Friday April 19, 2019
 

Not Good

It has been more than 300 days since the Pentagon has given a press briefing.  That is not smart PR. The public should know what the military is thinking, not the least because it is such a large part of taxpayer funds.  Press briefings also humanize the military — put faces to names and provide a better understanding of strategy, allies and foes.  In a time of terrorists, unfriendly countries with nuclear weapons and rising dictatorships, the public depends more than ever on a properly functioning military.  Citing security risks of being seen in public is not enough of a reason to duck the media.  Yes, reporters ask tough questions but the Pentagon should be ready to answer them.  If the Brass are taking their cue from President Trump, that is yet another harm he causing to public discourse.  

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The Way It Is Now

The internet has made celebrity a peril. It opens a sluice for trolls, haters and the disgruntled to vent at a notable person.  It doesn’t matter whether the individual deserves recognition or not.  Consider the case of Katie Bouman, a young computer scientist from MIT who led a  team that developed software to develop the first picture of a black hole.  MIT tweeted about her contributions then a storm of praise and blame ignited.  Her name was exalted and dragged through the mud at the same time.  She asked for none of this and had made abundantly clear she was part of a team that developed the algorithm. No matter.  It became ugly, and she had to turn off her phone to stop the barrage of messages.  Bouman almost certainly wishes MIT had never tweeted in the first place.  She didn’t need to be a symbol of successful women in STEM disciplines.  But she was targeted with celebrity anyway.  In time, people will forget and she will settle back into anonymity, but the bitter experience will remain.

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Too Soon

Israelis made the mistake of celebrating a moon landing too soon.  The spacecraft, Beresheet, crashed onto its surface while the world watched.  The vehicle carried the hopes and dreams of the nation, but it was not to be.  There was probably little that could have been done to tamp down expectations. The best that can be done in situations like this is to emphasize the difficulty of the achievement beforehand.  That way, no one is surprised if it doesn’t come to pass.  That has been the history of landing on Mars.  There have been so many failures to settle safely on the red planet that mission control is wired with tension in the final minutes of a descent.  The moon is considered easier to do, but to date, only a few countries have achieved it.  Israelis will get another chance, but the next time, they will be more cautious.

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Reality Sets In

There has been enormous hype and publicity surrounding self-driving cars, and companies around the world are pursuing the technology.  But one corporation, Ford, has come clean and is now saying we won’t see them anytime soon.  The reality of the complexity of self-driving vehicles has set in.  Even Waymo, which has spent billions pursuing the autonomous car, hasn’t rolled out its self-driving machines except in isolated spots in Arizona.  The hype got ahead of itself.  Now, companies must do the hard work of making self-driving practical.  That may be impossible.  There are too many conditions on roadways from the elements — fog, rain, snow, brilliant sunshine — to unaccountable maneuvers of other drivers.  It would be OK if everyone drove safely to begin with, but they don’t.  Technology has to anticipate the unknowable and be ready to respond.  That is a tall order.  Ford should be commended for being open about the difficulties — a first step in finding solutions.

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A Long Fall

NASCAR used to be America’s premier motor racing sport.  It isn’t anymore.  The series has taken a long fall in popularity. Fans have stopped coming to its giant ovals and TV viewership is off.  From a marketing perspective, what can NASCAR do to win customers back or is it doomed to be a niche entertainment?  There are plenty of heads focused on these two questions.  NASCAR won’t go without a fight to get its audience back, which is proper.  But, it might be in an era of electric cars and sensitivity to green issues that motor racing has met its match.  It’s too early to know.  The sport is missing dominating personalities who used to be fans’ favorite drivers.  Even if marketers are able to separate some from the pack, will that be enough to attract eyeballs?  It’s hard after a long fall to return to a peak.

