Involuntary Transparency

WikiLeaks screen shot. Hard to come by these days as the site is the top target on the Web.

The title phrase–involuntary transparency–comes from Andy Greenberg’s cover story for Forbes on WikiLeaks. A fascinating juxtaposition of the unpleasant and the noble, the term harkens to a post on this blog, “The Automated Honor System.”

Are we truly transparent or honorable when it is forced upon us? Despite the seeming revolution of Web 2.0’s power to disclose and shame, it is simply another example of the Internet providing venerable products and experiences fast-fast-fast, to adapt Anacin’s tagline from 50+ years ago. In short, the Internet is a labor-saving device for delivering consequences, the eternal tool for behavior modification.

Transparency has always been mandatory, but we don’t always follow rules, written or unwritten. Mr. Greenberg’s use of the word “involuntary” suggests the matter has been taken out of the hands of governments and corporations, and by extension all of humanity. My past post on the subject humorously assumes as much.

However, just as the old laws and standards have had a hard time keeping people in line, WikiLeaks will fare little better. “Do the right thing” has rarely been a natural strategy, even though many are calling for such epidemic honesty as the only antidote to the WikiLeaks onslaught.

I am not dismissing the newest demands for disclosure and ethical behavior. I like “involuntary transparency” in a wistful, PR professional kind of way. Nevertheless, transparency must be completely voluntary. It must come early. It must be consistent. It can’t be applied like an anti-virus program. I regularly cite PR legend Al Golin, the man who coined “the trust bank.” From his book, Trust or Consequences:

  1. Trust is the most basic element of social contact–the great intangible at the heart of truly long-term success.
  2. Trust is both a process and an outcome; it’s at the heart of dealing with every relationship.

WikiLeaks will not improve transparency because it is not a vehicle for trust. The confidential communications it has acquired from the American government result from espionage and treason. We can add blackmail to those unsavory terms as embattled WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange threatens a mass release of more damning files, all encrypted and dispersed among a network of supporters, if anything happens to him or his site.

In the end, WikiLeaks is not a game-changer for public relations, although it is a formidable practitioner of the discipline as it has driven much of the news in recent days. It is not a sanctuary for whistleblowers. It is not a virtual version of the World Court. It is simply a brand that trades magnificently on malfeasance, gossip and finger-pointing. In short, it is the greatest tabloid on earth.


December 5, 2010 at 11:37 pm 1 comment

Be Careful When You Hit “Send”

Volumes have been written about the importance of content and tone in electronic communications. The typing may be in haste but the thoughts are permanent because nothing ever dies on the Web. Immortality is guaranteed when The Wall Street Journal reprints your missives.

Such is the case with analyst John Kinnucan, featured in a WSJ story over the weekend about the huge inside trading case that the Federal Government is building. According to a subsequent article, Kinnucan was on his front porch with a glass of wine when two FBI agents pulled up, accused him of passing inside information, and threatened him with arrest unless he recorded conversations with his clients to help gather evidence against them. Kinnucan refused and later sent an e-mail to his clients:

Today two fresh faced eager beavers from the FBI showed up unannounced (obviously) on my doorstep thoroughly convinced that my clients have been trading on copious inside information…. We obviously beg to differ, so have therefore declined the young gentleman’s gracious offer to wear a wire and therefore ensnare you in their devious web.

Kinnucan claims that he is contractually required to notify clients of such contact with investigators. I doubt that his contracts stipulate taunting the Federal Government on the eve of an anticipated landmark prosecution.

Kinnucan says that he is innocent and does not deal in the type of non-public information that precipitates an insider trading case. He is obviously angry and upset, as anyone would be in his situation. He also says that his business has “imploded” following his new notoriety, another obvious consequence. The Feds may have put a scarlet letter on him, but he reapplied it with a paint roller thanks to his late-night e-mail.

Law enforcement is not always right or noble. Former DA Mike Nifong’s misconduct in the rape case against members of the Duke lacrosse team is an example. Fewer people than ever may expect the Federal Government to “do the right thing.” However, one institution held in even lower esteem is Wall Street. John Kinnucan may be based in Portland, Oregon, but he resides figuratively in lower Manhattan. In the end, his e-mail may elicit sympathy from peers and clients, but now it is grist for a national news story.

No matter how righteous John Kinnucan felt after his FBI encounter, it did not grant license for public arrogance. According to the WSJ article, he told the FBI agents on his porch that he wanted to talk to a lawyer. He should have also called a public relations specialist.

