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 17, 2006

Brain Drain: Can the U.S. survive as a scientific superpower even though hostility to science is endemic and the current administration is dedicated to stamping out any way of understanding the world that doesn’t have its roots in divine revelation? So far it’s done a pretty good job, largely because of its ability to import scientific talent.

But this article makes the case that imports are drying up, in part because in the post-9/11 world the U.S. is almost as unsympathetic toward immigrants is it is toward scientific knowledge, and in part because “thanks to newfound wealth and expanding economies, China and India are quickly becoming more attractive places for their homegrown scientists and engineers to stay—or to return to once they have completed U.S. degrees. The number of foreign science and engineering students staying to work in the U.S. peaked in 1996 and has been declining ever since.”
Cheap Cure Clashes with Big Profits (Guess Which Wins): If you were the head of corporate communications for a drug company, what’s the worst headline you can imagine waking up to? Probably something that involved your product name and a few hundred dead people. But this, from the front page of this morning’s Guardian, can’t be far behind: “Drugs firm blocks cheap blindness cure.”

The subhead explains the motivation: “Company will only seek license for medicine that costs 100 times more.” And the lead paragraph provides a quick summary of the article, for those still laboring under the misapprehension that pharmaceutical companies care more about cures than profits: “A major drug company is blocking access to a medicine that is cheaply and effectively saving thousands of people from going blind because it wants to launch a more expensive product on the market.”

The company in question in Genentech, and its anti-cancer drug Avastin is being injected in tiny quantities by ophthalmologists around the world into the eyes of patients with wet macular degeneration. “But Genentech, the company that invented Avastin, does not want it used in this way. Instead it is applying to license a fragment of Avastin, called Lucentis, which is packaged in the tiny quantities suitable for eyes at a higher cost. Speculation in the US suggests it could cost £1,000 per dose instead of less than £10.”

The company gets to offer its explanation, which is that Avastin has not been safety tested for this use, but the article takes pains to point out that while individual physicians are gathering data, only the company can afford to pay for a substantial clinical trial, and it’s not interested.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Cynic's Case for CSR: The FT’s Jonathan Guthrie has a delightfully cynical take on corporate social responsibility, writing from a conference on the topic in Monaco. (One could quite easily fill every working hour attending CSR conferences in Europe, although not all of them are in such attractive venues.)

Guthrie admits that “I was prepared to sit through the session, having selected a pair of stout matchsticks with which to prop open my eyelids. Debates on corporate social responsibility thrill me as little as talks on diesel locomotives by bobble-hatted trainspotters, with the difference that I am under no obligation to attend the latter.”

But the event turned out to be “surprisingly compelling.” He doesn’t entirely buy into the hype about CSR, but he does acknowledge that “CSR has become so pervasive that opposition to it is now as pointless as ordering an incoming tide to retreat.”

Similarly, he’s not fooled by the dubious “business case” for CSR—that customers care (or know) enough to change their shopping habits, but he finds “a much better argument, which is also satisfyingly Machiavellian, is that businesses can forestall regulation by behaving with conspicuous virtue, thereby keeping a lid on costs….

“The beauty of this “compliance-plus” approach is that it fits seamlessly into the Friedmanite conception of businesses as entities that should be single-minded in their pursuit of profit. Being good becomes simply another lever for jacking up the bottom line. As always, your perceived intention is crucial to how your actions are interpreted by others. So it is important for executives to refrain from shouting “come and get it, losers” to homeless people they are charitably supplying with free soup. CSR does not work unless you believe in it. Or, at least, pretend to.”

Personally, I get much more excited when the cynical Friedmanites make the case for CSR, however Machiavellian it may be, than when the idealistic dreamers do it.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Friedman-GM Feud Continues: The Thomas Friedman vs, General Motors donnybrook continues with a new, extra-long column from the Times columnist expanding on his criticisms of the company.

In the blogosphere, the conventional wisdom seems to be that (1) Friedman’s criticisms of GM, regarding the company’s promotion of its least fuel-efficient models, was valid; (2) his tone (comparing the company to a crack dealer) was completely over-the-top; (3) the Times was haughty and arrogant in its rejection of a GM letter responding to the criticism; (4) especially since the word “rubbish” to which the Times objected was considerably more temperate than Friedman’s rhetoric; and (5) the new column makes Friedman’s point far more effectively and in more measured tone.
CSR Podcasts: Ernie Landante has podcasts from the “How to Communicate Your Corporate Values to Consumers” CSR conference taking place in Philadelphia.
A Productive Survey: Since I wrote a lengthy article in last week’s newsletter about the PR industry’s use of specious surveys to generate news coverage, I can’t let this example of genre go unremarked.

U.K. cell-phone company Vodafone confidently predicts that 10 million workers will “up their game” today ahead of England’s match versus Trinidad and Tobago, boosting productivity by 27.7 percent, and that six million employees (24 percent) will be working harder, smarter and faster throughout the World Cup, increasing the country’s GDP by ₤1.83 billion.

