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February 2014
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Aristotle was a PR guy


Aristotle would have put public relations squarely at the intersection of rhetoric, politics, and ethics.

Most practitioners would readily agree with the first two. But even though PR thought leaders since Arthur W. Page have said "PR is 90% doing and 10% talking about it," most practitioners interpret that in defensive terms as in, "don't do something you'd be embarrassed to see in the newspapers."

Several stories in today's Wall Street Journal suggest PR counsel has a more fundamental role -- helping CEOs sort out the difference between what a company has a right to do and what's the right thing to do.

To wit:

How the invansion and takeover of Crimea should affect General Electric's investments in Russia, considering that its German competitor, Siemens, has pledged to move forward despite EU sanctions. And should Siemens have done that?

Whether activist investors should leak their plans to potential allies, even though it appears to be legal.

Whether drug companies like Merck and Glaxco should suspend a program to help patients with copays on expensive drugs even though the terms of the Affordable Care Act are ambiguous.

Whether GM's CEO should issue a video telling customers the cars it recalled for ignition problems are safe to drive even if they haven't been fixed yet.

None of those questions are easy to answer. I suspect each company's lawyers were all over them. Probably the finance people as well. Maybe even marketing. All looking at the issues from their functional perspective.

I'd like to suggest the chief PR counselor should also be involved. Not to speculate on the potential public and media reaction. Not to answer the question, "Will it work?" But to offer an principle-based opinion on "Is it right?"

The Big Question: are PR people equipped to tackle those ethical questions?



Unlock your informal network

Informal netEveryone knows companies have two, parallel power structures.

One starts with the CEO and descends staircase-fashion through the ranks of executives and managers to the general workforce.

The other appears on no organization chart and would be hard to diagram even if it could be nailed down.

It's the decentralized agglomeration of employees who wield more influence than their official position would suggest. The people at every level whose advice is widely sought, whose opinions carry extra weight, and who constitute the informal relationships through which things really get done.

Corporate anthropologists have studied those informal networks for years. But it wasn't until social media began infilitrating the corporate world, sans all the photos of cute kittens, of course, that there seemed to be a path towards harnessing them.

Internal social networks like Chatter and Yammer super-charge collaboration by enabling employees to share information and to crowdsource answers to thorny questions. Even more importantly, they include sophisticated analytic systems that can surface a company's secondary power structure.

According to an article in today's Wall Street Journal, many employers "track employees' likability on in-house social networks and chat services."  On social media, likability is more than qualifying for the cool kids' table in the company cafeteria. It's also a cue to influence. The employees who are most helpful to others or whose postings are most widely shared are precisely the people a company needs to spread information or to help push through changes.

They are members of every organization's hidden power structure. 


Plato on persuasion


Plato at the googleplexWhat distinguishes public relations from propaganda? 

This, from a  review of Plato at the Googleplex by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: 

"The distinction between persuasion and influence is vital to Plato's outlook, because only the former engages the reason of the person being persuaded; the latter, deplorably practiced by the sophists, brings only psychological pressure and prejudice to bear and is mere propaganda. The application to present-day culture is obvious: political ads, Internet rants, shrill Twittering and so on."



How the White House uses Twitter

Obama twitterIf you're in PR, I urge you to subscribe to Mike Allen's daily "Playbook," even if politics makes you gag.

It's not only a good summary of what's happening inside the Beltway, it often includes insights on communications, as in this summary of yesterday's breakfast briefing for Politico readers by Dan Pfeiffer.  

Pfeiffer is White House senior adviser for strategy and communications. Whether or not you think President Obama has used communications effectively in office, there's little question his campaign's use of social media was masterful.  

Pfeiffer was at the center of campaign communications, having joined Senator Obama's staff Jan. 15, 2007, the day before he announced his presidential exploratory committee.