November 22, 2010 at 12:41 pm Leave a comment


My alma mater

In recent months, for-profit colleges have received heightened scrutiny regarding recruiting practices, tuition costs and resultant student loan burdens, and the real-world value of the certificates and degrees they issue. The Obama administration has sought restrictions of federal aid for schools whose students have to spend over 8% of their starting salary on loan payments after graduation. This measure affects career colleges offering vocational programs such as culinary arts and medical support.

For-profit proponents present a slippery slope argument that the career college regulation is part of greater designs to “rein in” the industry. Many cite unfairness in holding for-profit schools to standards not extended to other institutions. Harris Miller, president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, says the new regulatory formula would flunk most medical schools.

Journalists and politicians are finding their story angles. ABC News conducted an undercover investigation into University of Phoenix misleading prospective students about future employment opportunities and encouraging them to take on maximum student debt. Many media accounts point out the vast cost discrepancy between for-profit schools and community colleges, an argument that  Sen. Tom Harkin echoes. Harkin has held hearings on for-profit schools and called for industry reforms.

As the saying goes, I have a dog in this fight. I hold a bachelor’s degree in Marketing from the University of Phoenix. I support for-profit schools and I’m a member of the slippery slope contingent (yes, I learned in class at UoP that “slippery slope” is a fallacious argument–unless one presents a logical chain of events and is ready to accept a “middle ground” conclusion.) For-profits will face more regulation because they draw 85% of their revenue from federal funds in the form of grants and loans. The Obama administration is demanding to see a return on investment, the ROI mantra constantly heard in the business world. It’s a justifiable claim. For-profit schools are much like defense contractors: big-time capitalists dependent on government largesse.

The concern centers on the fairness of that ROI measurement. Will for-profit schools confront tougher standards and restrictions than public and private schools? Will for-profit schools become a political punching bag, prompting more government regulation and intervention? Are parties with interests that conflict with for-profit schools driving the debate?

To this last point, there is a push for students to choose community colleges over for-profit schools with the cost factor a major rationale. (Another note: I hold an associate degree from Los Angeles Pierce College, so I’m a community college fan too.) With the Obama administration simultaneously backing increased community college enrollment and curbs on for-profit schools, it’s easy to speculate a hidden agenda. The stumbling block for the community college plan: these are public schools under tremendous budget pressure, currently reducing classes and educational opportunities.

The “ulterior motive” arguments get more compelling with Steven Eisman speaking to Congress about the need for stricter controls over for-profit education. Eisman is a portfolio manager who has been identified as a short-seller of for-profit education company stocks, making money when those stocks drop in value. Per conventional wisdom, more government oversight would mean less profit and growth, driving down stock prices.

The for-profit education industry faces considerable PR and marketing issues. In his Washington Post op-ed, Harkin describes the schools that spend close to 30% of revenue on advertising. There is an implicit tie-in to tobacco and fast-food: the image of big companies mounting big campaigns that persuade people to make poor choices. An industry criticized for having the audacity to advertise means one thing: it’s in crisis mode, which is a job for public relations. There has been a fair amount of media coverage and op-eds supporting the industry against more government control and emphasizing the shortfalls of relying more heavily on strapped community colleges. I personally liked students from for-profit schools rallying at the Capitol with shirts reading: “My education. My job. My choice.”

Unfortunately, the for-profit industry’s primary value proposition has become its biggest liability: “we are the schools for working adults who want to advance their careers.” The jobless recovery makes the inherent vocational pitch ring hollow. The go-go years for the industry may be over. University of Phoenix has announced changes to its recruiting process that may decrease enrollment, in turn necessitating higher tuition. Less service for more money. Now who says for-profits aren’t just like other schools?

Read my other post about for-profit schools: An Education Outside the Gates.

October 19, 2010 at 2:36 pm Leave a comment

Serve to Lead

These are diminished times. Money, jobs, resources, and hope are in short supply. But perhaps the most glaring deficit is in leadership. Errors in judgement, questionable agendas, and the inability to admit mistakes or articulate vision define today’s “leadership class.” As one leader after another fails in spectacular fashion, many of us may shrug and ask, “What can we do?” James Strock has an answer: “Serve to Lead.”

Serve to Lead is a mantra, a methodology and a book. It is an interactive system to instill leadership skills in anyone, from a CEO to an intern. Serve to Lead’s creator, James Strock, is an author, speaker and consultant to private and public organizations. He has exercised and observed leadership first-hand as an environmental protection officer under President George H.W. Bush and Governor Pete Wilson. He has drawn leadership lessons from the greatest historic examples including Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and Theodore Roosevelt.

