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, February 18, 2006

Burson Blogs!: Harold is not the first leader of a top 10 PR firm to start his own blog, but at 85 he has to be the oldest. He kicks off with a post about his reading habits, which are truly prodigious. Most of my meetings with him have included a discussion about what he was reading at the time. Once he told me that he had surprised a Fortune (I think) reporter who was doing a story on CEO reading habits by telling her he read a book a week. Apparently most CEOs employ someone else to do their reading for them, or listen to audio books. Another time he bemoaned the fact that so many of his colleagues did not read much beyond the major national newspapers and a few business magazines. I'm not as big as Gallsworthy fan as he is, but I share his appetite for words, and I'm delighted he's going to nourish us with some of his.
Rumsfeld on Innovative Communications: Media Orchard has already pointed out the central problem with Donald Rumsfeld’s speech on the need for new approaches to public affairs, and I don’t have much to add.

Rumsfeld is unhappy, it seems, that media reports exposed the military’s “innovative” attempts to corrupt the media in Iraq. “The conclusion is drawn that there is no tolerance for innovation, much less any human error that could conceivably be seized upon by a press that seems to demand perfection from the government, but does not apply the same standard to the enemy or even sometimes to themselves,” he said.
There are some “innovations” for which we should have no tolerance. This is one of them.
Twilight?: I suspect Daniel Gross was writing his “Twilight of the Blogs” column for Slate with his tongue at least partially in his cheek, so I’m not inclined to spend a lot of time on it.

He argues that the blogging trend is peaking, at least as a business opportunity, and marshals four or five half-assed indicators in the hope that they will add up to a single compelling piece of evidence, which they don’t.

My favorite is the “Magazine Cover Indicator,” the notion that “being plastered on the front of a national magazine is fatal for an investment trend.” Problem with that theory, of course, is that powerful, transformative technologies get featured on magazine covers just as often as passing fads. The simple fact that there’s a magazine cover doesn’t tell us which camp the subject falls into.

Gross also points to the case of Pajamas Media to demonstrate that bad money is now being thrown after good. That’s a little more convincing, because Pajamas has quickly become the laughing stock of the blogosphere—but I don’t think one wrong-headed investment undermines the whole blogging phenomenon, any more than Pets.com meant that companies shouldn’t try to sell their products online.
Give Them an Inch…: This is where appeasement leads. After the protests over the Danish cartoons, many European countries appear to have agreed to do nothing that could possible offend Islam. No one should be surprised, then, that some Muslims have expanded their campaign beyond cartoons to include other forms of expression.

Moscow’s city government has refused to allow a gay pride parade because a local Mufti warned of violence if the march went ahead. “If they come out on to the streets anyway they should be flogged. Any normal person would do that—Muslims and Orthodox Christians alike ... [The protests] might be even more intense than protests abroad against those controversial cartoons.”

According to the U.K.’s Independent newspaper, “The cleric said the Koran taught that homosexuals should be killed because their lifestyle spells the extinction of the human race.” By that logic (I know that’s not a word I should use in discussing religious fundamentalism, but…) we should also kill the celibate and those (like me) who are married but childless. If everyone adopted our lifestyle, that too would spell the extinction of the human race, no?
You Buy the CD, But You Don't Own the Music: That appears to be the position of the Recording Industry Association of America, as it continues its increasingly inventive campaign to ensure no one ever purchases its products. The folks at the Electronic Freedom Foundation point out that RIAA does not consider copying tracks from your CDs onto your iPod "fair use" and reserves the right to prosecute you for it.

Friday, February 17, 2006

A Glimpse Behind the Façade?: Here’s the problem with the Wal-Mart charm offensive, launched last year in an attempt to give the retail giant a softer public image: it keeps running up against the reality of Wal-Mart. I wrote a column in PR Week last year suggesting that the company hadn’t really changed—that while it had invited critics to its Bentonville headquarters, it wasn’t really listening to them, just allowing them to talk.

Now comes a front page story in The New York Times about chief executive H. Lee Scott’s outburst on a private, internal website, after a manager asked him why the “largest company on the planet cannot offer some type of medical benefits?” Evans began by explaining that taking care of employees would put the company at a competitive disadvantage. But then he lost it, accusing the manager of disloyalty and suggesting he should quit.

The Times describes this as a “rare, unscripted moment.” That’s possible, but I suspect Evans was sending a signal, and the signal is: “Don’t believe the public relations campaign; we’re not going to change.”

