Monthly Archives: April 2009

Swine Flu and Star Wars

Whew. Swine flu is history. Well, OK. Maybe, maybe not. But Prez O and federal health officials are rebranding it: H1N1 flu. Wasn’t that the name of one of the droids in an early Star Wars flick?

Well, no. The droid was R2-D2. My bad. But the movie was Star Wars Episode 1: The Phanton Menace.

With luck, the Phanton Menace will aptly describe the current scare about swine flu. (Oops, H1N1.) Let’s hope so. Clearly this does have the potential to be a serious health problem — although right now it seems to me that we are creating considerable concern in areas where there is no illness. Still, as I mentioned in a prior post, nobody wants to be be standing next to the Prez and hear the words, “Brownie, heck of a job.”

And in the midst of the health warnings, this may very well be a marketing opportunity. Hey, the economy can use all the help we can give it. (News note: Chrysler scheduled to go pork-belly up today. Sorry about that.)

For instance, an article in the Wall Street Journal online reports:

As fears of swine flu spread, companies ranging from soap and hand-sanitizer manufacturers to makers of designer face masks are ramping up their marketing efforts, mostly pitching prevention messages starring their products.

Note to self: Don’t even think about a designer face mask.

OK. So maybe some increased sales of soap. And maybe a sales boost for designer face masks. (Is there really a market for designer face masks short of a flu epidemic?) But wouldn’t the real money go to the marketing firm that gets the gig to rebrand swine flu as H1N1? That doesn’t strike me as an easy sell. So at a minimum it is going to require focus group research, message framing and development, field testing, ad buys, media placements and the full range of viral (no pun intended) marketing offered by social media platforms these days.

Wow. Add all that up and there is some potentially big bucks involved. And for all I know the money is available via the recently passed economic stimulus plan — dubbed “porkulus” by Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin and a host of others.

Oink. Oink.

Yankee Stadium on $5,000 a Game

I know. I know. It’s generational. I grew up with baseball (circa ’50s and ’60s) when that sport was still the national pastime. And many a weekend afternoon or night I took an hour-long street car ride from my home on Pittsburgh’s North Side to watch the Pirates play in Forbes Field (now defunct), near the University of Pittsburgh.

I was thinking about that this morning while running. I could spend the entire day and come home with a considerable amount of change from a five-dollar bill. (If I even had that much to begin with. I digress.) Seats in the left-field bleachers, a curve-ball toss from third base, cost $1 — and on many days the attendant just waved you in.

And I know. Different era. Prices for everything escalate over time with inflation. A-Rod is worth more than the gross national product of Mexico. (OK, maybe not quite. But you get it.) Yada yada yada.

Still, I’m not sure that I could enjoy myself at the new $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium — where some ticket prices started the season north of $2,500 each — per game. And apparently there aren’t even enough asshats left on Wall Street to support that right now. The Yankees — hoping to end the embarrassing spectacle of few sitting in the “best” seats — are cutting the prices by as much as 50 percent, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal. (Same problem at the Mets’ Bailout Park, oops, Citi Field, but not sure if the tickets have been slashed as yet.)

Anyway, here’s from the WSJ story:

Acknowledging their prices were too steep even by Yankees standards, the 26-time world champions announced a plan to fill thousands of empty high-priced seats by reducing prices and giving away much of the unsold inventory.

The plan, announced by Yankees Managing General Partner Hal Steinbrenner Tuesday afternoon, rewards the seats to season-ticket holders who have purchased premium tickets in similar sections and hopefully ends an embarrassing first month of the season for the New York team and its new $1.5 billion ballpark. The stadium was designed before last fall’s collapse of the U.S. economy at a time when New York’s business community was still willing to spend a premium for the best sports and entertainment the region had to offer.

Folks, the fact that the Yankees could even consider charging that much for a baseball ticket — and some apparently thought nothing about buying one or more likely a handful of them — says a lot about the values and compensation of many individuals and organizations in New York pre- (and most likely even post-) economic meltdown.

Maybe as a nation we would be better off keeping those seats empty — as a reminder that we ain’t out of the recession woods yet. We’re still losing as many as 600,000 jobs a month — even as the recession that George Bush didn’t know about enters its 16th month. (Bob Herbert, NYT, “Workers Walk the Plank.” ) And with big firms like Government Motors and Chrysler still heading to the plate to knock more jobs out of the park.

And if the best seats do fill up at Yankee Stadium and Bailout Park anytime soon, this may be why.

