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During SXSW a few weeks ago I had the good fortune of meeting a number of my former colleagues from Dell, where I worked from 2002 to 2006. During my stint there I had the incredible good fortune of working on the team that would design, develop and manage Dell’s then new – and since much lauded – social media program.

But our conversation didn’t dwell so much on the good old days as the realization that years later many companies are still hesitant to embrace, or even explore, the full potential of social media technology. This despite the dramatic increase in cheap, user-friendly technology to support everything from targeting to analytics to collaboration. In fact, outside of some perennial leaders – many of them in the technology industry – many organizations are still grappling with the same questions and fears we saw almost ten years ago. And this is particularly true of companies exploring a social strategy inside the enterprise. (As just one example of this slow going, the folks at Prescient Digital estimate that only 4% of companies have a truly social intranet system.) After comparing notes about our respective clients and consulting gigs, we concluded many of the original arguments, tools and basic social media models we developed in those early days were still relevant, and very much in demand.

So why the uneven, reluctant adoption of new approaches and technology?  While many have focused on potential fixes for PR teams and their clients (check out this excellent blog post by my former Dell colleague Richard Binhammer) I am more curious – and perplexed – about the barriers to progress in PR. Why is a business filled with smart , accomplished consultants so slow to adapt? Based on my perspective the past few years, I offer a few suggestions:

  • Bunker Mentality – There’s no way to escape the dramatic tectonic shifts in new technology and the related impact on entire industries, including news media, advertising, retail, music, and not least communications and PR. The dizzying pace of new products and functionality makes it even harder to keep up with change. While some organizations seem invigorated by these shifts and flood of new opportunities, many have reacted with grudging, superficial tactics without changing their strategy or business model. In many ways, they are still in denial.
  • Inertia – The sad reality in any corporate setting (indeed, perhaps even in human nature itself) is that there is very strong momentum for doing things the way they’ve always been done, particularly in times where staffs are lean and driven by short-term objectives. And despite all the hype around innovation and risk, very few organizations have cultures that encourage, or even allow activity outside the norm. Often, companies need a major event like a new strategy or leader to encourage a shift in direction. Without that, it’s difficult to change old habits.
  • Functional Insularity – Functional departments that would typically help spark and support innovation and change – or at least be the sources of new ideas and information – are often the most insular, reactive ones of the bunch. HR and IT, for example, are in many cases reluctant bystanders to progress and sometimes surprisingly uninformed about new technology or trends. (In some of my social media projects, in-house IT departments are either reluctant partners or standing on the sideline.) The one department that seems to have embraced change, albeit sometimes reluctantly, is marketing. PR is often caught in the middle of this dynamic and too often unwilling or unable to drive its own momentum.
  • Boomers Dominate Leadership – Though statistics suggest boomers are among the fastest growing users of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, many older workers are less familiar and comfortable with new technology, social or otherwise. This helps explain anachronisms like the CEO who refuses to use email or others who shun any type of digital discourse. The grizzled leadership in many PR companies has the same generational anxiety about trying new tools and approaches. This trend should change as younger, much more tech-savvy workers gain leadership roles.
  • Tyranny of Today – Many communication professionals operate at a hyper pace and in a routine that leaves little room for introspection or learning. In that context, it’s easy to simply continue focusing on immediate projects and put off professional development – both formal and otherwise. Add to this the reality that many clients and peers are also focusing on their daily priorities, and paying little attention to broader issues outside their immediate tasks. Perhaps the most common refrain I’ve heard from peers struggling to understand and incorporate new technology is “I just don’t have time.”
  • Knowledge Gap – Save perhaps for a few precocious millenials, very few of us in the PR industry start with a deep base of knowledge in social media or related technology. What we know is what we’ve learned in the past decade or so as social media has become more prevalent in our lives. So it takes effort and commitment to remain in learning mode and stay current on major trends and new platforms. Unfortunately, it seems too many PR pros are counting on a few resident tech nerds or outside experts rather than upgrading their own knowledge base.

