Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Clan mentality hits PR world

Richard Edelman of PR giant Edelman Public Relations Worldwide is saying the smart PR pros will put their money in chat rooms and blogs instead of media relations. Ben Silverman of PRFuel seems to think he’s mildly insane… Okay sure, saying we can afford to bypass the media is probably going way too far, not to say extremely dangerous.

Still, there’s something disturbing in what Edelman has to say.

When asked who they trust more when it comes to getting information, 56 per cent of U.S. respondents trust "a person like yourself" in the most recent survey, up from just 22 per cent two years ago. It’s very rare to see such radical shift in social research over the course of just two years.

The study seems to focus on attitudes toward corporations (Edelman’s main clients) so the data may not translate well in the world of values, but it seems to go in the same direction as Environnics’ 3SC social studies: in the U.S. at least, people look more and more to their peer group for reassurance, consumer choice and the like.

With the multiplication of specialty channels and the more partisan orientation of many media outlets (Fox News, Clear Channel, The National Post, Le Devoir), I fear people increasingly go for sources that will reinforce what they already believe in, instead of challenging their perceptions and forcing them to think. If that turns out to be correct, it has two PR implications:

1. Changing peoples’ mind will get increasingly difficult using traditional techniques, even those who are only weakly committed to an opinion.

2. Covert methods (shielding one’s identity as PR agent, front groups, etc) will become increasingly effective. So far, "trying to influence people who keep (…) blogs, and post messages in Internet chat rooms" (Edelman's words) has meant posting messages under several identities to hype a product.

I like spinning reporters! I don’t want to spend my time pretending to be some guy who signs his messages "Gandalf" hyping the latest game console in some nerdie’s blog.

Road Blocking Night in Canada

After nine months without NHL hockey, Canadians find other interests…

Protesting students block Montreal highway.
Haida set up blockades on Queen Charlottes.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Dirty Ebbers found guilty

The verdict is in: former WorldCom CEO Bernard Ebbers has been found guilty of various financial crimes by a Federal Court jury. He risks 30 years to life in prison.

Let's hope it's the first of a wave of convictions, not a sacrificial lamb.

Solid gold hero coin

The Royal Canadian Mint will start circulating its Terry Fox dollar coin on April 4th, the day of the 25th anniversary of his Marathon of Hope.

Fox might be the only Canadian hero recognized as such by the whole Canadian public. Whether you live in Dawson, Saskatoon, Chicoutimi or Halifax, most people over thirty will identify his name with courage, compassion and sacrifice. Nobody else inspires such admiration coast-to-coast. Not Billy Bishop, not Sir John A. Macdonald, not Maurice Richard.

Twenty-five years after his fateful journey, Terry Fox is a solid-gold Canadian icon. One would wish the Mint would circulate its Terry Fox coins as regular currency, instead of a $15 collector’s item. Putting that small reminder of what is inspiring about Canada into everyone’s pocket would be more effective than the whole sponsorship program ever was.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

You get the CEOs you deserve

After the world was shocked by Enron, Worldcomm and other spectacular cases for corporate crooks, America's corporation pledged to clean up their act. Although we were told those few bad apples were the exception rather than the rule, new accounting rules were put in place. Just in case, you know.

I applaud the new rules. But as long as the business sector chooses to raise crooks, liars and convicted felons to the rank of heroes or victims, "corporate responsibility" and "financial sector reform" will stay empty PR buzzworks.

Junk-bond king and U.S. prison system veteran Michael Milken is at large again and his corporate friends trust him with tens of millions in charity money. Martha Stewart got plenty of sympathy both from brokers and the public for doing "what everyone else is doing."

And Ottawa Citizen's financial columnist Mark Sutcliffe fears the ethical standards we're asking of CEOs are too high (registration required for column).

