Digital’s Doubled-Edged Sword

Digital communications platforms are constantly pushing the comfort zones of business executives and the general public alike, and recent events on Wikipedia prove to be no exception.  Last week, it was reported that a formal news outlet wasn’t the first to break the story of Tim Russert’s unexpected death; rather, it was an update on Wikipedia that was time-stamped 3:01pm on the day of his death—approximately 40 minutes before it was officially announced by Tom Brokaw on NBC.

Today, the New York Times discusses the controversy about the wiki’s “breaking news,” given the fact that the story was deliberately kept under wraps until Russert’s wife and son, who were traveling in Italy, could be notified. Other news outlets agreed to hold the story out of respect for the family. Meanwhile, his death was being discussed prematurely on sites like Twitter, and anyone could “confirm” the news by checking Wikipedia.

The situation raises a number of issues, all of which hinge on the ubiquity and anarchic power of online communications platforms. Firstly, nothing is sacred, nor is anything untraceable; Wikipedia’s records traced the edits back to the Internet Broadcasting Services, a Minnesota-based company that provides Web services to, among other organizations, local NBC TV stations.  The employee responsible has allegedly been fired.

What is the line between social and traditional media? When do you know if something you read online is trustworthy?  As arguably inappropriate as it was to have Wikipedia be the first source of such high-impact news, it was accurate.  So, should the IBS employee have been fired?  I don’t know the answers, but one could certainly argue that accuracy is one thing, and good taste is something completely different.  Unfortunately for journalists (present company included), it’s getting harder and harder to differentiate between the two.

By Courtney Barnes

Just When You Thought You Couldn’t Be More Connected …

Having grown up among emerging technologies and constantly evolving digital platforms, I’m rarely surprised by the communication capabilities of the modern world.  That said, I never thought that, having been reduced to taking the Fung Wah bus to D.C. because of staggering airline ticket prices, I would have Internet access from Chinatown to Chinatown.  That’s right—I’m checking email, blogging and being generally productive on a bus that’s somewhere on the Baltimore-Washington parkway, and my Internet connection is faster here than it is in my office.  Imagine that.

The second communications wonder of my day is the news that not only can you log online on the Fung Wah Chinatown bus; apparently you can Twitter from Mars.  Over the past month, the Phoenix Mars Lander has become a fixture on the microblogging Web site, posting more than 100 updates and developing a community of thousands.  It’s basically a robot in outer space talking to Earth through cyberspace.

The fact that this (and a speedy connection on Fung Wah) is possible is more proof that digital communications platforms are only going to get bigger, faster and, apparently, more out of this world.

By Courtney Barnes

Is ‘Sorry’ So Hard to Say?

Having proverbial foot-in-mouth disease seems to be rampant for Courtney Hazlett, a former reporter for OK! Magazine who now writes “The Scoop” gossip column for the MSNBC Web site. Hazlett previously raised hackles when she thoughtlessly described actor Owen Wilson’s suicide attempt as a “dress rehearsal” for the recent tragic death of the actor Heath Ledger.

Last week, Hazlett’s propensity for insensitive gaffes was again in full ignominious display. Detailing the feud that has recently sprung up between director Spike Lee and film icon Clint Eastwood over the latter’s failure in using African-American actors to play soldiers in two of his WWII films, “Flags of our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” Hazlett described Lee as “uppity,” a term that has a history of racially derogatory overtones.

Immediately following Hazlett’s faux pas, MSNBC’s corporate communications department went into crisis management mode: They issued an apology on behalf of the reporter. But as a result, more attention was focused on the incident as opposed to before when it was barely registering on the radar. Did MSNBC overreact or should they have waited it out, allowing time to act as a healer?

Katie Paine, CEO of KDPaine & Partners, LLC, feels that in this instance, a formal apology probably did play a role in elevating attention on Hazlett’s remark but the “criteria shouldn’t only be ‘what makes it go away faster’ but ‘what’s the right thing to do.’ If the reporter used ‘uppity’ in a racially charged way, the apology was needed, regardless of what the impact was.”

