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.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

More VNR Madness: The Federal Communications Commission has mailed letters to the owners of 77 television news stations again reiterating its position that TV producers should not be allowed to decide for themselves what goes on the air.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, quite possible the stupidest man in America, says: “You can't tell any more the difference between what's propaganda and what's news.”

Well, here’s a handy definition: News is what happens when journalists and their producers are allowed to make their own decisions about what viewers get to see, as is currently the case. Propaganda is what happens when the government decides to intervene in that process, which is what Adelstein wants to see happen.
Airline to Employees: "Go Dive in a Dumpster": Employees of Northwest Airlines, a company with an ugly history when it comes to labor relations, are receiving some helpful advice from management after the nation’s fifth largest airline imposed massive pay cuts as it prepares to exit bankruptcy.

A booklet handed out to employees and posted on the company’s website (now sadly removed), called 101 Ways to Save Money, advised workers that one way to make ends meet was to fish through garbage to find things that are too expensive in the shops. So if you see a disheveled individual fishing through garbage cans in Minneapolis or Detroit, don’t assume he’s homeless; he could be one of the truly unfortunate.

The airline withdrew the booklet, and spokesman Roman Blahoski acknowledged that “some of these suggestions and tips… were a bit insensitive.”

Personally, I think there is a communications opportunity here. To reinforce the message of “shared sacrifice” that is de rigeur at times such as there, chief executive Doug Steenland could share with workers all the examples of useful items he has found while dumpster diving.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Flight Risks, Part III: Okay, this is really really the last word on this subject (for now) since it’s obviously off-topic as far as this blog is concerned, but…

Surely the most telling evidence that I’m right, that the security measures imposed at the end of last week were an over-reaction, is that those measures are no longer in place. If I was flying from London to New York today, I would in fact be allowed to board the plane carrying both a laptop computer and a paperback book.

So what has changed over the last couple of days? Has anything happened to make laptops and paperbacks less threatening than they were on Saturday? No. The physical properties of both are unchanged. Has anything happened to make those who wish us harm to suddenly embrace the western lifestyle and renounce their previous hostility? Again, no.

In other words, if paperbacks and laptops really were a threat on Saturday, they are still a threat today. Ergo, either the policies of last week were an over-reaction or the policies of this week are negligent. I suppose there’s room for disagreement on which of those two possibilities is most likely, and I suppose it’s obvious where I stand.

(Of course, the same logic applied last week: if laptops and paperbacks were dangerous at Heathrow, they were surely dangerous in Brussels, where I was able to board a plane with both. Surely a terrorist of even moderate intelligence could have done what I did: taken a train to Brussels and boarded a flight there with his potentially lethal John Grisham tome in hand?)
Flight Risks, Part II: Matthew Yglesias at American Prospect has an eminently sane column about the new air travel restrictions that have become the subject of some debate here (see two posts below and numerous invective-filled comments) following my rant about the difficulty of leaving Britain last week.

Yglesias shares my view on these so-called "security" measures: “People have been allowed to carry liquid onto planes since time immemorial and we're clearly not awash in exploding aircraft. What's more, inconveniencing air travelers isn't simply a matter of inconvenience. The more hellishly annoying you make it to fly, the more people will drive, either by switching methods of getting to the same destination or by choosing closer destinations. And air travel remains—despite the risk of a bomb disguised as perfume—enormously safer than driving. Despite our best intentions, in other words, security can kill.”

In what is probably a forlorn attempt to bring this discussion back to the purported subject matter of this site, let me say that this discussion illustrates perfectly one of the great rules of risk communication: that people always more prone to outrage and over-reaction when a threat is acute and apparently beyond their control (terror threats against airlines) than chronic and at least perceptually within their control (car crashes).

Of course, it's probably important to note that Yglesias and I are both on the left of the political spectrum. I quite understand that those on the right—on both sides of the Atlantic—are unlikely to share my views on the correct balance between personal freedoms and “security," and it was naive of me not to realize how politically charged this subject is.

On that note, I’ll leave the last word, until my detractors return to post their (largely anonymous) disagreement, to Yglesias: “In moments of political peril the administration has consistently found that its interests are served by fostering a climate of panic and paranoia—blowing the risks of conventional terrorism all out of proportion in search of improved poll numbers and drastic enhancements in executive power. At best, this results in waste of resources. At its worst, it does direct harm—shredding the Constitution, destabilizing the Middle East, radicalizing the world's Muslim populations, and encouraging potential adversaries to unite against us, all while accomplishing nothing to reduce the genuine risk.”

