Showing posts with label spin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label spin. Show all posts

Friday, June 1

Spinning XL: Soda Pop Ban Spins Away Real News

Most major municipalities have so many problems — flattening employment, degrading infrastructure, diminishing revenue, and driving people away with increasing taxation — that it can be difficult for government officials to set priorities. But it wasn't difficult for New York City's mayor to set priorities.

The priority problem is you. You drink too much soda. 

After several failed attempts at fighting soda consumption, Mayor Bloomberg has found a way to curb consumption. Large sugary drinks are nearly all banned in New York City. Fruit juice, even those with more sugar than soda, and diet drinks will be exempt from the ban. Big milkshakes and oversized beers are still okay. As bad as those things are, Bloomberg knows he has to pick and choose his battles.

“Obesity is a nationwide problem, and all over the United States, public health officials are wringing their hands saying, ‘Oh, this is terrible,’” Bloomberg told The New York Times. "New York City is not about wringing your hands; it's about doing something."

With 32-ounce sodas finally outlawed, New York City citizens will have to look for 2-for-1 16-ounce cup sales at their local movie theaters, grocery stores, and convenience stores. The seriousness of this escapade cannot be understated. Bloomberg and others like him are excited to regulate your health, with many cities expected to follow suit.

Bloomberg says that the public wants him to do it. Maybe that makes sense, especially for the portion of the public that apparently does not have the will power to say no. According to the sourced CBS Health Pop story, the city health department says 34 percent of New Yorkers are overweight and 22 percent are obese. One in five school children is also obese. 

You can't tell people to consume less and exercise more, one health professor said. If she is given huge amounts of food, she is going to eat it. Egad. Keep your hands and feet away.

We saw similar attempts to regulate health two years ago, when some people said they don't want Ronald McDonald around either. McDonald's is a frequent target of such bans, including a case where San Francisco banned Happy Meal toys. McDonald's eventually side-stepped the ban, offering the toys for a 10 cent donation to the Ronald McDonald House Charity. 

But that's not where the real story ends. It's where the spin story begins. 

When government officials and politicians embrace headlines that can be likened to the top five ways to get media attention, it almost assuredly means that there is more important but less popular news to consider. What it is in New York is anybody's guess. But the soft drink ban certainly spun away the comptroller's finding that New Yorkers were over-billed by contractors

In fact, on a quick article recap count, the soda pop story beat the comptroller story by a margin of  10:1 because Americans love their news like their soft drinks — full of sugary goodness. Ergo, what's more exciting and sharable: a $2 billion project over budget by $700 million (up to $50 million in erroneous overcharges) or a soda pop ban? The numbers don't lie. Soda pop wins. 

The story swap spin tactic isn't confined to New York City either. With two contestants for the upcoming presidential election clearly defined, trumping real topics like the economy is already pretty commonplace. You know, never mind unemployment or government debt or foreign relations. It's safer to talk about birth certificates, lifestyle choices, and other sound bites. 

Wednesday, March 7

Finding Spin: Bob Conrad Cuts Through The Spin!

Misinformation is a conversation that frequently comes up in my public relations courses, with no single source of information exempt from bias, fabrication, and blatant slant. One could easily argue that it makes up the majority of the information we are exposed to every day and the trend — driven by popularity and shareability — is increasing exponentially, with the media being especially suspect.

Where did all the objective reporting go anyway?

In his book, Spin! How The News Media Misinform And Why Consumers Misunderstand, Bob Conrad captures some of the story, leaning more toward current events than the short history of objective journalism and why it is changing (regressing) today. And missing the history of it all is probably the greatest flaw in an otherwise well-presented thesis book.

After all, one cannot fully discuss objective journalism without discussing Walter Lippman, who set the standard for it. Prior, journalism wasn't even considered a real profession. And why would it be? For all of the good people like Lippman were trying to do, other publishers like William Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer used sensationalized news to drive circulation much like media outlets do today. They did it enough so that both are readily linked to helping start the Spanish-American War.

How ironic that 100 years later, with new media on the rise and mainstream trying to drive circulation, we find ourselves relearning the same circular lesson. Unless, of course, you look at it all differently. Although yellow journalism did not get its name until the turn of the late 1800s, it was alive and well in the United States, both preceding the American Revolution (to prime independence) and immediately following it (to mutually ridicule emerging political parties after the writing of the Constitution).

But other than this omission, Spin! tells some of the modern story. 

Based on the assumption that journalists still pine away for objective journalism (they don't), Conrad captures several concerning stories in less than 90 pages. In the telling, he also catches more than one journalist tripping on his own logic.

"Our job is to tell stories, to make facts relevant, but never skew them." — David Baker, State News

Conrad takes the logic to task because he rightfully points out that interpreting and shaping the information is how it becomes biased. And, in fact, it is worse than the front end suggests. Many journalists who put pen to paper in 1960s and 1970s discovered new styles for writing the news — with the aim to set agenda or sometimes entertain with one.

From there, Conrad moves into other stories to demonstrate some of the real challenges that face journalism today: reporter bias, anointed elitism, and defensive posturing. Most of them fall into one of the six divisions of modern media, but a few go further in describing a blatant disregard for the truth, something a few journalists have used to gain attention and awards (e.g., those who make it up).

All of it makes for good reading. And yet, if the real measure of Conrad's book can be found in solutions, then it doesn't seem promising for us in this brave new world of media manipulation from outside and within. His seven solutions, some new and some old, include: creating space for more citizen journalism, reestablishing the barriers between news and opinion, adopting principles from public relations, holding journalists accountable, and raising the bar in expert selection.

Will any of these solutions work to curb misinformation? 

Not one of them is necessarily a bad idea and all of them can be starting points for consideration. But unfortunately, none of them can reach the ultimate goal. They cannot bring back objective journalism.

If we really want credible and objective news, then citizens have to support it while learning to suppress their growing appetite for affirmation news. And right now, feeling freed of inconvenient facts that run contrary to their own individual ideologies, it's virtually impossible for a major media outlet to survive and maintain objectivism.

If I had to guess, I would say that today's media needs a wide-reaching and catastrophic miss that results in massive public outcry. And if we are to avoid such a costly blunder, then we need an emerging voice within journalism like Lippman in his era.

Ergo, someone needs to shame the media into making the truth their ultimate goal once again. And if someone doesn't soon, then it will take something bigger than any of the examples cited in Conrad's book, which is a frightening thought.

I used to think, much like Conrad, that a collective voice might emerge from the ranks of citizen journalists to get the job done. But I don't see this happening anytime soon. As long as popularity and perceived influence are more cherished than the truth, then we will continue to be buffeted back and forth by polarized opinion, popularizing misinformation, and selective facts.

Where Spin! wins despite some shortcomings in research.

While it might not sound like it at times, I would recommend Spin! to anyone hoping to gain a better grasp of where the media are today. Not only does Spin! make a great catch-up primer and indispensable resource, it also sets an agenda for a conversation that needs to happen. Given you can consume it all in a few hours (and then spend weeks chasing down conclusions), all the better.

