Elements of Trust

Murray at davosFortune magazine editor Alan Murray hosted a couple of dozen CEOs at dinner last Friday. They were all at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and apparently in a philosophical mood because the topic for discussion was "what big business can do to rebuild its trust with a global public that has clearly grown skeptical."

The topic is not too surprising: it's one of Murray's favorite questions. But the first suggestion to come from the discussion is promising.

As Murray reported it, his dinner companions quickly agreed on the importance of "putting purpose as well as profit at the center of a company's strategy."

That's promising on two scores. First, purpose is by definition long-term, and if this means CEOs want to take a longer view than next quarter's financial results, we'll all be better off. 

But even more importantly, it signals CEOs understand that "purpose," defined as what companies and brands actually mean to their stakeholders, is an essential element of trust.

But purpose or meaning is only one leg of the stool. The other two are competence and affinity.  And all three are defined, not by companies, but by their publics.


Trust starts as a judgment of someone’s competence to accomplish a specific task. Trust is context specific. I would trust my cardiologist to administer my electrocardiogram and to recommend changes to my lifestyle as a result.  But I’m not sure I’d trust him to fix my car.

Competence is largely a rational judgment, but it has an emotional undertone. It not only refers to people’s judgment of someone's capacity to accomplish a task, but also of the sincerity of their willingness to do so.  I know my doctor is competent – it says so right on his Board Certification. But my trust in him is also based on the judgment that he sincerely wants to keep me healthy. 

And that’s where trust leaves the realm of the purely rational. 


Affinity is more than familiarity, it’s likability. It is sharing something with a brand at a deep psychological level. In some cases, it’s a feeling of security; in others, the bond of common values; in still others, a strong sense of identification.

Some brands have been around so long they have a strong emotional connection with consumers right out of the chute. How people feel about Coca-Cola, for example, can actually be seen in a functional magnetic resonance machine. Newer brands have to work hard to make those emotional connections. For example, everything from Red Bull's labeling and packaging to its advertising and sponsorships associate it with young people's unconscious appetite for rebellious fun.  

Affinity, like competence, is context-specific. And the context of both depends on a brand's meaning.


Meaning is purpose, but purpose as others see it, not as a brand defines it. What role do people think a brand plays in their lives? This may be the most consequential question a brand can address. Harvard Business School professor Ted Levitt famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want to buy a quarter-inch hole.”  

A former student and disciple, Clayton Christensen expanded this insight into a jobs-to-be-done framework. He suggested the traditional ways of segmenting markets by demographics, geography, psycho-analytics, etc. misses the point. People don’t base their purchase decisions on factors like those. On the contrary, they hire products to do a job they want to accomplish.

That job can be functional, like a quarter-inch hole. Or it might be emotional, social, or even aspirational such as appearing to others as a professional wood worker. That's the brand's real purpose, its meaning.

Public relations and marketing are all about creating meaning. Finding a product’s most meaningful purpose is an essential step. Procter & Gamble, for example, found a way to give everything from Pampers diapers to Pringle’s potato chips salient meaning. Pampers are not just a container for solid and fluid waste. They’re an article of clothing that plays an important role in baby’s development, from her first days in the hospital nursery to her last day of toilet training. And Pringle’s might be of dubious potato lineage, but customers have no question it’s slice after slice of unexpected joy.

Trust elements

Meaning, competency, and affinity are the elements of trust. But they only work when they are in alignment. And that alignment begins with definition of higher purpose, as portrayed in the drawing above.

For a fuller description of the Elements of Trust, see a paper I wrote for the Journal of Business StrategyTowards A Model Of Trust.  




What CEOs are thinking

From Fortune magazine's editor Alan Murray in his daily newsletter:  "On Friday evening, FORTUNE assembled nearly 30 corporate leaders for a discussion that focused on what big business can do to rebuild its trust with a global public that has clearly grown skeptical. ... The single table conversation covered the need to put purpose as well as profit at the center of a company's strategy, the importance of transparency in an age of social media, the value of engaged employees in spreading a company's story, and the need to build customer trust one person at a time."

New Koch, Old Questions

New KochJane Meyer's New Yorker piece on the Koch Brothers "rebranding" strategy does a nice job of describing what public relations can do while raising legitimate questions about whether it should be done.    

On the tactical side, she puts her finger on the two factors that weigh most heavily on the Koch Brother's reputation: affinity and meaning. (Competence, the third leg of trust, is more-or-less a given when you're a billionaire.)

Affinity is not only likability, but also a sense that someone cares about you, that they identify with your cares.

As American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks explained, only a third of Americans believe Republicans care about people like them and fewer than half think Republicans care about the poor. 

Meaning is what people think you stand for, and Brooks diagnosed the brothers' weakness there as well.  The Democrats are “the fairness guys,” he said.“They’re the ‘helping-the-poor guys.’ Who are we? We’re the ‘money guys’!”

So the Koch Brothers have been on a tear to make themselves more likeable and broaden what they stand for. For starters, they hired former Burson-Marsteller executive Steve Lombardo as Koch Industries' chief communications officer.

Meyer apparently didn't speak to Lombardo, but she quotes extensively from a piece he wrote for O'Dwyer's newsletter in which he said the key to building a positive brand is to "to reach the public’s subconscious mind,” and the most effective “pathway” to the subconscious is “storytelling,” in part because it taps into emotions. 

I can't argue with Brooks or Lombardo. I've said many of the same things in this blog.

But Meyer's article does raise a couple of ethical questions.

When does "tapping into people's subconscious" constitute emotional manipulation?

And assuming your "storytelling" is truthful in every sense of the word, what if its intent is misdirection, that is, to distract from a larger truth?

As to the first question, it seems to me that appealing to people's emotions is ethically legitimate as long as you don't overwhelm people's capacity to reason. Some political candidates have crossed that line in appealing to people's fear of such groups as immigrants and Muslims. I've seen no sign Koch Industries' re-branding campaign has been guilty of anything like that.