Serve to Lead bases its leadership system on four questions:

  • Who Are You Serving?
  • How Can You Best Serve?
  • Are You Making Your Unique Contribution?
  • Are You Getting Better Every Day?

Like the Harvard-trained lawyer he is, James Strock makes a powerful case for each question with the ample use of precedents. His examples of leadership qualities and command decisions span history, pop culture and scripture–from the grandeur of Churchill to the psychedelia of the Beatles, from the gentle instruction of the Apostle John to the profane address of General Patton to troops on the eve of D-Day.

But the book is not a documentary. It is a living document meant to be filled out, followed and referenced frequently. It is appropriate for everyone due to its core premise:

  • Everyone Can Lead, Because Everyone Can Serve.

I’ve known James Strock for nearly 10 years. He encouraged me as I built my public relations and marketing career and as I completed my bachelor’s degree in my mid-forties. (The kind words and good advice continue as I race to finish my master’s before age 50.) The man behind Serve to Lead believes in the greatness in all of us. With this book, he has given us the means to find and share it.

August 27, 2010 at 8:58 pm 1 comment

The Atomic Press Release

Today, August 6, marks the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Official announcement came through a press release issued by President Harry Truman:

Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British “Grand Slam” which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.

The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold. And the end is not yet. With this bomb we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction to supplement the growing power of our armed forces. In their present form these bombs are now in production and even more powerful forms are in development.

It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East…

Arthur W. Page, a legendary figure in public relations history, wrote the release. Son of the co-founder of the Doubleday, Page & Co. publishing house, Mr. Page served as AT&T’s VP of Public Relations. During World War II, he oversaw the Joint Army and Navy Committee on Welfare and Recreation and was responsible for numerous communications and morale programs.

Noel L. Griese is the author of a definitive biography on Mr. Page. According to his account, Secretary of War Henry Stimson summoned Mr. Page to full-time duty in April 1945 and briefed him soon after on the Manhattan Project. The Trinity test blast would take place in the desert of Alamogordo, NM, on July 16. Mr. Page was asked to write the release that ultimately would be read to reporters at the White House on the day of the Hiroshima bombing while President Truman was at sea returning from the Potsdam Conference.

Arthur W. Page is credited with writing the most momentous press release in history. Whereas the 1969 moon landing–the 20th century’s other signature event–was beamed live to television audiences, Page’s release alone was the public’s introduction to the atomic age. It is likely the last time a sheaf of paper would change the world.

August 6, 2010 at 9:21 am Leave a comment

Shirley Sherrod and the Social Media Fail

Shirley Sherrod

On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre troupe performed a live radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds.” It was the day America learned the perils of blind trust in a new medium as Welles’ faux news bulletins convinced many that the Martians had landed in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.

On July 20, 2010, a leading communication technology again triggered hysteria. The racists were among us, in the form of government representatives infiltrating an organization founded to fight bigotry. Social media delivered the proof., a blog by Andrew Breitbart, posted a short video of Shirley Sherrod, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Director for Georgia, telling an NAACP audience about not applying “full force” efforts to help a white farmer avoid foreclosure earlier in her career.

The edited Shirley Sherrod video:

Orson Welles was considered a genius, but he didn’t compel FDR to send troops after the Martians. On the other hand, Andrew Breitbart managed to rock the administration of the 44th President. With no alien hordes to vanquish, they did the next best thing: they ousted an inconvenient official.

By October 31, 1938, we knew there were no Martians in New Jersey. By July 21 2010, we saw there was no racist at the NAACP podium. Social media, the great fact checker, lie detector, and collector of the crowd’s wisdom had failed. It had not saved us from our knee-jerk reactions and lack of due diligence.

Shirley Sherrod’s defense was her own words, the complete 43-minute video of her speech, a poignant narrative of her life and career. During her childhood and early adulthood, local versions of Bull Connor were sheriffs in her home county in Georgia. A white man killed her father. A group of white men burned a cross in front of her widowed mother’s home.

The complete Shirley Sherrod video:

Ms. Sherrod said that she swore to leave the fields but never did. As she took her career path after college, she admitted that her vision of helping people was originally limited to African-Americans. She explained how her attitudes began to change after handing off the white farmer to a white lawyer, “one of his own kind,” only to delve back into the foreclosure case when the lawyer failed to produce results. That part of the story didn’t make the cut in the video shown on, the video used to condemn Ms. Sherrod.

