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.

Friday, April 28, 2006

PR Problems That Require Substance, Not Spin: When leaders describe something as “just a public relations problem” what they typically mean is something along the lines of Strother Martin’s “what we have here is a failure to communicate” bit from Cool Hand Luke: there’s nothing substantially wrong; it’s just that we’re not getting our message across.

That’s an argument that is now being trotted out by defenders of the Bush administration, who seem to believe that replacing Scott McClellan with Tony Snow will reverse the course of American fortunes in Iraq, lower the price of oil, and eradicate our rising national debt. It was also Ken Lay’s defense in the Enron trial. The media was part of “a very real conspiracy” and The Wall Street Journal was engaged in “a witch hunt.” If the media had not pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, he would still be on the throne.

There should be nothing surprising about this. When institutions are attacked—by the media, or activists, or others—and negative publicity ensues, the first reaction of leaders is to dismiss it as “just a public relations problem.” The PR people are called in to “spin” the story.

But I suspect that “public relations problems” of this nature are much less common than organizational leaders would have you believe. In fact, I’d venture to say that most “public relations problems” are the result of stakeholders understanding the organization too well, rather than not well enough.

As Peter Sandman explains in a recent article: “Like most other businesses, [the media] have more investment opportunities than investment capital—that is, there are more juicy targets than staff to go after them. So, like most other business people, journalists and activists look to allocate their effort where it will yield the greatest profit, the best return on investment. They pick the low-hanging fruit. They mine where the vein is richest.

“Think about that. With all that’s going on in the world that has the capacity to arouse public outrage, they chose you! You were the lowest-hanging fruit. You were the richest ore body. Kinda makes you think you must be doing something wrong….”

Certainly, the problems at Enron and the difficulties now faced by the Bush administration arose because what was once obscure gradually became clear—not the other way around.

That doesn’t mean the challenges these institutions face are not still “public relations problems,” but they are public relations problems in the true sense of the term—problems in the relationship between the institution and its stakeholders. And as I suspect most of us know deep down, most relationship problems can’t be spun away, most disagreements cannot be solved simply because one party presents his or her case more effectively.

These are public relations problems that require solutions of substance not spin. Of policy, not presentation.

And they require public relations people who understand that improved communication is not a synonym for good public relations, merely one possible result of it.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Rebate Ridiculousness: If the Bush administration goes ahead with this plan to address the impact of the gasoline crisis by giving a $100 rebate to each American taxpayer--about enough for a single tank of gas--I have a fun assignment for national newspaper reporters: call up ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond (of the $400 million retirement package) and his counterparts at the other oil companies and ask him how he plans to spend his.

PR execs,meanwhile, need to be figuring out which environmental charity their CEOs plan to donate their checks to.
Shining a Little Light: The Center for Media Democracy, which publishes PR Watch and produced the recent report on news stations’ use of VNRS, is embarking on a far more useful project with its launch of Congresspedia, a “citizen’s encyclopedia on Congress” that will compile information about corporate and other large donors to Congressional campaigns and votes that favor those donors.

I have always felt that increased transparency was a better answer to campaign finance problems than restrictions on donations (I believe that’s a free speech issue). I suspect the PR Watch guys would disagree with me on that, but they’ve come up with an elegant solution to the problem.

There’s also an editor’s blog.
Risky Business: Peter Sandman doesn’t blog—more’s the pity—but he does update his website pretty frequently with some of the most brilliant articles on risk management and risk communication you’ll find anywhere.

His latest essay asks the question How Safe is Safe Enough? And it makes some excellent points, starting with the observation that companies should stop making the claim, as they often do, that they are taking “every possible precaution” to protect their customers against everything from anthrax to privacy protection.

For one thing: “All these claims are, of course, lies. Any risk manager who is actually taking every possible precaution is taking far too many precautions, inevitably including many that are prohibitively expensive, disruptive, or ineffective.”

For another: “I think the net result of 51,000 such claims [the results of a Google search] is that we are beginning to have a society that believes every possible precaution should be taken. People are coming to feel they have a legitimate grievance if they can think of a precaution you haven’t taken. Before things go wrong, their grievance takes the form of advocacy on behalf of additional precautions—precautions that may not be cost-effective but are surely possible. After things go wrong, it takes the form of lawsuits pointing to all those possible precautions you didn’t take (and pointing to all your assurances that you were taking every possible precaution).”

And he makes the point that after a crisis occurs, companies and commentators pour scorn on public expectations. “They usually do so in statements that drip with contempt for the employees or neighbors who are expressing the ‘irrational’ view that it makes sense to take every possible precaution—as if the company hadn’t been promising to do exactly that.”

The temptation to reproduce the entire column is almost overwhelming, but I’ll leave you to discover most of the rest yourself. Suffice it to say that Sandman offers, with characteristic clarity, a solution: “How do you break the news to your stakeholders that you can’t take every possible precaution—worse, that you don’t really think it makes sense to try? The key is to share the dilemma, to concede that you are not entirely sure what to do…. Certainly one very powerful way to share a dilemma is to seek advice from your stakeholders.”
Gas Bags: Jacob Weisberg at Slate makes the point that politicians who discuss gas prices Politicians “can generally be assumed to be partisan, cynical, demagogic, and dishonest” but adds that “one must not discount the possibility that something about the subject actually makes them stupid.”

It’s not just politicians, of course. I receive e-mails on a regular basis (badly targeted, since I don’t drive a car) from people suggesting I boycott a specific oil company or perhaps all oil companies for a single day or participate in some other scheme designed to repeal the laws of supply and demand.