The second question is more problematic. Meyer says some Koch strategists want to reframe their free-market ideology as "a movement for well-being," all while admitting that their real goal is to eliminate regulation to raise profits. To me, that's where reframing becomes Orwellian spinning. On the other hand, she concedes that the brothers' efforts on behalf of criminal justice reform predate the rebranding effort.

So call me undecided on the ethics of working for the Koch Brothers.

As Harold Burson once told me, "I believe that every institution, every person is entitled to have public relations representation,” but “I do not believe that I am compelled in any way or manner to be the one who provides that representation.”

In the end, the ethics of any engagement depends on a client’s goals, as well as the way practitioners try to achieve them. If a client’s purpose is unethical, nothing a practitioner does can compensate. 




The Angry American


Esquire and NBC News teamed up to take the American public's temperature. As the magazine put it, "We the people are pissed. The body politic is burning up."

The whole thing is worth reading. But here are some highlights:

  • Half of all Americans are angrier today than they were a year ago.
  • White Americans are angrier than any other group.
  • 73% of whites say the news makes them angry at least once a day, compared with 66% of Hispanics and 56% of blacks .
  • The level of women's anger has increased more than men's.
  • Black Americans are more optimistic than whites.
  • Whites are more likely than blacks to say their financial situation today isn't what they thought it would be when they were younger.
  • Republicans are most angry about the dysfunctional Congress (84%).
  • Democrats are most angry about policemen killing unarmed black man (80%).

I think these results help explain the poll results in the Republican primary, as well as Bernie Sanders' unexpected showing on the Democratic side.

Additionally, some of the survey results concerning the economy have major implications for businesses of all sizes:

  • Only about a third (35%) say they make enough to save and buy some extras.
  • About one out of five (18%) say they don't make enough to pay all their bills.
  • 74% believe the gap between rich and poor is getting worse and many blame banks and financial institutions (18%), capitalism in general (17%), and globalization/jobs going overseas (17%). 



Buzzwords of 2015

Buzzword.001Every year has its own buzzword.  Some make it into the dictionary ("selfie"). Some were already there but repurposed ("narrative").

In 2015, "narrative" had to be one of the top 10, edged out perhaps by "Big Data," "Millennials," and "Internet of Things (IoT)." 

"Narrative," or less pompously, storytelling, is important for our purposes because of its double-barreled power to persuade and to deceive. The latter is not necessarily a feature of storytelling, but the potential is always tantalizingly close. 

Maria Konnikova demonstrates why in her compelling New Yorker article "How Stories Deceive."  Briefly, storytelling can pummel our emotions so vigorously there is neither space nor time for reason.

"When we’re immersed in a story, we let down our guard," Konnikova warns. "We focus in a way we wouldn’t if someone were just trying to catch us with a random phrase or picture or interaction... In those moments of fully immersed attention, we may absorb things, under the radar, that would normally pass us by or put us on high alert. Later, we may find ourselves thinking that some idea or concept is coming from our own brilliant, fertile minds, when, in reality, it was planted there by the story we just heard or read."

Konnikova herself demonstrates the technique by framing her thesis within a compelling and emotional story. 

But it's not deceptive because she is clear about her goal -- to warn readers about the dangers of being sucked into an emotionally moving story. And most importantly, because her goal is clearly in her readers' best interests. Plus, she hasn't made any of it up.

Deception is more than lying. It's also failing to respect people's right to reason for themselves, which is a form of stealing.

Let's make "respect reason" the buzzword of 2016.


Death by cellphone?

Cell-phone (1)Could your cell phone be killing you?

One of the points we make in Public Relations Ethics is that practitioners have an ethical obligation to reveal potential dangers in any product or service they promote. In fact, if the danger is near-certain, as in the case of smoking or climate change denial, it would be unethical to promote it at all.

This story in the New York Times demonstrates how difficult it can be, to assess product risks, especially when experts can't agree.

Cell phone use is now so ubiquitous, there are actually more handsets than people in some countries, such as the U.S., Brazil, and Russia.  But almost from the beginning, some studies purported to show a link between cellphone use and brain tumors.  

Other scientists reviewed the data and deemed the links tenuous at best. For example, some studies bombarded tissue in a petri dish with far more radiation than anyone would experience in normal use. And as Jane Brody pointed out in her Times column, "While the incidence of brain tumors has risen slightly in recent years, there has been no disproportionate increase in tumors near the ears, despite a meteoric rise in cell phone use."

Still, no one can prove conclusively that cell phone use is risk-free. As the Times' story demonstrates, that situation hasn't changed much in since I first faced it at AT&T in 1993.

What we did then still seems like the ethical approach. We acknowledged the controversy, pointing out that there was no conclusive evidence on either side. We funded more independent research. We offered free earphones for anyone who wanted to eliminate even the possible risk. And we cautioned customers about the very real -- and provable risk -- of driving while talking on a cellphone handset, as opposed to handsfree devices.  (Today, the risk of texting is even higher.)

So, yes, no one can prove your cell phone won't make you sick or even kill you. But the risk it will happen while you're texting while driving is a near certainty. 





Living in a divisive world

Divided_society-620x330A friend asks what we can do about the partisan, obstinate, and frequently snarky state of public discussion, especially when the topic touches on politics or so-called "cultural values."

Her concern is heightened by research showing it's nearly impossible to correct even obviously erroneous information when it confirms people's pre-existing beliefs.

I wish I had a simple answer. But I did suggest a few concrete steps we can all take in OtherWise: The Wisdom You Need to Succeed in a Diverse and Divisive World.

