Friday, December 17, 2010

PCG & ESFI Spread the Message of Safety this Holiday Season

Every year just before Thanksgiving we all start to think about holiday shopping and bringing out holiday decorations for the house. For a group of us at PCG, we also start to think about electrical safety during the holiday season because of our work with the Electrical Safety Foundation International.

For the past three years, PCG has worked with the Foundation on a national media outreach campaign to educate Americans about some of the electrical safety hazards that can happen around the holiday season and what Americans can do to stay safe. This year’s campaign focused on the theme of Making Safety a Tradition and emphasized the importance of inspecting holiday lights each year, making sure to not overload outlets with multiple lights and appliances, and to consider purchasing LED holiday lights which are more energy efficient and also much cooler to the touch.

As part of this year’s outreach, correspondent Susan Koeppen from the CBS Early Show visited the State Farm Research Laboratory with ESFI President Brett Brenner to review holiday safety tips, and to see for themselves what can happen when someone uses faulty or counterfeit electrical products.

To see the video of the CBS Early Show story, click here:

For tips of what you can do around your home to stay safe this holiday season visit ESFI’s holiday website at Have a safe and happy holiday season.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Nuclear Energy Summit Identifies Policy, Communications Challenges

Photos: Third Way

Tuesday, three of us from PCG attended an important summit here in Washington on the future of nuclear energy. At the New Millennium Nuclear Energy Summit, energy policy makers from the Obama Administration and Congress met with leaders from utilities and energy companies to consider how to bring more clean nuclear energy to the United States. The Summit was sponsored by Third Way, a Washington-based think tank, and the Idaho National Lab (INL), the nation’s lead nuclear energy lab. INL Lab Director John Grossenbacher and Third Way founder Matt Bennett facilitated the discussion among 25 principals.

The big news: Energy Secretary Steven Chu voiced his support for a clean energy standard that would require utilities to generate 25% of their power from clean energy sources, including nuclear energy and clean coal, by 2025. The many journalists who covered the Summit led with this news in their stories Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning. Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), George Voinovich (R-OH) and Jim Risch (R-ID) and Congressman Mike Simpson (R-ID) voiced their support for this new clean energy standard.

As the Summit unfolded, it became clear that we as communicators have much work to do in educating the new Congress and the public about why capital intensive nuclear power plants are a good investment in America’s energy future. Former New York Power Authority CEO John Dyson noted that both the Niagara Falls hydro-electric facility and New York’s nuclear power plants were not low cost energy sources when they were built, but they are now. Investments in nuclear energy today will follow the same path.

White House Director of the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy Carol Browner cited the White House’s drive to add money to the loan guarantee funds, defined the major issue as finding ways for nuclear energy to be competitive without a cost of carbon, and noted the importance of the nuclear energy industry to the nation’s competitiveness. “We were once at the forefront of this industry, and we need to regain this position,” she said.

Industry executives vigorously supported these ideas and articulated many others:

• Development of a clean energy bank that would include funding for nuclear energy projects.
• A federal integrated resource plan that would essentially form a national energy policy that would be consistent from administration to administration.
• Clean energy parks can address citing issues for a variety of clean energy sources.
• Recognition that investments in U.S. nuclear energy plants will provide a platform for increased exports and serve as a stimulus with results – jobs and clean air energy.
• Finding ways to incent utilities or governments for long-term power purchase agreements.

There was real news from both policy makers and industry. More than 30 journalists attended, and just a day hours after the event, I count more than 70 articles (ranging from The New York Times, POLITICO, Energy Daily and Platts) and many blogs covering the Summit. It just shows that real news generates significant and objective media coverage.

- Mimi Limbach, Potomac Communications Group

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What Has the Public Learned About the Economy? (Not Much)

With the 24/7 bombardment of information about the country’s financial crisis, how much has the public learned? Not much, it seems, even about the basics of our situation.

Before I go any further, check to see how much YOU have learned, through this test.

The Pew Research Center gave its latest News IQ Quiz, a multiple-choice test about current events, to 1,001 adults in mid-November. It found that a few facts have clearly permeated the national consciousness: 88% know that BP is the owner of the oil well that exploded; 77% know that the national deficit is larger today than in the ‘90s. But when it comes to specifics about our financial situation, the results are curious, to say the least.

Only 39% knew that the government spends more on defense than on education, Medicare or interest on the debt. When asked how much of the government’s loan to banks under TARP has been paid back, only 16% knew that over half has been returned. And only 14% knew that the current inflation rate is running about 1%.

To me, it’s understandable that only a small number would know the name of the British prime minister (15%) or the incoming Speaker of the House (38%). But our economic outlook is affecting everyone. And for months, especially in the Congressional campaigns, the No. 1 issue being blasted out by the print media, airwaves and blogosphere has been the importance of the government getting our growing debt under control.

So this survey raises some questions. Are the media so focused on opinions and “takes” that they are not presenting the basic facts? Is the public simply focusing on the opinions and sloganeering and not making an effort to learn the facts? Or is the public even paying attention at all?

For the record: 26% - more than the number who knew about TARP loans or the current inflation rate – could identify the Google phone’s operating system (Android).

- Potomac Communications Group

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Don't-Miss Book: The Man Who Sold America

Let me recommend a fascinating new book for everyone interested in communications or the art of persuasion – “The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (But True) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century.” It makes a compelling case that Lasker was not just the father of advertising as we know it today, but also an important pioneer in political campaigning, management consulting and philanthropy – all without any formal education.

