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, April 08, 2006

PR in BW: This week’s Business Week includes an article about political activists on the left and right and their increasing focus on business behavior and particularly corporate donations to large companies. There’s nothing in there that will be new to public relations people, but it’s interesting to see the issues getting some play in a national business magazine.

The same issue also includes a profile of Eric Dezenhall, author of Nail ‘Em and unapologetic advocate of a confrontational approach to activists. Dezenhall often sounds dogmatic rather than pragmatic in his approach to crisis management, but anyone who’s pissed off Bill Moyers can’t be all wrong.
Kicking Scottie When He's Down: HuffPo's Bill Robinson piles on the beleagured White House press secretary, and is even more brutal than the recent Vanity Fair piece.

"Apparently, it wasn't a great idea to hire the moist, chubby son of the Austin mayor to deflect questions on everything from the president choking on a pretzel to non-existent WMD's to why Karl Rove lied to him," says Robinson, adding that McClellan "looks and sounds like a constipated Wal-Mart manager on break."
Kudos...: To Twin Cities public relations firms and ad agencies including Fleishman-Hillard, Carmichael Lynch, LaBreche Murray, Fast Horse, Maccabee, and Morgan&Myers for getting involved in a contentious human rights issue.

The firms have signed on to a letter to governor Tim Pawlenty and Members of the Minnesota Legislature urging them to refrain from changing the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, arguing that it would make it more difficult for employers in the state to attract creative professionals who care about diversity, equality and freedom.

"An amendment to the Minnesota Constitution that would prohibit marriage, civil unions or legal protections for same-sex couples would communicate the wrong message to creative workers and creative clients," says the letter. "Sending this issue to ballot would polarize our state, undermining the progressive business climate that sustains our creative industry economically.

"As Minnesota business owners and leaders, we ask that you oppose an amendment to the Minnesota Constitution prohibiting marriage for same-sex couples and any effort to put this issue on the ballot. We believe this amendment to the Minnesota Constitution would be an anti-business bill. Please join us in rejecting it. "

Interesting that a couple of the state's largest PR operations are missing, though.
The Pentagon's Outspoken New Spokesperson: It’s taken almost three years for the Pentagon to find a replacement for the excellent Torie Clarke, and the person confirmed by the Senate last week is Dorrance Smith, a former ABC correspondent who wrote a 2005 column for the Wall Street Journal accusing the U.S. news networks (even Fox) of aiding and abetting terrorists because they work with Arabic television station Al-Jazeera, which Smith claimed was “subsidized by Al-Qaeda.” No wonder Smith is best known for trying to avoid the reporters with whom he's supposed to be communicating.
Snow Job: Daniel Gross explains why a top-tier Wall Street CEO would have to be slightly insane to agree to replace lame duck treasury secretary John Snow. The fact that it’s a great time to be a Wall Street CEO and a lousy time to be joining the Bush administration is a big part of it, as is that fact that the White House wants its cabinet secretaries to be unquestioning and compliant.

But the biggest problem is the challenge of selling what the administration sees as a robust economy to people who are experiencing lower salaries, higher healthcare costs, and reduced job and financial security. Or as Gross charmingly puts it: “The dissatisfaction with Snow stems from the fact that he doesn’t seem to convince enough Americans that it's raining when they’re getting pissed on.”

Friday, April 07, 2006

Sitrick Strikes Again: This is not going to do anything to damage Mike Sitrick's reputation as the PR guy you want in your corner if you decide to play hardball with the media.

Frustrated by numerous gossip column articles with no basis in fact, Sitrick client Ron Burkle set up a sting--monitored by the FBI and the DA--in which a gossip writer for the New York Post solicited a $220,000 bribe to keep Burkle's name off Page Six.

At a time when many PR people are prepared to absorb any indignity to avoid alienating reporters, it's great to see someone who's prepared to fight back--and sometimes, to play almost as dirty as the media themselves.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Outrage!: The New York Times (among other, usually quite sensible, media outlets) reports on a study by the Center for Media and Democracy showing that many television stations continue to use video news releases.

No mention of the fact that many print media--including the Times itself, unless I am much mistaken--continue to use press releases.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Poor Scottie: As rumors swirl that Scott McClellan will be the next White House head to roll, Vanity Fair’s Michael Wolff produces an absolutely brutal profile of the beleaguered press secretary, suggesting that McClellan’s “mangled sentences, flat-footed evasions, and genial befuddlement have made him the butt of a thousand blogs, as well as of an increasingly savage press corps.”

From my perspective, McClellan has never seemed to enjoy beating reporters senseless the way his predecessor, Ari Fleischer, did. And he seems to lack the debating skill necessary to keep the briefings interesting, often repeating the same non-committal answer to the same question over and over again, not so much ducking and weaving as standing there and allowing himself to be smacked around.

Says Wolff: “It's this verbal haplessness that has made Scott McClellan… the living symbol of this White House's profound and, perhaps, mortal problem with language and meaning. McClellan himself, as though having some terrible social disability, has, standing miserably in the press briefing room every day, become a kick-me archetype.”

Amazingly, the approach worked well for a year or two, because for most of his tenure the press corps has been reluctant to throw even the softest or punches. But over the past 2 or 3 months, with the president’s approval ratings in the basement, some reporters have actually begun to challenge the administration line, albeit apologetically.

