Murphy's Law

Tom Murphy

Archive for February 2005

Discussion on a new communications model….

Elizabeth Albrycht has kicked off a discussion on how the merger of new technologies and techniques with traditional communications practices can produce a new model.

It’s a fascinating subject and Elizabeth has clearly undertaken a lot of work in preparing the background.  She is calling for people to participate in the debate, to work through a whole multitude of issues that will affect communications moving forward.

She points to a few of the emerging patterns that will affect this discussion:

* We hear “markets are conversations”, but what does that mean in practical terms about how we re-structure our corporate communications?

* We issue calls for “transparency”, but what assumptions are underlying this call that come from the old command/control approach?

* We (culturally) celebrate (at least in the US) individualism in terms of “superstars” and “experts”, but success in this new world may just rely on collective effort.

* Our strategies for success, e.g., for delivering messages, relies upon an objectification of the audience (people are things, without agency). But now, the audience is no longer passive. What does it mean to have an active audience (people with agency)? How must this new assumption change our strategy for communications?

* McLuhan famously stated, “the medium is the message.” What is the message of the tools we are adopting e.g, blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, etc.? How does the tool itself change the interaction between transmitters – receivers of information? How does the use of these new tools transform traditional power flows? What does that mean for communication practice?

Read it and get thinking….

Written by Tom Murphy

February 15, 2005 at 9:01 am

Posted in General

Book Review: Talespin: Public Relations Disasters

As anyone working in the PR business needs no reminding, the term ‘PR disaster’ has become a synonym in the media for any disaster whether it be an act of god, organizational or individual stupidity, a product defect or an actual PR mishap.  The use of the term ‘PR’ even when there is little of no PR element to the story highlights one of the many perceptual problems facing the profession.


When Melissa Weiner from Stray Dog Media contacted me about a possible review of Gerry McCusker’s new book “Talespin: PR disasters”, I was delighted to agree.  Disasters are something I feel every PR practitioner should be interested in.


Gerry’s book provides a wide variety of interesting mini-case studies detailing how organizations were damaged through poor PR.

�The term �PR disaster� is most frequently used in newspaper columns and media soundbites where the continual twinning of the terms �PR� and �disaster� by journalists and reporters is applied to anything and everything negative that happens to any company or organization.�


The book provides a brief overview of a diverse range of examples, from well publicized episodes such as the failed launch of Coca Cola’s Dasani water in the UK, and Sherpardson Stern & Kaminsky’s e-mail woes to less well known hiccups such as Volkswagen’s disasterous UK direct mail campaign.  Following each example, McCusker provides a brief summation of the issues and highlights some of the many useful lessons to be learned.


For me, one of the great elements of a career in Public relations is that you never stop learning.  If you want a job where nothing changes then PR is probably not for you.  PR is dynamic, the climate is always in flux and no matter how well or badly things are going, there’s always a surprise around the corner.  It’s one of the reasons why I am always interested in finding out how different companies handle different challenges facing their organization.


Talespin provides a rich variety of different disasters.  Some ultimately led to successful outcomes, others fatally damaged the businesses concerned. It serves to illustrate that the elements that can damage an organization go far beyond the boundaries of PR, and illustrates the need for every department to understand the PR implications of their daily work. 


One of the problems for anyone interested in finding out about different PR campaigns, is that it’s rare that you can get a real insight into what went on in the background of a given issue.  The most popular sources of this information, namely PR case studies and PR award submissions, typically only provide the most basic details on a campaign and provide little or no insight into how the practitioners concerned actually dealt with challenges and opportunities as they arose.  The nature of PR means that this detail, the most interesting element, will only emerge at a much later date – if at all.  Looking back at a past PR disasters in the cold light of day is a far different proposition than having to make major decisions in the midst of a crisis when you are besieged with partial information, differing advice and a landslide of media inquiries.


If I have one tiny criticism of the book, it is that it doesn’t really get under the skin of how the PR teams successfully or unsuccessfully dealt with the issues.  While there’s a huge diversity of case studies, I kept finding myself hoping for some more detailed cases, some more inside track on how the PR team dealt with the crisis.  What were the internal and external pressures? How did the crisis build from the inside perspective?  To be fair that’s a shortcoming of any book of this sort.  People are understandably reticent to allow sensitive internal information to be published publicly.


