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Responding to al-Qaeda PR – Sept 11 Memories September 11, 2006

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Even though I was just a young girl, to this day I remember where I was when President Kennedy was shot.  The same is true for the Loma Prieta earthquake.  And, for September 11

A gilfriend called, sobbing so hard I could barely understand her.  When I finally could understand and turned on the TV, it was so unbelievable – we were just in horror for all those poor people. 

What I found so detestable, was that this wide-scale murder was being  “promoted” as our “just desserts” for US policy in the Middle East by various and sundry, and those who carried out the massacre of innocents were being hailed (in some quarters) as “martyrs” for God (Allah) on a Jihad – or “struggle” on behalf of Islam

I’ll also never forget the incredible outpouring of patriotism – there were signs and flags everywhere. I brought our local fire department cookies (in addition to donations) – just to reach out and let them know how much we appreciated what they do for others every day and to leave condolences for the brave men and women who gave their lives in an attempt to save others. 

One of our favorite Mexican restaurants, Casa Lupe, in downtown Mountain View, insisted on giving free lunches that day.  I spoke with the young owner who said to me, “This country has been good to us, it is our way of paying a little back.”  That brought tears to our eyes.

It was a day of shock and tears.  And disbelief that anyone could be so evil.  The act was condemned worldwide and the US was the recipient of unprecedented sympathy and love.

I was pretty sure the US would go to war – how could it not respond to this act of war against ordinary people just going to work?  So, I understood clearing al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but I was not so sure about Iraq.

In my opinion, the US and its allies had contained Saddam Hussein.  I remember some prety heated arguments, but from what I knew of contemporary Islam, the only outcome that I saw was civil war and expansion by Iran.  History will judge, but the suffering of the Iraqi people, and those Westerners who have been kidnapped and brutally killed, is also a horror and shocking.

The US is now being assailed by critics on all sides.  Against our policies in the Middle East.  Against the Iraq war.  Against our secularism, which is seen by the religious in the Middle East as immoral, wicked and ungodly. 

Yet, America is one of the most religious countries in the world.  While Europeans have become more secular in their personal lives, Americans have become more religious and observant

Thus, we should be able to find common ground with Muslims. We hold many similar values: family, education, helping those in need and taking our faith seriously. 

So, here we are, five years later, and what has the US accomplished in the PR wars against this enemy?  Myself and others feel that the US has not done a good job of countering al-Qaeda’s media campaign.

Web sites, cassette tapes, videos and using the new 24-hour Arab news channels, such as Al-Arabiya and Al-Jezeera, are the ways that “jihadis” communicate with their base, as well as with the US. 

They send their messages direct – no chance for reporters to ask pesky questions (in fact, they’ve been killing both Western and Muslim reporters at an alarming rate).  And, they and their allies have managed to make the Middle East so unsafe for non-Mulsims, that charities cannot work there and thus show people a different face to the one they imagine we all have.

This is not an easy problem.  But, what could US PR experts do?  Following are some recommendations:

1.  Cultivate al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera – offer academics (no politicians) and other Americans looking to establish good relations with Muslims for business, education or other opportunities.

2.  Send ordinary, religious Americans to mosques throughout the US, to take courses and also to hold talks on the values we share, and, let’s be honest, where we differ.

3.  Muslim women, despite much silly reporting, are well-educated, professional and have a great deal of influence.  Connect professional non-Muslim women with Muslim women on shared issues of concern.

4.  Let the Muslim world see a different face of America – not the “usual suspects.”

So, how can this be done?

1.  A soap opera series whose characters reflect religious values from different faiths, and where we can showcase our values of tolerance, religious freedom and why separation of church and state is a good thing.  This can be shown over satellite TV and distributed through tapes and videos.

2.  Celebrate achievements of American Muslims in the professions, charities and arts and sciences through awards and interviews and school curriculum.

3.  Develop a centralized site of milblogs and other blogs so those in the Middle East can get another perspective from ordinary people caught up in all this.  Must be moderated, so hate-mongers can’t participate.

4.  Develop a chat show where issues can be discussed.

5.  Develop a web site where ordinary Americans can post photos and videos about life in the USA (has to be family-safe).

