Monday, October 31, 2011


Read this op-ed. It is damn-near perfect. I meant read it now. I’ll wait.

Great, right? Here’s why. In 875 words, WaPo writer and Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss destroys the central conceit of “Moneyball,” one of the best sports movies I’d ever seen. Or so I thought. 

“I absolutely hate
the movie 'Moneyball'
and everything it
stands for.” BAM!
Maraniss’ op-ed is a micro-tutorial on how to tell your story in the digital age. He wrote with obvious passion. He used plain words in powerful ways. He took a contrarian perspective and supported his position with facts. And by closing with a poetic observation about life, he made the issue of baseball statistics relevant to me, which—as anyone who knows me will attest—is no mean feat.

I don’t follow sports, let alone sport statistics. The last baseball stat I tracked was the 1969 Mets’ win-loss record which I scotch taped to my mom’s refrigerator (100-62!).
But I loved “Moneyball” because, to me, it wasn’t about sports—it was about attacking an old problem in a new way. And since I had no idea who won the 2002 World Series, or that the A’s actually set an American  League record with a 20-game winning streak, I was on edge until the last out.

Then Maraniss blew that all away with one op-ed. That’s powerful story telling.
So here’s the lesson: When writing for yourself or for a client, find the most compelling perspective of the issue. Take a contrarian view when possible. (It's easier than you might think.) Write with passion. Write like you talk. Use data to support your position. And try to reach a wider audience by speaking to the broader implications of your position.

"I recommend
the surf and TURF,
Quick aside on how thoroughly I don’t follow sports. Back in 2005, I had the opportunity to have lunch with then-Outback Steakhouse president Paul Avery at a Lee Roy Selmon's restaurant. Lee Roy's was, at the time, an Outback concept, and this one was a block from Outback's global headquarters in Tampa, FL. The place was packed with sports memorabilia. A picture of Hall-of-Famer Lee Roy himself was on the menu. But I was a bit nervous and a tad distracted trying to remember which bread plate was mine. So I opened the conversation with, “So, this Leroy Selman, was he a ballplayer?”

Hands down the worst business lunch ever.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Optical Delusions

"I'll take that, young
man. Rules are rules!"

Three recent patriotic PR challenges (two riveting fiascos, one decisive victory), teach us once again about the explosive power of optics--the way your issue is perceived by your audience. To paraphrase language guru Michael Maslansky, it's not what you say that matters, it's what they feel. The optics of every situation affect people's emotions.  
Casa in point: Management at Casa Monica, an upscale Marriott hotel in St. Augustine, FL, recently fired a front-desk supervisor for refusing to remove a small American flag pin that he'd worn on his uniform lapel for two years. National condemnation erupted right on schedule.
In turn, and also on cue, Casa Monica predictably blew off three of its own toes with an official "some-of-our-best-friends-are-patriots" response that ended with, "However, our employee handbook clearly states, 'No other buttons, badges, pins or insignias of any kind are permitted to be worn.'"

Many have argued that it is because we live in the Land of the Free that companies like Casa Monica are able to mandate dress codes. And they are absolutely right. But just like that guy in the full-body cast who was clearly in the crosswalk before that truck plowed over him, "right" is meaningless in matters of optics.

"No, Ms. Marti.
The pole is spotless
near as I can tell."

Darden Restaurant didn't fare much better when they attempted to manage the optics of their own flag-banning disaster last week. In this case, an 80-year-old retired librarian straight out of Central Casting tried to bring the American flag into her Oxford, Alabama Olive Garden for her Kiwanis Club banquet. But management refused saying they had a "no flags allowed" policy 
And that's when the fun began.
First, Darden Restaurants--Olive Garden's parent company--issued a statement saying they do not allow flags to "avoid disrupting the dining experience for all other guests."
Then Olive Garden's president, John Caron, countered on FaceBook that they have no flag policy, adding that "some members of our team were misinformed about company policy by our corporate office." Personal phone calls followed and apology-lunch dates were set.
In the latest installment, Olive Garden SVP Bill Holmes has promised to erect a flag pole outside the Oxford restaurant. Word is they will test the stability of the new pole by raising a very large white flag first. 

But it doesn't have to be that way. If Monica was too cold, and Olive was too hot, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos got it just right.

