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, July 21, 2006

Wal-Mart Jumps Down Into the Mud: Steven Silvers draws attention to a Wal-Mart site (actually operated by the front group Working Families for Wal-Mart) called paidcritics.com that he says “comes right out of the Swift Boat playbook.”

He doesn’t mean that entirely as an insult. In fact, he thinks Wal-Mart has scored some points by turning the transparency tables on its critics, and to an extent I agree. The reality is that organized labor uses front groups the same way companies do (Wake Up Wal-Mart is the mirror image of Working Families for Wal-Mart) and that they should be subject to the same skepticism and the same ethical standards.

The problem I have with paidcritics.com is not its content but its tone. It is, as Silver says, “a name-calling, nastily aggressive little website.” I can’t help thinking the same points could have been scored—and more effectively—without the snide ad hominem attacks. Wal-Mart might also have taken the moral high ground by highlighting these facts itself, rather than through a proxy organization.
The Reluctant PR Guy: A former reporter explains to the Poynter Forums why he was forced to abandon journalism for public relations. Not exactly brimming with enthusiasm for his new line of work, is he?
Strumped: Howie Kurtz tries to provide an answer to a question absolutely nobody is asking. And fails.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Google's Ground-Breaking Grassroots Effort: The FT seems to believe that Google’s lobbying efforts on behalf of net neutrality are “challenging not just the style of Washington lobbying but the central fact of power in the capital: that money often speaks louder than democracy.” Using the Internet to mobilize supporters—including progressive bloggers, who have been vocal on the issue—“they have got the voters talking directly to the legislators—without the intermediary of opulently shod lobbyists—in ways that could profoundly influence the future of lawmaking and lobbying.

I suspect the FT may be overstating the case in a couple of ways: first, I’m not convinced that Google has entirely eschewed traditional lobbying (surely there’s someone somewhere wearing Gucci and carrying around a check from the search engine company); and second, I’m not convinced that the grassroots mobilization effort the FT describes is all that different from the fairly traditional approach of mobilizing as many citizens as you can in support of your cause. I’m not even sure that using the Internet is particularly unusual.

What is interesting about the net neutrality debate is the extent to which bloggers have weighed in on the issue, which pits Google and other content providers against telecoms companies, who want to be able to charge those providers for carrying their content—despite the fact that you and I are already paying a hefty monthly fee to receive the “programming.”

Google is concerned for obvious reasons, and progressives are concerned because giving telcos the right to charge content providers raises the very real possibility of discrimination: while The New York Times could presumably afford the fees, the average blogger could not—so pages from the little guys would load slower, the democratic culture of the Internet would be turned on its head and media power and influence would be restored to its rightful owners, the rich and established.

Telcos could even decide to charge The New York Times more than The Wall Street Journal, or Fox News more than CNN. (These are the guys who helped the Bush administration listen in on its critics phone calls, remember; they’re capable of anything.)

It’s an issue that resonates strongly—perhaps uniquely—in the blogosphere, and it has unleashed the public affairs power of blogs. Is it a one-off or a sea-change?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Courage to Ignore the Spin: The summer 2006 issue of Nieman Reports looks at journalistic courage, and while most of the essays are pretty much what you might expect—journalists risking their lives in war zones, or facing jail to protect a source—this offering by the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus should be cause for some reflection—not least among his Post colleagues.

“I believe a new kind of courage is needed in journalism in this age of instant news, instant analysis, and therefore instant opinions,” says Pincus. “It also happens to be a time of government by public relations and news stories based on prepared texts and prepared events or responses. Therefore, this is the time for reporters and editors, whether from the mainstream media or blogosphere, to pause before responding to the latest bulletin, prepared event, or the most recent statement or backgrounder, whether from the White House or the Democratic or Republican leadership on Capitol Hill….

“A new element of courage in journalism would be for editors and reporters to decide not to cover the President’s statements when he—or any public figure—repeats essentially what he or she has said before. The Bush team also has brought forward another totally PR gimmick: The President stands before a background that highlights the key words of his daily message. This tactic serves only to reinforce that what’s going on is public relations—not governing. Journalistic courage should include the refusal to publish in a newspaper or carry on a TV or radio news show any statements made by the President or any other government official that are designed solely as a public relations tool, offering no new or valuable information to the public.”

