Thought Leadership Archive

The Fractal Theory of Crisis Management and Public Relations

March 25th, 2011

Besides being fun for hippies to stare at, fractals offer enormous intuitive and guidance value.  Definitely one of the cooler mathematical models, fractals predict patterns in nature.  Fractal theory has enormously advanced many fields, including ecology, medicine, even special effects.

Of course, one might hope fractals can predict patterns in media coverage.  Wishful thinking… right?  Maybe not.

• Four years ago, Oprah Winfrey fielded allegations that the school she funded in South Africa was physically abusing students.  Oprah apologized and promised reforms.

• One year ago, Wyclef Jean fielded allegations that his Haiti charity had questionable accounting practices.  Wyclef (sort of) apologized and promised reforms.

• And the latest – Madonna is fielding allegations that the school she funded in Malawi is now defunct due to unethical management and cost overruns.  Madonna (you guessed it) quasi-apologized and (sort of) promised reforms.

If you’re a celebrity and wish to start your own overseas charity, how do you break this miserable crisis PR failure pattern?  Certainly not an easy thing to do, but one thing is clear: before you get started, have a respected third party – who’s a trusted authority on legal and ethical charity practices – validate and support your charity before you launch your operation.  Now that’s a PR tactic worth repeating.  Just sayin’…

Praecere in the News

March 22nd, 2011

Our article on “Five Types of PR Agencies to Avoid” was syndicated by PR Daily, and also added as a LinkedIn “Top Headline” on PR topics:

Our work on behalf of our client, the Society of American Travel Writers, was profiled on Travel Industry Wire:

The Stamford Advocate interview where we offer advice on Fairfield University’s crisis management of a sex scandal:

The ABA Journal interview where we offer law firms advice on social media strategies, along with a hard dose of managed expectations:

Which Is More “Dumb” – the Regulation, or the Effort to Repeal It?

January 25th, 2011

As promised in our last post, we now turn our PR analysis on President Obama’s recent declaration to dump “dumb” regulations from our federal codes.  Such calls to cut cumbersome or silly federal rules are often associated with Republican and conservative political circles, but we don’t have to go too far back to recall former Vice President Gore’s big PR push on the same front.  (In fact, Gore’s effort was far funnier, highlighted by an appearance on David Letterman.)

As we use this blog to discuss media aesthetic, let’s look under the hood with Obama’s new pet project.  Will it fundamentally alter the landscape of American business?  No.  Will it balance our federal budget?  Nope.  How about create some jobs?  Not even.

So what this amounts to is needless attention to toothless regulations that, at best, have extremely negligible impact on American society.

For an Administration that prides itself on substance, PR stunts like this are little more than a sugar high for random talking heads, with no benefit beyond that.  When you’ve got the most powerful bully pulpit in the world, even slight PR missteps like this can cause great embarrassment, no matter how well-intentioned.

Grade: C-.  Obama, you’ve got SOTU tonight – let’s hope you do a better communications job with the speech than with this “dumb” effort.

My choice, My message, My PR

January 10th, 2011

Just how much can a re-branding go to improving public perception?  Get your notebook out as we’re going to school…

An issue really heating up in Congress is the debate over for-profit colleges.  Industry regulations were loosened under the Bush administration, and enrollment soared.  Unfortunately, many graduating students got saddled with huge debts so the Obama administration proposed “Gainful Employment” regulations to address this problem.  Both for-profit colleges and investors see these regulations as a threat, as might be inferred from falling stock prices.

From the PR standpoint, the label “for-profit college” invites scrutiny; certainly these organizations are aware of that.  So they coined “career college to focus on the service they provide, i.e., educating professionals.  We can see these themes on the University of Phoenix website, and in their op-ed and on the APSCU website.  And, career colleges rightly associated themselves with more tangible outcomes a long time ago, such as graduating IT and healthcare professionals.

But just like they changed from the Career College Association to the APSCU, their brand must continue to evolve.  For example, why aren’t their graduates in the arts emphasized more, or those in green jobs?  Smart brand evolution would stress that a career college fulfills not just one need but many needs.  Quick op-eds won’t cut it when facing PR quicksand like this.  And, while the APSCU website gives many examples of success stories, it has too much buzz-word infused information.

Re-branding is not an uncommon thing and your organization shouldn’t be afraid to take a few risks.  Take Starbucks for instance.  Their logo offers a nice visual of how gradual brand evolution can benefit a company.  Lesson: embrace change.  And if you’re still afraid that change might ruin your brand, remember one thing – there’s nothing like a return to a classic.

Your Crisis Is My Crisis Too: The Tale of Brands and Microfinance

January 5th, 2011

A big part of PR is brand and association.  When we say “computer companies” you might say Apple or Dell… we say “Wall Street” you say Goldman Sachs…. you get the point.  But, what happens when we say “microfinance”?  Those outside the industry will probably scramble for answers.  That said, if your organization engages in microfinance, then your PR brand thrives or suffers along with the image of the industry – unless you’ve taken steps to distinguish yourself.

Microfinance was once lauded by politicians and the media.  One prominent microfinance institution, Grameen Bank, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 along with its founder Muhammad Yunus.  But microfinance has come under serious scrutiny because several crises have arisen all at once.  Oversaturation of loans, high interest rates, mixed results for borrowers, and large profits for lenders have tarnished the industry image.

Grameen was harshly criticized in a Norwegian documentary which claimed that $100 million were improperly transferred to a bank affiliate.  SKS Microfinance, the largest microfinance institution in India, has been questioned about the suicides related to microloans in Andhra Pradesh, India’s fifth-largest state.  This isn’t the best kind of media attention.  Even worse, SKS doesn’t seem to be sympathetic.  Their statements to the press are bland (“The trigger factors for suicide are manifold, such as stressful situations at home,” according to Bloomberg).

When the PR and press were good, these institutions should have taken the opportunity to make themselves distinct, develop their brand, and control their own fate.  Instead they relied on the goodwill associated with the microfinance industry and now lack the tools to respond and manage the problems of the industry – in other words, they lack good PR.

Remember that Amazing Tweet? Of Course You Didn’t…

December 29th, 2010

In the most recent issue of Wired, Clive Thompson offers a smart analysis on how long-form content is superior to much-hyped online buzz communications.  To support his argument, he cites a study showing that the most popular blog posts average 1,600 word count.

More importantly, Thompson puts things into perspective and explains that when we’re bombarded with multi-platform bite-sized communications, the missives are intended to be digested quickly.  But, for true, valued consumption, long-form content consistently wins because it engages readers for thoughtful analysis.  That’s something you can’t squeeze into 140 characters or less.

Praecere advises clients that while digital strategy is an important PR consideration, digital platform stability is never guaranteed.  Today’s Twitter could easily be tomorrow’s AOL.  The-next-big-thing in social media is always lurking around the corner, so instead of stressing about how to condense communications and media outreach, concentrate more on flattering the public with fun and interesting content.

After all, you’ll always remember a moving speech or essay… can you say the same about a random Tweet of Facebook status update?

No matter what, in PR, content will always trump the platform.

What’s the Price of Social Media? If You Have to Ask…

December 10th, 2010

As much as social media gets hyped as the ongoing, forever-happily-ever-after next big thing, this blog has soul-searched and been willing to criticize the grandeur often associated with the relevant platforms.  We have preached over and over that communication channels are always second to content – and that will never change in the public relations industry.

So it should come as no surprise that we’re not particularly impressed with the latest viral Facebook fad, where site users changed their profile pictures to their favorite childhood cartoon character.  To promote advocacy efforts on child abuse.  That’s it.

Er… What?!?  Ok, let’s pick this social media disaster apart:

Who’s in charge? When your business or organization launches a social media campaign, you must communicate very clearly who’s running the show.  If you can’t get this basic point across, the train’s gonna run off the rails.  We think this might be the online HQ… or is it this?

What’s the big idea? We ask this to learn more about the social media campaign, and also in the “hey, who’s that in my chair” sort of way.  Aside from making people reminisce for a few moments about childhood nostalgia, what exactly is the connection between a cartoon character and ending child abuse?  We can’t think of a single answer that passes the smell test, and that indicates the premise of the campaign is flawed.

Where’s the call to action? In other words, what are the next steps campaign organizers want users to take?  Wait… you mean there aren’t any, beyond admiring your new profile pic?  A successful social media advocacy campaign must encourage users to take some specific action that furthers the advocacy angle.

Is this even real? At this point, the whole thing gets so absurd that we wonder if it’s a hoax.  Apparently we’re not alone.  When a vast number of people think your social media campaign is a joke, that gives the effort the kiss of death.

This debacle should serve as a lesson to future social media campaigns – vet the basics and determine the value of what you’re asking for from the public.

5 Tips to Keep Your Public Affairs Issues Up-Front

November 1st, 2010

The last days before the mid-term Election Day have given us a media flood on terrorist attacks, gripes about government spending, the rise of third parties, massive rallies, not so massive rallies, poor job growth … enough to make your head feel spun like a bad political attack ad.

No matter how the election goes, you can bet the greater media narrative until swearing-in day will be either (1) “wow, the Republicans won many seats!” or (2) “wow, the Democrats held off an electoral tidal wave!”  Never doubt the seductive lure of binary decisions.

