BLOGS: Wag The Dog

Thursday, May 28, 2009, 2:45 PM

Steve Case makes his case on the Time Warner/AOL split

(Photo credit: Business Week)
Time Warner announced this morning that it would part ways with AOL, officially ending a marriage that was hailed in 2000 as a merger for the ages between giants of "old" and "new" media.

Of note is how Steve Case, former AOL chairman and architect of the merger, chose to make his views known about the break-up. Case didn't call a friendly reporter (as far as I can tell) or pen an op-ed. Instead, he used Twitter to articulate why he believes the merger failed.

The fact that Case chose a micro-blogging site signals the continuing migration of business leaders to sites that allow them to communicate directly with the public, free of interference or potential misinterpretation from reporters.

Here are some highlights from Case, who wrote in 8 short bursts between 8:28 a.m. and 9:28 a.m:

"My perspective on AOL & Time Warner: has been a long, tortuous journey - and after a difficult decade, its time to open new chapter."

"Merger could've been transformative: driven convergence of TV/Internet/phone, ushered in digital music & video, etc.

"But synergy didn't happen. Didn't integrate businesses to drive innovation. Lots of missed opportunities."

"AOL not what it was a decade ago, to be sure. Uphill battle to return to greatness. But doable. Wish the team at AOL the very best!"

"Thomas Edison: 'Vision without execution is hallucination' - pretty much sums up AOL/TW - failure of leadership (myself included)."

Case did more than simply reach the 12,500 people who follow him on Twitter. He reached millions more when his Twitter followers posted his comments for their own networks to read and when the Associated Press included his tweets in a wire story, meaning that Case's comments are bound for publication in newspapers across the country.

Twitter also allowed him to articulate a message exactly as he wanted without the possibility of slipping up or being misquoted.

Case isn't the only business leader or personality to use Twitter to influence public opinion. Venture capitalists, airlines, computer companies, and financial advisers are just a few of the other industries integrating online communities in to their broader communications strategy. Readers of this blog would be wise to consider whether their company should do the same.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009, 4:49 PM

Monday's quick reads: Dell, reputation management, and Twitter

1.) Banks continue to suffer image problems (PR Week) -- The JD Power & Associates 2009 Retail Banking Satisfaction Study finds that the brand image of the nation’s retail banks continues to decline. According to the survey, only 35% of customers are highly committed to their bank, down from 37% last year, and 41% in 2007.

2.) IPREX and corporations talk reputation management (PR Week) -- Executives from major companies discussed how corporate reputations have been affected by the financial crisis, including relationships with CEOs, social media, and consumers’ trust in brands.

3.) Dell confirms product launch rumors on blog (The Blog Council) -- When Dell’s Lionel Menchaca discovered that there was speculation on the popular tech blog Engadget about a new computer that Dell was getting ready to release, he clarified the rumors and made the announcement official on the Dell blog.

4.) To tweet, or not to tweet? For execs, that is the question (Boston Business Journal) -- Edward Boches, chief creative officer at the ad agency Mullen, recently wrote a blog post titled “10 Reasons why every CEO has to get on Twitter now.”

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009, 1:49 PM

Britain's expense scandal highlights the need for "Daily Mail Tests"

(Photo Credit:
When was the last time you applied the "Daily Mail Test" to your company?

The scandal currently rocking British politics suggests you may want to give the Daily Mail Test fresh consideration, because failing it could cause a public relations nightmare with career-ending consequences.

What is the Daily Mail Test? The test requires that you consider not just whether a particular company practice is legal or permissible under company rules, but rather how that policy would be received if it were splashed across the front page of newspapers in mailboxes across the country. The term is attributed to David Cameron (pictured), leader of Great Britain's conservative party and a former public relations executive.

British members of Parliament are learning the hard way what happens when you fail the Daily Mail Test. British press has disclosed in recent weeks that MPs have been claiming public reimbursements for questionable personal expenses, ranging from the cost of manure to manicure an MP's garden to reimbursements for repairs to a tennis court. The scandal hits just after Prime Minister Gordon Brown raised taxes on upper-income taxpayers to help close a record budget shortfall.

To say that the revelations caused an uproar would be an understatement. The scandal has already forced the Speaker of the House of Commons to resign, the first time a British speaker has done so in more than 300 years, and has consumed political commentary across the country. Another MP apologized and stepped down for expensing the costs of clearing his private moat.

