Monday, September 27, 2010


I was reading a bunch of articles about the changing newspaper industry as well as the emergence of the iPad, Kindle, Nook and other readers. All of a sudden it hit me--this isn't all as new as it seems.

Sure enough, on a far corner of a bookshelf in my office, there was a book copyrighted in 1997 that I had used years ago when I taught a "Media and Society" class. The book is Roger Fidler's "Mediamorphosis: Understanding New Media." I grin now reading that title. "New media" has a different connotation now than it did more than a decade ago.

I recalled having a discussion with students based on an exercise in the book called "Scenario for 2010: The mobile digital document reader." It was intended to be a forward-looking, imaginative exercise in which students thought critically about the influence of technology on media use. I remember the students being fairly mixed as to the plausibility of the scenario's prognostications. And even if all the foreseen new technology did emerge, some of these young people still said it's nice to just read a newspaper on paper with a cup of coffee.

Regardless of our classroom discussion back then, the book's scenario was prescient. Now IS 2010, and we DO have mobile digital document readers. The book even called them "tablets," and anticipated touch screens, digital cash, speak text, photo and video embedded in articles, and advertising relevant to content and matching personal profiles of readers. There's even a monetization method that involves paid subscription and buying archived material an article at a time for instant electronic delivery. About the only thing the book didn't foresee was wireless--a person in the scenario describes a person going with their reader to an ATM-like machine to withdraw that day's content onto a memory card.

The book did not come anywhere close to anticipating 'social media.' Others might have. There also has not been an updated version of this book, so far as I know. I have not taught "Media and Society" again since I started to focus exclusively on public relations shortly after teaching that class more than a decade ago.

But I wonder, what is the scenario for 2020? Will the tablet be replaced? With what? How will it affect public relations, advertising, journalism...human beings?

It's fun to think about, over a cup of coffee.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

'VP' does not equal 'PR'

We teach that public relations is a management function. That means a lot of things. But among them is the fact that someone with PR education, savvy, knowledge and experience should be counseling the executive suite. In other words, just because you have CEO or VP behind your name doesn't mean you understand PR.

While media relations is only one aspect of PR these days, it's in that arena that I heard of an example yesterday that illustrates my point. A local business reporter with more than two decades of experience forwarded an email to me and said he had never encountered anything like this before. (I have, actually).

A story had run in this reporter's paper, and a VP emailed him to say thanks but to suggest changes for the online version. I'll let you see it for yourself (with names redacted to protect the ridiculous from further embarrassment):

Thanks again for your interest in and coverage of the ### announcement. In skimming the story today, we noted a couple of quotes by ### that are not as clean and clear as he typically delivers. I¹m wondering if you can clean up the online version a bit?
The person then goes on to restate "current" and "proposed" quotes from said executive.

Making matters worse, the "proposed" statements were not any more "clean and clear."

What is particularly "unclean" is when people try to dictate exact wording to reporters, as if they were employees, as if there were no such thing as journalistic integrity. What is clear to me is that for all the brilliance in the executive suite, there is a colossal misunderstanding of media, communications, human relationships, public perception and the variety of publics and the ways they interact with your organization.

If this organization could not have proactively had its message points clear on the subject, there were better ways to handle it after the fact. As one example, why not link to the article on the organization's Twitter, Facebook and other social media/online vehicles and offer additional commentary there? The VP and CEO could even have direct conversations with their publics--what a concept.

It's clear that media training, speechwriting, communications counsel and social media alternatives--the expertise of PR professionals--will continue to be necessary. I just hope they will be in increasing demand from the C-suite. It would be nice to see more people with PR in their veins having VP behind their names.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The 'PR in Practice' Project--Nonprofit PR

I am on sabbatical this fall to work on an instructional DVD for use in my "Fundamentals of PR" course. I am interviewing public relations practitioners in a variety of settings to show students that PR is a broad field, practiced in a variety of contexts. Hence the name of the DVD: "PR in Practice."

As I complete sections of the DVD, I will be posting them to YouTube, with links and embeds on this blog. You can subscribe to my YouTube channel (penningink) or at any time click on the YouTube button at right. Alerts will also go out via Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

First up is Keri Larsen (now Kujala--got married after filming). A GVSU alumna, she works at St. Mary's Hospital and its fundraising arm, the Doran Foundation. Her title is Coordinator of Special Events and Donor Relations. Her job has her doing lots of different types of PR work, but the emphasis on events makes her a popular target for PR students who want to do internships with her.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sudden crisis interrupts big events for GR PR firm

An interesting perspective blog post by the Grand Rapids Press' Troy Reimink shows that there is no typical day in a PR firm.