Moreover, I suspect that when Evans sent the signal he knew it would end up on the front page of The New York Times. No senior executive at a large public company would expect an incident like this one to stay private. We are living in the age of transparency, and savvy managers have learned to use that fact. Watch Wal-Mart’s share price this morning. What are the odds it goes up?

This was a smart, credible way for Evans to deliver his “don’t believe the public relations campaign; we’re not going to change” message to investors worried that the company might actually mean what it was saying.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Fair Shares: Nice column from Scott McNealy in today’s FT (sub req'd), extolling the virtues of sharing:

“From time to time, forward thinkers posed the idea that less protection would be more beneficial – that building communities and sharing intellectual resources could create new market places that would create new economic opportunities. This concept has been slow to take off, given the traditional opportunity costs associated with sharing your ideas. For most, it has been easier and more intuitive to go it alone and keep the crown jewels locked up.

“While that model may have worked in the industrial age and flourished in the information age, it will be the kiss of death in the participation age.”

After discussing Sun’s decision to open-source its software, McNealy suggests three principles that should be catnip to proponents of blogging:

“Share: blend internal assets with those outside. That means sharing things you value, such as intellectual property, best practices, employee time and even your thoughts, with tools such as blogs, podcasts and wikis (communal web pages). In doing so you lower barriers to entry and encourage people to notice and take an interest in your business.

“Build trust and foster communities: adopt a transparent and shared approach to business. New business opportunities will arise that you, the trusted player, will be in the best position to take advantage of.

“Engage and collaborate: seize opportunities to listen to and interact with the communities you create. Solicit input and recommendations. Respond to requests. Close the gap among your critical audiences, influencers and decision-makers across your organisation and you will be rewarded.”

To sum it up: companies should start to relate better to their publics. PR people should be leading this revolution. Too many are still standing on the sidelines trying to figure out where it’s going.
Congratulations: To Steve Rubel on his new job.
Transparency, Yes--But How Much?: Gloria Tan at morph wonders about the limits of transparency, and raises some interesting questions: "True transparency can happen only when you never have anything to hide. For a large corporation that has to worry about... keeping things like cutting-edge research and product development under wraps, that's not likely."

Gloria's right that blogging enthusiasts do tend to get so excited about the notion of corporate transparency that they forget about its limits. Proprietary products and processes, secret formulas, etc., are obviously going to be off-limits for the foreseeable future. But I'm not sure that's especially important.

When stakeholders demand transparency, I think they are usually more interested in the behaviors of an organization that impact the rest of us: how it makes decisions regarding environmental impacts, or product development, or marketing strategy, or human resources policies. And I would certainly subscribe to the view that more is better.

This whole subject was addressed at great length by Don Tapscott in his should-have-been bestseller The Naked Corporation, which made an eloquent case for transparency without (to the best of my recollection) ever mentioning the word "blog."
Golin Podcasts: To mark the 50th anniversary of GolinHarris, founder Al Golin is podcasting (insert old dog new tricks reference here). "After 50 Years, You'd Think I'd Have Learned Something" summarizes 12 of the lessons Golin has picked up in half a century of PR. It's available at the company's website, and via iTunes.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

More Questions Than Answers: The New York Times investigates the Lincoln Group—the self-proclaimed public relations firm responsible for bribing journalists in Iraq—but tells us almost nothing about what the group actually does for all that government money it receives, something the Pentagon inspector general is now investigating too.

Another thing that remains unclear is whether anyone at the Lincoln Group knows anything about public relations. The founders are a serial entrepreneur and a West Point dropout. The relationships they claim with legitimate communications people such as Jerry Della Femina or Omnicom, are either exaggerated or disavowed.

Perhaps the reason they have to pay for media coverage is that they actually have no idea how to earn it.
Gun Smoke: I try to not feel too bad for Scott McClellan, because no one is forcing him to work for the Bush White House, but it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for a guy whose job is to stand in front of the press corps and refuse to answer any of their questions. (As an exercise in futility, there’s nothing quite as surreal as the daily White House press briefing.)

The past couple of days have illustrated the McClellan dilemma perfectly, because the press secretary has been left, once again, to defend the indefensible: Vice President Cheney’s decision to try to keep a lid on the fact that he shot a hunting partner.

I don’t think for a moment that Cheney was trying to actively cover up the shooting. I agree with this piece by John Dickerson at Slate: it just never occurred to the VP that the public had a right to know what had happened. (The column also contains some excellent advice from the President, based on an earlier, less serious, hunting accident of his own: “People watch the way you handle things; they get a feeling they like and trust you, or they don’t.”

