Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Spokesman Who Wasn't There: Joe Thornton, deputy secretary for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, was there (as in on site, answering reporters' phone calls) during the mine disatser, but he wasn't there (as in quoted in news stories) when reporters wrote their erroneous stories. Why not? Thornton thinks he knows why: "I imagine that I wasn't quoted in more places because I wouldn't confirm or deny," he tells Editor & Publisher.

The E&P story seems to raise as many questions as it answers. Thornton says he answered about 100 phone calls from reporters and says he told them all the same thing: "We are hearing that 12 miners were found alive--but that has not been confirmed." But Thornton was quoted by name in only one major story, a New York Times piece by James Dao, which says Thornton "said the miners were being examined at the mine shortly before midnight and would soon be taken to nearby hospitals."
Shop Your Politics: BuyBlue.org has been around for a while, but it seems to have made a major push this holiday season, reaching out to liberal bloggers and getting more attention than in the past. The site is designed for progressives and provides them with an opportunity to assess the politics and social responsibility activities of companies before purchasing their products or services.

Companies are rated on five critera--labor and human rights, the environment, employment quality, corporate and social responsibility, and industry practices--with ratings ranging from deep blue (progressive) to deep red (profoundly evil). The companies' political donations are also tracked.

I figured I'd check out one of the companies I do an obscene amount of business with: Amazon.com. I've always assumed Amazon was a fairly progressive company, but it gets a red circle for labor and human rights (click on it, and it links to three articles that detail the company's fight against labor unions) that's party balanced by a blue circle for social responsibility (which links to stories about its support for tsunami relief efforts and other charities). But Amazon also gives the majority of its political cash to Republicans.

So maybe I should be giving my money to Barnes & Noble instead. Barnes & Noble--which I've always thought of as more "corporate" (whatever that means) than Amazon--actually gets blue ratings for both employment equality (there's an article about domestic partner benefits, among others) and social responsibility. And it gives most of its money to Democrats.

I might do a little more research, but I feel a lot less positive about Amazon than I did an hour ago. And I'll use BuyBlue again, as much as a source of data for my research as for shopping decisions.

(Of course, there's no reason why Republicans shouldn't use the site too: they could use the ratings to find companies that treat their employees like crap, despoil the environment, and discriminate against women and minorities.)

Friday, January 06, 2006

Truth Squad: Scott over at Media Orchard is taking nominations for his Top 10 Moments in Public Honesty for 2005-6. Thinking about it for 10 minutes made me realize how much easier it is to come up with lists of blunders, crises, and unethical behavior. So give him a hand.
When Good Software Goes Bad: Even I feel a little sorry for Wal-Mart over this little snafu, because you know some rabble-rouser is going to try to score points by claiming it's all a sinister racist corporate plot.
Dumb Political Quote of the Week: Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) putting the Abramoff scandal into its proper context: "I wish it hadn't happened because it's not going to help us keep our majority."
Magnetic Hokum: Here's a big surprise: "Magnetic bracelets" and other "therapeutic devices," supposed to cure conditions ranging from back pain to cancer, have no proven benefits, according to a U.S. research team. I've always assumed these bracelets were bought by the same people who send money to Nigerian e-mail scammers, but the BBC article says it's a $1 billion (with a B) business.
"Would You Call That Generous?": International Coal Group owner Wilbur Ross was interviewed on ABC's PrimeTime Live last night, and let's just say he won't be keeping the recording on his TiVo to show proudly to his friends and family. From the transcript:

