Issues & Advocacy Archive

The Science of Media Training Explains Climategate

July 16th, 2010

In today’s media and public relations landscape, it is important to remember that facts and truth rarely are enough to settle the discussion.  This is an acute problem for the scientific and research community – especially when they attempt to publicize new findings. Fundamentally, scientists and researchers need media training to guide them through media and political minefields.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the poster child for this problem.  Since Charles Darwin penned The Origin of Species, there hasn’t been a scientific theory more attacked, ridiculed, even hated than that of climate change.  In this case, a group of thousands of the world’s most respected scientists and experts issue recommendations to the world to try and mitigate climate change.  While that may seem benign, the IPCC has been under a withering assault from a well-funded opposition.

You may have heard of “climategate” (note: after nearly 40 years, perhaps we can find another way to refer to scandals, alleged or real, than -gate suffixes?).  Some internal IPCC emails were leaked to climate skeptics.  The emails contained standard scientific equivocation; taken out of context and plugged into an anti-climate change campaign, some seemed to indicate that the science was inaccurate.

All hell broke loose.  The IPCC was called in for review, climate skeptics scored a major PR victory, and climate science was “in question” again.  Snake-bitten by climategate, the IPCC made matters exponentially worse by issuing a letter to its scientists warning them about engaging the media.  Of course, the letter was leaked.

While climategate continues as a worldwide narrative, the recent story of the IPCC’s total exoneration was much less publicized.  This is a standard media conundrum.  The initial “scandal,” true or not, always saturates the media.  The resulting vindication does not.  That means right at the outset you must be ready to defend everything and be well armed with compelling talking points to support your cause.  If you let the discussion get framed without you, then you are playing defense rather than publicizing your findings.

Scientists, NGOs, and think tanks would do well to receive media training and seek the counsel of an experienced PR firm to help with the launch of a new initiative or report.  This is especially true if your research is on a controversial topic.  You may think your research will speak for itself.  It won’t.  It can be twisted, taken out of context, and publicly thrown back at you.  Without a decisive and coherent response, the public backlash can be brutal and your research will be of little value.

Forget iphone 4 antenna problems — Apple needs better message on conflict minerals

July 2nd, 2010

Apple laid down the gauntlet to the PC in its infamous 1984 commercial announcing its new Macintosh.  Thirty years later, Apple now dominates Microsoft as world’s most valuable technology company.  Apple’s almost religious adherence to branding has paid tremendous dividends (with that customer loyalty helping CEO Steve Jobs and his company slide past PR scandal after scandal).

As part of its hip, edgy brand, Jobs has taken to answering customers’ questions over rapid-fire email.  It’s seen as yet another way that Jobs outclasses the erratic Steve Ballmer of Microsoft – whose spastic on-stage appearances are far more interesting than whatever Microsoft product he’s peddling at the time.

Recently, Jobs responded to a question about “conflict minerals” and whether Apple responsibly sources the minerals in its products.  For companies not paying attention, conflict minerals are the next blood diamonds.  There is an international movement afoot, led by activist groups in the UK and US, that is going to name and shame companies sourcing minerals primarily from the Democratic Republic of Congo – home to the world’s bloodiest ongoing conflict since World War II.  A special report by a UN group of investigators took the extraordinary step of outing several US tech companies with links to the DRC.  And even New York Times influential columnist Nicholas Kristof has moved on from Darfur to make conflict minerals and the DRC his new cause.

Perhaps Jobs is unaware of this movement, as the answer he gave a customer on this issue is not going to cut it:

“We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict few materials.  But honestly there is no way for them to be sure.  Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it’s a very difficult problem.”

In Jobs’ defense, he’s technically correct.  There is no international certification for the sourcing of conflict minerals such as the Kimberly Process for blood diamonds.  However, there are groups that can help Apple and other companies clean up their supply chain and practice proper CSR.  Perhaps more importantly, Jobs could at least act like he cared more about the issue beyond calling it “difficult.”  And then there is the strange use of the word “few” rather than “free.” Conflict-few may be a concept Jobs is pioneering but the global pressure campaign will not be centered on achieving “conflict-few” minerals – it will call for an outright ban on minerals from DRC and start linking specific companies to the ongoing bloodshed.