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Gutting It Out

Sometimes the best way to handle a PR disaster is simply to gut it out, to continue on course and wait for the uproar to settle.  That is what politicians in Virginia are doing.  Two were insensitive in their youths by using blackface.  One has been accused by two women of sexual harassment.  There were weeks of headlines locally and nationally.  The three men said they weren’t going anywhere — and they haven’t.  Recent polling shows support for them among Virginia’s citizens. They are banking on the public to forget and for the media to move on.  It is working.  This might be a paradigm for other pols faced with PR problems, such as Joe Biden.  If one can hang on long enough, there is a chance of a turnaround.  It is a difficult strategy, and it depends on the individual having the steel to see it through.  But, it can and does succeed.

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Pathological

Journalists are trying to understand why President Trump lies so much and seems to get away with it.  He even fibbed this week on the birthplace of his father.  The reasons are not comforting.  One is that his supporters know he lies but accept it in favor of other qualities they value more.  A second is that supporters say all politicians lie so what is different about Trump?  A third blames the media, which many of Trump’s supporters don’t trust and dismiss.  None of these reasons are strong enough to overcome what is a pathological problem with the President.  He either doesn’t know the facts and makes them up or he has become so used to lying, he can no longer distinguish between truth and falsehood.  From a PR perspective, either answer is devastating.  We expect leaders to have a moral center, even if they shade the truth once in a while.  Trump is amoral.  He seems to have no guideposts internally other than what is good for me right now.  It’s no wonder that his staff makes no effort to explain away all of his lies.  There are too many and the embarrassment would harm his already diminished reelection chances.  

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Marketing Challenge

This photo-story demonstrates the marketing challenge Amtrak faces with long distance trains.  A trip by plane from Orlando to New York City would have been four hours at most.  By train, it was 23.  Even with fast engines and good tracks, the time would have still been more than twice as long than with a plane.  Amtrak loses money on every long distance train it runs.  It should have given up the routes decades ago but Congress won’t let it.  So, it staggers along year after year, an unprofitable business that barely makes its way and hardly covers maintenance.  There are profitable routes for Amtrak but they are short to middle distance in which the cumulative time riding on rails is close to that of sitting cramped in a plane seat.  One wonders when the company and Congress will wake up to reality and cut the service back to its money-making core.  It has been since May 1,1971 that Amtrak has been in existence.  The marketing challenge was the same then as now.  No one seems to realize that unlike Japan and Europe, the United States is a vast land mass best crossed in the air.

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Not Helpful

It is a sad time when both left- and right-wing politicians lie or get facts wrong.  We have a President for whom facts are malleable.  Now it seems we have a celebrity Congresswoman who fails to look things up before she speaks.  There is little to no excuse for errors when there are ample ways to check data, especially in the Internet age.  The first rule should be accuracy because anything else one says will be judged against it.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is young and outspoken in her beliefs.  She has set her peers in Congress on edge.  Her youth and visibility have made her a darling of the media, but she has much to learn about governing.  It won’t help her if she continues to misstate facts and make contentions that aren’t true. She should take a step back soon and concentrate on the work of her office.  Her reputation ultimately will come from what she gets done.  

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New Metric

Corporations base investor relations and executive compensation on GAAP — generally accepted accounting principles.  But, that may be about to change.  ISS, a leading adviser on corporate governance, has announced it will start valuing CEO compensation on Economic Value Added metrics (EVA).  This includes the cost of capital taken from the company’s after tax earnings.  It is a more rigorous — and some say, more fair — way to value the work of the CEO.  CEOs might wish to reject ISS calculations but for one fact — institutional shareholders listen to ISS and often vote ISS recommendations.  It almost certain, then, that boards will fall in line and directors set CEO compensation according to EVA.  The change might be profound for companies whose earnings look good until a capital charge is taken.  If CEOs fall in line and calculate EVA, it is inevitable they will impose the methodology on those below them.  This will spark a wholesale change in earnings reporting — GAAP plus EVA.  Look for a new way to position companies in years to come.

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