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 26, 2006

The Verdict: Apparently, claiming to be too stupid and oblivious to get a job in a half-way competent mailroom while earning several million dollars a year as a CEO doesn’t wash with the average American jury. Too bad.
Screw the First Amendment: The Federal Communications Commission expands its efforts to crack down on the media’s ability to choose what (and what not) to air.

One particularly bizarre development: the description of VNR producers as “sponsors.” So if I send a press release to the New York Times and the Times runs a story based on it, am I now a “sponsor” of the New York Times? Twilight zone stuff.
PR and Democracy: From Berlin, I hopped a plane to Riga, which (for the benefit of parochial American readers) is the capital of Latvia, probably the liveliest of the emerging Baltic markets. I’m giving a speech later today, and doing an interview with a local business magazine, which submitted questions in advance and prompted me to start thinking about the link between public relations and democracy.

People are cynical about PR—they still tend to see what we do in terms of manipulation. But the reality is that public relations is an essential component of and a necessary contributor to democracy.

Public relations flourishes when people have choices, when they can choose who to vote for, where to work, what to buy, and which stocks to own. Public relations flourishes when people have choices because governments, companies and other institutions can only secure the support they need to survive by informing, educating and persuading.

And democracy flourishes where public relations is practiced in the right way, because public relations is about dialogue. That’s the difference between public relations and propaganda. The propagandist is interested in one-way communication: in telling people what he wants them to hear. But public relations people engage in conversations. They forge relationships. They listen at least as much as they talk.

That’s why the great growth opportunity for public relations is in those regions and countries where democracy is on the rise.
What's Next?: Another spiffy thing about the European awards dinner is that it’s a moveable feast. The first was in Paris. After Berlin this year, we’re almost certainly headed to Barcelona in 07.

An informal survey of attendees in Berlin found considerable support for Rome (despite the fact the we get fewer award entries from Italy than any other major market) and Amsterdam (very accessible for the Brits). The Eastern European vote was split between Prague and Budapest, and there were some adventurous nominations for Istanbul. But in the end, Barcelona was the crowd favorite.

We have three criteria. The city has to be accessible from London, which is where the largest number of attendees (about half) are based. It has to be in a country with a substantial indigenous PR community. And it has to be a city people want to visit.

So Barcelona in 07. Everyone’s invited.
South African Victory: The big winner at our Berlin dinner was a program from South Africa, conducted by Fleishman-Hillard’s Johannesburg office on behalf of the Banking Association of South Africa.

More than 13 million South Africans have been excluded from the formal banking system over generations, quite literally storing their money under their mattress. In 2004, the South African government launched a financial services charter that required banks to create a model to overcome the problem of limited access. Five major institutions, including the four major commercial banks and the South African Post Office, joined forces under the auspices of the Banking Association of South Africa to create and “take banking to the people.”

In September 2004, six weeks prior to the launch, Fleishman-Hillard South Africa was called on to create awareness and acceptance of the Mzansi initiative among stakeholders including government, organised labor, consumer groups, employers, the media and the public at large.

The initial reaction was cynical: the financial editor of one of the nation’s leading daily newspaper wrote: “Until there is a Big Brother monitoring Mzansi, I can’t see how the people are going to benefit.” The plan was “another way for the banks to benefit—a gravy train from the township to the banks.”

FH identified key opinion leaders and arranged one-on-one meetings between them and the spokesperson for the association, securing their endorsements. The main launch in Johannesburg took place at the largest mini-bus “taxi-rank” in Soweto. With mini-buses as the principal form of transport for the unbanked, thousands of early morning commuters witnessed an industrial theatre presentation illustrating the features and benefits of the Mzansi accounts.

Despite the initial skepticism, within 12 months of launch two million South Africans had opened Mzansi accounts, and nine out of every 10 of these customers had opened bank accounts for the first time.

Judges were impressed with the creativity of the approach, particularly the Soweto event; the business results; and the fact that this was an effort that not only added value to the clients but demonstrated the ability of the public relations business to promote socially-beneficial activity.
Notes from Berlin: We held our second annual European awards dinner in Berlin on Wednesday night—the preceding frenzy of activity and the ensuing hangover are the reasons for my absence from the blog the past couple of days—and attracted 450 attendees from 23 different countries to an event that celebrated good work from across Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

One dramatic difference between the European event and the U.S. dinner (which was held earlier in May) is that the Europeans turn it into a party. In the U.S., if we’re not done by 10pm people start to drift away, and as soon as the last award is presented, guests are heading for the trains back to Jersey and Connecticut. In Europe, we wind up around 11—the whole thing is conducted at a more leisurely pace—and no one leaves. We kept a cocktail bar open until long after I went to bed and it was still plenty busy at 3 in the morning.

