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, June 10, 2006

GM Reports on NYT Arrogance: General Motors makes smart use of its FYI blog to vent its frustration with a haughty and unresponsive New York Times.

GM’s communications chief Steve Harris submitted a letter to the editor in the wake of a column by Friedman that began by asking the (presumably) rhetorical question: “Is there a company more dangerous to America’s future than General Motors?”

While casual Times readers were surprised and delighted that Friedman managed to get through an entire column without even once plugging his latest book—the inane and mind-numbingly superficial The World is Flat—GM was a little upset that Friedman had accused the company of supporting terrorists, buying votes in Congress and being a corporate “crack dealer.”

The company responded with a letter to the editor, and this post is GM corporate communications exec Brian Akre’s story of trying to get that letter published by the Times. “Now, you’d think it would be relatively easy to get a letter from a GM vice president published in the Times after GM’s reputation was so unfairly questioned. Just a matter of simple journalistic fairness, right? You’d also think that the newspaper’s editing of letters would be minimal…. Not so. Even for me, who worked for nearly 20 years as a reporter and editor, this was an enlightening experience.”

Unlike some of those who commented on the blog post, I don’t attribute the Times’ attitude to its political leanings; I attribute it to the kind of arrogance that is endemic in mainstream media. There’s a lack of accountability in journalism that is a vestige of the days before the Internet, when reporters and editors were a special select breed, their work conducted behind closed doors, with few checks and balances.

In those days, someone who ran up against this wall of arrogance could tell a few close friends about his experience. But in the age of transparency, Harris and Akre can tell anyone who’s interested, via their blog.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Media Freedom: Over at the Center for Media & Democracy’s PR Watch site, Diane Farsetta is crowing about the success her organization has had in persuading the Federal Communications Commission to step in and start second-guessing the news judgment of television producers.

Over at The Holmes Report website, in an article that’s probably too long for the blog, I explain why the term “fake news” is absurd, why the issue is media freedom rather than commercial speech, and why it’s time for PR people to defend the media against these attacks on its independence.
Joining the Conversation: Leo Bottary is the latest to ad his voice to Hill & Knowlton’s Collective Conversation, and he’s going to be focusing on client service. Since his first post deals with The Holmes Report’s recent client satisfaction survey and his second deals with his dogs—both subjects of interest for me—I suggest taking a look.

The article about the survey he refers to is now available online at our main website, by the way.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Impersonal Correspondence: I’m not sure how John Stodder’s blog remained below my radar for so long, but a post of his on the subject of Astroturf letter-writing campaigns came to my attention via InOpinion.

Stodder, for those of you who don’t pay attention to the PR trade press and live outside of L.A., is the former Fleishman-Hillard executive who stood trial alongside former Los Angeles general manager Doug Dowie for fraud and conspiracy in connection with the overbilling several FH clients, including the Department of Water & Power.

Stodder provides much of his backstory here (I can find no mention of his conviction on 12 counts) but it’s not the focus of the blog, which is an eclectic mix of personal journal, California reportage, and PR industry commentary.

In his post, Stodder admits to having used the Astroturf approach himself: “It was not so long ago that my staff and I would draft ‘sample’ letters to the editor, and distribute them, on a small scale, to average Dick and Janes to send to their local newspapers as if the letters were their own. We justified it thusly: The words might be ours, but the decision to sign and send was voluntary on the sender’s part. The sender also is free to change our words as much as they want. Our drafts are merely suggestions.”

He goes on to make some excellent arguments against the use of such Astroturf, both ethical and pragmatic: “Nobody would mind if Elisa Baggenstos [see my previous post on this subject] asked a professional communicator to put what is in her heart into publishable form. The problem comes when hundreds of other people use the same professional communicator’s exact phrases, but sign their own names to them. It’s a form of trickery and deceit on the part of the respective campaigns, who are trying to create an illusion of grassroots support by fooling newspaper editors into believing these letters are a spontaneous response to an issue of concern among the paper’s readers….

The practice seems to be growing but I predict its swift demise, because it is so easily detected and foiled. Newspaper editors should be able to sniff out a suspected Astroturf letter, and can confirm their suspicions with a Google search… If the newspaper editors won’t do the detective work, I’m sure the adversaries to the campaigns using Astroturf letters will…. Astroturf letters to the editor are a tactic that, once exposed, cannot be defended without damaging your cause.”

