PR industry going to take a hit with Ketchum’s Russian love-fest

In case you missed it (or are missing it as it happening now) Ketchum is taking a lot of heat for pitching (or writing–depending on who you talk to) an op-ed piece from Russian President Putin on Syria. Here’s a snippet from the op-ed in which the Russian president presumes to suggest that American intervention is causing the world to perceive we rely on brute force and have given up our democratic principles:

“It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”

I’m not going to discuss the merits of the comments supposedly written by the Russian President himself–who is no doubt loved around the world for his rejection of brute force and his fierce support of democratic principles.

Ketchum has earned $23 million in fees over the past few years by serving the Russian government. They have been very successful in writing and pitching op-ed pieces for this client in many publications. This should be a coup (so to speak) for them in getting this kind of placement in the New York Times at this time of national and international debate on this subject.

The controversy already surrounding this op-ed and Ketchum’s role in it is going to stimulate much debate. One issue is globalization vs. national loyalty. This issue arises in all kinds of economics venues, but now we have in public affairs. Many of the leading PR firms are global, some with non-US ownership. Of course, many leading companies are owned by people from all over the world. Does national loyalty and concern for the nation’s interest come into play in making decisions like this–or is this “just business.”

I love the PR industry and deeply believe in the value that it offers clients and society as a whole when done properly. That is with professionalism, competence and integrity. But this one hurts. And I think it is going to hurt all of us in this business, not just Ketchum. Money talks, no doubt. The Russians are paying mightily and it looks like they are getting good service. But it is going to look very much like to the greater percentage of red-blooded Americans that whoever is running Ketchum cares a whole lot more about Russian rubles than American scruples. No doubt one of the biggest challenges to integrity in our business is the fact that we are usually paid to say what we do. That means our words are often suspect with the question underlying it: what would you be saying if this company (or country) weren’t paying you?

I hate the term flacks. It suggests that PR folks will advocate for anyone and say anything as long as their money is good. There is too much truth in the claim. But now Ketchum has given a great many people who may not love our profession as much as I do reason to think we are all a bunch of flacks. Ketchum, I’m disappointed.


Approval processes–how do we change?

Some of the most interesting discussions I’ve had lately with others in this field have had to do with approval processes. A few things are clear: almost any approval process is going to slow down your crisis communications. Almost any slow down in your crisis communications is going to cause severe–if not fatal–problems.

As an example, I very much enjoyed a conversation with the emergency management folks from the National Capital Region (via Google Hangout) as I was able to participate in their conference on social media in emergency management. I presented the NanoNews video, then we had a conversation. And a major element of that was around the approval process. I was surprised and very pleased to hear that some, if not many, were implementing some pretty significant changes to approvals and that these were working.

You can view the highlights of the conference here.

We had one huge advantage at that conference in talking about approvals: Deputy Commission John Daley from the Boston Police Department was one of the speakers. Being one of many who were following Twitter during the manhunt in Boston, I was shocked to see that the Twitter report of the capture came within moments after the actual capture. How did they do it? Well, it was Deputy Commission Daley himself who was tweeting at that moment.

So, answer number 1 in improving your approval process is to have the person who has to approve the messages do the tweeting. Problem solved.

Of course, if you go to them and they say, I can’t do that, I’m far too busy, first you should point out that Deputy Commission Daley was probably quite busy too that night, but in retrospect given the high regard given the police following this capture and excellent communications, what might he have been doing that was more important. But, if there is still resistance, then say, fine. I’ll tweet. But I’m parking right next to you and not moving when things are really happening so I can punch in the words and you can say OK.

Even more recent conversations suggest that this approach may very well give communicators some important opportunities to overcome the approval problem.

There’s another strategy, and this too was discussed at the National Capital Region conference. Separate facts from messages. There is absolutely no reason why the top dogs should have to approve the release of every little detail. Delegation of authority has to occur somewhere. I think it should occur at all event and response facts leaving organizational messaging to the full approval process. Usually there is more time allotted for messaging relating to sentiment, apologies, intentions, commitments, investigations, blame and the like. What everyone is looking for when things are happening is what are the basic facts on the ground. Here, delegation should allow a strong verification and release.

I’m most interested in hearing any other approaches to solving the approval process problem. Let me know what’s working for you.



Does using Facebook help in a crisis? New study says “yes”

This study was presented at a communications conference in London and purports to demonstrate that Facebook is an effective tool in crisis communications.

I haven’t looked at the study, itself, only Bulldog Reporter’s story on it, but my reaction was first, “well, duh,” and second, was it really Facebook? Now I completely support the use of Facebook in a crisis. Coca Cola, for example, has 72 million likes on its Facebook page with over 1 million talking about it. Other brands sport similar astounding numbers. So, if Coke is in a crisis, why wouldn’t they be talking to those people who have already connected with them in this way?

But, my question is the study and the conclusion they come to. The study involved created two fake universities, showing students news stories about the crisis these universities were in and then judging student reaction. Then the researchers showed the students fake Facebook posts from the fake universities “which gave additional information and messages directly from the universities.”

So, here is there conclusion:

“This study shows that Facebook can be a valuable tool for public relations professionals when working to solve or lessen the severity of a crisis. Because Facebook is very personal for its users, well-thought-out crisis management messages can be effective at reaching users on a personal level, which is a powerful way to persuade people to a cause.”

Seems to me, this study simply shows that when you provide people with direct messages in a personal style about the crisis they are in, they are going to react more positively to the crisis than simply reading about it in a news story. If they did a realistic job of doing a news story about a crisis, it will likely be twinged toward blame, outrage or questions about the actions of leaders–or else it wouldn’t be very realistic. So, of course the Facebook posts are going to present the crisis from the universities perspective. This study doesn’t seem to show much about Facebook, but it does show a lot about direct, personal interaction with your audience. They seem to be confusing message with medium. Certainly they are right that Facebook is an appropriate medium for communicating with college students, and for many other (but not all audiences). Email would do much the same. Even good posts on a university web site would do much the same. Blogs, interactive forums, text messages, Twitter–all would do well when used, as in this study, to provide more in-depth information directly and personally to audiences.

There’s more. The Facebook posts in this study were apparently done in narrative style. The conclusion: “This indicates that the effect of narrative tone in organizational statements during crises increases perceived conversational human voice, which represents a high level of engagement and best communicates trust, satisfaction, and commitment to the audience…”  Again, couldn’t agree more. Facebook lends itself to this approach. But it is the approach that is effective, not necessarily the medium. Emails, letters, web posts, tweets–all those are more effective when presented in a human voice vs a stuffy corporate one. This is about how you write, not the medium used.

The headline should be: “Direct messages sent in a human voice that provide in-depth information are effective in a crisis.” And, if Facebook is important to your audience, use it. But whatever channel you use, do the above.