Saturday, March 20, 2010

Basket Case

I took up snowshoeing this past winter. I'll never be mistaken for a backwoods trekker, but I have enjoyed some excursions around the fields and woods of Lackawanna State Park, which is just about 10 minutes from my home in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I started out with a borrowed pair of snowshoes and wound up buying my own. I even got my wife to join me on a few of these jaunts as the season wound down, and now we're planning to make it a habit come next winter.

We were both using hiking poles from Swiss Gear, one of the brand names of Wenger, N.A., the Swiss firm that makes the Swiss Army Knife. On one of those hikes, one of the snow baskets that were attached to my wife's poles worked its way loose and was lost. (The snow basket, for those not into snowshoeing, is a circular piece that can be attached to the bottom of the trekking pole so that the pole doesn't slide as deeply into the snow – sort of like a snowshoe for the pole itself.)

Since the stores that sell the poles don't carry any replacement snow baskets, I thought I'd chalk that one up as a "just have to do without." But I decided to contact Wenger itself. Using their email contact form, I simply asked if it would be possible to buy either a single replacement or set of snow baskets from them directly. I told them that I owned several of their items – backpack, waist pack, poles and, of course, two Swiss Army knives. I hit SEND on the form without much expectation.

I received a form email almost immediately saying that someone from Customer Service would be in touch in 48 hours – unless it was a weekend. Standard stuff, I thought. What I didn't expect was another email from Customer Service an hour later that said, "Good Morning Paul, I do have one basket here I can send out if you are interested. Please provide me your address and I will be happy to get this out to you right away. Thanks!"

The email wasn't signed, so I have no idea just which Customer Service person was responsible, but I replied with my address and thanked them. Several days later, I received a snow basket – it was actually a larger basket from a higher-end model that fit my pole – for even better snow-pushing action. From the look of the packaging, someone must have just had that basket sitting on a shelf and took it upon him or herself to send it out – in a heavily taped, regular business envelope. It was clearly an act of good customer relations that didn't go through the company's "official" handling and shipping channels.

I've always liked Wenger's Swiss Gear "stuff" – and now I've decided I like the company even more. It's easy to beef when a company messes things up; you wind up telling half the world. But I think the good experiences should get at least as much exposure as the bad ones. So to that unknown Customer Service representative at Wenger: Thanks very much. You really made a good impression and were a true ambassador for your company.

An interesting footnote: neither Wenger nor Swiss Gear seem to be on either Facebook or Twitter – I wonder why. Their Customer Service reps are certainly sociable.

FTC Disclaimer: Other than being the owner of several Wenger/Swiss Gear products as explained above – products I purchased from them – I have no business relationship with the company, nor do I receive compensation of any kind from them.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Redefining Toyota

So much has been written about Toyota and its travails; I won't analyze the company's missteps in handling the unintended acceleration issue other than to say that the situation has severely dented (if not crumpled) their reputation as a quality automaker.

I thought I came across the ultimate illustration of that damaged reputation while reading a New York Times article recently. The article was totally unrelated to Toyota or the auto industry. It was about the publication of a book, The Last Train from Hiroshima, by Charles Pellegrino. In his book, Pellegrino relates some fascinating revelations surrounding the watershed bombing flight that ushered in the atomic warfare era. Those revelations were based on the recollections of an airman, Joseph Fuoco, who purportedly flew on one of the observation planes as a last-minute replacement.

The only problem, say historians and family members of the flight crew, is that Fuoco never flew on the mission. Pellegrino now admits he was "probably duped" and plans to correct the paperback and other editions of the book. Being an avid reader of World War II history, I read through the full article until I came upon a description of the apparently-tainted book by an atomic historian. "This book is a Toyota," said Robert S. Norris, the author of "Racing for the Bomb" and an atomic historian. "The publisher should recall it, issue an apology and fix the parts that endanger the historical record."

There you have it: a new synonym for a fault, mistake, error: Toyota. Will it make it into the lexicon? The Toyota brand has certainly become a late-night punch line and the subject of faux ad slogans like Toyota: We're Unstoppable. Whether or not it also becomes a new way to describe bad products in general will be determined by the actions Toyota takes in the next few weeks and months to rescue its name. With the belated appearance of Akio Toyoda, the grandson of the company founder, a number of people raised the question why the company name is different from the family name. The Toyota web site says one of the factors in the change was that the number of strokes used to write "Toyota" in Japanese is eight, considered an auspicious or lucky number. Right now, the number that concerns Toyota most is 10 – which is how many percentage points Toyota sales in the U.S. fell in February amidst the sudden acceleration crisis.

