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For those who haven't heard it, H&K Canada has started a regular podcast called Connected Conversation. Its focus will be online and offline communication issues, strategies, challenges and trends.

Now, I am aware of (and have had a number of suggestions about) the technical weaknesses in this first episode . . .  but I am happy to take counsel from anyone about how to improve the sound and 'entertainment value'. More important, though, I would love to hear from others about what subjects would be a good focus for these 8-10 minute podcasts on strategic communications, or the drawbacks to current podcasts about these issues.

Happy to read and consider any comments . . . and give credit where credit is due!

Embedded on slide 11 of a presentation to Euroblog 2007 about the Second Annual Survey of PR Professionals (in 24 countries), is an awesome summary of why we have to get our minds around the effect of social media on communication strategies (and why some have difficulty doing so).

"Social software applications can be understood as a 'disruptive' communications innovation: they are changing the way organizations communicate internally and externally . . . The disruption affects organizational structure; for example, influences the legitimacy of leadership, the authenticity of communication and the relationship to stakeholders."

And a couple of useful facts highlighted by Philippe Borremans in his post on the conference at Conversation Blog:

    • 89% of PR professionals surveyed think that blogs and social software will be widespread and integrated into communications as websites are today
    • but 69% say they do not have the skilled personnel to handle them and 42% are unable to demonstrate the ROI of blogging

 

Some notes from the afternoon of the workshop on municipal communications I am chairing  . . .

Patricia MacDonell from the City of Toronto outlined the basis on which the city makes decisions about the languages in which it provides communications services. As one of North America's most multi-lingual cities, Toronto faces quite the challenge. But rather than rely on a blanket policy specifiying core languages, the city looks at various aspects of a program for language selection: census demographics, needs of the particular community, geography or neighbourhood, and type of information being communicated (for example, health information is offered in more languages than, say, by-laws). It is a flexible and apparently workable approach.

This from Alan Chumley (a blogger) at Cormex Research on public relations and measurement: Forget about talking about ROI in public relations. Even the most sophisticated research models can't prove a correlation. Better to take a look at such measures as 'return on expectations' or 'return on target audience influence.' (And thanks to Alan for introducing Hill & Knowlton's work on influencer network analysis . . . completely umprompted.)

And a final word from Catherine Clement who is leading the communications team at the City of Vancouver in preparation for the 2010 Olympic Games: "We are already exhausted, and we still have three years to go!" 

I am chairing a workshop today on municipal communications and will blog in near real time about the core ideas being presented. A presentation by the City of Moncton's Paul Thompson and Jillian Somers was a great way to kick off the morning since it focused on communication strategies to manage the 2005 Stones 'Bigger Bang Tour' concert which played to 85,000 people in Moncton:

  1. City employees are a key audience: Talk to them directly through roundtables, Intranet, newsletters etc.
  2. When it comes to a big concert, you don't really need to worry about the media. They want the story.
  3. Keep all audiences updated even if you don't know everything.
  4. Invite venue neighbours to meetings because they are the ones who can cause the most problems.
  5. Don't over-worry communication. People in the City of Moncton were told to stay off the streets during the concert . . . and they did. The downtown on the day of the concert was dead.
  6. Facilitate message coordination among all departments (health, police services).

Because communication was managed well, the Moncton venue is now hosting other major concerts.

Kevin Sack of the City of Toronto drew out four interesting lessons about communicating to another level of government using citizens as a conduit. The ideas came out of citizen focus groups undertaken to evaluate the city's planned campaign communication strategy for its demand of the federal government that cities being given one cent of the national goods and services tax:

  1. Keep messages simple and obvious. Don't be too cute in ideas or language
  2. Make the campaign cost-effective: Citizens don't want their tax money spent on communications.
  3. Be transparent about the motivation for the campaign, and be accountable for the reasons for a financial request to another level of government. 
  4. Don't go it alone in a municipal campaign. Toronto's 'one cent of the GST now' campaign was launched with six or seven smaller municipalites. 