Lasker joined a Chicago ad agency, Lord & Thomas, straight from a Galveston, Tex., high school in 1898, a time when agencies did little more than purchase newspaper space for bland ad copy typically written by the client. He realized that more creative copy emphasizing the benefit to the buyer – “salesmanship in print” – could get greater results for the client and expand revenues for the agency. His emphasis on research, targeting, testing and “creative” soon turned small struggling clients into powerful national brands – Palmolive soap (emphasizing beauty over mere cleanliness), Puffed Wheat (“shot from guns”), Goodyear tires. He rolled independent orange producers in California into a single brand, SunKist, and got Americans drinking OJ. He turned a funny-tasting condensed milk made by Van Camp into the market leader by telling buyers to insist on its special “almond flavor.” And he created a dominant brand out of Lucky Strike by promoting benefits for the throat and weight-loss.

Through the new medium of radio he got Americans to begin brushing their teeth, which most had never done before. The client was a relatively unknown toothpaste. Lasker identified unknown artists, bought time for them to appear regularly on radio shows, and soon the entire nation was eagerly tuned in to Pepsodent ads on “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and a new comic named Bob Hope.

At the request of the Republican Party, he essentially redefined political campaigning. His innovative P.R. helped get Warren Harding elected, and Lasker played a leadership role in defeating the socialist/author Upton Sinclair in his bid to become governor of California. He also mounted a major campaign – enlisting Adolph Ochs and his New York Times, among others – against Georgia in its perceived railroading of Leo Frank, a Jewish accountant convicted of raping and killing a young girl in Atlanta, with essentially no evidence. The national spotlight condemning Georgia probably led to the lynching of Frank by a Ku Klux Klan mob, and left Lasker wondering about his role in the tragedy.

Lasker’s friends and colleagues formed a Who’s Who of the first half of the century: Walt Disney, Wendell Willkie, Joe Kennedy, William Randolph Hearst, Will Rogers, David Sarnoff, Henri Matisse, William Wrigley Jr. (with whom Lasker shared ownership of the Chicago Cubs and helped baseball recuperate from the devastating Black Sox scandal of 1919).

Despite it all, he agonized that he had never really accomplished anything of importance; he was driven to be “consequential.” Late in his life, that came to pass. With his dynamo of a third wife, he turned his attention to charities, and in his last decade created new fund-raising strategies that began attracting tens of millions of dollars into planned parenthood and other “consequential” causes. Their work resulted in the first federal funding for cancer research and, in effect, the current versions of the American Cancer Society, National Institutes of Health and National Institutes of Mental Health.

The book is written by Jeffrey Cruikshank and Arthur Schultz, who was CEO of the agency that succeeded Lord & Thomas. It’s a fascinating insight not just to a single man, but to the formative years of modern media and modern communications.

- Potomac Communications Group

Monday, November 8, 2010

When You Have Some Extra Time in Washington . . .

The next time you have a business trip to Washington, take some extra time to look around. The city is popping with great new attractions you should check out.

Start with the new Arena theater complex – or technically now the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. The Arena has been a landmark for Washington theater for decades and was the second theater in the country, outside of New York, to win a Tony, in the mid-‘70s. Now it has literally repackaged itself – a glistening new contemporary building on the same site in Southwest Washington, a new mission to develop and showcase the best of American theater, even a new café run by José Andrés, one of DC’s – and the nation’s – top chefs. This long-awaited center opens this month with a highly praised new production of Oklahoma!, symbolizing the company’s commitment to American classics. The $135-million complex is worth a visit even if you don’t get to see a production. But try to.

Just across the river from Georgetown, in Rosslyn, is a new culture center called the ArtiSphere. It offers art galleries, a ballroom, venues for music and other performances and three theaters. The edgy Washington Shakespeare Company has moved there from its former home in Crystal City and is inaugurating its new space with two soaring new productions presented in repertory, Richard III and Frederic Schiller’s Mary Stuart. Here’s a rave review of the two shows. (I should disclose that I’m not totally objective about WSC, since I’m a long-time board member.)

The Artisphere is in the original home of the Newseum, the world’s only known museum dedicated to journalism – or as they say today, “the media.” A couple of years ago the Newseum moved to Pennsylvania Avenue, near the Capitol, and now it’s better than ever. The permanent exhibits of the history of journalism, with dramatic examples of the best print and electronic news coverage of the past century, are worth a half-day, anytime. And the Newseum always offers a wide range of temporary exhibitions, currently ranging from Sports Illustrated photography to media coverage of Elvis. Be sure to allow plenty of time; you’ll want to explore it all.

We try to keep up with all the goings-on in Washington, from new restaurants to special events at the theaters and museums. If you have any extra time in the city and want to explore, give us a ring. We’d love to give you some tips.

- Potomac Communications Group

Friday, November 5, 2010

Professional Societies: Where's My Generation?

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Construction Writers Association’s annual conference in Chicago. I joined CWA in 2006 while working in the corporate communications department of a large general contracting firm. I continued my membership to stay on top of industry happenings. More importantly, I find that the in-person networking opportunities it offers complement its social media counterpart, and often are more valuable.

At this year’s meeting, I noticed that I was one of the youngest attendees. I serve on CWA’s membership committee, and recruiting young professionals is one of our challenges, just like for many other groups.

To those young professionals, regardless of the field, who dismiss associations because you feel you can get the same networking benefits via Facebook or Twitter for free, I urge you to reconsider. While I follow my CWA colleagues on social media, I feel that face-to-face meetings provide more meaningful exchanges and insight.

Professional associations offer opportunities to network both informally and formally. Networking receptions remind me of the importance of honing one’s interpersonal communications skills. Informal networking helps me understand the industry and the latest trends. The more I learn, the better prepared I am to help my clients communicate effectively in this industry.

Finally, joining a professional society has provided me with opportunities to grow professionally. There are numerous leadership opportunities. Just offer to volunteer for a committee or task group. Trust me, no one is going to turn you down.

This year, I had the opportunity to speak during the conference. It pushed me to practice (over and over again) what our firm preaches to our clients about PowerPoint and public speaking.

While social networking is a great tool, professional societies provide an important way to build connections. How do I know to follow you on Twitter if I’ve never met you online or in person?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Working Globally Through a Single Office

One of the biggest challenges of an independent communications agency like ours, with staff in only one city, is finding a way to help our clients in other areas of the country, or even in other countries. We solved that problem years ago when we joined Pinnacle Worldwide, a network of quality firms that can form seamless teams to help clients with broad-ranging needs.

We have called on our Pinnacle partners to provide fast-turnaround help in several far-flung areas, from California to Northern Europe. And we have used our Washington expertise to help our partner firms in Iowa, Michigan and other cities around the country.

Pinnacle Worldwide recently broadened its reach by forming a strategic alliance with 27&More, a similar network headquartered in Europe. Now Pinnacle’s 50 offices around the world are supplemented by 27&More’s offices in 44 different countries. Combined, we now offer a geographic spread – and diversity of subject-matter expertise – that can rival the multinational agencies, but that still provides the customized services of independent boutique firms that have deep roots in their local communities.

We are proud to note that we have just expanded our role with Pinnacle Worldwide. At one of its regular meetings in New York last week, our Partner Leonard Greenberger was named to the group’s Executive Committee. In addition to representing our experience with communications in Washington, Leonard brings leadership to Pinnacle’s capabilities in energy and in serving trade associations and professional societies.

We are proud to be associated with Pinnacle, and proud that Leonard is on the leadership team.

- Potomac Communications Group

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Once Upon a Time: Getting Your Message Across

I was in Borders scanning across a magazine rack when I saw a headline that grabbed me, and I started to reach for a copy – but suddenly a fire alarm went off.

What do I do? Exit, or pick up a copy of the fall issue of Harvard Business Review’s OnPoint publication with the bold headline: “How to Get Your Message Across”?

Actually, the alarm turned out to be just a security buzzer at the door. But I refuse to let that technicality get in the way. With a little fudging, I’m applying one of the core principles that emerge from the 20 or so meaty articles about effective communications in the business world.

Rather than try to summarize all of OnPoint’s insights, let me single out three “Communications 101” rules that came through the strongest, and that are always worth a reminder.

1. “Tell them one thing, and one thing only.” Audiences remember only one thing, so make sure it’s the one thing you want them to remember. Then essentially eliminate everything else.

2. Beware of PowerPoint. Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Airlines, points out that PowerPoint can be an obstacle to clear thinking rather than a help. “Bullet points without ‘a subject, a verb, and an object’ do not convey ‘complete thoughts'," an article quotes him as saying. “PowerPoint itself is not the problem; executives who use it as a shorthand for thinking are. Too many managers use it to sketch out thoughts rather than flesh them out.”

3. Most of all, tell a story. Facts and figures alone aren’t persuasive, they aren’t memorable and they don’t hold an audience’s attention. We have all seen a bored audience, fidgeting with their BlackBerrys, snap to attention when the droning speaker finally says, “That reminds me of a story . . .” And that’s why I began this piece the way I did.

As for the first rule: The one thing I’m telling you here is, Pick up a copy of the fall issue of OnPoint. And refresh yourself on some of the basics of effective communication, which we’re all capable of forgetting.

- Potomac Communications Group

Monday, October 18, 2010

Getting Serious about Solar

“People see you as hippies on a mountaintop.”

That’s how Democratic political pundit James Carville described the solar power industry during last week’s Solar Power International 2010 show in Los Angeles. The event is the world’s largest solar power trade show and attracted more than 27,000 people to discuss the explosive growth of solar power in recent years and make plans for the industry’s future.

PCG's client, the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA), is one of the two main sponsors of the show each year, along with the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

While the future of the solar power industry may be challenged by historical perceptions that suggest it is not a feasible idea to meet the nation’s growing energy needs, Mr. Carville’s perception doesn’t reflect the reality on display last week.

When an industry outgrows the state of California (as solar has – the show is moving to Dallas next year because no convention center in California will be large enough for next year’s SPI), it’s past time to take it seriously. The fact is, solar has come down from the mountaintop, rolled up its sleeves and now looks better suited to the boardroom or shop floor than the Ultimate Frisbee field.

PCG is proud to be on SEPA’s team as we continue to change the conversation from “hippies on a mountaintop” to “serious engine for economic growth.”

- Potomac Communications Group

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

With Facebook, Who Needs an Intranet?

Company intranets often are underused by employees and frequently require a ton of time to keep current. The result is more pain for already overworked corporate communicators. It seems at times that intranets continue to exist because they’ve always existed.

So, what is the purpose of your intranet? 

Ideally, your intranet is a place where employees can share information. It is a portal for essential programs and often serves as a place where workers can catch up on the latest news at the corporation. Anecdotal evidence tell us that employees will use the portal to launch programs for human resources, accounting and other similar programs. But it seems that other functions are seen as less than useful.