An interesting side note on using car names to describe other products: in the current health care debate, politicians, pundits and the media alike all use one term to describe high-end or luxury health care plans: Cadillac – not Lexus, BMW or Mercedes. In spite of GM's woes, Cadillac apparently hasn't lost its ability to symbolize luxury.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

More or Less Social

I've been participating in the PR Student Chat, a monthly feature run by a great group of public relations professionals, educators and students on Twitter (Twitter hashtag: #prstudchat – a somewhat less than apt abbreviation, but that's Twitter for you).

I've "met" a number of folks via the chat, including Josh Morris, a senior at the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa and soon-to-be PR pro. Several of Josh's post-chat tweets intrigued me.

"What's more relevant these days: my real name or my Twitter handle? I'm tempted to include both on everything I do," Josh tweeted, followed shortly thereafter by "And trust me, more people know me by my Twitter handle than by my birth name. Is this where we're headed for good?

I wondered about those questions. Social media applications like Facebook and Twitter have certainly extended our social "range." Just a few clicks and I was part of a list of PR educators – a list that would have taken who-knows-how-long to assemble just a few years ago. But in our quest for more breadth on the social spectrum – following or friending more people, being followed or friended by more – are we sacrificing depth in those relationships, simply for lack of time? Are we now more social in theory and less social in practice?

In a way, I suppose this trend simply mirrors a slower evolution in media consumption habits over a generation or two. The lengthy newspaper piece that left you flipping to find the jump page gave way to the 90-second television news story that now gets repeated in the 30-second or less web clip. In the process, our understanding of key issues like the economy has increasingly narrowed to the width of a foot path – particularly among young people.

Is the same thing happening with social media? Will we "know" a greater number of people by their Twitter handle more so than their name, as Josh suggests? I would tend to agree. Whether that's good or bad for us remains to be seen. Josh, I'm glad to have met you. Someday I hope to shake your hand.

My thanks to Josh Morris for permission to quote his tweets. You can find him at @PRjoshmorris on Twitter or on his blog at

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Size Matters

I was recently stopped at a traffic light behind a Chevrolet Traverse, one of GM's newest entries in the increasingly-crowded crossover category. The Traverse, which was introduced in 2009, has had generally favorable, but not spectacular, reviews from the automotive press.

Sitting behind this Traverse in my Subaru Outback, I couldn't help but notice the size of the rear window on this vehicle, which is a mid-size crossover. The window was very small compared to the overall size of the vehicle and to top it off, the rear-window wiper was so small, it carved out a clearing I can only compare to the porthole on a battleship. With the recent snowfall in Northeastern Pennsylvania and the resulting road conditions, this porthole-sized opening was the only direct visual access out the rear window, since the rest was covered with road and storm slop. I don't know the exact specification for the wiper, but it looked about half the size of the 15-inch model that sweeps the rear window of my Outback.

"How on earth can that driver see out that tiny opening?" I thought. Yes, I know, there is a pair of side mirrors, but I would think being able to see clearly out the back window of such a larger vehicle might be important. The size of the window might matter if there's a small child behind the vehicle when someone's backing up their Traverse.

Apparently, I wasn't the only one to notice this fact, since the Associated Press noted in a review quoted on U.S. News & World Report's Rankings & Reviews web page, "I advise getting the rearview monitor because it's difficult for a driver to see what's going on at the back of the Traverse. This monitor does not substitute for a driver looking back there, but it provides extra help." (

There is an "ultrasonic rear parking assist" standard on most Traverse trim lines that alerts drivers to "certain stationary objects located behind the vehicle," that complements all the other modern safety features you'll find. But wouldn't a low-tech solution such as a larger rear window and a decent-sized wiper to help keep it clear do the job better?

Disclosure: I am not a professional auto reviewer, nor do I have any association with Chevrolet, GM, Subaru, Associated Press or U.S. News & World Report.