With his inadequate response to a very serious question, Jobs stumbled into a major international issue and Apple is now square in the sights of activist groups.  As with any major global crisis, smart messaging on conflict minerals requires a concerted, ethical, and engaging PR effort to explain a company’s positions.  Quick emails won’t suffice.

What to watch for in Obama’s speech to the nation on BP

June 14th, 2010

Tomorrow night President Obama will address the nation regarding the BP oil spill.  Combating criticism that his administration was slow to respond properly, Obama is anticipated to make the case for more aggressive government action toward BP.

Aside from the political consequences pre and post-spill, what are some public relations considerations to keep in mind?

Location, location, location.  This is the first national speech that Obama will deliver from the Oval Office.  The symbolism certainly isn’t lost in the moment, as White House advisors rightly recognize that the nation’s greatest environmental disaster ever ranks up there among the worst crises in American history.  Obama is using the Oval Office imprimatur to convey the strength and seriousness of his response to date, and his plans going forward.

Tell us what’s up.  There are so many moving parts now – BP, possible receivership, fines, Halliburton, Transocean, MMS mismanagement, leak estimates, hurricanes – that it’s easy to get lost past the simple narrative of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.  Obama must explain clearly and concisely what his administration has learned, and in a way that helps Americans make sense of who may be responsible for the oil spill.

Leverage into other issues.  Don’t forget that Obama’s plan, no matter what form it takes, is still essentially politics.  Just as the Bush Administration based a significant political agenda on the aftermath of September 11, expect Obama to lay out future political principles.  Strong bet that the need to lessen national dependence on oil will be top of mind, as will regulation of exploration and other relevant energy and environmental issues.

Deadlines.  To shift the focus away from the number of days into the crisis, Obama will likely give hard deadlines for relevant stakeholders to meet, whether that concerns clean up or regulatory action.  To save his political fortunes, Obama must shift the PR narrative away from mismanagement and toward total control.

And that’s just tomorrow night.  These types of efforts require weeks of follow up to sustain any positive traction, so keep an eye on administration officials as they’re dispatched to keep the message momentum going.

$61 Million Branding Disaster, Made in the USA

May 13th, 2010

(Note: this post is a follow-up to the last post on the branding of the Bund Bull).

The World Expo probably isn’t the first event you think of for international branding opportunities.  Compare the Olympics, World Cup and Davos, for example.  Still, that didn’t stop China from pulling out all stops with this year’s World Expo in Shanghai – the country spent more on the event than it did hosting the Beijing Olympics.

Why did the Chinese want to make such a big splash with the World Expo?  Simple – they realized this is a major branding platform, with journalists and influentials from all over the world in attendance.  More importantly, it offered a chance to dwarf previous Expos and show how China does international events.

Of course, we must remember that it’s not the “China Expo” but rather the “World Expo” – which means each country gets to participate by building a pavilion that represents cultural contribution.  Think of it as “international day” at your kid’s elementary school, on steroids.  Companies from each country usually sponsor the pavilion and the multi-media presentations.  There are some stunning entries this year with regard to design.  We think England wins for most, ah, angular.  The Dutch pavilion looks like something out of a Tim Burton film.

And then there’s the USA, which assembled a $61 million corrugated tin monstrosity meant to represent … America’s tool sheds?  More depressing than the woeful design outside are the overpriced and underwhelming productions taking place inside.  Contracted to BRC Imagination Arts, reports show $23 million spent on the inside presentation and on three five-minute movies that have questionable production quality and messaging.  The Hurt Locker was cheaper to make per minute and won the Oscar for Best Picture.  Sadly, this pavilion is meant to “showcase the best America has to offer.”

The lesson: even for a nation, branding is important.  While outsourcing your national brand to a conglomeration is fiscally prudent, it also inhibits the element of oversight and accountability for the final product.  Allowing unsupervised vendors to run the show and present what they perceive as “the USA” to the world can have disastrous results.

Similarly, companies and organizations must always make sure to work with marketing and PR teams when managing their own brands.  If you skimp on either the time or expense associated with amassing brand equity, you’ll end up with scraps … maybe of discarded tin that you too can use to build an unattractive pavilion.  Just sayin’…

Next Expo, the US should hire PR specialists with brand experience to oversee the project.  When you have the chance to present yourself on the global stage, there’s no room for error – shine, and the whole world shines with you!

