Monthly Archives: July 2008

Free speech, Phoenix CC and China

Oh mama. This is harsh. While all my attention has been focused on China and the upcoming debacle Olympic Games, it appears that another sporting venue — the Phoenix Country Club — has taken a page out of the Olympic communications guidebook and is suppressing free speech.

Here’s the story, “Phoenix Club Expels Member Over His Press Interview,” in The New York Times:

A country club in Phoenix has expelled a member for speaking to The New York Times about the club’s policy of forbidding women in its men’s grillroom, a point of dispute among some members.

Rusty Brown, an accomplished golfer at the upscale Phoenix Country Club, said Wednesday that he received a letter this week informing him that he had been expelled for “multiple violations of club etiquette.”

Mr. Brown said he understood that the expulsion pertained to a bylaw recently adopted by the club’s board prohibiting “derogatory or otherwise injurious comments in the media” about the club.

For over a year, the club has come under scrutiny and threat of a lawsuit over a rule that allows only men in the well-appointed grill, known in Phoenix as a center of business dealing. Women are relegated to a smaller room with a hot plate down the hall.

In an article in The Times on June 28, Mr. Brown was quoted as saying that most men who belonged to the club “are indifferent to the policy or are against it,” and he suggested that it ought to be changed.

A country club in Phoenix has to work hard to get this kind of national publicity. Congratulations. And honestly, what really causes me some concern here — beyond the obvious free speech issue and treatment of women members and guests — is that I am about to leave for lunch in the grill room at Fairlawn Country Club, with Stephanie Moore. Stephanie is replacing me on the Kent State University journalism faculty. Let’s hope there aren’t any scribblers from the Akron Beacon Journal or The Plain Dealer dining there as well.

Then back to China and the Olympic Games. Cough. Cough.

Looks like the officials are having second thoughts about allowing journalists access to events and coverage — even limiting the ability to post on the Internet. According to The New York Times article:

The International Olympic Committee failed to press China to allow fully unfettered access to the Internet for the thousands of journalists arriving here to cover the Olympics, despite promising repeatedly that the foreign news media could “report freely” during the Games, Olympic officials acknowledged Wednesday.

Since the Olympic Village press center opened Friday, reporters have been unable to access scores of Web pages — among them those that discuss Tibetan issues, Taiwanese independence, the violent crackdown on the protests in Tiananmen Square and the Web sites of Amnesty International, the BBC’s Chinese-language news, Radio Free Asia and several Hong Kong newspapers known for their freewheeling political discourse.

The restrictions, which closely resemble the blocks that China places on the Internet for its citizens, undermine sweeping claims by Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee president, that China had agreed to provide full Web access for foreign news media during the Games. Mr. Rogge has long argued that one of the main benefits of awarding the Games to Beijing was that the event would make China more open.

Somehow I know this is going to screw up the coverage of women’s beach volleyball. Oh well. Wonder if the Phoenix Country Club permits beach volleyball? Just a thought.

OK. I’m going to lunch now at Fairlawn CC. Wish me luck.

The Olympics, buses and beach volleyball

I was thinking last night about what it would be like to participate in the Olympics in Beijing. You know. Like run the marathon — and in air quality conditions that may prove to be a little difficult at best. So I got up this morning a little earlier than usual. And I went and jogged for a while behind a Metro bus. Well, not really. But you get the idea.

Here’s the story as reported in the Wall Street Journal online this morning (by subscription only):

BEIJING — China has gone to Olympian lengths to try to ensure that its skies are clear for the Summer Games, which formally kick off in 10 days. It has spent $17 billion on antipollution measures in recent years. Last week, it forced more than a million cars off the streets, halted construction in and around the city, and temporarily closed hundreds of factories in surrounding provinces.

Good. And silly me. I thought all the officials in China were doing these past few months was cracking down on protesters and figuring out ways to limit the reporting of visiting journalists. What do I know?

Yet according to an article in The Washington Post, “Air Pollution Worsens After Controls Kick In,” things aren’t going exactly as planned:

Beijing’s air pollution index rose steadily this week at the same time the city has tried to cut traffic volume in half. Readings Thursday and Friday were over 100 and considered unhealthy for children, seniors and those with allergies or asthma.

The climb from a reading of 55 on Sunday to 110 on Friday — despite six days of forcing Beijing motorists to drive on alternate days — underscored the formidable challenge authorities face in trying to clear the air before athletes begin competing in the Aug. 8-24 Olympic Games.

Already, one marathon world-record holder has refused to compete in Beijing because of health and pollution concerns, and International Olympic Committee officials have said endurance events might have to be postponed because of the city’s unrelenting smog.