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

More Misery Marketing: Steve Cody finds another example 0f Rob Walker's observation that “All the positive experiences that can be branded are already taken. All that’s left to sponsor are the occasions of misery, discomfort and rage.”
"Outing" PR People: Before the blogosphere, most public relations people labored in obscurity. Can you name any of the PR people responsible for the tobacco industry’s misleading campaigns of the 50s and 60s? You would never have seen something like this: a personal attack on Jody Clarke the public relations person responsible for the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s ad campaign designed to sow confusion over global climate change.

Media Orchard says: If Clarke has a brain and can open her ears, she knows—knows—that the CEI ads do not accurately represent [the Al Gore documentary] An Inconvenient Truth or the facts about global warming…. One day she’ll be ashamed of herself—or her children will.”

I don’t disagree with the sentiment. At this point, given the scientific certainty about climate change, denying global warming is on a par with denying the holocaust. If I have a quibble, it’s that the comparison MO draws to the tobacco industry is unfair to the tobacco folks: after all, their product primarily harmed those who chose to partake, what’s happening with the climate threatens us all, and those who are least to blame—people in developing countries—are likely to suffer the most, or at least the soonest.

But my first reaction was that I was a little uncomfortable with the personal nature of this approach. But on further reflection, I think business people should be more personally accountable for the decisions they make. Decisions have consequences. People should be aware of those consequences when they make their decisions.
NGO Accountability: Historically, NGOs have demanded increasingly stringent levels of accountability from corporations while remaining resolutely unaccountable themselves.

The first thing to say is that NGOs don’t have shareholders, so the legal governance requirements are different. Donors are more analogous to customers… and very few companies feel the need to report formally to their customers. But while there’s no formal obligation to report, there’s certainly an ethical responsibility, if only because opaque NGOs are open to criticism on the grounds of hypocrisy.

So the charter put together by five international charities—Oxfam, Amnesty, Save the Children, Greenpeace and Care—is clearly a step in the right direction. Says Burkhard Gnaerig, director of Save the Children: “Challenging business and government to be more accountable is a crucial part of our role. If we are to point the finger at others we need to be completely clean in our own back yard.”
The Eighth Man: A report in the U.K.’s Guardian (registration required) reveals that only one in eight Brits agree that “the commercials shown on ITV are truthful and accurate.”

Full credit to ITV—Britain’s independent, ie advertiser supported, TV company—for releasing the study, and for trying to put the best possible spin on it, which is that since only a third disagreed with that statement (the remainder were neutral), about 60 percent were either positive or neutral. And of course, it’s quite possible that even people who say they find advertising incredible are influenced by it.

Meanwhile, advertisers are desperately chasing that gullible eighth consumer.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Net Surpasses National Newspapers: The Internet is poised to take over from national newspapers as the third biggest ad medium in the U.K. (training television and regional newspapers), according to this article in the FT. And that's before the Brits discover the value of targeted ads on blogs.
A New Source: Dan Greenfield, vice president of communications for Earthlink, is the latest PR pro to enter the blogosphere, and one of a small handful of in-house communications execs with a blog of his own.

Bernaisesource—a somewhat labored pun that involves Ed Bernays—is not an Earthlink blog per se, but rather a personal journal with a focus on new media trends.

Welcome and good luck.
Murketing: Rob Walker, author of many of my favorite articles about marketing (he used to produce regular columns for Slate and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine) has a new blog that could quickly become required reading.

In this post he vents a little of his frustration with his HMO, but reserves some scorn for a performing arts center that (presumably) paid to have an ad inserted with his HMO bill, asking: “Can it really be the case that these people have paid my HMO for the privilege of promoting themselves alongside my outrageous bill? Could there possibly be a worse time to pitch me than right now?”

Leaving aside the possibility that the ad was a freebie—perhaps part of some “support the arts” philanthropy by the company in question—Walker predicts that ads with speeding tickets are not going to be far behind. “All the positive experiences that can be branded are already taken. All that’s left to sponsor are the occasions of misery, discomfort and rage.”