Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”

June 6, 2013

In the great hall of mirrors that is corporate communications, addressing issues raised by government court orders whose contents you can’t disclose and whose existence you can’t acknowledge represents a high degree of difficulty.  Imagine you are in receipt of such a court order which has become the subject of widespread public controversy and you wish to be heard on the subject without violating the law.  What would you do?  In this age of social media, you have some interesting options, including the one chosen by a company we will not name which tweeted out to the world an internal memorandum addressed to employees which said in part: “The alleged court order that [Newspaper Y] published on its website contains language that:

  • Compels [Company X] to respond
  • Forbids [Company X] from revealing the order’s existence
  • Excludes from production the “content of any communication…..or the name, address, or financial information of any subscriber or customer.”

…if [Company X] were to receive such an order, we would be required to comply.”

A good effort in which every word has been scrubbed within an inch of its life.  We could quibble with “alleged court order.”  Unless the company is suggesting the document published by the newspaper is a forgery this should surely read “the court order, whose existence we can neither confirm nor deny…”  In the last sentence we would also prefer “if [Company X] had received such an order…” but this is a mere bag of shells.  We can continue this discussion on April 12, 2038 when the alleged court order may be made public.

Data Exhaust

May 21, 2012

The initial public offering of Facebook last week has prompted discussion of how the company will  justify its behemoth stock market valuation over the long term.  In a canny, but apparently unrelated move, GM announced that it no longer considered the cost of advertising on Facebook justifiable.  The piquancy of this announcement was muted somewhat when the auto manufacturer also disclosed that it would not be advertising on the 20123 Superbowl but the question nonetheless remains: why would hundreds of millions of people voluntarily surrender their right of ownership in their own data production to Mark Zuckerberg?  Daily, exabytes of so-called data exhaust stream out of the tailpipe of human interaction to be sold to advertisers in a bizarre form of metaphysical carbon capture.  Is it conceivable that individuals will some day be able to extract  a fee from Facebook for the right to monetize their emotional waste?  Or will we see the establishment of a Facebook-type utility in which users agree to mutually pool their data exhaust and sell it directly to advertisers, effectively dis-intermediating MZ?  Arguably, managing their data exhaust is something people are willing to job out to Facebook for now, but it  might take only a few highly visible data outrages for them to change their minds.  Facebook and its advertisers will need to be more vigilant than they have been so far to ensure that this data exhaust doesn’t create a smog of privacy violations that people refuse to tolerate.  Perhaps, even today, someone somewhere is writing the data equivalent of “Silent Spring.”

Working Men of all Countries, Unite!

April 10, 2012

These words, the concluding salvo of the Communist Manifesto were published in February 1848 at the beginning of that great year of revolutions across Europe.  2012 began with the decision by Apple to monitor labor conditions at its Chinese suppliers more transparently.  Today’s New York Times carries the story of the murder of a labor organizer in Bangladesh.  Tommy Hilfiger and Walmart have pledged their commitment to improving labor conditions in that country.  H&M did not respond to a request for comment.

Is there a contagion of issues in today’s instantly connected world similar to, if more compressed than, 1848?  We believe that there is, that the Arab spring demonstrated this and that protest crackdowns in Western China suggest the Chinese government believes this, too.  We have no evidence that the Foxconn story inspired Bangladeshi labor activists or that there is a connection with the murders of six Guetemalan union organizers last year.  We do believe, however, that corporations need to be freshly alert not just to issues that affect their industry or only in the regions in which they operate.  They must be alive to what we’ll call “issues contiguity,” the ability of seemingly unrelated concerns to jump the firebreak.  We may see vast disparities between economic conditions in Bangladesh, Turkey or Chile but Karl Marx knew a meme when he saw one — “The price of a commodity, and therefore also of labor, is equal to its cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases.” Is it so far fetched to think that we will soon, once again, be talking about the “ownership of the means of production?”  Who knows, but it is certainly not too soon to be paying attention to the way this global meme shapes issues, independently of industry, subject matter or country. 