About the time Bill Holmes was in Home Depot pricing flag poles, Marine Corps Times ran a cover story about growing discontent among Marines over increasing enforcement of the ban on Killed in Action bracelets. Under the Corps' uniform regulation, Marines were not allowed to wear the metal or rubber KIA bracelets etched with the name of their fallen comrade. Here is the headline and post date:

Marines frustrated by ban on KIA bracelets
Posted Monday October 17, 2011 7:23:28 EDT

Here is the headline of the cover story that ran after Gen. Amos took command of the situation:

Amos ends ban on KIA bracelets
Posted Tuesday October 18, 2011 12:44:53 EDT

The lesson: When your PR crisis absolutely, positively has to be destroyed overnight, think and act like a Marine.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Data'll do, Pig. Data'll do.

Data will do just about anything you ask of them if you squeeze them hard enough. The trick is to know how much pressure to apply. Squeeze just right and you've got data-supported facts. Squeeze too hard and you've got data-extorted crap.

Good data are vital to good communications. But you must treat them with great care. If you force your data to perform stunts that they just aren't capable of doing, you're going to end up with muffin on your face. Some examples:

Muffin but the truth: The Justice Department's acting inspector general accused the agency of spending too much on conferences, citing charges for a $16 muffin. That fallacy flew around the world faster than a CERN neutrino. Turns out the IG's office misread a sloppy hotel invoice.

Honey, I lost the kids: Google "800,000 children disappear every year" and you'll get 2,600 hits, many on national media websites. So 2,000 kids a day -- poof -- just disappear and we're all OK with that? Now google, "800,000 children disappear for at least a time every year," which is a more realistic interpretation of the data, and you get a far more realistic, far less sensational, and far less reported (48 hits) story. As Slate points out, very few children suffer the fate that those slinging the startling 800,000 statistic want you to believe.

We're praying for you,
Dennis, and all the blondes
out there.
Blondes have more fun, fewer days: "A study by experts in Germany suggests people with blonde hair ... will become extinct by 2202," reported the BBC, among other leading media. But as Snopes proves, the story is not only false, it has also been around in one form or another since 1865.

Which brings us to the latest data abuse.

99% confused: As slogans go, "We are the 99%" is fan-freakin-tastic. Right up there with "Hey Jerry, what's the story?" It's powerful. It's pithy. It's got a great beat and it's easy to march to. It's also unsupportable. Worse, it may very well force the Occupy Wall Streeters to redistribute their wealth with the entire global family or face the inevitable cries of hypocrisy. 

Here's why: On the global scale, we Americans all were born on third base in the metaphoric game of life. Based on the Occupiers' chanted objective, when we 99-percenters finally do wrest the wealth from those in the sky box, we're going to have to share the wealth with those on first base, those on deck, and the hordes in the stands who have absolutely no hope of ever even playing in the game.

As NYTimes Economix columnist Catherine Rampell explains, the dirt-poorest among us are better off than almost 70% of the rest of the world. And a whole heck of a lot of us are better off than 90% of the rest of the world.

So if we're really serious about global economic justice, better get your ATM cards out.

Last point: If this response to Ms. Rampell's column is typical, you 99-percenters might want to get ready to do some damage control: "Concepts such as poverty only make sense relative to the particular society in which one lives; not having a car or cell phone in rural India is not the same as not having a car or cell phone in the U.S."

For a great book on number abuse and general innumeracy, check out Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos. It's brilliant, fun and a little scary. A must-read for you PR types.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

BlackBerry Jam

Has BlackBerry's reign as the world's leading small medium at large finally come to an end?

Sorry. Let me take a Mulligan.

It's not a good sign when a three-day global BlackOut of your service doesn't rattle your stock price. True, BlackBerry's stock didn't have far to fall. That dual-carb, jet-black acrylic-enamel babe-magnet trading at $150/share in 2008 was King of the Strip till those turbo-charged smartphones bumped it into the $25-and-under lane. And after that shellacking, the three-day pitstop was a mere annoyance. But when your tree falls in the forest and nobody makes a sound, you've got problems.

"Down, Twinkles."
And, as you can imagine, there's a lesson here for us. Marshall McLuhan was right: The medium is the message. How you communicate your message literally affects how people perceive it.  

