It’s nice to be asked.

Did they take my advice? Not a clue. But just by asking for that advice they did something more important: they solicited commitment. When I see them taking my advice – whether they heard the same thing from a dozen or a hundred or thousand others – I get credit. I get to TAKE credit.


The Obama campaign excels at soliciting commitment.

So, what are you doing to solicit commitment from your customers/audiences/whatever?

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Defending Your Budget or …

… Marketing in a Depression Recession

I don’t seem to touch on straight marketing much in this space for a few reasons. First, there are several sites in that column to the right of your screen that already do that and, well, they got here first.

Second, the Dominant Narrative Theory is about a broader zeitgeist than just the marketing territory, although that’s probably the most common application.

Finally, marketing is a big part of what most of us do everyday – including me – and it’s hard to talk about specifics without crossing that imaginary line between principles and principal. The more responsibility one has and the larger the organization, the greater the likelihood of client conflicts.

Marketing depends on the dominant narrative. Without some understanding of the audience’s current perception, we’re just rattling the proverbial slop bucket. Which in itself …

The current economic situation is more than a media cliché or neurosis. It’s the environment we work in. This environment doesn’t have time for survival of the fittest; it’s survival of the best, or quickest, adapter.

There is no perfect historical example for any challenge. We look to history not so much for models as for lessons. But we live in a time when a great many marketers, CFOs, CEOs, boards of directors and investors have never seen economic stagnation, let alone contraction. They may not know those lessons.

When demand slows, their dashboard shows a limited number of levers:

  • cut (everything)
  • change (strategies &c., agencies, marketing personnel)
  • redeploy (shift focus to what’s working this quarter whether it’s a category or a segment)

None of these options does much for all that long-term branding and goodwill you talked about in the interview.

What’s a marketer to do?

Make your narrative part of – or aligned with – the Dominant Narrative.

We’re seeing this already. What 18 months ago was a “green” energy-saving product is now an economic imperative. What was a “convenience” extravagance (like meal replacement in supermarkets) now is thrifty family entertainment.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Issue Management: Timing is Everything

So across the nation now cities and states are wrestling with that most insidious of dominant narratives: DANGER!

Every July 5th the makers of what is a – mostly – legal product are forced to defend their businesses and their livelihoods against more than just safety shrills. They have to take on the Danger Narrative itself.

It begins each June when the duly appointed watchdogs of the public safety release their new video. Seriously, how many brainstorming sessions do they go through to generate just the right horror scenario each spring? Would anybody really notice if they used, say, the video from 2003?

There’s generally the requisite fire or Darwin Award nominee who blows up the neighborhood while trying to combine fireworks charges with a heat gun.

I am not making that up.

The American Pyrotechnics Association does its best to get out in front of the story. Not only do they promote safe-use messaging, they have the numbers to back up the relative safety of consumer fireworks. Alas it’s more than a nasty danger narrative they’re up against.

It’s timing.

The mid-summer news hole not only leaves plenty of room for the danger squad to pour on the scary anecdotes, it’s a time when festivals, parades chili cook-offs and the like put elected officials into close proximity to their only know natural predator: the hacked-off constituent.

So ask yourself: If you pick a person at random on the average suburban sidewalk, is more likely that they shot off some bottle rockets for the kids just after dark on the Fourth? Or is more likely they were irritated this week by the flotsam of a neighbor’s private fireworks display while cutting the grass?

Just sayin' ...

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Friday Freakin' Old School Edition

Hoggify, my brother.

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