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, October 06, 2006

The First Blogger: Some of the questions that follow Esther's panel, which also features Ogilvy PR's Asia boss Chris Graves and Ajit Balakrishnan, CEO of India's Rediff.com, reveal a deep discomfort with the anarchic nature of the Internet.

One -- very persistent -- questioner wants to know what to do when an Internet site includes false and defamatory information. How do you wipe disinformation from the web? Answer: you can't. But you can counter it with accurate information.

Another questioner wants to know why she and her clients should pay attention to a 14 year old blogger with no credibility. But a quick exchange with the panel suggests that the blogger has credibility -- at least with his or her audience -- but lacks authority, in the traditional sense. The fact that the individual is 14, has no formal training, and doesn't behave like a journalist seems really troubling.

All the panelists are trying to explain that credibility no longer comes from traditional authority, but from having an authentic voice and a point of view that others find compelling. But the fact that the blogger is a teenager seems to be a sticking point. And it's at this point that Balakrishnan makes a killer point.

"Anne Frank was a teenager during the Second World War, and she was one of the most powerful voices of her era," he says. "Anne Frank wrote a blog."
Communications Tools: Esther Dyson, whose long-awaited appearance turns out to be too brief, kicks off her presentation with a story worth sharing. She recalls a New Yorker cartoon, and asks her audience to picture it in their minds: a small store, a storekeeper behind his counter, a cabinet of shelves behind him, labeled "Communications Tools." She then asks the audience what's in the cabinet.

Laptops? pens? In the cartoon, she says, the cabinet was full of ears. The fact that no one in the audience -- myself included -- thought of that tells you a lot about PR people (and the people who write about them). I have a friend who is fond of saying that PR people are perfectly capable of holding one half of a good conversation.

But in the conversation age, the ability to listen is surely as important as the ability to carefully craft our clients' messages and find the right medium to convey those messages.
The Disconnect: Peter Verrengia of Fleishman Hillard, talking about evaluation--and presenting the closest thing to the Holy Grail I have ever seen--tells a sad story.

One of the things his approach to evaluation demands is lots of data, and one of his PR clients was looking for employee turnover data, in an attempt to discover a link between employee communications messages and employee loyalty. The data took a while to gather, he says, because the human resources department couldn't figure out why PR (or corporate comms) people would want it.

Has the PR function become so disconnected from the goals and objectives of the business that our peers within an organization can't understand why we would want business data? Apparently so. The idea that PR people might see -- or hope to discover -- a link between their activity and a strategic bottom-line business objective, clearly sounds pretty far fetched to a lot of people.

And I can't help thinking that this company was not exceptional in this regard. And it's not that the HR people didn't understand PR; it's more likely that they understood it -- at least the way it is typically operated -- too well.
From Control to Conversation: Publicis Group PR chairman Lou Capozzi talks about the shift from an age of controlled communication to a new age of conversation, which has been one of the themes of the conference already, and makes a compelling case for public relations to take a lead role in that change. Since he just got elected ICCO president, it's a presentation he'll get to make with some regularity next year, hopefully in front of clients rather than just other PR agency people.

Paul Taaffe of Hill & Knowlton, provides a lively counterpoint. He doesn't disagree with Lou, but he does question whether any public relations firm -- his own included -- is ready to step up to the challenge of driving conversations, and doing so in a media neutral way.

My own perspective is that there is a huge opportunity. PR people should be used to dialogue (they answer questions from skeptical journalists every day), to earning attention rather than paying for it, for reaching out to multiple stakeholders, to using a wide array of channels rather than a single communications vehicle -- all the characteristics of this new environment.

But never underestimate the ability of the PR industry to squander a great opportunity.
A License to Thrill: Harold Burson in his mid 80s is still as spry and engaged as ever, uses his opening address to talk about some of the challenges facing the industry. He has interesting things to say about the lack of any institutionalized body of knowledge and therefore of any sense of history, all of which I agree with, but his speech is likely to be remembered for his endorsement of licensing. (He didn't make an explicit call, but his discussion of the benefits and his call for the industry to look into it made it fairly clear where he stood.)

I've always opposed licensing, and had several interesting -- and occasionally heated -- chats with Ed Bernays on the subject. But Harold always opposed it to, and he's rethought his position, and that's enough to convince me it's worth thinking and talking about. Which I will do at more length in this weekend's newsletter.
Delhi Blogging: I'm in Delhi this week for the ICCO (International Communications Consultancy Organisation) World Summit, which has brought together some senior public relations people from around the world to discuss "next practices." The hotel-- which is extremely nice but some way outside the city -- has a pretty slow high-speed Internet connection, so posting is likely to be sporadic, depending on how patient I can be.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Netroots Battle for Net Neutrality: An article at Salon suggests that social media have leveled the playing field between big corporate lobbyists and grassroots activists, focusing on the battle over Net Neutrality and the way a “ragtag army of bloggers, Internet entrepreneurs and consumer-rights activists” has been doing battle with high-paid corporate telecom lobbyists determined to erect toll booths on the information superhighway.

The grassroots tactics have included videos on YouTube—one recent example, created in an hour—has been viewed 350,000 times over the past month or so—and an online petition.