Research in Motion (RIM) co-CEO Mike Lazaridis knew this when he broadcast his apology to his rapidly dwindling customer base via YouTube, FaceBook and Twitter (Blackberry is soooo 2007--which was a big part of its stock problem. And besides, their service was out). 

Watching Lazaridis on YouTube, one could actually feel that he really regretted losing all that stock value. You can't convey that kind of pain on a BlackBerry. (The only distraction was Lazaridis' creepy resemblance to Frank Caliendo channeling John Madden.) And as far as CEO apologies go, Lazaridis' was much more convincing than Netflix CEO Reed Hastings' painful attempt at sincerity. (More on that here.)  

Which brings us to the Occupy Wall Street Communications Department. It's one thing to be so bereft of a message framework that MSNBC's Donny Deutsch suggests a "Kent State" moment to "articulte" your position. I understand that "it's hard to get concensus with so many beautiful, equal voices sharing all those wonderful globe-leveling ideas..." I get it. Really.
"Sorry about the outage."

But when you go out of your way to develop a medium that actually retards your message delivery--a system so primitive, so ineffective, so ... so Lord of the Flies! Well, that's PR malpractice, my friends.

"Jazz hands" and "down twinkles" do not a revolution make. And when the feedback you get on your human mic is belly laughs and Jim Jones cult comparisons, you medium has definitley sent the wrong message.

So, congratulations, folks. Your medium IS the message. And the message is, "It's no wonder we don't have day jobs."   

"No probs. I was gonna
get the 4S-ster, anyway.
So whoop-dee-doo."
(Full disclosure: A few people I respect and love support this movement. I don't, obviously. But while I disagree with what they are saying, and while I'd proudly defend their right to say it, I'll be damned if I'll just sit back and watch them let this serious PR crisis go to waste.)


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Brand Larceny

Unable to convince their customers and Wall Street that splitting the baby was in everyone’s best interest, Netflix beat a hastings retreat from their bone-headed plan qwikster than you can say “New Coke.”
Unwilling to accept another humiliating defeat, Ukrainian President Vikto Yanukovich orchestrated the incarceration of Yulia Tymoshenko, his political rival and the icon of the pro-democracy Orange Revolution.  
Ranzam, Van Damme Swanky Event!

Unmoved by the Human Rights Foundation's plea, two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank flew to Chechnya to attend the lavish birthday bash of President Ramzan Kadyrov, whose methods of governing include torture, "disappearances," and other human rights violations. 

It's been a helluva week for brand management.

But one person's PR train wreck is another person's entertainment--or lesson. Here's yours: The best brands--like the best stories--do not belong to you. They belong to your audience, to your market. This is a good thing. You want your brand and your stories to be shared among friends, to grow in popularity organically.

Once you have succeeded in getting people to internalize your brand or your story, you must be very cautious about making any significant changes. People will get angry because you're messing with their emotions, not your brand. Some future cases in point:

Netflix will survive, but Reed Hastings will be forever known as the architect of a spectacular branding disaster. (More on the Netflakes disaster here.)

Hilary Swank is about to embark on her Million-Dollar-Baby-I'm-Sorry tour which will cost her every cent she got paid for partying with the bad dogs and a good deal of her positive image.

And when Yulia Tymoshenko emerges from prison--in her orange jumpsuit--she will catapult to the front line of the Orange Revolution and promptly take Viktor down. Once again.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

"Mike! Check, please!"

Robert's Rules of (the New World) Order

1. Repeat after me. ... No, I mean literally. When I say something, you all repeat it in unison so we can speak as one. Always.

2. Do not clap. To signal approval, make "jazz hands." That way we can hear each other speaking as one.

3. If you try to speak ... out of order ... without enough pauses ... for us to chant ... your words in unison ... we will drown you out ... with the phrase "Mic Check!"

4. Do not allow any action, comment or thought that has not been approved by concensus.

5. Never raise someone's value above the value of anyone else in the assembly by allowing him to address us unilaterally, even if we did invite that person to speak.

Repeat after me ...

I can't decide if the "Occupy Wall Street" movie should be directed by George Romero or Terry Gilliam. A must watch: .

