Revolutionary Measures

PR and the frontline of the information war

Like a lot of relatively new terms, fake news has a long history. Claiming lies as the truth goes all the way back to ancient times, with propaganda and false claims used to justify activities and to hold onto power. Take the commonly held view we have of the ‘barbarian’ Celtic tribes that the Romans conquered, which ignores their culture and achievements, or the Shakespearian propaganda about the poor governance of Richard III.

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Frequently fake news is too polite a term for downright lies – and in many cases is used to complain about a point of view that while valid, you simply don’t agree with. On a more serious level, deliberate misinformation designed to sway public opinion is on the increase, thanks to the spread of social media and the fact that it cleverly backs up our own beliefs and prejudices.

Whatever the scale of Russian meddling in the US presidential election, it is not the first time the Kremlin has tried to disrupt democracy – but the combination of a receptive, partisan audience and easy access to millions of people makes it the most successful. And it isn’t likely to stop anytime soon – as CIA director Mike Pompeo recently pointed out he expects further interference in this year’s midterm elections.

Combating disinformation and fake news isn’t easy, but to be effective the solution has to involve everyone – from governments to individuals.

1.Governments
Many Western governments have been slow to realise the danger of fake news, and therefore haven’t acted to root it out. The US election has changed that, and governments are increasingly setting up dedicated teams to track and counter propaganda and other fake news. The UK Cabinet Office is creating a new unit to respond rapidly to fake news, whether from Russians or from other sources looking to warp public discourse.

2. Platforms
There’s an ongoing debate about social media and tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Twitter and the responsibility they should take for identifying and removing fake news. They claim they are platforms, not publishers, but are under increasing pressure to police their users’ content more effectively. They need to step up and be prepared to out fake news – otherwise they are likely to face greater regulation and/or advertiser boycotts.

3. The PR industry
Communications professionals need to play their part as well. There is a line between spin and fake news, and it is up to us not to cross it and to make sure we are behaving ethically and advising clients accordingly. The Bell Pottinger case demonstrates that not only are there reputational risks to failing to follow good practice, but there are financial consequences as well. We need to think through the consequences of our actions as members of society, rather than simply pumping out messages to the world, without reflecting on their impact.

4. The public
It often feels that we live in an increasingly polarised world, with social media making it easy to screen out views we don’t agree with. At the same time we’re bombarded with information, and very often don’t take the time to review and check it before retweeting it or sharing on Facebook. As someone who studied history I know how important it is to understand the source of a piece of information and therefore the bias and particular message it contains. Everyone needs to do this – but at the same time they need to open themselves up to having a rational debate. Ignoring or trying to ban other (legal) points of view just reinforces prejudices – as the saying goes “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

With increasing military activity and sabre rattling in areas such as North Korea, fake news can seem relatively low level and harmless. But it is the frontline of an information war – and it is up to all of us to combat it if we are to move forward as a coherent, democratic society.

Image By United States Navy – Naval Education and Training Command website at http://www.netc.navy.mil/netc/Commands/NETCcenters.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56331324

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January 31, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The lessons from the top 5 PR disasters of 2017

As we come to the end of the year, we’ve seen some stunningly good PR campaigns that have shifted people’s perceptions or reinforced brand leadership. But 2017 has also seen more than its fair share of PR cock-ups, where businesses have completely ignored communication good practice and not only damaged their reputations, but also their standing and share price.Press_secretary_Sean_Spicer

Here are my top 5 PR disasters of 2017:

1. United Airlines
Dragging a screaming passenger off an overbooked plane while onlookers recorded the event on their smartphones was bad enough. But United Airlines then blamed the passenger, Dr David Dao, who suffered concussion in the incident, for being ‘belligerent’, with CEO Oscar Munoz only fully apologising after the share price fell dramatically. Ironically, Munoz had been named PR Week US Communicator of the Year just a month before. The lesson from this story is that when events turn emotive, despite the fact that you are only following procedures, and that the staff involved in pulling Dao from the plane were law enforcement officers not United employees, you need to show empathy and understanding rather than blaming your customers.

2. Uber
Where to start? Through most of 2017 Uber appeared to be the epitome of a ‘jerk tech’ company, caring nothing for law, its employees or its customers. Stories included allegations of sexism and sexual harassment, surge pricing that capitalised on misfortune, a secret app designed to deflect regulators, losing its licence in London, payments to hackers after its systems were broken into, and a continuing court case that it allegedly stole trade secrets from Google. Oh, and then-CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with/abusing one of his own drivers. All of this led to its urban clientele moving to rivals, removing first mover advantage and downgrading its capitalisation in its forthcoming funding round.

To be fair to Uber, its new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, who took over at the end of August, is working hard to change the brand’s reputation. He has issued heartfelt apologies for past misconduct, and explained to all staff of the importance of reputation to the business’ success. While it is early days, he seems to be balancing the difficult job of changing culture, while keeping the right staff with the company as it moves forward.

3. Sean Spicer
It is tempting to include Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted 10 days as Donald Trump’s communications chief before publicly abusing his colleagues, in this list. However, for the range and bare-faced toeing of the party line, I have to go with Sean Spicer. From initially disputing photographic evidence of the number of people at the presidential inauguration to claiming that, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is worse than Hitler because at least the Nazi leader never gassed his own people, ignoring the deaths of six million Jews, he seemed to be alternately making his own cock-ups and retelling a line that no-one believed. Good communications has to be based in fact – and it is the job of a spokesperson to ensure that the message being delivered is clear, cogent and believable. Spicer, no doubt under great pressure from above, failed on all counts.

