Chapter 16 Corporate Communication

Chapter 16                        Corporate Communications

What you’ve read in the textbook up to this point has been about how organizations think about and use the principles, strategies and tactics of public relations to accomplish specified objectives and generate positive relationships with opinion leaders and stakeholders. Many, if  not most, of those organizations are for-profit corporations: organizations in business to produce a profit for their owners or, if the corporation is public, for the shareholders.

The central question of this chapter, if not of the entire text, is this: How does corporate communications differ from other kinds of public relations – nonprofit PR, marketing PR, crisis communication, investor relations, consumer relations, media relations, advocacy PR, lobbying, international/global PR and any other kind of public  relations?

Understanding the difference between corporate communications and other kinds of public relations is no simple matter, but it’s even more difficult to understand for anyone without real-world corporate experience.

And it’s really more than a matter of understanding what a famous manufacturing or service corporation – MicroSoft, Google, Procter & Gamble, General Motors, AIG, Bank of America, Exxon/Mobil – does for its PR activities. It’s critical to understand corporate communications at a deeper, more fundamental level— the level at which we understand what value a corporation like Google or Ford or General Mills offers for sale, of course, not only to consumers but to society itself – to stakeholders including government, to philanthropies (charities), to healthcare, education, to sports and entertainment, to media, and across the board of the economic, productive sectors of society.

What would this country – any country – be without the products and services generated by  the corporations in the paragraph above? You couldn’t listen to your iPod, fill your gas tank or even have a car in the first place. Governments depend on the payment of taxes by corporations, but also largely from consumers like you and me who are taxed on the iPhones, Big Macs and Sox tickets we buy. Yes, some of the revenue isn’t in the form of direct taxes – some of it comes indirectly. But you and I would not enjoy the quality of life we do without corporations  — yes, profit-seeking corporations – producing the X-boxes and Wii’s and putting winning Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Patriots teams on the field to attract our patronage, our dollars.

Just as “It’s a Wonderful Life” demonstrates each  Christmas that what’s bad isn’t banks or bankers – it’s liars and cheaters and thieves and heartlessness. The savings and loan association operated by the Jimmy Stewart character is the heart and soul of the community itself – the money the depositors trust the bank with is repaid to the community in terms of affordable mortgages and affordable loans that are  the  seedbed of new businesses which without money would remain only dreams.

But of course corporations are rarely adored. We may love the Whopper but hardly think about the corporation that cooks it up. Yes, we may think Apple and BMW and Zappos are cool. But how do we feel about Texaco, CitiBank and Dow Chemical? Yet we don’t want to  live – at least most of us don’t – without iPhones, Beemers and affordable shoes.

Does this seem obvious to you? Perhaps. But then ask yourself why so many, if not most corporations are loathed when the breach the surface of our consciousness via the media – newspapers, films, TV. How are corporations and CEOs portrayed on “The Simpsons,” or in feature films like “Up in the Air,” just released starring George Clooney?

So why is that? What does it say about you and me that we can love the product but despise the producer? Are we hypocrites? Self-righteous phonies? Or are we coolly able to compartmentalize our feelings and actions, thumbing our nose at Wal-Mart while benefiting from Wal-Mart’s low-priced items?

So what does this have to do with corporate communications? Why do corporations engage in “reputation management,” stage big, fancy events to demo new products, send out news releases about their contributions to the Jimmy Fund, hold press conferences when they hire a new CEO, prepare for terrible things like assassins and arsonists, require employees to attend sexual harassment training, create glitzy web sites with advertainment geared to appeal to young consumers of snack food?

Also ask yourselves whether nonprofit corporations are not also business organizations not so very different from famous brand-name companies? What kind of competition and pressure is part of the lives of the employees of Oxfam, MassPirg and other issue-advocacy nonprofits? Are these nonprofits not competing for a share of mind, a share of dollars? Are not the fundraisers at our College courting wealthy donors such as Jack Welch to pony up $1 million for a new dorm, a new dining common, a new library to replace the collapsing one?

Ask yourself whether you could live without the service provided by Visa or Master Charge or Discover Ask yourself what you want for yourself in this life – and to what extent your getting it will require you to enter into relationships with for-profit corporations.