On the other hand, Talespin does provide a wide range of thought provoking crises.  As you go through the book you find yourself thinking through the crisis as it unfolds, and developing your own plans for solving it.  That in itself is an interesting and challenging exercise and in many ways provides a far more satisfying experience than many of the growing number of self-help PR books you’ll find strewn across the physical shelves of your book store or the virtual shelves of your favorite online book seller.


Is Talespin the ultimate crisis communication bible for your desk?  No.  But then it doesn’t try and fulfill that role.  I think it provides some very interesting real-world examples of how PR impacts the entire organization.  For non-PR business people it provides a useful collection of business scenarios that highlight the requirement for PR skills at all levels of a company.  For the Public Relations practitioner it provides a diverse collection of examples of just how badly many organizations have dealt with crises. 


It’s a timely reminder that every practitioner needs to think clearly in times of crisis, while many of the missteps seem incredible in the clear view of hindsight, they were planned and implemented in good faith at the time.


I’d love to see Gerry plan a second book, this time with fewer cases but more in-depth analysis from the PR and business perspective. 


I recommend Talespin for anyone responsible for a company’s good standing whether they are in marketing, public relations and/or senior management. As with everything else, prevention is always better than the cure and reading this book will make you think long and hard about the potential for your company to end up as a PR disaster.



  • Thanks to Melissa Weiner from from Stray Dog Media for providing a review copy of the book.
  • Talespin is widely available (Amazon, Barnes & Noble)
  • Read Trevor Cook’s review and his interview with Gerry McCusker
  • Read Philip Young’s review
  • Read Jim Horton’s review




Written by Tom Murphy

February 15, 2005 at 8:32 am

Posted in General

New and notable blogs

 David Parmet has kicked off his new blog “Marketing Begins at Home”

 Alain Jourdier has re-vamped his blog “Marketing Bytes Man”

 Interactive PR is a relatively new blog looking at how different media affect PR [via Drew]


Written by Tom Murphy

February 14, 2005 at 11:56 am

Posted in General

The new world of Public Relations is pining for the fjords…

One of the problems with having a blog is the temptation for knee-jerk (that should probably be finger-jerk but that sounds a little rude) reactions to content you read online.  You read something that you either really agree with or irks you and the obvious reaction is to post a strongly worded post. I am fighting my addiction to impulse posting and have starting making a habit of purchasing a nice coffee to give me some time and perspective.

Religon is also something I try and avoid here, but in looking at the Public Relations business, its practitioners and its detractors, its challenges and adopters is there better guidance than:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.


Reality Check

Ladies and gentlemen, Public Relations isn’t going anywhere.  Public Relations is not dying, but Public Relations is slowly changing.  When I say slowly, I’d like you to think of the speed with which glaciers around the globe shaped the Earth’s landscape. Yes PR is changing that fast.

The vision of a new, rapidly emerging conversation-based democracy, is in my humble opinion, way overblown. It’s a vision and like all visions it will take a long time to pass – if ever.

PR’s problems continue unabated.

There is no question that the Public Relations industry has a myriad of major challenges. There are a significant number of practitioners (though still a small minority) engaging in unethical pay-for-play activities.  The profession’s image is appalling and it is actually getting worse.  The practice of even the most basic tools of our trade e.g. media relations is often ham fisted and amateur.

The human species evolves faster than the PR industry recognizes and adopts new technologies and techniques.  Its professional bodies, have to date, failed to address the shadier practices of the few – practices which no right thinking PR person could ever condone.

These are fundamental challenges � but that�s all.

The New York Times� article �Spinning Frenzy: P.R.�s Bad Press” does a good job illustrating these difficulties.

One good thing that has arisen from the whole Ketchum-Armstrong Williams affair is that it has forced the PR establishment to come out and take a stand on ethics.  This is a positive step, albeit late and a little self-serving.  However these headlines aren�t slowing down the big profit business of astroturfing.

Big, medium and small sized PR firms continue to leave their ethics at home while �working� for companies and industry organizations.  For many, the call of the PR dollar is far more attractive than the lonely high ground of ethics and good practice. Money talks.

Changing Practices

The other chestnut that continues to roast gently on the open fire, is how the advent of new tools such as blogging will kill, maim or damage Public Relations.  I am unconvinced. Yes these developments will slowly change PR campaigns.  They will add new tactics and demand new thinking on how to best communicate with an audience.  But that�s it folks.  The slowly moving PR machinery will eventually assimilate blogs, RSS and Wikis in the same way the fax, phone and the tabloid have been assimilated.