4. Bell Pottinger
A key rule of PR is that if you are the spokesperson or PR agency, never become the story yourself. Another high profile casualty of this was PR agency Bell Pottinger. Involvement in a racially divisive campaign for the shadowy Gupta family in South Africa earned it censure, removal from industry body the PRCA, and the agency go into administration. In today’s world ethically questionable campaigns do get discovered, and the consequences are potentially disastrous.

5. Kevin Spacey
One of the biggest stories of the year was the bravery of victims of workplace sexual harassment and sexual violence, who stood up, accused their attackers and told their stories. From Harvey Weinstein to the House of Commons, they shone a spotlight on a culture and behaviour that was unacceptable. Kevin Spacey, one of those accused, deserves especial opprobrium for using his ‘apology’ to come out as gay, in an apparent attempt to deflect anger from his behaviour. Given one of the accusations made about him was of sexual advances towards under-age boys, his statement linked paedophilia with homosexuality in a way that reinforced previous prejudices.

I’m sure there are other, potentially less high profile but equally damaging, PR disasters that haven’t made it onto my list. Feel free to add your own in the comments section below.

December 13, 2017 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

3 lessons for PR from the Bell Pottinger case

PR is again in the news for the wrong reasons, with agency Bell Pottinger in the public eye after running campaigns in South Africa that have stoked racial tension. There’s been plenty of analysis of the case itself, but in this blog I wanted to cover three wider issues it highlights:Bell Pottinger

1. A precarious business model
Essentially a PR agency has three assets – its people, its clients and its reputation. And all of these are very fragile. Except in the case of the most senior staff, employees will be on a maximum of three months notice, while clients are likely to be on a similar notice period. So you can lose your clients and staff extremely quickly, as Bell Pottinger has found with the likes of HSBC, Investec and Richemont leaving since the scandal has emerged. All that PR agencies have is their reputation – with the industry, with staff and with the media. Compromise that and you remove the foundation from the entire business, which is why Bell Pottinger has now had to put itself up for sale. I’d imagine that any buyer will either subsume the bits they want into a larger agency or rebrand quickly to salvage what they can from the wreckage.

2. Never become the story
As the likes of Sean Spicer have found out to their cost, it never pays to become the story yourself. PR people are there to communicate other people’s messages in a way that meets the needs of the audience and the client. It isn’t always easy to do, but you should never be higher profile than the organisation you are working for. In the whole Bell Pottinger case the work of the agency has actually deflected attention from the client itself – a company controlled by the South African Gupta family, and the fact that it signed off on the programme.

3. Be a consultant, not a yes man/woman
Someone within Bell Pottinger signed off on the campaign, despite the fact that using racially charged slogans and hashtags was obviously highly likely to cause offence. The concern is that to keep a lucrative, politically well-connected client, Bell Pottinger in South Africa turned a blind eye to the messages and tactics that were being used. That’s not being a responsible consultant – the whole point of using a PR agency is that they follow particular standards and should have the ability to say no if they disagree with a course of action. Bell Pottinger is not the first (or indeed the last) agency to involve themselves in dubious activities in support of potentially dubious aims, but the high profile nature of their work means they should have better understood the consequences of their actions.

Bell Pottinger employs 250 people, spread around the world and the vast majority have had nothing whatsoever to do with the campaign in South Africa. I feel very sorry for them as their personal reputation has been damaged, and many may well lose their jobs if the company is taken over by a rival. But the whole case illustrates the fact that PR agencies need to think carefully about the wider consequences of their work if they want to preserve their reputations, and therefore their survival.

 

September 6, 2017 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

PR – where are the role models?

There was a fascinating item on the Today programme this morning about how London-based PR and Public Affairs agencies are helping ‘spin’ the reputations of morally dubious states, particularly in the Middle East. While the news hook for the piece was ostensibly a new code of conduct being put in place by the industry this didn’t really get much airplay against the juicier story of London PRs allegedly supporting corrupt regimes.

And this type of story is typical of how the mainstream media covers PR – and it comes down to a lack of positive stories put out by the industry itself. We don’t have a lot of strong, admired role models – in fact here’s a top 5 that pop into most people’s heads when you mention PR:

1          Edina from Absolutely Fabulous
Still the most famous fictional PR person and a monument to slapdash excess. However, her response when asked what she does – “I PR people, things, Lulu,” is probably more coherent than some industry luminaries. Amazingly, and without an ounce of irony, someone actually opened an agency called Absolutely Fabulous.

2          Max Clifford
Don’t get me wrong – Clifford is a smart operator and does what he does extremely well. But he operates in a tiny niche of the PR market, yet is rolled out as the archetypal PR consultant whatever the topic.

3          Alastair Campbell/Malcolm Tucker
Foul-mouthed, combative, bullying and using spin to pull the wool over the electorate’s eyes. That’s obviously the fictional Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It, rather than Mr Campbell. Although Alastair has been known to get into a fight or too, as evidenced by this spat with Adam Boulton of Sky News.

4          Lord Tim Bell
If the Saatchis got Thatcher elected, Lord Bell is the man that kept her there. Since then the Bell Pottinger empire has grown and grown and was pinpointed today as first choice PR to the rulers of a number of Middle Eastern countries.

5          Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors
OK, so I don’t like Gwyneth Paltrow. But still, her character in the film Sliding Doors is flaky, unbusinesslike and shallow – being sacked for ‘borrowing’ the office bottle of vodka. Hardly advising captains of industry on building brand leadership is it?

I think it is time for industry bodies like the CIPR to fight back and get some positive role models out there, highlighting the work they do to help communities, brands and causes. After all, PR is what we’re meant to do, isn’t it?

 

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March 1, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments