Thursday, February 25, 2010

If You Think the Media Is Weird Now . . .

. . . just think about what passed for "journalism" a century ago. Here are excerpts from one of my favorite news stories ever - the Page 1 lead in the Washington Post on Feb. 18, 1906, the day after President Theodore Roosevelt's daughter got married in the White House. The next time you want to throw your shoe at a cable channel newscast, think about what the media used to be:

"The Alice Lee Roosevelt of twenty-four hours ago is now Mrs. Nicholas Longworth, the world has bestowed its benediction upon the happy bride and bridegroom, and has gone back to its work serenely content in the belief that this is, indeed, a blessed union of hearts and hands such as is possible nowhere more than in the United States, where women are queenly and every man is a king in the enjoyment of 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'

"The day on which the wedding of Theodore Roosevelt's daughter took place was heaven-made. Night's curtain melted under the early glints of gold low down in the east, there came a few moments of coloring such as sometimes marks the palette of a painter of pictures, and then the splendid burst of light as the sun climbed to its place in stately procession until it had reached its zenith and bestowed its full, voluptuous kiss upon the earth . . .

"In the splendid East Room of the White House a stately bishop of the high church had spoken the words which made a wife of the artless child of the nation. Yes, artless and free from guile as though she were a child of the plain instead of the daughter of the Chief Executive of the nation, and in no better manner could her sweet, democratic simplicity have been shown that when . . . she tripped down from the altar like a school girl. . . .

"Miss Roosevelt ... at all times ... has so borne herself ... that no ungenerous act or ill-considered utterance has ever caused her friends, the American people, to think less well of her. They have come to see in her the embodiment of those fine qualities which make the American woman superior to every other."

- Potomac Communications Group

Online Drive-Time: Catering to the Content Commuters

I attended the Platts 6th Annual Nuclear Energy Conference last week. While I was there, I had a conversation with a reporter friend of mine from the New York Times. We were talking about how and where different versions of his stories get published – print and online. He pointed out something that caught my attention. The Times has determined that their Web site has “four rush hours.”

Looking at web traffic patterns, they’ve apparently identified peak times during the day that large groups of users check their site:

• In the morning, when they arrive at the office
• Before heading out to lunch
• When they return from lunch
• Before they head home for the evening

As a result, the paper has developed (or evolved) an online editorial calendar of sorts that is radically different than the print model. The idea, of course, is to ensure that people see something new each time they check in. For the newsroom, this can raise questions about which versions of which stories go through which channels and when. About as confusing as rush hour here in D.C.!

We have gotten used to seeing more content online than in print. Many I talk to seem to think it’s because it’s so much quicker and easier – particularly for breaking news – to post news to the Web and to reporters’ blogs. But there could be other forces at work.

In times when newspaper payrolls are shrinking, this could mean that posting and updating stories online is less a function of the timeliness of the Web than an attempt to get maximum value out of the content newsrooms work to produce.

- Potomac Communications Group

Monday, February 22, 2010

Got a Presentation to Give? Get a Big Idea to Drive It

Last week’s Platts Nuclear Energy Conference here featured two solid days of speakers, many on highly technical topics such as financing new nuclear energy plants, design parameters for small nuclear plants and managing nuclear waste. Given the topics, it would have been easy for speakers to get lost in the technical details. And some did.

But the standout speakers focused on conveying just a few top-line messages in their talks, and the best of the best brought new ideas to the conference.

Concentric Energy Advisors CEO John Reed noted that unless the U.S. Department of Energy and financial markets become more open to granting loan guarantees and financing to merchant power generators, new nuclear energy plants will be built only in Southern “red” states that are served by regulated utilities. He called for actions that will provide competitive financing to merchant generators, which then can deliver clean nuclear energy to consumers throughout the nation. His visual support was just six easy-to-read slides – a huge contrast to other speakers in the session who used far more visuals, many of which were cluttered and unreadable.