"Board members are now cracking down at the first sign of trouble, largely to protect the company - and themselves - from liability. One of the mechanisms of their newfound Puritanism is the employee whistleblower." Commenting Boeing's dismissal of its new CEO for having an affair with a company executive, he points out "What used to be none of the company's business now might be a firing offence."

Quite right. It's about time shareholders make it their business to know what's going on in the company they own.

The Tough guys at Qorvis

PR pro Jim Horton reports on a story by Atlantic Monthly magazine (subscription required) about a PR course for politicians and pundits who want to perform well in tough television insult contests such as CNN’s Crossfire and Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor. Horton’s horrified that a PR firm would offer such a course in verbal gun-slinging.

Qorvis Communications is indeed horrifying. Even though it's a relatively new player on the PR scene, it has left its mark:

  • Three associates quit in 2002, uncomfortable with representing the Saudi Arabia government in their U.S. PR efforts.
  • They use front groups such as the Alliance for Peace and Justice to covertly advance the cause of their clients.
  • just last December, three of its offices were raided by the FBI as part of an investigation under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Yep, those guys don’t play nice.

Source Watch entry for Qorvis Communications

Monday, March 07, 2005

The invisible $18-million cut

"Gun registry saves money" – that’s the headline we didn’t see in last week’s newspapers.

According to the Hill Times (the paper edition only), last weeks Estimates included a $ 18-million cut in the Canadian Firearms Centre’s annual budget, because of "improved efficiencies". That’s a small bit of news apparently overlooked by the country’s media organizations.

After years of gleefully reporting cost overruns at the gun registry, one would think the media would report on a the fact they’re cleaning up their act.

Credibility Gap

Randy White won’t be running again. The Tory MP from B.C. announced he would not seek re-election.

Mr. White (check out his website!) had his 15 seconds of media glory during the last election campaign, when he said once in power, his party should use the Charter of Right’s notwithstanding clause to ignore any court ruling they don’t like.

Considering several polls (including this one, p. 21) point out judges have three times more credibility than politicians do, maybe asking people "Who do you trust more with your rights, us or the Supreme Court judges?" wasn't the right strategy.

Good-bye Mr. White, have a nice life away from the spotlight. Just don’t go into public relations.

Do the work and shut up

In PRFuel, Ben Silverman points his blog readers to a Washington Post’s article about a small American PR firm that came under fire for boasting about its work in the Ukrainian election. That earned the Web-builders a strong reaction from the Russian media and the displeasure of their client, the Global Fairness Initiative.

As Mr. Silverman reminds us, boasting about your accomplishments without the client’s approval is a no-no in this business.

There is something more to this story though, and that’s the Global Fairness Initiative’s outraged claim that the site "had nothing to do with the election".

That’s strange… The main page has a "The Orange Revolution" button on it (in large orange letters no less). Click on it and you’ll see an endorsement of everything the main opposition party was standing for.

Okay, let’s do a little journalism of our own. I’ll write to the Global Fairness Initiative and see how they spin that one. I’ll keep you informed.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Paris Hilton gets hacked; Canadian military to the rescue

I cannot suppress a smile as I learn socialite Paris Hilton got her Blackberry-like Sidekick II hacked. The consequences are fairly bening: her address book, email and yet more topless pictures of her are being sent around the Internet, and Hilton gets her monthly fix of media attention.

Although an interest PR appoach, let's put aside the theory that Hilton let hackers in for publicity purposes and ignore the question of what she’s doing with porn pictures of herself on her mobile communication device.

Instead, let it be a useful reminder to us Blackberry users that those things are not hacker-proof. Sure, it was stupid of Hilton to use the name of her despicable little dog as her password. Still, even those of us using sensible password procedures have to know servers can be - and regularly are - hacked and information stolen. How would your employer or client react when his crisis communication plan is distributed on mailing lists and web sites?

Fortunately - ta-dam! - the Canadian military is coming to the rescue! With U.S. agencies, it’s developing secure Blackberry protocols which might some day become commercially available. That should give aimless celebrities, military officers and PR flacks some peace of mind. In the meantime, change your passwords and use secure connections to share strategic information.