You already know that it’s not hard to call out the deceptive mortgage company, the oil company  charging $4 for a gallon of gasoline, the  electric utility that is raising its rates – or the  College that sends you a letter informing you your fees will increase by a $100 next semester, the textbook company that charges $150 for a book you hardly crack all semester and which you are dying to sell back – to the bookstore that will  only give  you $30 for it.

It’s easy to call out thieves and frauds like Bernie Madoff.  But do you really suppose that Bernie Madoff and Countrywide Financial and AIG are representative of for-profit corporations? And if you do, ask yourself why you think so – all the while looking forward to one day owning a home, driving a spiffy car and watching your monster Mac load huge web sites in a flash.

Yes, we’re a little schizo when it comes to our perceptions and behavior in the marketplace. But is that so odd, when we look closely, look in the  mirror and examine our choices coolly and honestly?

Unless and until you really think through  these questions, you won’t be ready to  begin to understand corporate communications. And even then, I doubt you  will be able to grasp it until you have some real-world experience not merely as a consumer of corporate products but as an employee of one of those famous but faceless, stereotyped and media-washed corporations.


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The Anthropology of Tiger Woods

A generation ago, a group of anthropologists and sociologists engaged in a flurry of research and publication that changed, enhanced and, in some instances, revised their disciplines. Their work could enrich the growing scholarship of public relations. But so far it hasn’t.

I am thinking about the work of Erving Goffman, who approach sociology and anthropology from a literary and dramaturgical perspective, beginning famously with the publication of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in 1959. That public relations scholars have not considered Shakespeare’s views on perception and reality particularly relevant to their concerns doesn’t surprise me, although as a Eng lit Ph.D. I can’t help seeing the missed opportunity — the disconnection between applied social science and humanistic literature. But for PR scholarship to have missed seeing and developing the connections between Goffman’s work on perception strikes me as a much larger and less rationalizable failure on the part of PR scholarship.

To these gaps and failures in the scholarship of public relations I should add all the work of the generation of cultural and literary-minded anthropologists, perhaps starting with Clifford Geertz.

And so I’ve buried the lede down here in paragraph 4 — that the crisis du jour, served up Tiger Woods and his cuckolded, five-iron-wielding spouse — would be far better interpreted through the scholarship of Goffman’s dramaturgy, Richard Schechner’s performance theory, Clifford Geertz’s literary anthropology and Victor Turner’s theories of ritualism and liminality than by the knee-jerk crisis communication monologues that have been seen on cable TV, the Internet, talk radio, and in the tabloid, mainstream and magazine press.

Not that it’s not a guilty pleasure — the obsessive and generally salacious attention to the visual, sexual, marital and financial angles. But after the crisis com experts utter the simplistic mantra (and I’m among the muttering utterers): Tell it now, tell it all, tell the truth — what’s there left to say? We can blather on about the possible deterioration of Tiger’s brand — more or less a moot point best left to the judgment of short-term and medium-term history. But in the final analysis, what have the crisis experts told us that we haven’t known since God knows when? Very little.

The most important thing we may know about Tiger’s infidelities, his spouse’s anger and society’s outrage, support and obsessive attention is that it’s what the anthropologist Turner long ago recognized, observed, analyzed, theorized and interpreted as a breach — an incident of expectation reversal which, if it is unchecked, widens into a crisis that can destabilize the social structure and even lead to the disintegration of the community. For this reason, as Turner observed in the field of certain African villages, the community had at its disposal a series of rituals that were performed prescriptively to remediate, negotiate and arbitrate the social threat. When a handsome young warrior committed a sexual indiscretion with a high-ranking village elder, the prescription called for the performance of a drama in which the high-status elder got to inflict some physical damage on the offending young man who knew better than not to accept the punishment, lest his social offense be deemed worthy of a far harsher punishment. But a spear in the leg, some blood — thankfully, that could be regarded as sufficient recompense for the offense. As a result, the community could avert the disruption and even violence and chaos that such an offense could generate.