Taken together, these factors help explain the myopic outlook and slow adoption of social media in PR. And I’ve experienced every one of these barriers, so I have some understanding for the challenges in our business. But they shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction. I don’t want to be having this same discussion in 5 years.

I was pretty happy to read the dual press statements from Yahoo and Tumblr when they announced their partnership this week. I have to admit in recent months I’ve pretty well given up on press releases – a sterile, decaying art form that is seemingly impervious to innovation and improvement. It’s true that some companies have made their releases more social in recent years, even entertaining, but too often releases are formulaic, devoid of personality and cloaked in vague and trite legal jargon. In other words, they are usually boring, generic and lacking credibility.

In this sorry context come the above mentioned releases. First Yahoo. Right off the bat, you’ve got to give the Yahoo team kudos for featuring the elephant in the room right in their bylinewe promise we won’t screw it up. Marisa Mayer’s comments about Tumblr and its CEO David Karp seem genuine and conversational – as if (lo and behold) the quote is actually real. She also acknowledges the obvious – that the two companies couldn’t be more different – but also makes a good case for how they can complement each other. A few other nice touches – the word awesome and an ironic exclamation point  – help make the release not just credible, but worth reading. And though the release has some typical verbiage on opportunity and assets, the business case is presented in a way that makes sense.

The Tumblr statement is even more refreshing, and totally in keeping with the company’s smart, rebellious image. David Karp’s blog post is funny, sarcastic and ends with a disarming “F… yeah!” It’s also concise and hits the obvious concerns of his team right at the top. All this and not a legal term or ten-dollar word in sight.

Beyond the initial statements, both teams used their arsenal of social media platforms to get the word out and provide ongoing elaboration and commentary. In the process, they haven’t shied from some of the controversial aspects of the deal (notably Tumblr’s not so secret reputation as a hotbed of porn.)

The lesson here is not that companies need to make their press releases irreverent or informal, but they should remember their identity and their target audiences – which include employees and consumers, not just Wall Street heavies. In this case the tone of the statements seemed entirely appropriate. It helps that this transaction seems to fit with the strategy of the respective companies – Yahoo gets a new potential audience, a boost in buzz and some much-needed hip factor; while Tumblr keeps its independence while benefiting from the huge audience and finances of a large partner. Another point I’ve argued many times with peers and clients is that information that is important – notably in formal announcements like press releases that must be carefully crafted – doesn’t have to be serious or boring. Compelling content that is aligned with readers’ interests, lexicon and media habits is much more likely to be read and believed. Isn’t that the point of releases in the first place?

Each year at this time the gigantic Consumer Electronics Show occurs in Las Vegas. This is like the Super Bowl of the technology industry with equal parts hype, illusion, innovation and debauchery in the program. What strikes me every year, however, is not necessarily the news or products coming out of CES – here’s one summary of the key trends at CES – but that the event is virtually ignored by the PR industry.

As I read article after article in the business, marketing and technology media outlets, there is nary a mention in PR industry publications. (PRWeek US does have one article, but it focuses on how brands are adapting their promotions to drive buzz at the event rather than the actual technology.) There’s a similar trend on popular PR blogs and discussion groups, with those leaning on communication (or broader, related topics like engagement and dialogue) virtually ignoring the event and related discussions.

This lack of interest, and coverage, reflects a dangerous blind spot for the PR industry, which still focuses on churning out content and traditional techniques and tools and lacks interest and expertise in emerging technologies. I’ve witnessed the same “leading from behind” trend with the industry’s uneven, tentative reaction to the social media revolution, which has resulted in sporadic deployment and glaring knowledge gaps across the industry. It’s as if the technology side of the equation has been outsourced to digital agencies or even IT teams (though the latter also lag badly in some organizations.)

I recognize CES is about consumer technology and products, but I believe the concept of marketing to consumers carries some relevance to marketing – or communicating – to other audiences, including employees. At minimum, should professional communicators not track what new technologies are impacting various products and industries – particularly those directly grounded in communication areas like digital content and collaboration?