However, that doesn't mean you can afford to dismiss your own due diligence after reading it. Conrad brings in much of his arguments from what he is exposed to, which sometimes skews his own perspective. While he disclaims some of this in the preface, it's still bothersome to see someone attributed as if they coined "he said/she said" journalism  when they didn't, the omission of a historical context, and his own personal bias (which I have to point out despite agreeing with much of it).

In other words, it's a must-read book for anyone with an interest in media and citizen journalism, but only as a primer for a much bigger pool of knowledge that is out there and waiting to be assembled. Still, I will recommending it to my class. I regularly recommend his blog for good reading too.

I received a complimentary copy of Spin! How The News Media Misinform And Why Consumers Misunderstand by Bob Conrad with the understanding that the book would be reviewed.

Wednesday, July 7

Flipping Terms: Freedom In Retrospect

"Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must undergo the fatigue of supporting it." — Thomas Paine

In relation to population, Common Sense, written by Thomas Paine, had the largest circulation of any book in American history. It set the tone for the United States Declaration of Independence, arguing that all men are created equal six months before the principal author, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in the explanation of the colonies' decision to separate. It was adopted on July 4, 1776.

The above quote, which I shared across my social networks during the long weekend, elicited an interesting response from my friend Chris Stadler, who asked if the concept of freedom I was referencing had changed over the last 234 years. Many people today, even those who are uncertain of which country the United States declared its independence from, believe it to mean freedom from responsibilities. Specifically, the right not to worry.

Flipping The Definition Of Freedom.

Flipping the definitions of freedom and security is relatively easy to do. And to escape the trappings of politics, let's consider the zoo, which is a park or institution where animals are kept, bred, and exhibited.

By the definition of some, these animals must be the most free on earth. All of their meals are provided, fairly distributed based upon the energy they require. All of their health care is free, with regular preventative care. All of their decisions are made for them, ranging from what to eat to when they sleep to what they play with for the enjoyment of passersby.

They want for nothing, these animals. No predators can harm them. And nowadays, most live longer.

However, most zoologists admit that while they can provide a good and caring quality of life for the animals, one can only guess whether or not any particular animal would be happier in the wild or not. By most measures, it depends on the animal.

And with that in mind, for the purposes of this thought experiment, imagine if some of the animals could let us know. And let's say, a certain percentage of these animals told us that they would, indeed, prefer a harsher risk for the thrill of the hunt or the run. The zookeeper might be faced with a curious choice.

If specific animals are responsible for the revenue generated by the zoo, should they be let go and all the remaining animals forced to get by with less? Or, do they have an obligation to stay for the good of the community they were born into or adopted by? And since whatever rare attributes they possess are vital to the collective good, are theyrequired to accept the quality of life chosen for them, which by a different sort of parameters offers them more freedom, not less, despite the burden of captivity?

Indeed, under the flipped freedom thinking, the obligatory model holds. It did in 1776 too.

Leading Up To Independence.

Americans tend to learn about the American Revolution from the perspective of Americans. It makes sense, but there is a succession of steps that lead up to disenfranchisement of the people, with most of those problems related to policy.

Great Britain wasn't necessarily trying to be cruel to the Americas, at first. It had borrowed heavily to finance the Seven Years War (called the French and Indian War in the Americas), and doubled its national debt.

Since all countries must eventually address liabilities, Great Britain began levying more taxes to pay for the debt. To collect these taxes, the government had to create and expand bureaucracies, which required additional taxes to support it.

The new bureaucracies, afforded more power by Parliament, did what they do best. They increased regulations, which inflamed the increasing tax and debt problems. And, as justification, viewed the increasing taxes and regulations as just, given the obligation of its citizens to share in the costs associated with its decisions, perhaps bad ones.

The end result, from the perspective of the various colonies, was a central government encroaching on the prosperity and autonomy of the various colonial charters and the citizens who resided there. However, that did not matter to the central government, which felt it had sufficient power and authority to bind the colonial states to its will.

Many of us know what happened next. It led to the writing of the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress, a document written two years prior to the Declaration of Independence but much lesser known in that it was an attempt to reconcile increasing taxation and central authority.

The similarities of our current course are startling, with one exception. A greater percentage of people elect to live in a zoo. And there seems to be an increasing number of people inclined to round up the rest who prefer to run loose. It's for their own good, naturally.

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Thursday, June 17

Renting White Guys: The Art Of Deception

“Bring a computer," said Ken, a young Canadian of Taiwanese extraction, told Mitch Moxley. "You can watch movies all day.”

At least, that is how Ken described the quality control expert job to Moxley. In reality, the job was to serve as a "stand in" executive to create the illusion of a bigger international American company. The only skill set required was to look good in a suit and shake a few hands.

As good as the "Rent a White Guy" story is, the comments are amusing too. Some attribute it to the predisposed notion that all Chinese businesses are shady. Others, bemused, ask where they can apply. Most never consider that the phenomenon isn't exclusive to China.

"We didn't get the account," one agency principal recently told me. "We won the pitch, but a small majority of the decision makers wanted a bigger agency."

Never mind that the agency awarded the account had inflated the numbers, counting entire vendor companies as part of its staff. And never mind that once the agency was awarded what it considered a very small account, it fully intended to assign it to a team consisting of one junior executive and possibly an intern to do the bulk of the work. All that seemed to matter to a simple majority of decision makers was that the company they chose had a staff of 80 people.

It happens all the time in this market and others too. It's not uncommon for agencies and public relations firms vying to look bigger than everyone else on a ranking list to start counting second cousins as part of the team. Others submit their firms to both ad agency and public relations firm lists, even when the they might only staff two people on the public relations side of their full-service agency. They still come up on top.

Go ahead. Count the cleaning staff. They work for the firm too. Numbers are important. Location is too.

When we subleased offices on the 14th floor of the Bank of America building in downtown Las Vegas (which was extremely prestigious at the time), I was always surprised by the number of companies that "rented" the address but not the space. Most would show up just now and again. And the front desk would put on a good show, as if these hourly tenants came in daily.

After awhile, however, nothing much surprised me. I've met with financial advisors who named their company after the building they subleased to create the illusion they owned it. I know several "board members" that do nothing more than lend their picture for the lobby wall. And several years ago, I used to have six different sets of business cards for a few clients who were uncomfortable with introducing me as a subconsultant. (I wasn't rented in name only, mind you. I did the work.)

Our rules were always simple enough. Agency clients could call me and my team members who directly worked on an account anything they wanted. They could even add us to proposals, assuming it was an account we'd work on. They could print business cards. And, in one case, a publication I worked for set up an in-house voice mail.

There were limits, however. They couldn't count us as staff. We certainly wouldn't lie. And if a client ever asked, we'd make it clear what our relationship was with the firm. We worked with them, but not for them.