Even the profile of Robert Scoble in the Economist which includes the potentially incendiary sub-head: “Does Robert Scoble, a celebrity blogger on Microsoft’s payroll, herald the death of traditional public relations?”, acknowledges that:

�(Scoble) thinks that there will always be a place for traditional PR, with its centrally controlled corporate message, alongside the spontaneous cacophony of blogs.�

Of course there will always be a place for �traditional PR�.  Traditional PR is concerned with effective communication with an audience. This transcends the tool and the channel.  PR people will eventually � don�t hold your breath � embrace blogs and they will take their place in the PR armoury alongside press releases (yes press releases), face-to-face briefings, telelconferences etc.

It�s good that some PR practitioners are embracing and demonstrating these techniques ahead of the curve. These practitioners are showing the way, but don�t think your fellow practitioners won�t follow, they will, in their own good time.


On a personal level I will continue to criticize what I see as shoddy, unethical practices.  I will continue to highlight the potential of new technologies, but with a realization that market forces will decide how Public Relations evolves.

PR isn�t dead or dying.  It�s helping individuals, corporations, non-profit organizations and industries communicate.

It�s big business.

Hopefully the growing community of PR bloggers can continue to provide insightful commentary on the industry, aggressively address unethical practice and encourage faster adoption of new techniques and tools that can radically improve communication.

But at the end, the PR business isn�t going anywhere� well not quickly.


Written by Tom Murphy

February 14, 2005 at 10:39 am

Posted in General

"The Future of PR is not E-mail" – Charles Arthur

Ah it warms the heart to hear a journalist calling for PR people to use my pet project: RSS.

Charles Arthur, who writes for the UK Independent claims that e-mail isn’t the future for PR

“Perhaps then I�ll find out who�s really got something interesting to say, and who was just emailing me on autopilot. I still think the future lies in RSS feeds – which resemble, in concept, the wire services that national journalists get on their desks, and to which they pay much more attention than any press release, in whatever form. Interestingly, I spoke to the PR person I mentioned earlier – who told me that there are now RSS feeds for one of their clients, as a result of our conversation. Bonus points to the company for moving quick. Let�s hope many follow.”

As any regular readers (and there are a few of you) know, I am a well established RSS fan.

But I temper my enthusiasm with pragmatism.

RSS is a very valuable addition to our existing armory of telephones, web sites and e-mail clients but it’s not enough on its own.  Like everything in life, choosing the best tools for the job is the secret to success.  RSS saves time, provides timely alerts to your audience and can ensure that your story cuts through the spam clutter, but it should always be used in conjunction with other tools.



Written by Tom Murphy

February 11, 2005 at 3:25 pm

Posted in General

Employee blogging needs some good old common sense

Everywhere I turn online these days I seem to read yet another story about someone who has been fired for blogging, or more accurately they have been fired for something they have written about their employer in their blog.

A quick search on Google (one of the most recent organizations to fire a blogger interestingly) reveals any number of these events.

I’m sure that in some of these cases the blog posting has only been an excuse for some manager who has been waiting to remove someone. However, even allowing for that, these recent spate of blog-related sackings raise some in interesting questions regarding how employers and employees can happily co-exist in the era of the public private diary.

Like everything else to do with good blog relations we should start with some good old common sense.

For the employee:

1) Think before you post…. you can discuss first amendment rights till the early hours of the morning but the reality is that what you write about on your blog is in the public domain from the minute you click on the publish button. Just because you’re participating in the “free love” world of blogging doesn’t mean that criticisms of your boss or employer will be less damaging – to you AND your boss.

2) Understand your working enviroment…. Some employers are less controlling than others. Some enjoy public debate and enjoy your independent critiques of their business and management style…. some won’t. Be sure you have a clear understanding of your employer’s position on these matters.

3) Use your common sense…. No employer will be happy with you broadcasting confidential commercial information over the “Interweb”, whether it’s future product plans, unannounced customers or the rumors you heard about how the company will probably miss the quarter from a friend in the finance department. These may sound far fetched but you’d be surprised. If you are unsure about something then ask your manager and document it. The best rule of thumb is that if you are unsure then err on the side of caution.

For the employer:

1) King Canute got wet…. As the number of bloggers continues to grow, there is a growing probability that some of your staff will or are already blogging. Acknowledge that fact and put in place a plan to deal with it.

2) Embrace blogs….. Employee blogs, either inside or outside the firewall, have the potential to make a positive contribution to your business. Find out who is blogging and why. Find out how you can support them.