BRIAN ROSS (ABC NEWS): As the families in West Virginia prepare to bury their dead and figure out how to survive, they got word that the company was going to set up a fund for them. And how much has your company put in?
WILBUR ROSS: $2 million. We put the first...
BRIAN ROSS: $2 million?
WILBUR ROSS: And we’re also...
BRIAN ROSS: Now, let me ask you. You’re a billionaire by all accounts. How did you come up with a figure of $2 million? It seems, with all due respect, sir, sort of cheap.
WILBUR ROSS: Well, the board had a meeting. We decided that we would put the first $2 million into the fund and to try to raise more money to help the workers.
BRIAN ROSS: In West Virginia today, some called Mr. Ross’
offer of charity too little and too late.
LOCAL RESIDENT (FEMALE): $2 million between 13 men, that’s not a lot, no.
LOCAL RESIDENT (MALE): It’s easy to throw a couple million afterwards instead of spending a few million ahead of time to save the men’s lives in the first place.
BRIAN ROSS: Wilbur Ross, whose recent lavish wedding was the talk of New York society, says he hopes Americans will give generously to the miners, although he admitted to us he’s yet to give a dollar of his own money. Have you personally put any money in?
WILBUR ROSS: We own about a third of the company, and we will decide what to do about a personal contribution as we see what comes in from outside.
BRIAN ROSS: As the chairman, would you call that generous?
WILBUR ROSS: We think it’s a good start toward helping the people.
LOCAL RESIDENT (FEMALE): This is West Virginia. People, you know, here care. Money isn’t everything, you know. Money is nothing.
CHRIS CUOMO (ABC NEWS): Brian Ross, thank you. We should say the exact cause of the explosion and the mine’s collapse is still being investigated. Some of the miners’ relatives are already considering a lawsuit.

Ross didn't appear to be ready for the question about a personal donation, which was not exactly unpredictable, and his answer didn't seem to convince anyone.

But I'm more interested in the $2 million figure from the company, which works out at $166,000 per dead miner. How do companies decide what's appropriate in these situations? Is there an actuarial chart? Do they benchmark against what other companies have done in the past? Or do the board directors sit around and ask each other, "What's the least we can give without being called cheap?"

Anyway, I can't help thinking that one way or another the families of those who died are going to get a lot more out of Wilbur Ross's deep but extremely well-guarded pockets that $166,000 each.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

So Much for the Religious Right Making Nice with Israel: It's hard to image Pat Robertson's credibility diminishing any further than it already has, but you have to give him points for trying. According to the evangelist, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine punishment for "dividing God's land."
Better Late Than Never?: Chris Atkins, who heads the global corporate practice at Ogilvy PR, draws my attention to the fact that International Coal has updated its website with a statement on the Sago disaster and information about how to donate to the disaster fund. "Too little, too late," he says.
Wal-Mart and Quality Don't Mix: Fast Company has a fascinating article about "The Man Who Said No to Wal-Mart," Jim Wier, CEO of lawn-equipment manufacturer Simplicity. (Readers of my PR Week column will know that I have an almost irrational dislike of the Bentonville-based retail behemoth.)

The article recounts Wier's visit to Wal-Mart headquarters on an unusual mission: to persuade Wal-Mart that it should sell less of his product. Most manufacturers, of course, go there with the opposite objective in mind. Wier felt that the price-conscious superstore was the wrong venue for his high-quality Snapper mowers. In fact, "he looked into a future of supplying lawn mowers and snow blowers to Wal-Mart and saw a whirlpool of lower prices, collapsing profitability, offshore manufacturing, and the gradual but irresistible corrosion of the very qualities for which Snapper was known. Jim Wier looked into the future and saw a death spiral."

His worst suspicions were presumably confirmed when the Wal-Mart executive with whom he was meeting made a suggestion: "Snapper is the sort of high-quality nameplate, like Levi Strauss, that Wal-Mart hopes can ultimately make it more Target-like. He suggested that Snapper find a lower-cost contract manufacturer. He suggested producing a separate, lesser-quality line with the Snapper nameplate just for Wal-Mart. Just like Levi did."

So Wier said no to Wal-Mart. He admits he sometimes second-guesses that decision: "I could go to my grave, and my tombstone could say, 'Here lies the dumbest CEO ever to live. He chose not to sell to Wal-Mart.'" Let's hope he's remember more for his integrity and his commitment to quality.
Rumors Run Rampant: Ernie Landante uses the West Virginia mine disaster as an excuse to revisit an article by Helio Fred Garcia that proposes a scientific approach to rumor management. According to Garcia--who sometimes seems to me to be too smart for his chosen business--"there's a formula that describes how rumors work and that provides a very useful tool for understanding how to kill false rumors and how to diminish the damage caused by true or partially true rumors."
A Different View: Mediaphile Peter Himler has a different take on the role and responsibility of newspapers in the West Virginia mining tragedy. "Should we blame the messenger? I don't think so."
It's a Supply Chain Issue: Len Downie, executive editor of the The Washington Post, apparently disagrees with WaPo columnist Howie Kurtz (below). "Our story was a reflection of what was being said at the time," he tells USA Today. "I don't regard it as our error, but as an error by the people in charge of the rescue."