Oh boy. Athletic mask anyone? Well, yes. That’s actually the plan.

Hope it doesn’t interfere with women’s beach volleyball.

That’s the only Olympic event worth watching anyway.

George Bush: The movie

Oh boy. I bet John McCain can’t wait for this movie to come out in October. “W.” — Oliver Stone’s flick based on the life of George W. Bush.

For the cast listing — and show times in your area (just kidding) — read The Huffington Post.

Steve Jobs and “off the record”

I wonder what “off the record” means these days? To journalists in print — and online. And to PR people. I was thinking about that as I was running this morning. The reason? An interesting article by Joe Nocera about Steve Jobs (“Apple’s Culture Of Secrecy“) in The New York Times Saturday. Nocera also wrote about it on his NYT blog.

In a nutshell, Jobs had a bout with pancreatic cancer a few years ago. But subsequently indicated that he was cured. Then questions were raised during the past several weeks about Jobs and his health — and essentially neither Jobs nor Apple would comment. Both claimed it is a privacy issue.

That’s a point. And it’s not an insignificant one. Still, as Nocera points out, Jobs really is the key person at Apple. And his health, rightly or wrongly, influences the company’s stock price and consequently affects shareholders — and employees, suppliers, etc.

If interested, read the article and draw your own conclusions. Nocera points out that publicly traded companies are required to disclose information that is “material.” I dealt as a corporate PR guy with the issue of disclosure requirements for years, and I can tell you that the definition of what is material leaves plenty of wiggle room. Here’s from the article:

“The question surrounding any kind of corporate disclosure always is: Is it material?” said Larry S. Gondelman, a lawyer with Powers Pyles Sutter & Verville. “And there is no bright line test in determining materiality.” A spokesman for the Securities and Exchange Commission said that the law defined materiality as information that “the reasonable investor needs to know in order to make an informed decision about his investment.”

Personally, I think we would all be better off if corporations — and government and universities — disclosed more not less. I’m not all that optimistic that we will ever see that happen. And in this situation with Steve Jobs, there really is what Rushworth Kidder would call a right versus right ethical dilemma.

Well, Nocera has a bigger platform than the rest of us (New York Times, print and online) so he actually got a response from Apple’s PR guy. In effect — none of your business.

But then after that exchange, Jobs called Nocera. Here’s Nocera’s account of the conversation:

On Thursday afternoon, several hours after I’d gotten my final “Steve’s health is a private matter” — and much to my amazement — Mr. Jobs called me. “This is Steve Jobs,” he began. “You think I’m an arrogant [expletive] who thinks he’s above the law, and I think you’re a slime bucket who gets most of his facts wrong.” After that rather arresting opening, he went on to say that he would give me some details about his recent health problems, but only if I would agree to keep them off the record. I tried to argue him out of it, but he said he wouldn’t talk if I insisted on an on-the-record conversation. So I agreed.

Because the conversation was off the record, I cannot disclose what Mr. Jobs told me. Suffice it to say that I didn’t hear anything that contradicted the reporting that John Markoff and I did this week. While his health problems amounted to a good deal more than “a common bug,” they weren’t life-threatening and he doesn’t have a recurrence of cancer. After he hung up the phone, it occurred to me that I had just been handed, by Mr. Jobs himself, the very information he was refusing to share with the shareholders who have entrusted him with their money.

You would think he’d want them to know before me. But apparently not.

Ah, gee. OK. Steve Jobs doesn’t have cancer. That’s great news. But is there an ethical issue here?

Jobs agreed to talk to Norcea “off the record.” Norcea printed the details of the conversation anyway. That’s not how I remember the game being played when I was pup back in journalism school and then working for a short time as a reporter. And as a PR person there were times when I went off the record with reporters at their request (yeah, I know, you’re never supposed to say that when teaching a PR class). But I always knew what that meant. And I would never even consider it unless I trusted the reporter. And to me off the record meant that nothing we talked about was going to be printed. Period.

So I have some problems with what Nocera did here. Although I agree that the information should be public.

Ford, GM and flippin’ burgers

Great morning for a run here in Northeast Ohio. Mild, clear and low humidity. And for some reason while I was running I was thinking of John Nevin. Nevin, who died recently, was the former CEO of Firestone. He was a manufacturing guy. And he argued more than 20 years ago that America was not going to maintain its economic prosperity by becoming a nation of burger flippers. We may be on the verge of seeing if he was correct.

Why? Well one reason is that it looks like Ford is about to join GM as a whale on the beach. That’s both sad and a crisis. And full disclosure here not that it matters to anyone. I bought Ford common stock two years ago because I believed the company could reinvent (great business cliche) itself. Not so sure now — with gasoline at $4 a gallon and buyers racing to mini-cars and scooters.