Here are five things we can each do:

  1. The first step  is to better understand oneself -- all the unconscious biases and prejudices that we carry around, the psychological mechanisms that cloud our judgment and decision-making, and the stone-age legacy that shapes our social life. Not to mention the stereotypes through which we evaluate people rather than considering them as individuals. And our unconscious fears, anger, and resentments.  If all this sounds like something to which you're immune, consider taking the implicit bias test at www.yourmorals.org.
  2. The second step is to better understand the people around us who have a different culture, racial background, sexual orientation, political allegiance, religious belief, or who we consider "different" in some other way.  Ironically, the trick at this stage isn't learning more about their differences, but about all the ways they are just like us. What we have in common. The best way to discover that is to engage with them. For example, we could take someone of a different political bent to lunch or for a drink. Get to know them and the lens through which they see the world. 

  3. And if a "touchy subject" comes up, we shouldn't ask for the check or reach for a clever put down. We should honestly probe for greater understanding. And in that process, look for common ground -- something on which we can both agree.  This will be easier if we've already taken steps to broaden our worldview.  For one thing, we should refuse to live in an echo chamber, where everything we read, hear, or see confirms our point of view. We should regularly seek out opposing views to better understand them. We can also increase our cultural and religious literacy by reading foreign literature and by making a point of meeting local people when we travel.

  4. But intellectual learning is not enough; we also need emotional learning. If nature made us hostile towards strangers, it also gave us a powerful emotion to keep our tribe together -- empathy. Empathy comes naturally in dealing with family and close friends. We need to learn to draw that circle of empathy larger by trying to see the world through the eyes of others unlike ourselves. To be OtherWise is to see ourselves as others see us and to see ourselves in the Other. 

  5. The final step should be easiest, but requires the most discipline. We should refuse to go along with "otherizing" people who are different. We should object when someone tells a sexist or racist joke, not out of political correctness, but because it perpetuates a culture of "us" and "them." It's literally de-meaning because it robs people of their individuality.  That doesn't mean papering over disagreements.  It means being able to disagree with people without demonizing them. We should make questioning people's motives, intelligence, or patriotism as inappropriate as picking our nose in public. Not only should we avoid doing it ourselves, but we should call each other on it. 

These five steps may not make the world more harmonious, but they will make it less likely we become part of the problem. Wouldn't that be a good New Year resolution?

Exploiting anger, fear, and hate

Anger_by_michaelogicalm-d95ew0gBack in the 1950s, Vance Packard accused the advertising and public relations industries of "the systematic creation of dissatisfaction," making women anxious about their appearance and exploiting men's sexual urges to sell everything from home freezers to automobiles.

Packard also expected political candidates to sell themselves the same way. They would use warm and fuzzy "imagery" to evoke deeply held values like family and patriotism. 

That didn't sit well with everyone. “The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal ... is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process,” Adlai Stevenson complained on his way to losing the election. 

He didn't know how good we had it. That was when candidates were sold in a barrage of 30-second TV ads. These days, earned and shared media is where all the action is. And candidates are tapping into the darker emotions that drive sharing. 

As reported in today's New York Times, two professors at the Wharton School found news stories more likely to be shared if they elicited strong emotions. A psychology professor at the University of Hawaii found hate, fear, and anger relatively easy to evoke because they come directly from the unconscious. 

Enter Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. And to some extent, Bernie Sanders.

One has exploited the fear and anger some people harbor towards Mexicans and Muslims. The other, towards liberals on "cultural issues" like abortion and gay marriage. And the third, towards the wealthiest 1%.  

Whether that fear and anger is justified is irrelevant. Whether it's based on lies and exaggerations doesn't matter. Fear and anger are even immune to factual counter-argument. In fact, attack seem to solidify their hold on people.

Vance Packard predicted a soulless consumer society, but he missed how much our communications media would tear us apart from each other.



Still more housecleaning (auto division)

Car-being-repairedLast July, I took General Motors to task for its slow response to ignition problems that led to hundreds of deaths and injuries. I quoted a front page story in the New York Times that revealed the company knew more about the problem than it had been admitting.

In a book I co-wrote with Don Wright, Public Relations Ethics: How To Practice PR Without Losing Your Soul, I quoted another New York Times story that accused the company of not notifying customers it knew were eligible for compensation even though the application deadline was looming.

Those stories appear to have been accurate. GM extended the application deadline a week after the Times' story appeared. And while it is still unclear what GM's top executives knew about the ignition problem -- and when -- the company has responded aggressively.

It hired Kenneth Feinberg -- a lawyer who has developed a unique specialty in victim compensation.

In GM's case, he appears to have had an unusual amount of discretion. GM left all decisions on eligibility and awards to Mr. Feinberg. It didn't try to use the bankruptcy law to shield itself from compensating victims. And it put no upper limit on what it would pay.

Under Feinberg's direction, GM sent notices of the compensation program to 5 million current and former owners of vehicles with the faulty ignitions. Mr. Feinberg reviewed 4,343 claims, determined 399 were eligible for compensation, and awarded $594,535,752 in compensation. Over 90% of the awards were accepted by the claimants.

My opinion: GM's initial response reflected the turmoil of a company under siege, but in the end, it did the right thing. Feinberg's final report is here.



More housecleaning

Stable cleaningLast summer, I tried to figure out why Donald Trump was doing so well in the GOP primary polls. I suggested it was because nearly three quarters of voters were disenchanted with politicians. According to a 2012 Pew study, voters were saying, “it’s time for Washington politicians to step aside and make room for new leaders ... even if they're less effective than experienced politicians." 

Trump specializes in language and opinions that could have come out of the mouth of the guy on the next barstool. He says he doesn't have time for "political correctness." His followers don't think he needs to apologize for that. In fact, his most outrageous pronouncements reflect what they're already thinking in the darkest recesses of their minds.

Ted Cruz, who is running a close second in some polls, is cut from the same cloth, though with more of an evangelical weave. His supporters may go to church more often than Trump's, but they harbor the same resentments about the direction the country is taking -- an assault on marriage, preferences for minorities, children born out of wedlock, prayer banned from schools, threats to confiscate guns, etc.

Last summer, I was sure Trump would be a passing fancy and Cruz would be a niche candidate. I was wrong. Their combined poll numbers now constitute nearly two-thirds of likely voters in the Republican primary.