If you'll forgive me a brief digression: British Airways found itself caught up in a nasty labor dispute this past summer, one that grounded flights for a couple of days and meant no meals on BA flights for several weeks (no great hardship). The problem wasn't at BA itself, but with one of its suppliers, Gate Gourmet. Should BA have taken the position that since "it wasn't our error, but an error by out supplier" and refused to apologize to its customers? If it had taken that position, would editors like Downie applauded it for its integrity or accused it of failing in its responsibility to customers.

The Post now finds itself in an analagous situation: one of its suppliers (or perhaps several) screwed up. They delivered faulty information. The Post passed that information along to its readers. But it chose the supplier, and so it's responsible when that choice turned out to be a bad one. It owes its readers an apology.
A Media Debacle: The Washington Post's Howie Kurtz has it about right, I think:
Sure, the bum information came from West Virginia's governor, and the coal company shamefully refused to correct the record for hours. But the fault lies with the journalists for not instinctively understanding that early, fragmentary information in times of crisis is often wrong. You don't broadcast or publish
until it's absolutely nailed down, or at least you hedge the report six ways to Sunday. This was, quite simply, a media debacle, born of news organizations' feverish need to breathlessly report each development 30 seconds ahead of their competitors.

Most of the erroneous stories (including the Post's) cited no source for their claims that the miners were alive. A semi-honorable semi-exception was The New York Times, with its "12 Miners Are Found Alive, Family Members Say" headline.
Op-Ed Columnists with Conflicts: Doug Bandow was caught up in the Abramoff scandal in a minor way when it became known that he had accepted payments from the disgraced GOP lobbyist to write columns on issues of interest to Abramoff or his clients. He lost his newspaper column and his position with the Cato Institute, and in his farewell piece he offers up not so much an apology as a meditation on the almost omnipresent potential for conflicts or interest in the punditry profession.

The ethical boundaries in all this aren't always obvious. Virtually everyone I worked with or wrote for had an ax to grind....
Who decides whether such a potential conflict is sufficiently
direct to matter? In 1987, I was paid to help a presidential candidate develop a plan to privatize Social Security. Does that mean I can never have a legitimate opinion on the issue or that politician ever again? And what is an aspiring ideologue to do if he believes something in principle and the person or group
willing to offer support to write about it has an economic interest in the outcome?

I don't think that's a particularly difficult dilemma. The answer to that question and others Bandow poses in his column is transparency. Let your readers decide. If you write about Social Security, tell them how much you received from which candidate and when. If you accepted cash from Abramoff to write about one of his clients, tell your readers. The marketplace will soon tell you if you crossed some sort of ethical or credibility line.

(Actually, your conscience will tell you first: if the payment is something you'd be embarrassed to put in a disclaimer at the end of an article--and the Abramoff payments must have fallen under that heading--you've probably become a whore.)
Is Your iPod Making You Deaf?: This story is getting quite a bit of play in the U.K., and will probably jump the pond. It looks more like a fad than a real issue to me, but it's worth keeping an ear to the ground.
How Steve Jobs Puts on a Show: According to The Guardian: "If the chief executive of Cadbury-Schweppes speaks at a conference, or Nike's boss introduces a new kind of trainer, you might expect to see it covered in specialist magazines, then quickly forgotten. But on Tuesday a chief executive will stand up and announce something, and within minutes it will be scrutinised across the web and on stockbrokers' computers. It will be in newspapers. They'll talk about it for months."

This article by Mike Evangelist makes it clear what goes into making a Steve Jobs show such a hit.
A Textbook Lesson...: In how not to handle a crisis is Michael Kempner's characteristically uncompromising assessment of the Sago Mine disaster. "In a field where tragic events such as this are a known quantity, it is unfathomable that they were not more prepared to handle both the rescue and the communications with the public, and most importantly, the families."

