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February 2015
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June 2015

Emailgate: PR lesson of the day

EmailMy email were subpoenaed after I retired. It wasn't a big deal because all those messages were on an AT&T server, and a paralegal simply searched for key words relevant to the subpoena.

I pitty the poor lawyer who had to read them all, especially since I suspect every senior officer in the company had received the same subpoena.  It must have amounted to terabytes of data and reams of paper or, more likely, hundreds of CDs.

In the end, exactly one of my emails drew the interest of opposing counsel, and I had to spend some time in deposition explaining it, including the early hour at which it was written which seemed to arouse their suspicion (or maybe it was sheer incredulity).

So I can sympathize with Hillary Clinton. No one likes having their email published for the world to see. Much less explain any of it. 

But surely she anticipated this eventuality, especially given the Benghazi investigations, which incredibly persist to this day and will probably drag on through the first term of her presidency should she run and win.

Which brings us to the first PR lesson for today: hope for the best but plan for the worse.

Back in 2008, when she was asked what email handle she wanted, she should not have asked herself, "What would look best to my friends?" but "How will my enemies react to this?"

"" probably looked clever back then, but you'd think someone who lived through Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky, and mysteriously appearing law firm billing records would realize many of the family's enemies (and even some friends) suspected her and her husband of occasionally hiding things.

The corrolary lesson: Find someone you trust to look at what you're doing as skeptically as your worse enemy. The sharp focus that made you successful can also narrow your peripheral vision.  




PR lessons of the day

Lesson learnedI've written books based on the idea that you can learn a lot from what you do wrong. With that in mind, here two lessons we can all take from the day's news.

1. Framing is key.  Karl Rove writes an op ed in today's Wall Street Journal accusing the Obama team of screwing up the PR leading up to Israeli Prime Minister Netenyahu's address to Congress.

"Rather than bashing him," he writes, "they should have played down his appearance." All the White House managed to do, he says, "was to make his speech much more significant and the setting much more dramatic than otherwise."

It's an interesting, if flawed, analysis built on a misunderstanding of the White House's objective.  They weren't trying to play down the speech in the hope no one would pay attention to it. That would have been futile. They were determined to frame it as a totally partisan effort to undermine its credibility.  

The fact that Democratic senators have now backed away from a bill to tie the president's hands in the negotiations with Iran seems to confirm the point.  Lesson: decide how you want people to interpret your opponent's actions before you react to them.

2. Get ahead of bad news. A "60 Minutes" report that Lumber Liquidators' laminate flooring violates health and safety regulations sent the company's stock into free-fall.

Since the report aired, the company has attacked 60 Minutes' methodology and blamed the report on short-sellers looking to capitalize on a decline in the stock. Not much is working.

But the company has known CBS was working on this story for weeks. "60 Minutes" even showed the company's CEO hidden camera footage in which one its Chinese suppliers admitted it wasn't producing laminate flooring in compliance with the company's standards, despite what the labels said.

Lumber Liquidators could have pre-empted the whole report if it had publicly announced an investigation and suspension of the supplier as soon as it knew of the footage. It could have recalled all the laminate flooring produced by that supplier and asked an independent lab to test it. And it could offered to pay to test flooring already installed.

Those moves would have been expensive, but probably a lot less than the $500 million it has already lost in stock market value, not to mention the impact on future sales and the inevitable damage suits coming its way. Getting ahead of bad news can't be done after the bad news is out there.


De-meaning ISIS

IsisiPublic relations is all about creating meaning. If not done well, everything that follows is wasted. The same might be said of modern warfare.  

No less an authority than al-Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri made that clear. “We are in a battle," he said, "and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.” So far, in that battle against ISIS, the West seems to be losing.

One key problem is that ISIS's narrative seems to be confirmed on the ground in Syria and Iraq -- Sunni Muslims are being persecuted for their religion. As Simon Cottee points out in an Atlantic essay, nothing we do or say will matter much until that changes.  In the meantime, the best the West can do is play messaging whack-a-mole, responding to every Tweet and blog post ISIS fanboys put on the web.

But that's only part of the problem. ISIS, like al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram, and al-Shabaab, is a bigoted and midieval religious ideology. And as Turkish political analyst Ceylan Ozbudak points out in Al Arabiya, "Counter-ideological work means a battle of ideas, not weapons." Since ISIS's ideas are a perversion of Islam, they must be addressed by the Islamic community itself. 

While calling  members of ISIS "radical Islamists" seems to reflect this understanding, it risks backfiring by unintentionally encouraging Islamophobia. As both presidents Bush and Obama have stressed, we are not at war with Islam. The problem we face is not the imposition of Sharia law by growing Muslim populations. It is the spread of a midieval and corrupt version of Islam. 

Better to call members of ISIS what they are -- "violent extremists" -- and to help the majority of Muslim leaders reclaim their great religion.  

To be sure, ISIS's extremist narrative must be challenged wherever it appears, whether websites, social media, university campuses, mosques, or prisons. But those who do the challenging must be credible religious leaders and scholars, backed up by the Muslim faithful. Some Muslim leaders have already spoken up against ISIS in revulsion to its execution of its Jordanian prisoner. But they need to do more to counter ISIS's corrupt religious ideology. 

That task will prove even more difficult -- and probably take longer -- than any effort to regain territory now claimed by the so-called "Islamic caliphate." Islam has no central authority that can "excommunicate" members of ISIS. The Quran, like the Bible, has many contradictory passages ripe for cherry-picking by ISIS.  The history of Islam, like the history of Christianity, is rife with precedents of horrifying brutality in the name of religion. 

Non-Muslims can't tell Muslims how to practice their religion. But we can support -- and perhaps even encourage -- that debate within their own ranks. And we can help Muslim leaders and civil society address the social problems that make ISIS seem like a realistic alternative to some of their youth.

Those actions will be the most meaningful messages we can send.