How did Vodafone arrive at this conclusion? It asked workers if they planned to work harder and be more productive. Astonishingly, very few respondents indicated that they would in fact be lounging around, sneaking out of work early, or spending half their time surfing the Internet looking for news of Wayne Rooney’s fitness. And Vodafone—no cynics there—has accepted the British public’s insistence that it will be diligent and productive during the World Cup.

Entirely by coincidence, Vodafone offers a World Cup update service on its phones. So this survey is doubly good news: it earns the company free publicity and it surely soothes the concerns of any boss who might have worried that those updates would distract their employees.

The release was picked up Computer Weekly, Online Recruitment, and… The Financial Times. In fact the PR people will be able to claim that it got their client on the front page of the FT, albeit as a single paragraph at the end of larger story on the Amicus union’s tips for “taking a sickie” in order to get home in time for the 6pm kick-off.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Shaw Thing: Via Scobleizer (see below), I am directed to Frank Shaw’s blog. Frank leads the Microsoft account—or, more accurately, accounts—at Waggener Edstrom, so he’s obviously a pretty smart dude.

He has some interesting perspective on Scoble’s departure and the (bright) future of blogging in Redmond: “The world does not spin backwards – we are all on the road to transparency, like it or not.” And he takes on Nicholas Carr, who worries about the impact of the company’s “human face” taking that face to another company.

Says Shaw: “His view seems to be that a high profile blogger at a company, one who becomes the human face for the company, is a bad thing, because he or she might leave…. By that same token, a high profile CEO, one who becomes the human face for his company, well, that could accrue more to the CEO bottom line than that of the company…. Let’s say it again – blogging is just another example of transparency in society, in business, in government. Someone who blogs for a company accrues value (assuming good blogging) in the same way someone who makes customer calls, gives speeches, etc., does. It’s another channel of communication and conversation.”
Scoble Moves On: Blogging4Business has a couple of posts on the departure of Robert Scoble—perhaps the first superstar business blogger—from Microsoft. I am a huge admirer of Scoble’s work: there’s a case to be made that he was Microsoft’s best public relations man (and that’s no insult to the great work done by Waggener Edstrom, Edelman and others); and his book Naked Conversations is the best to date on this whole phenomenon.

Interestingly, Scoble in his blog pays tribute to his own PR guy, Chris Coulter. “He has gotten me and Microsoft in more stories than any other single human being that I know about. How did he do that? Emailed his list of hundreds of journalists and gave them both snarky stuff and real news to write about.” And to Fran Shaw, the Microsoft guru at Wagg Ed. “While those on the outside might think he's just a typical flack I've gotten to know Frank over the years and he's the first guy I'll call if there's a story breaking about Microsoft. Why? Cause he knows everyone.”

Monday, June 12, 2006

Friedman Responds to GM: Thomas Friedman answers his critics at General Motors (sort of) in this Newsweek interview: “GM also says in that blog that they sell more cars that get 30 miles a gallon than anybody. That’s true. They also sell more Hummers that get 11 miles a gallon than anybody. GM says they’re really working on fuel efficiency. But look at the cars they offered under the $1.99-a-gallon giveaway program: not one of their most fuel-efficient cars is included. If you’re really about encouraging people to buy your most fuel-efficient cars, why wouldn’t you include at least one of them in the offer?”

I actually agree with Friedman on a gasoline tax, which I have mentally filed under ideas too obviously sensible to ever be implemented in the U.S. The fact that most politicians reacted to the gas crisis by calling for a reduction in taxes—“Increase demand, that’ll solve the shortage problem”—tells you how likely a tax is.

But I was particularly amused by his answer to the last question, in which he says he never runs out of column ideas. Neither would I if my job involved having a single idea every couple of years, turning it into a book and then writing 50 columns about that same idea.
PR Suicide: The Bush administration has shot itself in the foot so often it probably doesn’t even realize when it’s doing it. But this is a classic example: Colleen Graffy, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, told the BBC World Service the suicides were a “good PR move to draw attention” to the plight of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Let’s assume for a moment that Graffy is right, and the men were motivated by their desire for publicity. What strategic purpose is served by multiplying the effect of their gesture a hundred-fold by dismissing it those terms—using words that seem designed to enrage feelings in the Muslim world even more than the suicides themselves?

And this from someone who’s in the “public diplomacy” business.
Still Not Quite the "World" Cup: I know the big U.S. multinationals have become more global in their outlook, but they’re obviously not quite there yet. My evidence: I am attending a meeting of Edelman’s European leadership team in Washington, D.C., that runs the entire morning of June 23.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Or you do if you’re American. If you live anywhere in the rest of the world you’ll understand. The Ukraine vs. Tunisia and Spain vs. Saudi Arabia games both kick off at 10am eastern time. It’s bad enough having to choose one over the other, but to miss both!!!

Can you imagine a U.S. company scheduling something like this during the Super Bowl?