Steve Cody is equally unimpressed. "A painful example of the need for all organizations to prepare for different types of crises by doing advance simulations and to be sure the correct policies and procedures are in place before the next big one hits."
Business Storm-Proofing: I had missed this article by Leslie Gaines-Ross in The Wall Street Journal, until she linked to it from her blog.

Why did I miss it? I have to admit that since I started spending more and more time in Europe, The Journal has fallen lower and lower down my must-read list. I much prefer The Financial Times, which I think is better written, more thoughtful, and closer philosophically and politically to my own worldview. The FT understands that business exists to make society better; the Journal seems to believe that society exists to make businessmen richer.
Did the Bush Administration Spy on Kerry PR Man?: There's an interesting buzz in the liberal blogosphere right now about a question posed by NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell to New York Times reporter James Risen, who broke the warrentless wiretapping story and whose book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration is among Amazon's top 20 best-selling books. The blogosphere being what it is, this could be a storm in a teacup or the beginning of the tsunami. But it is interesting.

The initial transcript of Mitchell's interview with Risen included the following exchange.

Mitchell: Do you have any information about reporters being swept up in this net?
Risen: No, I don't. It's not clear to me. That's one of the questions we'll have to look into the future. Were there abuses of this program or not? I don't know the answer to that
Mitchell: You don't have any information, for instance, that a very prominent journalist, Christiane Amanpour, might have been eavesdropped upon?
Risen: No, no I hadn't heard that.
NBC has now removed the reference to Amanpour from the transcript, but says the possible use of a wiretap on her phone is "a topic on which we had not completed our reporting," which suggests an ongoing investigation.

The fact that the Bush administration might have been eavesdropping on a prominent reporter is troubling. But not as troubling as the fact that it might also have listened in on the phone conversations of her husband, James Rubin, a public relations executive who used to work at M&A specialist Brunswick Group but is probably better known as a senior aide to President Clinton and foreign policy advisor to Senator John Kerry during his presidential campaign against President Bush.
A Reporter's Notes: Responding to the post below, Andrew drew my attention to this reporter's account of his experiences in the West Virginia town where the mine explosion occurred.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Anatomy of a PR Nightmare: The New York Times has what appears to be a definitive timeline that explains the disastrous miscommunication about the West Virginia mine disaster.

At 11:45 p.m. last night, [International Coal Group CEO Bennett Hatfield] said, the mine rescue center received a report that 12 miners were alive. At 12:18 a.m., the rescue center received a report that the rescue workers and the "survivors" were leaving the area where they had been found.
"Company officials at the mine did not release any statements at this time," Mr. Hatfield said. "However, we were aware that numerous cell phone calls from a number of mine rescue workers and jubilant employees were made to family members and others upon receipt of this uplifting report."
At 12:30 a.m., when the rescue teams were at a place where they could breathe fresh air, "the mine command center was informed that there appeared to be only one survivor and that the others showed no vital signs... The immediate reaction in the command center was that this report of only one survivor may be erroneous," he said....
He said that at 1:38 a.m. four additional rescue teams were dispatched along with emergency medical technicians to attend to the other miners. "Company and state officials did not believe it was prudent to issue a statement to family or the media without concrete information as to the actual status of the miners," he said.
At approximately 2 a.m., Mr. Hatfield said, "within minutes of learning that the initial reports were incorrect, state police officers were notified and asked to notify clergy that the initial reports may have been too optimistic."
He said that only some of the families were reached by those clergy.
The mine rescue teams were debriefed, "and company, state and federal officials became more convinced that the others were deceased."
By 2:30 a.m., he said, the company decided to announce the "devastating news," and "in keeping with our commitment, we went first to the church to tell the families, and then from there to the media center."
"We made what we believed to be the best decisions based on the information available while working under extreme stress and physical exhaustion," he said.
"We sincerely regret the manner in which the events unfolded early this morning."

I'm not sure this entirely absolves the company of blame, but it does put a human face on the decision-making process.