At this point, it's beginning to look like the general election will be a cage fight between establishment and non-establishment candidates. 

While I may have been wrong about Trump and Cruz's staying power and appeal, I think it proves my larger point -- the dangers of wrecking a category.

Political polarization led to the kind of brinksmanship and obstructionism that so disgusted voters in both parties they declared a pox on all their houses. As a result, Republicans may actually nominate someone who has not been part of the establishment, and many Democrats may opt out of the general election entirely.

This, I submit, is the product of short-term public relations and political strategies focused on the next election rather than the long-term health of the nation.




Housekeeping Department


Time for housekeeping. Between now and the start of the new year, I'll be following up on prior postings.

A few weeks ago, I posted about a firm that purported to practice "dark PR," generating negative stories about competitors, opponents, and anyone else who has crossed you or constituted an enemy. I was appalled, and so were many readers.

Now I've heard from the owner of that outfit. It turns out his firm specializes in Search Engine Optimization and the page to which I linked was simply a means of demonstrating his ability to manipulate Google results or, as he acronymically put it, "optimize search results."

"Please google 'negative public relations' or even 'negative pr,'  we are at the top, before wikipedia," he wrote. "The irony is that we are now, an 'authority' in negative campaigning." The irony, apparently, is that his firm doesn't actually do negative PR, it just claims to -- all in the interest of tricking Google. 

It seems his firm does help clients "clean up" negative information about themselves, but most of its work is optimizing search results. The promotional page he created simply took advantage of a quirk in Google's algorithm.  "Google loves negative information," he claims. "They rank it on top, because they make more money from negative search results, than positive."

All this was a relief on two levels. First, apparently his firm is not a gun for hire, spreading negative information across the web. And even better, I don't have to worry about being its latest victim.


Is the EPA Guilty of Propaganda?

EPAThe U.S. Congress attached strings to its annual appropriation to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Namely, the agency was prohibited from engaging in "propaganda" and "grassroots lobbying in support or opposition to proposed legislation."

Suspecting the EPA violated that rule, the Republican chair of the Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO)  to investigate.

The GAO  report, issued on December 14, declared the EPA had violated both rules. Make of that what you will. What we find interesting is the logic the agency used in reaching that conclusion.  

First, the GAO defines propaganda as disguising the source of communication either by omission or mis-direction. So far, so good.

The EPA allegedly engaged in propagandizing when it used a crowd-sourcing web site, Thunderclap, to post a message on the social media "pages" or "timelines" of self-selected supporters who have an estimated 1.8 million followers.

The message -- "Clean water is important to me. I support EPA's efforts to protect it for my health, my family, and my community." -- included  a hyperlink to the EPA web site. But the GAO declared the message "covert propaganda" because the EPA's role in originating the message was not made clearer to the ultimate recipients.  

In addition, the GAO found that hyperlinks within other EPA social media campaigns constituted "lobbying" because they led to third-party sites such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Surfrider Foundation which, in turn, included hyperlinks to contact members of Congress in opposition to pending legislation that would overturn the EPA's rules on clean water.

The GAO found that by including those external links on its own web pages, the EPA was "clearly associating itself" with efforts to lobby Congress in violation of the law.

Hiding the source of information is clearly unethical. And while we don't believe it's unethical to encourage the public to call on legislators to vote one way or another, it's clearly a violation of the law, which in itself is wrong.

The real question is whether the EPA's use of social media was a cynical attempt to circumvent the law and hide behind intermediaries. In my opinion, that's a stretch. And I see no concrete evidence to support that position in the GAO's report. 

Social media, by its very nature, harnesses the power of networks and is ever-changing. If an agency were held responsible for the incidental content of web sites it links to, much less second and third-hand Facebook or Twitter postings over which it has no control, it would have to avoid social media altogether. 

What does seem unethical is to limit any agency's ability to communicate with the public within its areas of competency and authority.  By the same logic, members of Congress shouldn't be allowed to use public funds to explain their positions on legislative matters through social media. 

As a matter of ethics and law, the government's bias should be towards full and open communications through all available media.







The editor of the British satirical magazine Private Eye on prime minister David Cameron: "He’s very accomplished, very smooth, very confident, not overly diligent,” an intelligent coaster, “clever enough, but you don’t ever feel he’s read any of the detail on anything, none of the footnotes. Which is why he started in public relations, which is not an accident.”

Break the Islamic State's Brand

CalmSince 1941, the Ad Council has mustered creative talent and donated media to tackle problems from fire safety to drug addiction. As far as I know, the public relations industry has no equivalent organization. But the need is great and at the top of the list: terrorism.

I know when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I also realize many people consider public relations frivolous at best and evil at worst.

But does anyone doubt the Islamic State is winning the public relations war?

I don't mean it has convinced the majority of the world's population the west is bent on destroying Islam. I don't think it has even convinced a significant number of Muslims of that.  But it has created a toxic environment that, in itself, threatens the values of modern society.

It is forcing a false choice between liberty and security. It has reframed every debate that matters, from the U.S. presidential elections to immigration policy. It has thrown fuel on long-standing controversies like the meaning of the second amendment and the legitimate limits of personal privacy. And it is using the techniques of modern communications to further its cause.

The F.B.I. warns that the Islamic State is “crowdsourcing” terrorism by using social media to leapfrog our defenses with a poisonous narrative that Islam is under attack by the west. And as we have seen, its message is strong enough to mobilize a small number of gullible and disaffected to take up arms and counter-attack. 

The very randomness of those attacks magnifies their terror and makes Islamic State look more attractive and successful to the disaffected. Terror becomes both a weapon and a recruiting tool.

And because the media correctly tie terror in the homeland to the larger conflict overseas, it seems more pervasive than it is. For example, since the Sept. 11 attacks about the same number of people have been killed by Islamic terrorists on U.S. soil as by  right-wing extremists -- 45 and 48 respectively. 

