Rough Week for the PR Biz

First, there was this oops (as described by Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson)….

One of the feature stories in (Wired’s) package is a case study by Fred Vogelstein of Microsoft’s blogging initiative, which is something I’ve been really impressed by. Today the company has more than 3,500 bloggers and its corporate messaging has gone from mostly press releases and scripted executive speeches to more of an authentic conversation in public between rank-and-file employees and customers.

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Yet the old company culture is not gone, as evidenced by an executive briefing memo from Microsoft’s PR firm, Waggener Edstrom, that Vogelstein was inadvertently sent in the body of a scheduling email. At nearly 6,000 words, it’s an amazing document and a telling counterpoint to the laissez-faire spirit of the open blogging initiative. Because it so aptly illustrates the parallel open vs. closed cultures that now exist at Microsoft, as in any big company trying to evolve a command-and-control messaging process to an out-of-control age, we decided to post the whole thing online in the spirit of transparency.

The memo coaches the executives on what to say and what not to say. It talks about Vogelstein’s interviewing style and possible biases (also how he’s “tricky” and “digs for dirt”–the memo cautions the executives to avoid certain paths and to watch out for traps).

(snip)

On a personal note, it’s kind of freaky to read the memo describe how I was wooed (even manipulated, if you want to think of it that way) into commissioning the piece:

“CharlesF met with Chris Anderson during his fall tour in ’06, placing the idea that Microsoft is thinking differently and creatively about its outreach….Dan’l Lewin met with Chris Anderson in October and also emphasized the company’s work in the arena, pushing the story further…Jeff Sandquist traveled to the Bay Area to meet with Chris and his editorial team. They were highly engaged in Jeff’s conversation…” 

Yes, that’s pretty freaky.  Also freaky:  6,000 words, which works out to 13 single-spaced pages, much of it in 10-point type.  All this in preparation for what was evidently going to be a positive story.  The memo itself is linked in the body of Anderson’s post.  I started to read it, but then realized happily that I’m not being paid to read that kind of crap anymore. 

Hoo boy.  If I might offer a critique, if this was designed to prep an executive to be interviewed, it’s too much.  You’d freak him out.  When I worked in PR, I was accused of overwriting when I let a two-page memo stretch to three.

Then there’s the New Yorker’s long piece about my former firm’s (Edelman) work for Wal-Mart, and their efforts to get the Democratic Party to see the good in the discount giant.   The writer, Jeffrey Goldberg, lets us know early what he thinks of Edelman, Wal-Mart and the PR business with this little summary of the players:

The job of the Edelman people—there are about twenty, along with more than three dozen in-house public-relations specialists—is to help Wal-Mart scrub its muddied image. Edelman specializes in helping industries with image problems; another important client is the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington lobbying group that seeks to convince Americans that oil companies care about the environment and that their profits are reasonable. Edelman does its work by cultivating contacts among the country’s opinion élites, with whom it emphasizes the good news and spins the bad; by such tactics as establishing “Astroturf” groups, seemingly grass-roots organizations that are actually fronts for industry; and, as I deduced from my own visit to Bentonville, by advising corporate executives on how to speak like risk-averse politicians.

After that paragraph, I’m sure the folks in Bentonville hit the liquor department (does Wal-Mart sell liquor?).  The rest of the story doesn’t get any better.  Out of respect to my former colleagues, I won’t quote any more of it.  Just so they all know: I don’t think the story is entirely fair. 

Back to the Wag-Ed mistake: I have been there!  When I was at Edelman, we represented Community Memorial Hospital during part of its fight with Ventura County over something the hospital’s president, an eccentric fellow named Dr. Michael Bakst, believed would cost his privately-run institution a whole lot of money. I don’t recall the details.

I was up in Ventura, getting ready for an important press conference.  Unfortunately and unavoidably, the press conference coincided with an in-house event at the largest paper in Ventura, the Star, which all reporters were required to attend.  I worked it out with the reporter that we would fax him the release when we made the announcement. (In 1995, we weren’t e-mailing press releases yet.)  I had a secretary in LA all set to do this.  I told him where the release was, where the right stationary was, the fax number, what time to send it….