This is one area where marketing and advertising firms seem to have the upper hand. They realize, it seems, that they risk irrelevance and oblivion if they don’t seek to understand and implement new technology to inform and engage customers. I like the approach of the Starcom/Publicis agency team, which hosted hundreds of clients at CES to expose them to emerging trends and partner in discussions on the implications for marketing. Their message on the event is perceptive and telling:

“CES is about more than just technology.  The agency views it instead at the Consumer Experience Show. […] One of the underlying messages from CES is that technology is a major contributor to a culture and business climate that is evolving at warp speed. Ultimately, creating a compelling experience is what we’re all struggling to do.”

I keep hoping that the PR industry will stop playing catch up on these major trends. Maybe I’ll see more interest and participation at SXSW in Austin, which is ostensibly more relevant to PR professionals. Getting informed and engaged is in the interests of our industry, and our clients.

I wasn’t surprised at all by the results of the US presidential election. Despite Republican conspiracy theories about the polls, I believed most were an accurate reflection of the mood of the electorate – or as accurate as polling can be. And I expected a majority of Americans would gravitate to a moderate position on key issues, and be scared off by some of the extreme, simplistic positions promoted by Republican candidates. What did really surprise me, however, was that Romney and his ardent supporters on Fox News seemed genuinely shocked, even flabbergasted, that Obama had won – and decisively at that.

I suggest the main cause of this surprise was the insular, persistent echo chamber constructed by conservative media pundits, the powerful PACs and the Romney campaign that promoted its own narrative at any cost. As a detached observer (I’m Canadian and therefore cannot vote in U.S. elections) it struck me that the conservative media machine was doing a great job telling their own supporters what they wanted to hear, but in the process they built a parallel universe that filtered out or discounted information that didn’t fit their narrative. They appeared to lose touch with the concerns, doubts and opinions of many voters. Witness the histrionic focus on conspiracy theories around the Benghazi attack in the days prior to the vote while most of the country, rightly, seemed far more concerned about the Sandy disaster.

Perhaps more surprising is that the Romney team went along for the ride. In short, they guzzled their own delusional cool-aid. In the process of pushing their message – again and again – and listening primarily to their fans (and billionaire supporters) while avoiding critics, the Romney team seemed to lose the pulse of the broader electorate. They forgot that the essence of a productive communication process is a dialogue, where listening is a key ingredient in delivering a relevant and credible message.

I’ve seen this same insularity and hubris in corporate settings. Some CEOs forcefully promote and execute their agenda with little care or understanding for their employees’ concerns and questions. They pay limited attention to employee feedback, and rely more on informal sources – often senior staff reluctant to share bad news – which fosters an artificial decision-making cocoon that becomes detached from the reality on the front-lines. As a CEO, losing touch with your audience increases the chance your outreach and policies will be duds, and that your employees will ignore, or worse reject, the top-down dictums.

The lesson here for communication professionals is that it’s fine to have an agenda and narrative you want to promote – even a partisan one – but doing so without careful, constant consideration for your audience and a realistic, open perspective is a recipe for disaster. In this case, electoral disaster. Despite the propensity to rely increasingly on partisan hype – a wall-of-sound of repetitive, shrill advertising and commentary – all the wishing and punditry in the world can’t change the reality on the ground. It’s understandable the Romney team didn’t want to show their true hand, but they certainly should have known their realistic prospects, and spent more time listening to the voters rather than their own hype.

The U.S. election season the past few months has been notable for the vitriol, partisanship and disingenuous arguments featured in much of the conversation. In fact, it’s been a depressing showcase of the worst instincts of communication professionals, with decorum and credibility taking a back seat to carpet-bombing ads and scoring political points. But during the DNC a few weeks ago, Bill Clinton provided a memorable reminder that well-delivered and packaged information – and balanced arguments – can still pack a punch.