The conclusion, not implausible, is that “putting someone as strikingly out of his depth as McClellan into this job (and keeping him there) could well be part of this administration's contempt for the press.” Which makes you wonder who is being shown contempt when the administration puts people as strikingly out of their depth as Chertoff and Brown in charge of homeland security and disaster relief.
Less is Not Always More: As a rule, I think public relations people should be very careful about making the argument that the public should see less information rather than more, so I’m not particularly comfortable with the proposal by the Coalition for Healthcare Communication (of which the PRSA is a member) that would—according to an AP report—“strip most of the warnings from prescription drug ads aimed at consumers.”

It is quite possible to reduce the content in a warning while making it more informative, but I would want to see some very solid research before I went that route. The Coalition argues that its goal is “simpler, clearer messages that communicate both the risks and benefits of prescription medicines, more informed doctor-patient dialogue and improved patient compliance.”

Fair enough. Then what’s wrong with the proposal by the Consumers Union to provide the simplified message suggested by the Coalition up front, while retaining the more detailed information currently provided? That way those “without the background or education to understand” the more detailed warning (as the Coalition patronizes beautifully) wouldn’t be overburdened, while those who are capable of thinking for themselves would still be able to do so.
What's the Deal?: The FT profiles dealbreaker.com, the new financial blog that aims to become a one-stop shop for Wall Street gossip… and makes the interesting point that the financial community has so far failed to embrace the blogosphere—perhaps because its own grapevine is so efficient it doesn’t need to have everything aggregated.
A Public Affair: From Jack Abramoff to Tom DeLay, to shoplifters in the White House and now child pornographers on the public affairs staff of the Department of Homeland Security… does this administration actually run security checks on anybody?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Too Green for Their Own Good?: I sense a meme gathering momentum. The real problem with business, according to this latest trope, is that it’s just too darn socially responsible.

The first manifestation of this new right-wing talking point was provided by conservative activist Steven Milloy, whose Free Enterprise Fund is challenging General Electric chief executive Jeffrey Immelt over his “ecomagination” initiative. The plan, which revolves around selling a vast range of environmentally sensitive products, but also includes pledges of environmental responsibility from GE, has been widely praised in the business media, but Milloy is worried that GE is getting too cozy with the green movement.

So he is backing a shareholder resolution that declares “company policy should be based on sound scientific and economic analyses and not appeasement of external activist groups. Policy based on faulty analyses or external pressure may reduce shareholder value.” That sounds reasonable enough, and Immelt will undoubtedly argue—as he did at its launch—that “Ecomagination” is first and foremost about positioning the company in the forefront of an important business opportunity.

But Milloy has another agenda entirely, which has to do with climate change and his conviction that if we all ignore it for long enough it will either go away or become someone else’s problem. There’s no serious scientific debate about whether the earth is warming, and a considerable scientific consensus that the climate is fast approaching the point of no return, but Milloy is still calling for more research. It’s like calling for a study into whether Al Qaeda really plans another attack before deciding to do something about port security.

Hard on the heels of that story comes a Wall Street Journal column about another Milloy initiative, this one condemning Goldman Sachs for donating 680,000 acres in Chile to the Wildlife Conservation Society, claiming that its decision to do so was “anti-growth.” Companies donate money to myriad causes, of course, and strategic philanthropy has numerous marketing and public relations benefits. It’s not the philanthropy Milloy and Journal object to, of course; it’s the recipient.

Look for more of this sort of nonsense in the future, as ideologues on the right grow increasingly resistant to the idea of companies seeking to strengthen their brands by embracing progressive social issues.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Rumsfeldian Journalism: Donald Rumsfeld has been extremely critical of the U.S. media’s coverage of the civil war in Iraq. Those who would like to see what the Defense Secretary’s idea of appropriate coverage looks like can check out the “news” stories written and placed on his behalf by advertising agency The Lincoln Group.

The U.K.’s Independent newspaper offers some samples of the Lincoln Group’s work, including this fair and balanced effort: “With the people's approval of the constitution, Iraq is well on its way to forming a permanent government. Meanwhile, the underhanded forces of al-Qa'ida remain bent on halting progress and inciting civil war. The honest citizens of Iraq, however, need not fear these criminals and terrorists. The brave warriors of the Iraqi Security Forces are hard at work stopping al-Qa'ida's attacks before they occur.”

As the paper points out, that story appeared the day after the discovery of the bodies of nine Iraqi border guards, shot dead by insurgents.
When Booksellers Ban Books: Borders and Waldenbooks admit that they have been intimidated into abandoning their commitment to free speech—something that might seem to be a prerequisite for people who sell books—because of their fear of Islamofascist terrorism.

Neither store will carry the April-May issue of Free Inquiry magazine, which will include four of the Danish cartoons that sparked protests across the Muslim world. “For us, the safety and security of our customers and employees is a top priority, and we believe that carrying this issue could challenge that priority," a Borders Group spokeswoman told the AP.

"What is at stake is the precious right of freedom of expression," says Paul Kurtz, editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry. "Cartoons often provide an important form of political satire... To refuse to distribute a publication because of fear of vigilante violence is to undermine freedom of press—so vital for our democracy." The phrase “the terrorists have won” seems tired and played out, but in this case it happens to be absolutely appropriate.

So the message is clear: if there are books out there you don’t like—perhaps your local Borders carries Darwin’s The Origin of Species, or Heather Has Two Mommies—all you need to do is organize a protest, threaten a little violence, and you can make it too disappear.
Where Am I?: Stuck in London, where British telecom managed to turn off my old phone without bothering to hook up my new phone... so, no land line, no BT internet access, and relying on occasional visits to Starbucks for internet access. Hence the somewhat sporadic blogging the past few days.
Bird Watching: Dahlia Lithwick, who produces one of the few must-read columns at Slate, provides an amusing account of the dispute between Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and various media outlets over the “obscene” gesture he made in church.