There are several others who don't have limits. We know a few of them. There are even some politicians who play the game. They may as well place "in name only" on their business cards. The extent of their relationships with some companies is merely meant to lend an illusion of credibility and connections to a firm, bank, or hospital. In exchange, they receive a retainer. (Please keep in mind, we also know many who are very active in the businesses they work for.)

Of course, all of this works the other way too. I've pitched entire organizational boards despite the decision resting solely on the discretion of the executive director. I've been introduced to "business advisors" who only appear at the first meeting. And I have learned, on more than one occasion, that some "managing partners" are only partners with themselves.

None of it really matters, but some people like to pretend.

Since mid 1990s, I became too visible for agencies to introduce me as anything but a consultant or an extension of their teams. (Google will do that.) So it doesn't come up anymore. It hasn't for a long time. I only have one business card (but am sometimes asked not to hand it out).

Instead, I have found a different role for the friends we work with. When they lose an account because of another firm's fictitious numbers, I casually remind them that the account wasn't worth winning. The potential client obviously has deficient decision making skills.

I learned this years ago too. It stuck with me after spending a few hours with a sitting judge who was considering a run for a more perceptually prestigious elected position. I learned it when he walked me out to my car.

At first, I thought he walked me out because we had really hit it off. He told me that wasn't the case. He walked me out because the entire basis of which firm he would hire was based on transportation.

"If you drove a Porsche, I'd know you overcharge," he explained, looking over the red Volkswagen that I drove at the time. "And if you drove a Yugo, you must not be very good. This is a nice, well-kept practical car. I like it."

"Oh," I said. "I could have saved you the trouble of walking out. I decline consideration."

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Thursday, June 3

Considering Spin: Obama Administration

"Those who think that we were either slow on our response or lacked urgency don't know the facts. This has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred." — President Obama

Depending on whose accounting of the Gulf Coast oil spill you read, the Obama administration was either on top of the crisis from day one or it was woefully behind. The truth, as it often is nowadays, is somewhere in the middle.

The differences in how the story is reported relates to whether you include the federal government in the timeline, the Obama administration, or the President himself; whether you accept statements over actions; and whether you account for the results.

"From the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort." — President Obama

While the U.S. Coast Guard was on scene from day one, most federal agencies represented were merely overseeing BP efforts.

It wasn't until April 29, nine days after the accident and four days after the unified command inaccurately estimated the leak was spewing 1,000 barrels or 42,000 gallons a day (which was estimated at five times as much and later much more), that the Obama administration recognized the spill to be of national significance.

The reporting reveals how much of the communication would be handled from that point forward. On April 25, the unified command provided the inaccurate oil leak estimate, which included federal officials. On April 28, federal officials say BP provided an inaccurate estimate.

Meanwhile, the same press conference Media Matters uses to build its case to prove the administration was in control of the situation paints an obvious picture. The President was "following the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico," the EPA was monitoring, and the secretary of the Interior accurately describes the operations as one of "anticipating," "planning," and providing "oversight."

April 29 is also the day President Obama pledges "every single available resource," including the U.S. military, to contain the spreading spill. He will visit the Gulf Coast to see cleanup efforts firsthand three days later. At the same time, almost every communication from the White House reinforces that the cleanup responsibility belongs to BP.

Almost a full month after Obama made the pledge, Bobby Jindal, Louisiana governor, said that he and other Gulf Coast governors were “taking matters into our own hands.” On June 2, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley questioned why parts of the Gulf Coast are left unprotected. On the same day, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is no longer downplaying the crisis. And while Florida continues to invest in tourism advertising free unlicensed fishing weekends while it can, the fishing industry has already been called a disaster.

Worse, the Gulf Coast may no longer be the only region to be impacted. There is growing concern that oil will reach the Atlantic Coast.

And yet, during President Obama's second visit to the area on May 28, with the prospect of the Top Kill procedure working, he declared "I am the president and the buck stops with me." Shortly after the procedure failed, the President launched a public relations offensive against BP and started to see the accident as an opportunity to press for an energy reform plan.

"I'm confident people are going to look back and say this administration was on top of what was an unprecedented crisis." — President Obama.

According to a release by the Global Language Monitor’s NarrativeTracker, President Obama's confidence ought to be shaken. Overwhelmingly, the public sees the the administration was slow to respond and more than half still don't believe the administration is in control.

• 95 percent of the social media conversations characterize President Obama as "slow to respond."
• Despite what President Obama has said, 52 percent still believe that BP is in charge of the spill containment.
• Most people compare the spill to Exxon Valdez, not Hurricane Katrina, which was a natural disaster.
• The public is split in deciding whether or not Obama is hands on or hands off on this event.

So where is the middle? The federal government (specifically, the U.S. Coast Guard) was on top of the spill from day one. The Obama administration merely positioned itself as an armchair player. Politically, it seemed like the safe bet. If things went well, the administration could claim being on top of it. If things went bad, they could blame BP. The communication bears this out.

As for public perception, it has become a result unto itself. With a catastrophe this large, the only possible way the public might be confused over who is in charge is a direct result of the communication delivered by the administration. As for the President himself, his schedule suggests he is correct in that this has been his administration's top priority, but not necessarily his priority.

And now? The most obvious priority is finding the right scapegoat. Even the international press sees it for what it is, with the President's reported "rage" framed up as just another sign of weakness. BP might be responsible for the spill, but it is not responsible for a plan that reads like more spin than response.

Other Reactions Around The Web.

Welcome to the Obama BP Spin War.
Obama Begins Spill-To-Bill Pivot.
Oil-Spill Spin: Who Can You Trust? (Obama Is Not Even On The List)
• James Carville Slams Obama on Oil Spill.
• How Washington Just Worsened the Gulf Oil Spill.

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Tuesday, May 18

Hearting Apple: Adobe Wants Some Love

What started as a tongue-in-cheek response to a letter from Steve Jobs that was arguably reminiscent of high school, the "Adobe heart Apple" campaign has taken on a more serious tone. Adobe, which originally admitted it could improve Flash to meet iPad standards, is still working hard to stir up consumers.

The first round of advertisements, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, state, “We ♥ Apple” in large, bold lettering. The second round dumps Apple in favor of "We ♥ Choice". Adobe also spells out its position on its Web site.

Adobe's Ad Gamble Worked.

The ad campaign was a gamble, given that the stakes for Adobe to retain Web video dominance is high. And there is no denying that it has paid short-term dividends in some sectors.

First, it gave Driod fans something to talk about. Second, Citi maintained a 'buy' on Adobe Systems Inc. and a Citi analyst concluded that catalysts are biased to the positive side. Third, the campaign afforded Adobe an opportunity to put itself in front of the classroom.

But about that third win. It might have worked too well.

Adobe might have had the players in place to speak, but its message was deep enough for the "lights, camera, action" sequence that followed. Sure, the company was well-prepared for first tier questions about whether Apple is stifling creativity. But it wasn't so prepared on second tier questions tied to what Adobe might do better.

Adobe's Win Becomes A PR Challenge.