In a Web 2.0 world, we need to take a new approach. With more than 600 million Facebook users worldwide, it’s a given that many of your employees are “hanging out” on this social media monster. You would probably be surprised to find that the truck drivers, mill workers and those who handle other field jobs at your company often stop by Facebook in the evening. These same people rarely if ever stop by your intranet.

The moral of this story? Meet them online where they already live.

By creating a closed Facebook group, you can invite employees to join a company-sponsored community that does not require them to friend each other, but does allow them to interact. And it comes pre-loaded with all the functionality your intranet would have, if only you could find room in your budget. It shares video, audio and pictures, as well as quick news. And it can be customized to take on a company identity. Best of all, in a closed group, what is said in the group stays in the group, allowing for meaningful interaction.

Facebook. It’s your next intranet.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

If They Like You, Let Them Show It!

Twitter has always been an excellent tool for driving traffic to other online content. As a CNN report this week points out, Twitter is “meant to be a content referral network.” A hint for utilities and others only taking advantage of the customer service and relationship-building aspects of Twitter: don’t forget to tweet links that refer customers to other online news and information you’re putting out there.

Even though Twitter is the major player in this space, the same CNN Report suggests that the Facebook “Like” button is showing signs of becoming a serious competitor in the traffic-referral business. Some intriguing traffic stats from the piece:

Since the “Like” button came about, ABC News has reported a 190 percent increase in traffic; Gawker's traffic shot up by 200 percent; Sporting News said their site traffic was up by a shocking 500 percent; and said that Facebook has become their second-largest referral source.

Popular sites like are also reporting that user engagement is up since adding the “Like” button, saying pages per user are up 92 percent, time on site is up 85 percent, video views up 86 percent and overall visits have climbed 36 percent.

This is the season where severe storms batter the East Coast and many utilities shine in responding to outages, rolling trucks and sharing crews to keep vital power flowing to your customers. As you communicate about restoration with your customers don’t forget that many of your customers really like you. Let them show it by adding this easy to use Facebook button to your site today.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Twitter and Facebook Replace Your Local AAA Office

As a child, family vacations began with a trip to the local AAA office. We’d sit with a travel agent who would provide us the TourBooks for our destinations, suggest hotel recommendations and my favorite part, they would give us the TripTik book that provided directions across all the North American highways. While that was a great system at the time, social media has revolutionized the way we plan for travel. Now we can engage with local hotels and restaurants directly and even gain insight from locals and travelers who have been to our chosen destinations in the past.

A 2006 trip to Croatia was the first time I tested out social media insights for travel. I used to find recommendations from other travelers on sobes (rooms) to rent as opposed to staying in large hotels. Following that trip I posted my reviews on the site and from then on I’ve relied on websites and social media for researching, planning and booking vacations.

In April 2010, social media took on new importance as the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in Iceland and sent a cloud of volcanic ash across the European skies resulting in thousands of canceled flights across Europe – including mine. Almost immediately #ashcloud and #ashtag hastags popped up on Twitter and stranded passengers sought comfort from strangers on Twitter. EuroControl, the organization overseeing safe airline travel in Europe, began regularly posting to its Twitter feed, responding to as many people as possible and urging travelers to connect with each other over Twitter for more information. This major travel and business emergency, played out on Twitter as airlines, government regulators, and passengers used social media to tell their story.

At this point, it became clear that social media was a major source of travel information in developed countries. However, as I recently planned a trip to Peru, I realized it was even more critical in developing countries. While the invention of the internet allowed hotels, museums and other destinations to show and tell their story directly to travelers, the cost to build and maintain websites is a heavy burden for small inns in developing countries. When Facebook allowed companies to create pages, small inns found an easy and affordable way to maintain a web site. In addition, the increase of services like Skype allowed travelers around the world to talk to inns for the price of a monthly internet connection.

Travel boards, Facebook, Twitter and Skype were my only travel agents as I booked a 17-day trip to Peru. Without these social media tools, I would have been unable to find the 5-room B&Bs, best spots for ceviche and cheapest ways to travel across the country. And one of the best parts of social media is that I still today follow some of my favorite new twitter accounts and Facebook Groups from Peru to relive my vacation.

Picture taken at Machu Picchu by a local guide found on

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Stuffed Animals and Smart Grid Anyone?

“I looked through Toys-R-Us and could not find a single stuffed smart meter.”

The above quote was a humorous way of describing the power industry’s challenge in selling the benefits of the smart grid to consumers and it came on day two of the Gridwise Global Forum in Washington D.C.

The forum has been abuzz with discussion of “killer apps” and self-healing networks. But during this session, leading minds from Intel Corp., Accenture, Battelle and OPOWER talked through the need to make sure the customer is not lost in the cold data.

Dr. Mani Vadari, vice president of Energy Infrastructure for Battelle Energy Technology, went so far as to suggest a consumer bill of rights for the smart grid. He outlined seven expectations:
  • Expectation of privacy
  • Expectation of transparency
  • Expectation of security
  • Expectation of anonymity
  • Expectation of choice
  • Expectation of sharing
  • Expectation of data
Other speakers commented that the industry understands smart grid technology, how to collect information and the best way to process this data and report back to customers. However, few have figured out how to trigger consumers to reflect on the data in front of them.

Fiona Sim, the director of the Intel Open Energy Initiative, said that her company is experimenting with smart grid imagery that people can connect with. For example, Intel’s employees can see how much energy they are using at work through a picture of a flower on their computer desktop. When the flower is bright and upright, employees have optimized their energy usage. When the flower wilts, they need to make a change.