Here are a few things to remember about journalists courtesy of David Sieger of Enterprise Canada :

  1. Journalists love their job. They must because deadlines drive their life and they aren't well paid.
  2. Journalists write for their editor, not the public.
  3. As surprising as it seems, many journalists still see themselves as "society's watchdogs" . . . that is those whose don't allow themselves to be manipulated by others in the need to be first with a story.
  4. Journalists have no idea what the public thinks of them.
  5. "Many journalists have no idea what they don't know."
  6. Yes, journalists believe in their own impartiality . . . even when it is evident they bring a bias to a story.

Canadians David Jones and Terry Fallis kindly let me make a comment about the corporate blog approval process on their podcast called InsidePR: Exploring the World of Public Relations, which goes live every Tuesday.

I argue that if a company or organization wants to be present in the blogosphere, it will have to surrender what Terry calls the "command and control" approach to communications. Senior management should create a blogging policy, agree with the blogger on limits to the scope of subjects to be covered . . . then get out of the way.

This is my first effort at podcasting and I come across a bit formal, almost stuffy. Although I do admit a propensity to literalism which might explain the tone, I promise David and Terry to work on it for future contributions.

The second episode of Spin Cycles (A six-part series featured on Canada's national radio network and developed and hosted by Ira Basen) continues a rather soporific and cliched look at public relations and the media by taking on the nuisance of media training and the naughtiness of broadcast journalism using VNRs without making known that the material has been provided by a company or organization.

(Actually the second half is the more interesting with its look at the tricks for "earning" media used by marketers and the duplicity of broadcast journalism which doubts the ethics of public relations while itself skulking around the edges of fact by not disclosing sources or the supplier of broadcast material.)

But it is the part on media training that most irritates, not least because the clips Basen uses to make his point about training for "spin", with the exception of an interview with Three Mile Island's Don Currie dating from 1988, are all of politicians like Donald Rumsfeld ("There are the things we know and the things we know we know' . . or something like that), Belinda Stronach and Paul Martin. And as we all know politicians have a propensity to skate around the truth, to obfuscate and, yes it has to be said, rewrite the past. Was it so difficult to find a CEO to quote? Perhaps CEOs are just better schooled, or better able to recognize that honesty and transparency in public comment works.

What bothers journalists about media training according to Basen is that people are trained not to answer questions but to respond to them, and in the responding bridge to an idea or fact which-- at least to the reporter-- is not the intent of the question. The sanctity of the reporter's question, and his or her right to ask it, are of course in the reporter's mind never in doubt. Not answering a question, again in the reporter's mind, makes a response therefore indistinguishable from evasion.  

But let's look at it another way. Reporters write stories. Stories are pieces of fiction (most often) that narrate a chain of events, usually drawing out the drama or conflict in them. The success of a story is not in getting it right but in making it interesting and attracting an audience or readers. That suggests that a journalist's questions are not without intent; They are meant to compel conflict, force confession even though guilt may not have been proven, and contrast points of view, preferably if one side is willing -- or caught -- expressing it salaciously, combatively or in absolutes (the approach favored by advocacy groups).

In this context, then, what exactly is wrong with someone preparing to tell his or her side of the story? What is wrong with being taught the behaviours used by reporters to coerce someone into saying something damaging, even though the facts might speak otherwise if properly reported? If we accept that most journalism today is not about representing the public interest but about publishing or broadcasting a compelling even persuasive (yes, reporters have points of view) story, then tutoring someone in how to make known his or her side of a story is nothing more than common sense, even collaboration, but certainly not spin.

Preparing very early yesterday morning for a presentation to the Ontario Hospital Association on new dynamics  in crisis communications, I realized just how tough hospital communicators have it. Most of their audiences feel deeply ambivalent about the hospital: Patients and their families -- in Ontario, Canada in any case -- about the quality and timeliness of the delivery of the facility's core service and the protection of their personal health infomation; the hospital's health professionals about the pressures on them of under-funding and over-work; communities about the accessibility of service; politicians about the hospital's ability to manage the funding it receives.