Clinton’s speech was widely lauded as the most cogent and straight-forward defense of Obama’s re-election platform to date – even better than Obama’s own keynote speech and numerous previous attempts to frame his case for another term. Using all of his considerable skills as an orator and politician, Clinton presented a clear and crisp argument for why Obama deserved a second term – or at least made the best case for it. Though the address was certainly partisan, it relied heavily on anecdote and evidence and avoided the worst excesses of the party campaigns.

The most interesting lesson for me here is that information – no matter how credible and relevant – is just not enough. In fact, the Obama team had been struggling for weeks to shape and share essentially the same content that was so effectively presented by Clinton. Indeed, the secret sauce of communication is the presentation, format and delivery of the core material, or messages. This may be a truism of PR but one that is often forgotten in the race to just get out the message. Clinton used essentially the same material as Obama, but explained and presented it in way that was more streamlined, resonant and repeatable than before.

Here’s a few specific tactics Clinton used that bear notice:

  • The best speeches or presentations are about sharing information with people, not talking to them. Despite his keynote speech format, Clinton made me (and presumably other listeners) feel we could have been sitting with him in a far more intimate , informal setting.
  • There’s no substitute for experience and credibility. Say what you want about Clinton’s failings as President, but he remains an incredibly smart policy wonk who has first-hand experience in many of the issues he discussed in his speech – notably welfare reform. That carried gravitas that simply isn’t shared by most other speakers (hello Paul Ryan.)
  • Building on the last point, Clinton backed all of his arguments with evidence. One can argue with his data, views and conclusions, but he certainly backed his assertions with a solid explanation and relevant proof points.
  • Clinton is famous – sometimes mocked – for his litany of mannerisms; the aw-chucks bite, folksy chuckle and wagging finger are just three of his famous repertoire. But these seemed heartfelt and appropriate, and were very effective in helping him to make a point, or add emotion and emphasis to his comments.
  • Simplicity is a forgotten art in the overhyped world of politics. Many of Clinton’s key points were captured in punchy, repeatable phrases. Though not slogans per se, they are easily understood and repeatable.
  • The best evidence is personal stories that capture the inherent issue, and proposed solution, in even the most esoteric policy arguments. Clinton used several of these effectively.
  • And finally, Clinton’s speech was relevant and responsive – particularly in how he provided a point-by-point dissection, and rebuttal, of the most popular Republican criticisms. Unlike other speeches that seemed drafted in a vacuum, with no acknowledgement of media or political winds, Clinton made sure he addressed the questions many viewers would want answered.

I have to admit to a morbid fascination with the hyper-partisan and highly ritualistic wall of noise that serves as communication during this election season in the United States.  You know the playbook: deploying an army of “surrogates” to amplify the daily message platform; vacuous appearances in friendly, choreographed media interviews; carpet-bombing of shrill, bombastic advertising (much of it devoid of nuance or credibility); and, commentary by a motley crew of journalists, polarized media personalities and self-appointed expert pundits.

The premise behind this political playbook seems to be that saying something loud and often – no matter how tenuous the relationship with objectivity or truth – will eventually get people to believe it . It suggests that subtlety and creativity have no place in bare-knuckle political advertising (which would explain the highly formulaic production that mimics low-rent infomercials.) It also seems based on the assumption that most of us rely, almost exclusively, on media sources that are already aligned with our beliefs – almost like talking to ourselves. In other words, we access news and information from our side of the political divide; the rest is likely rotten and misleading anyway, so why bother. Perhaps the worst aspect of the political toolkit is the intense personal attacks; the debate is often framed not by disagreement about policy or vision, but by dubious personal attacks questioning the character and integrity of the candidates. Beyond the merit of these specific tactics, which seem almost anachronistic in this age of empowering technological progress and social media, this whole approach seems perched on the belief that most people are simply not very smart.

In spite of my personal distaste for this carnival, it does raise two important questions for me and other communication professionals. Does any of this really work? And is there something valuable here communication professionals can learn from?