ADD: Count Slate's Bill Saletan as another skeptic when it comes to extreme security measures. Indeed, Saletan has discovered levels of absurdity beyond those I encountered: "At Dulles, a passenger was ordered to peel her banana. Do you think somebody capable of hiding an explosive inside a banana peel isn't capable of hiding it inside the banana?"

Saletan's conclusion, which echoes my preference for the traditional stiff upper-lip over last week's hysteria: "In a liquid world, you can't seal off evil... You need resilience. You can't be untouchable, but you can be undefeated."

WEDNESDAY MORNING ADD: Here are some Guardian readers who share my perspective. I particularly like the last guy’s description of the new measures as “security threatre” rather than “security threats.” (More, from the Guardian blog, here).

Meanwhile, over at the Wall Street Journal (of all places) a columnist echoes some of my points from below.
Flight Risks: So it appears that not everyone agrees with me that the security restrictions imposed on British air travel in the wake of the alleged terror plot last week were both extreme and, for the most part, nonsensical.

There are so many points to make here, it’s hard to know where to start, but…

1. The notion of using liquids to blow up a plane was neither new nor unknown to the authorities. The fact that nothing had been done in the decade—that most airport security machines don’t detect liquid explosives—since the first such plot meant that when action was taken, it was hastily implemented in the most disorganized and inconvenient way possible.

2. I have yet to have anyone explain to me what danger would have been posed by me or anyone else taking a paperback book on board a plane. The only reason I can imagine for this is again that the new security measures were implemented so hastily that the authorities simply banned everything they could think of. Again, the haste was unnecessary, given that this was not a novel threat.

3. Once again, the authorities were simply reacting to the latest threat. This has become a pattern: after the 9-11 attacks, we banned nail clippers and other sharp objects, because that was what the terrorists used last time; after the shoe bomb attempt, we started asking people to take off their shoes, at some airports, for a while; after the alleged plot last week was discovered, we banned liquids. What happens next? Just like the shoe thing, the liquid ban will gradually be relaxed. Some other threat will make headlines and there will be another hasty over-reaction, that will last until those headline are replaced by some new scare. Is a well thought-out consistent policy really too much to ask.

4. Airline security remains woefully under-funded. There’s no reason airports could not run efficient security checks on laptops, books, infant formula and whatever else passengers want to take on board, except the government won’t put up the money, and airlines are not prepared to raise fares for security. So even the cursory checks provided today add an intolerable delay to air travel—for little or no discernible benefit. And at the risk of belaboring the point, when security is stepped up there aren’t enough people to do real checks, so the solution is simply to ban everything.

5. All of this focus on the cabin ignores the real threat, which is the stuff that goes in the hold, which gets an even more cursory check than do the passengers. The fact that more luggage is going into the hold increases the risk of flying.

6. The last piece of my rant below about a no-security airline was a joke. I know irony was one of the victims of 9-11, but I guess I assumed some slim strand of it had survived somewhere.

In short, current airport security is deliberately designed for maximum inconvenience and minimum efficacy. This does not seem to me to be a particularly controversial view. It’s shared by British Airways (“when the moment struck, BAA had no plan ready to keep Heathrow functioning properly”) and by almost everyone quoted in this USA Today story (“Security has finally reached the nether regions on the idiocy graph.”)

The broader issue, of course, is the extent to which we should be prepared to give up ordinary freedoms in the face of terror threats. As a Brit who has spent 20 years in New York, and who has homes in Times Square and on Oxford Street (both of which could be considered high-profile targets), who makes 20 trans-Atlantic air trips a year, I guess my position is fairly obviously that I am disinclined to compromise on that point.

But if there are compromises to be made, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that they be well thought-out, logical, and provide some tangible benefit in terms of safety. I don’t think what happened last week meets any of those criteria.
Let Every Voice be Raised: One of the things I admire about Peter Sandman is that he’s not afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom. His latest column is likely to provoke some strong disagreement from crisis public relations experts, as it takes on a near universal law of crisis communications: the notion that an organization under siege should speak with “one voice.”

According to Sandman, the “speak with one voice” dictum means “that risk communicators and crisis communicators—and in fact all communicators—should do whatever it takes to ensure message consistency. The most extreme version demands total centralization of the public communication role; everyone is told to refer all inquiries to a single source. More moderate versions involve generating a set of key messages that everyone is supposed to stick to.”