And my confidence in Ford even went up a bit when Alan R. Mulally joined the company from Boeing as CEO about two years ago. He’s done an OK job so far cutting staff, closing plants, etc. Unfortunately this is about the only strategy available these days to Ford, GM and a host of other large manufacturing companies that John Nevin used to believe was the foundation of our economy. Here’s from an article by Bill Vlasic in The New York Times yesterday:

DEARBORN, Mich. — In recent months, as Ford Motor Company executives watched $4 a gallon gas and a softening economy take a growing toll on sales and market share, the chief executive, Alan R. Mulally, prodded his management team for answers.


Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg News

“Everybody says cut and cut some more, but how are we going to sustain this company?” Mr. Mulally said in one meeting in his office on the 12th floor of Ford headquarters, according to people in attendance. “What does a sustainable Ford look like, gentlemen?”

In less than two years since he arrived as an outsider from Boeing to run Ford, Mr. Mulally had already mortgaged the company to raise cash, sold off three brands and cut truck production in the face of rising gas prices.

I don’t have any problem with any of that as long as Mulally knows what he is doing. Sort of like the old mission and vision statements. You know. You’ve all read at least one and chuckled. I digress. Here’s the key point — for me at least — in the article:

“Why are we in business?” he repeatedly asked the group. “We are in business to create value. And we can’t create value if we go out of business.”

OMG. Mulally thinks Ford is in business to create value. (Another great business cliche.) Almost everyone else things Ford is in business to build and sell cars and trucks.

Better alert the shore patrol: whale heading toward beach.

And by the way, John Nevin did create value for Firestone shareholders. He sold the company at a premium to Bridgestone.

Education funding and the minimum wage

Well, I see Gov. Ted Strickland was in Akron yesterday. When I first saw the story in the Akron Beacon Journal I figured he was here with his cornhole tournament, a way to raise money for his next campaign. But no. He was in the Rubber City to talk to educators and get their ideas about education. (Hence the headline: Governor quizzes Akron. Get it!)

It’s great that elected officials take the time to talk about education and other issues. And it can’t hurt any. We’ve been talking about how to improve education in Ohio and elsewhere now for at least 25 years. Unfortunately, the talk — and the many great ideas — somehow manage to get lost in the realities of what is a huge problem, one that touches a host of social, political and economic issues.

One of the issues involves funding for education. How are we going to fund our schools — preschool through graduate school? And how are we going to do it in a state like Ohio — with an aging population and a declining economy. Yesterday, the governor said, was not the time to talk about funding. That discussion will come later. Here’s from the ABJ story:

After the forum, Strickland said the economic pressures the state is facing extend far beyond school funding. He said he doesn’t think the energy and foreclosure crises are just part of a normal cycle of ups and downs.

”Part of what’s happening with the economy is, I think, potentially cataclysmic,” Strickland said. ”Whether or not people will maintain confidence in our financial institutions, whether or not there will be some way to deal appropriately with the energy crisis we face, it’s affecting everything. It’s not only affecting schools. It’s affecting households, it’s affecting the ability of people to work and get to work and feed their families.”

However, Strickland asked the audience to set aside the funding question for the moment.

Cornhole, anyone?

And talking about getting cornholed, wonder what it would be like these days to be working a job that pays minimum wage — and then having people carping about the increase from $5.85 to $6.55 an hour that goes into effect today. (Uh. Let’s see. Gallon of gasoline north of $4; significant price increases for food. Well, you know where I’m going here.) Here’s from a story distributed by McClatchy Newspapers, also on the front page of the ABJ.

OK. I can’t find the story on the ABJ website — which really is one of the most pathetic examples of an online  newspaper site. So I guess you’ll just have to trust me about this story. Or call me and I’ll bring the front page of the dead-tree edition to your house so you can review it personally. Here goes:

“It becomes very hard to increase wages when small businesses are in very tight competition for their goods and services,” said Marc Freedman, director of labor law policy at U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the wage increase.

It’s tough running a business these days. No doubt about it. But I wonder if the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its members have an obligation — moral or otherwise — to at least consider what Strickland is telling us here in Ohio: “It’s [the economy] not only affecting schools. It’s affecting households, it’s affecting the ability of people to work and get to work and feed their families.”

OK. I know the business community generally prefers no government involvement unless it is for the greater good. But I wonder if any of the chamber’s members benefited from the predatory lending schemes of the past few years, many targeted at the low-wage employees that they employ. And I wonder what the chamber’s position is on the $25 billion bailout to Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac — a move that may increase mortgage rates by a percentage point or more, potentially slowing the economy even further.