Now McClellan’s predecessor, the far less sympathetic Ari Fleischer, has weighed in. “It would have been better if the vice president and/or his staff had come out last Saturday night or first thing Sunday morning and announced it,” he told Editor & Publisher during a phone interview Tuesday. “It could have and should have been handled differently.”

For an administration that takes its loyalty oath seriously and views any dissent as an act of treason, that’s stinging criticism.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Shameful Appeasement: Media in Europe are on the verge of adopting a voluntary code of conduct that. That’s because, according to EU justice commissioner Franco Frattini, there’s a problem balancing “two fundamental freedoms, the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion.”

What’s to balance? I can’t imagine any circumstance in which exercising freedom of press would infringe upon anyone’s ability to practice their religion freely. Certainly, making fun of a prophet does not prevent anyone from worshipping according to their personal preference. It would be an issue if Danish newspapers were forcing Muslims to draw cartoons of Mohammed, but as far as I know that has not yet been suggested.

This is just sad posturing by people too craven to stand up for a bedrock principle of a free society.
Great Moments in Trail Lawyering: The quote of the Enron trial so far comes from Ken Lay lawyer Michael Ramsey, who described the fallen company, I kid you not, as "one of the finest free-market institutions the world has ever seen." Which, if it was true, would be pretty daming indictment of the free market.
Bad Rap for Business Blogs: George Burns of the Chicago Tribune takes a look at corporate blogging (hat tip to Niall Cook at H&K) and comes away largely unimpressed. Burns makes a lot of good points about the pitfalls of corporate blogging—from too much corporate-speak to flogs to character blogs to blog payola, which I suppose was bound to happen eventually.

But if many of the individual points are valid, the overall tone is too negative. I think what Burns is seeing is the messy process of corporations figuring out how to do it right and in some cases straining with every nerve and fiber of their body to do it wrong. (They want all the benefits of blogging credibility, but without giving up control over the message.)

But there are companies that are getting it right—Burns alludes to Stonyfield Farms—and others will eventually learn from them.
The Morality of Water: Can you drink bottled water and call yourself a friend of the environment? If you think that’s a silly question, read this article from the U.K.’s Independent, which examines the cost—environmental and financial—of producing what may be the developed world’s most unnecessary product.

“It costs 10,000 times more to create the bottled version than it does to produce tap water, say scientists. Huge resources are needed to draw it from the ground, add largely irrelevant minerals, and package and distribute it - sometimes half-way around the world. The plastic bottles it comes in take 1,000 years to biodegrade, and in industrialised countries, bottled water is no more pure and healthy than what comes out of the tap.”

It’s that last bit that has always made me wonder about bottled water drinkers. In the U.S., tap water is subject to stricter regulations as far as purity is concerned. (In many cases, bottled water is simply tap water with fancy packaging.)

Others will make the case that bottled water tastes better, which is does—if you know it’s bottled. But in blind tests—as the often incisive Penn & Teller demonstrated in their HBO series Bullshit!—no one can tell the difference.

Bottled water—at least in those countries where tap water is perfectly potable—is almost entirely a product of marketing. It’s one of Seth Godin’s lies consumers tell themselves—although the water companies have been pushing the lie awfully hard themselves: Coca-Cola underwrote a program called H2No, for example, designed to help waiters dissuade their customers from drinking tap instead of bottled.

I don’t think anything of this is exactly unethical, but it certainly feeds into the cynicism many people have about modern marketing.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Cartoon Violence: This weekend’s Holmes Report included some “free advice” from leading U.S. public relations professionals for Danish companies who found themselves caught up in the crisis resulting from the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

It doesn’t contain much of my personal perspective, which (since it’s overtly political) I’m much more comfortable sharing here in my blog than in the columns of a newsletter people pay for. So, some points:

1. The right to free speech means nothing if it does not include the right to offend. French president Jacques Chirac (“Anything that can hurt the convictions of another, particularly religious convictions, must be avoided”) and the Bush administration (“Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief”) are both equally wrong on this point.