China’s Own Brand of Red Bull – Less Sugar High, More Media-Savvy

May 10th, 2010

Enormous robotic babies and Tron-like cars don’t have much in common, but don’t tell that to the planners at the Shanghai World Expo.  Aside from the unique welcome-mat displays, however, even more interesting is what’s happening behind the scenes.

The Expo will cost China $60 billion USD, more than the cost of the Beijing Olympics.  The US presence, sadly, is a monument to unoriginality – particularly when compared with what Russia and the Netherlands have in place.  (The horrendous branding effort by the US at this vital global meeting will get a rant in a future blog post.)

But for the real symbolic and media action, American businesses should really be paying attention to another exhibit being unveiled at the Expo, which shows smart branding efforts in action.

The “Bund Bull” is about to announce to the world Shanghai’s preeminence in banking – as it hopes to achieve by 2020.  To be unveiled in the Bund district, a famous colonial-era part of the city, the bull is designed by Arturo DiModica – the same designer of “Charging Bull” of Wall Street fame.

There are some not-so-subtle differences between the statues.  The Bund Bull is redder, younger and stronger than Charging Bull.  And instead of its head facing down, as on Wall Street, this bull’s head will tilt upward.  The symbolism couldn’t be more striking, and the timing is everything.

All signs point to China’s continued rise as an economic superpower.  While America is in the midst of an economic recovery, the long-term forecasts show China with growing influence over our economic future.  Our Charging Bull has his head lowered and neck exposed.  In bullfighting this pose is known as “el momento de la verdad” – the perfect moment for the matador to finish the bull with a well-placed sword.

The Bund Bull shows no such vulnerability.

Should China’s economic gains ever radically outpace those of the US, expect to see the brand of Bund Bull charging alongside media coverage for years to come.

The Tea Party’s Fatal PR Blow?

May 5th, 2010

The Washington Post has a lead article today on the nascent Tea Party’s struggle with its “racist” image.  As the saying goes, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your facts – and for the Tea Party, the fact is that its political boundaries unfortunately are blurred with extremely racist and offensive elements.  Given that the wider PR narrative of Tea Party political and militant extremism is all but written in stone, separating bigotry from the movement’s desired image of fiscal discipline and individual/sovereign independence is a tall order.  As the Post article succinctly states, the loosely defined elements of the Tea Party have “no national communications strategy.”

In more practical terms, the movement has yet to score a major political victory.  Whether it’s railing against government bailouts, to standing against healthcare legislation, to alienating political candidates it once supported, the Tea Party still seeks that elusive big “win” to generate strong momentum on the political stage.

These setbacks haven’t stopped its members from identifying future opportunities to sway political and policy debates, but here’s the problem – the past political fights have essentially centered on financial reform and entitlements.  The legislation or laws in question were more focused on money than social issues – i.e., “we can’t afford bailouts… we can’t afford healthcare…” and so forth.

But the next big policy fights are ones rife with race and ethnicity.  Immigration reform is so racially charged that the state of Arizona has become a lightning rod of criticism and boycotts because of its perceived heavy-handed and racist laws.  Terrorism and racial-profiling are thrust back into the spotlight thanks to the failed Times Square bomb plot and no-fly list breakdown on Emirates Airlines.

If it can’t scrub its racist image, how can the Tea Party expect to be taken seriously if it attempts to join the debate on these two high-profile issues?  And if its members do talk, what risk does the movement run if the bigots within are the ones whose voices speak loudest?

In politics, shedding racist baggage is next to impossible.  Indeed, many states in the American south still continue to deal with the ugly and terrifying images of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation.  Unless the Tea Party leaders conduct a transparent, thoughtful, sincere soul-searching process that insists on zero tolerance of racist elements, the movement is doomed to novelty status.  Purge now, or forever hold your peace.

P.S. One PR tactic that guarantees failure for the Tea Party is claiming that so-called “plants” (i.e., opposition operatives) purposely show up and exhibit cartoonish racist behavior to make Tea Partiers look bad.  Appealing to conspiracy theories is a terrible PR strategy and only helps to cement the lunatic, reactionary image of the movement.