How many of us joined the kangaroo court? I read the initial story on Ms. Sherrod, watched the short clip, and posted the link to the Facebook page for my social media class at University of Denver online under the heading “social media drives the news.” Indeed. The story got heavy play in the media. The denunciations from the executive branch and the NAACP were swift. Ms. Sherrod said that she was ordered to pull her car over and resign by BlackBerry.

How many of us, chastened, watched the complete video? I did, after making  a “not-so-fast” post about the Sherrod story to the class’ Facebook page. What I saw was not Van Jones or Jeremiah Wright. This was a candid woman explaining her personal journey to racial inclusiveness in the course of her public service. For once, “taken out of context” was not a PR dodge. It was the truth.

Per the value proposition of technological marvels, we expect social media to be a labor-saving device, feeding us bite-size chunks of information screened and endorsed by experts and influencers. In the end, it is just another tool, only as good as the people who wield it. Amid modern cynicism, its free structure gives it “verisimilitude,” a term that has been used to describe the sense of truthfulness and authenticity in Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” production. A surreptitious or overlooked video has become social media’s symbol of authenticity. In contrast to Web 2.0, 1930s radio was a medium of commonality and authority. Welles achieved authenticity with the simple, grave announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program…”

Orson Welles knew he was putting on a show. What kind of spectacle were the proponents of the edited Shirley Sherrod video anticipating? More importantly, what kind of spectacles will we enable from now on? Will we take time from our busy schedules to confirm there is no smoking crater in Grover’s Mill?

July 22, 2010 at 10:47 am 6 comments

McChrystal and The Year of Bad Public Relations

General Stanley McChrystalIn my last post, I deemed 2010 “the year of bad public relations.” Not profound or poetic, but sadly accurate. The latest proof: General Stanley McChrystal, recently ousted from his Afghanistan command due to comments by him and his staff in a Rolling Stone article entitled “The Runaway General.”

Last September, I blogged about Gen. McChrystal and his “Commander’s Initial Assessment,” praising the plan’s communications component. At that point, Gen. McChrystal was demonstrating a grasp of media and message since dissolved with his military career.

The Washington Post reports the conclusion among Pentagon officials that Rolling Stone “betrayed” Gen. McChrystal by printing off-the-record remarks. The low drone you’re now hearing is not the vuvuzela section at the World Cup; it’s the groaning chorus of PR professionals. NOTHING is off-the-record (my old boss Susan Tellem is particularly good at making this point with clients–woe if you don’t heed her). That does not mean there aren’t journalists who abide by the “off-the-record” request. It means you can’t count on the protection. It means never say anything you don’t want converted into global content.

This is not a call for “no comment,” tight scripting, puff pieces or similar banes of good public relations. It’s a reminder that common sense is the foundation of any PR action. Common sense would question a Rolling Stone exclusive with the General, given its historic anti-establishment bent (this is the publication that gave Goldman Sachs its now iconic “vampire squid” description). Again, I’m not advocating puff pieces with staunchly sympathetic media, but the pitfalls of this choice should have been obvious.

Duncan Boothby, Gen. McChrystal’s civilian press aide, was the first to fall on his sword when the story–and the story about the story–broke. His counsel to the General before greenlighting the interview should have been:

  • Which key audiences are we reaching with this media? Are there other/superior media options to reach these audiences?
  • What messages will we convey with this media?
  • How will the eventual piece support our communication objectives and overall strategic goals?

And of course the $64 question:

  • What’s the worst that can happen?

Perhaps Mr. Boothby went through the above protocol. Perhaps the conclusions were solid for proceeding with Rolling Stone. Perhaps the problem was solely in execution, a lack of common sense from the General and his staff. The reports are damning of the officers’ prolonged, alcohol-fueled sessions with journalist Michael Hastings. There is nothing a public relations professional can do in such cases. Even if he/she could eject the media and lock the liquor cabinet, the damage would be irreversible.

In the end, this is a severe personal failure by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, particularly disappointing considering his past communications competency. When untested and largely unknown leaders stagger in the spotlight–BP’s Tony Hayward and Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein chief among them–we can cite their ignorance and indifference regarding public relations. Gen. McChrystal had no such excuse, which is why he had no choice but to resign. Leadership does not give you the right to say whatever you want. It only increases the weight of your words.

June 26, 2010 at 2:12 pm Leave a comment

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