Somehow, my secretary thought it was okay to print a document onto the stationary, and then, without looking at it, shove it straight into the fax machine.  Whoever was supposed to be supervising him figured he couldn’t screw that up, and let him handle it alone.  After the fax went through, the secretary looked at what he’d sent. 

It was a draft of a memo written by one of my colleagues — a distressingly cynical memo, splattered with scare quotes that made it seem like, wink-wink, we knew the press conference just was a big scam to manipulate stupid reporters.  The secretary, realizing his error, called the reporter and begged him to destroy the erroneous fax.  The reporter said he would. 

The secretary figured he was in the clear, so he never told me about this.  I talked to the reporter later that day, and never gave me any hint of the fax he had seen. The story that ran in the next day’s paper was completely straightforward.  Nobody had any reason to suspect anything was amiss, least of all me.  It seemed like it had been a successful day.

A week later, my phone rings.  It’s Dr. Bakst.  “What kind of operation are you people running down there in Los Angeles? Trying to make me look bad?”  Dr. Bakst had a suspicious streak, and I’d encountered it already a couple of times.  The hospital’s administration was full of rumor-mongers.  I thought this was just another test of my loyalty.  I tried to calm him down, but he continued, accusing me of telling the editor of the Star he was “some kind of phony, trying to put one over on the media.” 

“I never talked to the editor of the Star.”

“Oh yeah?  Well, where did he get these quotes?” which he proceeded to read to me from the editor’s weekly column.  “I’m seriously thinking about firing you guys.”

All sense of reality seemed to be ebbing away. How…what…huh?  I told Dr. Bakst I’d investigate and hung up.  I started storming around the office like a confused rooster in a solar eclipse.  Hearing this ruckus, my secretary quietly approached me:  “I think I might know something about this.”

After he told the story, I fired him on the spot–the only time I’ve ever done that–not for his idiotic mistake, but for keeping it a secret.   My staff and I tried to do damage control, but it was too late.  The client bolted — a client we could ill-afford to lose. Dr. Bakst later hired Fleishman-Hillard, but not before calling to offer me a job, which seemed like a strange thing to do as he was kicking me out the door.

Although I might appear to have been an innocent victim, I do accept the blame to this extent:  About a week earlier, the secretary had come to see me to ask my advice about “investments.”  It turned out he was being drawn into a pyramid scheme by some people he’d met at a dance club.  I couldn’t believe he was that stupid, to fall for such an obvious rip-off.  And yet I trusted someone that dumb to perform a crucial task. 

Fast-Moving Storm in LA

I was driving downtown, north on the Harbor Freeway around mid-day yesterday, and the traffic was backing up.  There was a lot of wind.  I called who I was meeting with, who told me about a big rainstorm downtown.  I could believe it, because here’s what I was driving into:

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But by the time I got downtown, here’s what it looked like:

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Within a couple of hours, I was back in the South Bay, driving through Redondo Beach, about to hit the Esplanade from Avenue I.  Looking toward Malibu:

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If I ever left LA, I think I would miss the winter/spring the most!

Thoughts on Downtown Growth and Traffic

As of this writing L.A.’s mayor and council continue to negotiate over whether to allow the city to sell “air rights” over the Convention Center to developers to “further downtown’s residential boom” by allowing taller residential projects than the zoning code currently allows.

This is quintessential “smart growth” as it is has been defined over the past 15 years in Los Angeles and other major metropolitan centers.  Because downtown isn’t the Westside or the San Fernando Valley, this particular smart growth initiative has blossomed in ways that others have not.  There are no homeowner groups eyeballing these new downtown projects from the competing philosophical perspective that growth is growth and growth is bad. 

One of the biggest assumptions behind the downtown residential boom is that these new people won’t use their cars as much.  Could be, although the parking situation downtown is a far cry from Manhattan’s.  In Manhattan and a few other urban centers with lots of residents, owning a car is a costly nuisance.  Urban planners in Los Angeles and elsewhere evidently hope this will eventually become the case in cities all over the country.  