The scandal brings to mind recent examples of U.S. companies failing the Daily Mail Test over policies that were legal or seemed routine in the eyes of management. One example is AIG's distribution of employee bonuses after receiving $170 billion in taxpayer funds; Another is U.S. automaker executives flying corporate jets to Washington to ask for taxpayer funds.

So, if your company took the Daily Mail Test today, would you pass or would you fail? What "routine" company policies would spark uproar among your customers, investors, or board members if they became public? Now is the time for communications pros and their bosses to sit down, think hard about their organization's version of questionable expense accounts and corporate jets, and figure out how to pass the Daily Mail Test.

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Monday, May 18, 2009, 10:18 AM

Monday's quick reads: Chevron, 60 Minutes, and Twitter

1.) When Chevron hires ex-reporter to investigate pollution, Chevron looks good (New York Times) -- What did Chevron do when it learned that “60 Minutes” was preparing a potentially damaging report about oil company contamination of the Amazon in Ecuador? It hired a former journalist to produce a mirror image of the report, from the corporation’s point of view.

2.) What's the right corporate policy for Twitter, Facebook, and blogs? (Business Week) -- Check out how Business Week journalists approach engaging their readers online.

3.) Gifts for reporters? Don't bother. (Ragan) -- If you think chocolate and flowers are the way to a reporter's heart, think again.

4.) CEOs who use Twitter (Business Week) -- In August 2008 Business Week reported on 18 chief executives who use the microblogging application Twitter to clue customers in on new services, help them with questions about their products, and generally get a little bit personal with customers, business associates, and the public.Not even a year later, Business Week bring you nearly 50 CEOs who find tweeting a personal and professional delight.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009, 1:36 PM

Swine flu highlights perils and promise of social media

This column was originally published in The Daily Record on Friday, May 8, 2009

(The CDC's Youtube Channel)

The H1N1 virus – also known as “swine flu” – isn’t going away just yet, but there a few early lessons we can glean from this case about how to communicate effectively in a public crisis.

For me, the H1N1 outbreak illuminates both the perils and promise of social media and how it can shape public perception.

First, the perils. As the H1N1 flu picked up momentum in late April, popular social media sites lit up with commentary from the public. Many users of the social media site Twitter warned the broader public to avoid eating pork products so as not become “infected” with the flu.

There is one problem with this advice: it’s wrong. The H1N1 flu is not transmitted via food, but the presence of such inaccurate information in the public dialogue posed a threat to the bottom line of pork producers across the world.

Yet U.S. pork producers had just 300 followers on Twitter – a miniscule audience considering the global scrutiny and volume of chatter about their product. As a result, a critical opportunity to contain damaging speculation was missed.

Twitter is no echo chamber. The micro-blogging site has 5 million members globally, each of whom is capable of delivering information to wide audiences. With some Twitter members boasting networks of one million followers, misinformation about pork products can spread like, well, a virus.

Sure enough, prices of hog futures contracts dropped sharply as the flu’s reach spread. I won’t attribute the price drop solely to the misinformation on sites like Twitter, but it is hard to ignore the impact on the pork industry’s product as false information spread to wider audiences.

The lesson is that organizations cannot ignore social media communities in a crisis. Any citizen with a Twitter account or a video camera can spread any content about your industry or product that he or she desires, whether it’s pork or Pepsi. And whether your organization considers that citizen credible is irrelevant; what matters is whether that citizen’s network of followers considers them to be credible. To put it in public health terms, organizations fighting through a crisis must quarantine bad information and kill it. Then, replace it with the facts.

So, what is the upside of social media in a crisis? The Centers for Disease Control has demonstrated during H1N1 outbreak that organizations under the gun can use social media to their advantage. The CDC added roughly 10,000 new followers on Twitter every day during the crisis, bringing its total followers to more than 105,000 at the time of this writing. It has distributed hundreds of messages online about the flu, its origins, and what precautions the public should take. Cable news outlets such as CNN monitored the CDC’s online efforts and repeated the agency’s message to their massive viewing audience. The CDC also posted informational videos on Youtube, some of which garnered more than 140,000 views per week.

Beyond social media, the CDC’s strategy shows three hallmarks of a good crisis communications strategy.