Also on the topic of loan guarantees for new nuclear plants, Mike Wallace, Vice Chairman of Constellation Energy Group, recognized AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades President Mark Ayers and United Association President Bill Hite for their work in helping the guarantees become a reality. He said that without the loan guarantees that will jumpstart U.S. nuclear plant construction, U.S. manufacturers will hesitate to invest in the new manufacturing capacity and jobs for the thousands of components – from pumps to switchgear – that nuclear plants require.

NRG Energy’s president and CEO, David Crane, touted nuclear energy’s low and stable fuel cost as a significant advantage. He pointed out that a $10 billion nuclear power plant could run our plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) for about $.99 per gallon. He notably referred to nuclear energy as the methadone needed to wean us off fossil fuels.

What do all of these speakers have in common (other than their focus on nuclear energy)? Big ideas, articulated simply, compellingly and succinctly.

- Potomac Communications Group

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Marketing Energy Efficiency -- No Clear Answers

Energy efficiency is critical to our energy future. How to successfully develop policies and marketing strategies that promote efficiency to Americans is still a point of debate on day two of the National Electricity Forum in Washington D.C.

During multiple panels, speakers have pointed to a study by McKinsey consulting that suggests there is the potential to save more than a trillion dollars in savings from energy efficiency programs by 2020. There also seems to be broad agreement at the forum that energy efficiency should reduce energy consumption across the country by 10 to 20 percent during the same timeframe. Unfortunately, there seems to be little agreement about how we get there. Here are some quotes from this morning’s energy efficiency panel.

“We need more collaboration between the states and federal government to make energy efficiency work. States have been much more aggressive with energy efficiency and renewable portfolio standards.” Terry Boston, CEO PJM

“It’s really hard to get folks to do anything. We have price and information strategies, but they are not going to make a dent unless they are tied to complimentary policies.” John Savage, Commissioner Oregon Public Utility Commission

“What kind of energy efficiency can we expect without policies in place – the answer is very little. We have to figure out policies that look 10 years down the road so that our own short-term time horizons as individual actors don’t hinder energy efficiency.” Kathleen Hogan, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency, U.S. Department of Energy

In addition to the lack of a federal energy efficiency policy, several panel members discussed the need to clarify the end goal of energy efficiency suggesting that the approach is different for cost savings versus carbon reduction.

“A megawatt saved at four in the morning is very good for carbon policy, but it doesn’t necessarily save customers money,” said Joseph Kelliher, EVP for FPL Group, Inc.

For communicators, this discussion makes it clear that there is a more pressing need than ever to help shape policy messaging as the energy efficiency debate evolves. In addition, the ambitious education goals for energy efficiency are going to require a renewed effort by communicators to reach end users.

- Potomac Communications Group

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

2010 National Electricity Forum – Day 1

Increasing participation in electricity planning without harming electricity markets was a key focus of an early panel on day one of this year’s National Electricity Forum. The forum is a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Energy and NARUC.

The event features both industry representatives from the utilities and transmission owners, as well as officials who regulate these businesses at the state and federal level. This mixed crowd approaches the planning challenge from very different perspectives that can lead to vibrant discussion as they try to find middle ground. A good example was the following comment from Commissioner Lauren Azar of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission.

“We currently have been long on rhetoric and short on data when it comes to the planning for the nation’s interconnect system. I hope the people held accountable to the public interest will have a larger role in this process going forward.”

New England ISO President and CEO Gordon van Welie acknowledged that the planning process is less than perfect.

“Any plan you create on an interconnection-wide level is likely to be flawed from the beginning. My view is that you must start at a regional planning level and then build from there to interconnection wide plans.”

In response to Azar, Welie suggested that the goal of any cooperative effort must be more granular than just caring for public interest. He noted that there should be agreement about whether the goal is related to cost of electricity, carbon challenges or other factors that define the public interest.

Regardless the scenario, it is clear that the future of electricity planning is going to include even more stakeholder input and that means massive communications efforts from industry, regulators and other third parties like environmental groups and concerned citizens groups.

The panel is one of six touching on the theme of infrastructure for a clean energy economy. The forum runs through mid-afternoon on Thursday.