Throughout the session, there was general agreement that the electric power industry and the consultants who serve it understand that customer power is the key to smart grid success. The way to harness this power is still up for discussion.

-- Potomac Communications Group

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Yes, They're Following... But are You Leading?

The rise of online communications and social media in PR has only increased the tension between quantity and quality. When one can send a pitch e-mail to reporters and know almost instantly how many people have opened it (and how many haven’t), the temptation is to view every PR task – every pitch, press release, blog post or tweet – as a number instead of a mutually helpful interaction.

Those numbers don’t always support the real goal of any public relations effort – inspiring an action of some kind, be it an article, vote or donation.

A recent catalogue of the “Top” 100 PR pros on Twitter, based entirely on each entrant’s number of followers, illustrates the misperception that more is always better and serves as a sharp reminder of two things:

Follower numbers are an imperfect measure at best of who the “Top” PR pros are on Twitter. Client service and creative problem solving define the very best in PR. Maybe the people and organizations included in this “Top” 100 list provide excellent service to their clients. But there’s no way to tell that based on how many Twitter followers someone collects.

• As a media relations tool, Twitter may look and feel different than that old mainstay, the press list, but using either properly requires the same skill set – respect for journalists, persistence when it comes to telling a story and a commitment to routinely refreshing the list as needed (sometimes sacrificing quantity to improve quality).

List management is a skill our political campaign-managing cousins seem to have perfected beyond the current standards in PR. In the political world, success is defined by what a campaign can ask its list to do, not just how many e-mail addresses sit in an Excel spreadsheet.

A successful PR approach to Twitter, social media and client relations generally borrows from that campaign mindset to build smarter lists and engage the people on them with respect and a clear sense of what the “ask” is – an interview with a client, letter to the local paper, or video from an event posted to YouTube.

Even in a new social media environment, success starts with the best – not the biggest – list.

(Join Matt's well-served followers on Twitter: @mps2003)

- Potomac Communications Group

Friday, September 17, 2010

Welcome To Our Newest Staff Member

Sarah Dirndorfer, who recently completed internships at the U.S. Naval Academy and the American Red Cross, has joined the PCG team as our newest Project Coordinator. A Mass Communication graduate from Towson University, Sarah is supporting AREVA, the Solar Electric Power Association, National Grid and TerraPower in her new role.

In addition to her passion for public relations, the native Marylander is an avid amateur filmmaker. In fact, she won an award at the Houston WorldFest International Film Festival for her film about sustainable living.

Sarah also enjoys playing violin, ballroom dancing and whitewater rafting in her free time and is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.  You can reach Sarah anytime at

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Lindsay Lohan Loves Smart Grid; Tiger Ponders Climate Change

If you are trying to attract attention to a serious issue - say, climate change or the electrical smart grid - and finding it harder than ever, Howard Kurtz tells you why. His column in the Washington Post today describes one of the game-changers taking place in the media - the drive to maximize readership by emphasizing what on-line viewers are already searching for, often at the expense of what we old journalists would consider real "news."
Even at the Post, which is struggling against the tide of triviality as much as any publication, reporters have to fill out a box when they file an article on any subject. Kurtz explains: "The box is supposed to contain words and phrases that will help me reel you in," via Google and other search engines. That box no doubt reminds every reporter, on every filing, that the goal is, as the Post's executive editor acknowledges, "connecting our journalism to the greatest number of eyeballs possible."

And we all know what grabs eyeballs. One day recently, the Post was juggling several stories that would be seen as big by traditional journalists - McCain winning in Arizona, Murkowski being upset in Alaska. But the paper's "traffic directors" were reporting that the hot stories of the morning were "Elin Nordegren telling People that her life had been 'hell' since her husband's sex scandal, a photo of an alligator in the Chicago River, and a video on Gawker of a British woman throwing a feral cat into a dumpster."

The Post, the New York Times and a handful of other publications are working hard to protect their reputation for seriousness and credibility. But even they have to compete with the growing obsession - of the media and the public - with celebrities and self-help. More serious subjects, no matter how important, have to get over that hurdle.

That's the challenge we grapple with every day - how to compete, for media attention, with Lady Gaga, White House gate-crashers and the next miracle diet. Based on what Kurtz says, real journalists couldn't be any happier about all this than we are. And that may be the key to the puzzle . . . at least as long as there are real journalists.

- Potomac Communications Group

Monday, August 16, 2010

How Much Is This Going to Cost Me? (A Utility’s Dilemma)

Today’s utilities are scrambling to upgrade critical power delivery systems. Whether it’s smart meters or major transmission lines, the current electricity grid needs a face-lift. For customers, the front of mind question as the recession continues to linger is, “how much is this going to cost me this time?” Talk about a communications challenge.

For large-scale electricity transmission projects this challenge is further complicated by cost socialization schemes built on the theory that many benefit from each project constructed. The utility building a given line will often provide power to multiple utilities along its path. Each new line also provides other intrinsic benefits to the entire system that only an engineer could explain. Because of these socialized benefits, the cost is often socialized as well. This is the case for the PJM Interconnection where several new high-voltage electricity transmission lines are now being proposed.

In this month’s Public Utilities Fortnightly the notion of socialization is challenged revealing a growing chorus of people who support eliminating this scheme and asking those most directly benefiting from a project to bear the cost of these lines. Their position – Ohio residents shouldn’t pay the cost of a transmission line in New Jersey.

This internal fight highlights something Potomac Communications Group continues to see as we conduct focus groups about this issue and other utility upgrades. Notably, the cost of power is difficult to explain and even socialized payment methods don’t make customers feel better about rising bills. So what’s a utility to do?

It’s important to focus on the benefits of upgrades and reinforce that old message point of building greater reliability (this continues to be one of the most believable messages after all these years). So, the next time you find yourself lost in the weeds trying to explain the costs of these complex projects, remember that a deep and logical discussion of who pays for the upgrades will never spark warm feelings between customers and their utilities. Just stick to the benefits that will have an immediate positive effect on your customers’ lives and make these messages the core of your campaign.

-- Potomac Communications Group

Monday, August 2, 2010

A surprising challenge: selling Smart Grid

To a salesman, it must sound like a dream product: it will allow greater use of solar and wind energy to save on our carbon emissions, improve the reliability of our electric power system, give consumers more control of their electric power and its cost, help avoid the cost of building expensive new power plants and help utilities communicate with customers during emergencies. Slam dunk, huh?

So it would seem. But as Hawaii found out last week – after similar experiences in California, Texas, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland and other states – making the case for the Smart Grid and Smart Meters has not been so easy. It has run into serious opposition from several public service commissions, many individual consumers, media commentators and strong interest groups like AARP.

Smart Grid is essential to the future of our electric power system, as we all want it to evolve. Without it, energy efficiency advancements and incorporation of renewable energy sources, scattered around geographically, will be impossible achieve at the scale we need. And without it we will need to build far more peak-load power plants, to meet energy demand when it spikes to its highest levels on summer afternoons, which will further drive up the cost of electricity.

But selling this concept has hit a series of obstacles. Some companies ran into problems with regulators and consumers because of their strategy for paying for the Smart Meter investment. But others may have hit potholes because they took it for granted that their customers would embrace the new devices. Their communications emphasized the fancy new technology and all its neat features; what they should have emphasized – what successful companies emphasize – is the personal benefit that individual customers will receive.

How to sell Smart Grid? Michael Howard, the CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute, told the Edison Electric Institute’s annual conference last month that there are three answers: “Communicate, communicate, communicate.” And how best to communicate? Joseph Rigby, CEO of Pepco Holdings, Inc. in Washington, said it has to begin with person-to-person communications, “in meetings like this.”

And it all must begin with the right message - to show customers and regulators that the broad benefits of the Smart Grid, including reliability, faster outage notification and customer control, have a direct impact on individuals who use electric power.

Partly because of federal stimulus funding, more utilities are making plans for roll-outs of Smart Meters in their service areas. Let’s hope that they have learned the lessons from the pioneers who seemed to take regulatory approval and customer support for granted – because it looks so much like a slam dunk.

- Potomac Communications Group

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Lesson for Media Pros

Here’s an important lesson for media professionals and those in the industries we serve. One of the professional associations I belong to has a listserv focused on telling the industry’s complex story through social media.

Many subscribers post often and they have strong views. Recently, they began reacting to a story in The New York Times based on work by a source with a strong negative point of view about this industry. The source’s work, which is slated to appear soon in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal, broke important news that wasn’t helpful to the industry.

Amazingly, several of the listserv members began attacking the journalist who reported the news. Some of the attacks were pretty scurrilous. Although a few of us defended this very good journalist, the attacks went on for nearly two weeks. What the members didn’t know was the journalist also subscribes to the listserv. (I didn’t know it either until he privately thanked me for defending his integrity.)

The journalist recently announced to the listserv members that he has been a subscriber since the listserv’s inception, that he reads all the posts and that he has taken no offense to the comments. But, oh my, how the tone has changed – and that’s a good thing.

The lesson: it is really easy to blow off steam on social media, but it’s also a looming opportunity to say things you ultimately regret. You don’t know who is reading your posts. So edit yourself before you post, and delete the words that could offend. After all, no matter how much we disagree on a topic, we ought to be able to discuss it with civility.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Social Media Team – Its More than Just PR & Marketing

This morning, the Social Media Club of Washington, D.C. (@smcdc) hosted a social media breakfast where participants tried to answer the question, “Who is responsible for social media?” The simple answer is all of us.

Today’s speakers included Mike Kohn (@mike_kohn) from the Human Resources Department of SmithGroup, Brian Reilly (@ReillyBri) from the Marketing Department of the Smith Group and Erin Orr (@ErinOrr) from the Marketing Department of Fox Architects. The overarching message from today’s session was clear; in order for any company to have a successful social media program, you must have buy-in, support and participation from a variety of departments. This includes marketing, public relations, government affairs, legal, human resources and, of course, the c-suite. All these parties need to come together with clear goals for social media. After the goals are determined, then you can figure out what resources, tools or personnel can make those goals a reality.

Getting representatives from all these areas into a room to achieve one goal can often lead to a difference of opinions. The panel agreed that everyone needs to check their egos and department-specific hats at the door and think about what is best for the company. With all these opinions and actions floating around a company, Erin Orr added that it is imperative that someone step up to be the “air traffic controller” of the social media campaign.

The biggest challenge for any social media campaign is demonstrating results. Today’s speakers seem to agree that there are many metrics a company can use to measure the success of a social media campaign, but translating those results into a direct business success remains a mystery. At PCG, we begin our social media campaigns with metric goals that may include X amount of fans on Facebook, a certain amount of ‘Retweets’ on Twitter or getting a specific number of comments on blog posts. As the campaigns continue, our definition of success will change along with our goals.

Thanks to the speakers and SMCDC for a lively discussion. To find out more about SMCDC or join the next discussion, visit

Friday, July 16, 2010

Boiling Frogs and the Washington Post

Here’s a fascinating backstage look at how a major newspaper has been battling to survive in the digital age – “Morning Miracle: Inside the Washington Post” by Dave Kindred. It documents several pivotal moments over the past 15 years, as a lumbering daily tried to understand and keep up with new media that moved at the speed of light.

An insightful memo written by managing editor Bob Kaiser in 1992 compared the Post to a frog in a pot of water that is slowly beginning to boil – the frog never jumps because it can’t detect slight changes in temperature. “The Post is not in a pot of water, and we’re smarter than the average frog. But we do find ourselves swimming in an electronic sea where we could eventually be devoured – or ignored as an unnecessary anachronism.”

Donald Graham, CEO of the company, began moving the paper into the digital age before most of his peers, launching an e-version of the paper in 1995 ($20 a month, with 29,000 subscribers). The next year the Post began investing in a Web version, at a total cost of more than $100 million before it became profitable. But Graham still agonized over the break-the-company decision about long-term strategy. In a fateful meeting with leaders of the paper, he shot down a task-force proposal that the Post use its geographical advantage to become the country’s major newspaper website. Graham brusquely said, in effect, that the Post isn’t national, it’s local; its survival will depend on how it covers firefighters and teachers and police in the DC area, not coverage of “elite” issues for a national audience: “elitism is death.”

That decision cost the Post some of its top talent and set it back years in digital competition. Circulation and advertising continued to decline; in 2007, for the first time in two generations, the Post lost money. Graham came to realize that survival depended less on Ben Brantley-type journalism than on “mastery of the Internet.” That’s when he named Katharine Weymouth – a family member, a lawyer, not a journalist, a fun-loving mother of three – to take the reins as publisher. She made some major changes at the top, as well as a few major mistakes, but is correcting Graham’s single-minded focus and moving the Post into a two-part strategy: Washington news for local readers, and national news – digitally – for everyone else.

To me, the book is a real cliff-hanger. Who knows how the Post will escape from the threat of the worldwide web? And to me, the book makes clear the fundamental irony of the Post’s continuing survival. In 1984 the Post paid a paltry sum for an educational testing service, called Kaplan. Katharine Graham was opposed to it, and no one can quite remember why it was purchased – it was not even mentioned in the annual report for that year. But in the past few years Kaplan has contributed over 50 percent of the company’s revenue, compared to 20 percent for the newspaper. Donald Graham even told Wall Street in 2008 that the Post is “an education and media company.” So the prominence of the Post today isn’t due to smart strategy and leadership; it’s mainly dumb luck. Pass some my way.

- Potomac Communications Group

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Our Newest Project Manager

We’re pleased to announce that PCG has promoted Jane Walker to Project Manager. During the relatively short time she’s been with us, Jane has proven to be a skilled communicator and strategist. She has provided excellent support to many of our clients, including the Solar Electric Power Association, Lafarge, and Idaho National Laboratory.

Jane has southern roots. She grew up in Florida, attended Southern Methodist University, and worked for Teach For America in Atlanta, before moving to Washington in 2009 to join PCG. It was a bit of a homecoming for her, as she also worked as a press intern for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) during college.

As a project manager, Jane will continue to work for her current clients while taking on new responsibilities. If you’d like to say “congratulations,” she can be reached at

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Time marches on, toward end of 'free content' era

In case you missed it, this week we moved a step closer to the end of the era of “free content” on the Web and toward a future where we’ll have to pay for much of the information that now comes pouring out of search engines for no charge.

That direction has been becoming clearer for quite a while. As Walter Isaacson points out in the new Atlantic, the old mantra of “information wants to be free,” coined by Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog, is morphing into a new realization – timely information is valuable, and consumers of it should be happy to pay.

Rupert Murdoch, a major media trend-setter, has said he "will find ways to charge online for all of his papers, just as he already does for The Wall Street Journal,” Isaacson points out. Now, the iPad has speeded up this evolution. Apps for the Journal and the New York Times, among other publications, offer only a peak at their daily publications for free, but charge for the full issue. USA Today’s app is totally subscription-based. And many magazines, from Sports Illustrated to Popular Science, are charging on the iPad for content that is free – so far – to laptop users.

Now Time magazine has taken a huge next step. Brief summaries on its website carry this notice: “The following is an abridged version of an article that appears in the July 12, 2010 print and iPad editions of Time.”

This means, beginning this week, its articles will no longer be available on the Web at all. If you want more than some teaser excerpts from its articles, you’ll have to purchase the print edition – or download the iPad app, for $4.99.

The curtain is clearly coming down. Before long, it may cost us more to reel in all the information that we’re used to downloading for free, but maybe the fees will make sure that the folks who create valuable content will keep it coming.

- Potomac Communications Group

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Scientists: Don't 'Educate' the Public; Collaborate!

Much of our work involves communicating about highly technical subjects – science, engineering, technology, energy – to nontechnical audiences. So we routinely work with scientists and engineers. And many of them often seem frustrated that “they” – the public, the media, government officials – just don’t get it, whatever the subject is, because “they” don’t understand the scientific basis and the elegant logic behind it.

Now the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is turning the table. Yes, the public usually doesn’t get the science; but the scientists don’t get the public. In an important new report issued this week, “Do Scientists Understand the Public,” the academy argues that the technical community needs to do a better job of understanding the values and culture of the society they live in. It needs to factor public opinion of new technologies into the development process through collaboration, rather than just trying to “educate” the public to accept a new technology suddenly sprung on them.

The report says that “resistance is growing” to major scientific initiatives, from radioactive waste management and geoengineering to new energy sources and genetic engineering. To some scientists, the reason is that the public – in the words of DNA pioneer James Watson – is made up of “kooks” and “incompetents.” To the academy, though, another reason is the technical community’s belief that basic facts will win public support. As one scientist described this view: “Our job is simply to tell people – and if they don’t understand, then our job is to tell them a bit louder. That tends not to work.”

In fact, the report calls for better understanding of the public’s value system and attitudes toward risk, which are very different from the technical community’s. This means bringing the public into the process much earlier, paying more attention to social scientists and public opinion experts, and training more scientists in the important skill – now derided by much of the technical community – of communicating effectively to nontechnical audiences.

The future of new technologies now emerging – from smart meters and the electric car to geoengineering and wind power – may depend on how the technical community responds to the challenge this report lays out. Let’s hope we don’t hear of other scientists asking a colleague before a public presentation, as this report quotes, “You mean, I have to dumb down my presentation for Ma and Pa Kettle?”

-Potomac Communications Group

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Forgo the Forgone Embargo

Rolling Stone got scooped on its own story this week. The editors shared an advance copy of their exclusive interviews with military leadership in Afghanistan with AP, a regular courtesy to reputable news organizations. But, that embargoed article spurred news that moved faster than the magazine. After AP ran its story, Politico posted a PDF of the entire Rolling Stone article on its own site (until copyright lawyers threatened to get involved). In this rapid-fire series of events, President Obama ended up relieving Gen. Stanley McChrystal of duty barely two days later. The general’s critical remarks leaked out of the Rolling Stone story and splashed up online, demanding a top level Administration response before the magazine even hit newsstands.

Advance copies of press releases, news announcements and, in this most recent case, published articles are often distributed with the request that the information not be published until a certain date, also known as an “embargo.” Arguably, this practice gives reporters a chance to do their own journalism and dig a little deeper into current events. It offers them a bit of lead time to confirm their facts and offer more than what the public affairs office might provide on a topic. At least that’s one perspective on embargoes.

Embargoes have long been controversial. While public affairs professionals claim they are in the journalist’s interest, many journalists see embargoes as unwelcome interference. TechCrunch has offered all too accurate parodies of how this tension between PR and news operations evolved. Vincent Kiernan even wrote a book on the subject, describing how embargoes impede scientific knowledge by fostering a herd mentality that puts science writers at the mercy of a few academic journals.

It’s not the first time a wire service has jumped the gun for an exclusive story. Nor will it be the last – shortly after Dow Jones acquired the Wall Street Journal, the WSJ journalists were informed they would be judged on breaking news and stopped accepting news under embargoes. This latest news event at the Rolling Stone should send a clear message to communications professionals – the rules of engagement have changed. The vicious competition of the 24/7 news cycle has overwhelmed the traditional conventions of journalistic etiquette.

- Potomac Communications Group

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

For Science Info, the Blogosphere Rules

Here's quite a surprise: Guess what subject gets nearly 10 times more attention from the blogosphere than from the mainstream media. Besides celebrity gossip and snarky politics, that is.

The answer: science and technology.

Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism analyzed the differences in subject matter between blogs and the traditional press. In general, the differences weren't great. But the blogs - often dismissed as nothing but trivia and naval-gazing - actually cover science and technology much more thoroughly than the MSM.

Throughout 2009, PEJ found that the traditional press gave science only about 1% of its overall news coverage, even including such major issues as stem cell research and NASA. It gave another paltry 1% to technology, primarily internet security.

In the same period of time, though, "18% of the most linked-to stories on blogs in a given week were about science and technology news" - roughly 10% about science and another 8% about technology, including coverage of new breakthroughs like the Kindle and interviews with heads of high-tech companies.

For everyone trying to communicate technical subjects, the lesson is clear: the odds are better with the blogosphere than with traditional media.

- Potomac Communications Group

Friday, June 18, 2010

Vocus Acquires HARO

At the launch of the Vocus Users Conference last week, Vocus president and CEO Rick Rudman announced that Vocus had acquired HARO (Help a Reporter Out). This announcement surprised many in attendance.

HARO started in 2008 under the direction of entrepreneur (and sky dive enthusiast) Peter Shankman (Twitter: @skydiver). The HARO system is quite simple. Reporters log into HARO and create a query about a source needed for their story. PR professionals sign up to get a daily digest of these queries (along with stories of Shankman’s hobbies like sky diving) delivered to their email inbox every day. If you know a source that could be helpful for a particular story then you can email the reporter to pitch your angle. The HARO system now includes more than 100,000 sources and almost 30,000 reporters.

HARO is not the only system like this nor is it the first. What makes HARO unique is that it is free – for reporters and PR professionals.

When Rudman announced last week that Vocus acquired HARO, people quickly began wondering how the system would change. For the past week Rudman and Shankman have said the same statement over and over and over: HARO WILL NOT CHANGE.

So far, they are right. Nothing has changed. HARO is still a good resource for reporters and PR professionals. As happy Vocus and HARO users, we look forward to see how these two companies will grow together in the future.

For more information about HARO or to sign up for daily queries click here:

And you can follow HARO on Twitter: @helpareporterout