Friday, February 12, 2010

NEPA Memories

I was recently added to the blogroll at NEPA Blogs, "a clearinghouse providing links to blogs and other sites about Northeastern Pennsylvania or by people from Northeastern Pennsylvania." You'll find all kinds of great stuff there from a number of talented people, at

Although most of my current blogging involves public relations, advertising and language, I have a long-standing interest in history. I thought I'd mark my addition to NEPA Blogs with a few quick Northeastern Pennsylvania recollections from the early- and mid-1960s, times spent alongside my father.

I remember:

  • …walking from our home on Monroe Avenue in the Patch section of Dunmore down to the Catholic Youth Center (no car in those days) to see the University of Scranton basketball team play. The U of S played at the CYC prior to the opening of the Long Center on campus for the 1967-68 season. I remember one particular game there against arch-rival Kings College; a fight broke out in the stands and CYC officials were forced to halt the game and turn off all the lights in the place to get the fracas under control. (On the U of S web site basketball history section, the author mentions a fight outside the Long Center between Kings students and Scranton police due to an over-sold game, but I'm pretty sure the fight I remember was at the CYC.) It was certainly an intense rivalry. Of course, they had legitimate fights – boxing – at the CYC, to which my Uncle George took me during that same period.
  • …going to Schautz Stadium in Dunmore with my father during summers in that period to watch the fast-pitch softball, particularly the First National Bank of Dunmore team led by pitcher Paul Ross, a rather portly fellow with a wicked fastball. It was a great team and a great time. Every summer the softball legend Eddie Feigner made an appearance with his four-man team, "The King & His Court." In a 2007 obituary, the Washington Post acclaimed Feigner as "the greatest softball pitcher who ever lived."
  • …and swimming at Lake Lincoln, trying to find a patch of cool water amongst the hordes that descended during hot summer days when that great artificial lake was the only swimming game in town.

Again, thanks to the kind folks at NEPA Blogs for adding me to the roll. I'm sure I'll enjoy being part of this particular crowd and I hope the bloggers here find my scratchings interesting.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

What’s A “hers” Conference?

I went for my usual morning dip into the New York Times online edition yesterday and was immediately attracted to the news that Toyota's chief executive officer Akio Toyoda had finally made an appearance to explain what his company was doing to extricate itself from the public relations nightmare of its sudden acceleration problems.

I clicked on the link and began reading the lead: "The president of Toyota apologized at a hastily arranged hers conference Friday night for the quality problems that led to the recall…" (emphasis added). I read it again; my eyes aren't what they used to be, I thought. But there it was. I finished reading the story and sought the Comments button. Quoting the lead, I asked, "What's a "hers" conference? Is it anything like a news conference?"

To their credit, the editors at the Times shortly did their job a bit more thoroughly this time and changed it to news conference.

Everyone makes mistakes; that's why we have copy editors (or at least we used to). That function, sadly, has fallen into disrepair from a lack of practitioners as wave upon wave of layouts and buyouts sweeps over newspapers. Even with a full staff, this one's hard to swallow. It's the lead of a major story, not paragraph 10 of an inside page snoozer. And it's the New York Times, for God's sake. It would appear the editing was as "hastily arranged" as the news conference. Doesn't anyone actually read copy any longer?

Here's my theory on how the error occurred: on the keyboard, since "h" is immediately above and slightly to the left of "n" and "r" is to the right of "e" while "w" is to the left, it's just a case of Misguided Fingers, the bane of writers everywhere – particularly those on deadline. But that doesn't excuse the copy editing nonfeasance.

Since Akio Toyoda is a man, at least they could have called it a "his" conference.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Silence is not Golden

Earlier this month, New York Times writer Jim Dwyer did a piece on how H&M Clothing was shredding and disposing of clothes at its 34th Street store in the dead of winter rather than giving them to the less fortunate. Dwyer's Dickensian opening painted a vivid portrait of what seemed an uncaring corporation:

"In the bitter cold on Monday night, a man and woman picked apart a pyramid of clear trash bags, the discards of the HM clothing store that reigns in blazing plate-glass glory on 34th Street, just east of Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.

At the back entrance on 35th Street, awaiting trash haulers, were bags of garments that appear to have never been worn. And to make sure that they never would be worn or sold, someone had slashed most of them with box cutters or razors, a familiar sight outside H & M's back door. The man and woman were there to salvage what had not been destroyed."

