Thursday, April 30, 2009

Did Bacteria Invent Communications?

Communications may be a fundamental principle of life. At least, that’s one of the big ideas I took away from Bonnie Bassler’s TED talk a few months ago.

A brilliant molecular biologist at Princeton University,
Dr. Bassler studies how bacteria use chemical signals to communicate with each another, enabling them to act in concert to mount attacks and coordinate defense.

This behavior — called “quorum sensing,” or bacterial communication — used to be considered a rare phenomenon. Dr. Bassler contends that nearly all bacteria do it and most do it all the time. These tiny single-celled organisms can distinguish between their own and other species, “speaking” one language within their own species and communicating with other bacteria in an interspecies language, like a form of “bacterial Esperanto.”

The pharmaceutical industry is paying careful attention to her work, since Dr. Bassler’s discoveries suggest the possibility of a new generation of antibiotics that work by interfering with the communication among pathogenic (bad) bacteria … especially resistant strains.

I have to confess, however, that as a public relations consultant, what moved me most was the notion that communicating is as natural — and fundamental — as eating, breathing or reproducing. In fact, the impulse to communicate may be hardwired in virtually every living thing.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Believe Me, It Was High-Tech in Its Time

One of my guilty pleasures is’s “Today in History” feature; and I was pleased to see, at the end of last month, an acknowledgement of the important advance in technology pioneered by Hymen Lipman of Philadelphia. On March 30, 1858, Lipman was issued a patent for his breakthrough concept: attaching a piece of rubber inside one end of a pencil to serve as an eraser.

(Regrettably, 17 years later, the U.S. Supreme Court would revoke the patent, ruling that “a pencil with an eraser is just a pencil with an eraser and not a new invention.” Churlish of them, in my opinion.)

According to the Chicago Tribune, the U.S. is the single largest market for wood-encased pencils today … in part, because it is the instrument-of-choice when it comes to solving Sudoku and crossword puzzles. It’s also immensely useful in all of the communications professions … but especially public relations and journalism. Unlike a pen, a pencil never leaks, surprises you by running out of ink or freezes in cold weather. Despite its many virtues, however, I know people who haven’t written anything with pencil — let alone erased it — for years now.

At the risk of sounding like Andy Rooney, I have to say that I have nothing but pity for my colleagues who were born into a high-tech universe in which the delete button is sufficient to their needs.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

When You’re Dealing with a “Toxic” Brand

Gawker recently published a memo from AIG Corporate Security outlining “certain protective measures all employees can take in order to increase their overall safety and security.” The #1 measure? Don’t showcase the AIG logo.

A few days later, the insurance giant removed its corporate logo from one of its New York buildings, replacing AIG with AIU. In Nashville, an AIG subsidiary was renamed American General Life and Accident (AGLA).

"Moving to a brand that the company built its reputation on and that doesn't immediately bring to mind AIG certainly helps with new business sales," said Shayna Schulz, an AIG spokesperson.


A strong brand — including the corporate name and logo — is an essential element of a company’s public face. Lots of brands weighed down with negative attributes reinvented themselves, including Enron (renamed CrossCountry), Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), WorldCom (MCI) and Philip Morris (Altria). The time has come for AIG to begin to distance its insurance businesses from the financial products unit that helped tank the company and the economy. It’s time for AIG to shape its new corporate identity.

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Monday, April 6, 2009

A Green Lining in a Big Grey Cloud?

I just read a story designed to gladden the hearts of everyone with an interest in environmentalism, sustainability or living green. In 2008 — at least in part as a result of the economic meltdown and volatile fuel prices — U.S. public transit ridership reached its highest levels ever in 52 years: nearly 11 billion trips. What’s more, for 2008 as a whole, the total number of miles driven dropped nearly 4% — almost 108 billion fewer miles than in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Despite falling gas prices, many people are sticking with public transportation to save money, according to Rosemary Sheridan, vice president at the American Public Transportation Association. However, the "doomsday budget” recently passed by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) probably didn’t figure in Ms. Sheridan’s prediction. MTA will be raising fares significantly, while scaling way back on services … a move that’s making millions of New York commuters unhappy and threatening our dainty carbon footprint.

Bummer! To paraphrase the lyrics of one of the greatest songs by one of the greatest rock bands ever: It looks like “every silver lining’s got a touch of grey.” We’ve got to get ourselves back to the green.

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