The ugly side of public relations damages all of us

The ugly side of public relations and issue management has been brutally on display recently – and the result is renewed damage to the reputation of what we do.

Earlier this month, an investigative report in The Guardian exposed a high-profile British lobbying firm secretly using unbranded “news” pages on Facebook to promote sometimes dubious clients. The report detailed how CTF Partners – run by Sir Lynton Crosby, a close ally of Boris Johnson – professionalised online disinformation campaigns to burnish the image of the controversial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, and former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, accused of involvement in a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal.

The Guardian disclosed, for example, how supposedly independent Facebook news pages on the war in Yemen were actually created by CTF on behalf of the Saudi Government, and how  what appeared to be an environmental organisation attacking British government subsidies to onshore windfarms was overseen by CTF, which had a contract with a major coalminer.

This damning story came just days after the New York Times revealed how a public relations company wrote an article praising the business acumen of accused sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein and paid a journalist $600 to put his name on it and post the story in Forbes magazine. In fact NYT found that Forbes, the National Post and Huffington Post were all “hoodwinked” into running stories promoting Epstein, reportedly as part of a planned campaign to rehabilitate his reputation after getting out of jail for sexual offences in 2009.

And on top of all of this was the demise of the once-respected British PR company Bell Pottinger, which spectacularly collapsed in late 2017 after its involvement in a campaign deliberately designed to stoke racial hatred in South Africa. The company was expelled from the Public Relations and Communications Association for unethical and unprofessional behaviour which brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute, and it soon went into administration as clients deserted in droves.

While others remain unpunished, what’s common to such cases is the hidden use of unbranded or deceptive sources to shape controversial issues, and the systematic publication of what has come to be known as “fake news.”

Public relations professionals and issue managers sometimes legitimately work on behalf of dubious clients and questionable causes. And there are plenty of advocates who argue that even the most egregious dictator or oligarch is entitled to have their voice heard. Moreover, communicators exposed using questionable tactics – as in the recent case of CTF – will typically say that what they are doing is “within the law.”

But the question here is not whether honest practitioners should take on so-called toxic clients or toxic issues, because they always have a choice – as was shown a few years ago when a group of the biggest global PR consultancies declared they would not work with climate change deniers. And others have declined to work with Big Tobacco.

The real question is not what clients you accept, but what methods you are willing to adopt to promote those clients or causes, regardless of whether or not you act “within the law.”

When unethical practice is exposed it damages all of us and erodes trust in government and organisational communication. Sadly, recent media reports suggest that such behaviour continues to be sanctioned, and continues to undermine the ability for society to have informed and balanced discussion on important issues of the day.

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Is changing name an effective crisis strategy?

A single photograph has triggered a flurry of discussion about the value of changing name to respond to a crisis. The recent picture was of a new aircraft in Ryanair livery with the designation showing as Boeing 737 8200 instead of the regular Boeing 737 MAX.

Nobody would usually care much except that MAX is the accepted name of the new Boeing aircraft which suffered two terrible fatal accidents within just five months – in Indonesia and Ethiopia – killing a total of 346 passengers and crew when they crashed just minutes after take-off. This led to the global grounding of the plane-maker’s fastest-selling model.

Not surprisingly the apparent name change suggested by the photograph prompted fresh speculation that Boeing is trying to rebrand the troubled plane prior to its much-delayed return to service.

Unfortunately, Boeing itself – already severely criticised for its communication about the two air-crash disasters – has done little to fully address the speculation.

When President Trump tweeted in April that Boeing should rebrand the plane with a new name, company spokesman Gordon Johndroe said there had been “no discussion” of a name change. But a few weeks later Chief Financial Officer Greg Smith set the hares running again when he told media at the Paris Air Show that the company was open to the idea. “We’re committed to doing what is needed to restore it (the aircraft’s reputation). If that means changing the brand to restore it then we’ll address that.”

But a formal corporate statement quickly shot the speculation down: “We remain open-minded to all input from customers and other stakeholders, but have no plans at this time to change the name of the 737 Max.” Then came the unexpected photo of the Ryanair plane which renewed the issue once again . . .  and Boeing and Ryanair chose to remain silent.

So is a name change a viable crisis strategy? For a consumer product maybe, but almost certainly not for a major corporate brand. Following the Toyota recall crisis in 2009-2010 there was widespread discussion – particularly in the USA – that the company would have to change its name to survive. Of course it didn’t, and within 12 months the Japanese car-maker had regained its position as world number one.