This scenario is hard for me to imagine, I must admit.  Sure, there are lots of jobs downtown, but there are a lot more jobs not downtown.  Will every couple moving into one of these new downtown digs want to confine themselves to both working downtown in perpetuity?  Unlikely.  If a better gig opens up in Burbank or Santa Monica, then they just become another traffic-clogging commuter.   If their downtown employer subsidizes parking, isn’t it likely a downtown dweller would take advantage of it just the same way a commuter from Temecula would? 

Downtown is a lot cooler than it was, and in theory LA Live will make it cooler still.  But not cool enough to stay their all the time.  When I lived in New Jersey and drove into Manhattan to visit my carless friends, I don’t know who they were happier to see:  Me or my car.  My car meant they could catch up on their grocery shopping…or go to Connecticut to smell clean air and see real trees.

The expansion of residential options by building housing downtown is a fine justification for it.  L.A. has a housing shortage, and if downtown is where the homeowner-group-afflicted political system will tolerate new housing, then downtown is where it should go.  But beyond that, I don’t think policymakers should hope for much else to change.  Traffic congestion in Los Angeles is still awaiting a solution.

These thoughts are prompted by a new treatise in this month’s Reason, just posted online, whose title tells you what the writers, Sam Staley and Ted Balaker, think about city planners: “How Traffic Jams are Made in City Hall.”  The specific cases they discuss are in Minneapolis and Atlanta, but there are lots of correspondences with L.A.  The whole thing is worth reading, assuming you don’t get too upset when received wisdom is challenged.  An excerpt:

In 2005 the Urban Transportation Monitor, a biweekly industry newsletter, surveyed more than 600 transportation professionals to find out their thoughts on traffic congestion. About 19 percent responded. Of those, 45 percent thought the profession was “doing all it can do” to stop congestion. Half thought congestion was the result of too many people using their cars, and 45 percent attributed it primarily to the desire to live in low-density suburbs.

The preferred solutions were predictable: 51 percent thought mass transit should be improved or expanded, and 50 percent thought the government should manage demand better by getting people to telecommute or carpool. Only 29 percent believed increased highway capacity could be a cost-effective way to reduce congestion significantly. (The survey did not ask whether new capacity should be provided if it were privately funded.)

Many believed the problem is simply too many cars. Fifty-one percent said one of “the main reasons for the high level of congestion in many metropolitan areas” is the desire “of many to use cars for all their trips.” Indeed, of the 11 options offered by the survey, that was the biggest vote getter. For traffic engineers, planners, and other transportation professionals, the solution to traffic jam is to keep us from using our automobiles.

The planning profession clings tenaciously to its foundational myths. Even as overwhelming evidence to the contrary piles up, planners keep claiming that cars are inefficient and socially destructive; that expanding road capacity isn’t practical; and, most fundamentally, that the government can determine how we choose to travel by planning where and how we live.

That last assumption is the logical conclusion of a rather sophisticated (if largely incorrect) way of looking at human behavior. It’s rooted in a common-sense observation: How we live influences how we travel. If we live on a farm, we are going to travel by car. Buses simply don’t go out to farms to pick people up and take them into town for work or to buy groceries. Trains don’t either. A neighbor might, but she would probably be driving a car and doing this as a service because you don’t have a car. School buses are the exception that proves the rule. They pick up a large number of kids, but only because they’re being delivered to one destination, the school building.

The flip side is the experience of the Manhattanite. If someone lives in the densest neighborhood of an American city, cars are costly, frustrating, and inefficient. Most Manhattan residents can get to their destination far more efficiently using the subway, taking a bus, or walking. Because parking is so costly, they also can get around fairly efficiently using taxis.

So people in dense urban areas have more choices, and personal automobiles are inefficient ways to get around town. Congestion, in fact, leads people to use alternative modes of transportation. Many regional planners, like those in Atlanta, conclude that the way a region develops dictates how people are likely to travel and what transportation strategies are most feasible. And the way to influence development patterns, they believe, is to carefully plan where and how much to invest in the transportation system. But proximity to work is only one of many factors people consider when finding a home; other criteria, such as price, neighborhood safety, and proximity to good schools, are often deemed more important than living close to the office.