“Baby Killer” Is a Real Bad Narrative for Republicans

March 22nd, 2010

Last night, during the contentious final debate on health care reform in the U.S. House, an unidentified Republican Member shouted “baby killer at Rep. Bart Stupak as he made his floor speech on the pending legislation.

As of 12:00 p.m. EST today, the vocal Representative remains anonymous, though there is suspicion amongst his/her colleagues as to the culprit’s true identity.  The question is, should this Representative admit the transgression?  Yes, because if he/she doesn’t, then the House Republicans will be branded as unruly, immature and lacking complete civility in the normal course of political debate.  Here are the reasons why:

Two incidents, one step away from a pattern.  The media loves connecting the dots, and in this case “baby killer” now joins the Republican lexicon of “YOU LIE!” Many independent voters, the most crucial voting bloc in American politics, will perceive these random and impolite outbursts as the sum of Republican thought leadership on health care reform.

Epithets are now right-leaning mantras.  After Saturday’s absolutely disgraceful Tea Party-led racial and homophobic slurs shouted at House Democrats outside the Capitol, it’s now become a race to the bottom in insulting opposition politicians.

Silence is deafening.  No matter what policy arguments Republicans try to make in opposition to now-certain health care legislation, as long as the violator stays silent (or protected by fellow colleagues), the media will latch on to playing who-dun-it as opposed to analyzing legislative principles.

Speak now, Republicans, or forever lose your place…

Anti-Social Media: Cost for IRS to Worsen Its Reputation = $.04

March 18th, 2010

Yes, the Internal Revenue Service has managed to pull off the impossible: a public relations implosion for the mind-blowing cost of $.04.

Some background: The IRS sent two representatives to Harv’s Metro Car Wash in Sacramento to collect an overdue tax bill for $202.31 from the business.  The only thing is, the initial amount owed was $.04, which eventually ballooned due to late fees and penalties.

The IRS ranked near-bottom for federal agencies in a public opinion poll last year.  Incidents like this certainly won’t reverse that trend.  Let’s count some of the key factors behind this IRS PR disaster, ready-made for starved news outlets to exploit:

Sheer absurdity.  Which number do you think the media will latch on to, $.04 or the full bill?  Search online and just look at how many headlines cite four pennies.

Showing up in person.  Did the IRS really need to dispatch two agents to collect this bill?  It’s also doubtful they were as charming as the groovers above.  The irony is that the time and money spent in using such resources likely outweighed the bill itself.  Why not just keep mailing a bill to the business?

David v. Goliath.  The current national mood is so anti-establishment/big-bad-guv’mint against “the little guy” that an entire right-leaning political movement has awakened as a result.  What better way to illustrate this sentiment than to have a despised federal agency go after a helpless little car wash.  Incidents like this also have strong appeal to local, folksy interests.  Just read the column in the local paper.

No IRS response.  Talk about missed opportunity.  In fact, when asked about it the IRS declined to respond, citing privacy and disclosure laws.  That still doesn’t mean that the agency can’t say anything in support of its tax collection practices.  Harv’s Metro Car Wash is light-years ahead of the IRS on this one, gladly speaking to any and all reporters and even using small business marketing tactics for a four-cent car wash promotion – now that is how you publicize!

The IRS should have had at least a canned response of some sort, offered by someone who’s had media training and who could help the agency appear like it has somewhat sensible priorities.  Unfortunately, unlike paying taxes, the agency can’t ask the media for an extension to comment on this one.

DC PR Firm Dispatch: How Mexico and Thailand Should Respond to Strife

March 16th, 2010

Simultaneous strife currently strains two countries on almost opposite sides of the world.  In Mexico, the tragic toll from drug cartel violence took a sad turn recently when an American consulate worker and her husband were killed in an ambush in Juárez.  In Thailand, nearly 100,000 protestors supporting ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra have been rallying for days against the current government.

A world apart, but the burdens are the same, socially and most certainly economically.  The violence in Mexico has caused tremendous job loss and a 7% economic contraction last year alone.  Thailand is barely getting over the hangover of its last round of political instability, when mass protests forced its international airport closed and stranded thousands of travelers for days.