Citigroup, ward of Mr. and Ms. U.S. Taxpayer, is lobbying the Treasury Department for permission to pay out special bonuses to employees.

Play ball!

Swine Flu and Risk Communication

It was mid-60s in NE Ohio at 5 a.m. when I hit the concrete for my daily five-miler. And I was thinking again this morning how quickly our national attention shifts from story to story, event to event. Remember a few weeks ago when we were heading to the hardware stores in search of pitchforks, the better to prod the Wizards of Wall Street into some thoughtful (ethical?) action. Now we’re in the queue at pharmacies stocking up on surgical masks and Therma Flu.

So consider this.  Obama was in Mexico a few weeks ago, and I don’t recall reading or hearing anything then about swine flu? Maybe there is just too much information these days. Can’t keep track of it all. Or is it possible that no elected or public health official in Mexico knew about this during Obama’s visit? Or didn’t they want to take the edge off the visit with this less-than-favorable news? Or was the national news media that accompanies the Prez too busy tweeting about Oprah?

Even given that Mexico is  third-world country in the midst of a drug war you would figure that an outbreak of swine flu would be, ah, news. Particularly if someone is coughing in the direction of the Prez. So right off the bat credibility is an issue for me here. Who knew what — and when? I haven’t heard good or even plausable answers to that yet. And maybe we won’t since this story is gaining visibility and Big Mo. I was watching CNN last night and fully expected Wolf Blitzer to cut away to Lou Dobbs rolling around in mud and oinking. I digress.

But here’s the rub — and it is a tough one from the standpoint of communication. How do you effectively communicate the nature and extent of risk? I really believe this is one of the most difficult challenges for communication professionals — and in this case elected and public health officials. You don’t want to raise public concerns to the point of panic. Yet you have to prepare the public for what could be a serious — potentially deadly — situation. And nobody these days wants his or her resume to include: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

And the dilemma in managing risk communication played itself  out on the front page of the Akron Beacon Journal this morning (deadtree edition). Two stories:

Headline No. 1: “Global group raises swine flue alert level

Key points: Epidemic entering extremely dangerous phase. Number of infected mushrooming. “At this time containment is not a feasible option.” Ugh. OK.

Headline No. 2: “Local health officials monitor virus, urge public to stay calm

Key points: Be prepared but not panicked. Ugh. OK.

Again, tough communication challenge here — and as with most matters, it helps to start with some credibility. Then, here are some guidelines as prepared by the U.S. Public Health Service a decade ago:

Figure 1. Principles of Risk Communication

There are seven cardinal rules for the practice of risk communication, as first expressed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several of the field’s founders:

  1. Accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner.
  2. Plan carefully and evaluate your efforts.
  3. Listen to the public’s specific concerns.
  4. Be honest, frank, and open.
  5. Coordinate and collaborate with other credible sources.
  6. Meet the needs of the media.
  7. Speak clearly and with compassion.

Source: Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication. Pamphlet drafted by Vincent T. Covello and Frederick H. Allen. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, April 1988, OPA-87-020.

And by the way, I think I’m still sick from the swine flu shot I got in the mid-70s.


Perception: Kent State and Swine Flu

Gee, what happened to my proclamation of a “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” weekend? I leave the conn of my digital communications empire for a day and we have a riot in Kent, Ohio, and the spread of swine flu. Don’t you long for the good old days when all we had to worry about was $4-a-gallon gasoline?

What’s this have to do with communication — and perception? Well, a lot, actually.

The Saturday night riot in Kent — off-campus as best I can tell — serves to reinforce what Kent State University is best known for: events that led to the killing of four students on campus May 4, 1970.  And no amount of crisis management or communications (or marketing dollars) works here since the perception about Kent State is too firmly entrenched. That’s why this incident gains national and even international attention way beyond what it merits in terms of news.

It even made The Huffington Post with this as the key graph:

It was the first violent clash between Kent State students and police in years. In 1970, four Kent State students were killed by Ohio National Guard troops during a campus protest of the invasion of Cambodia.

C’mon. Give us a break. What does the university say or do to get beyond that last sentence?

By the way, Bill Sledzik on his ToughSledding blog has an interesting take on how this story was covered by student journalists and via Twitter.

Then there is the outbreak of swine flu. Good grief. I’m still sick from the vaccine I took for the swine flu scare in the mid-1970s. But here’s reality.