There are still some tough questions to be answered, many of which are raised by Kevin Drum in an item that examines how mine safety regulations have been relaxed under the current administration, and others of which can be found in the Charlie Cray piece at the Huffington Post, referenced below.
The Well is Dry: This Huffington Post item suggests International Coal Group might not have much to draw on if it needs to go to its reservoir of goodwill.
Not So Fine: In his Fine on Media column, BusinessWeek's Jon Fine comments on the appointment of Richard Zannino as chief executive of Dow Jones and dismisses concerns that he is the first non-journalist CEO in the company's history as "the sort of thing only journalists care about." Which means that in this case, it's "sort of thing only the company's emloyees care about." Which ought to be a consideration, at least.
This is Why You Should Never Listen to Lawyers: People have always said nasty things about corporations, particularly former employees. In the past, they said them to friends and family, or after one too many in the neighborhood bar. Now they say them on the Internet in chat rooms. Sometimes the things they say are pretty mean and hurful, and mostly the listeners take them with a pinch of salt--which is what the companies in question should do too.

But Juniper Networks didn't like it when people said unpleasant things about it--"this is a very unethical company"--at a telecom website called lightreading.com. So it's suing for libel, BusinessWeek reports.

What are the likely consequences: a major waste of shareholders' assets; a wider audience for the negative remarks--instead of a couple of dozen message board devotees, they will now be read by tens of thousands of BusinessWeek subscribers; a reputation for bullying; and the suspicion that the company wouldn't be doing this if it didn't have something to hide. And Juniper will lose the case, because proving material damages will be almost impossible.
Dewey Defeats Truman: An e-mail from my friend Tom Martin, head of corporate communications at ITT Industries:

I will be very interested in your reaction,and that of your readers, to the USA Today decision to run the "12 Miners Found Alive" banner headline. I'm not sure this ran in all editions, but it did in the one I received in White Plains. It raises obvious implications on the reporting and editorial side of the story, but it also raises questions on the publishing side. Presumably the publishers learned of the real news prior to the papers being delivered. Should they have taken actions to stop the deliveries in markets where it was too late to correct the story? Anyway, I'm sure there are many questions being addressed in USA Today's office in lightof the tragic outcome. How could the reporter on the scene file this report if there was any question about the true condition of thevictims? What was used as confirmation to the editors, etc?"

The New York Post and the Daily News both ran with identical one-word banner headlines--"Alive"--and I'm guessing there were others around the country who jumped the gun.

It seems to me that this is an inevitable consequence of clunky old media trying to compete with new real-time media. There's no time to confirm the story if you want to make the early edition, and you know it's going to be all over CNN and the blogosphere, so you make the editorial decision to go with an unconfirmed story. Personally, I don't think immediacy is the territory on which mainstream media should be competing, but old habits die hard and new pressures are clearly leading to lower standards.

Staci Kramer at media blog Trust but Verify says:

At some point, the media covering this story needs to look inward and consider the contribution journalists made to the spread of inaccurate reports. We all make mistakes... most of us, if not all, likely have repeated inaccurate information because it came from a reliable source. But we can--and should--take responsibility for what we report and how we report it... I'm not suggesting this coverage was based on reliable sources; the sourcing and decision-making is unclear at this point. The AP's reporting certainly contributed to some of the coverage but that doesn't explain why so many journalists at what had become a major media event went with what appears to be hearsay instead of waiting for official confirmation....The temptation to believe in miracles can't be underestimated. Neither can group-think. I hope I would have been skeptical."

Greg Mitchell at Editor & Publisher sums up: "It is unclear why the media carried the news without proper sourcing. Some reports claim the early reports spread via cell phones and when loved ones started celebrating most in the media simply joined in." If that's true, it's a pretty sorry reflection on reporting standards.

As for the publishing decision, the decision not to stop the presses or recall what was clearly a faulty product, I suspect the decision--like too many taken by big media conglomerates--reflected short-term financial considerations rather than long-term credibility concerns. Big media companies are run just like any other business, except that when it comes to public relations and corporate reputation they're less sophisticated and far less savvy.

