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, May 12, 2006

The Telco Scandal Expands: Jack Cafferty of CNN: “We better hope nothing happens to Arlen Specter, the Republican head of the Judiciary Committee, because he might be all that's standing between us and a full blown dictatorship in this country. He's vowed to question these phone company executives about volunteering to provide the government with my telephone records and yours, and tens of millions of other Americans….

“Shortly after 9-11, AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth began providing the super secret NSA with information on phone calls of millions of our citizens, all part of the war on terror, President Bush says…. The President rushed out this morning in the wake of this front page story in USA Today and he declared the government's doing nothing wrong and all of this is just fine.“Is it? Is it legal? Then why did the Justice Department suddenly drop its investigation of the warrantless spying on citizens? Because the NSA said Justice Department lawyers didn't have the necessary security clearance to do the investigation. Read that sentence again. A secret government agency has told our Justice Department that it's not allowed to investigate it. And the Justice Department just says okay and drops the whole thing….“Does it concern you that your phone company may be voluntarily providing your phone records to the government without your knowledge or permission?" If it doesn't it sure as hell ought to.”

Liberal blog Think Progress has more on the potential legal liability of the phone companies that sold out their customers.

Many, many, editorials on this, including some from stalwart Bush apologists like the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune—I guess it has crossed over into the mainstream media now—although most focus on the dissembling of the administration rather than the perfidy of the companies involved.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Snow on the Offensive: Tony Snow, on his first week on the job, lets the mainstream media know they're not sufficiently obedient to the White House spin. Essentially, his complaint appears to be that not every media outlet is Fox News.

Given that the media (Steven Colbert excepted) have handled this president with maximum obsequiousness, it's a bold strategy; given how easily intimidated the New York Times and CBS News have shown themselves to be over the past six years, maybe it's a smart one.

ADD: CBS grows something suspiciously resembling a spine: “Again, the White House is clearly manipulating what I broadcast to fit their agenda. And they are wrong to do that.” (Hat tip: HuffPo.)
CSI (Corporate Social Irresponsibility): There are a lot of problems in the world, and sometimes it’s hard to know where to direct one’s energies to do the most good: feeding starving children in Africa, educating people about AIDS, slowing the pace of global warming. But none of these issues, I guess, is quite as important is making sure that companies don’t behave too responsibly.

That’s the mission taken up by Steven Milloy, who takes a lot of money from irresponsible companies presumably concerned that their more responsible competitors are gaining market advantage. A logical response might be to adopt more responsible business practices themselves, but since that would require thought and effort, their pouring their money into trying to persuade responsible companies to change their ways.

Milloy operates CSRWatch, an organization/website that sets up a straw-man caricature of the CSR movement (apparently it’s all a left-wing conspiracy designed to render companies impotent and profitless) and then attempts rather feebly to burn it down.

Public relations people should be concerned if only because social responsibility is critical to what we all do. Public relations is about aligning the behavior of institutions with the needs and desires of the societies in which they operate for mutual benefit. CSR is about understanding the expectations of stakeholders—shareholders, customers, employees, communities—when it comes to corporate behavior, and then working to ensure that businesses meet or exceed those expectations. They share many of the same goals.

Interestingly, Milloy is also behind what Slate’s Daniel Gross recently described as “a very curious right-wing mutual fund” which provides investors with an opportunity to invest exclusively in companies that eschew responsibility. So far, the fund has attracted $5.2 million in investment capital. The fund’s lack of success in that regard can be explained by its returns, which so far are less than half the gains of the S&P 500.

It would be kind of ironic if a social irresponsibility fund proved unequivocally—in a way that social responsibility funds have not—that some degree of social responsibility is a pre-requisite of financial success.
One Good Telco?: Qwest is apparently the only telephone company that remembers what its supposed to mean that we live in a democracy. If these reports are accurate, the Denver-based company is the only one of the large telcos to refuse to provide access to the telephone records of millions of Americans—the vast majority of them with no links to al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations—to the National Security Agency.

This story has yet to make the leap from the progressive blogs (such as this and this) to the mainstream media, but as more details emerge it seems clear that the administration’s spying on Americans goes far beyond listening in on people who are holding regular friendly chats with known terrorists and that most telephone companies were complicit in what was almost certainly a massive infringement of civil rights.