Too bad the treasury guys didn’t encourage Fanny and Freddie to hold a cornhole tournament to raise some cash. Looks like that method of funding is catching on out here in the heartland.

The Inventors Hall of Fame and failed expectations

I wonder how many people in Akron know that the Inventors Hall of Fame is located in the former Rubber Capital of the World? Probably not many. And it doesn’t matter at this point. Looks like the Inventors Hall of Fame is pretty much kaput – at least from Akron’s point of view. That’s really a shame. So many people had such high expectations for the museum to be a magnet for tourism — and a foundation for a revitalization of Akron’s downtown. Oh well.

The story of the Inventors Hall of Fame is interesting on a number of levels — including how difficult it is to make a big community economic development idea work even when you have considerable public and private support. The Inventors Hall of Fame for Akron was a big idea.

In the 1980s, civic and business leaders, including John Ong, then chairman of BFGoodrich, decided that Akron should compete with other cities (such as Philadelphia) to become the home of the museum. (At that time the museum was housed in the equivalent of a room in the Patent Office in Washington.) And with much work and enthusiasm Akron won. Then it was a matter of building a magnificent building at 221 S. Broadway — and then sit back and wait for people to flock into downtown Akron to learn about the accomplishments of our great inventors, Bell, Edison and others.

Neat idea. And a source of tremendous civic pride and accomplishment. Unfortunately, here’s where reality enters the picture. When the museum opened, the expectation was that annual attendance would be in the range of 300,000 or so. I know this — because I helped shape the communications that outlined those goals. And here’s the rub. I never really questioned those numbers. And neither did reporters — at least not in print — with the Akron Beacon Journal and other newspapers. Everyone kind of chuckled — but maybe it was a Field of Dreams. Build it an they will come. Unfortunately, no.

Last year, according to an article in the Akron Beacon Journal, attendance was about 40,000. And I assume that includes every student in every grade school in Northeast Ohio.

Here’s from the story, written by Carol Biliczky:

Hopes were sky high when Akron clinched the deal to land the National Inventors Hall of Fame almost two decades ago.

But prospects soured quickly once the museum opened in a futuristic new building at 221 S. Broadway.

”No matter how much money we spent on it, it was a loser,” said Robert Briggs, chairman of the board of directors for the Hall of Fame Foundation, which oversees four subsidiaries including the museum. ”We were too optimistic.”

The hall of fame closed the doors of the museum to the public in April. Now most of the building will become part of a magnet school for math and science students.

And one other section from the ABJ article:

Even though the hall of fame put $5 million into the original exhibits and more money later, the public apparently had little interest in looking at plaques of inventors who created the hollow fiber artificial kidney and the silicon solar cell or fiddling around in a do-it-yourself workshop.

”Today’s kids have a very different expectation than earlier generations had,” said Ford Bell, president of the American Museum Association in Washington, D.C. ”I was happy to look at dioramas, but they expect a screen, something that engages them.”

Dreams to make the annual induction of inventors into the hall of fame as glitzy as the Emmys or Oscars did not pan out, said Edwin ”Ned” Oldham, the Akron patent attorney who was instrumental in bringing the hall of fame to Akron.

OK. The point of this is not to be critical of anyone associated with the museum — or about what has happened. I played a small role in this years ago — and I believed it had a chance of being a success and forming the basis for some much needed economic development in Akron.

Saying that, here are some things I was thinking about while running this morning. And maybe they apply to other community projects and economic development activities — and to communications in general.

First, I should have pressed more on the attendance projections. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to set unrealistically high expectations with these projects — or others. This was a volunteer activity for me — volunteered because my boss John Ong was involved. I didn’t ask the tough questions here that I would have asked if this had been my real job.

Second, the Akron Beacon Journal was a big supporter of Akron landing the Inventors Hall of Fame — and of the museum in subsequent years when things clearly were not going as well as expected. How does a newspaper reconcile its genuine interest in the community with its obligation to report fairly and accurately? I was involved through the years in several discussions with ABJ editors and reporters when they could have printed very negative stories about the museum (and subsequently Inventure Place, which emerged after it became clear that 300,000 weren’t coming to Akron each year to look at static tributes to mostly long-gone inventors.) But they didn’t print those stories. Was the city — and taxpayers — well served by that?

Third, it’s possible to harness incredible community resources to work toward a common end. Yet even with that there is no guarantee of success. It’s tough out there folks.

This wasn’t a failure in leadership — or in the ability of a community to act on a big idea. Maybe it was just a failure of not meeting unrealistic expectations.