Mining Company's Low Profile: A quick visit to International Coal Group's website provides some insight into the company's philosophy about communication. There's no mention of the mining disaster, no statement of corporate sympathy. Nor is there anything about the company's social responsibility activities (enter "responsibility" in the search box and you get a very telling "0 hits found message.") Nothing about company values, or environmental health and safety policies.

Even finding the site is a challenge: enter the company name into Google and you have to scroll quite a way down the page to find the company site.
Mining Disaster: This AP report in The New York Times makes things look a little worse for International Coal Group (see post immediately below this one), which appears to have handled a difficult situation badly, and its aftermath too.

It now seems that the company was aware that relatives were celebrating the (inaccurate) news that their loved ones had survived, and did nothing to correct the misinformation, at least for several hours. The article quotes the CEO, Ben Hatfield: ''Let's put this in perspective. Who do I tell not to celebrate? I didn't know if there were 12 or 1 (who were alive).'' I'm not suggesting that Hatfield needed to get that specific, but he might have warned the families as a group that their joy was premature.

Then there's this quote from the son of one of the dead miners: ''There was no apology. There was no nothing. It was immediately out the door."

Again, emotions run high during an incident like this one and people are looking for someone to blame. I have no way of knowing whether the company's announcement was sufficient in either content or tone. But this has the potential to turn into a major crisis, and lawsuits seem almost inevitable. The worst thing the company could do now is listen to lawyers advising "no comment," because it needs to get control of the reputation crisis before thinking about the legal problem.
Tragic Miscommunication: It's going to take a while to sort through what happened in West Virginia, where families were initially told that the 12 miners trapped a mile beneath the ground since Monday morning had survived--only to be informed three hours later that all but one had perished.

This Sploid article reads almost like an Onion parody of sensationalistic reporting, but it may be a harbinger for the kind of questions PR people at the International Coal Group will have to face about the "miscommunication" that raised the hopes of the now grieving families.

Other stories suggest that ICG never told relatives that the miners were alive: that the company misunderstood the communication from rescue workers and that someone overhead cellphone calls and began to spread the good news prematurely.

However this shakes out, it clearly speaks to the importance of keeping tight controls over information during an ongoing crisis.
America's Most-Hated Companies: The Economist (sub req'd) seeks to provide an alternative to those pervasive "most-admired" lists with a look at the most villified corporations that provides an amusing history of the troubled relationship between big business and ordinary citizens. Historical claimaints to the title of most-hated company in America include the First Bank of the United States, Standard Oil, Dow Chemical, and "big tobacco." Modern candidates include Enron, Microsoft, and Wal-Mart.

"A straw poll by Fred Bateman, a professor of economics at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business, brings us to the present. He asked three classes in economics, about 100 students in all, which company they thought was the most hated in America. They almost all said Wal-Mart."

But as the article points out, "Wal-Mart is loved at least as much as it is hated, often by the same people. You can hate its market power while loving its low prices, though these are two sides of the same coin."

The conclusion:

"Americans are generally accepting of big business, but only so long as they feel in control of it, as citizens or as consumers. They lose that sense when a company wins a monopoly for its products, or when it comes busting into a community and displacing local commerce, or when its officers break the law. When that happens, they are disproportionately shocked and hostile, because they see it as a violation both of the natural order of things, and of their trust. But so long as that does not happen, business can get on with its job of making and selling things, almost whatever they may be."
Toxic Publicity?: The Newark Star-Ledger profiles Michael Turner, a public affairs executive at MWW Group, the state's largest PR firm, who specializes in environmental issues management. Author Alexander Lane opens with the line "If builders and polluters are on the dark side of New Jersey's environmental wars,"--an assumption never challenged once throughout the entire article--"Michael Turner is Darth Vader."

There's undoubtedly an interesting story to be written about the tactics employed by industry and its critics during a high-profile environmental battle, but that story would be a lot more nuanced than this lazy effort, which starts with the premise that the world is divided neatly into good guys and bad guys and the author intuitively recognizes which are which. So we get Turner's critics describing him as "more or less a mercenary" and "very pushy, very aggressive, and very arrogant," but can't cite (or weren't asked to) a single instance in which he had done anything unethical or said anything untruthful on behalf of his clients.

