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In the wake of the latest release of classified documents by WikiLeaks, a number of people have asked me if the leaks are simply a reflection of the growing importance of social media – with its emphasis on citizen journalism, transparency and candid conversation. My answer to them is no. WikiLeaks has little in common with the ethos of Web 2.0, and it certainly doesn’t represent the best of social media. Here are my reasons:

  • WikiLeaks doesn’t really qualify as a transparent activity. Though it could be argued there is transparency in making public previously confidential or buried documents (that are confirmed as authentic) the whole process around the leaks has been opaque. In fact, the leaks are closer to a secretive publicity stunt than a public service. As per the modus operandi of the site, the original source of the leaked documents is still uncertain – though an American soldier has been charged.
  • The importance of transparency in social media is often discussed in tandem with honesty. On that front WikiLeaks is on equally weak ground. First, the cables and memos were specifically written for select individuals or small groups. Clearly, they were released without the consent of the original authors and recipients. Second, WikiLeaks provides no insight on the value or accuracy of the leaked materials, essentially refusing to take any responsibility for the content. Third, it appears the documents were obtained illegally. WikiLeaks isn’t talking under the guise of protecting its sources.
  • It’s difficult to argue the leaked information hasn’t fueled active conversation – the foundation of social media – but it’s less certain the discourse has been positive or beneficial to anyone involved. Much like dialogue preaching hate or racism is discouraged, one could argue the nasty brush fires sparked by the leaks has done little but raise tension between countries. On the other hand, the ethical debate around the leaks themselves has been constructive.
  • Even in the fluid and informal world of social media, there are norms of conduct and rules of engagement. Most participants follow these informal guidelines and/or corporate policies and there’s often a visceral reaction in online communities against those that refuse to follow rules – which are typically designed to ensure the quality of the content and conversation. It’s not clear what rules or guidelines WikiLeaks subscribes to beyond acting as a clearing-house for documents that can bring to light – and help redress – human right abuses and criminal activity.
  • Social media puts a big emphasis on valuable, relevant content. What I’ve seen from the recent WikiLeaks exercise is a massive, haphazard package of confidential diplomatic memos that may have more value to conspiracy theorists and spies than ordinary readers. The value of the materials is left for the reader to decide, and the benefits to any community (if any) are unclear.
  • Most fans of social media would agree that sharing information comes with responsibility. There’s a glaring absence of common sense and judgement around the leaks. Many observers are concerned the leaks could result in serious diplomatic problems, and even compromise the safety of officials listed in the documents. Whether that’s true or not is apparently of no concern to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has claimed that releasing the material is in the public interest…but has not explained why or how that is the case.

I’ve heard some pundits arguing this leak follows in the grand tradition of rule-breaking muckracking, like the celebrated events surrounding the Watergate scandal. And if I take Assange at his word, I applaud his commitment to release any information that brings to light abuses and other criminal behaviour. But again, the context here is totally different than Watergate or even the Iraq war. There is no obvious scandal or political crime to uncover here, merely thousands of sensitive diplomatic discussions (containing predictable off-color candor) that serve no obvious public purpose and clearly put negotiations at risk. The leaks are closer to political gossip than investigative journalism.

There has been robust discussion about whether the leaks should be protected under the First Amendment – more specifically freedom of the press. (Conservative pundits, in particular, are happy to see an independent watchdog tweak the nose of the U.S. Government.) I’m not a legal scholar so I can’t answer the constitutional question, but the real issue isn’t whether WikiLeaks can make this information public, but whether it should.

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There is strong consensus across the PR industry for an approach to crisis management that emphasizes proactive outreach, transparency, visible resolution and executive presence. But not all companies subscribe to that strategy. Witness the recent crisis involving Rolls-Royce – whose fiery engine failure on a Qantas jumbo jet forced the airplane to make an emergency landing.

In the face of intensive global media coverage – and speculation on the cause of the engine failure – Rolls limited its initial response to two terse written statements (buried in its website) which essentially said it was looking into the problem. The tone and content of the statements is very much “stiff upper lip”: factual, low-key and devoid of any emotion or empathy. Written by and for engineers. Almost as a after-thought – literally the last sentence of the statement – the Rolls memos assure readers that safety remains the company’s highest priority.