6.  Develop conferences that bring together business women from the Middle East with those from America & the West.

7.  Work with and support legitimate Muslim charities.

8.  Get to know the Arab and Persian press, as PR people typically do for the US press.  Send them news and stories that are true – do NOT try and plant false stories.  Support the papers with ads.

9.  Own up when America acts in contradiction to its values.  Promote through various media why secular democracies are guardians of religious freedom, and why pluralism is good for all.

10.  Establish US home famillies for Muslim students who want to study in the US for a year or two – high school, perhaps.

And, of course, ask American Muslims to participate on a PR advisory council.

God bless everyone, on a day that is a sad one for America.  Let us also remember that we have no lock on suffering.  Islam is a religion of justice, let’s demonstrate our better qualities – tolerance, charity, love of family & faith and sacrifice.

Pretexting to Gain Reporters’ Phone Records – Scandal at H-P September 8, 2006

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This has been breaking for a few days.  It appears that in order to track a purported leak to news media by someone on Hewlett-Packard Co.’s board, the chairwomen initiated an investigation, without the board’s knowledge. 

As embarrassing and bad as that is, apparently in the investigation process, outside investigators used “pretexting” to gain access to board members’ private phone numbers.  Even worse, this was done to a number of journalists, who were so informed today.

Pretexing is so new, there are various comments about how to prosecute for it in the articles on the H-P situation.  Here is an explanation from the Federal Trade Commission:

The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act prohibits “pretexting,” the use of false pretenses, including fraudulent statements and impersonation, to obtain consumers’ personal financial information, such as bank balances. This law also prohibits the knowing solicitation of others to engage in pretexting. The Commission has been active in bringing cases to halt the operations of companies and individuals that allegedly practice pretexting and sell consumers’ financial information.

For a fuller explanation of pretexting, how to protect yourself against it, and what to do if you suspect you are a victim, please click here.

To see the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act: Subtitle B – Fraudulent Access to Financial Information, the law that prohibits pretexting, click here.

You may find additional information about the Commission’s efforts to stop pretexting by reading our press releases, or reviewing our reports & testimony.

With the media as victims, here’s hoping that heads will roll.  We cannot lose confidentiality of journalist sources and to see this at one of most revered tech companies, is disappointing to say the least.  Not good business.  And not good PR.  It will be interesting to see how H-P responds and what it communicates.  Currently, it is communicating that it finds this distressful – but what actions will be taken?  And, where is the moral compass for those in high positions?  Think, people!!

Responding to al-Qaeda’s PR to America September 7, 2006

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As discussed in the previous post, al-Qaeda’s latest PR salvo appeared to be aimed at Americans.  What would be a useful, true and effective PR response?

First of all, we, like them, have multiple audiences to address.  In my humble opinion (IMHO), the US government has not been sufficiently sophisticated in its responses.  Looking at this from a PR challenge perspective, here are some of the issues that I see.

1.  al-Qaeda uses a direct-to viewer approach – its communications do not go through a sceptical and educated press that we (thankfully!) have in the US.

2.  They use religious formulae that position them as pious – our press is generally hostile to fundamentalism in religion and wouldn’t respond well to our government using evangelical Christian terminology (thank goodness!).

3.  They clearly are following our media and blogs – our responses appear to come without any understanding of their world.  (BTW, the $20 million PR contract that the adminsitration has put out for bid for a PR firm to track Arab and Persian press seems like pork and I doubt will be worth tax payer dollars – let our intelligence services hire some savvy PR people to analyze what I hope they are already doing – heck, just get a clipping service, it’s a lot less than $20M!)

4.  Our responses sound like a broken record – they seem to come up with new ways of saying what they’ve said before, which makes it appear new or different, while we seem stuck in platitudes that opinion polls show aren’t working domestically, not to mention having any effect on America’s sinking reputation abroad.