Does any of this really work? There’s been plenty of discourse and disagreement on the question of whether the political communication model actually works. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I like to believe that most informed observers, – who are willing to look beyond the most predictable, partisan media outlets – have the judgment and intellectual curiosity to make up their own minds on the issues. Those who are most partisan happily return to their favored sources to hear what they want to hear, but many others will take advantage of the rich, diverse array of information sources, formal and otherwise, to shape their opinion. In terms of the loudest winning the argument (or election), history is littered with those who mistakenly thought their money, and advertising clout, could buy them victory (Meg Whitman is one recent example.)  Furthermore, I’m not sold on the logic that hearing a message repeated by 10 people, all obviously towing the party line, will make us more likely to believe it than if we heard it only from the candidate. There are also many examples of voters contradicting the polls, and experts, predicting one outcome or another based on their campaign acumen. So my verdict on whether this model works is: the evidence is mixed, and I don’t see enough reason to throw my values and professional integrity out the window.

Is there something valuable here communication professionals can learn from?

This second question is one that comes up often with peers, particularly younger professionals new to the PR/communication industry. My answer to them is that politics is the last place I would go to pick up valuable best practices. Yes, there are certainly some lessons we can learn from the political process – notably the sophisticated use of research in message development, enlisting of third parties and local volunteers, and efficient use of “war room” monitoring and response teams. There are also important media trends we can learn from, such as the shift to more blatant, unapologetic political alignment. But overall the extreme (some would say perverse) communication approach favored in political campaigns is a good model of what to avoid if you want to foster a credible, lasting relationship with your audiences. Hype and propaganda may win you a few temporary victories (including some elections) but facts, balance and transparency are more important if you want long-term relevance and respect as a source, or professional counsel.

Ultimately, I have faith in the capacity of well-intentioned people to sift through the noise, do their homework and make up their own minds. Banking on the ignorance and gullibility of people is not in the best interest of voters, or the PR profession.

Well, another one bites the dust. Add one more name to the long list of organizations undone by poor decisions and even worse crisis management. In the space of one week the Susan G. Komen Foundation – famous for being the brand behind the ubiquitous pink campaign against Breast Cancer – has done serious, perhaps irreparable damage, to its reputation and brand. Check out this article in Fast Company for a good summary of the imbroglio.

The Komen leadership team did so many things wrong it’s difficult to know where to start. Let me try…