Of course, Atlanta is not Manhattan. In fact, it’s virtually the opposite. At 1,783 people per square mile, Atlanta is the poster child for low-density residential development. The New York metropolitan area is three times as dense, with 5,309 people per square mile. Manhattan’s density is even higher: more than 50,000 people per square mile.

According to the Atlanta commission, “Land use is an important determinant of how people choose to travel. No other variable impacts [mobility] to a greater extent. The Regional Development Plan policies help shape future growth and protect existing stable areas by encouraging appropriate land use, transportation, and environmental decisions.”

To say this is an exaggeration would be charitable. While land use can influence travel behavior in small and crude ways, to claim that it is the biggest factor distorts the mainstream research on the subject. A 2004 study sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) cautioned against the tendency to “overemphasize vertically mixed uses such as ground-floor retail and upper-level residential.” In particular, it noted that “outside of dense urban locations, building mixed-use products in today’s marketplace can be a complex and risky proposition; few believe that being near a train station fundamentally changes this market reality.”

This isn’t to say that these developments can’t generate more transit riders. The FTA study found that those living near rail stations were five to six times more likely to commute using transit than other residents. While those seem like dramatic effects, the majority of commuters near transit stations (often two-thirds or more) still use cars to get to work. Moreover, many of the people living in these transit areas were transit users already. They just moved so they could be closer to transit.

Put differently, if 5 percent of a region commutes using transit-about the national average-then 25 or 30 percent of those living in a transit-oriented development will commute using transit. This is consistent with case studies of transit use in San Francisco and Chicago. (Incidentally, those results invariably come from studies of predominantly heavy rail commuter systems, such as subways. Light rail and buses are more fashionable in planning circles these days, but they’re also slower and carry fewer riders.)

To get such high use rates, densities have to be very high. The traditional American home with a private yard doesn’t fit this model. The typical new house in the United States is built on about one-fifth of an acre. A study in San Francisco found that doubling densities from 10 units per acre to 20 units per acre would increase transit’s commute share from 20 percent to 24 percent.

In short, even cramming four times more people into the typical U.S. subdivision of 4-5 units per acre would produce only a modest uptick in transit use. And it isn’t an uptick for the region. It’s an uptick for the neighborhood-those living within a quarter mile of a transit stop. There is virtually no effect beyond the immediate vicinity of the transit stop, regardless of density.

At these densities, Americans would literally have to give up any hope of having a decent-sized yard and most would have to live in townhouses. The land use pattern would have to fundamentally change, resembling the landscape more common in the carless 19th century than in the highly mobile and adaptable 21st century.

Forget, at least for the moment, whether the government should effect such a sweeping change. It almost certainly can’t. In a forthcoming report, Adrian Moore of the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit organization that publishes this magazine) and Randal O’Toole of the Thoreau Institute examine data from the National Personal Transportation Survey and find that doubling an urban area’s density would, at most, reduce the total number of car trips by 10 percent to 20 percent. No U.S. urban area has managed to double its density or to reduce car travel by such magnitudes.

Hang ‘Em All, Says Mickey Kaus…and Other Thoughts About the LA Times

The LA Times’ implosion over the “how dare you think my PR person girlfriend influenced my decision to give her client some great PR” scandal (I can’t think of a shorter shorthand for it) has led Mickey Kaus to call for… well, I’ll let him say it:

Conclusion that’s now clearer than ever: Blogger John Gabree notes that you need a strong local paper to have a strong local political culture. Los Angeles has neither. The Times was making progress under Dean Baquet. But the best thing it could do for the city now is to simply disappear, instantaneously if possible, and open up space for decent alternatives to operate without the legacy cost of 900 tantrum-prone staffers of variable abilities. …

Well, there’s such a thing as “brand equity” at stake if the paper simply disappeared.  Sam Zell isn’t buying a printing press and a bunch of delivery trucks. He’s buying the newspaper’s reputation for….

Okay, now I see what Kaus means.

(But can the blogosphere stand having 900 new blogs about the good old days of Los Angeles journalism all at once?  Better let the folks at WordPress know about this.)