The Best of Times, The Wurst of Times

March 2, 2012

Poor Otto.  Bismarck’s timeless quip that “laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made” seems to have lost its bearings in current discourse.  Thus, Gerard Corbett, chairman of the Public Relations Society of America, discussing the search for a new definition of public relations in today’s New York Times — “it was basically an exercise in making sausage.”  Huh?  In any event, we can certainly celebrate this effort that resulted in the warm and only slightly moist sentence “Public relations is a strategic communications process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”  Celebrate because, in the current first flush of social media’s youth, it has finally become obvious again that “PR” is about building and nourishing relationships not “communications consulting” or any of the other seventeen things it has been called since people started fretting that “public relations” was insufficiently dignified for such an august profession.  So, three cheers for the committee and may “a thousand flowers bloom.”  Well, actually, Mao Tse Tung’s campaign was the “Hundred Flowers Movement” but never mind.  Let’s get back to making sausage while the sun shines.

Good Morning, Data Subject #21984756

September 26, 2011

The Wall Street Journal has laudably made a big deal of data privacy over the past year, particularly with respect to super cookies and other tracking software.  Today’s edition carries Julia Angwin’s story about the rise of the chief privacy officer, citing GE and HP among the usual suspects leading in this new field.  Are IP addresses and device identifiers personal data?  The FTC isn’t sure yet but European governments have taken the lead in trying to protect citizens’ private data, forcing global companies to look closely at their practices in this area.

To our eyes, this is another area in which companies can create reputation-building power by embracing high standards for personal data use, transparency about their practices and easy to use problem/resolution pathways.  Appointing a chief privacy officer is not a bad place to start.  As Scott Taylor, HP’s CPO, puts it: “if you think about the delivery of this project, is there anything that might surprise the data subject?”  That’s a good place to start.

Privacy as Competitive Advantage

May 23, 2011

The Sony Playstation imbroglio and the stealth campaign attempted by Facebook on Google have once again pointed up the critical sensitivity towards the issue of privacy. The astonishing fact that Apple felt the need to respond to allegations about geo-location data it was collecting suggests an acute consciousness of the reputational toxicity of privacy. Or, perhaps, it is merely recognition of the fact that each of these competing eco-systems occupy very similar turf and privacy could be the wedge issue that pushes customers terminally towards one player and away from another.
There are many conspiracy theorists willing to explain in great detail all of the nefarious things that companies want to with the data they have, but we have always been adherents to the view that inertia explains more than malice. To us, it looks almost as if it’s the effort involved in getting rid of the data that is getting companies into trouble rather a secret master plan to exploit it.
So we’d like to make a modest proposal that there is at least a possibility that there’s a business to be made in being the wired company that cares enough to purge responsibly, with a patented and fully transparent data cleanse system ™. Certainly, the race to the top in data cleansing would lol a lot more edifying than the sheepish mumbling about enhanced data privacy settings that is today’s standard response to each succeeding data revelation.

Malus Domestica

April 22, 2011

Well, how fitting that we now know what kind of Apple Steve Jobs runs — Northern Spy.  It makes very good pies, but does it make good public relations?  We’re prompted to ask this question because once again Apple has stayed true to its practice of not commenting with regard to allegations about its retention of data about IPhone users’ locations.  This is consistent with its previous posture re Steve Job’s state of health and questions about stock options.  The almost universal admiration of the company (some might call it adulation) in spite of this habit occasionally causes corporate communications practitioners to ask — “opacity seems to work for Apple.  Why shouldn’t I try it?”  The answer is not as simple as it might seem.  Some might say this posture has worked well for Apple, causing  past critical storylines to wither for lack of the oxygen provided by a company response.  However, it seems to us, that it requires a level of intestinal fortitude, the willingness to put up with high levels of negative speculation, that is realistically only available to a company like Apple.  Steve Jobs is truly one of a kind and arguably even titans such as Jack Welch, Lou Gerstner and Bill Gates would have had trouble pulling off this consistent silence.  The  great Warren Buffett himself will be hard pressed to say nothing about the resignation of David Sokol at his upcoming annual meeting even though he is unlikely to go beyond what he has said previously. So the lesson here seems to be that, for most companies, consistent and reasonable transparency is the safest posture.  Once again, we will have to leave pregnant silence to the man in the black turtleneck.