It's difficult for any company to win a long-term public relations battle based on "openness" while erecting walls at the same time. And in this case, it's hard to miss that Adobe is all too comfortable saying it will stick to "its facts" while Microsoft and Apple can stick to "their facts." Let the media and consumers decide, they say.

The net result has become a debate of sorts between some writers at BNET and ZDNet and two camps of consumers. But as far facts go, Adobe is the more selective storyteller.

At the beginning of this year, only 10 percent of the video content on Web was HTML5. That figure has changed dramatically, with as much as 26 percent of online video HTML5. If change can occur that quickly, video market share dominance is moot.

Sure, Adobe can favor choice. But it might as well admit that choice is working against it. So is its message to investors. During an earnings call (hat tip: ReadWriteWeb), Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen told investors that Flash was "synonymous with the Internet and frankly, anybody who wants to browse the web and experience the web’s glory really needs Flash support."

Where is the choice in that?

It seems to me that the dvertising campaign seemed to work in that it sparked the conversation that Adobe wanted to have. But as an integrated communication strategy, Adobe is coming up short. They aren't prepared to have open conversation.

It even makes me wonder whether Narayen ever learned that oh-so-valuable lesson from first grade. When you hope to look smart by being the first to raise your hand, always keep in mind that the teacher might call on you.

Oh, if you do want to view Flash on an iPhone, there's an app for that.

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Tuesday, March 30

Fighting Words: Dish Network vs. DirecTV

If anybody is wondering whether the Dish Network or DirecTV will win their respective legal fights, the answer seems obvious. Only cable stands to win as the two satellite companies tie each other up in court.

The allegations erupted last month when DirecTV sued Dish Network for claiming it was cheaper. The Dish Network filed suit last week alleging DirecTV is misleading consumers by claiming it offers more HD channels than it actually carries.

This fight seems a little bit meaner than the tug of war between AT&T and Verizon. But ironically, neither of these companies have too much to gain, given that most cable networks have accused satellite of misleading customers for as long as I can remember.

DirecTV has gone as far as devoting an entire section of its Web site to the kertuffle, asking "Who do you believe?" before dashing off a paragraph with more footnotes than copy points. Meanwhile, Dish is sticking with its commercial that DiretTV costs a much as cable whereas Dish Network offers virtually the same package for approximately $20 less (although newer commercials have changed up the price point comparison). None of it is as ugly as the comparisons outlined on a Web site run by a Dish Network authorized retailer.

The weakest part of the new Dish Network argument is that it overreaches. One of its complaints is that the new DirecTV advertisements "mimic look and feel of certain ads in Dish Network's Why Would You Ever Pay More For TV campaign." They do not. Not by a long shot.

Two years ago, Campbell's and General Mills taught each other a similar lesson after launching a battle over which soup line contained more MSG. No one won, except the agencies asked to produce the ads.

I'm fond of reminding advertisers that the first rule in advertising is that there are no rules. However, there are some general principles that have have stood the test of time — never overreach in your advertising. In order to develop an effective contrast, it's always smarter to stick with a competitive comparison you can accurately win. Case study on Thursday, with an emphasis on how to develop a better product contrast.

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Thursday, March 18

Choosing Truth: LifeLock, Inc. Settlement

Last week, we shared four different versions of the $11 million settlement LifeLock, Inc. agreed to pay the Federal Trade Commission and $1 million to a group of 35 state attorneys general over deceptive advertising. We then asked readers to compare these truths, choosing the most likely truth.

There wasn't enough data to call this poll scientific, but there was enough to prove a point. When faced with four stories, the truth is often left behind and consumers are baffled.

LifeLock Poll Results

• 28.57 percent said they were most likely to believe the Federal Trade Commission.
• 28.57 percent were not inclined to believe any of the four stories released.
• 14.29 percent said they believed LifeLock worked with the FTC to set new standards.
• 14.29 percent were inclined to believe all of the stories, assuming each had some truth.
• 7.14 percent thought what CEO Todd Davis said in interviews was the most accurate.
• 7.14 percent believed investor David Cowen that the FTC was politically motivated.

Interestingly enough, poll participants do not match the greater online sentiment. Online coverage is overwhelmingly negative, with approximately 85 percent of the conversation centered on the FTC release, and only 15 percent accepting any version of the LifeLock story.

Sentiment is overwhelmingly influenced only by which release mainstream and new media decided to cover. However, based on cursory research, the FTC release, which dominated the conversation on March 7, seems like it will have a much shorter shelf life than LifeLock public relations efforts.

The Public Relations Lesson

With some certainty, LifeLock had an opportunity to move beyond the settlement and return to business as mostly usual, but the public relations message is largely inconsistent and overreaches, undermining its own attempt at damage control. In addition, Cowen would have better served the company if he had not offered his opinion. The best the company can hope for now is that the settlement issue will eventually fade into history.

It's very possible it will, given the company partners with the FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development Association on training programs. And, despite Nevada being one of the settling attorneys general offices, it is also hosting a cooperative identity theft town hall meeting.

Still, LifeLock is probably fortunate so far that the FTC has not sought to penalize the company in its handling of communication regarding the settlement, given the FTC barred LifeLock from overstating protection against all types of identity theft and the risk of identity theft to consumers. After all, LifeLock's settlement release clearly overstates its role in the settlement, which is ironic given the settlement was all about reigning in overstatement.

The Truth Lesson

While truth is not relative, the facts chosen by all parties seem somewhat selective. But most people will only be exposed to one of the four messages, which will shape their opinions about the company. And yet, none of those stories provide a full accounting of the truth.

Chances are that the truth resides somewhere in between everyone telling the truth and nobody telling the truth, depending on how you want to look at it. All of the releases seem to contain some truth and some spin, which prompted some poll participants to conclude all of them were true while others, given that a partial truth is not the truth, all not true.

For instance, Cowens' post is true in that the FTC is under greater scrutiny from the current administration, which may prompt it to pursue some cases that do not warrant it. It is also likely true that LifeLock accepted the settlement even if it felt it could win the case in the court of law because settlements seem cheaper (not always). His opinion, though, overreaches on speculation of a very specific agenda. It seems unlikely the ties are that tight, specific, and planned.

Still, the FTC release is heavy-handed. Usually, settlements come with some sense of resolution between the two parties, but this release is clearly punitive and doesn't provide a timeframe of when the deceptive advertising supposedly occurred. The FTC clearly wanted the settlement to be seen as a win, even if its own disclaimer admits that the settlement is no indication that the defendant violated the law.

Given the heavy-handedness, it seems painfully clear that LifeLock and the FTC were not cuddling up together in order to set new industry standards as LifeLock alleged in its release. And, at least one of the commissioners was not even interested in accepting the settlement. LifeLock also overstates that everything is business as usual as there are tighter guidelines in how it communicates its advertising messages in the future.

The message is further complicated by conflicting interview messages. Those messages seem to be closer to the truth but still overreach in communicating that the settlement did not have an impact on the company. That statement alone contradicts its claim to have set a new industry standard.