Curiously, I haven’t seen much on the mainstream PR blogs about this episode. 

It is evident to pretty much every blogger who writes about the news media that Martinez created a massive conflict of interest by engaging Brian Grazer to edit his section of the Times when he knew his girlfriend was a PR rep to Grazer and his company.  He apparently wants to go down in flames saying there was no actual conflict, that his girlfriend actually had no influence on his decision, it was sheerly a coincidence that the first person he thought of to name as “guest editor” was his girlfriend’s client.  Mr. Martinez:  That’s why they call it “conflict of interest.” The words mean exactly what they say.   You don’t need proof of a quid pro quo to establish a conflict of interest.  You only need to demonstrate that, in this case, Martinez had two conflicting roles in the affair:  Editing the LA Times opinion pages, and being the boyfriend of Glazer’s PR rep.  

If there is any doubt that Martinez’ position is absurd, substitute “money” for sex in this equation.  If Andres Martinez was receiving regular payments from Kelly Mullens or her firm, even for a legitimate purpose, he wouldn’t have had the luxury of quitting.  He’d have been fired, instantly.

But what about Ms. Mullens and her company?  Are the ethical standards in the PR business now so low that her company’s role isn’t worth noting in all this?  Again, substitute money for sex.  If a PR agency was paying an editor, and the editor bestowed a favor upon a client, that would clearly be wrongful behavior by the PR agency, wouldn’t it?

Taking a step back, I’m willing to concede we don’t know what Martinez and Mullens discussed in their private time together.   For all anyone knows, the first time Martinez mentioned the Grazer’s name to Mullens as guest-editor, she might have said, “Glory be!  Did you know he’s been a client of mine? In fact, we’re trying to sign him up again.  Land sakes!”

But in the next breath, Mullens should have realized that her company’s role with Glazer was fatally compromised.  She should have called her boss and said, “We can’t represent Glazer in anything he does with the LA Times.” A law firm or an accounting firm would have reacted that way.  It’s unethical to be on either side of what could be construed as a corrupt bargain.  But I have yet to see any PR industry spokesperson or any of the high-profile PR-boosting bloggers say that, or even mention the episode.    

If I’m wrong, please leave a comment with the URL and I’ll be sure to give it prominent play.  

P.S.  I know about this. I don’t agree with all of it, but it’s very worthwhile reading, and his facts about the LA Times and an extremely serious, still-yet-to-be-disclosed conflict are on the money.  Strumpette’s comments section is always interesting, but I’ll be paying special attention this time.  (More news media folks should be reading Strumpette.)  

Watching the Odometer

If present trends hold — unless all of a sudden people stop reading my blog — my total page views should hit 100,000 in the next 24 hours.

A hundred thousand hits in 16 months only makes me a multicellular microorganism in the blogosphere — up from an insignificant microbe! — but if you’d told me I’d ever hit 100,000 views when I started this thing, I wouldn’t have believed it.

To be perfectly honest, I’m sure many of my views have been the result of my humiliating encounter with the federal legal system over the past two years.  I wish I could’ve talked about it more.  The experience is one that begs to be shared in real time. Someday, I’ll be able to say more. I feel obliged to share what I’ve learned.

I also know I have Elliot Mintz and his client Paris Hilton, Tony Soprano, Al Gore, Saul Levine, “Walk Away Renee” Fladen-Kamm, Wendy McCaw, a baby giant squid, the people who park their cars illegally near Pinkberry in West Hollywood, George Allen and his can of black spray paint, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe to credit for a lot of my hits.  If you write about things readers are interested in, they find you.

I should also give a huge hat tip to the blogs that have linked to me, especially LA Observed, the Aesthetic, Here in Van Nuys and Todd And(rlik) on whose list I’ve fallen a bit because I haven’t written enough about PR.   (But see my next post!)

For those of you who came here initially to find out about my trial or one of above celebrities, and then kept coming back because they liked what I do — much thanks.  The encouragement you’ve given me to keep writing will stay with me forever. 