Now, both countries are highly popular holiday destinations (#8 for Mexico and #17 for Thailand, globally), but these states of affairs are hardly welcoming to vacationers.  So pretend you run the communications arm for the nation.  You need to keep commerce flowing, and you don’t want foreigners scared to visit.  Therefore, consider these public relations tactics:

Explain the truth – people often simply want to know just that.  What does your government’s official website say?  How about your embassy and consulate websites globally?  Any statement placed on these sites would be picked up by the press immediately.  As with most highly-charged media narratives, the truth is often far more complicated than what’s actually broadcast.  Travelers hate to guess what’s going to happen next when planning trips to exotic destinations, so give them the honest play-by-play, and if things aren’t so bad in certain destinations then let them know.

Make it “official” via social media.  It goes without saying that Facebook, Twitter and other social media can go a long way to amplifying what your official government sites are saying.

Be prepared for the worst.  Even if your government’s honest explanation of the situation on the ground helps alleviate some concerns, you have no way of knowing what may come next.  (Um, hepatitis, anyone?)  Therefore, keep your eyes on the ball and make sure to have planned responses and statements ready.

When things improve, make sure people know.  Everyone likes to hear about improvements and success.  When your country gets a situation under control make sure to publicize the improvements to help build confidence.

DC PR Firm Dispatch: Five Reasons Why Congress Is Broken

February 25th, 2010

As more Members of Congress announce their retirements, it’s worth analyzing the circumstances surrounding this pattern.  At least 11 Senators plan to retire, and the House may have 40 to 50 open seats when all is said and done.

Of these retirements, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh’s planned departure generated significant chatter.  His exit is unusual as he gave a harsh assessment of the current state of Congress: “If I could create one job in the private sector by helping to grow a business, that would be one more than Congress has created in the last six months.”

From a public relations perspective, it’s worthwhile to look beyond whether Bayh was wise or weak in leaving Congress.  Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson did just that, arguing that Bayh’s departure illustrates the fact that Washington “is broken because too many of our leaders confuse politics with service.”

Let’s assume Congress is indeed “broken” in this regard.  When a highly visible institution is in disrepair, there are often parallels with principles of crisis management.  Indeed, clients in need of crisis management often face the same problems as Congress: loss of public trust, daily maligning in the press and lack of a way forward to redemption.

A publicist would recommend steps for a company or organization to improve its image, regain customer confidence and communicate progress to stakeholders.  But, can Congress – as a collective institution – use any publicity tactics to turn itself around?  Maybe not, and here are five reasons why:

Congress’s messages are constantly conflicting.  Parties oppose each other on every major – and petty – political issue or initiative.  It’s one thing to have thoughtful disagreements and constructive debate, but another to have knee-jerk hostility to anything the opposition proposes.  Any organization facing a crisis must put aside internal differences and focus cohesively on improving its reputation, in this case that would be a civil dialogue on key policy ideas.

Congress’s own Members are its own worst enemies.  Not only do the two parties enjoy attacking each other, they also bite the hand that feeds them.  The institution effectively cannibalizes its own image when Members gleefully criticize Congress’s own activities.  Members are in a constant race to the bottom to bash Congress, each trying to outdo the other in embarrassing the institution.  While this may be red meat for the voters back home, it does nothing to elevate Congress’s standing.

Almost all legislative proposals are spun negative.  No matter what bill is suggested, the opposition usually lines up to bash the proposal with false and dishonest criticism.  This makes it hard for the public to view Congress as a productive organization.

On its biggest bills, Congress usually has to explain the details.  Major legislative efforts get overloaded in eyelid-drooping detail, making it difficult to communicate objectives.  And, as the political cliché goes, if you’re explaining, you’re losing.

Congress has no outside advocates.  Can you think of a single independent-minded organization that cheers or celebrates Congress?  Didn’t think so.  After all, where is the upside of congratulating a political body with a public approval rating of 18%?  That’s like congratulating your kid for skipping school.

No one wants major legislative proposals to pass without full and frank discussion amongst lawmakers, but when viewed this way, we can see how partisanship is more bane than benefit to Congress as an institution.