- Potomac Communications Group

Honoring the Best in American Journalism


For a profession under siege, journalism was alive and well last night as nearly 1,000 reporters, editors, producers, columnists, bloggers, public relations professionals and other communicators gathered in Washington to recognize and honor American journalism’s very best at the National Press Foundation’s annual awards dinner.

Honorees included 60 Minutes’ decades of incisive coverage (with the Sol Taishoff Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism) and Washington Post columnist Colby King’s columns on behalf of the dispossessed (with the Chairman’s Citation). I loved the stories about the late, great 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt. And Mr. King brought down the house when he noted that he and his wife were just glad to get out of the house after a week of being snowbound with their household of two sons, in-laws and four dogs.

The Detroit Free Press’s investigative work and editor Paul Anger’s success in keeping his newspaper relevant and extant in a city in an economic crisis yielded the Benjamin Bradlee Editor of the Year award and an impassioned, touching acceptance speech. The Denver Post’s Mike Keefe (Berryman Award for Editorial Cartoons) reminded the audience that editorial cartoons can be shocking as well as funny.

Cissy Baker, presenter of the Everett McKinley Dirksen awards for distinguished reporting of Congress, preceded the awards with a video of her grandfather (former Senate Minority Leader Dirksen) that is as entertaining and relevant today as it was sixty years ago. (Full disclosure: my grandmother was a huge fan.) The winners were CNN’s Brianna Keilar and AP’s Julie Hirschfield Davis.

Awards for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Bill Kovach of the Committee of Concerned Journalists for their work on journalistic integrity brought a more somber tone to the evening and highlighted the work of these two terrific groups.

For me, my colleagues and friends, the event was a wonderful chance to celebrate great journalists and contribute to the National Press Foundation’s wonderful educational programs and scholarships as we had a great time. PCG has contributed to the National Press Foundation’s annual awards dinner for more than 20 years.

- Potomac Communications Group

Friday, February 12, 2010

Our Favorite Neighborhood Restaurants


Enjoying the business of lunch is a PCG avocation, and we have more than a few great places in our West End neighborhood to justify a quick foodie tour of it. Here, then, are my Top 5 PCG lunch spots, in no particular order.

Jack’s Fresh – part of a chain, yes, but don’t forget that so are most of those steakhouses littering town. Jack’s is the source of some pretty great bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches in the morning, and even better grilled cheese for lunch.

Stick with: just about anything from the grill
Steer clear of: for me? Seafood. No way is that a good decision at a place where much of the food sits out all day on a buffet.

Famous Luigi’s – the unofficial PCG cafeteria, due to its Italian comfort food, amazing bread and great service.

Stick with: calzones and manicotti – there are other gems (the agnolotti with spinach and ricotta is a new favorite), but these two are the tops
Steer clear of: pizza – I’ve eaten enough of it working late in the office, but it’s heavy on the oil and the crust overdoes the buttery richness that has us demanding a bread basket the minute we sit down.

Vidalia – so much more than just onions. Rich, interesting takes on southern food are what this place is known for. Where Georgia Brown’s is low-country comfort food, Vidalia embraces the new south – elegant and if sometimes affected.

Stick with: the pecan pie. Rich enough to be a meal on its own; sweet enough to buy your dentist a new BMW.
Steer clear of: seafood. It’s not that the seafood is disappointing; it’s that the game, chops and steaks are so perfectly done, you’re missing out if you choose anything else.

The Palm – yeah, yeah, it’s a steakhouse. Bobby Van’s may have the lock on sides and the lobster at Smith and Wolenski is still a sight to see, but the steaks are better at The Palm than even the trendier places on the Hill.

Stick with: meat. Sorry, but this isn’t the place if you’re trying to wow your new vegan client.
Steer clear of: sides. I’m always disappointed here and wish I had just saved room for dessert.

West End Bistro – This place was hot in the office when it first opened, but has cooled considerably since. Despite that, the ingredients here were too fresh and the food too flavorful to leave it off. And every once-in-a-while, mega-chef Eric Ripert shows up.

Stick with: the burger is one of the best I’ve ever had.
Steer clear of: skate, but mostly for the presentation. All-brown plates don’t do much for me.