Why such a difference. One factor is that in New York, 80 percent of attendees are local; in Berlin it was probably less than 5 percent. Most people had traveled a good distance, and were not headed home that night. Another is that the European event provides a rare opportunity for networking: the heads of EMEA for all the big agencies are together in one room, along with 30 or 40 of the best independent firms from across the region, who don’t see each other nearly as often as their counterparts in the States.

But the Europeans socialize with their colleagues outside of work much more than Americans. People from all levels of the company get together for drinks on a regular basis and it was at one of these gathering one possible explanation occurred to me: as the attendees grew increasingly inebriated, I witnessed in the course of three or four hours at least half a dozen incidents that could have resulted in a lawsuit in the U.S., from “inappropriate” touching (hands on knees! arms around shoulders!) to innuendo to too many dirty jokes to keep up with.

I can’t help wondering whether the U.S. litigation culture doesn’t inhibit social interactions.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Blasphemy at Burger King: For the young British Muslim author of this piece in Harper’s, ordering an ice-cream cone at Burger King was “the defining moment of my life.” And not in a good way.

“I feel humiliated. I want to humiliate the person who did this to an extent that he never works again. I’m going to make him see that it was the biggest mistake in his life. I want to meet the guy.”

What was so humiliating? So infuriating? So life changing? The Burger King logo apparently bore a resemblance to the Arabic spelling of Allah. Burger King has apologized and says it will redesign the offending article.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Trans(Fat) America: While I was writing about the collective yawn response of politicians—and the American public—to the threat of global warming, Nicholas Kristoff in The New York Times was making a similar point about the threat of trans-fat in our diet.

"There are certain kinds of risks—say, fears of Saddam Hussein—that galvanize us to mobilize an army and devote $1 trillion to confront the challenge. Meanwhile, we do nothing about threats that are much more likely to kill us,” says Kristoff, who goes on to make the point that other countries have demanded either increased transparency in food labeling or actual changes in products in order to combat the threat.

“There are a lot of risks that we can’t do much about. Brain tumors, for example. Or plane crashes. Or foreign leaders who are absolutely determined to produce nuclear weapons. But trans fats kill more Americans than any of those, and they’re very easy to protect against.”

The big difference between trans-fats and climate change, it seems to me, is that individuals can take responsibility for the amount of trans-fats they consumer. Even in a relatively opaque environment, people can educate themselves about the trans-fat content of certain foods and choose to avoid them if they wish. If other people choose to ignore the problem, that’s not going to inflict any serious consequences (higher spending on healthcare aside) on those who are more responsible.

But there’s nothing individuals can do about climate change. I can reduce my personal carbon footprint, but unless governments act—reducing carbon emissions, encouraging more nuclear power plants—my actions are not going to make any difference.
The Bigger Threat: Joel Makower, founder of GreenBiz.com, wants to know why—a recent Time cover story on the subject notwithstanding—Americans are not “worried, very worried” about climate change.

Says Makower: “A bevy of seemingly lesser problems manage to get ample coverage by the media—and loud and clear response on the part of Americans and their leaders: immigration, education reform, gas prices, tax cuts, even avian flu. But public discourse on climate—arguably the mother of all social, environmental, and economic issues—never seems to move beyond background noise.”

I happen to agree with Makower. Sometimes I wonder whether the Bush administration will be remembered less for its response to the threat of terrorism than for its lack of response to the far greater threat of climate change.

But the reality is that risk experts (and once again, I tip my hat to Peter Sandman) have analyzed the way people react to different threats—and global warming is precisely the kind of threat we underestimate: it’s chronic rather than acute; it’s distant rather than immediate; it involves nature rather than mechanics (even though nature is, in this case, profoundly impacted by man).

And the climate change denial movement has been successful. It has somehow achieved a respectability beyond that of say creationists or Holocaust deniers. (Though this new campaign from the Competitive Enterprise Institute is not a particularly fine example of their technique. I’m not the only one to find the tagline—“carbon dioxide: they call it pollution; we call it life”—unintentionally hilarious.)

Makower’s suggested solutions—better education of gatekeepers, a “new vision” for energy, a grassroots education effort—sound to me like a pretty weak response. Tactically, they are all sound ideas, but it should be clear by now that the message they are intended to deliver just does not resonate with the American public.

Until we get the message right, until we find a way of framing it so people are energized to demand change, we are going to continuing slouching toward oblivion.