The muted response from Rolls is in stark contrast to both Qantas and Airbus – who built the A380 jet involved in the emergency. As reported by the Wall Street Journal in this article, the Qantas CEO followed the standard airline playbook by being front-and-center in several news conferences and discussing progress in the investigation. Airbus, for its part, put the ball squarely back in Rolls’ court and said it was delaying further A380 deliveries until the engine problem was fully addressed. At the same time, Airbus continues to promote its products and track record through a considerable marketing effort.

Some experts quoted in the media suggest the key to a positive resolution for Rolls is finding an explanation and quick solution to the engine problem, rather than a vigorous public outreach. Rolls’ brand reputation, they posit, is based more on quality and customer service than on any public profile. Other observers say Rolls prefers a robust behind-the-scenes approach that focuses on identifying and fixing problems (and working with partners) rather than providing a stream of public commentary. In other words, the quality of the products and customer service will ultimately protect the brand equity. As one pundit puts it: they have been here before and their approach is “this will pass.” One interesting theory is that Rolls executives became even more gun-shy about public announcements in the wake of the universal criticism of BP executive Tony Heyward. Finally, it’s worth noting there is a fundamental difference between Rolls and Qantas, in that the former sells to companies while the airline interacts directly with customers. It’s a natural tendency for B2B companies to focus on direct communication with their corporate customers than through the public.

Has the Rolls approach worked? It may be too soon to tell, but on one short-term metric – share price – they have failed. Reports this week in several major news outlets – including this one – suggest uncertainty from the crisis has wiped out 10% of Rolls’ share price, or about $1.5 billion of the company’s value.

Though there is merit on focusing on thorough investigation and resolution during a crisis rather than self-serving media activities, Rolls fails to recognize that the debate on its brand and products is now occurring in the public arena. The company’s reluctance to engage in dialogue is creating a vacuum others are only too happy to fill. It is also naive to hide behind the cloak of engineering prowess and focus on direct outreach to corporate customers, since B2C companies like Qantas will certainly consider consumer opinion and brand reputation when selecting their equipment partners. Another lesson some companies have learned the hard way in recent years is that brand reputation is ephemeral – even one with a rich history like Rolls-Royce.

Ultimately, Rolls’ unwillingness to share information and engage in conversation suggests a sense of arrogance and stubbornness that is totally out of sync with prevailing trends on communication and consumer interaction. It will be interesting to see how this all turns out for the major players.

Most communication and marketing plans are based on the premise that internet access has become almost ubiquitous. There’s new data out of the U.S. that suggests this is an accurate premise…with important caveats. A new report by the U.S. Department of Commerce confirms that broadband internet access in America is becoming widespread and there’s been dramatic growth in adoption, but also that a digital divide still exists. Here’s a news feature on the report here.   Among the key findings:

  • Between 2001 and 2009, broadband Internet use among American households increased from 9% to 64%;
  • 7 of 10 American households used the internet in 2009, with the majority of those using broadband access at home;
  • Education and income are still the determining factors in the digital divide, but race and location also seems to play a strong role;
  • 68% of white homes and 77% of Asian-American homes have access to high-speed internet; while only 48% of Hispanic homes and 49% of African-American homes have broadband access;
  • By far the main reason for non-adoption of broadband at home is lack of interest or need (rather than high cost, lack of access or equipment) which suggests prevalence among peer networks is an important factor;
  • Only 5 percent of households still use dial-up (modem) internet access.

The missing piece in this study is the rapid growth of mobile technology, and the increasing number of people who access the internet through mobile devices. (The DOC report found 8 percent of households say they access the internet outside the home.) As it happens, there is plenty of evidence that suggests mobile access is also booming. This report from July 2010 by the Pew Research Center found that nearly 60 percent of American adults access the internet through wireless laptops or mobile phones. The statistics I’ve seen of trends outside the United States are – in many cases – even higher.

So what are the implications for communication professionals? On a basic level, marketing and communication plans built on the premise that a majority of the population can be reached through the internet – whether the target is employees, customers or the broader public – are realistic and relevant. But it’s important to look beyond the general statistics and focus on specific audiences and communities, since there is great variation across different income and ethnic groups. The adage still holds true: know your customer.

I hesitate to wade into the political waters in the wake of the U.S. election, but I keep on asking myself if there are valid lessons for communicators in this post-mortem. A cynical person might be tempted to conclude the following from the mid-term election:

  • Negative advertising – despite being shrill, dubious and laughably formulaic – actually might work.
  • Facts may ultimately be irrelevant in shaping opinion or discourse.
  • Influence and credibility are not necessarily related to knowledge, intelligence or probity.
  • Repeating statements – even outrageous, simplistic arguments – will ultimately result in public acceptance.
  • Personal attacks are acceptable – even expected – under the guise of political discourse.
  • National media have given way to self-important, biased blowhards disguising as reporters.