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Stay foolish.

Hologram of a quasicrystal
Israeli scientist Dan Schechtman lived his life just the way Steve Jobs said we should.

In his now-ubiquitous 2005 Stanford commencement address, Jobs said, "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice."

In 1982, Schechtman claimed to have found a crystalline chemical structure that could not possibly exist in nature. For daring to buck the "shared reality" of the scientific community, he was mocked by his peers, exiled from his research group, and derided by two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling who said, “Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists."
Yesterday, on the day that Steve Jobs died, Dan Schechtman won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his foolish discovery.

After winning the prize, Schechtman said he was thrown out of his research group because "They said I brought shame on them with what I was saying. I never took it personally. I knew I was right and they were wrong."

Galileo probably should have
expected the Roman Inquisition.
But most people don't.
Schechtman is just one of a long line of scientists who have been attacked by those in power for unsettling settled science. Galileo, who got sent to his room for the rest of his life for being a geocentric denier, is the poster boy for this free-thinking fraternity.

As we celebrate the lives of two great thinkers who weren't trapped by dogma, we can also learn a couple of very important lessons about effective communications strategy. 

First, controversial thought should not be squelched, it should be advocated. Loudly. Persistently. This is particularly true in scientific debates. If you, or your client, have a strong conviction about an issue and your data support your conclusions, seek out your most capable opponent and call her out. Great debates create great buzz. And they demonstrate your willingness to test the power of your research against a worthy adversary.

Second, never hector your opponent into silence. Ridiculing those who disagree with you is not just bad form, it's bullying. Stop it. ("You can call me Al ... Gore." Full disclosure: I used to employ that tactic. And while you can score some quick points on TV, the strategy ultimately backfires.)

Third, the science is never settled. Ever. The scientific method doesn't allow it, and neither should you.

Finally, as we enter this new age of communication, recognize that the more successful among us are going to make spectacularly foolish mistakes. Embrace it. Or as Steve Jobs said, "Stay hungry. Stay foolish." 

For the best science blog in the world, check this out (Yeah, he's my brother. But he's the smart one in the family.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What's in a naym?

Many said it couldn't be done, but Apple actually came up with a worse product name than iPad -- the iPhone 4S.

Setting aside the fact that folks were expecting the iPhone 5 (AAPL shares fell five percent on the news), Apple apparently didn't consider the fact that F and S sound the same when heard over the phone. (Frankly, F and Q sound the same on an iPhone.) So when you call your BFF and tell her you're talking to her on your new iPhone 4S, she's just as likely to hear "iPhone 4F."

As those of you old enough to remember the draft know, 4F is the military classification for "unfit for service." If the iPhone 4S shares its predecessor's performance limitations, iPhone 4F may well become its street name.

What you name your company, your organization, your product matters. A lot. If you have to spell out your domain name on your radio ads, you need a new name. (Government contractors are notorious for this, right QinetiQ?) If you have to visit before tweeting your company's name, you need a new name. If you have to explain your name (which we did), you need a new name (so we got one).

The Principal Network is now Doyle-McDonald ( I could tell you about all the research and expensive focus-group testing that went into this decision, but I'd be making that up. The fact is we just got tired of trying to explain what "The Principal Network" meant.

"No, not high-tech. Think of a network of communications experts who ..."
"No, no. We are not affiliated with that insurance company, but we do work with the financal services industry ..."
"Yes, we counsel educational institutions but we're not school principals ..."
" No, no, no. It's P-A-L dot com."

"Yes, DoyleMcDonald dot com. ... That's right, either spelling. ... Yes, very Irish. ... 'Gift of gab.' Ha! Hadn't heard that before. Thanks ... you, too. Buh-bye."

Best decision we've made this year.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Great Googly Moogly!

Finally, straight talk from a powerful corporate titan!

A week after testifying before the Senate Judiciary antitrust committee and fresh from a dentist visit for a toothache, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt did some mighty fancy straight shootin' with Wapo's Lillian Cunningham, unloading round after round of discontent about the way Washington works. (Full interview and a better photo here:

While I might have recommended a little more restraint, or perhaps more diplomatically worded petards (full disclosure, he didn't ask), the interview banged a "10" on the Candor Scale and a "google" on the Entertainment Scale. Unfortunately, the Russians gave it a "1" on the Effectiveness Scale, dashing any hopes of a medal. But it's a safe bet that the highlight reel will be enjoyed time and again by the "older ladies and gentlemen" on the Hill.

