Archive for August, 2009

Admiral Mullen Communicates

US admiral Mike MullenIn an article for Joint Force Quarterly, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assesses America’s programs to improve communications in the Afghan theatre, which includes neighboring Pakistan. Adm. Mullen declares his dislike for the term “strategic communication,” and The New York Times calls his essay a “searing critique” of US government outreach efforts in the Muslim world.

The take by multiple media implies that Adm. Mullen is anti-communications and at odds with the Obama Administration. The further implication is that our “strategic communication” is nothing but spin and our top military officer is exposing it. A professional public relations perspective on the Admiral’s article gives a more accurate reading.

Adm. Mullen’s main admonishments:

Our messages lack credibility because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on promises.

We hurt ourselves and the message we try to send when it appears we are doing something merely for the credit.  We hurt ourselves more when our words don’t align with our actions.

Strategic communication will never replace deeds or conceal misdeeds, hence the message shortfall that Adm. Mullen describes. He is right, and every knowledgeable PR pro would agree. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) urges a “seat at the table” for communicators, enabling them to counsel leadership and help shape actions and policies.

Elected officials, military officers, and their representatives determine our moves in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nobody should suggest that a commander check with a PR consultant before executing a military operation. But an understanding of how every action, large and small, will play out among the populace is essential. Adm. Mullen says as much when he deems most strategic communication problems as “policy and execution” problems leading to perceptions of American arrogance that abet the enemy’s cause.

Adm. Mullen gives another important warning:

We’ve come to believe that messages are something we can launch downrange like a rocket, something we can fire for effect. They are not. Good communication runs both ways. It’s not about telling our story. We must also be better listeners.

This statement embodies the movement to create conversations and communities in public relations, marketing and communications. In their excellent book, Putting the Public Back in Public Relations, Brian Solis and Deirdre Breakenridge espouse an “engagement” model for PR versus a one-way, mass-broadcasting approach. (Advertising has been criticized for the latter characteristics; Solis and Breakenridge explain how they have infiltrated PR as well.)

The issue of Joint Force Quarterly that contains Adm. Mullen’s essay includes an article entitled “Strategic Communication and the Combatant Commander”  by Jeffery B. Jones, Daniel T. Kuehl, Daniel Burgess and Russell Rochte. This piece details military commanders’ ongoing communication responsibilities and the means to fulfill them. It does not contradict Adm. Mullen’s observations; in fact, it supports his call to integrate strategic communication, not to treat it as an entity independent of realities in the field.

Ultimately, Adm. Mullen does not denounce strategic communication or denigrate America’s intention to engage the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Muslim world. He concludes:

Strategic communication should be an enabling function that guides and informs our decisions and not an organization unto itself.



August 31, 2009 at 7:09 am 3 comments

Stanley Kaplan: An Education In Marketing

Stanley KaplanStanley Kaplan, founder of the education company Kaplan, Inc., has passed away at age 90. In my previous post about Buick, I mention the concept of “meeting underserved needs” as being a cornerstone of good marketing. Mr. Kaplan found an underserved need–college test preparation–and made it the basis of a company that today has over 30,000 employees worldwide and $2 billion in annual revenue.

The New York Times obituary and an excellent New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell tell the story of Stanley Kaplan, the diligent, brilliant son of immigrant parents, denied entry into medical school in 1939 because he was Jewish and the graduate of a public school, City College. A paid tutor during his high school years, Mr. Kaplan turned tutoring into his full-time profession after college.

In the mid 1940s, a high school student approached him for help on a relatively new type of college entrance exam–the Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT. Preparing students for the SAT became Kaplan’s signature service. Over the ensuing decades, his company grew from a local business to a national chain. He fought back accusations from test preparers and colleges that the SAT was “uncoachable,” eventually winning validation from the FTC that his practices did improve test scores.

Mr. Kaplan sold his company to the Washington Post company in 1984. Kaplan, Inc. went international and branched into higher education, tutoring for grade school children, and continuing education for professionals. Its dedication to meeting underserved needs is seen clearly in its push into online education, accompanied by advertising that recognizes “late bloomers” and “full-time workers.”

Admittedly, I have a bias here. I went back to school this decade and received my bachelor’s from an online program. Kaplan stands with my alma mater, the University of Phoenix, and other forward-thinking schools that have been creative with the marketing “P” known as “place” to deliver the “P” known as “product,” in this case an education.

Stanley Kaplan and his namesake company have challenged the status quo for years, those who said the SAT couldn’t and shouldn’t be coached, those who say today that online and/or for-profit schools can’t deliver a quality education. All this from a man who was told he couldn’t be a doctor. Stanley Kaplan’s legacy comes from telling people what they can do–a superb premise for effective marketing.

August 27, 2009 at 6:21 pm Leave a comment

Pull the Plug on Buick


(Please read all the way to my humble postscript written nine months after the original post.)

Newsweek reports Buick’s woes as the brand struggles even after surviving the brand massacre that came with GM’s bankruptcy. Buick tried to introduce a plug-in crossover that was quickly derided for its similarity to the Vue from the late-Saturn division. GM’s clone-mobiles were the symbol of its decline as it transmogrified core vehicles into Chevys, Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Saturns and Cadillacs. The W Platform was perhaps GM’s most vigorous exercise, undergirding approximately 10 redundant models. In the end, the new Buick crossover has been canceled.

As the Obama Administration was forcing the elimination of GM’s comatose brands, the company insisted on maintaining Buick. Per multiple media reports, primary rationale was:

  • The brand’s popularity in China
  • The importance of its “near-luxury” niche

The arguments smack of GM’s bullheadedness over the decades to keep every last nameplate regardless of the resultant cannibalization of sales and watering-down of product. If the brand is adored in China, then build it and offer it there–after selling it off à la Hummer, Saturn and Saab.

As for “near-luxury,” that is an elusive segment, the pursuit of which has often inflicted reputational damage on the manufacturer, seen notably in Jaguar’s X series that tried to be the cheap Jag and just came off as cheap. GM itself is the king of “near-luxury” infamy: the 1980s Cadillac Cimarron, a barely disguised version of the Chevrolet Cavalier economy car.

The Lexus 350 is Buick’s admitted marketing target. This is Lexus’ “entry-level” sedan, its near-luxury model built in GM-esque fashion upon parent Toyota’s top-selling Camry. Dan Neil of the LA Times gives the new Buick LaCrosse a strong review, calling it an “American Lexus,” but wonders if its attributes and competitive price are enough to justify the brand.

The “age issue” is a constant factor in charting Buick’s health. The Newsweek article cites perceptions of Buick as an “old person’s car,” and Dan Neil identifies the age of the average Buick owner as 68. My mother recalls my great-grandfather, Willie Rapson, would drive nothing but Buick Roadmasters in the 1940s and 1950s and looked down upon any other vehicle, including my grandfather’s Hudson. Not the kind of buzz to burn up Twitter.

Marketing comes down to meeting underserved needs with available resources, supported by brand equity. “Near-luxury” is not an underserved need thanks to a preponderance of cars filling the niche. Add to that GM’s lack of resources and Buick’s lack of brand equity. Time to pull the plug on more than just the proposed plug-in.

POSTSCRIPT 1: Buick uses crowdsourcing to figure out how to market the new LaCrosse to a more youthful demographic, but the young social media specialist soliciting feedback on Facebook commits a damning Freudian slip.

POSTSCRIPT 2: I’m sure GM has been waiting for this contrite admission nine months after I wrote this post: Buick is proving itself a worthy brand. Sales are way up and most importantly, average age of Buick buyers is dropping. Now it must buck the GM habit of recycling models sold by other divisions (much easier now with fewer divisions) and establish a true niche between Chevy and Cadillac.

August 24, 2009 at 12:35 pm Leave a comment

PR, Stat–Part II

In an earlier post, I reviewed PR efforts on both sides of the Obama Administration’s healthcare reform plan. Since then, the public relations war has escalated. Town halls held by pro-administration politicians have taken on the appearance of a WWE tour with heckling, shouting and scuffles…and plenty of media attention on the confrontations.

Other developments of note:

Sarah Palin has refused to go quietly from public life as she took ownership of the soundbite “Death Panels,” used as a synonym for a House provision to have Medicare cover end-of-life counseling. And per the social media era, she has used Facebook as her communications platform on the subject.

Wendall Potter, former corporate communications VP for major insurer Cigna, claims that the insurance industry is engaging in aggressive public relations tactics including use of buzzwords to “get people upset.” Now a member of the watchdog “Center for Media and Democracy,” Potter is knowledgeable and passionate about healthcare reform, but his “revelations” about the insurance industry’s PR maneuvers are far from explosive.

AARP is spending millions on ads promoting healthcare reform. But the lobbying group is facing unaccustomed opposition from its own constituents, manifested in protests and membership cancellations.

President Obama is pledging a new PR push of his own, including attending the type of town hall meetings where protesters have assailed Democratic representatives and senators. And to prove that Sarah Palin does not have the corner on Web savvy, the White House is updating its “Reality Check” site to counter claims against its initiatives.

Still, the tide is turning against the Administration. President Obama’s poll numbers are slipping, and a plurality is opposed to his healthcare reform measures. The Senate is dropping the end-of-life counseling provision, deeming it “confusing.”  The White House is backing away from a government-run health insurance option, saying now it is “not the essential element” of healthcare reform.

The last point underscores the Administration’s problem–just what is healthcare reform? If a government-run option–for better or worse–is taken off the table, how do President Obama and his allies define their program? The opposition has far less trouble creating word pictures–death panels, socialized medicine, Big Brother, boondoggle. Granted these terms are clichéd and simplistic, but they convey concepts quickly. The Administration has the more difficult role in the court of public opinion, that of the prosecutor who must make a case beyond reasonable doubt. It may not be fair that the White House is at such a disadvantage, but that’s its true Reality Check.

August 16, 2009 at 7:28 pm Leave a comment

Give PR a Chance

Israel_mapThe New York Times reports that the White House “will begin a public-relations campaign in Israel and Arab countries to better explain Mr. Obama’s plans for a comprehensive peace agreement involving Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world.” This follows a trend in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict of multiple parties placing increased priority on public relations.

Israel’s PR issues have grown with its military primacy. The country’s underdog status dissipated in 1967 with its resounding victory in the Six-Day War. The 1970s brought Israel the last major assault on its territory in the Yom Kippur War and peace with its leading adversary, Egypt, in the Camp David Accords. In the 1980s, Israel began projecting its power–the airstrike on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor to prevent his development of nuclear weapons; the invasion of Lebanon to eliminate the presence of the PLO and its allies along the northern border.

Today, many cast Israel as aggressor and occupier, viewing its efforts to stop suicide bombers (the West Bank barrier) and rocket attacks (military action against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza) as disproportionate. Ron Dermer, an American-born advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu, validates Israel’s PR crisis, which peaked with its Gaza campaign at the beginning of the year. Per an article in The Age containing Mr. Dermer’s remarks, the Israeli government will centralize its messaging and media strategy and improve its use of public opinion research. In the same piece, Professor Eytan Gilboa, considered Israel’s premier authority on public diplomacy, calls for a 10-fold increase in the country’s PR budget with a focus on Europe and the Arab nations.

In the wake of the Gaza campaign, Hamas has abandoned rocket attacks for a “culture of resistance,” stressing the arts and positive media coverage as tools in its cause. After winning a majority in the 2006 Palestinian elections, Hamas clashed with the older Fatah faction, taking control of Gaza while Fatah maintained power in the West Bank, creating a de facto “three state” scenario between Israel and the Palestinians. Hamas’ cessation of rockets and emphasis on public image is seen as capitalizing on international condemnation of Israel’s Gaza invasion and bombardment. Concurrently, Fatah has convened its first convention in 20 years, centered on a revamped, more conciliatory platform and framed by Palestinian President Abbas’ call  for “new forms of resistance to attract universal public opinion.” 

The Obama administration seeks to change perceptions among Israelis and Arabs and reverse dissatisfaction regarding American policy and actions. The President will give TV interviews to clarify his vision for the region and propose ways to solve differences between Israelis and Palestinians. Regarding public sentiments in the Middle East, US envoy George Mitchell cites Israelis believing that American pressure for concessions falls solely on them and Arab nations seen as rejecting US efforts, contrary to signals received in direct meetings with their leaders. Mr. Obama’s media push is meant to shift these assumptions.

At this juncture, all sides are acknowledging the importance of image and information, investing more in so-called “soft power.”  Will improved public relations employing the 21st century’s communications platforms drive lasting change and peace? American, Israeli and Palestinian leadership say “yes.”

August 9, 2009 at 4:50 pm Leave a comment

The Atomic Press Release

CloudToday, August 6, marks the 64th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Official announcement came through a press release issued by President Harry Truman:

Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British “Grand Slam” which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.

The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold. And the end is not yet. With this bomb we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction to supplement the growing power of our armed forces. In their present form these bombs are now in production and even more powerful forms are in development.

It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East…

Arthur W. Page, a legendary figure in public relations history, wrote the release. Son of the co-founder of the Doubleday, Page & Co. publishing house, Mr. Page served as AT&T’s VP of Public Relations. During World War II, he oversaw the Joint Army and Navy Committee on Welfare and Recreation and was responsible for numerous communications and morale programs.

Noel L. Griese is the author of a definitive biography on Mr. Page. According to his account, Secretary of War Henry Stimson summoned Mr. Page to full-time duty in April 1945 and briefed him soon after on the Manhattan Project. The Trinity test blast would take place in the desert of Alamogordo, NM, on July 16. Mr. Page was asked to write the release that ultimately would be read to reporters at the White House on the day of the Hiroshima bombing while President Truman was at sea returning from the Potsdam Conference.

Arthur W. Page is credited with writing the most momentous press release in history. Whereas the 1969 moon landing–the 20th century’s other signature event–was beamed live to television audiences, Page’s release alone was the public’s introduction to the atomic age. It is likely the last time a sheaf of paper would change the world.

August 6, 2009 at 1:08 pm 1 comment


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