2. There is huge difference, it seems to me, between ridiculing someone’s race—American cartoons of the early 20th century depicting blacks or cartoons in the Arab word that caricature Jews—and ridiculing ridicule someone’s religion or politics. Individuals make an affirmative choice when it comes to politics or religion; their race is innate and immutable. Beliefs and convictions must be open to scrutiny and criticism

3. There is no difference, however, between ridiculing someone’s political beliefs (communism, liberalism, any other kind of ism) and ridiculing their religious beliefs. Individuals choose their value systems, political or religious, and should be prepared to discuss, debate and justify them, to accept that they are not shared by everyone, to understand that some people might even find them offensive.

4. Our willingness to criticize beliefs and ideologies should not be restricted by the violence of the reaction such criticism is likely to provoke. That would suggest that the more fanatically people believe something, the less valid it is to criticize, question, or challenge that belief. In a sane world, would not the opposite be true?

5. It is impossible to defend the right to produce “good” art (art that is intelligent and sophisticated and provocative, such as Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses) without also defending “bad” art (art that is crude and witless and provocative), because good and bad are by necessity subjective judgments and because art is, by its nature, open to interpretation. (Some people, for example, interpreted the depiction of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban as a suggestion that Islam is by its nature violent; I assumed it was designed to suggest that Muhammed’s teachings had been hijacked by terrorists.)

6. Jyllands-Posten published these cartoons in the pursuit of a legitimate news story about self-censorship in the media. The approach it took was provocative. Nothing wrong with that: good journalism should be provocative.

7. It is hard to escape the conclusion that newspapers refusing to re-publish the cartoon are simply proving the point Jyllands-Posten was trying to make. They are applying a double standard. CNN, for example, illustrated a story about anti-Semitic cartoons by showing those same cartoons. Many media outlets have in the past shown images of artistic works considered blasphemous by Christians (in the U.K., the BBC was quite happy—and rightly so—to broadcast Jerry Springer: The Opera, which depicts a gay man who believes he is Jesus). We would think nothing of cartoons ridiculing the wiccan religion or Scientology. The media are censoring themselves not because they are sensitive to offending religious people, but because they fear Muslim rage.

8. Just as Jyllands-Posten had a right to run these cartoons, angry Muslims have a right to protest and to express their anger. They have a right to boycott the publication, and its advertisers.

9. The extension of that boycott to cover the entire country of Denmark and Danish products raises other issues. It changes this from about a protest about a specific example of the exercise of free speech into a protest about the very concept of free speech. It suggests the protestors will not be satisfied until the west abandons the single most important defining characteristic of a free society. It means these protestors cannot be appeased except by abandoning our commitment to liberal democracy.

10. Companies caught up in this can legitimately distance themselves from the cartoons and repudiate those publications that chose to reproduce them. They can—and perhaps should—withdraw their advertising from those publications. But any company that chooses to repudiate Danish products—as Nestle and Carrefour have done—is repudiating a bedrock principle of western democracy and should be made to pay a price. Anyone who values freedom should refuse to do business with those companies until they restore Danish products to their shelves and compensate their Danish business partners.
A Bias for Headlines: Over the past few days, the Associated Press has been running a series of stories on the “connection” between Jack Abramoff, his client in the Mairanas, and Democratic Senator Harry Reid.

The first story ran under the headline “Reid Aided Abramoff Clients, Records Show” and related a series of meetings between Reid and Abramoff clients. Some—the Indian tribes in Reid’s home state of Nevada—had received his support and assistance for many years, long before Abramoff showed up. But there were troubling allegations that Reid met with representatives of the Northern Mariana Islands, who were lobbying against a bill that would have enforced the U.S. minimum wage there, and thus closed down a number of very profitable sweatshops.

The story spends a good deal of time on the contacts between Reid and the Marianas client, and the implication seems clear—especially since nowhere does the AP mention that Reid eventually voted for the bill and against the interests of Abramoff’s clients.

After the story was published, one of the lobbyists involved, Ron Platt, issued a statement, confirming the meetings and acknowledging that they had been ineffectual. The AP’s follow-up story ran under the headline “Lobbyist Confirms Talks with Reid’s Office.” Again, there was nothing in the story to inform readers that Reid had continued to oppose the lobbyist’s client even after taking all these meetings.

I am sure progressive bloggers will claim media bias, as would conservative bloggers if the subject of this story had been a Republican. Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. I think we are seeing, once again, the bias of the media toward a good story. In this case, the AP thought it had a juicy scoop. It’s not going to let that go just because the story proves the opposite of what the headline suggests.

Corporate clients often assume the media are out to get them. They need to remember that nine times out of 10, the media are out to get a good story. And often, they are not going to let either the facts or any notion of fairness, get in the way.