Marry this with some of the problems endemic to Ontario's health care system (after 15 years of abusive treatment by various provincial governments) including shortages of physicians, nurses, emergency and operating room spaces, and acute care hospital beds, and you have a 'perfect storm' of conflict with which hospital communicators have to wrestle every day. I know, as well, they are relatively poorly paid and lack many of the resources most corporate communicators have at their disposal.

Having said that, I did stress in my presentation that all communicators -- even those who face the every day challenges of hospital community and stakeholder relations -- have a responsibility to take the measure of social media as a possible strategy. The simple fact is that even for hospital communicators with limited budgets, blogging, for example, is an alternative method of engaging communities in discussion about hospital issues or even rallying those communities in support of hospital initiatives. Lack of time; lack of budget; limited understanding; tough internal approval procedures . . . they are just excuses.

I have often made reference to a quotation from American uber-investor Warren Buffet about the value he places on corporate reputation . . . without knowing its provenance.

Thanks to a link from SRI Notes to a MarketWatch column by Paul B. Farrell, I have learned that Buffet's well-known statement was apparently made before a Congressional committee (which committee is still a mystery.) Here it is again for the benefit of those who help companies enhance or defend their reputation:

"I want employees to ask themselves whether they are willing to have any contemplated act appear on the front page of their local paper the next day, be read by their spouses, children, and friends ... If they follow this test, they will not fear my other message to them: Lose money for my firm and I will be understanding; lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless."   

By the way, the SRI Notes column itself is of interest as it addresses the question of whether the likes of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are in reality socially responsible investors. Mr. Kurtz, however, provides only a quizzically ambivalent answer: "And that's an important point about social investing - how you do it depends on who you are.  For Warren Buffett to be a social investor he doesn't have to do what I think is right, or what anyone else thinks is right.  He has to do what he thinks is right."

Seems a bit irresolute to me . . . not too far from  the 'I'm okay: You're okay' school of 1970s' popular psychology.

There has been a lot of discussion online about Barack Obama's campaign website about which I posted last week. 

For those interested in continuing their research into the trend, here are a few blogs worth reading:

And take a look at the 'Blog' tab on the website of another presidential candidate:

Since much of Ira Basen's show Spin Cycles is judgment masquerading as fact, it shouldn't have been so surprising that episode five ("Spinning War") repeats the seventeen-year old apocryphal story about how Hill & Knowlton singlehandedly laid the groundwork for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1990.  

In brief, the story goes like this: H&K was "secretly paid" $10 million dollars by Kuwaiti royalty and expatriates of questionable provenance to create an organization called the Citizens for a Free Kuwait. This front group then proffered a young woman named Nariyah Al Sabah to testify before the US government's Commission on Human Rights about the atrocities she had seen committed by Iraqui soldiers in Kuwait. (Actually, I believe Basen only refers to her as Nariyah. I guess his painstaking investigation of the events didn't uncover her last name).

Her story of Iraqui soldiers throwing Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and bayoneting them on cold hospital floors became the torchlight for American politicians campaigning to support an invasion. That's the oft-repeated story anyway and Basen -- taking his lead from the self-professed PR "watchdog" Center for Media and Democracy which he features in this episode and, I could be wrong, uses as his source for the "facts" -- buys into it without providing even a scrap of balance.

Here is what I know about what happened 17 years ago, based on my own independent inquiry. I stress independent because about four years ago, I was asked to step in as a substitute speaker for our Canadian CEO at an ethics conference in which the issue of our role in Kuwait was to be discussed. I told Mike Coates I would do so only if I satisfied myself that we were not guilty of the manipulation implied in the apocryphal version of the events or, at the very least, that there was another side to the story. So, I reviewed the committee testimony and media reports from the time. I spoke at length with Frank Mankiewicz (former press secretary to Robert Kennedy), currently H&K's vice-chairman. He tells a much different story of the events. As does the president and COO of our Asian operations Viv Lines in a letter published in the South China Morning Post in 1999.