If Qwest recognized that this program was illegal so did the others… but they went along with it anyway. To be honest, I’d like to see the executives responsible for that decision doing serious hard time, but at the very least they should be held accountable in the marketplace for betraying their customers en masse.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Double Trouble: From Andrew Kuchins, writing for The Wall Street Journal: “U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney made clear last week in Vilnius that he is not pleased with Russia’s democratic backsliding, human-rights abuses and rough behavior in its neighborhood. And to hammer the point home Mr. Cheney then broke bread with the noted democrat, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazerbayev, who got a complete pass on his dubious record. Alert the media: We’ve identified double standards in U.S. foreign policy!”

Yes, there have always been double standards in American foreign policy… but that doesn’t mean we can dismiss them with the shrug that Kuchins offers, because we are currently trying to build a public diplomacy effort around the notion that America has strong, abiding values—including a commitment to democracy.

Communicating about values while acting in a way that contradicts those stated values doesn’t just render the communications worthless, it’s actually counterproductive. Better to say nothing at all than to be so transparently dishonest—because talking about the importance of democracy while supporting vile dictatorships simply reminds the audience of--and reinforces--all the reasons they don’t trust you to begin with.

Communications need to be aligned with behavior to be effective, which means we have to either (a) change our policy regarding countries such as Kazakhstan so that it’s consistent with the values we espouse; or (b) change our communications so that it’s as pragmatic as our policy: simply tell people up front that we’ll let them get away with whatever they want in terms of domestic abuses as long as they support us in the international realm.

The former approach would be ideal, but is almost unimaginable. The latter would be cynical in the extreme, but it has a chance of earning us fear and perhaps even a measure of respect—though little love. Even that would be better than the current situation, which earns us little more than contempt.
Sanctioned Segregation: “The ad industry is essentially a segregated industry in terms of how people work and think,” says Richard Wayner, CEO of the True Agency, who was speaking from the audience after a panel discussion at the Los Angeles Association of Ad Agencies. “It is sanctioned segregation and supported by clients.”

The comments came after a discussion marked by the laments of mainstream advertising agency leaders unable to find people of color (in a city where whites are increasingly a minority). I hear similar excuses from PR agency principals too, and I suspect the same charges could be leveled at our industry.
Blogs Promote Patriot to #1 at Amazon: While many corporate executives remain resolutely oblivious to the blogosphere, there is more and more anecdotal evidence of its power to shape opinions and move products.

The latest, from the field of publishing, is the success of Glenn Greenwald’s How Would a Patriot Act? Greenwald is a prominent political blogger—a First Amendment attorney, civil libertarian, and staunch critic of President Bush—and his publisher has never published anything before, but his book became the highest-ranking title on Amazon.com for three straight days “without a single penny being spent on marketing or advertising.”

Instead, he used his own blog and those of a handful of online friends to promote the title to their readers. Publishers Weekly’s Sara Nelson details the phenomenon in her latest column: “The Internet has been used wisely as a promotional tool before (I'm thinking of author MJ Rose, among many other early adopters) and, as many an anxious refresh-button–pushing author will tell you, a couple of good days on one Web retailer does not necessarily a bestseller make. Still, now that virtually every major retail outlet, online and off, has placed its orders, I can't help thinking we're going to be hearing and seeing more of Greenwald and his Patriot Act."
Congratulations...: To David Jones on being hired by one of the world's great public relations firms, and to Fleishman-Hillard for snapping up one of Canada's best bloggers.
Internal Transparency: Shel Holz is looking for examples of company's that have implemented internal transparency. Anyone help him out?
Mission Creep: The New York Times reports that Mission Impossible III (sorry, I can’t be bothered with all those completely superfluous colons) opened to weak numbers at the domestic box office “despite a barrage of public appearances by [Tom] Cruise to promote the film.” I think the words you were looking for, guys, were “because of…”

Monday, May 08, 2006

Don't Mess with the Bloggers: I guess I’m a little late to this story, but it provides one more piece of evidence that the advertising industry’s control mentality makes it ill-suited to the blogosphere.

Back in March, blogger Lance Dutson of the Maine web report ran a series of articles about the ineptitude of the state’s tourism efforts, and in particular its ad campaign. As part of his reporting he downloaded an ad from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development website, produced by Warren Kremer Paino Advertising, which included an unfortunate error: the phone number for tourist information was in fact the number for a phone sex service.