All of this sounds like a public relations problem to me. And I don't mean it's simply a perception problem that can be messaged away. But our response has to be more than dropping more bombs, deploying more troops, tightening border controls, and increasing surveillance of targeted groups. Political and social changes in the countries where the Islamic State has built havens are also part of the solution. And so is a smart, global public relations campaign.

The Obama administration has begun outlining some of its essential elements.  Head of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson wants to build stronger ties to the U. S. Muslim community, which is uniquely positioned to counter the Islamic State's extremist propaganda and to de-legitimize its claims to statehood by exposing its barbaric treatment of fellow Muslims.

Lisa Monaco, the president’s counterterrorism adviser, wants the private sector's help. “Frankly, we’ve got to do a better job of approaching this in a way that allows us to break the brand of ISIL’s message,” she says.

The public relations industry should take a cue from the Ad Council by putting its best minds on the case, validating or redrafting current assumptions and pulling together a long-term strategy for dealing with global terrorism.

The Road to Hell

GlassrMilton Glaser is one of the most celebrated designers in the world.

He created the "I💗NY" logo, designed the psychedelic Dylan album cover, and founded New York magazine with Clay Felker.

He also came up with a quiz he called "The Road to Hell" that he gave to young designers.  Here it is:

Would you—

  1. Design a package to look larger on the shelf?
  2. Do an ad for a slow-moving, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy?
  3. Design a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it’s been in business for a long time?
  4. Design a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent?
  5. Design an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring?
  6. Design a package for a cereal aimed at children, which has low nutritional value and high sugar content?
  7. Design a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer who employs child labor?
  8. 8. Design a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work?
  9. Design an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public?
  10. Design a brochure piece for an SUV that turned over more frequently than average in emergency conditions and caused the death of 150 people?
  11. Design an ad for a product whose continued use might cause the user’s death?

Glazer thought it important for designers to think about "what we actually do in life." He believed you could get pretty far down the road to hell if you didn't think about the ethical implications of the choices you made, especially the clients you took on.

The same could be said about public relations. So with apologies to Mr. Glaser, here's "The Road to Public Relations Hell":

Would you --

  1. Promote an old product as "new and improved" if the only real difference was the packaging?
  2. Promote a slow-moving, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy?
  3. Position a new vineyard to suggest that it’s been in business for a long time?
  4. Promote a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent?
  5. Do public relations for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring?
  6. Publicize a cereal aimed at children, which has low nutritional value and high sugar content?
  7. Do public relations for a manufacturer who employs child labor?
  8. Promote a diet product that you know doesn’t work?
  9. Represent a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public?
  10. Publicize an SUV that turned over more frequently than average in emergency conditions and caused the death of 150 people?
  11. Promote a product whose continued use might cause the user’s death?

 The point of both tests is to see how close we come to what Glaser considers the "function of art," which in many ways is also the true function of public relations -- to enable people "to understand what is real."



Where's the pain?

Trusted-brand-370x229A friend commented on my VW post (not here, but over at LinkedIn):

"While VW certainly has a big internal issue and culture to fix," he wrote, "I am predicting that the consumer sentiment will not be harsh or long lasting. After all, GM's culture of secrecy and stupidity (re key systems) resulted in many deaths -- and no PR backlash that appears to have hurt revenue. Same with the airbag fiasco and Honda and Toyota."

Sales figures seem to confirm his perspective: in October, Chevrolet had its best sales in 11 years and GM overall posted its seventh consecutive increase in retail market share. Toyota's October sales also increased 13% over 2014. For its part, Honda broke all October sales records with a 9% increase. Even Volkswagen, which couldn't sell diesel models, eked out a 0.2% sales gain, thanks to hefty discounts.

Where, you might ask, is the pain?

Could be it's masked by the combination of lower fuel costs driving truck and SUV sales, heavy promotions and cheap financing getting people into showrooms, and an improving economy making customers feel better about trading up from the clunker in their driveway.

As Automotive News put it: "The final months of 2015 are expected to see widespread incentives and promotions, especially among luxury brands, and on cars, where consumer demand has been weakest. Buick, for example, is offering $6,000 off select 2015 Regal models that have been on dealer lots the longest."

By one calculation, incentives increased 14% to $3104 per vehicle compared to 2014.  In other words, the industry is riding on pricing.

I worked in an industry that let pricing dominate people's purchase decisions. It was not pretty. The alternative, of course, is to sell on brand values. Another word for "brand" is "trust."

VW, GM, Toyota, and Honda are on the equivalent of opiates to mask the pain of of losing customer trust. They all need to work hard to regain it.







VW tries to win back trust

VwSometime this week, Volkswagen will announce a giveback to customers stung by its manipulation of emission data on its diesel-powered cars.

Affected owners will get two prepaid debit cards, one they can use anywhere, the other at a VW dealership. The cards will reportedly be worth $500 each. Plus, the company will add three years of free roadside assistance. And there will be no strings attached. Customers who accept the cards will still be free to join the inevitable class action law suits that will emerge.

It's all part of a plan to regain public trust.

I dealt with a lot of crises when I was at AT&T (though thankfully none that involved corporate larceny). And I learned the importance of (1) accepting responsibility for the problem, (2) apologizing for it, (3) fixing it, and (4) giving something back. 

Volkswagen is apparently working its way through all those steps.   

I credit my former boss, Marilyn Laurie, for point 4.  She realized that trust had emotional as well as rational elements. When a problem grew to crisis proportions, it was not always due to the size or even the notoriety of the problem.

What makes a problem a crisis is the level of betrayal involved. That's largely an emotional issue that can't be addressed with facts, figures, and engineering diagrams. Trust is not only what people think of you, it's how they feel about you.

When AT&T's telephone network went down for several hours, we immediately took responsibility, apologized publicly, fixed it quickly, and then gave our customers discounted calling on Valentine's Day. That last bit was Marilyn's idea and it became part of our response to any major crisis.

Note: Sometimes "giving back" means publicly punishing those responsible, especially if they knew what they were doing was wrong. Before this is over, Volkswagen will have to do some of that too.




How PR can get a seat at the table

Table.001Corporate public relations people want nothing more than a seat at the table where decisions are made. But their path to that station is increasingly unclear.

Shannon Bowen, a professor at the University of South Carolina, warned back in 2009 that "a fight for the soul of public relations" would ultimately lead to its splintering.  

She characterized the battle as "advocacy versus counseling" and suggested it was being fought "both in the academic discipline and in the industry."

If so, I was a non-combatant for my more than 30 years as a practitioner. I had both responsibilities at AT&T. Of course, I worked at Arthur Page's desk, and his philosophy so imbued the company in those days, it was understood the head of public relations would report to the CEO and participate in the company's top councils, what academics call "the dominant coalition." 

I was certainly expected to be a vociferous advocate on the company's behalf in the marketplace and the corridors of power. But I was also supposed to provide objective counsel to its leaders on both what we did as well as what we said.

Since retiring in 2003, I've learned how unique that was. In fact, the person who succeeded me quickly discovered the new CEO she inherited didn't see it that way at all. She soon left, and her successors have reported to marketing ever since. Across industry, about two thirds of public relations organizations report to someone other than the CEO.

That doesn't mean they never offer counsel on their company's policies and practices. But it does suggest their internal clients are more likely to see them as hired guns paid to advocate on their behalf, not to advise them on what to do.

Bowen suggested this state of affairs would result in the splintering of public relations into separate disciplines. Those who see themselves as advocates would retain the public relations moniker; those who fancy themselves counselors would rechristen themselves as commmuications or public affairs officers. 

It seems to me that's exactly what happened. But it wasn't inevitable -- it is possible to be both an honest advocate and an objective counselor. 

Bowen suggested what could bridge the two disciplines:  

"Clearly, those who see themselves as counselors to senior management need academic study of moral philosophy before they are thrust into ethical decision-making in jobs with frequent ethical dilemmas.

"Those who see themselves as pure advocates also need to study ethics because they are both the first and last line of ethical decision-making in their relations with publics."

Most importantly, an in-depth understanding of ethics -- along with deep business knowledge -- could be a practitioner's ticket to a seat at the decision-making table.

Yet, according to one study, seven years after a commission of academics and practitioners recommended more attention be paid to the study of ethics in public relations programs "few programs require an ethics course or even recommend one as an elective." Instead, most "embed" ethical considerations into other courses through "case studies, simulations, and small group discussions."

As the study notes, that makes it "difficult to assess ethical knowledge." And since what isn't measured is seldom done, many practitioners leave school without the ticket to that proverbial seat at the table.







The ethics of nudging

NudgePublic relations people are widely considered "nudges," i.e., those who encourage others to do something. (This is opposed to "noodges" which Merriam Webster defines as "pests" but that's for a different posting.)

Nudges, as it happens, are practitioners of the highest form of behavioral science. 

Daniel Khaneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for driving a stake through the heart of homo economicus, the imaginary human being who only made rational decisions. Although a psychologist by training he was midwife to the new field of behavioral economics.

Economists may have been late to the party, but public relations practitioners have long understood human thinking and behavior are shaped by cognitive illusions, unconscious urges, and hidden biases.

Edward Bernays, for example, consulted psychoanalysts in preparing public relations campaigns for clients ranging from American Tobacco to United Fruit. (In the first instance, he was advised that cigarettes are a symbol of male power, i.e., the penis, and proceeded to attach smoking to the suffragette movement.)

Behavioral_scienceWhether Bernays's success was due to psychoanalytic insight or a good nose for publicity is arguable, but there's little question understanding how the mind works can help increase an message's persuasiveness. For example, create the illusion of scarcity ("Only four seats left at this price.") and people feel pressure to click the "buy" button. We know more about human decision making today than ever before.

Richar Thaler and Cass Sunstein wrote a book called Nudge to show how the government and other institutions can capitalize on these behavioral insights to "improve decisions about health, wealth, and happiness." For example, "A school cafeteria might try to nudge kids toward good diets by putting the healthiest foods at front." 

But recognizing that these techniques can be used for bad as well as good -- and perhaps outraged by his personal experience being nudged by airlines and publishers -- Thaler recently set forth three rules of ethical nudging: 

All nudging should be transparent and never misleading.

It should be as easy as possible to opt out of the nudge, preferably with as little as one mouse click.

There should be good reason to believe that the behavior being encouraged will improve the welfare of those being nudged. 

That last point in particular is a good reminder of our ethical responsibility as public relations practitioners.




Write the right thing

Wright thingSay you're a speechwriter for a large animal health company and your CEO calls you into his office. He wants you to put together his remarks for an upcoming speech to the 10,000 attendees of the Future Farmers of America annual convention.

He lays out the main point he wants to make: "The world’s growing demand for meat, milk, and eggs is a more urgent priority than American consumers’ desires for food that is organic, antibiotic-free, or pasture-raised. Industrial farming is not only necessary but also a moral imperative to feed an estimated 9 billion people by 2050. We don’t need more animals. We need productive animals.”

Corporate speechwriters are often in this position, though their clients' direction is not always as crisp and articulate. And as they leave their CEO's office, if they aren't auditioning opening lines in their head, they're probably running through the resources they can tap to flesh out the speech with gee-whiz factoids and heart-warming anecdotes. 

How many consider the ethics of what they've been asked to do?

Speechwriters often joke they make corporate policy with the words they put in their clients' mouths. In reality, few CEOs are meek enough to simply read what's put in front of them in 14-point Arial type. And once they review, edit, and approve a speech, they own it even if they didn't come up with any of the clever turns of phrase themselves.

But speechwriters should be more than wordsmiths; the good ones are also guardians of the corporate character and values. And that is a decidedly ethical responsibility.

The "client input" above is based on a BusinessWeek story about Jeff Simmons, president of Elanco, Eli Lilly's animal health division. Except for the last two sentences about not needing more animals, he didn't say those exact words, but it's representative of his perspective. And he definitely sees his business in a moral dimension.

Meanwhile, food activists as well as some scientists and regulators oppose the use of some of the antibiotics and growth enhancers his company makes. Consumer sentiment seems to be moving away from food grown on industrial farms towards more "natural" and "organic" versions. Fast food chains like McDonalds are moving towards using largely antibiotic-free beef, chicken, and milk. 

Does that mean animal health companies need to get in line?

In some ways they have. Both Elanco and competitor Zoetis have agreed to the Federal Drug Adninistration's voluntary guidelines on the use of antibiotics in farm animals. They recognize the ethical importance of keeping human antibiotics out of the food supply to avoid the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria. In fact, Elanco is applying the FDA guidelines worldwide.

But the ethical implications of giving human antibiotics to animals falls into the category of settled science, meaning there's a scientific consensus that the preponderance of evidence indicates it's dangerous to human welfare.

There is no such consensus on other issues -- like the development of animal-only antibiotics and genetically modified seeds, the use of muscle growth drugs, or indeed tconsuming animal meat itself. 

As long as Elanco  doesn't fudge facts or tell lies, respects those who hold opposing views, and doesn't try to undermine people's ability to consider all sides of the issue intelligently, it is perfectly ethical to present its perspective as forcefully as it can. And that includes framing it as a moral issue.

Which is what a good speechwriter would do.



There's an app for that

Make ethical decisionThere's a phone app for practically everything these days, from buying movie tickets to hiring someone to walk your dog.

Now, thanks to Kirk Hanson at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, there's a free iPhone app to guide you through ethical decision-making. (Screenshot on the left.)

It covers all the essential considerations, from utility, rights, and justice to the common good and virtue. It doesn't make the decision for you, but it helps clarify and weigh all the issues you should consider. 

The only downside is that it assumes you know what concepts like "utility,"  "justice," "rights," "virtue," and "common good" really mean. (Of course, you can learn that by reading the new book my friend Boston University professor Don Wright and I recently wrote.)

In the Apple app store, look for "Ethical Decision Making." (Apparently, there's no Android app yet.)

For that matter, check out the Markkula Center website itself for excellent commentary and analysis of issues in business ethics. It doesn't feature public relations issues -- the closest it comes is journalism -- but the sections on business ethics, the environment, the Internet, and character development are extensive.


Dark PR or Killing by Web

UhohYesterday, I ran across a company that offers "negative public relations services" a.k.a. "dark services."

"The objective in Negative Public Relations," the company explained, "is to discredit someone else, who may pose a threat to the client's business or be a political rival. Common techniques include using dirty secrets from the target, producing misleading facts to fool a competitor."

This has to be a joke, I thought. After all, the company calls itself "Webcide," obviously a play on "homicide," "suicide," and other forms of "killing."

So I went to the website -- Webcide.com -- and, sure enough, it seemed to be an ordinary reputation management company. Its home page describes its services this way:

"Webcide.com Reputation Search Engine empowers you to find accurate, precise and relaible (sic) negative information about a person or a company.   

"Our sophisticated searching tools will show you all lawsuits, bankruptcy, legal issues, negative articles, negative comments, negative customer complaints, scam reports, fraud alerts, arrest records, negative blogs, negative forum posts, negative mentioning, negative reviews about the person or business searched. 

"Webcide is also the first and only online reputation management company that permanently removes negative information about you and your business from Google Search Results."

The ethics of all this depends to a large extent on the use to which all that negative information is put, though manipulating Google Search results sounds unethical on its face.  

But wait. There's more. Lurking in a description of the company's full range of services is dark PR itself. 

Webcide offers to "persuade the public, prospective customers, investors, partners, employees, and other stakeholders to maintain a certain negative point of view about [a competitor or business enemy], its leadership, products, or of (sic) political decisions." And it promises "to execute such a campaign in the most discreet and confidential way, while using only and exclusively legal methods ."

In fact, these "top level professionals in the field of Negative PR" offer to produce "negative corporate and financial communications, negative investor relations and negative opinion research." As they point out, the mistrust this negativity produces "can take years to repair."

Among the techniques they use:

  • "Improving the tagging and search engine optimization of  negative published materials, such as  negative customer testimonials in order to push up negative content. 
  • "Publishing original, negative websites and social media profiles, with the aim of outperforming negative results in a search.
  • "Submitting online press releases to authoritative websites in order to promote negative brand presence and promote negative content. 
  • "Creating fake blogs pretending to be a different person that shares the same name in order to push up negative search results on the actual person or brand. 
  • "Using spam bots and denial-of-service attacks to force sites with positive content off the web entirely. 
  • "Creating anonymous accounts that create negative reviews or lash out against positive ones . Proactively offering free products to prominent negative reviewers."

But not to worry,  Webcide claims to "practice ethical forms of negative reputation management." Empasis added.

I'm not making this up. See for yourself at http://www.webcide.com/#!negative-public-relations-/cp1 

Unless Webcide itself was the victim of malicous hacking of its website, this is probably the most unethical form of public relations I've seen in a long time.

And if, by chance, anyone at Webcide sees this and wants to explain how any of it could possibly be ethical, I invite them to comment.  

Or will I become a victim of Webcide myself?



Why do good people do bad things?

Right way wrong wayA friend of mine is a prominent financial columnist who has written about the misdeeds of many executives. Even when he's sure he has the goods on someone, it's tricky stuff to write.

I once asked him what ethical principle guided him in his work and he told me, "To never write anything I'd be criticized for on the front page of the New York Times." When I asked what ethical principle he thought public relations people follow, he said, "Not to get caught."

I don't think he realized the two principles are functionally equivalent.

Actually, I suspect he put his finger on the reason for current interest in public relations ethics. No one wants to get caught doing something wrong and, in recent years, the papers have been full of examples 0f just that.

But public relations practitioners should be motivated by more than the risk of being caught. Because public relations by definition involves some kind of exchange between two parties, it's an inherently ethical undertaking.  So everything we do involves some kind of ethical choice, whether being truthful, respecting the human dignity of others, or fulfilling our duties as citizens and practitioners.

Those happen to be the drivers of three major ethical theories-- considerations of virtue, consequences, and duty. Most recently, a feminist approach to ethics has put additional emphasis considerations of care.  But whatever ethical theory you follow, applying it to life in the real world is a challenge.

For example, what do you do when duties conflict, as they almost always do? Which consequences matter more, those affecting the client or those affecting customers or society as a whole? Is it better to be caring or fair? And, to quote an acient Roman, what is truth? Isn't it a public relations person's job to present the client's conception of truth?

The PRSA, IABC, and other professional associations have done a pretty good job of articulating the practical implications of those ethical theories. They all admonish practitioners to serve the public interest, for example. But practitioners are pretty much on their own to define just what the "public interest" means and what to do when client and public interests collide.  

Navigating ethical questions like those require more than memorizing codes of conduct, as thoughtful as they may be. It requires understanding the thinking behind them.

As I've discovered in ethics workshops I've conducted over the years, almost every practitioner knows it's wrong to lie, but when pressed the only reason many can offer is because that's what they were brought up to believe. Unfortunately, if you don't know why something is wrong, the chances of recognizing it when it presents itself diminish rapidly. And knowing what to do is even more problematic.

But according to a recent report on public relations education, "Overall, educators perceive ethics instruction to be very important for PR students, but few programs require an ethics course or recommend one as an elective." Instead, ethical considerations are supposedly woven into discussions of current events. That non-systematic approach is almost guaranteed to be incomplete and makes assessing students' actual knowledge of ethics quite difficult. 

That's why my friend Don Wright and I wrote Public Relations Ethics: How To Practice PR Without Losing Your Soul.  

Don is Harold Burson Professor of Public Relations at Boston University and has written broadly on the topic over his 40-year career. We both hope our book contributes to the study and practice of ethics within public relations.

Of course, no book can pretend to be the last word on the subject so we've also created a website to update the cases covered in the book and to make other observations that illustrate the concepts it covers.

Take a look for yourself at Updates.PRethics.comAnd join the conversation by commenting on the posts already on the site.



Got beef?

BeefThe meat industry has a beef with the World Health Organization, which just accused its product of causing cancer.

What is a public relations practitioner in that industry to do?

We saw how industries from tobacco to soft drinks reacted -- they did their best to cast doubt on the research. In fact, Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for Science in the Public Interest, claims, “The playbook of every industry under attack is to instill doubt in the evidence.”

So how should the meat industry respond to the World Health Organization's recent meta-study, which according to the Wall Street Journal, concluded processed meats like bacon and salami are "carcinogenic" and fresh meats like steak and pork chops "probably cause cancer." 

The ethical principle that should guide public relations people in this case is to ensure customers have all the information they need to intelligently interpret the research and guide their behavior.

Not incidentally, that means dealing with sensationalized headlines (New York Post: "OMG! Bacon causes cancer.")  that suggest eating processed meat is as dangerous as smoking a cigarette or sucking on a diesel exhaust. 

Interestingly, the New York Times'  report on the research had all the elements of an ethical response:

It put the research in context, quoting third party experts with no axe to grind, and explaining the World Health Organization's categorization system.  For example, it pointed out that although research put processed meat into the same category as smoking and air pollution, its actual risk was "relatively small." Most importantly, it said experts not involved in the report advised people to "moderate" their consumption of processed meats. 

No meat industry spokesperson is likely to suggest its customers eat less of their product. But it wouldn't be out of the question for them to advise people not to over-indulge in it. The alcohol industry has been doing that for years. 

Nor would it be unethical to refer reporters and even customers to experts who can provide context and advice. But it would be unethical to refer anyone to experts who are far outside the mainstream of scientific opinion, not to mention publicizing their reports. 

And it would be perfectly ethical to highlight the benefits of eating red meat in moderation. Red meat is, after all, a good source of protein and vitamins. It might even be in the industry's own interests to conduct research into the mechanisms making processed meats a health risk -- is it the nitrates or something else?

But it would be unethical if the sole purpose of the research were to cast doubt on the consensus findings that eating large quantities of processed meat is unhealthy. 

In general, an ethical response would focus on what's best for customers and society at large. 

Not an easy task. But one that deserves great thought and attention. That's where the real beef is.




The Prize

PrizeI had the pleasure yesterday of participating in a discussion with Dale Russakoff, author of The Prize.

Her book reports on what happened in Newark, NJ, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million towards an overhaul of the city's failing school system.

The idea was to use Newark as a "national model" from which other urban school districts could learn.

Russakoff drew many lessons from her 5-year investigation, but two especially resonated with me:

  1.  A top-down effort to change an entrenched system doesn't work,  It has to be bottoms-up. The people affected need to be part of finding a solution.
  2. If you want to improve the education of students in disadvantaged areas, you have to focus on more than what goes in the classroom. You have to address their family and social environments as well.

It struck me that addressing issues like those is what the function of public relations is all about. 

Not the kind of PR that deals in schmoozing public officials, issuing news releases, or staging photo ops, though all those tactics play a role. But the kind of public relations focused on building and nurturing dialog with communities.

The Newark experiment had some notable successes, such as bringing in a number of new school principals who were able to coach and develop their teaching staffs. But it never achieved its lofty goal of serving as a model for other school districts.  And as Rustikoff vividly describes, its biggest mistake was trying to shove a pre-conceived solution down the throats of  local communities.  

A good public relations counselor would have advised against a top-down approach and would have made community outreach the engine of the process. It would have been messier and taken longer, but it would have had a better chance of working.

The Prize is a terrific book I can highly recommend to anyone concerned about America's schools or  the larger issue of social mobility.