David Henderson, a Washington, D.C.-based communications strategist and Emmy Award-winning former networks news correspondent and active blogger, echoes Paine’s sentiment about the entire Hazlett imbroglio. He feels the word “uppity” was “condescending and inappropriate” and that MSNBC was correct to issue an immediate apology for the usage of that word.

“To have waited might have given the suggestion that some people in the network agreed with the reporter,” he notes. “An organization’s brand image can be harmed by delay in speaking when something is blatantly wrong.”

Making a public mea culpa devoid of sincerity is hardly the answer either. “The real issue with apology is the quality of the effort,” says Jim Lukaszewski, CEO of the Lukaszewski Group.

According to him, the general rule of thumb is: “The faster you apologize, the better it will disappear.” But because celebrities live in their own insular, charmed bubble divorced from the rest of humanity, the PR rules on apologies don’t always apply.

“It’s very unpredictable [with celebrity media],” says Lukaszewski, who has written extensively on public apologies. “There is no proportion with them.”

By Iris Dorbian

Cousin IT (and a call for comments!)

I knew there was some serious animosity among IT people and their management counterparts, but this is pretty extreme. Apparently, senior executives hate the IT department, and apparently there are exactly eight reasons why:

1.    IT limits managers’ authority.
2.    They’re missing adult supervision.
3.    They’re financial extortionists.
4.    Their projects never end.
5.    The help desk is helpless.
6.    They let outsourcers run amok.
7.    IT is stocked with out-of-date geeks.
8.    IT never has good news.

I can only speak from my experiences with the IT team at PR News’ parent company, and those experiences must not be the norm, as our IT guys are great: they aren’t out-of-date or helpless, and they don’t require adult supervision. (I do agree that projects never end, and their news is rarely good.) However, I know that PR executives constantly go to the mat with IT departments, especially with the advent and subsequent explosion of digital communications channels that must be implemented across entire organizations.  With this comes the need to work in harmony and, judging from the referenced BusinessWeek article, that is easier said than done.

Thus, I’m currently planning an article about best practices for breaking down the silos between communications and IT. If anyone has insight into this, please comment and I’ll reach out to you to comment in the story.  Any advice is greatly appreciated …

By Courtney Barnes

Pot Calls Kettle Black, Celebrates Own Hypocrisy

I’m sure most communications professionals have read (or at least heard about) CBS News Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen’s anti-PR diatribe in reference to former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s tell-all book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. Here are just a few gems in his rant:

“The reason companies or governments hire oodles of PR people is because PR people are trained to be slickly untruthful or half-truthful.”

“During the time it took me to write this essay I’ll bet dozens of PR people blatantly lied to their audiences, despite the presence of proclamations declaring that they should not.”

And:

“Show me a PR person who is ‘accurate’ and ‘truthful,’ and I’ll show you a PR person who is unemployed.”

It’s worth noting that Cohen’s essay centers around the Public Relations Society of America’s statement that they “adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interest of those we represent…”–all in reference to McClellan’s controversial admissions about the inner workings of politics, much of which appear to be driven by lies and deceit. Did McClellan, in Cohen’s words, violate the “’ethics’ of his craft?”

The answer could go either way depending on your moral and/or political leanings, and it certainly raises a good point: Without the formal ethical guidelines comparable to, say, the legal or medical professions, it’s hard to pass definitive judgment. True, the public relations industry, with the help of organizations like PRSA, is moving in the direction of standards/codes of conduct but, barring any mandatory educational requirements in the future (can you imagine having to go to “PR” school for three years?), there is no real way to define 100% right from 100% wrong. Communications and reputation management all plays out in the shades of gray, so to that point, I can at least roll my eyes sarcastically (but not offended-ly–after all, I’m only a writer) at Cohen’s commentary.