PR cannot fix what isn’t so.  America had the high ground after September 11th, which the war in Iraq and the Israeli incursions into Gaza and Lebanon have sunk.  America is also a secular (thank goodness!) democracy – with a belief in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and not becoming martyrs for God (Allah) – which I say in all seriousness.  (BTW, the Greek word “martyr” known from its use in the New Testament, actually means a “witness.”  Because the early Christians were so terribly persecuted by the Romans, the word for “witness” became associated with suffering or death cause by the demonstration of one’s faith in The Way, or, as it became known, Christianity.)

Next entry, I’ll propose some PR responses that America could make that I believe are both true and would be effective. 

Deconstructing al-Qaeda’s PR to America September 4, 2006

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A new video tape from al-Qaeda showcasing an American convert was released over the Labor Day weekend warning America and Western Civilization of its imminent doom. 

Titled “An Invitation to Islam”, the video was a 45-minute sermon and harrangue, and the 2nd time “Azzam the American” (or Adam Gadahn from California) has been given air time by al-Qaeda. Previously, he was used to accuse Americans of war crimes and to justify the unjustifiable London subway bombings.

As a PR pro, and trained in Islamic Studies, I listened with fascination at this latest PR salvo from an organization (and an ideology) with whom we are at war. 

It received the usual condemnation from westerners in the media and blogosphere, as well as US Muslims – but what is missing is a non-emotional analysis of this PR strategy from both an Islamic and PR perspective.

In analyzing this piece of propaganda, I am using similar techniques used to analyze PR from client competitors. What I am writng, of course, is speculation on my part, but speculation tempered by years of study of Islam as well as the practice of PR.

1.  What were some of the main themes?

a.  Islam is the last, best and only true religion. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh=peace be upon him) was the last and greatest of the human prophets that God (Allah) sent from Abraham through Jesus. Your sacred books (Tanakh and The New Testament) have been corrupted, only the Qur’an is Allah’s true revelation. (Note: so far, this is mainstream belief.)

You (the West) have dared to insult Allah, and His last revelation to mankind, as found in the Qur’an and in the words and deeds (or sunna) of His prophet. Thus you are the enemies of Allah and will be destoyed in this world as well as punished in the next (through the ever-lasting hell fire).

b.  In Islam there is no separation of church and state, therefore we don’t want your democracy and immorality (aka personal freedom) – we are living under God’s law – called sharia (with the implication that those  of us living in, and fighting for, secular democracies are sinners deserving of death and the hell fire – Islam believes in both a Paradise and an ever-lasting punishment in the fires of hell for the wicked).

c.  Your leaders are only using you and don’t care about you (comment: a ploy used by kidnappers to break the captured’s will). 

d.  America is evil – look at its crimes – from the destruction of the Native Americans to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We are on the moral high ground, we are victims of your actions. we are justified in this jihad (Holy War) against you.  We seek justice – you represent injustice.

e.  Join the winning side – so that you will not face destruction in this life and the next.  Even the worst of you will be hailed as “brothers.”

f.  Allah calls us to destroy pagans and infidels.  Do not believe in interpretations that say that “the people of the book” (ahl al-kitab), i.e., Jews and Christians (the “book” = the Bible), are immune from wrath.  No, they are the enemies of Allah.  Christians are not true monotheists – because Allah has no partner – thus a belief in the Trinity is polytheism.  (Note: placing Jews & Christian in the category of infidels is deviation from mainstream Islam.)

g.  You do not bother to understand us, but we spend much time understanding you (he quotes passages from the Jewish/Christian Bible and mentions US anti-terrorism specialists, as well as satellite evangelists).  You also don’t playfair – anti-Semitism is condemed, but we can’t question “historical” events (ie the Holocaust).  You don’t shed a tear over the deaths of Muslims – only over your people.  You support dictators who are oppressing us, while preaching democracy (OK – that was the only fair point I heard made).

h.  We give you a choice – convert to Islam and find Paradise or face destruction here and eternal torment in the life to come.

2.  Are there any clues here?

a.  They want to impact American public opinion and weaken our resolve.  That being the case, they are feeling the heat.

b.  They are justifying their horrendous acts of barbarity against ordinary people to the Muslim world by claiming they are only killing infidels and doing the will of Allah.  Which means they are losing support for their beheadings and bombings. 

c.  They are taking the moral high ground for their base, by seming to be “inviting” infidels  – and they get to decide who that is (BTW that’s all of us – Christian, Jew, Shi’ite Mulsim, non-salafi Sunni Muslims, Hindu, Buddhist, Wicca and so on) to join them in the true religion.  Thus, coming across as caring for us, when, in fact, their aim is to destoy us, our secular democracies and impose salafi sharia law worldwide.

