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, October 26, 2006

Wiki Whackiness: Reading through Strumpette’s article asking whether PR has become synonymous with spam, I was struck once again by the reasoning—or lack of it—behind Wiki-pedia’s decision to ban PR people from posting.

Strumpette quotes Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales: “The big problem with paid editing on Wikipedia is NOT that someone is getting paid to write, but rather that this causes a rather obvious conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety.”

There are a couple of fallacies at work here. The first is that the appearance of impropriety seems to be more important to Wikipedia than the real issue, which is accuracy of information. Can the fact that someone is being paid lead them to post inaccurate or biased information? Of course it can. Is it the only, or even the main, reason for posting inaccurate information? Not even close.

Some people post inaccurate information for ideological reasons, too. They hate Bill Clinton. They think big pharmaceutical companies are profiting off other people’s misery. They don’t like the environmental policies of large chemical companies. They think Greenpeace is trying to destroy the free market system. Do these people get a free pass because their motivation to spread disinformation is untainted by money?

The second problem is collective punishment. If there are paid PR consultants posting inaccurate information to Wikis—and I don’t doubt that there are—then by all means punish them. But to punish an entire class of people for the actions of a few members of that class makes no sense to me. Would Wales ban anyone who has an ideological bias—members of political parties or activist groups, for example—because some ideologues have posted inaccurate information?

Of course not. That would be absurd. But no more absurd than his current position.
Still a Minority Pursuit: Information Week reports that despite the massive volume of words written about blogging over the past couple of years, fewer than 10 percent of the largest companies in America have a presence in the blogosphere.

According to the article: “For many businesses, blogs remain a mysterious medium dominated by teenagers and technology geeks. Most execs ‘do not read them, they do not understand why people write them,’ Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li says.”

GM and Wells Fargo get kudos from the magazine.
Tomorrow’s Responsible Leaders: The FT reports on a study showing that MBA and graduate students in America overwhelmingly believe businesses need to balance profits and social responsibility.

About 81 percent of the students said companies should try to work “toward the betterment of society”, while 18 percent thought most of them were already seeking that goal. Nearly 90 per cent said business leaders should factor social and environmental effects into their business decisions, with 60 per cent saying such an approach could be profitable.

And 80 percent said they wanted to find socially responsible employment.

Whether their idealism survives contact with the real world of American business remains to be seen, of course.
Are PR Ethics Incompatible with the Web: Strumpette sends in a comment to the Edelman/Wal-Mart post below, as follows:

“How much do you want to bet it happens again?

"This was inevitable. There is a fundamental contradiction between what PR does and what the web expects and demands. PR is summarily being locked out because of how PR defines ethics. (See http://www.strumpette.com/archives/201-Has-Public-Relations-Become-Synonymous-with-Spam.html.)

"C'mon Paul. At the scene of the accident, it's probably a good time to put your pom-pons down.”

Will it happen again? Probably. There are a lot of PR ppractitioners who won't learn the lesson from this, which is not so much that this kind of thing is unethical (though it is, as everyone seems to have acknowledged) but rather that it's dumb. Does anyone seriously think Wal-Mart's image (or Edelman's for that matter) is better now than in was when it started this blogging adventure?

Quite simply, good blogging -- joining in the conversation in an authentic, transparent, unspun way -- will benefit companies and their PR firms. Bad blogging -- opacity, dishonesty, spin -- will hurt them.

Assuming PR people will act in their own self-interest, in other words, there will be fewer indicents like this in the future.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Snatching PR Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: The Bush administration and the public diplomacy office headed by the president’s close friend and adviser Karen Hughes have not gotten a lot right in public relations terms, but the comments of director of public diplomacy Alberto Fernandez during an interview with Arab news channel Al-Jazeera over the weekend looked as though they might finally have earned the U.S. some much needed and long overdue credibility in the region.

Said Fernandez: “We tried to do our best [in Iraq], but I think there is much room for criticism because, undoubtedly, there was arrogance and there was stupidity from the United States in Iraq. If we are witnessing failure in Iraq, it's not the failure of the United States alone. Failure would be a disaster for the region.”

Yes, I know Fernandez was only speaking the truth—and a truth that is obvious to anyone who has paid even passing attention to recent events—but it was refreshing to hear such candor from a high-placed official, and for a moment there it looked as though the U.S. public diplomacy effort might actually be embracing the concept of honest communication.

Yes, there was some predictable criticism from right-wing groups in the U.S., concerned about how these remarks might play in this country in the run up to the election. But Fernandez’s job is not to help the GOP in the midterms, it’s to improve the standing of the U.S. abroad, and there’s no question he did that. For Arabs used to patronizing platitudes, Fernandez’s words were a revelation, making the front pages of the regional media and, as the Christian Science Monitor observed, striking “the sort of tone that public policy experts say the US needs if it is to regain some of its credibility in Arab eyes.”

Determined to snatch public relations defeat from the jaws of a rare media victory, the Bush administration moved swiftly. Fernandez was forced to apologize.

A little context is provided by Arab media expert Marc Lynch, who says that reading a transcript of the interview “makes clear that the parts of Fernandez’s comments which have been quoted extensively are mostly a throat clearing preface to saying that Arabs need to move on and talk about Iraq’s future instead of ‘gloating’ over American problems. This is a way of establishing credibility and a reputation for candor with Arab audiences: two things that almost all American spokespeople who stick to the administration’s script lack.

“His humility treats those audiences with respect, rather than trying to force talking points crafted in Washington down the throats of skeptical listeners who live in the region and know better.”

Moreover, “Fernandez has conducted literally hundreds of interviews in Arabic with various Arab media outlets at a time when few American officials could be bothered or could perform effectively when they tried…. What made him effective was not just his fluent Arabic, but that he is willing to argue, to get angry, to make jokes—in short, to offer a real human face and not just a grim diplomat reading from a script.”

Clearly Fernandez has the instincts of a great public relations person. Too bad he’s working for an organization that views his ability as a liability.