My productivity here is down, I realize.  I have to fit this into a full-time job, a lot more travel, and the slow, steady milling process called the law.  But there are 434 posts here, most of them still somewhat timely, so if I’m having a slow week, please continue to explore and react.

Now, onward and upward to 1 million!    

We’ve Got Global Warming Right Where We Want It

First, former Vice President Al Gore goes to Congress, winning converts to the cause of reversing man-made global warming, and support for his proposal to cap U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide at current levels, and begin cutting them back by 90 percent over the next 43 years.  The political trend gets noticed:

As Gore concedes, he is more salesman than scientist. But most scientists acknowledge that he is absolutely right on the fundamentals: Humans are artificially warming the world, the risks of inaction are great, the time frame for action is growing short and meaningful cuts in emissions will happen only if the United States takes the lead. An increasing number of business leaders and politicians outside Washington are moving his way.

Congress is paying attention to this shift. Representative Henry Waxman of California has signed up 127 co-sponsors for a very tough bill he proposed last week that seeks to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by midcentury, which is close to what Gore wants. When you consider that Gore and President Bill Clinton could not find five senators willing to ratify the far more modest 1997 Kyoto treaty – which called for a mere 7 percent reduction below 1990 levels, with no further reductions scheduled after 2012 – you get some idea of how far the debate has come.

But then, project-by-project, in states across the country, viable ways to actually achieve these kinds of cuts get blocked.  From today’s LA Times:

In a blustery stretch of desert two hours east of Los Angeles, where many of the world’s first power-producing windmills were built, a plan for more turbines has triggered a backlash that echoes a national debate over the merits of wind energy.

A proposal to build about 50 windmills next to Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument has aroused passions in a region already dotted with 3,000 windmills, with opponents charging that the wind energy industry has neither delivered the promised power nor spared the environment.

The industry, which was born in California, now has projects in 40 states and $8 billion in investments over the last two years, according to the American Wind Energy Assn.

Supporters say wind power has come of age and will help slow global warming, while critics contend that it has delivered only a quarter of its promised energy, proved lethal to wildlife and, in the view of many residents, blighted the landscape.

Around the country, Internet blogs and anti-wind energy websites hum with angry postings about projects on picturesque ridgelines, seascapes and farmlands from New England to Texas.

Politicians and celebrities have weighed in. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his Nantucket Island neighbors have so far successfully fought installation of offshore turbines.

Their opposition, in turn, has prompted criticism that rich liberals are all for alternative power providing it doesn’t mar their views.

So, are we serious about global warming or not?  Wind power is not perfect. But locations like San Gorgonio Pass, where the wind blows constantly, are inherently scarce.  We don’t have the luxury of ruling these sites off-limits, even when there is some other environmental impact.  Local politics should not drive how the pros and cons are weighed.

If we were serious about global warming, there would be a national policy to encourage development of wind projects in locations where there is the highest potential to exploit it for baseline power. Perhaps we should require environmental impact reports for each site — with the burden of proof being shifted to advocates of the no-build option.

I know that Gore and Waxman probably see the coming battles to be about conservation, green industries, solar power incentives, etc.   And certainly that’s going to be part of it.  But a properly located wind energy site is one of the few alternative-energy methods now available that is even close to being cost-competitive with burning fossil fuels.  Shouldn’t we be looking there first? 

Also, why isn’t there more discussion of hydro power?  According to this site, there are 80,000 dams in the U.S.  Only 2,400 of them generate electricity.  Wikipedia’s entry on hydroelectricity articulate the case against the energy source.  But what about installing turbines in existing dams?  If the dams are already built, what’s the incremental environmental damage from doing that?

Gore needs to shift his salesmanship toward selling solutions. Rep. Waxman is following the old Clean Air Act model of setting high standards and forcing local areas to meet them or else face lawsuits and federal sanctions.  That’s great if your purpose is to grandstand against enemies of the environment.  But I’d prefer we try to depoliticize this issue, acknowledge (which Gore does) that it won’t be easy, and stop creating binds for ourselves by simultaneously pursuing two competing environmental goals.  In San Gorgonio, in Cape Cod and elsewhere, we need to make tough choices.

If’ we’re really serious.