BLOGS: Wag The Dog

Wednesday, April 29, 2009, 2:03 PM

Swine flu and crisis communications

(Photo credit: AP)

There are myriad ways to explore how public anxiety over swine flu will impact businesses, from airlines and drug makers to agriculture. For now, I am watching how pork producers respond to the uneasy public sentiment that is lighting up social media sites across the web. Here's an example:

The social media phenomenon known as Twitter has been abuzz this week with discussion over the swine flu and how people can protect themselves. Several users (none of whom appear to have any medical background) are telling their friends and family that the risk of swine flu is, as one person put it, "another reason to avoid eating pork."

That's not true, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC flatly states that swine flu is not transmitted via food. Yet the misinformation on Twitter - which has roughly 5 million members and growing, including members of the press -- can spread like wildfire, and rarely is information edited for accuracy. This can cause significant confusion and ultimately threaten a pork producer's bottom line. Take a look at what's happened to hog prices by clicking here.

The onus is on those producers to "go where the people are" and combat misinformation head on. To its credit, the National Pork Producers Council does have a presence on Twitter, but its list of followers at the time of this writing is slim considering the volume of chatter about its industry.

We'll be watching with interest.

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Monday, April 27, 2009, 1:01 PM

Monday's quick reads

1.) Corporate Blogs and 'Tweets' Must Keep SEC in Mind (Wall Street Journal) -- An eBay Inc. effort to broaden communication through the popular Twitter Web-messaging service highlights the hurdles facing corporate users of online social media.

2.) Local businesses venture onto the online social networking scene (South Florida Business Journal) -- When the telegraph came along, some naysayers probably dismissed the new invention, noting the Pony Express was quick enough for communicating. They were wrong. And this lesson is not lost on those who are today increasingly turning to online social networking Web.

3.) Public Perception, Reality Bedevil General Motors (Washington Post) -- The perception gap has been a killer for General Motors. It's the gap between what the public thinks is real and what actually is real. It is a chasm that varies in width and depth, depending on the issue. But it's one into which GM has fallen repeatedly, damaging itself unnecessarily.

4.) Why Haagin Dazs likes grassroots marketing (Brandweek) -- Unlike past campaigns, Häagen-Dazs is promoting a new product via grass roots, particularly a SheSpeaks word-of-mouth sampling party.

Monday, April 20, 2009, 9:31 AM

Monday's quick reads

1.) Ignore Twitter? Major bands learn they better respond...and quick (Los Angeles Times) -- Separate incidents involving CNN, Amazon and Domino's Pizza reveal that fluency in the evolving language of digital public relations comes easier to some companies than others.

2.) Tweeting becomes a job opportunity (New York Times) -- Pizza Hut is looking for Summer Twinterns — i.e. a summer intern who uses Twitter — to aid the company in social media outreach.

3.) Americans blame ad agencies, media for economic crisis (Harris Interactive) -- Two-thirds of Americans believe ad agencies have at least some responsibility for the current economic crisis because they caused people to buy things they couldn’t afford, according to a new poll.

4.) How to handle a public relations crisis (Mass High Tech) -- Apple's cease and desist order against a start up highlights how companies can use blogs and social media to influence public opinion.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009, 10:17 AM

Renewable energy's grassroots problem

(Photo credit: The Washington Post)
We have blogged before about the paradox facing renewable energy companies, and it doesn't appear to be going away. At the national level, these companies are hailed as a critical component to reducing America's carbon footprint and its dependence on foreign sources of oil.

The view at the local level, however, is quite different. As The Washington Post points out today, renewable energy companies often face stiff resistance from local activists who view their projects as threats to parks, vistas, and property values. The resistance doesn't only come from organized environmental groups; often it's a small group of concerned neighbors determined to make a difference.