I suspect this speaks to a more general lack of understanding about economics. But Weisberg has a different agenda:

“What none can acknowledge is that higher gas prices in the United States are a good thing. To be sure, oil at $70 a barrel causes hardships for working people and delights some of the world's worst dictators. But cheap gasoline imposes its own costs on society: greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and its attendant health risks, traffic congestion, and accidents. The ideal way to cope with these externalities would be with higher gas taxes or a carbon tax.”
Look, I Resisted the “Snow Job” Headline: Fox News reporter Tony Snow will take over as White House press spokesman from Scott McClellan.

George Stephanopoulus thinks it’s a good move: “The fact that Tony has criticized the President in print helps Bush much more than it hurts him. Proves he’s reached beyond the Austin circle for some independent advice. Snow doesn’t just tolerate his former colleagues in the press corps; he likes them. He’s smart but not overbearing and speaks with style and a smile.”

Andrew Sullivan’s not so sure: “What Bush needs to do is bring in actual senior staff people who understand and want to reverse his profligate fiscal policy, his incoherent energy policy, and his shambolic war-management. What Bush has—typically—done is get a spokesman, who doesn’t set policy, to appeal to alienated conservatives. It is literal window-dressing.”

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Up-Hill Struggle: Advertising agency Hill Holliday has a blog, Rethinking Marketing, that seems to be built around the idea that once you’ve rethought it you’ll come to the conclusion that we had it right all along: advertising is the be-all-and-end-all.

Okay, that’s a bit unfair. But I did come across a post by Ernie about the decision by ABC to make popular shows such as Lost and Desperate Housewives available free for download with the commercials intact—an alternative to the iTunes offer, which involves nominal payment in exchange for commercial-free versions of these shows.

Ernie says: “If it works, well, advertising gets a stay of execution and the new media doomsday that some have been predicting will be averted.” I suppose he’s right, though not perhaps as right as he thinks. People like me, for whom the $1.99 per episode download cost is no great burden, will choose to avoid ads; people in less fortune economic circumstances will have less choice. But that has serious implications for the demographics of ad-watching, and for the further division of society into haves and have-nots.

By the way, the post also contains this puzzling tidbit: “The irony of it is that for a time, the Brits tried to charge license fees for the BBC. Didn’t catch on. Ultimately, advertising ended up carrying the day.” Ernie may want to call one of his Brit friends, because “for a time” is actually from long before I was born until, err, right now. I just renewed my television license in the U.K., it still pays for the BBC, and the Beeb is still (thankfully) commercial free—and due to the fact that it’s supported by license fees, arguably the most truly independent television channel in the world. How much longer before we can say it caught on?

Finally, I came to the Hill Holliday blog via this review of the agency’s Dunkin Donuts work at Slate. Just so happens, I love these ads and their infectious They Might Be Giants theme music. So did the reviewer.
Pot Shots: You don’t have to be a hardcore High Times reader to find something disturbing about a recent statement from the FDA denying the well documented medical benefits of marijuana.

I’ve written at great length about what happens when science is distorted in pursuit of a political or other ideological agenda—something of which the current administration has been more guilty than most. But pediatrician Sydney Spiesel explains it at Slate:

“From my standpoint as a doctor, the question is this: What do you do when federal agencies become so politicized that their recommendations can’t necessarily be trusted? Do you have to treat other things they say as suspect? I depend on good advice and honest information from government agencies in the daily conduct of my work. I need to know what epidemic illnesses are circulating in my neighborhood even if that information might put a government agency in a bad light. I need to be able to trust government-sponsored research…. I need to know that the advice I glean from government-sponsored agency Web sites will lead to the best care for my patients.

“Marijuana as a medicine—whatever its risk and benefits are eventually determined to be—may turn out to be much less important than the question of whether we can count on agencies like the FDA to be honest in their dealings.”

Sunday, April 23, 2006

GM Blogs On: General Motors, an old line company that has embraced the new media with enthusiasm and savvy, is expanding its engagement with the blogosphere. The company’s FastLane blog, which is the province of a handful of senior executives—most notably chairman Bob Lutz—is now being supplemented by a new blog at fyi.gmblogs.com, designed to give all of the company’s employees an opportunity to talk to the public.

“The FYI blog will highlight the positive developments that occur at GM on a daily basis, though we won’t shy away from controversy,” says Michael Wiley, GM’s director of new media. “Whereas the FastLane blog usually gets new entries once or twice a week, the FYI blog aspires to be much more active.” The new blog will also include posts from outsiders, the company says.

“Our hope is that this will be an effective way to spread the conversation about GM; that we can continue to get better at listening and maintaining the dialogue, and ultimately, create products and services that not only meet your needs but are truly the best,” said Wiley in his first post.

Sounds good.
No More Mac Blogging: Anyone blogging on an Apple computer should seriously consider switching to the PC. That’s advice that has nothing to do with relative merits of the Mac vs. PC debate and everything to do with Apple’s ongoing attempt to delegitimize the art of blogging.

Apple’s refusal to countenance blogging among its own employees is legendary—the product of a control-freak culture—but the company is also continuing to push legal action against reporters (who happen to be bloggers) who distributed information the company considered confidential.

Apple’s lawyers say in court documents that Web scribes are not “legitimate members of the press” and were successful in persuading a lower court judge that they were right. “Unlike the whistleblower who discloses a health, safety or welfare hazard affecting all, or the government employee who reveals mismanagement or worse by our public officials, (the Macintosh news sites) are doing nothing more than feeding the public’s insatiable desire for information,” the judge wrote.

Freeding the public’s insatiable desire for information is, of course, what journalists—mainstream and blogging—are supposed to do. And more to the point, it’s what the First Amendment is supposed to protect. And the fact that Apple is taking a stand against both blogging and the First Amendment, while not surprising given the company’s history and culture, should give some of its champions pause.