3) Help your staff blog…. Most companies have clear implemented policies on employee usage of e-mail and the Internet. Consider having a similar policy for blogging – not for the purpose of censorship – but to help staff clearly understand what behavior and content is acceptable. The last thing you want to do is drive employee blogs underground.

A number of people have already published suggested corporate and personal guidelines for blogging, here are a few examples:

Personal blogs, when written with good old fashioned common sense, can benefit the individual and the employer.  However, straying from that path into confidential information, personal criticism or other related areas will damage both parties… to use an Irish phrase… a bit of ‘cop on’ goes a long way.


On a closely related topic, Jeremy Pepper today has a post on “Blogs and Libel” which includes interviews with  David E. McCraw, Counsel for the New York Times and a local Arizona attorney.

“It’s (a blogger being sued for libel) going to happen that someone will blog, and the response will be a lawsuit. Look at all the high school journals with compromising photos of friends. It’s going to be something that willl be sued over – an intra-high schol suit that won’t get major coverage.

With blogs now being published under the writer’s name, and easily identifiable and writing on public topics, there’s no reason why blogs are not being sued for libel.”


Written by Tom Murphy

February 11, 2005 at 8:15 am

Posted in General

You don't actually need to bottle stupidity…

In my previous post I referenced Phil Gomes‘ view on why he doesn’t feel the need to rush to the defence of the PR profession. I also referenced Andy Lark‘s thoughts on transparency. When I was writing the post, I didn’t think the two would come together quite as quickly as they have.  Let me explain.

Two incidents I read about this morning brought both issues into focus.

News that Burson-Marsteller’s astroturfing on behalf of the bromine industry has been called out by the Center for Media and Democracy isn’t a surprise to anyone.  These ridiclous industry-backed “think tanks” staffed by PR flacks (I hate that term, but it’s appropriate in this context) bring this business and profession into disrepute.  This isn’t about communication ladies and gentlemen, this is about subterfurge and at best grey propoganda.

I won’t speak on behalf of others, but it says nothing to me about Public Relations, as I practice and understand it.  Furthermore, as a consumer, I find it distasteful and dishonest. Unfortunately no one cares.  As long as there’s money to be made, there will be organizations and individuals interested in grabbing it regardless of the consequences. This is where I begin to agree with Phil’s thoughts.  There is no blood on my hands so to speak, I am happy to criticize these practices, but I also accept that my criticism will do nothing to change the practice.

The problem with Andy’s PROTS idea is that you’ll find the only people willing to sign up will be the people who have nothing to hide.  Those operating in the murky underworld will stay there, happily counting the unmarked bills that are passed their way (I’m imagining the retainer being handed over in a dark car park).

So deception is reality to destroy an old PR adage.

But deception happens in many ways. Another incident I read today served to show just how stupid some marketing and PR people are in trying to create these deceptions.

If you’re planning some online marketing programs there’s something you should be aware of.  It’s really quite easy to track your identity.  It’s important to know that, particularly if you’re planning some really “clever” viral marketing ploy.  Ah yes, following some fantastic ground coffee and a nice danish pastry, you came up with a great viral campaign for your client.

“Let’s pretend we’re students, then we can target bloggers and get a whole viral marketing thing going.”

“What a great and unique idea! Let’s do it!”

One word: Stop.

Stop before you do more damage than good.  In the first place what you are suggesting is unethical – and if I’m expected to call unethical practice in PR, I’ll do the same for the rest of the marketing function.  Your mediocre attempts at hiding your real identity will, in all probability, fail.  The result of your actions will be, best-case, that you make your organization look like buffoons and worst-case you do serious damage to your client and your employer’s reputation.

Unfortunately this post is too late for the big brains over at Ogilvy. Oh yes.  Following the well beaten track of  “students” who are actually married, overweight marketers, Ogilvy have kicked out a blog outreach campaign posing as students.  I kid you not.  And what brand you may ask is all this sneaking around designed to promote?  Why American Express obviously. Obviously.

What a stupid stunt…. oh the vagaries of rhyming slang.

Bjoern Ognibeni, a freelance marketing consultant in Germany, was the recipient of one of these incredibly intelligent pitches.  Unfortunately for the clever agency folks, Bjoern was able to track their IP address all the way back to their danish pastry filled modern offices.

Read the post, heed the lesson.

I’m off for a danish.

Written by Tom Murphy

February 8, 2005 at 10:40 am

Posted in General