That said, for those in charge of their organization’s public affairs department, the concern is how to keep your issues and policy positions relevant when the media would rather breathlessly report on such cerebral matters as one-night stands and bad political manners.  Here are five simple tips to enhance your public affairs presence:

Every issue has its time and place.  Even the most important issues (remember the two wars we’ve got going on?) can and will lose political favor and currency.  As a public affairs pro, no doubt your policy issues are vital to your organization and stakeholders.  Still, no one gets the spotlight 365 days in a row.  Follow political cycles to help develop that sixth sense to tell when you’re no longer the new kid on the block.

Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.  When your public affairs issue isn’t front and center, use the downtime to review your messaging, talking points, PR strategy, new ideas, off-the-record briefings, social media, and so forth.  Remember that policy cravings are cyclical – your policy issues may not be the lead headline today, but tomorrow they could be all the rage.  Don’t waste your primetime having to refine your publicity tactics.

Turn an opponent’s lemons into lemonade.  Sometimes policy debates are little more than a street fight over political turf, so your interaction with opponents will always define some of the media narrative.  No one ever gets to control a policy debate simply by being nice.  When the opposition stumbles, turn the tables and leverage that weakness into promoting your own policy position’s strengths.

It ain’t all about you.  No organization’s pet policy issues live in a vacuum.  If you focus on environment, then technology is always a relevant side issue.  Technology taps into immigration issues.  Immigration taps into national security issues.  National security taps into civil rights issues.  Identify potential partners on policy issues so you can share resources and promote your platform on a greater level.

It ain’t all about them either.  Congressional leadership and committee chairs will rotate if either chamber flips party control.  If that’s the case, has your organization analyzed the public affairs impact from the powers-that-may-be?  Legislative agendas are built and destroyed on political control, so understand how each party or new powerbroker will react to your policy priorities.

By keeping these five basic considerations in mind, your organization stands a better chance of grabbing the public affairs center stage in the coming weeks and months.  Just don’t forget to rinse and repeat around November 2012!

The Next Hub of Innovation Is … Chattanooga?

September 14th, 2010

Bravo to Chattanooga!  (Disclaimer: our president graduated from Vanderbilt, so the Blog Aesthetic has a soft spot for Tennessee!)  The city, famous for … er, take your pick, now has a new claim to fame:

1GB per second internet service!

Let’s put that in everyday terms.  If you want to download a song from iTunes, for example, the process would be complete in the time it takes to blink your eyes.  An entire Blu-ray disc’s content would get zapped to you in about 3 minutes.

Of course, the current $350 per month price tag surely puts the service out of reach to, well, just about everyone.  But that price will certainly drop over time, as it did for other services (consider that a decade ago, AOL monthly rates were significantly greater than options today).

In the meantime, the symbolic effect of Chattanooga’s new service is significant.  Combined with the new Volkswagen plant and SimCenter engineering lab, the city is poised to brand itself as the next great corridor of technology and innovation.  A smart public relations strategy will consistently link these three elements together to promote the city as a hub for tech investment and activity.  With a little luck, the city will attract the kind of investment that will boost the local economy and make the name “Chattanooga” resonate with cutting-edge trends and thinking.

And that, friends, is how thought leadership in-a-bottle is done.

Don’t “Censor” Your Call to Action

September 7th, 2010

In the wake of Craigslist “censoring” its adult services section, commentators and the media continue to read the tea leaves rather aggressively, trying to divine what exactly are the site’s motives.

The move can be viewed as an absolute PR calculation.  Of course, when there’s subtext, it’s worthwhile to analyze what that is.  In this case, Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster has posted several entries on the official site blog that make the company come across as rather angry.  On the blog, Buckmaster takes shots at CNN, competitor adult personals sites, eBay (which owns part of Craigslist, oddly enough), human rights advocates, and various state attorneys general, amongst others.

CNN in particular gets quite a bit of heat, given its recent ambush interview of the site’s founder, Craig Newmark.  Of course, as a network that once paused for breaking news to report the incredibly pressing story “horse stuck in mud” and other hard-hitting content, Newmark shouldn’t lose too much sleep over CNN’s antics.

Still, tirades rarely go over well as a PR strategy, as the objective observer often assumes that passion, not reason, guides the aggrieved party’s messaging.  The same perspective certainly applies to Craigslist.  Even though countless advocates and communications experts agree that the site certainly has 1st Amendment protections for its content and a DMCA shield, simply applying the “censor” sticker without a call for action is, at best, a curious PR tactic.

If Craigslist simply wanted people to talk about the issue, then fine, mission accomplished.  But, if the site wants to mobilize the masses who peruse its 50 million new monthly ads and call out perceived hypocrites in the law enforcement and advocacy communities, it needs a more focused PR strategy with carefully articulated points (not random blog posts) and demands consistent with its goals of freedom and transparency in communication.

We’ve seen the launch point, now let’s see the follow through…