3.  They are positioning America and the West as corrupt, sinful, infidels, enemies of Allah (God), unjust and criminal.  This is black & white: good vs. evil and we’ve been positioned as evil. Such ridiculous stark terms won’t be believed – they are sounding desperate.

3.  Who is the audience?

Their audience appears to be: (a) their salifi base; (b) Americans who are (sorry to say) naive enough to think that by changing what we do, they will moderate; (c) those in the media and academia who question America’s values and this struggle, and who throw doubt on the reliability of the Judeo-Christian scriptures through “text criticism” (try that with the Qur’an and you’ll be under a death decree); (d) people curious about Islam and who might even convert and (e) Americans fighting in this war on terror, whom they hope to frighten and discourage.

4.  What is their aim?

Pure speculation, but am guessing it is an attempt to weaken western resolve, give a “caring” American face to what is basically a call to convert or die/be punished forever, shore up its image as freedom fighters for Allah vs. barbaric terrorists who will stop at nothing to impose salafi sharia law worldwide, and position America and the western secular democracies as the bad guys so that anything done to Americans and all “infidels” (that is, whomever they torture & kill) is justifiable to their base (justice being a huge value for Muslims).

In future posts, I will explore America’s current response, and recommendations for more effective outreach.  We are dealing with a highy educated and sophisticated enemy – American PR can be no less.

“Web 2.0” Startups & PR Today September 1, 2006

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In a conversation today, the talk turned to the PR success of eBay, Google and Craig’s List, as models for a new web company starting today.  This led me thinking about comparing an online startup today to those who launched over 10 years ago.  Building a business and a brand is not magic, and entails a lot of hard work and dedication by many, many people over a period of some years.

Just because one considers oneself a “Web 2.0” company, doesn’t mean private jets and islands are around the corner.  (Nor did adding a dot com after one’s name ensure success in our infamous dot com boom and bust era – for some reason, people threw out the essentials of what makes a successful business during those heady times – namely, the need to make profits!)

It reminds me of the phenomenon in the film industry, when an actor becomes hailed as “an overnight success.”  Just as with tech companies, this is a wonderful myth. 

Dig a bit deeper into  the history of “overnight successes” whether actors or companies, and one is sure to find many years of hard work and exceptional dedication.

The “Web 2.0” companies we now see as successful, have histories that are not always apparent.  Great PR is done by an invisible hand.  In other words, while insiders know what it took to get to a desired level of visibility, credibility and users, it often looks like “instant success” on the outside. 

However, just as with new web startups, PR today is tracking the changes in the tech marketplace as a whole. 

Company blogs, tech camps, search engine optimization, podcasts and one’s web site(s) are now important PR tools, along with leveraging high-profile events and partners, building thought leadership recognition and developing champions among industry influencers and stakeholders. 

And yet, users – and media/bloggers’ – expectations in 2006 are far higher than when Google, eBay and Craig’s List started some ten years ago. (I think that much of this due to loss of faith in so many things in life – not just the dot com bust, but also the lack of integrity exhibited in too many places that as young people we are taught to revere and trust.)

What I found interesting about the conversation today, is that it hadn’t changed from similar ones I’ve been in since I began in PR.  Forexample, people seem to think that “media access” is some magical thing.  The truth is that anyone can call anyone in the media or send them an email.  Thus, simply having access to the media is not the problem for most companies.  It’s what is communicated and how it is communicated that makes all the difference. 

For a new web company launching today, the media and user climate is skeptical (i.e. tends not to trust easily), jaded, doesn’t want a sales pitch, expects the PR people to be market and technology savvy, wants community input/controls (vs. from the company) and expects an efficient, yet personal, user experience to be delivered and at low cost. 

In all of this expectation and skepticism, however, is an idealism – and if the founders have that and the company really exhibits it – than that is refreshing to us all.