Buerk: News dumber

Iconic BBC journalist Michael Buerk addressed Ryerson University students about the dumbing down of news media.

Not much to add to that except that meanwhile, PR flacks are obviously getting smarter.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

A four-headed network

At last, a truly global 24-hour news TV network with production offices all around the world is getting underway. After months of speculations, the future network is hiring.

CNN? No. The BBC? Wrong again. The CBC? Oh, that’s a good one!

This fall, Al-Jazeera is launching its global information network, in English. It will broadcast from its main studios in Qatar only six hours per day. The Tokyo studios will then take over for another six hours, then New York and finally London.

From what I’ve seen of it on their English-language web site, Al-Jazeera isn’t making good journalism… yet. But the incredible creative friction that will develop between the four production centres might just be what it needs to become something interesting. In any case, it will be unique, a development as important in the history of television as the launch of CNN. That alone is reason to watch.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Playing nice

Once again with the Ketchum/White House rent-a-pundit scandal, PR gets bad press and the PR blogging community is lamenting the fact that a few bad apples in the PR basket give a bad name to the rest of us.

To their credit, several PR pros are saying we need to identify the criminal elements among us and subject them to a good public shaming (not in such strong language but that’s the idea.)

Others still go the easy way: PR needs a PR campaign! By explaining to people what we’re all about they’ll understand us and get to like us. It’s being spinned a little like this:

"Most people working in PR are hard-working, ethical-minded people who work from their home, go to church and love small furry animals. The only crooks are the big shots like Ketchum and the Rendon Group. The rest of us seek to serve information services, not control them."
Yeah, well... good luck guys.

Actually, I had this "Most PR pros are good people" conversation on the blog of another PR practitioner last year. The argument went back and forth using the "comments" function, both points of view being displayed for all to see.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it’s rather ironic that once the conversation was finished the blogger erased the whole discussion (leaving the "you’re right, man!" comments of others). I’m not blaming him, it was just a natural thing to do: when you have control of a medium, you use it to your advantage.

Grandmas more reliable than information technologies

When reports came in that Simeulue Island had largely been spared from the Dec 26th earthquake and tsunami despite its proximity to the epicenter, Indonesian media supposed the people living there survived because the wave didn’t have time to gain strength.

It turns out the wave hit those communities hard, but only seven people died. According to Associated Press, the people of Simeulue were the only one to get a warning in time. While modern, up-to-the-minute information networks worldwide failed to act in time to save lives, the people of Simeulue relied on a far more effective system: their grandparents.

Unlike hundreds of thousands of others who thought the worst was over when the shuddering stopped, the islanders remembered their grandparents’ warnings and fled to higher ground in fear of giant waves known locally as "semong," AP reports. The last tsunami to hit the island was in 1907.

Three PR lessons from this:

  1. In some societies, oral tradition is still a critical element of culture and the most credible source influencing people’s behaviour.
  2. In a crisis, getting the right information into the right hands is your no. 1 priority.
  3. Listen to Grandma!

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The grass is greener on the dark side

I met yet another reporter-turned-PR-flack today. After many years as a journalist in a weekly, he finally took a PR Officer job with an Ontario school board a few months ago.

Why jump the fence? "No more crazy hours, there's less stress. It gives me more family time."

Sure, plenty of people in the business work 80-hour weeks, but it's true there are many jobs out there for those who want to actually have a life outside of work, at least for a few years while the kids grow up. Meanwhile, most journalists haven't seen a real improvement in their conditions over the last ten years. For many, media concentration has meant even more work, as they have to feed the associated radio station or weekend paper on top of their regular workload. That makes them very receptive to offers of pre-packaged news by public relations professionals.

"Welcome to the Dark Side", I told the former reporter. His smile made it clear there would be no looking back.