  • Think before you act – First and foremost, if you are going to make a policy decision that will have a big impact on your operations, make sure there is a solid rationale behind the change. The argument used by Komen for the suspension of payments to Planned Parenthood – that changes were dictated by a new policy prohibiting organizations under investigation from funding – appeared disingenuous. Buried in the policy legalese – our desire was to fulfill our fiduciary duty to our donors by not funding grant applications made by organizations under investigation – is the reality that the “investigation” in question was seen by most as a partisan witch-hunt by one anti-abortion member of Congress. Observers were further led to believe the dramatic impact of this policy on Planned Parenthood was a mere coincidence.
  • Don’t try to bury the story – The story of the policy change broke with an article by Associated Press, and quickly picked up steam on Twitter and Facebook before becoming a top story for traditional media outlets. The Komen team didn’t announce the policy broadly – presumably trying a stealth approach – preferring to inform it’s various affiliates directly. (By all accounts Planned Parenthood was not informed in advance of the change.) When the story broke Komen leaders were slow to react, and their initial responses were brief, formal and defensive. Some PR observers suggest the battle was lost in those initial 24-hours, when Planned Parenthood mobilized its fans and led a smart, vocal PR counter-offensive.
  • Don’t ignore social media – The failure of the Komen team to acknowledge, and adequately respond to, the uproar on social networks is seen by many as the biggest failure in their crisis management strategy. The outrage was swift, viral and overwhelmingly negative. Many of my female “friends” on Facebook, some big supporters of Komen over the years, expressed their disappointment and disavowal. The Komen team did use Twitter for updates (largely repeating their canned messages) but anchored their response through more traditional “push” channels like written statements and YouTube videos. To make matters worse, they were accused of scrubbing the most negative responses from their branded Facebook pages and websites.
  • Remember who you are – Somewhere along the way it appears the Komen team forgot they were a charity whose stated purpose was promoting the health of women – including poor women – and that they are a non-profit dependent on their supporters and fans for revenue. Their funding decision – at best an awkward decision based on dubious legal reasons – and their subsequent response seemed totally at odds with the feel-good, compassionate image of their brand. Whatever the merit of their decision, the impact of cutting off thousands of women from low-cost access to breast screening was anathema to their stated mission.
  • Listen to others, not your own story – One lesson that Karen Brinker and team may still not have learned is that stubbornly repeating an argument that few believe is not courageous, it’s counter-productive. In fact, the Komen team continued their defensive, almost defiant stance even as several officials resigned in protest – surely not a good sign. Even after reversing it’s decision, Komen tweets and comments stubbornly continued to defend their original decision and argue politics was never a factor. The battle had been lost, but the lesson was not learned.
  • Back what you say – The Komen team never provided solid evidence to counter the strong circumstantial evidence, supported by claims from former staffers, that the reason for their policy change was political. It didn’t help that previous statements and recent tweets by new policy VP Karen Handel made it clear she was an ardent critic of Planned Parenthood.
  • Don’t treat people as idiots – Perhaps the most egregious error by the Komen team in this crisis is their attempt to position the response to the policy change as positive, even as any casual observer could see the overwhelmingly negative social media reaction and related media coverage. This blatant attempt at spin was as misguided and incredulous as it was ineffective.
  • Build and protect your goodwill – Another potential factor in the quick fall from grace for the Komen organization was that its goodwill may have eroded over the past few years due to some very uncharitable behavior – including its hard-ball legal stance against any hint of copyright infringement. The brittle, arrogant demeanor of Komen founder – and main spokesperson – Karen Brinker probably didn’t help their cause.

Of course, Komen did have the wisdom to change their decision – albeit belatedly and without totally letting go of their delusional narrative. In fact, they continue to be defensive about the “incorrect presumption” behind their ill-advised policy, and pointedly did not promise to renew the cancelled grants to Planned Parenthood.

The recent riots in the UK sparked a great deal of soul-searching – including about the use of social media. Many reports noted, with some alarm, that the rioters were using social networks and smart phones (notably RIM’s Messenger service) to plan and execute their dirty deeds. As a result, Prime Minister David Cameron is considering, among a range of remedial steps, to censor or block future communication on these same networks.

This reaction, though understandable, is rash and misguided. For one thing, it fails to consider that social media was also used by citizens to organize clean-up efforts and counter-demonstrations in support of order and civility. Video reports gathered by police and observers also greatly facilitated the identification of the rioters and spurred thousands of arrests. But most importantly, this focus on technology is a losing game, since those with initiative and evil intent (rioters, hackers and the like) will quickly find another channel or tool to plan their activities.

This scenario of social media as both spark and balm during civil unrest is being repeated on a regular basis. A few months ago the city of Vancouver was shocked and disgusted by urban violence and looting during the Stanley Cup finals – some of which was coordinated and fueled by social media. But again citizens of Vancouver used the same technology to plan a massive clean-up effort and to open a widespread public dialogue on the identity and values of the community. In a different context, we’ve seen how social media helped those involved in the so-called Spring Uprising in countries like Egypt and Tunisia. More recently, transit officials in San Francisco arbitrarily cut-off underground cellphone service for several hours to – in their words – prevent a disruptive protest by citizens upset by a recent shooting.

It’s clear that social media technology provides unprecedented benefits – allowing for instant, fluid communication with global reach. And it’s equally clear that this same technology can be used for evil purposes – whether it be pedophiles trolling on Facebook or anarchists using networking platforms to engage and direct supporters. The way to address these abuses is not to ban or censor the channels, but to develop relevant rules of engagement – and laws – that are designed specifically to prevent such abuses. If an individual breaks the rules or uses the networks for criminal activities, then he/she should be punished and/or banned. The response should be targeted and specific, and based on activity rather than speculation. The alternative is blunt, arbitrary shutdowns that punish many for the abuses of the few. As suggested by Jeff Jarvis in this commentary, any social media ban – even if targeted against convicted rioters – sets a dangerous precedent and raises questions about who decides what to censor. This is a valid and important debate, but it requires a balanced, measured approach that acknowledges the positive impact of social media – even in the worst situations of rioting or war.