Here are some gems from Mr. Schmidt's performance:

"So we get hauled in front of the Congress for developing a product that’s free, that serves a billion people. Okay? I mean, I don’t know how to say it any clearer. … [I]t’s not like we raised prices. We could lower prices from free to…lower than free?"

"And for every one of these Internet-savvy senators, there’s another senator who doesn’t get it at all. And it’s not a partisan issue. It’s true in both parties."

"[T]here are two kinds of lobbying. … There’s the kind of lobbying where you pay an ex-senator to get the current senator to write a sentence into a bill, and there’s no confusion as to what this is about. … In Washington, for example, you can pay an ex-person $50,000 to arrange a meeting to get that process, to get those five sentences written in this bill."

"We wanted to lobby based on ideas. … So what we do from a leadership perspective, at least in terms of political leadership, is we talk about ideas. And inevitably what happens is everyone says ‘yes,’ yet inevitably on the Hill you have an older gentleman or lady. The staffers are young—the staffers get it. So that’s what we depend on."

"These industries are full of very smart people … who don’t live in America. They come to America, we educate them at the best universities … and then we kick them out. If they stayed in the country … they would create jobs, pay taxes, have high incomes, pay more taxes than the average American, and generally increase the GDP of the country. … [H-1B visas] is the stupidest policy the government has with respect to high tech."

"In the current cast of characters, the Republicans are on our side, our local Democrats support us because our arguments are obvious, and the other Democrats don’t—because they don’t get it."

"[T]here was something called the Clipper chip, which was the attempt by the government to enforce encryption on a particular communications aspect. … The chief proponent of the Clipper chip was Al Gore. … All of us spent a lot of time and we eventually defeated it, but I think for many people that was sort of a wake-up call that the government could actually pass a law that was stupid, that would actually do something wrong and wouldn’t work."

Lesson: When you're worth $7 billion, you can pretty much say anything you want. For those of us below the "F-you money" tax bracket, how your audience reacts to your words is always more important than how you feel getting them off your chest. And don't do interviews with a toothache.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Howdy, neighbor!

Dar al-Hijrah, the mosque where Anwar al-Aulaqi used to preach, is four miles from my house. Even better, according to the W. Post, "two of the Sept. 11 hijackers had briefly worshiped [there] when Aulaqi was the imam." That is so cool!

At the risk of droning on, I should probably comment on the PR nightmare the mosque is facing so I can write off this tall "red eye" as a business expense. First thoughts: suit up, and don't forget your cup. It's going to get rough.

I know you're tired. You've been under the microscope for the last ten years and you just want to put this all behind you. Well, you can't. The last decade was just the rehearsal. This is opening night. Places people, it's showtime! 

Khalid, set the scene for us, please.

"Dar al-Hijrah is dedicated to the betterment of Muslims and the society at large. We offer education, youth programs, counseling and food banks to the thousands who worship here every Friday night."

Good, Khalid. Now, Nawaf, rope me in. Let's build some tension.

"This is guilt by association. We are good people being persecuted because a few fellow worshipers had alleged links to terrorism. Let's see, there was our imam, Anwar, of course, and one of those five boys they caught in Pakistan trying to join a terror cell ... ummm, the Fort Hood shooting suspect. Oh, and two of the 9-11 hijack..."

Let's stick to the script, people! Nidal, I need you to bring it all together for us. The stage is yours!

"This is America, where people are free to worship as they please, to speak freely without fear of reprisal, to assemble peacefully. Those who criticize us and denigrate our mosque are sullying the very founding principles of this great nation."

That was beautiful, Nidal. Now, let's ...

"And we reject the use of extra-judicial assassination of any human being and especially an American citizen, which includes Al-Awlaqi!"

Really, you want to go there? Now? * sigh * All right. It's your show. OK, listen up, people! If I call your name, you may go home. We will not be using you in this production. Young school children from the day care center, youth program managers, prison counselors, teachers, food bank staff ..."