Post-Katrina and post-9/11, our goverment leaders have to react — and react quickly and decisively — to these type of situations. That’s why the United States declared a “public health emergency.” And now the government — and public health officials — are faced with one of the most difficult communications challenges: defining and explaining in a thoughtful way just how much risk there actually is or could be.

I’m scheduled to fly to DC next week on a Continental shuttle out of Cleveland. Oh boy. Sure hope the person next to me is sneezing and coughing.

Don’t worry, be happy. Ugh. It’s Monday.

Larry Summers: Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Hey, it’s Friday. And I’m in one of my “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” moods. Weather in NE Ohio today and over the weekend is expected to be exceptional: sunny and mild. I’m going tonight to Kent to have dinner with the Wick poets, as they celebrate their 25th anniversary. (Full disclosure. No booze at dinner. Most likely will stop at Ray’s first.) And I had a great five-mile run this morning, the intermittent lightning bolts and dead left foot notwithstanding.

And I’ve almost accepted the fact that I’m not going to run the half-marathon in Pittsburgh May 3. Pretty sure I could drag my foot along the concrete for the full 13.1 miles — but not sure it’s worth it. I started heading down that road not to run last Tuesday, following the Boston Marathon. As usual, runners from Kenya and Ethiopia dominated the top spots, but the real story for me involved Bill Rodgers.

“Boston Billy.” He’s the four-time Boston Marathon winner who along with runners like Frank Shorter helped to spark the long-distance running boom 30 years ago. Here’s the story about Rodgers as reported in USA Today:

Bill Rodgers, 61, a four-time winner, finished the race in 4:06:49. He last ran in 1999, when he did not finish because of dehydration. He had planned to run last year but was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“You don’t want your last marathon to be a DNF,” Rodgers said. “It was the most fantastic Boston I’ve ever run in certain ways. I’ve never seen so many people on the course cheering.”

I most likely won’t have that many more opportunities to run a half-marathon. So I’m not going to take a chance that I’ll end on a DNF. WTF.

So don’t worry, be happy!

s-summers-sleeping-large-1And I know that many of you reading this will be stuck today in class or in a conference room listening to someone prattle on and on and so on. My advice: Follow the lead of Larry Summers, one of Obama’s senior and chief economic advisers. He managed (as reported on The Huffington Post and elsewhere) to sleep through a meeting yesterday on the next economic crisis facing all of us: the widespread abuse and corrupt practices involving credit card companies and related lending and interest rate policies.

Hey, if Larry can snooze during a meeting with the president — how much trouble could you get in?

Don’t worry, be happy!

USA: Gone Fishin’

I was in D.C. yesterday — where the economy is recession-proof (as long as you are a knowledge worker and part of the intelligentsia) and where you can’t get a decent cup of coffee until the morning sun is way up in the sky. Hey, I thought Obama was going to fix problems like this. I digress.

I go to Washington occasionally now as part of my work with Corporate Voices for Working Families. But I used to get there more often when I was working with Goodrich. At that point there would be years when I went once a month or more — to work with the Business Roundtable (smacking down Hillary’s health-care plan and other debacles, real or imagined) and other organizations. But mostly I went to meet and work with Bob Buehler, Goodrich’s vice president of government relations.

Buehler came to the nation’s capital in the late 50s or early 60s as a staff member of a Kansas congressman. Like most, he never left. He went from government to associations to lobbying to business. And Bob Buehler was a great communicator, although he never considered himself one. And certainly not in the formal sense that we think of today in terms of public relations (marketing?) or corporate communications.

But Bob Buehler knew everybody, or so it seemed. And I learned from him over the course of many years the value of forming relationships that were based on trust and mutual respect. Can’t see Bob Buehler on Twitter or Facebook. Sorry. He liked to “press the flesh” with real people, real friends. I digress again.

Anyway, Buehler had a notion about what led to the growth in the federal government — and the corresponding decline in American values, prestige, fortune and so on. (And no. It’s not baseball’s designated hitter rule. Although you can make a strong case for that.) It was the widespread acceptance and use of air conditioning. He argued that before air conditioning most of the federal government shut down in the summer and went home — too hot and humid in D.C. And there is probably some truth to that. Take a look at the rooms next time you visit Capitol Hill — high ceilings, expansive windows and so on.

I was thinking about that yesterday on the flight back to Cleveland after learning that Government Motors is planning to essentially shut down for nine weeks this summer. Hey, that seems to work OK in Europe.

Several years ago my wife and I went on a bike tour, riding for four days from Amsterdam to Bruges in northwestern Belgium. Great vacation. But striking in contrast to the USA. It was July and with the exception of places to eat and drink (ah, the beer, don’t get me started), very few businesses were open, day or night. Most people were on holiday. Woot.

So maybe that’s where we are heading: summer holidays that stretch from the end of June to September. We’ll see how that works this summer for thousands of GM employees and their families — and perhaps more importantly, for the millions of employees at Mom and Pop businesses who are tethered to the Detroit auto makers. Unfortunately for Mom and Pop, no big government bailout as yet. Wonder how they manage this in France?

And maybe as GM and related businesses take a summer-long hiatus, the policy wonks and government officials could consider doing likewise.

Then we could hang a sign from the Washington Monument: USA: Gone Fishin’.

Unemployment: People Not Numbers

GM (soon to be renamed Government Motors, apparently and unfortunately) said yesterday it is getting ready to eliminate another 1,600 salaried jobs. Chrysler is cutting blue-collar jobs at its plant in Twinsburg (near Cleveland) and elsewhere, clearing the decks for its shotgun wedding with Fiat or for going belly up. And GM says it will slice 47,000 jobs worldwide by year’s end. Ouch.

Just numbers, right? Well, no not really. We’re talking about people here — men and women, young and old. And in many (most?) cases we’re talking about working families — not just fretting about putting food on the table, but worrying about keeping their houses, paying for education and so on.

And the numbers in Ohio and elsewhere aren’t good: unemployment nearing or exceeding 10 percent now in many states and the economy still shedding jobs.  The Plain Dealer Sunday reported that “since the beginning of the recession in December 2007, Ohio has lost 261,500 jobs, more than two-thirds since last fall’s financial crisis was revealed. Nationally, an average of more than 150,000 Americans a week have been kicked to the curb since the start of November.”

The Plain Dealer didn’t just stop with the numbers. Reporters and editors took the story further and focused on people — profiling 88 who have lost their jobs in Cleveland and surrounding areas. The PD did this in a special report Sunday, “Help Wanted.” It’s an example of excellent community journalism — what the army of pajama-clad bloggers (uh, me?) and other defenders of democracy can’t duplicate. Not enough resources, time or economic/emotional reward.

But more importantly, the story brings the numbers to life. It attaches faces and stories to the unemployed. That’s important.

And I think it is important to keep getting that message to the policy wonks and elected officials in Washington and elsewhere. So I’m encouraged that the UAW — finally — has stepped up to the digital plate and is asking people to contact President Obama and members of his administration and auto task force. The message: the decisions they are making affect people and their families. It’s not about numbers.

It’s on the UAW Web site: “Save Auto Jobs. Save Main Street.”

Tell the President: Stand up for Workers!

Once again, it’s time for all of us to stand up for active and retired U.S. auto workers. Please contact President Obama today at 1 (202) 456-1414, or send him an e-mail.

The Obama administration has established tight deadlines for the restructuring of Chrysler and General Motors. For the federal government to provide additional assistance to the automakers, the restructuring of Chrysler must be completed by the end of April, and the General Motors restructuring must be completed by the end of May.

The UAW is actively involved in the complex restructuring negotiations, which involve the Obama auto task force, Chrysler and GM management, Fiat, bondholders and secured lenders, dealers, parts suppliers, and other stakeholders. These negotiations will have a major impact on wages and benefits for active and retired UAW members.

UAW members, friends, families and supporters can speak up by calling the White House at 1 (202) 456-1414, or sending an e-mail.

We need President Obama and his auto task force to stand up for the interests of workers and retirees in these restructuring negotiations. Please call or e-mail President Obama right away on this critically important issue. Tell him to insist that workers and retirees must be treated in a fair and equitable manner in any restructuring plans!

Again, you can call the President at 1 (202) 456-1414. Or you can send an e-mail to the White House Web site.

I know. I know. This is controversial. Many argue that the UAW — unions in general — are the cause of the problem. And now the bill has come due and employees and retirees are going to have to shuffle off to the economic woodshed and get what’s coming to them. Good luck with that as national policy. Particularly at a time when the Captains of Industry and the Wizards of Wall Street are still walking away from the economic meltdown with mega-million-dollar pension, severance and bonus packages. WOOT.

But regardless, last week we were all a-Twitter about tax-day tea parties. Good. I’m all for protesting as long as the demonstrations are peaceful and there is some civility connected with the proceedings. (Guess that rules out CNN and Fox News talking heads. I digress.)

So if nothing else, try to attach a face and a story to the unemployed. Hey, The Plain Dealer did it.