Their version, argued passionately (in Mankiewicz's case almost apoplectically so irate is he about the distorted history of H&K's role), presents it this way: We were asked to provide public relations support to the Citizens for a Free Kuwait which had been set up by Kuwait expatriates and former members (some government ministers) of the Kuwait National Assembly . . . not members of the Kuwait royal family. According to Lines, during the course of H&K's work to familiarize Americans with the facts about the Iraqui invasion, we were ASKED by Thomas Lantos, chair of the Commission on Human Rights, to provide witnesses for hearings the committee was holding into apparent Iraqui human rights abuses. One such wtiness was Nariyah Al Saba, the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the U.S. who had been volunteering in a local hospital at the time of the invasion. Yes, she was coached in preparation for her testimony: She was a teenager and scared, according to Mankiewicz. No, she was not coached to lie or fabricate. No, her identity as the Ambassador's daughter was not purposely hidden to make it seem she was just an innnocent teenager. Various newspapers subsequently verified the facts of her testimony. So did the Pentagon (okay, not the most reliable source of truth and fact). Subsequent investigation by the risk consulting company Kroll also confirmed the crimes.

This is all by way of saying that if Basen was truly interested in uncovering the truth (What happened to the investigative journalistic spirit the absence of which Basen decried in an earlier episode?) he could have dug a little deeper. Mankiewicz is still around. The letter from Lines is available. Or was he more interested in proving a point at the expense of accuracy. Remember my definition of spin: "The wilful distortion of facts and the manipulation of half-truths to create a more persuasive or one-sided story."

In fact, if you want a lesson in spin, listen to the choice of words used in recounting the Kuwaiti war myth :  "following standard operating procedure"; "an astroturf organization with fake grassroots"; "secretly paid"; "selling war"; "the whole campaign was a fabrication".

Could anyone be less circumspect about his own use of language in a series on spin? What hyprocisy.

Thanks to a post by Toronto lawyer  Rob Hyndman I took a quick look at the new website of US presidential candidate Barack Obama this morning. (Defensive disclosure . . . I am not an American: Don't live there: Can't vote in the U.S.: And mistrust American politics.)

Pretty cool website. Of course there are the obligatory candidate photos and the self-congratulatory articles, the Obama t-shirts for sale and the puffed up BarackTV news clips. But you can also customize your interaction with the campaign by building your own 'My.BarackObama.com' experience, assembling your own profile and network of Obama friends, and even starting your own blog hosted on the site.

Matthew Ingram doesn't think it is quite there yet. But I like the effort to turn an online community of interest into a social influence network. The U.S. election is a long way out so it will be interesting to watch how the site develops as the campaign progresses. 

An interesting juxtapostion of stories in the Wharton Business Schools online magazine puts an assessment of Robert Nardelli's tenure at Home Depot side-by-side with a summary of interviews with five CEOs about getting and staying at the top. A cursory review of the five CEO interviews suggests that the issue of compensation and exit packages is not part of the discussion.

Since it is evident that not much happens when the media raises the issue of "unjustifiably" high compensation among CEOs of companies whose business performance and stock price meet neither investor nor analyst expectations and lag industry benchmarks, isn't this the perfect issue for a CEO who wants to make a mark as a thoughtful and forward-thinking leader to take on?

I have seen few stories in which a CEO addresses what shareholders have a right to expect with respect to his or her compensation, or what boards of directors should do if faced with unsatisfactory CEO performance. When asked in a TV interview about his compensation package, the former CEO of the Bank of Montreal, Matthew Barrett, said "either the laborer is worthy of his hire or he isn't." The question for other CEOs is What do you do if he or she isn't?  

Friends at a small firm called Social Signal are hosting a virtual reception today between 5:00 - 7:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time to introduce a new colleague.