Although Dwyer's piece went on to point out a similar situation at a nearby Wal-Mart, the striking association of H&M – a high-profile clothing retailer – with a unseemly practice is what stuck, particularly reinforced by the line the followed the description of H&M's clothing shredding: "It is winter. A third of the city is poor. And unworn clothing is being destroyed nightly."

Why did it happen? The Times was unable to find out before running the story, since a call to the H&M store manager was referred to corporate headquarters. From there, the inquiry apparently went black-hole, since 10 attempts from the Times by phone or email went unanswered.

Ten attempts?? One or even two I might understand; it was around the holidays, with people most likely taking vacation time. But ten? Clearly, I think the H&M corporate communications response mechanism was not working properly and they paid a price, most likely higher than any revenue lost by not selling the clothing.

Looking at H&M's web site, it appears the company is committed to socially-responsible business practices and is an active, involved corporate citizen that donates clothes regularly. The shredding may have been a misunderstanding, an aberration or just a plain old mistake. But none of that came across in the Times article because there was no response from the company. Silence was definitely not golden. (Note: according to the company web site, H&M's Corporate Social Responsibility Manager was on leave when the story broke.) I recall seeing a one-sentence reference to "We're investigating" coupled with a plea to re-tweet, but the damage was already done.

The Public Relations lesson here: always be sure your media response mechanism is in good working order, especially during times when staff might be short and particularly in this world of social-media driven conversations that extend the reach of news coverage. Respond immediately, even if you can't give complete details yet. Case in point: although I read the Times online regularly, I did not see this story the day it originally appeared. It was brought to my attention by two of my PR students whom I follow on Twitter.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

That's The Way It Wasn't

This past Sunday, Clark Hoyt, the public editor of the New York Times, wrote a column chronicling the "especially embarrassing correction" the Times had to make after publishing an appraisal of the late Walter Cronkite, the legendary CBS news anchor. The appraisal contained seven separate errors, which no doubt would have caused anguish to Mr. Cronkite, a person who built his career on precision and detail in his reporting.

The cause, Mr. Hoyt said, was inadequate editing of a piece written in haste by a "television critic with a history of errors." Errors can happen, even with a phalanx of editors who should catch them. People make mistakes. Throw in ever-present deadline pressures, poor communication and perhaps even recent newsroom cutbacks throughout the country and the error potential rises dramatically. The Times and the critic, Alessandra Stanley, both acknowledged responsibility for the shortcomings.

Two things trouble me about the incident. The first is that a number of editors (as Mr. Hoyt explains it) either missed the errors or in some instances compounded them. Once again, deadlines were partially blamed, but this type of piece should have been written, fact-checked and edited well before Mr. Cronkite's death. That it was not points to poor news management, which to me ranks equally in dishonor with the errors themselves.

What also bothers me is the seeming disconnect in Mr. Hoyt's description of Ms. Stanley. He initially notes her "history of errors," pointing out that she made so many errors in 2005 that the Times assigned her a single copy editor to check her facts. Then, a few paragraphs later, he says that she is "a prolific writer much admired by editors for the intellectual heft of her coverage of television." No disrespect intended to Ms. Stanley, but I have a difficult time reconciling "intellectual heft" with "history of errors," particularly for a journalist. That's like saying "I admire Dr. Stephen Hawking's intellectual heft in physics, but we have to keep telling him that two plus two is four, not five."

The Times has added an editor in the obituary department and Ms. Stanley is once again assigned special editing help. That's the way it is with journalism in the 21st century.

Note: I have edited and fact-checked the above piece. I hope it is error-free.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Low Birth Rate

With all the health care reform talk, I thought I'd add a personal perspective.

My mother, who turned 90 this year, always saved everything when it came to official paperwork (like many others of her generation). So I wasn't much surprised when she handed me what was clearly a decades-old piece of paper. "Take a look at this," she said, offering me a faded pink document.

It was the Member's Copy of a Blue Cross Statement of Account. It wasn't until I straightened out the creases and peered more intently that I saw the paper was a breakdown of the hospital charges for my birth -- March 19, 1952 (you do the math).