Another lesson here is how "he said, she said" journalism does little to get at the truth. When time-strapped reporters increasingly rely on reporting statements as opposed to investigating facts, nobody is served. It's especially par for the course for more complex subjects where topics like health care and TARP money give consumers the choice of believing the person who says the sky is "green" or the one who says the sky is "purple" while leaving "blue" out of the options all together.

In Conclusion

The real trouble spot for the FTC in this story is that there seems to be some dissent over whether such a service is needed. Based on the varied releases from attorneys general offices, identify theft is a problem, nothing is foolproof protection against it, and consumers can take steps to increase protection without such services (and thus companies like LifeLock are not needed).

However, such logic could lead one to conclude all sorts of services are unneeded, including everything from house cleaners and accountants to restaurants and pet groomers. Of course consumers can take measures into their own hands. However, if they want the convenience or peace of mind of having someone do some of it for them, then they might consider a service.

That aside, the FTC was right in taking this case but overzealous about periphery topics on wins that amounts to less than a 10 percent refund per consumer. LifeLock seems to have misrepresented its service by its own admission but seems unlikely to stop spinning the truth. And the decision whether or not a consumer chooses an identity theft protection service or does something on their own (none of which is 100 percent) amounts to nothing more than asking whether they want to clean the house or have someone do it for them. Ergo, everyone tried to be honest, but nobody was truthful. Not really. Case closed.

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Thursday, March 11

Choosing The Truth: Take Your Pick

"All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” — Galileo Galilei

Except, fewer and fewer people seem the least bit interested. Take the recent settlement between the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), 35 state attorneys general, and a company accused of deceptive business practices for making false claims. The outcome is cast in a rainbow of colors. If you happened to catch them all, you can pick and chose a truth for you.

There is the FTC truth. The LifeLock truth. The other LifeLock truth. The David Cowen truth. Confused? Here's a summary of the links sourced above.

The FTC Truth.

LifeLock, Inc. has agreed to pay $11 million to the Federal Trade Commission and $1 million to a group of 35 state attorneys general to settle charges that the company used false claims to promote its identity theft protection services, which it widely advertised by displaying its CEO’s Social Security number on the side of a truck.

In one of the largest FTC-state coordinated settlements on record, LifeLock and its principals will be barred from making deceptive claims and required to take more stringent measures to safeguard the personal information they collect from customers.

“While LifeLock promised consumers complete protection against all types of identity theft, in truth, the protection it actually provided left enough holes that you could drive a truck through it,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

“This agreement effectively prevents LifeLock from misrepresenting that its services offer absolute prevention against identity theft because there is unfortunately no foolproof way to avoid ID theft,” Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said. “Consumers can take definitive steps to minimize the chances of having their personal information stolen, and this settlement will help them make more informed decisions about whether to enroll in ID theft protection services.”

The LifeLock Truth.

LifeLock, Inc., the industry leader in identity theft protection, today announced that it has signed an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and several State attorneys general which closes a compliance inquiry by setting advertising standards for the company and establishing regulatory guidance for the identity theft protection industry.

"LifeLock is pleased with this agreement, which, for the very first time, works to set advertising guidelines for the entire industry. We welcome federal and state efforts to regulate our industry, because doing so helps to protect consumers from the risks of identity theft," said LifeLock Chairman and CEO Todd Davis.

"Because of LifeLock's marketing efforts over the years, many more Americans now know of the risks of identity theft," said Davis. "More than one and a half million consumers rely on us 24 hours a day to help protect their identities."

The Other LifeLock Truth.

LifeLock cofounder Davis said yesterday that the company had already abandoned most of the practices outlined in the FTC's complaint and settlement agreement.

"Today's agreement makes absolutely no impact on our business as it runs today, in our service or our advertising," Davis said in a phone interview.

Davis said LifeLock's revamped service, in place since the fall, didn't rely on fraud alerts. Instead, he said the company had partnered with other technology companies to develop "our own unique LifeLock identity alerts" designed to give customers early warning of identity theft and related frauds.

The David Cowen Truth.

The truth is that the FTC doesn't care whether consumers need protection from LifeLock's ads. The FTC has clear direction from President Obama to demonstrate its dominion over financial services as he campaigns to establish a consumer protection agency, and so the FTC is prepared to enforce and potentially litigate even in cases it knows it can't win. LifeLock understood this, and so even though $12 million is a LOT of money, it's nothing compared to what the lawyers will charge over the next five years to successfully defend against an FTC crusade.

A Recap Of Choices

So which is it?

Was LifeLock barred from making deceptive claims and required to better safeguard the personal information it collects?

Or, did LifeLock work hand in hand with the FTC to set new regulatory guidance for the identity theft protection industry?

Or, did LifeLock agree to a $12 million settlement to atone for past mistakes that it had already self-corrected last year?

Or, was LifeLock singled out because the FTC is following a mandate by President Obama to demonstrate dominion?

There are plenty more truths if you turn to the press. However, the vast majority of stories seem to be simply rehashing what everyone else said. How does this serve the public? We have no idea.

Based on these stories, please help us find the answer by choosing what you think is the truth below. The poll will close next Wednesday, and then we will publish the results along with our best assessment on what the truth might be. Vote for one.

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Thursday, August 13

Misspeaking Costs Credibility: Health Care

With more than $263 million already spent on lobbying for health care, surpassing spending on all other issues this year without including what AARP reports as $1 million per day on advertising (with the health care bill outspending opponents 2-to-1), there are plenty of problems that might already be solved in the United States. Add to this the untold costs of the President and other proponents traveling across the United States to push the plan, and sometimes with disastrous results.

"AARP would not be endorsing a bill if it was undermining Medicare, okay?" — President Barack Obama

Except, AARP is not endorsing any bill. AARP is disgusted by all of it. And the misstatement of fact by the President, not once but several times, forced the silent observer to issue a correction to that statement.

"Indications that we have endorsed any of the major health care reform bills currently under consideration in Congress are inaccurate," Chief Operating Officer Tom Nelson said in a statement.

Polls also indicate that senior citizens largely disapprove of health care reform ideas so far. In fact, only 20 percent of seniors (and falling) believe any legislation currently proposed will improve their situation, and they represent the largest consumer of health care products in the United States with, in some cases, the most to lose. This is the worst news for the authors of the over-bloated legislation that touches areas that far exceed the intent of the sound bite almost all Americans agree on, especially the President who didn't misspeak once, but several times, in relation to health care.

"And that's one of the reasons that AARP is so supportive, because they see this as a way of potentially saving seniors a lot of money on prescription drugs. Okay? — President Barack Obama

No, not okay. Because AARP does not endorse any bill.

At the same time, that does not mean senior groups are thrilled with the overstatement of what part of one bill — "an explanation by the practitioner of the continuum of end-of-life services and supports available, including palliative care and hospice, and benefits for such services and supports that are available under this title.” — might mean. Again, sound bites are winning out over real solutions despite the fact that euthanasia and death panels are not specifically included in the bill.

But this blog isn't about health care. It's about communication. And the most recent example of miscommunication by the President, followed by the twisted remedy offered up by the White House press secretary.