We already examined this issue at length in the newsletter, and there’s clearly reason to be skeptical: the Net Neutrality issue is uniquely appealing to bloggers and others; the opposition includes high-priced lobbyists as well as the netroots (Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo! will have to pay most of the tolls) and in any event, the telecom companies seem to be winning the battle the old-fashioned way: they make really, really big campaign donations and play the inside game better than their opponents.

But the use of social media in public affairs is worth noting for a couple of reasons: for one, there’s no reason the techniques being used by the grassroots can’t also be used to great effect by corporate interests; for another, there are issues on which the grassroots matter (and there will be many more if the Democrats regain either chamber this fall).

Professionals neglect these developments at their peril.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Another Lesson From the Age of Transparency: All right now, repeat after me: It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.

From the Clinton administration’s obfuscations about the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal to the Roman Catholic church’s attempts to keep pedophilia under wraps (the latter being especially pertinent now), why is it that large, sophisticated institutions seem incapable of figuring out that when aberrant behavior occurs, it’s always better to come clean than to cover up.

Now it looks as though the Republican Party is about to learn that lesson the hard way.

At first, the instant messaging correspondence between Rep. Mark Foley and one of his young male pages (including a request for a photo of the boy) seemed creepy rather than explicitly criminal. But as more messages emerged and Foley—the chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, naturally—announced his resignation, it became apparent that something more sinister was going on.

Still, Foley would not have been the first Congressmen to resign over sexual indiscretions. That in itself might have been a fairly short-lived story. But it now seems clear that the Republican leadership knew of Foley’s predilections, allowed him to continue in his position—finding the least appropriate person for any given position is becoming a tradition in this administration—and in general followed the Catholic church playbook for handling this kind of crisis: help the offender, protect the institution, and the victims be damned.

According to this Washington Post article: “House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was notified early this year of inappropriate e-mails from former representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.) to a 16-year-old page, a top GOP House member said yesterday—contradicting the speaker's assertions that he learned of concerns about Foley only last week.”

The obvious questions are already being asked: “Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, questioned yesterday why Alexander had gone to the House Republicans’ chief political operative, rather than to other party leaders. ‘That’s to protect a member, not to protect a child,’ Emanuel said.”

The article goes on to say that “Republicans fear the scandal, coming in the wake of indictments of three GOP congressmen this year, might add to the public’s unrest at the party’s image and conduct, and some House members yesterday joined in the chorus of dismay and scorn.”

One of the reasons there will always be a demand for good public relations people is that leaders—political and business—seem incapable of learning even the most obvious lessons. And perhaps the most obvious of all is that the truth will out—and in an age of transparency it tends to come out in a hurry.

As a result, the Republican Party finds itself grappling with an ugly—and entirely unnecessary—crisis.
Mindless Corporate Penny Pinching: Slate reported on Monday on what it calls “mindless corporate penny-pinching,” offering the observation that: “What ends up infuriating employees is that the scrimping on minor employee perks co-exists with a pay-any-price attitude for so much else. Credit Suisse, for example, pays seven-figure bonuses to hundreds of bankers every year. Telling associates who prepare deal books that they can’t print out color PowerPoint slides because the bank needs to pinch pennies seems an exercise in futility.”

More interestingly—and predictably—the article prompted readers to offer their own, considerably more idiotic, examples. Paper clips appear to be a particularly popular source of savings.

“Former Bear Stearns employee B.B. recalls being given a bag of paper clips on his first day ‘with the explanation that the firm would never buy paperclips … This was on the direction of [legendary gazillionaire CEO] Ace Greenberg, and the company seemed almost proud of this inane cost-cutting measure.’ A former Bank of America investment-banking analyst recalls that the megabank ‘once told its employees to use paper clips instead of staples because paper clips could be re-used to save money.’”

Leaving aside the propriety of focusing on such minor matters at a time when CEO compensation is increasing exponentially, these moves don’t seem to me to be designed primarily to save money; surely their main purpose is simply to infuriate employees.
The Right Way to Plug a Leak: The ability of corporations to find complicated and unethical ways of doing things they could do simply and ethically never ceases to amaze me.

Kent Perkins, partner at Los Angeles-based private investigation firm Diversified Risk Management, which specializes in corporate work, explains why what HP did in trying to trap a boardroom leaker was not only “extraordinary” and “not legitimate” but also incredibly dumb.

“He said there was a simple, legal way for H-P to handle the matter: The chairman should have hired a firm like his to address the board and ask directors to sign a form that released their personal phone records over the past 90 days. Perkins would have told directors that the company could not force them to comply, but failure to release the data would have signaled that they were unwilling to cooperate with a reasonable request by management. The chairman and CEO should have signed the release on the spot in a dramatic flourish.”
Rights, What Rights?: The Onion nails events of recent days, and the new law denying habeas corpus rights to non-citizens, on the head.

“Flanked by key members of Congress and his administration, President Bush approved Monday a streamlined version of the Bill of Rights that pares its 10 original amendments down to a ‘tight, no-nonsense’ six.”

What’s impressive, is that this piece was first posted December 18, 2002.
Britany Bails on Publicist: Yahoo U.K. reports that Britney Spears has “fired longtime publicist Leslie Sloane-Zelnick and taken charge of her own public relations.” Sure, because look at all the good publicity Katie Holmes got after she did the same thing.