I’ve long ago stopped telling people I work in the PR industry. One reason is it can be a tough thing to explain PR to people outside the communication field – particularly if the discussion starts with a sarcastic question about being a “publicist” – but my primary rationale is I don’t want to be associated with an industry that often requires its own image overhaul (irony duly noted.) The latest black eye comes from Burson Marsteller – who was caught in a so-called whisper campaign trying to pitch privacy fears about Google. According to news reports, senior Burson staff approached tech reporters and bloggers to seed unfounded allegations about privacy gaps in Google’s Social Service application. A blogger broke the story by posting the email exchanges.

After predictable (though belated) mea culpa, both Facebook and Burson came under heavy criticism – though the latter was a favorite target on social platforms for initially censoring its Facebook page. Strangely enough, both Facebook and Burson argued in their defence they were merely helping to publicize “publicly available” information – which raises the question why they would have to brief reporters in the first place. Burson eventually admitted it erred in taking on the project, and said the campaign went against its standard operating procedures. Apparently, the agency has decided not to fire the two consultants at the center of the storm, though they will go through training on ethics.

The bigger culprit here, in my mind, is Burson…and any other PR firm that takes on a project with a dubious purpose that contravenes basic rules of transparency and probity. Too often, agencies take on lucrative clients for projects that should send alarms to any self-respecting communication professional. If there is a litmus test, it’s not easily apparent. Every PR agency – and communication professional – needs to confirm the ethical guidelines and values that will determine what projects it takes on, and how the PR programs are implemented. There are companies I won’t take on as clients, and there are definitely some things I won’t do or say under the guise of public relations.

Whether this latest Burson smear campaign was done by rogues or hints at a larger systemic rot, I can’t say. But it only the latest in a long list of industry scandals that erodes the credibility of every communication professional. It may be a coincidence, but the IABC’s latest edition of Communication World focuses on the topic of ethics in the PR industry. Is anybody listening?

Just read a really interesting article in AdAge that provides a post-mortem autopsy on the Kenneth Cole Twitter scandal…and subsequent redemption. There are two provocative arguments in the article:

  • Social media has dramatically accelerated the usual steps and cycle of scandals, including quick resolution and forgiveness for those who take appropriate action;
  • The new scandal pattern features a secondary wave or parodies of the original blunder…which sometimes generates more attention that the original event.

Based on some recent miscues propagated on/by Twitter, it would appear that companies can go from goat to reformed sinner much faster than before the advent of social media. And the deluge of content on networks like Twitter and Facebook inevitably helps push old news out of the spotlight. That said, I would argue that the outcome of the crisis – and ultimate impact on the brands involved – depends on the magnitude of the original error, as well as how promptly and cogently the company reacts. Kenneth Cole quickly apologizing for his ill-advised use of #Cairo in his original tweet cannot be compared to the massive BP oil spill crisis, or even the recent Taco Bell “where’s the beef” situation. For one thing, those events quickly spread across social several social networks and traditional media channels and an easy, quick resolution is not likely to occur. (BP, for example, is likely to face years of legal repercussions.) These other crises also raise more fundamental, serious questions about the companies involved. Kenneth Cole may have been insensitive, but he wasn’t accused of endemic incompetence, harm to consumers or corporate corruption.

Despite these caveats, communication professionals should be aware that old models and time-honored principles of crisis management – do you remember the “5 R’s”…responsibility, regret, restitution, resolution and reform – are being influenced by the technology and mores of social media. In nothing else, it appears that some crises will be played out at lightning Web speed. Whether that makes it easier or harder to manage is open to debate, but it’s fascinating to watch.


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