A new web startup doesn’t have to be perfect or have all the answers when it launches – that would not be realistic or credible.  It does need to widen its horizons beyond a few insiders or the founding team.

For example, I believe that allowing select media, bloggers, and other influential market experts, along with an early adopter user group, to provide feedback and support in the early stages of a startup’s development can be invaluable for future PR and market success. 

All startups believe in what they are doing.  The successful ones also listen to what those outside of the company have to say (of course, they don’t always have to take it!).

I have rarely seen a company fail due to technology.  For tech or web startups who desire success — it is the users’ experience, along with the PR and marketing that makes or breaks – for it is great  PR and marketing, along with great technology, that draws users to a site and brings them back.

Couric loses 20 pounds in CBS Photo August 30, 2006

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In yet another photo retouching scandal, CBS slimmed down news anchor-to-be, Katie Couric, by some 20 pounds in a newly released PR photo.  CBS made light of it, but this comes back to an issue of trust and integrity from a news source.

Are news anchors “spokesmodels” or journalists?  I keep hoping for a backlash against the ageism and always-28 syndrome that the media and fashion industries seem determined to put on women.

As noted in the Washington Post: “Couric debuts in the anchor’s chair Sept. 5. CBS has spent millions on marketing to prepare viewers for her arrival.”

Are we now so image and celebrity-obsessed that even the non-tabloid media is willing to risk it all on a phony PhotoShopped image of the new anchor for a major broadcast network?

Of course, it’s “all about the Benjamins” – aka advertising dollars and bottom-line revenue for CBS.  I expect to see the tabloids go to town on this with a series on Couric’s weight – which trivializes her as a professional news person.

Maybe there is no more news on broadcast TV – maybe it’s all just a front for marketing, ad dollars and revenue, in this case, for CBS’ owner, Viacom.

Reports of the Death of the Press Release Greatly Exaggerated? August 30, 2006

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As noted in the previous post – there is currently much discussion about the fate of the PR staple: the news release or press release. 

Longer approval cycles due to corporate control designed to reduce legal liabilities and increase brand equity, are holding up product and company news that is coming at a faster rate.  With time-to-introduction so reduced, it is getting harder to schedule a release for a certain date and then back up for pre-promotion, so the media aren’t getting old news or news thrust upon them without time to react.

Yet, the amount of news release volume seems to be exponentially increasing for a number of reasons:

1.  SEO links back to one’s web site

2.  Company web sites becoming self-publishing information sites that require fresh news

3.  Web sites that aggregate daily news

4.  The growth in low-cost web-based news distribution services

5.  The demand by upper management for quantifiable results (“we want to see 20% more news announcements than last quarter” – I’ve heard that more than once)

6.  Online access to virtually any journalist or blogger

and other factors.

Yet, as innundated as the media are with news releases, they often rely on them.  One week pre-promotion time is about as much as PRs are going to get, so we make the most of it. 

Large enterprises with major PR budgets (40k/month and up) can afford to hire large PR firms who can put a team of people on to alerting media to future announcements, along with information or access beyond the release itself. 

Start-ups, non-profits or emerging growth companies are often better off with a smaller, more strategic boutique PR firm (a category in which Agora falls) or single experienced PR contractor who can alert a smaller group of influential media, bloggers, pundits and industry analysts, that can achieve corp PR goals while remaining within a much smaller budget.

We’ll continue to discuss this. 

Whither the Press Release? August 26, 2006

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Is the staple of the high-tech PR profession, the news release, seeing its glory days behind it?  There are now forums discussing the death of the release – yet, with what will it be replaced? 

Old world – months to prepare a news launch and PR materials: data sheet, customer quotes, etc., brief the industry analysts, brief the monthlies, brief the weeklies, brief the dailies, brief AP or Reuters then put it out over Business Wire or PR Newswire.

New world – instant publication on the web – no lead times.

I need to finish this after Sabbath – so come back for more.

Today I posted my blog on BlogHer August 24, 2006

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My client and mentor in Web 2.0 marketing, Ed Prentice the CEO of TeleVoce, told me about the site: BlogHer, which is a wonderful aggregate of blogs by women on dozens of topics.  They had a conference which I was sorry to miss – 300 women bloggers – a sold out crowd, but it I hope to make the BlogHer Business conference in March at NYC in 2007.

Speaking of women’s blogs.  My 19-year old grandson, Gregory (my husband’s grandson, but he has lived with us on and off since he was seven, so he is flesh & blood to me), was bored, he told me.  So he went to iTunes, under podcasts, and searched for “wtf,” hoping someone had blogged on “what the ^%$!” which he expected to be a collection of random thoughts; and instead came to a blog that said, “No, this isn’t a what the #$^@! blog, it is Women Trying to Figure it Out! One disappointed grandson.

I’m excited to be a part of the BlogHer community and invite everyone to give them a view at http://www.blogher.org.

Who Do You Believe? Me or Your Lying Eyes? August 14, 2006

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This title is the punchline to a joke my husband told me.  I won’t repeat it here, but it made me think of the brouhaha around doctored Reuters photos vis-a-vis the war in Lebanon. (Link to play a video by supporters of Israel that embellishes the original story broken by the blog: Little Green Footballs.)

Beyond the tragedy of war and so much suffering on all sides – this news story brings up some issues about maintaining integrity in news reporting and news promotion.

We live in a time of instant communication – and pictures are probably the most powerful communication vehicle of all.  A picture is visceral, provides a reality check to the text one is reading, and has the capability of adding credibility to a product launch, gravitas to an executive or hip personality to a company depending on how it has itself photographed.

Because of the desktop tools we have today, such as PhotoShop, it has become easier and easier to doctor photos.  I have heard that some fashion photographers have to add flesh on models so thin they are unattractive (except as walking clothes hangers – and here I digress – when did it happen that women needed to change their bodies to fit clothes?? – being slender and healthy is one thing – making oneself ill or hating how one looks is something else). 

In the same way, there are times when magazines will doctor a female actor or model’s bust or stomach – creating unrealistic images that are factors in causing low self-esteem and serious eating disorders among younger and younger girls. 

So, we in the marketing profession have an obligation not to present false images, I believe. Yet where is the line between using the photographer’s (& stylist’s & make-up & hair artists’) skills to make a compelling – or unusual – image and creating a false image that is intended to deceive?

More Magazine has taken this on – they worked with Jamie Lee Curtis to show a 40-something woman’s body as it is – and while she is healthy and exercises – as she said – she’s no longer 21.   It was a bold move and one which won kudos for both Jamie Lee Curtis and the magazine.

The truth is – almost all images for publicity or marketing purposes are retouched.  Why is this done?  For legitimate to crossing the line reasons. 

In my opinion. legitimate reasons include: to correct something that wasn’t captured quite right in the photography process, to add an artistic background or to remove glare from someone’s eyeglasses.  In other words, the image processing is not an intent to deceive.

Reputable news organizations, because they have so much influence, have no choice but to take strong measures against those who would “doctor” a news photo, as has apparently been happening more often these days.

I love fashion photography and arty corporate background shots.  They are leading-edge, can quickly convey marketing messages and are often stunning – and, nine times out of ten, heavily edited (the equivalent of “retouching” or “air brushing”). 

It can be a challenge for us in the electronics world of semiconductors, or VoIP services that don’t lend themselves to interesting photography, to come up with visuals. 

That is why many of us are looking to add animated characters to our web sites and HTML emails – or find images that present an illustration. 

One image we developed for our client, TeleVoce, I love – and I realize I am somewhat biased here! It is the image my partner developed that illustrates the tagline “teaching old phones new tricks.”  We paid for the rights of a dog stock photo, that we have named “Sebastian” after our Australian Shepherd who looks quite similar, and ‘PhotoShopped’ the image so the dog has old-style phone handsets in its mouth – it was a huge draw as our booth graphic at CES and we’re using it on TeleVoce’s e*commerce web site and other promotional materials – this kind of imaginative use of photography it both challenging and fun when you get it right!

While a picture may be worth a thousand words, sometimes, illustrations and animation can express what a still image cannot.  Next post, we’l look at how and why people are using animated characters to increase sales, “buzz” and customer retention.