Similarly, after Malaysia Airlines lost two aircraft in early 2014 – one shot down over Ukraine and one mysteriously disappeared somewhere over the Indian Ocean – it was widely predicted that the airline would have to rebrand. Again, that is not what happened and Malaysia Airlines is slowly rebuilding its reputation.

There have been some high-profile name changes, seemingly to create distance from past problems (even though the link is sometimes denied). Think no further than Transfield Services which became Broadspectrum following controversy involving the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres; or Ardent Leisure, parent company of Dreamworld, which changed its name to Main Event after a fatal accident at the theme park in 2016; or the Lance Armstrong Foundation which became the Livestrong Foundation after the cyclist’s drug disgrace; or the world’s most notorious oil tanker Exxon Valdez which was later renamed Sea River Mediterranean.

However, given the massive brand equity in a name like Toyota or Boeing 737, built up over many years, a name change for the Boeing MAX seems most unlikely, especially since Boeing has consistently defended its safety record. “There is no technical slip or gap here,” said CEO Dennis Muilenburg. “We understand our plane. We understand how the design was accomplished and remain fully confident in the product.”

As Donald Trump said in his uncharacteristically modest Tweet: “What do I know about branding, maybe nothing. But if I were Boeing, I would fix the Boeing 737 MAX, add some additional great features, and rebrand the plane with a new name. But again, what the hell do I know?”

 

 

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It’s time to stop talking about spin . . . please

Talking about positive PR as “spin” is misleading and unhelpful, and it really is time we moved past this derogatory language. But a Federal minister dragged us backwards last week when he publicly called for putting a “positive spin” on homelessness.

This wasn’t just some over-eager publicist trying to reframe the latest gaffe by a B-list celebrity. It was the Minister newly appointed to be responsible for homelessness talking about a serious social issue which plagues our cities.

Discussing his role on national radio, Queensland MP Luke Howarth said that while about 116,000 Australians were homeless, 99.5% of the population are homed and living in safe places. He also tried to make it sound good that homelessness is not growing as quickly as the population.

“I want to put a positive spin on it as well,” he declared, “and not just say that Australia’s in a housing crisis when it affects a very, very small percentage of the population.”

Perhaps it was just careless use of language, but the media predictably scolded the Minster for calling for a positive spin.

The reality is that management of any serious public issue needs facts, compassion and informed discussion, not spin. Issue management is a formal discipline which uses established communication tools and relationships in a structured way to identify and address issues which might affect an organisation, then work towards positive, strategic outcomes.

By contrast, spin is associated with dishonesty and deceit, often trying to achieve short term gain at the cost of relationships and trust. And the consequences can be severe. Think no further than how the official reports were “sexed up” to provide a stronger justification to invade Iraq in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

Communication professionals and issue managers rightly bristle when naysayers call them spin doctors. Because, as New York PR boss Robert Dilenschneider has said: “Spin doctoring is to public relations what pornography is to art.”

Ever since the term “spin doctor” first appeared in print in the New York Times in 1984 it has been used by some journalists and commentators as gratuitous shorthand for PR professionals. But journalists should not call PR people spin doctors any more than PR people should call journalists fake news reporters.

However, this is not just about precious egos and a bit of silly name-calling. It is about protecting public confidence in the news and in professional communication. In a so-called post-truth world, where fake news abounds and where the public increasingly rejects official information and scientific evidence, it doesn’t help for anyone – let alone a Federal minister – to talk about promoting positive spin.

A good first step would be for issue managers and other PR people to stop using the term spin about their own activities, even in a joking way. And maybe some media advisers might tell their bosses to take more care what they say.

Words matter, and what’s at stake here is public trust in political and organisational communication, and the ability for society to have mature and balanced discussion on important issues of the day.

 

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Choosing just the right words can shape issues and crises

Words really do matter – especially when it comes to issue and crisis management. The most recent example is a proposal to change the way we refer to climate change.

The Guardian newspaper has just updated its style guide to propose “climate emergency, climate crisis or  climate breakdown” instead of “climate change,” and favours innovative “global heating” over conventional “global warming.”

Only time will tell whether they can change the language, but they do have a good example to follow. In a notorious secret memo back in 2002, Republican strategist Frank Luntz proposed to the George Bush White House to promote the term climate change as being “less frightening” than global warming. That alternative language subsequently became widely accepted.

As Luntz wrote at the time: “While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge” (though Luntz himself now professes to no longer being a climate sceptic).

This is, of course, the same White House which supported buying $700 billion worth of distressed assets from banks during the global financial crisis in 2008. They desperately insisted on referring to it as a “rescue plan” and were reportedly much irritated when the rest of the world predictably called it a much less politically-acceptable “bank bail-out.”

