BLOGS: Wag The Dog

Monday, October 26, 2009, 9:26 AM

Monday's quick reads: hospitals, bloggers, and how to deliver bad news to a group

1.) Why some hospitals keep missing the web bandwagon (Suburban Journals) -- Of all the factions that have embraced Twitter and other social media tools, one is largely absent from the mix, even though it relies heavily on making sure resources are available for customers: the hospital.

2.) Technorati releases 2009 State of the Blogosphere Report (PRSA) -- According to the first installment of Technorati’s 2009 State of the Blogosphere report, bloggers are generally an affluent and educated group. The report focuses on professional blogging activities, brands in the blogosphere, monetization, micro-blogging and bloggers’ impact on U.S. and international events.

3.) How to deliver bad news to a group (Harvard Business Review) -- Managers get lots of training on how to fire an individual employee but usually are left on their own when they have to deliver bad news to a group. No matter how skillfully you announce bad news, it's likely to cause anxiety, result in at least a temporary drop in productivity, and prompt some of your valued employees to look for work elsewhere.

4.) 5 small businesses using social media effectively (Mashable) -- The five companies profiled in this post show that making a splash using social media isn’t about the size of your budget and that the only limit is your creativity.

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Friday, October 23, 2009, 3:03 PM

Top ten brands for corporate social responsibility

Many factors make up a corporate reputation - customer service, shareholder value, and employee morale to name a few. A new study from the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship aims to rank those companies that have earned the strongest reputations in the area of ethics, citizenship and workplace practices. Here are your top ten:

1. Walt Disney Company
2. Microsoft
3. Google
4. Honda
5. Johnson & Johnson
6. PepsiCo.
7. General Mills
8. Kraft Foods
9. Campbell Soup Company
10. FedEx

Notably absent from the list are any financial institutions, as they seek to rebuild trust with the public in the wake of the financial crisis. To view the complete list and get background on the center's methodology, click here.

The Center also notes some important trends:

  • Despite upheaval in the economy, a majority of U.S. companies are not making major changes in their corporate citizenship practices. Of those who made changes 38% reduced philanthropy/giving, 27% increased layoffs, and 19% reduced R&D for sustainable products.

  • Most U.S. senior executives believe business should be more involved than it is today in addressing major public issues including health care, product safety, education, and climate change. Surveyed in June, just as the national debate on health care began to intensify, some 65 percent said business should increase its involvement in this issue.

  • Reputation was cited by 70% as a driver for corporate citizenship, tied for the top spot with “it fits our company traditions and values.”

The fact that executives increasingly want to help shape public policy underscores the importance of building coalitions of like-minded organizations. Without them, it's very difficult to exert influence on customers, voters, and government decision-makers.

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Monday, October 19, 2009, 11:37 AM

Monday's quick reads: Goldman, grassroots, and blogging

1.) A grassroots cautionary tale (National Journal) -- The investigation into a prominent lobbying firm's fake letters to Congress points up the dangers to K Street in so-called grassroots and grass-tops lobbying, both of which are increasingly popular -- and controversial. It also underscores the absence of disclosure, let alone regulation, in a booming segment of Washington's influence industry.

2.) Bonuses put Goldman in public relations bind (The New York Times) -- Goldman and its employees are enjoying one of the richest periods in the bank’s 140-year history, and is on pace to pay annual bonuses that will rival the record payouts that it made in 2007, at the height of the bubble.

3.) L.A. County restricts reporters' access during meetings (Los Angeles Times) -- Only a few still cover the Board of Supervisors, but reportedly are causing 'traffic jams.' No similar edict is issued to lobbyists, union officials and others also found in corridors.

4.) Non-profits outblog private sector (Marketing Charts) -- The largest charitable organizations in the US far outpace the business world and academia in both their use of and familiarity with social media , according to a study by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research, which found that 89% of non-profits used some form of social media in 2008.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009, 1:21 PM

How to give customers and shareholders a voice

During my first job search out of college, a mentor told me: "Don't be afraid to ask people for help. If they help you, they become vested in your success. They view your success as a reflection on their efforts."

The same could be said for how companies engage their stakeholders, whether they be customers or investors. It may seem odd to ask customers or shareholders for help, but it can go a long way toward influencing public opinion in your favor.

Here are three examples of organizations asking their stakeholders for help or advice in a very public way and, in my view, strengthening their reputations in the process:

1. Microsoft: The tech giant is one of the first Fortune 500's to allow shareholders to vote on executive compensation. The "say on pay" proposal is non-binding, but it nonetheless positions Microsoft in the court of public opinion as inclusive of its stakeholders, receptive to a broader dialogue, and a leader in corporate compensation reform. One could argue that legislation pending in Congress could make shareholder votes a requirement anyway, but Microsoft deserves credit for getting ahead of Congress and engaging its stakeholders at a time of its own choosing.

2. Hallmark: The card maker has challenged its customers to design the best holiday cards and submit them on the company's website. The best designs will be sold online. The best of the best will be sold in stores, as well. What better way to guarantee someone buys your product than to let them design the product?

3. State of Wisconsin: The state's natural resources department is letting citizens vote online for a new license plate design, the proceeds of which will benefit endangered species. By opening up the process, the department did a far better job promoting the license plate than if it had made the decision behind closed doors. By giving citizens a say in the process, they are more likely to buy the license plate and help a worthy cause in the process.

When was the last time your organization gave its stakeholders a say in anything? If it's been a while and you're looking for ideas, give us a call or send us an email.