“This is supposed to be our biggest industry, but it’s being run like a trailer-park daycare on its 3rd notice from the Human Services people,” said Dutson.

At this point, the economic development folks and the ad agency could have simply owned up to a silly mistake and moved on. But they decided it would be more fun to sue, and Dutson was served with a multi-million lawsuit. (As an aside, the tort reform industry is always complaining about “frivolous” lawsuits filed by consumers against corporations, but the reality is that corporations are far more likely to abuse the legal process than consumers, and their lawsuits are not just frivolous, they’re abusive.)

“Getting the sheriff to deliver the suit to me, in front of my kids and neighbors, is the latest freaked-out situation this Office of Tourism has put me in. I have to say this has disrupted the Dutson household a bit, that’s what happens when someone files a crushing lawsuit that, if successful, would utterly destroy my life. So here I am, one man against the state and its contractors, put in the position of shutting up or being pounded by their deep pockets and a wild misconception of what the court system is supposed to be used for.”

To his credit, Dutson refused to back down and was able to retain powerhouse first amendment attorney Greg Herbert of Greenberg Traurig, who saw this case for the feeble bullying that it was. He also received massive support from the blogosphere, including luminaries Glenn Reynolds, Jeff Jarvis, Shel Israel, and B.L. Ochman.

After a storm of criticism, the pathetic thugs at Warren Kremer Paino have backed down, thanks in part to the efforts of the Media Bloggers Association, which had this to say: “As it should be, the story of ‘Warren Kremer Paino and the Maine Blogger’ is now a cautionary tale. Future potential plaintiffs would do well to consider WKP’s experience in attempting to silence a blog critic through the Federal courts. Our message is simple: ‘Don't Mess with the Bloggers.’”
Green TV: An interesting development from the U.K., where a new television channel dedicated to showing films about the environment will accept material from corporations and broadcast it unedited and free of charge: it has already aired films from energy giant nPower and Ben & Jerry’s.

The BBC frets that “for businesses that traditionally have had to convince cynical journalists and editors that their eco-friendly intentions are genuine, Green.tv could offer a free pass. Here, they can brag about their environmental credentials directly to people who care about green issues, without being concerned about editorial controls.”

Our friends at PR Watch—the guys who are up in arms about “fake news”—seem equally suspicious, covering the story under the headline Green—or Greenwash?.

But the Greentv people seem to be taking the position that most of their viewers are adults who can make their own judgments. Founder Ade Tomas “is sure his enterprise will be self-policing—and that its viewers will soon use its blog to prick holes in any film peddling lies or misleading praise of companies that fail to deliver on their lofty promises. ‘Our audience is pretty aware and cynical,’ he says.”

I suspect he’s right. And companies that share PR Watch’s contempt for the intelligence of the viewing audience will find that any attempt to dissemble backfires quickly.
The War on Science: Science threatened to rear its ugly head at a medical conference of all places, but was quickly slapped down.
The Blurring of PR and Psy-Ops: Daniel Schulman has an interesting piece in the Columbia Journalism Review on the breakdown of the relationships between public affairs professionals and practitioners of the dark arts of psy-ops in the U.S. military.

It’s long, but worth reading. Among the money quotes: “There is a difference in mindset between soldiers who specialize in various military information disciplines. Public affairs officers view credibility as a responsibility, while information warriors tend to see it as a commodity. This mentality is summed up in an unofficial strategy paper… suggest[ing] that public affairs could be the ‘ultimate IW [information warfare] weapon’ since it is ‘so stalwart in its claims of only speaking the truth.’ It quotes an unnamed information warrior who says, ‘The reason I tell you the truth is so that when I lie, you will believe me.’”

That’s why blurring the lines between the two is so dangerous. Still, it’s good to know the public affairs folks are putting up a fight. “There are some people who will say we have to do whatever it takes to win this war,” said Pamela Keeton, a former military public affairs person. “I think there are places where we need to draw the line — and one of them is using the news media for psy-ops purposes. It will get to the point where the news media won’t trust anybody, and the people won’t trust what’s being quoted in news articles.”

And the story ends with a quote from the West Point cadet prayer, which seems particularly appropriate: “Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole truth can be won.”