In the end, this is the kind of profile that tells you more about its author and his prejudices than about its subject.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Barbie is Innocent!: I guess we can all sleep a little easier now we know Barbie was not in fact promoting bisexuality or encouraging support for the transgendered agenda.

"'This was just an innocent oversight,' says Lauren Bruksch, a spokeswoman for Mattel. As a rule of thumb, Bruksch said, the questionnaires at barbie.com always try to have a neutral answer or nonresponse option. For gender, this third option should have been 'I don't want to say,' rather than 'I don't know.' The Web site has since been fixed."
Can Advertising Make You Thin?: The L.A. Times has a pretty interesting in-depth look at a new social marketing campaign--developed by advertising agency McCann Erickson--designed to encourage Americans to get out of the house, start exercising, and shed some pounds.

The article focuses on the lessons social marketers have learned from other recent efforts, especially various anti-tobacco campaigns. But the Truth campaign in particular works by telling kids that the sneaky, manipulative tobacco industry is out to get them and that refusing to buy the tobacco line is a form of rebellion. The "Small Steps" campaign conscientiously avoids blaming anyone (fast food company, soda makers, etc.) for the obesity epidemic -- just one factor than makes its success more problematic.
Music to My Ears: Looks like the the Recording Industry Association of America's efforts to prevent people from downloading its products are finally beginning to pay off.
Has Your Telephone Company Been Spying On You?: A lot has been written about how much damage the domestic spying scandal could do the Bush administration, but I haven't seen much about the potential fallout for the telphone companies who apparently co-operated in a massive data-mining operation.

This Slate article not only provides an interesting examination of what makes the Bush administration's warrantless wire-tapping exceptional in American history, but also some valuable background on the involvement of the telphone companies.

"Since 9/11, leading telecommunications companies 'have been storing information on calling patterns and giving it to the federal government to aid in tracking possible terrorists.' Citing current and former government and corporate officials, the Times reported that the companies have granted the NSA access to their all-important switches, the hubs through which colossal volumes of voice calls and data transmissions move every second. A former telecom executive told us that efforts to obtain call details go back to early 2001, predating the 9/11 attacks and the president's now celebrated secret executive order. The source, who asked not to be identified so as not to out his former company, reports that the NSA approached U.S. carriers and asked for their cooperation in a 'data-mining' operation, which might eventually cull 'millions' of individual calls and e-mails."
The telephone companies should be bracing themselves for some PR blowback on this. I assume that the phone companies' defense will be that it would have been unpatriotic to deny a request from the NSA (I'd argue the opposite: that it was unpatriotic to comply). But the questions are coming.

I can't be the only one who would like to know whether my telephone company helped the NSA spy on me (I fit the profile: I make a lot of overseas calls, and because I've written numerous stories about Iraq, I'm sure I've mentioned Al-Qaeda and even made some pretty derogatory comments about the current administration during those calls.)

I'd also like to know if there's anything I can do about it. Changing phone companies seems impractical, because the Slate article seems to suggest that they are all implicated. But if all this turns out to have been illegal (and it almost certainly was), can I sue my phone company?
Paying Journalists is Wrong on Ethical and Pragmatic Grounds: Retired army public affairs specialist Charles Krohn launches a spirited defense of efforts by the Pentagon to buy favorable coverage in Iraq, in a Baltimore Sun column that ran under the headline "Paying foreign media makes sense if it helps us win the war."

I'll get back to what I consider to be a mighty big "if" in a minute, because we can deal with the ethical aspect of this first. The only reason to buy editorial coverage (rather than ad space) is because editorial coverage is inherently more credible. The intention is to deceive people into believing you earned coverage, when in fact you bought it.

Moreover, at a time when the U.S. military claims to be on a mission to bring democracy to Iraq, there is surely no ethical defense for activities that seek to undermine one of the most important cornerstones of democracy: an independent media.

That brings me to my main objection to this effort, which is that it is colossally counterproductive. You buy editorial coverage because it's credible, but now everyone in Iraq knows that editorial coverage is for sale, and so it's credibility is zero -- and so is that of the people who bought it. The U.S. military's message is surely less likely to be accepted by the Iraqi public today than it was when this misguided campaign to corrupt the media was hatched. Claims that the U.S. is there to build democracy must now sound absurd to Iraqis who hear of these activities.

As an effort to influence hearts and minds, this was worse than a failure: it was a gift to the enemies of America and the enemies of democracy.
How to Avoid Being Spun: Andy Lark's blog picks up on this interesting item from Sharyl Attkisson at CBS News about how politicians, government agencies and corporations react when they see a negative news story coming their way. The top 10 tactics list is headed by a perennial favorite: "There's nothing new here." Be warned. The next time you tell a reporter that, she might see it as a sign that she's onto something really big.
Berlin: Richard Edelman returns from Berlin and has some interesting thoughts to share. I visited the city for the first time last year, and liked it so much we will be holding our second European SABRE Awards dinner there in May. It's an amazing city, extraordinarily cosmopolitan, uniquely bohemian, and potentially a great center of creativity for the whole of Europe. The World Cup (that's soccer, for my U.S. readers) presents a major opportunity for the city to define itself, as Richard says, but the biggest potential for growth is as a bridge between western Europe and the emerging markets of the East.
Mattel Latest "Culture Wars" Victim: After the difficulties experienced by Microsoft, Ford and others in 2005, we can expect to see many more major corporations caught up in the "culture wars" in 2006.

Right-wing religious groups such as the American Family Association will continues to be outspoken in their opposition to any company they perceive to be helping to advance "the gay agenda," which bascially means any company that provides domestic partner benefits or seems to welcome gay customers.

I've been quite clear in the past that I see this as a civil rights issue. I don't see any significant difference between the KKK of the 60s and the AFA of the 00s. So I believe companies that want to be on the right side of history will continue to support civil rights for all.

Mattel is the latest company to be targeted, with the "Concerned Women for America" accusing the company of promoting "gender confusion."

There is apparently a poll (I couldn't find it during a cursory visit) at the company's Barbie website that asks for the child's gender and gives three choices: male, female, and I don't know. That's a little odd, but I can think of several more innocent and more likely explanations than a deliberate attempt on Mattel's part to sow "gender confusion."

CWA has previously attacked Mattel for marketing a broomstick toy in its Harry Potter series (promoting witchcraft) and for donating money to Girls, Inc., a non-profit that CWA describes as "pro-lesbian, pro-abortion." Mattel reportedly bailed on its association with Girls, Inc., which CWA apparently took as an open invitation to see how far it could push the company on other issues.
Can Customer Service Be Too Good?: The Swedish furniture retailer IKEA does everything it can to make a trip to its stores hassle-free, providing on-site restaurants and even child-care facilities at many of its stores. But this article in the German magazine Spiegel suggests that some Germans are taking advantage and IKEA is "is increasingly turning into a welfare center for pensioners, young moms, low-earners and the unemployed."

Pensions and other poor people go to IKEA for cheap eats, with no intention of buying anything -- helping to make a furniture store the 11th largest "restaurant chain" in the country. One out of every 20 Euros spent at IKEA is spent on food not furniture. And others are using the children's play facilities -- a convenience for parents who don't want to drag their children around the stories -- as a free day care substitute: "One Friday evening a child had gone un-picked-up by closing time, in spite of imploring announcements on the sound system. The parents came in around 9 p.m. -- at least an hour after the store had closed its doors. They'd simply forgotten their child."

This has to be costing IKEA money, and while it probably buys goodwill, the people most likely to take advantage of these facilities don't appear to be big-spending furniture shoppers.

Welcome to The Holmes Report blog : I have written several articles about the benefits of corporate blogging and the growing credibility of blogs compared to mainstream media, so it's not surprising that people often ask me how come I don't have my own blog.

My excuse -- and a pretty pathetic excuse it is -- has always been lack of time, but the truth has more to do with lack of discipline.

But my business is expanding internationally, and I am focused more and more on in-depth (some would say long-winded) articles on major trends and issues, and a lot of noteworthy stuff goes uncovered or uncommented on at the main Holmes Report website, so the time is right for a new format in which I can provide quick commentary on interesting stories, along with my own take on corporate and political public relations.

Give it a few days, weeks, or even months and let me know what you think.