Saturday, May 31, 2008


Last week, I received a notice from a life insurance company. I’ve had a small policy with them since I was 18, purchased by my mother.

“Dear Policyholder,” it said, “we are pleased to share some new information concerning our company. [Our company] has been redomesticated from Illinois to Iowa.” It also advised me that an Endorsement was also enclosed detailing this “new” information. (Actually, the endorsement was on the back of the letter and the information was effective September 27 of last year, so calling it “new” is already a problem for me.)

Now what did that mean, I wondered? It sounded like a dog that had been a house pet and then had gone wild for a time and now was being “redomesticated” as a pet. No wonder they sent additional paper along with the notice – domesticating can be a messy business.

It turns out the company had moved its principal office from Chicago to Iowa, presumably to take advantage of some corporate tax or rate structure not available in Illinois. They hastened to add that their facility in Chicago would remain; it would now be the “Executive Office.”

Wouldn’t it have been simpler – and more understandable to the average consumer – to say, “We’ve moved our principal office to Iowa?” Or we’ve relocated? It almost sounds like they’re ashamed of the move. I’ve never been to Iowa, but from all I’ve read, it’s a nice place with lots of good, honest people. No need to hide anything.

Corporations move headquarters and other units like credit card and payment processing offices all the time, whenever less operating expenses resulting from lower labor, energy or tax costs can benefit their bottom line. Sometimes it was done to skirt existing regulations in seeking new markets. In Pennsylvania in the 1970s, the state had a law that said a bank could only open new offices in counties that were immediately adjacent to the county that contained its headquarters. Banks played musical offices in a valiant attempt to place their ”headquarters” – usually just a post office box or one-room office – where they could border the counties with the highest growth rates. But I don’t think they called it “redomesticating.” Those were simpler times, you know.

Recalling one of the biggest moves of that era, Citibank decided to relocate its credit card operation from New York to South Dakota – to take advantage of that state’s favorable interest rate laws. Can you imagine the head of the credit card operation being called into the CEO’s office and being told, “Congratulations, you’re getting new offices. They’re in South Dakota.” Now that’s redomestication!

P.S. My know-it-all spell checker in Microsoft Word 2003 has never heard of “redomesticated” or any of its allied forms. Maybe I should have written this entry on my other computer that has Word 2007. Then again…

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Don't Call It Advertising

I was going through some of my oldest files built up over 20 years of teaching public relations writing and case problems. I came across a newspaper ad I thought I had lost; I’m glad I found it.

“Don’t call it advertising” was the headline; the ad ran on November 9, 1994, the day after the mid-term elections and was signed by Ketchum Advertising, one of the country’s major advertising agencies of that period.

Jerry Della Femina, who holds legendary creative status in the industry, wrote the copy. In it, he highlighted several of the more egregious negative political commercials in what he termed “one of the dirtiest elections in the history of this century.”

“This is filth,” the copy read, “political filth that is not advertising and shouldn’t be dignified by being called advertising.” Ketchum called on people in advertising, broadcasting, publishing and business to “stand up together and say ‘Stop.’ Stop the character assassination. Stop the lies. Stop the ugliness. And, above all, stop calling what you’re doing advertising.”

The ad implored the broadcasting and publishing communities to hold political advertising to the same standards as commercial advertising, noting that if a corporation ran ads akin to political ads, its executives would face fines and jail, hounded by the same politicians whose ads made up that year’s political filth. The ad also asked ordinary citizens to urge politicians to rein in the ugly negative ads.

It’s now 14 years later and, unfortunately, not much has changed. Most political campaigns and the ads that support them are negative, containing much of the same dirt that Ketchum’s ad decried in 1994. Why did Ketchum’s plea for change go unheeded? Because negative political ads work – “attack ads” by individual candidates or 527 groups, whether local, regional or national, make an impact, or so at least some of the research tells us.

They also foster another other outcome – voter disgust and disillusionment with the electoral system As I’ve said in class, using two students as candidates, “If Mandy and Amanda are running against each other, and Mandy’s ads call Amanda a crook, while Amanda’s ads call Mandy an idiot, eventually the voter targeted by these assaults comes to a conclusion: Let’s see; I have a choice between a crook and an idiot. I think I’ll stay home.” The result: some of the lowest overall voter turnouts of any democracy in the world.

Because it works, negative political campaigning and paid media will no doubt continue. But let’s repeat the plea: Don’t Call It Advertising.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Cut It Out!

I’m teaching a class in public relations writing this semester. As I’ve found with most college students, the one thing usually common to their writing is that it’s cluttered.

I’ve tried several methods to get them to pare their verbiage. I’ve pointed out examples in their writing as to how they can use fewer words and actually strengthen their sentences.

I’ve quoted from such noted writing teachers as Williams Zinnser and Roy Peter Clark, showing them how to keep the word count down. As Zinnser notes, don’t say “At the present time, we are experiencing precipitation” when you mean “it’s raining.”

I even recalled a college journalism professor of mine (a sportswriter, no less), who advised us one day that one of the most expressive sentences ever written was also one of the shortest: “Jesus wept.” (John 13:31).

The other day, I tried another tack. “You all text message your friends,” I said. “You don’t waste words there, do you?” They all agreed that needless words had no place in that medium. So I asked them to write with a text-message perspective – make every word count. If a word’s not pulling its weight, cut it out. You’ll be surprised how much excess you can trim, I said.

I think they may be getting the message. One thing I did not ask them to do was to fill their papers with text or instant messaging acronyms and emoticons. Those are already everywhere in abundance – with billions of BTWs, LOLs and ROTFLs traversing the spectrum daily. In fact, I suppose, those acronyms may someday become standard language. It could be coming, but if it does, I hope I’m LB&P – long boxed and planted.

Cheaper By The Pound

I’ve been looking through some back copies of The Public Relations Strategist, the quarterly publication of the Public Relations Society of America. I’m a member of PRSA and the faculty advisor for the student chapter of the organization at the university where I teach part-time.

One article I came across bemoaned the fact that public relations was becoming “commoditized,” that is, being seen by corporate executives as something you can buy like paper clips, as the article said “…ordered in volume and chopped in price.” The author expressed concern that this vision of public relations as a commodity was a new and growing trend.

Growing it may be; new it is not. I worked for an advertising and public relations agency for two decades beginning in 1974 and, even then, PR (and advertising as well) was being seen as a commodity that you could buy like a carton of paper. I remember this line from an annual report of a client of ours: “[The category] Other Expenses rose due to increases in office supplies, advertising and postage.” It’s always nice to be lumped in with the paper clips and stamps.

I’ll never forget a story that my boss told me about the time he got an inquiry from a local attorney about helping that attorney’s client with a “PR problem.”

I’m just paraphrasing, but here’s the gist: the attorney calls my boss and says (“in that stentorian voice of his”, according to my boss), “Bill, I have a client I think you know. We’ve helped him with some legal issues, but I believe as a result of those issues, he has a PR problem. Can you tell me, how much would a little PR cost?”

My boss said he thought for a few seconds and replied: “Well, counselor. I’m not sure. How much does a little law cost?”

I don’t think the attorney was pleased. But as public relations professionals, neither should we be pleased when someone asks how much “a little PR” costs. Maybe we should say, “It’s on special this week; cheaper by the pound.”