Men in Crisp Suits

April 1, 2011

For many people, the day hasn’t really started until they’ve read The New York Times and this writer in particular owes most of his knowledge to reading the newspaper every day for 35 years.  The paper’s coverage is so uniformly credible and balanced that its intimate readers instantly recognize when a reporter is reaching — anonymous quotes, unsourced opinions and in portraits of  insufficiently villainous bad guys, cruelty to animals, anecdotes about high school arrogance and references to unrelated lawsuits, long dismissed.  This past Sunday’s paper carries variant number two of this technique used when it is deemed appropriate to paint a corporation in a poor light without any evidence for bad behavior.  In Walmart Tries a Refined Path into New York, reporter Elizabeth Harris delivers a gem of this particular genre.  The way to recognize this particular type of story is that there is always a reference to the PR people, inevitably wearing crisp suits.  Then there’s the obligatory Dr. Evil analogy (Walmart henchmen “furiously” tap Blackberry messages to company exec watching remotely).  We are also treated in these stories to power words that add little information —   “all out push,” “overwhelm,” “out manoeuver,” “aggressive” (and “aggressiveness”).  Note the sheepish dissonance between the headline descriptor (refined) and what the reporter appears to want to characterize as a brute force campaign to (OMG) influence public opinion in open forums.  The reporter is keeping all options open here, accusing the company of simultaneously saying too little (“would not speak to a reporter for this article”) and too much (“the e-mails kept popping up for nearly four hours”).  What exactly does one need to add to a campaign (“aggressive media strategy”) conducted so stridently in the open?

This is not to argue for a moment the merits of the issue.  For all we know Walmart does destroy small businesses and replace good jobs with bad ones.  We’d just like to “out” these veiled editorials, although we have little expectation that even “in your face aggressiveness” will cure the Times of this occasional vice.  In the mean time, we have a few recommendations for the good people of Walmart — ditch the “emblazoned” (Scarlet Letter) folders and hand out information on coffee stained napkins.  And we have two more words for the PR people: cargo pants.

Smoking Tweets

March 2, 2011

The Supreme Court’s ruling in the AT&T case ends for the moment the idea that corporations have any personal privacy protection of material provided to government agencies.  This has particular relevance in the burgeoning world of social media as practiced by companies, in which more and more internal and external traffic will not only be FOIA-ble but searchable.  In this environment, legal agreements in which companies pay fines without admitting to wrongdoing will provide little protection against out of context citation of awkward statements.  This is, of course, merely another reminder that the utmost care should be exercised in all forms of business communications, underlined by the ancient psychological truth that anything that can be misconstrued will be misconstrued.  We can understand why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would  stand with AT&T on this.  Their statement cited in the Wall Street Journal that the ruling could have a chilling effect on corporations’ willingness to cooperate with law enforcement authorities somehow didn’t sound quite right, however.

Regardless of how the issue evolves, lawyers and communicators will now have to bid farewell to a tried and test cliché: “this statement has been taken out of context.”  How much context can there be in 140 characters?

Tempest in a Taco

February 1, 2011

With its highly public response to a lawsuit about the beef content of its fillings, Taco Bell has provided another opportunity for us to observe reputation management in action in today’s social media environment.  With its “Thank You for Suing Us” advertising campaign, Taco Bell has taken the offensive in both MSM and digital media to make the point that its beef fillings are more than 80 percent beef.  Both in tone of voice and proactive stance, Taco Bell is trying to find the sweet spot that represents confidence, transparency and intimacy in the digital age.

Taco Bell may or may not succeed in rallying its loyalists by this campaign but they are more likely to succeed than Nestle that initially reacted to the Green Peace Kit Kat campaign by scolding the NGO for copyright infringement.  Public outrage caused them to back down quickly, but we believe more and more companies will find the right tone of voice defending themselves in the social media era.  This is healthy experimentation that will provide insights for reputation management across the industry spectrum.