I’m not holding my breath. But obviously I’d welcome it if reporters accepted Pincus’s suggestion. Maybe then politicians and their advisors would be forced to practice real public relations—you know, dialogue—rather than the spin they get away with today.
A Brit CEO Blogs: The Financial Times reports on plans by John Petter, chief executive of U.K. telecoms giant BT, to start his own blog, apparently in response to a similar move by a smaller rival, and repeats one of the most common misconceptions about blogging: “It can also be a risky strategy—if uncensored comments are allowed—that gives individual employees and customers a new level of influence over a brand.”

Blogging doesn’t give employees and customers more control, of course; it simply makes it far more difficult for a company to ignore the influence those stakeholders have. Still, kudos to Petter for taking the initiative, and to the FT for a taking a serious look at the topic.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Lay’s Eulogy: Disgraced Enron chairman Ken Lay’s greater public relations triumph—dropping dead before he could rot away as he deserved in prison—continued with rapturous eulogies at his funeral.

I don’t expect much in the way of ethical seriousness from any man of the cloth, but the Rev. William Lawson, pastor emeritus at the Baptist church that Lay frequented without any apparent sense or irony, appears to be particularly challenged in terms of his understanding of right and wrong, likening the crooked Bush crony to an innocent black man who was lynched and dragged to death by a car.

“Ken Lay was neither black nor poor, as James Byrd was, but I’m angry because Ken was the victim of a lynching,” said Lawson, who “predicted that history will vindicate Lay.” That’s the kind of thing that makes me believe I believed in an afterlife, so that Lay and Lawson could one day be reunited in a warmer climate.
The Much-Maligned Magnates: The Wall Street Journal carries one of its periodic complaints about the negative stereotyping of CEOs in film and television, picking up on a study by the Business & Media Institute that details the unflattering portrayal of businessmen. The study looked at the top 12 TV dramas during May and November in 2005, “ranging from crime shows like CSI to the goofy Desperate Housewives. Out of 39 episodes that featured business-related plots, the study found, 77 percent advanced a negative view of the world of commerce and its practitioners.”

The Journal makes an explicit comparison between poor, oppressed billionaire CEOs of today and the poor, oppressed minorities of the past (referencing Amos & Andy and the Frito bandito in an attempt to elicit sympathy for the downtrodden business leaders). I suppose some of their especially self-pitying readers might buy it. I’m sorry to say I don’t.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the majority of CEOs are violent criminals. But I will say that the percentage of major corporations that have been convicted of some crime over the course of their lifetime is astonishingly high compared to even the most recidivistic demographic. If they want more favorable portrayals I’d suggest they change their behavior rather than—as the Journal would apparently prefer—forming some sort of victims’ rights groups and whining to the press.
Ketchum Kudos: The G8 summit has been at best a mixed success for the Russian hosts—there is only so much lipstick you can put on a pig—but Ketchum, which was brought on board to convince people of Russia’s commitment to democratic ideals, earned some kudos for a two-hour webcast in which he fielded “more than 162,000 questions ranging from when he lost his virginity to why he kissed a five-year-old boy on the stomach during a Red Square walkabout last week.” There were, of course, more serious questions about Chechnya and North Korea, and Russia’s relationship with the U.S., which can hardly have been improved by a testy exchange between Putin and President Bush.

After Bush suggested that Russia should establish a democracy with a free press and free religion, like the one the U.S. hopes to establish in Iraq, the Russian premier retorted, not unreasonably that “We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, quite honestly.” Don’t suppose Ketchum scripted that zinger. (Bush’s point about a free press was later undermined by the fact that the exchange was purged from the initial White House transcript of the conversation.)
Burberry Blues: If you thought Cristal had problems, spare a thought for British company Burberry, which has been adopted by the “chav” population of the U.K. as its emblematic brand. According to this Slate article, “In the United States, some brands have experienced spectacular growth after being adopted by people on the fringes of polite society (see Timberland and hip-hop). But it doesn’t quite work that way in Britain. The Financial Times noted that ‘wearing the brand became cause for exclusion from pubs, clubs and football grounds because it had become the uniform of troublemakers.’”

Things have gotten so bad, apparently, that Burberry has been forced to open stores in the Midwestern United States and market itself to middle America. Oh the indignity.