The problem with that, he says is “the frequent presence within the organization… of more than one opinion. In such cases, speaking with one voice necessarily means suppressing discrepant voices. Often, in fact, proponents of a particular perspective in an ongoing debate advocate speaking with one voice as a way of urging everyone else to pipe down.”

But organizations facing a crisis or an issue should engage in robust internal debate. Management should listen to a diversity of viewpoints before making a decision. That means organizations have three choices when it comes to communicating: They can pretend everyone had the same opinion, in effect denying that any internal debate took place; they can pretend that the those on the “losing” side of the debate all came around to the “winning” side’s way of thinking; or they can acknowledge the debate, the difficulty of the decision, and the fact that not everyone agreed.

“Convention favors the first two options,” says Sandman. “So does management’s ego.” But he makes several arguments for the third option, the first of which is that it is almost always the truth. But he also believes it has value because it prepares the public for uncertainty, and let’s them know upfront that there are no easy answers.

“A company or government agency explains a situation to the public in a way that makes it seem less complicated, less uncertain, less debatable, and therefore less upsetting than it really is,” he says. “The public swallows its doubts and accepts this interpretation. Then the complexities, uncertainties, and debates start to emerge. In large part because it feels blindsided and misled, the public now gets more upset than the situation justifies. And the company or agency fails to notice that its own earlier decision not to brief the public properly is what precipitated the overreaction. It concludes instead that people obviously can’t take the unvarnished truth, so the wisest course of action is to keep pretending that things are less complicated, less uncertain, less debatable, and therefore less upsetting than they really are.”

Other benefits of allowing diverse voices to speak: it improves the quality of public debate, encourages organizational flexibility, it teaches the public that the organization respects diversity. And Sandman makes another important point, which is that attempts to speak with one voice when the reality is one of diverse opinion usually fail.

“Journalists are taught to seek out conflicting voices,” Sandman says. “What your company or government agency considers presenting a united front, a good reporter considers stonewalling—and a good reporter will inevitably go searching for chinks in the wall.” Moreover, internal morale may be improved by acknowledging the dissenting voices.

Not all crisis communicators are going to find Sandman’s arguments persuasive. The “one voice” imperative of deeply embedded in the traditional approach to crisis management, and many will consider that its advantages outweigh any of the problems Sandman raises.

But at a time when companies are increasingly being encouraged to speak to stakeholders with a human voice, to avoid corporate-speak, to be more transparent, it may be time for a rethink. Are those ideas only valid when times are good? Should they really be abandoned when the going gets tough? If so, are companies really only paying lip service to the value of conversation and the benefits of transparency?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Flight Plans: My prolonged silence over the past few days is the result of my escape from the Gulag also known as the United Kingdom.

As part of a global strategy clearly designed to identify terrorists by creating conditions so onerous that they are the only ones prepared to put up with airport security, the U.K. banned pretty much every item of carry on: no laptops, no iPods, no books—which on a trans-Atlantic flight essentially means either eight hours of staring at the back of some guy’s head or enduring a movie in which Antonio Banderas teaches underprivileged high school kids to dance.

But flights from Brussels are slightly less restrictive. Most important, you can take a laptop on board, which given that the eight hours from Europe to the U.S. are my most productive was a big deal. So I gave up my Virgin ticket and took the Eurostar train to Brussels to catch a flight a day later on which I could actually work. The cost was not insignificant—a Eurostar ticket, a night at the delightful Brussels airport Sheraton, and a ticket on a major U.S. carrier—but worth it for the added productivity.

Or it would have been, until my laptop imploded at the Sheraton, and all I could get was a message telling me that I had a boot error. So no computer and no work, though at least I was allowed to read. Then, when I made it home I had to wait for my IT guy to come rescue the contents of my hard drive before I could get any work done.

Anyway, it would not have helped with the laptop problem, but I am so ready for someone to launch a no-security airline. I would happily pay an additional $1000 or so per trans-Atlantic flight for an airline that didn’t wait me stand in line for half an hour, take off my shoes and belt, start up my laptop, surrender my iPod and generally inconvenience me in an effort to persuade me that all of that will somehow make me safer.

I don’t believe it for a second and in any case, for me personally, the trade-off isn’t worth it. I’d rather take my chances with the bomb-making whackos.