What's a virtual reception you ask? Well, this event is being held at the TechSoup office in Second Life, the virtual world that now has 2.4 million residents who within the last 24 hours alone spent nearly US$1.0 million. Their new colleague being introduced at the reception is someone who is apparently well-known for "interactive scripting in Second Life", which frankly means nothing to me.

But in the Social Signal newsletter announcing the reception and her appointment, Catherine Winters (aka Catherine Omega) has a short article on why organizations should take a much closer look at Second Life in 2007. It is a rather basic and not especially analytic piece. However, given the number of people in this virtual community -- and the many companies and organizations represented there -- as well as the amount of discussion it is generating in mainstream media, corporate and agency communicators will have to start taking its full measure this year. 

I vow to join and learn in 2007. Unfortunately, I can't make the reception today. Besides, I usually like a good glass of wine at a reception and I haven't yet created my avatar!

An article in Ethical Corporation magazine raises the issue of the impact of the supposed negative reputation of public relations agencies on their ability to provide counsel to clients on their responsibility programs.

In suggesting a negative impact, the article sets up something of a straw man argument (the author is with a specialist corporate sustainability communications agency) because, in fact, it quotes the Co-operative Bank Ethical Consumer Report that year after year:

"The majority of respondents want companies to spend more time and money telling them about their corporate responsibility activities. Over 70% say that more information about companies’ social, environmental and ethical behaviour would influence their buying decisions."

Frankly, whatever the author of the article feels about the ethical behaviour of some PR practitioners, as an industry we do a decent job of supporting companies in explaining their CR activities, and more companies could benefit from our counsel. (And I have never been turned down as a counsellor because of some perceived evil point of view or conduct on the part of my agency).

The more important -- and difficult -- inquiry is the duty public relations agencies have to identify and urge responsible conduct when they perceive a disconnect between public statements and demonstrated harmful actions. Is our job to assist clients to communicate what they want, or to identify the need to change a specific set of problematic behaviours before communicating? Since our role should be advising companies on their relationships with their publics (the definition of "public relations"), I tend to think we have an obligation at least to enter into debate with the client about what the public thinks about a specific "damaging" action, program, product or approach.

At H&K Canada we have a clause in our Code of Conduct which allows us -- individually at least -- to remove ourselves from a specific assignment "if it is in conflict with (our) own values or beliefs without compromising (our) current position or career opporunity at Hill & Knowlton." If you can reconcile a company's conduct with your own values and beliefs, after thorough analysis and assessment, then providing counsel on its CR activities becomes a whole lot less knotty.  

Whenever the topic of social media is discussed at a conference (and the IPRA Summit was no exception), the inevitable question arises: Should CEOs blog?

I am coming to the conclusion that if a senior executive is unable to answer six questions with a strong "yes", then perhaps corporate blogging should be left to others:

  1. Are you willing to commit to conversation rather than officious declaration; dialogue rather than monologue?
  2. Are you ready to explore and interpret in public your organization's business strategy in light of current events, and through the prism of daily political, social and economic issues?
  3. Can you write in a personal and distinct voice without the aid of a ghostwriter?
  4. Do you have the time to devote to enthusiastic consideration of interesting ideas?
  5. Are you not afraid to chance making forward-looking statements that could get you in trouble with regulators (assuming you are in a public company)?
  6. Are you willing to post without having corporate counsel review your copy?

There may be other questions, but these seem to get to the heart of the reservations most senior executives face when thinking about blogging as a means of joining online conversations as representatives of their organizations.

Now personal blogging on the other hand doesn't suffer from these constraints and should be tried if only just to learn more about what drives discussion, disagreement and idea-based relationships online, and how to maneuver effectively through them. 

Having made a strong case today at the second annual International Public Relations Association Summit that public relations professionals are doing a disservice to their organizations or agencies by not learning as much as they can about social media, I am compelled to blog about 'day one' of the conference.  Since the conference featured many speakers, I can only focus on what for me were a few highlights. (At least one other blogger has done a quick -- although frankly rather obtuse -- summary of the first session which did focus on social media.)