But, speaking of me as a writer/”journalist:” Where I went to school, it was all about ethics. I had to take “Law and Ethics of Journalism” to graduate, and any factual error in an article or homework assignment would result in a Medill F that couldn’t be erased from your G.P.A. Yet, with the boom in citizen journalists and bloggers who operate freely in the anarchy of cyberspace, my <ahem> profession is criticized as harshly as that which I write about every day.

So, here’s where it all comes together for me: Journalists are hacks and, according to Cohen at least, PR people are flacks. What, then, does that make lawyers? (Mr. Cohen graduated from Boston University with a degree in journalism in 1988, and a J.D. in 1991.) Yes, they do have the most stringent codes of conduct (although it can’t be easy for doctors, either, what with all the malpractice insurance), but are their day-to-day activities all that different from PR professionals and journalists? It’s all about convincing audiences of something–oftentimes something they don’t want to believe.

Anyway, just a thought in lieu of Cohen’s high-and-mighty rant. And I don’t have anything against lawyers–I used to want to be one. When I told my dad so, I think it broke his heart. Not that he should talk; he’s a real estate agent.

By Courtney Barnes

Summer Reading, Take 4

Here is the fourth and final book report, courtesy of the Counselors Academy 2008 Book Club.  I encourage all of you to comment with your own recommendations, as there is no better time than now to expand  your literary repertoire …

Reviewed by Roy Reid, APR
Vice President, Consensus Communications
roy@onmessage.com

Book name, title, author, publisher
The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive, Patrick Lencioni, Jossey-Bass, 2000

What is the book about?
The book provides a model for effective team leadership. It is written in two parts.  Part one is a fictitious account of how the process works and part two is an explanation of the concepts in greater detail.  The story allows the reader to see how the process plays out in the lives of executives within two rival consulting firms. Vince Green is the CEO of Greenwich Consulting and has an almost obsessive jealousy of his more successful, yet ambiguous rival Rich O’Conner, CEO of Telegraph. O’Conner is the principle within the story that exemplifies the “Four Obsessions” in the title.

Why did you pick this book?
I have been working with a number of executives that are looking for more effective processes and opportunities to train leaders.  In particular I had been involved with a couple re-organizations and had seen and read other books by this author related to strengthening organizational leadership.

What are the key take-aways?
The opening line of the book is…”If everything is important, then nothing is.” That captures the foundation of the author’s premise, that leaders must have a system to help their team effectively deal with the most important issues.

Communication and the commitment to open and honest dialogue are the underpinnings to the “four Obsessions” and therefore a strong team.  The storyline follows a rather troublesome employee within O’Conner’s organization that cannot seem to grasp the ideas. The “obsessions” set a framework for the team to be open, honest and vulnerable in their dialogue with one another. Time and again he finds himself in meetings where people are arguing and passionate about issues, yet come to consensus and move forward. The author focuses the reader on the concept that you have to be willing to both bring your best idea and accept that there may be better ones available.

In addition, there is a delicate balance between an overbearing leader and a strong leader.  O’Conner wrestles with that concept and even finds himself stumbling at one point when he wanders from his “obsessions”. Fortunately, the team has accepted them and helps O’Conner to navigate back into balance.

One radical or unexpected idea you really liked.
In the book, Rich O’Conner used a very simple, yet challenging review process with employees.  The idea being if you have a strong set of principles that run the processes, you can be more open in the review so employees can exercise their strengths. The process took the following four questions into account: What did you accomplish? What will you accomplish? How can you improve? Are you embracing the values? The process allows the team leader or CEO to help advance the person without getting mired down in the “unimportant”.

One thing you disagreed with.
There may be an oversimplification regarding competition and political issues within an organization.

Thumbs up/thumbs down: Do you recommend it?
This is a must read along with his other books, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, The Five Temptations of a CEO, Death by Meeting, and Silos, Politics and Turf Wars.

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