"Well, the president said -- well, AARP has said they are certainly supportive and have been for years on comprehensive health reform. I don't think the president meant to imply anything untoward. I think he discussed the notion that AARP is supportive of -- or, I'm sorry, an agreement that would fund filling the doughnut hole for seniors as part of Medicare Part D, as well as additional savings for comprehensive health care reform." — Robert Gibbs

It's easy to see the spin in the sound bite as Gibbs reinforces the misstatement more than he offers up any clarification or correction such as either the President was unaware AARP isn't so supportive of a bill or he knowingly overreached. Gibbs then goes to add that "if you ask AARP this -- they have been supportive of comprehensive health care reform for a long time."

Not so right. The truth is most poll data reveals that 95 percent of Americans believe we need health care reform. What we don't agree on is how to do it. And what the majority of Americans are saying is that ANY existing bills being debated don't measure up. So while Gibbs can make that statement, it flies in the face of accuracy within the context.

Expect more of the same. As time wears on and these bills are bulldogged into some sort of misrepresentative statement such as "you're either for reform (and supporting this bill) or you are against it," we will see rhetoric become even thicker. Already, after the President, um, misspoke several times, the White House has decided to launch an e-mail campaign, supposedly to combat the increasingly "fishy" e-mails being pushed by people they describe as an angry mob.

Unfortunately, it seems, the so-called "angry mob" is also an overstatement in that it seems to consist of seniors, which leads many to believe that the political communication in this country is continuing its regression to a time when the rule of thumb: the message "must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” Even, and/or especially, if it is not true.

The net result is not always the same as it used to be, however. Misspeak too many times, out of ignorance or intention, and erosion will set in sooner or later. And that seems to be the case with health care propaganda, er, public relations.

Wednesday, April 15

Bagging On Taxes: American Taxpayers

April 15, which is the date Americans file their tax returns with the IRS, used to be a day filled with fear for most. Now, it seems to be shaping up as a day of reckoning, as citizens in more than 2,000 locations across the United States are holding "tea parties" to protest higher taxes and out-of-control government spending.

Using the same tool — the Internet — to organize as President Obama did to win the presidential election, ordinary citizens are expressing their apparent dissatisfaction with the "real change" as opposed to the "promised change" that the new administration has taken. By 2010, the estimated national debt, or debt held by the public, will equal approximately $81,000 per U.S. household. That is almost three times as much as it was in 2007.

As if taking a page from the fans of Jericho and others, one of the more creative ideas developed by the GOP is to help people send tea bags to their choice of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Harry Reid, or Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Each tea bag features an elephant watermark. The effort is duplicated by another organization, without an elephant watermark, here.

Regardless of how one feels about tea parties or the administration, there is an interesting side story playing out today. There seems to be discrepancies between the majority of news organizations and live reporting from everyday people. In short, the public has a clear choice between which reality they want to believe: either Americans are upset with taxes or they are not.

Either you call the original Boston Tea Party "shameful" like Charles Arlinghaus did for the UnionLeader, or you consider it one of the first steps toward independence in America like history does. (While Arlinghaus is right that the tea parties will have to grow into positive action beyond rallies, he's wrong in believing such protests don't mean anything.)

Are Tax Parties Hype Or Hope?

If you believe CBS, the concept of any public outcry is contrary to recent polls that place President Obama's approval rating as high as 67 percent, Americans largely approve of higher taxes, and 74 percent want the "rich," now defined as anyone making more than $250,000 per year, to be taxed more.

Or, you can wonder what President Obama might know about the real numbers behind the movement given he choose to speak about simplifying the tax code at the same time some cities had organized their rallies. This strategy seems to fall in line with what everyday people are reporting — that there is a real grass roots movement at work, and not just among conservatives.

One of the best examples of the extreme reporting that we noticed today comes courtesy of the Washington Post. The Post reported on a Facebook tea party group with 1,800 members. However, when we checked, it had 31,000 members.

The Post story links to a defunct blog as an example. However, CNN chose the National TEA Party, which has 18,000 Facebook members. Among the best non-news reporting seems to be found at Ta Day Tea Party. There are also several localized Facebook accounts, with as many as 500 to 1,000 members each.

One of Michelle Malkin's posts seems to suggest why there might be so much confusion. She says there are as many as four or six different hashtags to follow tea parties on Twitter. Why is that significant? It demonstrates that the varied reporting is indicative of largely independent groups rallying around a common theme, but very different campaigns. And, contrary to the CBS poll, another poll conducted by Harris Interactive suggested that the majority of Americans think taxes are too high.

The Real Facts Are Being Buried.

In order to find the truth, you have to remove some of the opinions. Polls don't reveal facts as much as much as figures.

Americans will pay more in taxes than they will spend on food, clothing, and housing combined this year. In fact, according to the Tax Foundation, most Americans have to work between 82 and 120 days just to pay their taxes, depending on the state in which they live. Alaskans pay the least and the people in Connecticut pay the most.

The only reason most people feel comfortable taxing the rich more, despite the fact that the top 5 percent of all wage earners already pay 60 percent of all taxes while the bottom 50 percent pay only 3 percent of all taxes, is because, well, it's the other guy. And, the reason some people chose to protest today is not because they are dissatisfied with recent tax cuts, but rather because they know that the mounting national debt will have to be repaid sooner or later, and taxpayers will have to pay it.

Our country's current fiscal policy is best likened to a teenager on a spending spree. It seems like there is progress toward creating a better lifestyle with the recent purchase of a new flat screen television, smart phone, and club clothes. But that progress will quickly come to a halt when the bill comes due, the repo man takes the stuff back, and still charges interest.

Wednesday, November 5

Losing Truth: When Astroturf Wins

While the nation celebrates the victory of President-elect Barack Obama, Nevada is already lamenting the unintended consequences that came with his victory. Two respected state senators, one of which I worked with this cycle, lost their seats to campaigns best described by the only paper to endorse those who benefited.

“Don’t look to Allison Copening, who defeated Beers, or Shirley Breeden, who defeated Heck, to become a driving force during the next legislative session. The candidates relied on outside expenditures that hammered the incumbent with negative ads, a national Democratic wave, and ducking debates and tough questions,” wrote Cy Ryan with the Las Vegas Sun. “Now, they’ll have to navigate the politics of Carson City. And their positions on the issues, from renewable energy to higher taxes, will be on the record.”

The surrogate smear campaigns against Beers and Heck, which exceeded the early estimates of $1 million against both to be closer to $1 million against each for races that usually require around $100,000 to run a substantive campaign, included lies about their records, their characters, and their professions.

Specifically against Beers, the mailers and television advertisements eventually claimed a fictitious ethics charge and accused him of “making up” a law enforcement endorsement that he had. In one of the television commercials, they included a four-frame fraction-of-a-second image of a gun pointing to his head. The owners of that advertisement said they stood by it.

Where was the media? For the most part, the newspapers were there. The more conservative Las Vegas Review-Journal, the more liberal Las Vegas Sun, and the liberal alternative Las Vegas CityLife all vetted the false claims, damned the smear campaigns, protested the refusals to debate, and demonstrated direct ties from the candidates to the surrogate attacks. The latter of the three papers ultimately joined the more conservative first to endorse Beers.

Yet, with print circulations declining and mostly unanswered anonymous comments attached to those articles online, the weight of independent or even biased journalism is waning; something that needs to concern us all. Even when budget-crunched newspapers are not resorting to "he said, she said" reporting that masquerades as objectivity, fewer people are reading. Instead, they only rely on whatever can be burped out by black hat public relations professionals and political spinsters.

Ultimately, two well-funded Astroturf campaigns carried the day in both races, backed by Obama-led straight-ticket voter turnout and diminished Republican turnout that left even Richard McArthur, candidate for the more conservative Assembly District 4, vulnerable for most of the evening against an opponent who did not campaign at all. McArthur won by a small margin.

As for the state senate races, the losers are Nevadans. In Beers, they lost the only accountant in the state legislature, who even his adversaries agreed knew more about the state budget than anyone serving in the state senate and credited with being a champion for the underdogs, even if it meant going against his own party. In Heck, they lost a smart legislator, emergency room doctor, and U.S. Army Reserve colonel.

What is the cost? Considering, before the ink was even dry on the morning newspaper, some of the would be winners who promised no “new taxes at this time” are already saying they feel pressured to raise them, which reminds me of a fitting quote from American writer and economist Thomas Sowell:

“If you have been voting for politicians who promise to give you goodies at someone else's expense, then you have no right to complain when they take your money and give it to someone else, including themselves.” — Thomas Sowell


Monday, November 3

Revealing Substance: Bad Communication

The quickest way to kill a good company is bad communication. And if the company is already struggling, you'll kill it twice as fast. Some recent comments on several posts reinforce the fact that spin only provides a short-term win, assuming it does at all.


In August 2006, all the buzz was about an Ireland-based company called Steorn after it used an advertisement in The Economist to invite the world's scientists to test what basically amounted to the latest redesign of Tesla's Coil, which would lead us to the creation and production of free energy. Cool? Here is the latest news coverage about Steorn (or at least the last posted on its site). Otherwise, the concept only seems big on YouTube.

Royal Spring Water

Last March, I received a "special report" from Texas-based Royal Spring Water, under the auspices of American Water Stocks, that claimed two billion people will soon be in dire need of drinking water and that is why you should bank on a water stock with potential gains of 220 percent. Pink Sheets, an inter-dealer electronic quotation and trading system in the over-the-counter (OTC) securities market, recently posted a warning on the stock.

Rare Method

It's probably not fair to include this one with the other two, but after they demonstrated a public relations fumble (with the exception of Brian Clegg, who was amazingly sharp and has since moved on) over some mysterious numbers, I couldn't help notice that their financial communication is clear as mud. The current Rare Method "achieves record year" news header carries some questionable subtext: "We experienced a decline in revenues, gross income and EBITDA in Q4 2008 compared to Q4 2007 of 8.6%, 22% and 120%, respectively, as a result of reduced U.S. revenues from $1,076,888 to $596,627 due to postponed marketing programs as our U.S. clients monitor the economic crisis." They also "adjusted our staffing levels to control costs."

Please don't mistake the follow up as anything more than what it is. I'd love to read that Steorn solved the world's energy crisis, Royal Spring Water stocks soared, and Rare Method is to have a record year. But you know, it just isn't so.


Thursday, October 16

Advertising Negatives: From Soup To Nuts

Almost every editorial on the final debate between U.S. Sen. Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. John McCain leads the same way. It only took 20 minutes before both candidates forgot about the issues and shifted toward political campaign ads.

They were kidding, right?

No, no, I suppose not. While the last reason I would elect a president is based on the prowess of their television production teams, most political talk seems to be all about the ads.

Some are even arguing over which side has more negative advertisements than the other. The University of Wisconsin Advertising Project says Obama airs the larger percentage of negative ads. The Nation says that is not true and McCain ads are much more negative. Has everyone forgotten grade school?

When Billy lies about Sally twice and Sally lies about Billy once … Ms. Clark made them both clean erasers after class.

So let's talk soup.

When it comes to negative advertising, there is no clear winner in another brand battle taking place across America. There are only losers.

For several weeks, Campbell and General Mills have been in engaged in an ongoing soup battle. Cambpell launched the first attack ad in The New York Times, claiming General Mills' Progresso soups are made with MSG. They are. General Mills fired back, saying some Campbell soups have MSG. They do.

So Campbell counted all of its soups to conclude that 124 soups have no MSG.

"The pot can't be calling the kettle black if it has the same problem itself," Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries, told Brandweek.

So let's talk nuts.

One would think that after noted author Geoff Livingston wrote that astroturf comes in a variety of colors, including blue, someone might get the hint. Not so with Allison Copening and crew. They are dead set to stay the course with a $1 million smear campaign against State Senator Bob Beers — a campaign that almost everyone calls pathetic.

Their solution? Allison Copening's backers, who admit that the negative advertising has backfired because some residents "have stopped opening election mail” are now moving their lies onto television. Some estimate they will spend up to $500,000 on television, splitting the figure between attacking State Sen. Bob Beers and State Sen. Joe Heck, who is another elected official targeted this campaign cycle.

Given the size of the media market in Las Vegas, the television buy is equivalent to tossing a glass of water into a swimming pool and hoping to splash a few people. If it does splash some people, one can only hope that those splashed will know that most messages move beyond distortion and are of the plain old-fashioned lie variety.

As it turns out, it would not be the first time Copening has played a PR spin game. She was once a marketing director at PurchasePro, a company charged with stock fraud. She also worked as a public relations specialist for a homebuilder when it dealt with rat infestations and home fire sales that left new residents with mortgages higher than their assessed value.

She claimed that the rats were part of the allure of the desert. She rebuffed reporters when the homebuilder cut home values by simply saying they were too busy with other things.

Ironically, she claims it is Sen. Bob Beers who makes up stories. For his part, Sen. Beers has remained focused on campaign issues. In one case, he criticized a third party mailer that attacked his opponent's math skills and called them below a fourth grade level. As it turns out, he is not the only one tired of campaign ads that deviate from the truth.

Several states away in Minnesota, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman recently said his campaign would halt negative advertising in a race recently dominated by it. "I want folks to vote for me, and not against the other folks," he said.

Friday, December 7

Saving Face, Sort Of: Mark Zuckerberg

Everybody likes talking about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. And what’s not to like?

As a Harvard student in 2004, Zuckerberg founded the online social networking Website Facebook. As a young entrepreneur in 2006, he passed on a $1 billion offer from Terry Semel, then CEO of Yahoo! A year later, Microsoft infused $240 million into the social network, putting the 23-year-old on the fast track.

Never mind all that other stuff. Never mind the old ConnectU controversy; it was tossed out, um, for now. Never mind the lawsuit against the Harvard alumni publication for invasion of privacy over an article (irony). Never mind he basically lied to Louise Story of The New York Times about opting in to Beacon, which gathers up information about you on Facebook and away from Facebook.

Never mind. Never mind, because Mark Zuckerberg is sorry.

He’s sorry because “the problem with our initial approach of making it an opt-out system instead of opt-in was that if someone forgot to decline to share something, Beacon still went ahead and shared it with their friends.”

In other words, he’s sorry that you, and me, and probably Louise Story are too stupid to opt-out on his terms and that’s much more important than what he told The New York Times anyway. After all, Facebook, by slurping up our online lives, is only trying to make it easier for us to share with our friends, Facebook, and anyone who might happen to ask. If only we would all see it his way.

Most people do see it his way. Even Brian Solis, who I read regularly, seemed to take one look at Zuckerberg, smile and write “His words, most notably, his apology, humanize the company.”

Sure, Solis also noted the apology was less than perfect, but this sentiment represents how badly people want Facebook to be what it could be and not necessarily what it is.

Solis is not the only one. According to Forbes, everyone from MoveOn, which called the change "a big step in the right direction," to Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who said "Facebook is learning that privacy matters. It's signaling that it does care about how it's viewed and how important trust is to online businesses," has accepted.

But, what did Zuckerberg really do? If he were a pickpocket, the Beacon fiasco might be likened to stealing a Jackson from your wallet and giving you back a Lincoln with a song, dance, and smile. Zuckerberg is one of the few who can get away with it.

Why? Because many people feel that they need Facebook more than Facebook needs them. And as long as this “feeling” remains, and some people treat Facebook as if it is the air we breathe, then we can expect more creepy than cool for a long time to come.

Far, far fewer people have put any real thought into what is actually occurring beyond the apology. Wendy Grossman is one of them. Brian Oberkirch is another. Jack Flack is yet another.

But in the great game of public relations, where perception and reality don’t always intersect, a few voices can often be outweighed by the many. And that means sincerity matters less than presenting yourself as people expect you to.

So when it comes to Zuckerberg, it seems to me that the world expects everything, except for Facebook being a responsible corporate citizen. Thus, as long as the traffic continues to surge for Facebook, “sort of” sorry will be good enough. Hmmm … no wonder Zuckerberg usually sports a boyish smile.


Tuesday, October 30

Faking FEMA: Reporters Optional

"At the end of the briefing, questions were asked. I should have intervened and I didn't," said John P. "Pat" Philbin, former external affairs director for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) about his involvement in staging a fake news conference last Tuesday on the California wildfires.

The decision to stage questions with stand-ins for a FEMA news conference came after reporters were given only 15 minutes notice. While the agency also made an 800 number available for call ins, it was a listen-only arrangement. Several channels broadcasted parts of the conference live via a video feed.

Philbin will no longer take over public affairs for the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), which he had previously been offered by Mike McConnell, director of the DNI. Philbin said he understood McConnell's decision.

“It was one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I’ve seen since being in government,” came the harshest criticism from Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff. “I have made it unambiguously clear, in Anglo Saxon prose, that it is not to ever happen again, and there will be appropriate disciplinary action taken against those people who exhibited what I regard as extraordinary poor judgment.”

Philbin may have been the fall guy, but the entire external affairs team could have been let go. No one of them, not a single team member, seemed to comprehend that staging a fake news conference was ridiculous, unethical, and a severe breach of public trust.

Let’s star over.

“Public Relations is the art and science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling organization leaders and implementing planned programs of action which will serve both the organization’s and the public interest.” — First World Assembly of Public Relations Associations and First World Forum of Public Relations, 1978

Nowhere in this definition is a public relations professional asked to spin, lie, cover up, or otherwise present fake and fraudulent information for their employer. What is clear, however, is that professionals are to serve both the organization’s and public interest.

Maybe I should make it as clear as I make it for public relations students: the organization you defraud the public for will survive and may even thrive over time, but any abuse of public trust or the media will stay with you for the life of your career.

In this case, FEMA will carry on, while Philbin is out of his DNI job. While I admire his sincerity in saying “at the end of day, I’m the person in charge and responsible for this,” he is not doing any favors for new public relations professionals. The truth is that every single participant was responsible — whether an intern or seasoned pro. Any one of them could have suggested they skip questions and simply make a statement.


Friday, October 26

Outing The Media: J.K. Rowling

As hard as it is to imagine, one of the hottest topics on the Internet is the sexuality of a fictitious character. For days now, new media and mainstream media have all weighed in with opinions on the “Outing of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore,” the headmaster of Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series.

It doesn’t really matter. And yet, it seems to matter.

The outing came seven days ago at New York City's Carnegie Hall. A young fan made the mistake of asking whether the headmaster had ever been in love.

"Dumbledore is gay, actually," said J.K. Rowling before revealing Dumbledore loved a fellow wizard, Gellert Grindelwand.

So, the correct answer might have easily been “yes, …” making a better distinction, perhaps, between love and orientation. But Rowling did not, and now the topic she chose is overshadowing any other merit of her books, good, bad, or indifferent. And that’s a shame. She hasn’t been able to go anywhere without it being asked about again, and again, and again. Her choice, I suppose.

Brands are fragile things, even for fictitious characters. Not that there is anything wrong with Dumbledore being gay, but Rowling has only succeeded in confusing an identity that fans have established. It could have been any other shocker; she could have said he was a Republican or Democrat. It doesn’t really fit because orientation isn’t what the stories are about.

From a communication standpoint, the dramatic brand shift for Dumbledore isn’t so much about him being gay as it is about a shift in his established brand. If you do not believe me that dramatic shifts mean something, ask Sen. Larry Craig.

Or maybe, as a complete contrast, we can look at Ellen DeGeneres. Nobody cares about her orientation anymore; they do seem to care about her joviality, which came apart over the Mutts & Moms controversy. In Canada, the brand bamboozling revolved around St├ęphane Dion.

My point is that reactions in the media and around the Web have less to do with what was announced and more to do with the degree of separation from what seemed to have been established. We might all keep that in perspective.

For example, Mark Harris, writing about Potter for Entertainment Weekly (linked above), made a poignant remark. He pointed readers to a story by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation that shows only 1.1 percent of characters on scripted network series are gay, which he says is an underrepresentation of their presence in the population. Maybe so or maybe not.

There are many shows where orientation doesn’t even enter the equation. Do we really need to know the orientation of every character? Big Bird, maybe?

This time around, I think Bill O’Reilly might have called it right. Rowling seems to be a provocateur. After years of claiming she has difficultly with the press, is "thin-skinned," and dislikes the fickle nature of reporting, none of that seems to be an issue any longer. It’s invited.

In many ways, Rowling’s revelation is a bigger brand shift than the one imposed on Dumbledore. With a single sentence, she demonstrated the sometimes triviality of reporting today; and proven she isn’t all that thin-skinned after all.

It makes you wonder. Who was really outed after Carnegie Hall?


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