The context for my soul-searching is that much of the dialogue during the campaign seemed to be about emotion, hype, polarized opinion and vitriol than about policy, statistics or integrity. And there was no consensus on the most trustworthy, reliable sources of information – in fact, it was like a gigantic buffet with pundits and sources for every partisan flavor. Plenty of screaming, media noise and anger…but very little intelligent conversation. During the election, I was asked pointed questions by peers and clients – including whether “truth still mattered?” and “is experience now a negative?” Ultimately, what does this all mean – if anything – for communication professionals?

My answer is yes…truth and behavior do still matter and there are basic communication rules that are still relevant. I think part of the answer is that elections are a special occasion where – for better or for worse – normal rules of conduct and communication are suspended. Passion, hyperbole and hype trump civility, dialogue and facts. Still, there are a few notable lessons from this election:

Communication means listening not just talking. Perhaps the most valuable lesson from this election is know your customer. By all accounts, the Democrats totally underestimated the angst and frustration among the electorate – including their own party – and stubbornly continued to push their agenda despite strong evidence it lacked resonance and popularity. It’s no surprise, therefore, that many appeared to tune out the White House and Democrat candidates during the election period.

Long-term relevance and credibility is about relationships. Wild accusations and demagoguery by self-appointed pundits may shift opinion during a campaign, but they are not the basis for long-term credibility. Sources that have a track record of solid, objective reporting and commentary have a better chance of a sustained profile and relationship with listeners. This has nothing to do with formal credentials or experience, and everything to do with integrity and responsibility. Beyond the media, voters will also remember the conduct and promises of the candidates, and they will also likely favor those that acted with consistency and honesty over time.

Tell your story. One of the primary criticisms of the Democrats during this election is that they failed to convincingly tell their story – whether it be explaining their agenda or detailing their achievements. It’s hard to argue with that assessment when a majority of Americans have incorrect notions on a wide number of government policies and issues (most notably that the TARP effort was a failure.) Facts do matter, but not if they are buried or delivered in the wrong format, context or channel. Opponents of the President were only too happy to fill this vacuum with their own story.

Choose your media platforms carefully. One of the striking lessons from this campaign is that the media landscape is increasingly fragmented and diverse. Americans appear to increasingly seek out media sources that are aligned with their political leanings or cultural preferences, and that includes social networks that allow for communication within narrow interest groups. Nothing wrong with that I suppose, but it does create communication challenges for those seeking to reach across a broad segment of the population, rather than smaller communities or interest groups, or to gain the informal stamp of approval – the proverbial media hit – from a widely respected, influential outlet. It also raises serious questions about the accuracy of the information being shared, which ultimately harms the quality of the public discourse. On the positive side, this trend may drive organizations to find new, better ways to communicate directly with their constituents (or customers) rather than through third-parties.

Advertising still works…or it may not. It’s hard to uncover any immediate clues from the impact of the $2 billion in campaign advertising during the election, but clearly some of the biggest ad campaigns (hello Meg Whitman) didn’t work as intended. Hard to say if that was the candidate, message or medium, but clearly just repeating something ad nauseam does not change people’s mind or make them do something they don’t want to. There’s also evidence that ads or calls that were relevant or targeted were better received that spam or robo-call campaigns.

A bad story (or statement) can live forever. The ravenous 24-hour media cycle can spark and spread global coverage quickly – which is great when it’s a good story but terrible when it’s about a scandal, controversial statement or debate flub. Several volatile candidates likely suffered from their ill advised actions or claims. Even without the election glare and related “gotcha” mentality, leaders need to be keenly aware of the potential impact of their statements – whether written or spoken – and conduct. You can’t avoid honest mistakes, but preparation and crisis planning can help avert a bigger PR disaster.

Stick to your values & principles. The election environment is full of temptations around communication – attack your opponent, stretch the truth, cherry-pick your interviews, drill your message, make grand promises – but I still believe (naively perhaps) that corporate and political leaders should be guided as much by their values as their communication playbook. There’s nothing wrong with a communication strategy, of course, but building it on a framework without credibility is a mistake. What may seem like an expedient solution – whether during an election or corporate crisis – may permanently tarnish a reputation or brand, and ultimately is a disservice to loyal customers (or voters.)