The lesson is that energy companies can no longer rely on the environmental virtues of their product to garner public support. These virtues rarely have immediate, tangible benefits for the communities that are impacted by the construction of large wind farms, solar farms, or biofuel manufacturing plants. My experience is those neighbors are more concerned about the project's impact on their home's value, the view out their window, or noise pollution in the neighborhood.

Establishing an aggressive grassroots communications plan is a good place to start for companies with projects in the pipeline, including community advisory panels, outreach to local press, local philanthropy, and websites designed to educate the community. It's never too early to start planning.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009, 11:58 AM

Bernanke's public relations offensive

Today's Wall Street Journal explores Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's rare public relations offensive in the wake of global financial uncertainty. You can view a quick video below or read the complete article by clicking here.

Here's a quick excerpt from the article:

"Fed officials have been struck by the public response to Mr. Bernanke's "60 Minutes" appearance, which took him to his hometown of Dillon, S.C., to reminisce about his modest upbringing and to visit his childhood home, which a subsequent owner recently lost to foreclosure.

"Strangers have been coming up to him in airports and supermarkets to compliment him. One Fed employee approached him in the Fed's top-floor cafeteria after the television interview. She told him she was touched to learn his mother was reluctant to send him off to Harvard as a teen because he didn't have the proper clothes."
The strategy reinforces two lessons:

1.) The economy is changing rapidly and public opinion is changing with it. Leaders in business and government are wise to respond with unconventional communications. The Fed has a long history of avoiding overt publicity campaigns, and Mr. Bernanke strikes few observers as an attention hound. Yet the chairman and his team deserve kudos for applying a precedent-breaking communications strategy to an unprecedented economic climate.

2.) Few things are as effective as a compelling personal story. The "60 Minutes" excerpt about Bernanke's upbringing helps to elevate the chairman above an unpopular backdrop: the marble halls of Washington, the impeccable pin-stripe suits, and the corridors of Wall Street. Elevating Bernanke above that backdrop allows a big slice of his audience, the American taxpayer, to view him and his decisions in a new light. His audience may not agree with his actions, but his outreach makes them more familiar with the humble life experiences that help guide his decisions. The implicit message: Every decision Bernanke makes, he makes in the best interests of towns like Dillon, S.C.

"60 Minutes" is only one interview, but it's a start. Let's hear from you. Is Bernanke's communications strategy smart, or is he needlessly inviting backlash from the market if he flubs an interview?

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Monday, April 13, 2009, 10:04 AM

Monday's quick reads

1.) Great crisis leaders: 10 key characteristics (Ragan) -- Most leaders who are successful managing through deep crises will posses a majority of these qualities.

2.) Top gobbledygook phrases used in press releases (PRSA) -- An author analyzed 711,123 press releases from 2008 to determine the most commonly used gobbledygook words and phrases.

3.) Agencies Need to Think More Facebook, Twitter, Less TV (Advertising Age) -- A venture capitalist says the future is in "earned" - not paid - media.

4.) U.S. military to get new view on social media (PR Week) -- A new report from the National Defense University offers some social media tips for government folks.

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Friday, April 10, 2009, 10:47 AM

Employee communication can bolster morale and profit

In this month's column for The Daily Record, we look at how communicating effectively with employees can help a company's bottom line. The link between internal communications and the cash register is pretty strong. You can read it below or check it out at The Daily Record's website by clicking here.

Employee communication bolsters morale and profit
Special to The Daily Record
April 10, 2009

In this economy, the chance to ring the cash register more often should motivate any company. As managers look for every opportunity to improve their bottom line, they might want to consider a fairly unconventional tool: employee communications.

Believe it or not, shareholder returns for organizations with the most effective employee communications were 29 percent higher from 2002-2006 than firms with less effective communications, according to a recent Watson Wyatt study.

And in today’s economy, the prospects of layoffs, benefit cuts and uncertainty over an organization’s future only accentuate the need for constructive communications between management and employees.