Euan Semple, formerly of the BBC and a thoughtful, articulate proselytizer for the shape-shifting impact of social media on public relations argued passionately that blogging is about relationships and intimacy. Companies which see it as a tool only for information dissemination or product seeding will inevitably make serious missteps because neither of these are about connection or dialogue which are both the zeitgeist of the blog world. He also introduced -- for me at least -- the new word 'flog', describing the now infamous 'false blog' created as gimmick to build reputation for a well-known American retailer.

Mark Durrant of Motorola (full disclosure -- Motorola is client of H&K Canada) reported on a fascinating think-tank session the company organized at Windsor Castle that discussed, among other things, whether "seamless mobility means the end of journalism". Not surprisingly given attendance at the think-tank session -- many journalists -- the answer was no. But it was agreed journalism will become something different . . . for one thing, it will be a more collaborative profession. It was also concluded there will always be a need for good writing. My editorial comment on this is that frankly good writing is no longer only the province of journalists, and the very nature of what constitutes "good writing" may also be changing. (Although sound grammar and correct spelling should never die since they evidence sound thought.)

Francesca Polini from Greenpeace in the Netherlands demonstrated a powerful use of the web as campaign tool. In opposition to a planned expansion of the whaling industry in South Korea, Greenpeace launched what it called a "virtual march". It asked global supporters to take photographs of themselves below a sign that read "No Whaling" in Korean and upload them to its website. These photos -- in the neighbourhood of 500,000 -- were gathered by Greenpeace which then projected them on a wall or screen outside the International Whaling Commission meeting discusssing the issue. Greenpeace didn't need to disrupt the meeting in any way. It simply made its case for opposition through a virtual protest. The planned expansion was defeated.

And, in a final session, Dan Smith (secretary-general for the NGO International Alert) suggested that companies could take better advantage of NGOs by engaging with them when they are considering investments or involvement in countries involved in conflicts and wars. They have much to offer in understanding how best to manage engagement in environments that will inevitably lead to global scrutiny and reputational challenges. 

Just a few personal reflections on an intense and thoroughly satisfying exchange of ideas among professionals.  

This week I will be making a presentation to the national practice meeting of Hill & Knowlton's Canadian public affairs practice. The working title is 'Integrating Corporate Communications and Public Affairs', although I'd like to find something more terse and less mechanical. I will be expected to examine the relationship between the disciplines, which have hitherto often seemed to be two solitudes. (You need to be Canadian to undertsand fully that allusion.)

So far on a quiet and hot Saturday afternoon in Toronto, in between marking papers for the M.B.A. program I teach, I've managed to float a few hypotheses . . . in no particular order:

  1. Corporate communications offers public affairs (when interpreted as 'government relations') knowledge of the value of message discipline.
  2. The two disciplines share a need to build, make visible and sustain organizational credibility.
  3. Practised properly, corporate communications finds ways to encourage and harness public trust, the sine qua non of an effective government influence strategy.
  4. Both our domains will have to get better at integrating digital strategies into our campaigns because as one of my students put it in her paper "The borderless, participatory community of the Internet is both powerfully positive and negative."

 I will go with these as my starting point . . . with the hope that others point me in new directions.

One of the most robust blogs I follow is that of Steve Rubel. He is vice president of client services at CooperKatz & Company, a mid-size PR firm in midtown New York City, where he heads up what the company calls its "micropersuasion" practice. He blogs almost daily and covers an eclectic range of topics. Today, for example, he writes about tennis player Justin Gimelstob's unfortunate comments in a Sports Illustrated blog about the clothing worn by women tennis players on the professional tour, citizen "journalists" staying one step ahead of CNET and a new RSS aggregator. In the aggregator piece, Rubel does use a word I hadn't heard before -- 'vlogs'. I assume it means video logs. I am not sure I like it. It sounds like a creature in an Anne Rice novel.