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Monday, October 12, 2009, 9:47 AM

Monday's quick reads: FTC's blogger rules, executive compensation, and swine flu

1.) FTC to fine bloggers $11,000 for not disclosing payments (Mashable) -- Bloggers now have up to 11,000 reasons to disclose when they are being paid to review products.

2.) Keeping pay police at bay (The Wall Street Journal) -- Having Uncle Sam set executive compensation is unnecessary and unworkable. David Yermack on how companies could strengthen their own checks and balances.

3.) Swine flu shot faces big PR fight (Charlotte Observer) -- Bert Curcio is more afraid of the flu shot than the swine flu itself. He won't be showing up when health departments, doctors' offices and other clinics begin offering the first vaccinations against the new H1N1 influenza in coming days.

4.) Where the news comes from - and why it matters (Pew Research Center) -- There are a lot of misconceptions about where we get our news. Only about 54% of Americans say they regularly read print newspapers. But that number, drawn from surveys, does not tell us much about where news comes from.

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Friday, October 9, 2009, 10:23 AM

PR lessons from Letterman and ACORN

This column was first published in today's edition of The Maryland Daily Record.

It’s not often I advise Baltimore’s business community to study a late night comedy show for tips on crisis communications. In fact, I never have … until now. But the crisis besetting CBS’ David Letterman is worth your attention. Here’s why:

Funnyman Letterman made a very unfunny announcement last week when he acknowledged having inappropriate relationships with multiple women who worked on his show at CBS. He also alleged that a CBS employee who had knowledge of the relationships attempted to blackmail him.

Letterman disclosed the transgressions to a stunned television audience last week. Not surprisingly, the news catapulted to the top of the national conversation the night it broke and has yet to subside.

Let’s be clear: Letterman’s conduct was inexcusable and the criticism he has received over the past week is justified. But the manner in which the late night host made the announcement can serve as a guidepost for businesses and individuals confronted with equally serious public relations crises.

The strategy is simple and generally effective: Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself.

Minimize the damage

Letterman could have hidden under the proverbial desk, hoping the news of his misbehavior wouldn’t break — a tactic that many businesses embrace before a crisis hits. Instead, he chose to go public in a lengthy and apparently sincere monologue. In doing so, he dictated how the news of the relationships would break, when it would break, and what the initial media coverage would look like.

Had Letterman remained silent, the explosive news would have inevitably leaked from any number of sources — his employer, his co-workers, the two employees involved, the prosecutors investigating the allegations of extortion — at a time of their choosing instead of his.

Letterman has received national condemnation since the announcement, and rightfully so. But responding forcefully to a PR crisis does not mean miraculously emerging from the scandal blameless. It means taking the lumps you deserve and, if you communicate sincerely and effectively, minimizing the damage to your brand. If you’re really effective, you may even win a little gratitude for respecting public sentiment.

Contrast Letterman’s response to that of ACORN, the community organizing group. Last month, several videos emerged of the nonprofit’s employees giving detailed advice on how to conduct illegal activities without drawing the attention of authorities.

Fill the information vacuum

When the controversial videos first surfaced, ACORN chose to ignore them. Days later — with the videos dominating national headlines — ACORN posted a statement on its Web site acknowledging no wrongdoing while blaming the videos on politicians and certain segments of the media.

It took four days for ACORN’s CEO to publicly condemn the conduct of the employees, 10 days for her to conduct an interview with a news outlet of national reach, and 12 days for the organization to announce that an independent panel would review the nonprofit’s operations. As each media cycle passed without a serious response from ACORN, the organization’s reputation suffered more damage than the videos alone could inflict.

To be fair, ACORN was blindsided by the videos while Letterman had time to consider his strategy before going public. But 10 days without a response befitting a national controversy is an eternity in a public relations crisis.

The volume of communications outlets today — in print, online, over the airwaves, by word of mouth — creates an information vacuum. The question is not whether that vacuum will be filled in a crisis; the question is who will fill it first.ACORN’s leaders didn’t tell it early, didn’t tell it all, and didn’t tell it themselves. They let their critics do the talking for 10 long days.

The public relations nightmares outlined above are not reserved for celebrities and controversial nonprofits. Sadly, ordinary places of work are regularly beset by executive misconduct and illegal activity by employees. If the public’s ire turns on your company for similar reasons, do your employees and your company’s brand a big favor: tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself.

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. His e-mail address is

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Monday, October 5, 2009, 4:33 PM

Monday's quick reads: FDA, Hyatt, and media measurement

After a two-week wedding & honeymoon hiatus, Wag the Dog is back with Monday's quick reads:

1.) FDA releases plan for risk communication (PR Week) -- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a strategic plan for risk communication, one step in a process to better communicate with healthcare professionals, patients, and consumers about potentially dangerous foods and drugs.

2.) Marketing on Facebook requires a delicate balance (Wall Street Journal) -- Despite growing concerns about online privacy on social networks such as Facebook, marketers at the Social Data Summit in New York professed enthusiasm for social media marketing.

3.) Firing housekeepers creates PR mess for the Hyatt (Boston Globe) -- The firing of 98 housekeepers from Boston-area Hyatt hotels has created a big public relations mess for the hotel chain, one that experts say could take a long time to clean up. Criticism of the company has swept across chat boards and blogs like The Consumerist, Executive Nomad, and the Harvard Business Review since the story broke on Sept. 17.

4.) How financial services companies use media measurement (Institute for Public Relations) -- Learn how a financial services company used media measurement and content analysis to gauge the impact of financial turmoil on its brand and reputation.

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