For Tiger Woods and his countless offenders, the parallels are obvious and apparent. Public and publicized apologies. Renegotiations of prenuptial agreements that enrich the offended spouse. Rounds of mildly or moderately humiliating appearances on television talk shows. Grudging acceptance of the continuing series of unflattering profiles in the media. Two weeks at an addiction clinic.

What threatens society is not necessarily social and political chaos — at least, not in the short term. We are more concerned about threats to the heroic and triumphalist narratives that underpin public opinion which, in turn, supports the consumption of products, services, brands, polilticians, leaders, experts that comprise the better part of our belief system.

And for this reason — our concern lest we lose our heroes and beliefs — society has established the ritual of redemption under which formerly tarnished leaders such as former governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, are after a relatively brief media purgatory and exile, back in public favor, their sins and crimes generously attributed to the unarguable fact that they’re only human.

Yet for what this ritualistic consciousness may have to tell us about the way we communicate, persuade, negotiate and form opinions and beliefs, public relations scholarship has said precious little, preferring to drill down into the life of organizations, out into the bright and edgy world marketing. PR’s obsessions aren’t sociological or anthropological or even sexual; they’re economic, organizational, technological, ethical and statistical.

Which, come to think of it, matches up very nicely with the explosively growing industries of sports and education — both of which consume a larger and larger share of the national mind.

In this piece I have had nothing to say about the rich potential for PR scholarship that might accrue from closer attention to our sister disciplines in the social sciences, not to mention the all-but-ignored treasury of thousands of years of literature.  But in future pieces, I will begin to explore that treasury with a view toward the possible enhancement of what we think about when we think about PR.

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It’s the Apocalyse, Stupid!

Funnyman composer nerdy mathematician Tom Lehrer had it about right — when it came to things going south.
“Hello Mom

I’m off to drop the bomb

So send me a salami

And try to smile somehow

I’ll see you soon when the war is over

About an hour and a half from nowwwwww.!”

(OK. That’s from memory, quotes used as a “more or less” accurate. But that’s the gist.)
We love to ‘imagine distaster,’ as Susan Sontag  observed in a famous essay written in the good old days of US-Soviet Mutually Assured Destruction. We in the multipolar, asymmetric, post-9-11, jihadi war on terror world are rather nostalgic for the era of bomb shelters and civil defense siren warnings and hiding under our school desks during A-bomb drills (and making sure to face away from the windows, lest the nukes send shards of glass to slice up our homework assignments).

We love to get off on getting off. In the first couple of centuries after Jesus, literalists headed into the desert, ready for the end of days. The gospel of John is quite colorful about all the bad stuff that will go down  — you know, sooner or later.

Marxist history has its own end-of-days (for capitalism).  Freud theorized that we’ve got a death wish, before he trashed that theory. Ernest Becker, dying of cancer, talked about the “denial of death.” More recently, Sam Huntington coined the “clash of civilizations,” which is no day in the park.

(There will be a test on all this name dropping. Please read Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body and Life Against Death for next week.)

In these battles — us versus cancer, Christians versus Muslims, the Pleasure Principle versus the Reality Principles, the fat cats versus the proletariat — there are winners and losers. For the winners, the prize is life everlasting, God in the clouds, a World Series ring, utopian socialism, cancer-free remission. For the losers, it’s the booby prize. Upside down in a bucket of shit (where Dante dumps the corrupt popes), or a one-way ticket to palookaville.

Back in the Sixties, when culture went on an extended acid trip, Bob Dylan sang about folks wanting to get you down in the hole where they are. There’s nothing so tonic for the blues than learning that an giant asteroid is cruising Earthward at the speed of extinction.

Hollywood loves that plotline, and has given us “The Day the Earth Caught Fire,” and a long stream of end-of-the-world flicks. Opening soon, it’ll be “2012” and “The Road.”  A few years ago I took my son to “The Day After Tomorrow,”  a climate-change spectacular, with hurricanes the size of Jupiter that scoop up waves that wash over New York City, followed by the dawn on an Ice Age.

It’s the kind of story Bill McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert cook up when they’re in the apocalyptic zone.