Below, highlights of what he had to say about social media, especially Twitter, as reported by Mike Allen:

--On how Obama decided to make his unusual late-afternoon appearance in the White House press room on Ukraine last week: "We obviously have a lot of sources, but ... with Twitter and social media, you start to see pictures of troops in front of bases or in front of airports ... In more closed societies where we have potentially less information, like in Iran during some of the political uprising earlier in the presidency, you learn a lot what was happening [from Twitter]. We found out a lot of what was happening in the Arab Spring by folks on the ground doing individual reporting of the social media or Skype."

--On Twitter strategy: "It is where the debate is really shaped -- I mean, it is really where the elite political debate is shaped. ... In the first debate in 2012, there was no question in my mind that the Twitter reaction to the President's performance greatly exacerbated the coverage and the reaction to it. ... I was in the Chicago headquarters the night of that debate, with the folks doing rapid response. And so, we had two screens: You had the TV and you had the Twitter feed. ....

"And if you were watching the TV you were thinking, 'This is not great, but it's not disastrous.' If you're watching the Twitter feed, you're seeing Andrew Sullivan and others threatening to commit ritual suicide over the President's performance and it's starting to spiral. And then you know how tough the folks in the spin room are going to have it that night."

--On Twitter in the midterms: "In 2012, for the most part, Twitter was a more elite conversation. It's how reporters are viewing events, it's how political operatives are shaping that, it's how the very most politically involved folks are looking at it. ... Twitter will be a little more like Facebook than it was in 2012. I think there will be more regular people getting their information from it, and so it will have more effect on the populous at large than it did in 2012. ...

"The big thing in the last year or so is it's less about the 140 characters than what you're doing with graphics and images. And some of the most retweeted things we have are charts and graphs that explain the President's policy. So, we're always thinking about, ... as we're rolling out any policy: What is the graphic representation of this that is sharable on Twitter and Facebook."

--On how Twitter makes governing harder: "In 2008, the Obama campaign ... broke all kinds of barriers. We were the smartest Internet campaign ever. We were pushing the envelope, and the Obama campaign sent one tweet in 2008. By the time 2012 comes, Twitter is driving the debate; it's a huge piece of the strategy. The campaign will spend time every day thinking about how you use Twitter in the campaign.

"So, there will be something in 2016 that we don't know what it is yet, but I can promise you ... it's going to be faster and with greater potential benefit but also greater risk. And it will probably be great for campaigns, and make governing harder. ... Governing takes time. You have to make decisions that have good substantive outcomes that are thought through. ..

"What used to take a week or two weeks in terms of the press cycle -- let's take Ukraine as an example. Ten years ago, maybe five years ago, something happens in Ukraine, the President goes out, everyone covers the fact that it happened. Then, everyone is altogether on it and we're united, and then we see how the strategy plays itself out and then maybe people start to have [criticisms] and then there's a moment where the press turns on you ... Now, the President spoke at like 4 o'clock and was at the DNC giving a speech at 5 o'clock, and all of that happened by the time we got off the stage with the DNC. ...

"And so it makes it harder to be deliberative and strategic ... [I]t used to be that you'd read the story about the baseball game that night or the next day. Now, the political equivalent would be: We're not just writing the story about it every inning, we're writing it every pitch. And so there's an element of hyperbole or apocalyptic description of it at every moment, like, 'This is the greatest foreign policy crisis the President's ever had, or the biggest test of the presidency.'"

--On how he avoids being swept up in the Twitter rush: "[B]efore we go out and do something, [Obama will] take a step back... He's always urging us to play the long game, to think through how this is going to affect our ultimate goal, and so that slows us down. The other thing is experience ... The longer he's here, the longer we've been in the White House, you have a greater ability to separate the signal from the noise -- what is a real political problem, real legislative problem, and what's just the fleeting thing of the moment.

"I was thinking about this when Secretary Gates' book came out. ... There were some excerpts in there that were taken and blown up to be this big thing ... I'm confident that, four years prior, a lot of the people in the White House, myself included, would be running around like chickens with our heads cut off trying to figure out how we're going to respond to this, it's the biggest thing ever. Then, it turns out, like three days later, the press moved on to other things. The press fires now burn hotter and faster than they did before. But a few days later, you're on to something else."