Strategic naming and framing of controversial issues is nothing new – think no further than the fast food industry who like to frame obesity as a “personal responsibility issue”; or the big oil companies who want to replace “drilling for oil” with “exploring for energy”; or the activists who have successfully renamed pro-abortion as pro-choice and anti-abortion as pro-life.

Or consider the famous case of consultant Frank Fahrenkopf who was commissioned to revamp the image of the Las Vegas casino industry. He advocated replacing the word “gambling” with the more family-friendly “gaming,” which is the language now frequently reflected all around the English-speaking world.

Choice of words can also be important in the face of a crisis. Take the example of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. It was many years later that the company finally apologised for having insisted for months on calling it “core damage” and banning its own executives from using the true description “meltdown” in an attempt to minimise the disaster. As TEPCO’s new President Naomi Hirose told a Tokyo news conference in 2016: “It is extremely regrettable. People are justified in thinking of it as a cover-up.”

However, choosing the right words is not necessarily a cover-up, or dishonest, or unethical. It should be simply a transparent way to position a particular issue or situation in the minds of the public to suit whoever is trying to set the language of the conversation. And sometimes it’s very effective.

For anyone who believes words don’t matter, just think of the ongoing and painful debate in the community about what to properly call people who arrive by sea without proper visas – be it refugees, or queue jumpers, or illegal migrants, or boat people or asylum seekers. Or as the Australian Federal Government would have it – undocumented maritime arrivals. Each term comes with a very deliberate strategic intention.

Whatever your view on that issue – or similar public controversies – there is no doubting the power of language to influence our opinions, and that power needs to be used with great care.

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No. Issue Management is not the same as Strategic Planning

If it’s your job to manage issues, you might have been asked: Isn’t issue management really just an extension of our existing strategic planning?

It’s a good question, because issue management is basically a tool for analysis and planning. It’s also true that issue management and strategic planning need to be well integrated. Yet it’s a serious mistake to think that issue management is the same as strategic planning, or that they are simply two parts of the same process.

Strategic planning focuses primarily on identifying opportunities and threats to products and markets, while the emphasis of issue management is on identifying and addressing issues and concerns in the public arena which are not typically addressed in the marketplace. Or put another way, strategic planning is about achieving business success, while issue management is largely about issue response and crisis prevention in order to make business success possible.

There are also important differences in the disciplines themselves:
▪  Strategic planning is usually scheduled in a periodic planning or budget cycle, while issue management has more flexible timing to respond to real-time developments
▪  Strategic planning is accepted as a core business discipline, while in some organisations issue management is still (wrongly) regarded mainly as a communication activity.
▪  Strategic planning attempts to balance social responsibility with financial obligations, while issue management attempts to bring current standards of corporate social responsibility into the way the organisation deals with issues and potential crises.

▪  Strategic planning tends to have an inside-out focus, looking for threats and opportunities in terms of their impact on the organisation, while issue management encourages an outside-in focus, recognising external viewpoints and the impact on stakeholders.

But despite these differences, the two disciplines need to work together. In fact American communication guru Robert Heath says issue management cannot have its full impact if it is not part of the strategic planning process.

Unfortunately, such an integrated approach to planning seems to be more talked about than achieved. Research among major public corporations in Britain by respected experts Michael Regester and Judy Larkin revealed that while corporate communication and public affairs functions acknowledged the importance of managing issues, only ten per cent considered that their senior management proactively dealt with issues as part of the strategic planning process.

Furthermore, less than five per cent considered their organisation applied an integrated approach to linking planning, communication, regulatory affairs and other functions in order to assess, prioritise and plan for the impact of near- and longer-term issues on corporate objectives.

These numbers are very discouraging. As New York PR veteran George McGrath has said: “Issue management links strategic planning with communication planning and improves the effectiveness of both disciplines.”

But to achieve this optimal effectiveness, any weakness must be identified and addressed at the highest level in the organisation. Only top executives have the perspective and authority to drive such change, and Crisis Proofing the organisation demands a drive towards integrated planning.

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Not crisis prepared? What’s your excuse?

It’s one of the most perplexing questions in issue and crisis management. If executives are well aware of the devastating impact of a crisis, why don’t they assign resources to get properly crisis prepared?

Despite a continuing torrent of case studies and damaging headlines which spell out the impact of a crisis on reputation, brand, share value and the chances of corporate survival, new data just published reveals that there is little or no sign of improvement.