Unfortunately, not every employer appreciates the connection between work force morale and the organization’s bottom line. Seven out of 10 Americans believe their employers don’t communicate with them enough about the current economy and its impact on their business.

Some managers simply fail to engage their work force about the organization’s mission, values and productivity. Others communicate with reporters, shareholders and customers while leaving their own employees in the dark.

So here are a few tips for companies looking to focus their communications inward and their revenue upward.

Be clear: An internal communications plan without a clear message is like a Rolls-Royce with a flat tire: It may look good, but it’s not going anywhere. Before engaging employees, managers must ask themselves tough questions about where the company is headed and how employees will help the company get there. This can help a manager communicate with clarity, resonate with employees and motivate them toward a specific goal.

Be honest: Henry Ford wisely stated that managers must treat employees like members of the extended family. Doing so begins with honest dialogue. In this economy, the prospects of layoffs weigh on the minds of countless employees at Baltimore companies. With Maryland’s unemployment rate at a 25-year high, their concerns are justified.

If asked by an employee, managers who are considering layoffs would be wise to simply state, “I can’t answer that right now” rather than lie and jeopardize the company’s credibility with its work force.

If layoffs are announced, consider team meetings with remaining employees to discuss how the company is repositioning itself to succeed in the future and offer an open-door policy to support and motivate employees.

Be open-minded: Too many organizations view internal communications as a one-way street. Management makes a decision and feeds it to the work force via memo — end of communication. But employees today expect more. The rise of social media sites such as Facebook has created demand for a two-way dialogue between employees and managers, and innovative employers are adapting accordingly.

Toyota has created an online forum for employees to ask questions about the company and its role in an ever-changing economy. Doing so gives Toyota a read of its work force’s pulse and positions management to address concerns head-on. You’re likely to pick up a few good ideas from bright employees along the way.

Be holistic: Your communications should not focus simply on the outside world. Smart managers view their employees as an army of surrogates, many of whom are willing to take the extra step to support the larger organization.

If your company finds itself under scrutiny from the press or the public, be sure to communicate clearly with employees about how management is responding. The last thing you want is a work force operating in an information vacuum with no choice but to believe what it reads in the press. Proactively engaging employees eliminates confusion and arms your work force with the facts it needs to represent your company at home and in the community.

Be profitable: If nothing else motivates you, perhaps profits will. Take it from Southwest Airlines’ Herb Kelleher, who once said employees who feel valued provide better customer service, and customers who feel appreciated by a company become repeat customers.

Plenty of factors contribute to a company’s bottom line — sales, marketing and productivity to name a few. But the link between internal communications and the cash register is real. In this economy, that should motivate every company to rethink how it communicates with its work force.

Henry Fawell is a communications consultant for Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice PLLC in Baltimore and was press secretary for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. His column appears monthly, and his e-mail address is

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009, 10:21 AM

The changing face of journalism

A new survey shows just how rapidly traditional journalism is changing, particularly at our nation's newspapers. The old rules of communicating are increasingly irrelevant as both journalism and public viewing habits change. Corporate managers would be wise to use the results to ask tough questions within their organization about how their company is adapting to the changes.

The survey by PRWeek/PR Newswire can be read by clicking here. Some highlights are below:

1. 62% of newspaper journalists anticipating "declines in print circulation and increased focus on the web" over the next three years.

2. 50% of media professionals are now considering a career outside of journalism.

3. 28% of media respondents are blogging for their traditional publication, a 6% increase from 2008.

4. Reporters' use of social media sites, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, increased significantly from 2008. 58% are on Facebook and 51% have a LinkedIn profile, compared with 29% and 32% last year. Twenty-two percent are on Twitter. The number of journalists not participating in social media is now a clear minority, with 23% saying they do not have a social network profile. In 2008, the number was 46%.

5. The majority of journalists responding prefer PR professionals to pitch them by e-mail with 80% listing it as their favored method.

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Monday, April 6, 2009, 4:29 PM

Monday's quick reads

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