Honorable mention – Sam and Harry’s. My first “favorite place to eat in Washington” because this is where my wife and I went to celebrate our engagement. Remember, even the best meals don’t last very long, so the food will always taste better on the tip of your memory if you share it with someone special.

- Potomac Communications Group

Friday, February 5, 2010

Keep It Cognitively Fluent, Stupid


How many people come up with the right answer to this question:

“How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?”

It can depend, it turns out, on the type font that the question was written in.

The answer should be “zero,” of course – it was Noah on the Ark, not Moses. If you ask the question in an unfamiliar, difficult type font, more people will get the right answer than if it’s asked in a familiar, friendly font. An unfamiliar font makes people more wary, and gets them to think more critically, than a familiar one; with an easy, common font, people read right over “Moses” and fall into the trap.

For problem-solving, unfamiliar is better; but for marketing, friendly and familiar presentations are more effective.

That lesson comes from recent research on “cognitive fluency” – which measures “how easy it is to think about something.” This item by Drake Bennett on boston.com shows how marketers and communicators can use this research to help sell their products, or their ideas.

In brief, the main lesson seems a cliché: keep it simple and easy. That builds trust and likability. But many of the specific findings are not so obvious:

- People invest more in companies that have names that are easy to pronounce.

- Repeated exposure to unfamiliar words and images – even geometric patterns and foreign ideographs – makes them more likable and trusted than on first exposure.

- Students score better on tests that are presented in unfamiliar fonts.

- People are more forthcoming and honest in responding to questions in familiar, easy fonts; they are more cautious and secretive when answering questions in strange, possibly hostile type fonts.

Even rhetorical flourishes like rhyming words can have an impact. More people agree that “woes unite foes” than “woes unite enemies” – because the rhyming makes the statement easier to remember, more natural and seemingly more accurate.

A final point: If you want to feel better about yourself, your job or your marriage, start making a long list not of the strengths, but of the shortcomings. You’ll need to read the full article to understand. But it’s worth it.

- Potomac Communications Group.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Don’t Be Evil – the Long View on Reputation Management

No doubt Google gave careful consideration to potential fallout that the January 12th news of their plans to review their business operations in China might bring. Nonetheless, it took three weeks for signs that the tailspin was under control. Although the future of the company's Chinese business is anybody's guess, Google's on its way to a PR win.

Over recent weeks, commentators claimed Google's approach to China demonstrated their failure to understand both Chinese business culture and American audiences. Among bloggers, the company's public threat to withdraw from the Chinese market failed to acknowledge the impact on its users. Among analysts, it represented naivete over the Chinese government's willingness to make concessions.

Competitors exploited the news by citing hacking concerns as "a Google problem." They suggested Google was casting wide allegations to avert crisis within their own business. USA Today reported predictions that "Google's dead in China."

This week's announcement by Senator Dick Durbin breathes new life into the search giant's decision to no longer adhere to censorship rules and possibly pull out of China. "I commend Google for coming to the conclusion that cooperating with the ‘Great Firewall’ of China is inconsistent with their human rights responsibilities,” wrote Durbin. We'll hear more about this next month when Google testifies before his Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law. The hearing on global Internet freedom, in light of recent events, will reset Google's reputation on censorship and access.

In 2005, Google gave censorship of search results a "go" in order to launch Google.cn. At the time, they meekly insisted that "we aren't happy about what we had to do this week, and we hope that over time everyone in the world will come to enjoy full access to information." For all the drubbing they took then, Google is becoming a more positive example. - Potomac Communications Group

Monday, February 1, 2010

How Smart Are Americans About Politics?


What do Americans know about our demand for imported oil, the Senate legislative process or the number of women on the Supreme Court? Pew Research Center found out, in a recent survey. Most commentators use these numbers to argue that the public is naive or ignorant about current events; in fact, you could find it impressive that more than half know which country holds the most U.S. debt, how much imported oil we use, the number of women on SCOTUS, our unemployment rate and even the nation where the Christmas Day bomber was trained. (Of course, it's also true that more people could identify Stephen Colbert than Senator Harry Reid . . . ) But before you scoff, take the test yourself, here.
- Potomac Communications Group