He writes about SeyferthPR showing its event-planning prowess with ArtPrize and the West Michigan Regional Policy Forum and then having to deal with an inconvenient crisis with another client: reports of maggots in McDonald's coffee machines.

Reimink makes a snarky referral to the prepared response of the franchise owner referring to safety but not the allegation that the manager of the store in question (near Lansing) told employees to keep the machine on after learning of the maggot infestation. It's "what you might expect" he says.

Well, we might expect a journalist to be snarky about PR. In their defense, they do have to deal with bureaucratic boilerplate statements and what seems to be purposely vague deflections. But they also need to realize that in many crises facts emerge slowly, allegations need to be confirmed or refuted, and business owners and their PR counsel need to manage reputation ruining rumor delicately and with patience.

Even the comments to Reimink's blog treat the incident with more humor than shock, and one even suggests that this could be the case of a disgruntled employee staging the episode and not a real safety or health issue. (Fast food crises in recent memory seem to follow this pattern: Domino's booger pizza comes to mind).

Reasonable questions the public, if not snarky reporters, should ask would include the following:
  • was this an actual safety/health issue or an employee hoax?
  • is this isolated to one restaurant or is it widespread?
If there is a real safety issue, the PR counsel should be to determine the cause, eliminate it, change the coffee machine cleaning policy and communicate that to the public immediately in a contrite fashion. If it can be determined that this was an employee prank, said employee(s) should be fired and that should be communicated immediately as well. Also, some attention should be paid to internal/employee communication and what led to the morale problem that encouraged such a prank.

If the incident is isolated, local communication in Lansing may be enough. But the news has spread to Grand Rapids and the client runs McDonalds statewide, so a broad reach may be in order. However, as of this post, mentions of McDonalds on Twitter are almost entirely positive, with no mention of this incident. (I decline to comment on the Twittersphere discussion of maggots).

Personally, given the fact that an employee emailed a reporter and that maggots are larvae that usually grow in garbage and not frequently heated machines, I am skeptical as to the truth of this story. As always, I hope the public keeps an open mind and doesn't jump to conclusions about this story, McDonalds, or the PR profession. As I tell my PR students, your reaction to such situations are remembered more than the situations themselves.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Net Neutrality Background

Network, or net, neutrality is a complicated communications technology issue that has significant legal and regulatory implications for all telecommunications and media companies. At issue is what can and cannot be regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). At odds in this issue are protection of consumers on the one hand (i.e. maintaining fully open access on the Internet) and protection of investment and assets by telecom companies (i.e. allowing competitors access to a company’s network, or charging more for video downloads than simple email). Google and Verizon, as explained recently in the New York Times, have proposed a form of compromise, but the issue is still hotly debated. The FCC is currently hearing more input before making a new statement or policy on net neutrality. The issue is also of interest to any communications professional because of the impact on the distribution and consumption of many forms of media and information. The following is a background on the legal and regulatory environment related to net neutrality that leads up to this point.

Definition of Net Neutrality

Net neutrality emerged as a term around 2003 as part of Internet policy debates. Some communication lawyers describe it by its core issue of negotiating how Internet traffic originating on one broadband network can transmit and terminate on another network.[1] Communication law scholars describe the concept of net neutrality more conceptually, such as a condition in which the infrastructure of the Internet is separate from its content, and wherein all data or content is treated as equal by the various Internet access providers or carriers.[2] Some put it more simply and call net neutrality a form of open access on the Internet.[3]

All are correct definitions. But as a legal concern, it boils down to whether or not the government can and should enforce net neutrality as an issue of Internet public access. It is easier to understand this after a review of the legal and regulatory environment surrounding net neutrality.

Telecommunications vs. Information Distinction

Central to the issue of whether or not the government can regulate Internet access providers is the legal distinction between whether or not a company is providing “telecommunication” services or “information” services. This distinction is best understood by following a chronology of legal actions.

The Communications Act of 1934

Under Title I of this Act, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ancillary jurisdiction over all interstate and foreign communications.[4] However, the Act did not address specifics relating to the Internet.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996

This update to the 1934 Act recognized the need to further develop the Internet[5], This update made the distinction between “telecommunications” service and “information” service. The distinction was made to loosen regulation on the Internet and thus allow it to grow and develop faster. By this distinction, “telecommunications” services could be regulated under Title II of the 1934 Act, but “information” services would be subject to minimal regulations under Title I of the 1934 Act. But it did not provide clarity as to what exactly would be an example of telecommunications as opposed to information.[6]

Federal Communication Commission Determination

In March of 2002, the FCC added specificity to the telecommunications or information distinction when they declared that cable modems were information. Their rationale was that ancillary use of telecommunication facilities are inseparable from transporting digital information. They reasoned that cable operators provide information services to customers via telecommunications.[7]

Ninth Circuit Appeals Court

This decision was appealed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a landmark case in 2005 that determined cable providers should open their Internet service to competitor ISPs (Internet Service Providers) on a “common carrier” basis.[8] The appellate court based this decision stare decisis on a previous case[9] which determined the transmission of Internet service over cable broadband is telecommunication service and thus subject to regulation.

Supreme Court

However, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed this decision. They affirmed the FCC decision that cable modems are information. The Court’s rationale was that the FCC was reasonable in determining the telecommunication/information distinction on the basis of whether a customer believed they were purchasing high-speed Internet access (telecommunications) or the stand-alone capacity to send and receive “ordinary language” messages (information).[10]

Resulting FCC Policy Statement

Following the Supreme Court decision, the FCC expanded its determination of cable modems as information to DSL (digital subscriber lines). Foley argues that in addition to coaxial cable and copper telephone wires, the nascent Internet access technology of BPL (broadband over power lines) will also enjoy “information” classification and thus minimal net neutrality regulation.[11]

The FCC in 2005 adopted a policy statement that outlines four principles that they will use to guide future regulation: “1) consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice; 2) consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement; 3) consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; 4) consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.”[12]

It is important to note that these are principles, not enforceable rules yet. In fact, former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin noted in the same release that the marketplace will ensure these principles are met, and thus foresees no new regulation necessary.[13]

Future Net Neutrality Regulation

The previous FCC chairman stressed the importance of allowing competition to advance the growth of internet communication infrastructure and devices. This assertion is also supported by the stated purpose of the 1996 Telecommunications Act: “To promote competition and reduce regulation in order to secure lower prices and higher quality services for American telecommunications consumers and encourage the rapid deployment of new telecommunications technologies.”[14]

Others argue that current laws will ensure that net neutrality generally and the FCC’s four principles specifically will be met. Laxton points out that the Sherman Antitrust Act applies generally to providers of broadband access, application, and content. He adds that the “essential facilities doctrine” specifically applies to broadband providers under both Sections I and II of the Sherman Act, which allow for punishment of collusion in an oligopoly market or harmful business practices by a monopoly, respectively. An antitrust claim may be made under the essential facilities doctrine by meeting four conditions: 1) a company has control of an essential facility, 2) competitors are unable to practically or reasonably duplicate the facility, 3) competitors are denied use of the facility, 4) it is feasible to provide use of the facility to competitors.[15]

Also, former FCC commissioner, chairman and general counsel Richard Wiley, who currently practices communications law, contends that any update to the 1996 Telecommunications Act should actually be shorter and less restrictive[16]. He stresses that telecommunications “silos” and segments are irrelevant, with cable companies offering telephone service, phone companies offering television, and more blending emerging rapidly. This point seems even more obvious now with this week’s announcement about Apple TV.

However, contrary to the above arguments, the current FCC chairman is opposed to allowing companies the freedom to offer tiered pricing for different uses of the Internet, as expressed in a New York Times article last month. The mood of the FCC seems to have shifted to favor consumer protection, and therefore regulation on service and content providers.

The debate continues. PR professionals should watch and even participate with an informed background on the issue.

[1] Del Bianco, Mark C. (2006) “Voices Past: The Present and Future of VoIP Regulation.” CommLaw Conspectus. (14) 365.

[2] Laxton, William G. Jr. (2006) “The End of Net Neutrality.” Duke Law & Technology Review. 15.

[3] Foley, Paula W. (2006) “Untangling the Third Wire: Broadband Over Power Lines, Open Access, and Net Neutrality.” Journal of High Technology Law. (6). 194.

[4] Laxton.

[5] Foley.

[6] Laxton

[7] Foley.

[8] National Cable and Telecommunication Association v. Brand X Internet Services. 125 S. Ct. 2688 (2005).

[9] AT&T Corp. v. City of Portland. 216 F.3d 871, 880 (9th Cir. 2000).

[10] Foley.

[11] Foley.

[12] Federal Communications Commission. Press Release. “FCC Adopts Policy Statement: New Principles Preserve and Promote the Open and Interconnected Nature of the Internet.” (August 5, 2005).

[13] FCC Press Release.

[14] Telecommunications Act of 1996.

[15] Laxton.

[16] Wiley, Richard E. (2006) “A New Telecom Act: Remarks.” Southern Illinois University Law Journal. (31) 17.