Over-communication. One would have to be living under a rock to have not seen or heard from the CDC over the past two weeks. The agency utilized virtually every communications tool at its disposal – both old and new - to inform the public. The CDC hasn’t fallen prey to the dangerous assumption that your audience “gets it” in a crisis after you’ve issued a couple press releases and updated your website. To the contrary, they spare no opportunity to reassure the public, often on a minute-to-minute basis.

Message discipline. Acting CDC Director Richard Besser has positioned himself as a calm and articulate spokesman for the government. More importantly, he has repeated his message of prudence and informed decision-making relentlessly.

Crisis planning. The CDC has prepared for years to communicate effectively in the event of an outbreak. Granted, it’s the CDC’s job to do so, but too few companies today can say they have developed a plan to communicate with their stakeholders in the event of a crisis.

The closing chapters of the H1N1 crisis have yet to be written, but one lesson for Maryland organizations is clear: public conversations are migrating to online communities that hold great promise and great peril. The real question is whether your organization will follow.

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Monday, May 11, 2009, 9:07 AM

Monday's quick reads

1.) A battle with a New Jersey newspaper backfires (New York Times) -- When fighting with a media mogul, institutions would be well-advised to avoid using that mogul’s newspaper as a battleground, a hospital in New Jersey learned last week.

2.) American Express' risk-cutting poses its own risks (L.A. Times) -- AmEx, which pocketed $3.4 billion in bailout cash from taxpayers, seems to have been especially successful at making customers feel unwelcome.

3.) Auto dealers launch PR campaign (Detroit Free Press) -- The National Automobile Dealers Association, fearing the elimination of more than 3,000 Chrysler and General Motors dealerships employing at least 150,000 people, launched a public relations offensive Thursday, arguing that such draconian cuts are excessive.

4.) The death of print media? (The Washington Post) -- Is this it? Is the product you are accustomed to holding in your hands a relic, soon to go the way of silent movies and manual typewriters?

Thursday, May 7, 2009, 11:16 AM

Bad news from good messengers

Henry Fawell, a member of Womble Carlyle's strategic communications group, gave a presentation on crisis communications this week in Boston at the Spring 2009 conference for TechAssure, an insurance and risk management trade association whose members represent technology, life sciences, digital media, and venture capital firms.

Henry's presentation, entitled "Bad News from Good Messengers," offered communications guidelines for companies that fall victim to insurance-related crises such as data theft. Foremost among Henry's recommendations was that firms undertake crisis planning exercises. These exercises enable a firm to identify potential crises ahead of time and to develop a plan to communicate effectively with its stakeholders in the event of a crisis. Henry was invited to address the group after TechAssure's leadership read his commentary on crisis communications at "Wag the Dog," the strategic communications group's blog.

Womble Carlyle's strategic communications group advises clients on crisis communications, message development, social media strategies, and media relations. Our team has advised clients from an array of industries, including energy, real estate, telecommunications, construction, and government contracting. For more information, contact Henry at

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Swine flu info for businesses

Womble Carlyle's John Pueschel has compiled useful information on how businesses can respond internally to the threats posed by swine flu, also known as the H1N1 virus. Readers would be well served to take time to get the most current information available, and to evaluate how this outbreak might impact their business. To read more, click here.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2009, 1:42 PM

Tuesday's quick reads

1.) What Obama's first 100 days can teach communicators (PR Daily) -- Barack Obama’s inauguration signified more than just a dramatic change in politics: It also launched an equally significant shift in how White House communication is handled.

2.) Mayo turns to social media to reach potential patients (Star Tribune) -- A few years ago, Lee Aase was just another flack for the Mayo Clinic, issuing press releases on cue and calling news conferences for doctors to present carefully scripted messages. These days, Aase is a walking, talking, blogging, Twittering, Facebooking, YouTubing force who's blasting Mayo into the social networking world faster than you can say "Mayo Brothers."

3.) Fortune 500 companies are embracing corporate blogs (New Communications Review) -- The Fortune 500 are farther along in their adoption of public-facing corporate blogs than previous data has suggested.

4.) A record number of Americans say corporate reputations are "not good" or "terrible" (Harris Interactive) -- Johnson & Johnson reclaims top spot from Google in the 10th Annual Harris Interactive Reputation Quotient Study of the 60 Most Visible Companies, recording the highest individual company score since 2001.
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