For Mom's stay in Ward 323, the hospital charged $53 for a seven-day stay -- three days at $7 per and the remaining four at $8 a day. I don't think moms get to stay that long with no complications, do they? Next we add in $10 for the delivery room charges and $7 for my board -- I didn't take up much space, I guess, so I got the $1 a day rate. Throw in $2.25 for drugs (today's paper dispensing cup costs more, I think) and $5 in lab costs and you get the grand total of $77.25 for my entrance into this world.

Now at the time, Blue Cross had a flat-rate maternity benefit in my parents' policy of $9.50 a day for 10 days maximum. That made for a benefit of $66.50 -- leaving my folks to come up with $10.75 if they wanted to take me home.

I realize you have to factor in inflation, but using the Inflation Calculator provided by the Federal government's Bureau of Labor Statistics (no pun intended) tells me that $77.25 translates to $628.77 in 2009. I think hospital maternity charges today are a whole lot higher than that.

So why have health care costs risen so much more than the general rate of inflation? Technology? Labor? Malpractice Insurance? Maybe it's paperwork. A New England Journal of Medicine study showed that U.S. health care paperwork cost almost $300 billion in 1999, and a Harvard/Public Citizen report noted that the U.S. health care bureaucracy in 2003 cost nearly $400 billion! What's it cost today -- half a trillion?

I wouldn't want to go back to the medical technology, salaries or other circumstances of the health care industry of 1952, but maybe if we went back to the paperwork system of that era, maybe we'd save a little money?

Handwritten at the bottom of my mother's Statement of Account were the words: "Paid 3/26/52" along with a signature. I think my mother kept the receipt as proof of payment to keep somebody from the hospital from showing up at her door demanding the return of the "goods" (me).

I'm officially worth just short of $11 -- or $78 if you take out the reimbursement. To Mom -- and Dad (10 years in heaven this fall) -- thanks for coming up with the cash. I hope I've been worth the investment.

Once The Teacher, Now The Student

The New York Times recently ran an article about a visit made by Chrysler executives to a Fiat plant in Tychy, Poland. Their purpose: to learn how to build small cars profitably.

It's one more sign of fading American influence in the global marketplace. Where once this country led and taught, now it follows and tries to learn from others with greater knowledge. How did it get this way?

For every industry, there's a different story, but for the auto industry, it would seem they arrived at this juncture through a combination of hubris, bad product management, misunderstanding consumer expectations and faulty labor policy.

Hubris? "Americans want big American cars," said the industry in the early 1970s, as the first gas crisis sent prices soaring and consumers scurrying to find models that could go further before pulling into another seemingly-endless gas station line. The domestic auto industry disparaged the small-car offerings of overseas makers: "Americans don't want to ride in kiddie cars with their knees in their ears."

Then something happened while those Americans were riding around in those kiddie cars with their knees in their ears. Not only did those cars spend more time on the road and less time in the gas lines, but they spent more time in their owner's driveway than in the repair shop. So when it came time to buy another car, those Americans opted more and more for imports. Better gas mileage, better reliability, better fit-and-finish made for happier owners -- and return customers.

The domestic automakers' share of the American marketplace began shrinking -- in the mid 60s, it was around 95%. By 1986, a little over 10 years after the first gas crisis, it was about 75%, which held roughly stable until 1995. Since then, the share picked up speed -- downhill. In 2007, it was barely 50%. The domestic automakers responded to their shrinking market share with a series of forgettable models and little appreciable improvement in quality. They still had the "slap more chrome on it and they'll buy it" mindset, seemingly unaware that the U.S. auto consumer was looking for quality and reliability along with stylishness. They were finding it "foreign" cars.

Now that the millenials are car buyers, the "buy American" marketing strategy, whether explicit or implicit, falls on deaf ears. To my students, "country-of-origin" means little if anything. Honda, Ford, Toyota, Chevy, Chrysler, Subaru -- they're all "cars" -- and besides, Hondas, Toyotas and Subarus are made in the U.S., anyway.

The domestic automakers claim to be burdened by higher labor costs and legacy health care obligations. While that's certainly true, and the state of the general economy pushed two of the used-to-be "Big Three" into bankruptcy, they're taking steps along with the UAW to bring those costs more in line with the reality of a global marketplace. Now if they would only do the same with the cars they make.

Did the Chrysler executives and engineers learn anything on their trip to Tychy? I guess we'll see -- down the road.

Note: after buying Ford/Mercury cars for 30 years, I crossed the line in 2007 to a Subaru Outback.