The latest PR News/Crisp survey of public relations professional shows that well over 25% said their organisation still did not have a crisis plan, or it hadn’t been updated for more than a year.

Moreover, more than 20% said their CEO was “not really” or “not at all” willing to invest in strong crisis preparation, and 30% said their company never or rarely conducts a risk assessment of potential reputation threats.

Given the lightning speed of social media it is particularly disheartening that 49% of the respondents also said that if a PR issue which threatened a brand crisis occurred out of office hours, they would not be alerted until the next morning or the next working day.

Have we learned nothing? As long ago as 2012 a massive global study by the Plank Institute asked public relations and communications professionals what were the most important issues they faced? Crisis preparedness ranked second in importance, just behind dealing with the speed and volume of information flow.

This decisive data came from what has been called “the largest, most comprehensive study of leadership in public relations and communication management ever conducted,” involving almost 4,500 respondents in 23 countries in nine different languages.

Since that study in 2012 the explosion of social media means the speed of information flow has increased every year, so it’s worrying that almost half of the PR professionals in the latest survey say they wouldn’t be advised about a potential crisis until the following day.

Obviously the PR people need to be asking some important questions about why. And about the need to put proper planning in place. But it’s pretty clear that real improvement can only be driven from the Executive Suite. As renowned crisis expert Ian Mitroff once wrote: “Without a champion, nothing significant will occur with regard to any major program in an organisation. This is especially true with regard to crisis management.”

However progress is likely to be slow. One global survey of board members found that fewer than half of the non-executive directors reported they had engaged with management to understand what was being done to support crisis preparedness. And only half the boards had undertaken specific discussion with management about driving crisis prevention.

The challenge is clear. The risk of failure is unquestionable. The only questions is, are you properly crisis prepared? And if not, why not?

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Should companies take a stand on political and social issues?

The question of whether corporations and CEOs should get involved in high-profile public issues is hardly new. But it vaulted into prominence last month when Brunei introduced new laws which would allow gay men and adulterers to be stoned to death.

The was a predictable global outcry, led by human rights groups and celebrities such as Elton John, George Clooney and Ellen DeGeneres.

And while the celebrities called for a boycott on the nine hotels around the world owned by the mega-rich Sultan, the move by Brunei also posed an important challenge for governments and companies with links to the tiny Asian Sultanate.

One company stepping out in front was global travel agency STA Travel which stopped selling flights on Royal Brunei Airlines, and not only refunded tickets but also decided to absorb cancellation fees imposed by the airline. STA told me they believed Brunei’s actions were in contravention of human rights, and that the new laws posed a direct safety risk to their customers, as they also apply to passengers on Brunei-registered ships and aircraft.

Meantime the Queensland Government axed plans for a partnership with Royal Brunei Airlines; major companies such as Deutsche Bank banned their staff from staying in Brunei-owned properties; and a string of British organisations confirmed they will not be holding events at the Sultan’s Dorchester Hotel, including the TV Choice Awards.

In the face of international criticism, Sultan Bolkiah announced last week they will not enforce the death penalty for homosexual sex (though of course it remains punishable by imprisonment).

However, the case highlights once again whether companies and brands should take a stand on political and social issues. As British brand consultant Steven Strickland told PR News: “It shouldn’t take George Clooney to prompt people into action.”

There is a large and growing body of research which says the public want companies and brands to speak up about social issues. For instance, the Edelman Earned Brand Report for 2018 shows that 64% of consumers worldwide are “belief driven buyers,” up from 51% the previous year.

As a result, big brands are increasingly taking notice. Just in the last month we have seen Cadbury Australia launch it’s “Symbol for All” campaign against racism and intolerance, and Converse reap praise for its new transgender-themed sneakers as part of its Pride Collection.

Yet it has to be clearly understood that corporate activism is not without risk. A recent YouGov study in the United States showed that while more than half of millennials supported brands taking a stance on social issues, 59% of adults said they would boycott a brand if they disagreed with its public position on a particular issue.

Look no further than Australian brewer Coopers, whose CEO was forced to apologise in 2017 for a “light-hearted” YouTube video debate on same-sex marriage linking his beer to a religious group known for its opposition. Facing a threatened boycott, MD Tim Cooper asked for the video to be withdrawn and publicly stated his company’s support for marriage equality.

Most importantly, when your organisation takes a stand on a high-profile controversy it should be aligned with your values and operations, and hopefully with the values of your stakeholders. You need to do it for the right reasons, and you need to understand that a social issue at one level can easily risk creating a business issue for the organisation as a whole.

 

 

 

 

 

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