So we’ve got competing cultural-political narratives: The  Jesus Is Coming With a Sword millennarianism of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, and The Polar Bears are Drowning With You and Me meteorological fantasies of McKibben & Co.

Neither story — from the firebrand right or the rogue-wave left — has a happy ending, as they frame the old war between religion and science.

For Carville-Clinton in the Nineties, it was The Economy, Stupid.

These days: It’s the Apocalypse, Stupid!






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Zappos: Low Brow Genius

Here’s the longitude/latitude of PR now:


Naked runner guy viral video marketing PR social media campaign.

(1) Convergence of PR/marketing and social media.
(2) Demotic (downward and out-there) cultural styling:

(a) sexual
(b) snarky
(c) adolescent
(d) slapstick (Monty Python/Bennie Hill)

Zappos succeeds in hitting the sweet spot of pop culture at this cultural turning moment.

In the postwar fedora-wearing, bullet bra era depicted in “Mad Men”,US cultural style was middle brow — the  creative fallout of Princeton-educated Eng lit types who ruled Madison Avenue.

In the Milennial Internet era observed online, US cultural style has gone Zappos: low brow emo, snarky, sexy, “Animal House.”  The web comes across as the collective expression of adolescent Id & ego mashed up with engineer geekiness.

Soundtrack: Jonathan  Coulton.

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Creativity and Bipolarity

An excellent piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal took a retro view on the often debated question of creativity and madness. The piece by Jeanette Winterson, a novelist, offers familiarly crazy creatives — Sylvia Plath, Jackson Pollock, Virginia Woolf — the cutters, suicides, and self-destroyers who are in the creative hall of fame.
What’s interesting about the article is that it takes such a different position from what has become the conventional wisdom about creativity and madness, a position eloquently articulated by Kay Jamison in her brilliant memoir and other work on the nightmare and tragedy of bipolar illness, a condition its sufferers have sometimes confused with an artistic muse.  Jamison has served public health through her candor and courage — as a grad study in psychology she was overcome with manic attacks that put life at risk. But her work may have spawned a over-reaction on the connection between madness and creativity, as if such a connection was absurd. It quite plainly is not — and that is where Winterson’s essay enters the conversation.

No serious person would argue for the wonderfulness of naked screaming through the streets, notwithstanding Allen Ginsberg’s great poem, “Howl.”  But on the other hand, there surely is a connection between the madness of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Plath, Woolf, Van Gogh and company and the radical, visionary work they produced.

The two interconnected realms need separating via common sense. It is not good to go mad, even if it feels ecstatic. Nor is there a causal relationship between bipolarity and stunning creativity — although there may well be a statistical correlation, as there is, I have heard reported, between techy nerds and asperger’s syndrome. (They all work on geek squads and in computer science labs.)

But what emerges from revisiting this old subject is that the biographies of innumerable recognized great creatives contain tales of massive pain, isolation, rejection, brutality and, yes, madness. But in case after case, these men and women were able to temporarily, or permanently, put their madness under the sublimated powers of their creativity — and so we are able to enjoy The Sun Also Rises, “Daddy” and Van Gogh’s sunflowers.

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The Balloon Boy Revives PR’s History

Richard Feene meet P.T. Barnum.

The Balloon Boy family — the flying, tornado-hunting, child-endangering Heenes — appeared today on a number of TV morning shows, folowing yesterday’s bizarre, riveting and suddenly suspicious flying circus. The whole boy-in-the-balloon drama just may have been a publicity stunt orchestrated by 6-year-old Falcon Heene’s father, Richard.

Publicity stunt? See P.T. Barnum, the eponymous brand name of the Barnum & Bailey circus. Barnum with his museum of freaks, his “feejee Mermaid,” bearded lady, Tom Thumb and other “curiosities” that enthralled mid-nineteenth century America. Barnum with his quotable quotes: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

What Barnum knew and what his creative descendant, Richard Heene demonstrated, is  deliciously dirty little secret: People will pay to be suckered — especially when there’s a photo op in the newspaper or CNN, “The Today Show” and “Larry King.”

Fool me once, shame on me? Not really. Fool me once and I’m all yours. You had me at “sucker.”

In the textbooks used to teach public relations, Barnum is generally credited  as the founder of PR — the industry’s archetype. He’s the guy who figured out  how to use free publicity to fill his circus tent. If he paraded one of his elephants through a flower bed in the middle of a midwestern town, the newspapers — with their new-fangled invention, the camera — would come running to scoop the story.

It was business genius. First you sucker the press. Daguerre’s invention — the photographic process — was still in its infancy when Barnum plied his trade. A front-page story about Barnum’s circus was great marketing strategy — and the cherry on top was the photo of the elephant and the grinning rube town mayor.

Why pay to run an ad when the picture was worth a thousand words and lured a hundred suckers to the circus that very evening? It  was free advertising — the era’s world wide web. Free! Brilliant! Why buy a cow when the milk is free?

Not only may Barnum have invented public relations — he may have invented the free web.

And isn’t America the Land of the Free? Didn’t Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, that apostle of free market capitalism, insist that the single most important value of political society was, in his phrase, being “free to choose?”  The gospel of free market capitalism isn’t an expression of American exceptionalism. Friedman shopped it successfully around the world — to Chile, China and elsewhere.

Not that Friedman is in the same circus as Barnum and Feene. Even an anti-capitalist like Noam Chomsky might well hesitate to proffer such a wild comparison. All these men have adored the spotlight. But Friedman was a scholar, not a hoaxer.

Dad of the Year Feeney has Barnum in his blood. Yesterday’s OMG I-can’t-look live TV news shots of the airborn weather balloon that was said to have little Falcon along as an accidental passenger: the spectacle would  have made Barnum proud.

Are we not a spectacular nation? We certainly are a nation of spectacles. It’s in our natinal DNA. We’ve always loved tall tales and the men who retailed them. Our fussy, Marxist European critics — Guy DeBord comes to mind  — have made careers ranting against the poisonous nexus of advertising and consumerism that is definitiely American. We are to blame. And how humiliating it must have been for DeBord to see literary France debauched by the illiterate American suckers with their Disneylands and Madison Avenues and Hollywoods.

We Americans love a bargain, and no bargain’s better than a free one. Never mind that the fussbudget Friedman warned us that there’s no free lunch. We know differently. Facebook, Twitter — the web itself — is not only free; it’s adamantly, fervently, passionately free.

Richard Feene gets it. That’s why one of his first phone calls was to a TV news station. His Barnum brain told him that TV news stations have helicopters — those whirlybird elephants — and that a helicopter tracking the boy-in-the-balloon would make spectacular news. It might cost a few thousand dollars an hour to loft that helicopter. But the publicity was both free and priceless.

Six-year-old Falcon Feene: The face that launched a thousand helicopters — well, maybe just a couple of helicopters, but millions of Unique Views on the web.  As Barnum knew how to play the newspaper press, Feene knows how to work the visual media. After all, the Feenes already had a history with TV. The family of risk-takers had been featured on “Wife Swap.”

As I write this, there’s no proof that Balloon Boy was a hoax. It’s just that television history, American history and the long shadow of P.T. Barnum offer up a pretty strong circumstantial case.

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Obama Has Rebranded USA

Public diplomacy is alive and well — Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and other musicians and artists have been gussying up the brand image of the US abroad for decades.
But according to a marketing study of Brand USA’s perception abroad, Obama’s election itself (as confirmed by the curious prematurity of his recent Nobel Peace Prize award) has — all by itself — managed to rebrand the USA.  This rebranding was something that secretaries of public diplomacy — Charlotte Beers, the Aflac/advertising Queen and secretary of public diplomacy under Clinton, for one — have sought in vain to pull off for a decade or more. Same with Karen Hughes, secretary in the Bush 43 administration. For her, it was all about listening and responding to world perception about America — misperception, she believed. For Beers it was all about telling our story, like the great stories of great brands.

All that didn’t work. Those strategies failed. Until the election of the first African-American president who happens to be a citizen of the world — so the world and even Obama’s rightwing enemies agree — and a Wilsonian visionary, the world perception of brand USA was in the dumps. But all that has changed, at least, according to signs such as the Nobel and this new marketing study.

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