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Public relations

Since the start of the year a rumour has been swirling that Facebook has been using a then-and-now facial recognition photo-sharing challenge to collect data about users and improve its AI algorithms. The social network denies it started or is involved with the challenge. 

That people suspect Facebook of being involved, and that the rumour went viral, is indicative of the suspicion with which the company is held by since its flaccid approach to privacy became widespread public knowledge.

These suspicions are not new. There was the row over Facebook’s Beacon user-tracking service in 2007, concerns about facial recognition, a bungled psychological experiment into the moods of its users, and run-ins with the US FTU, ACLU and privacy commissioners in multiple jursidictions over many years.

According to Google, there has been considerable public interest in privacy (mostly as a proxy for internet and/or data privacy) for many years.

Google: Data Privacy News Trends


Facebook had plenty of time to tackle the problem and prepare a meaningful response. The Guardian’s initial story in December 2015 about the covert harvesting of user data by Cambridge Analytica did not ignite until whistle-blower Christopher Wylie lifted the lid on Cambridge Analytica twenty-six months later.

Yet they did little to address the core of the privacy issue, Mark Zuckerberg disappeared as soon as the story ran, and Facebook’s value dropped USD 119 billion in a single day. Zuckerberg hardly helped matters by refusing to appear before the UK DCMS Enquiry into Disinformation and ‘Fake News’.

How did Facebook fail to anticipate a major privacy crisis when the writing had been on the wall for so long? Were its leaders truly ignorant and out of touch, or simply failed to act substantively on the many warning signs? Why did they behave the way they did? Was Facebook’s experience isolated, or consistent with other reputational meltdowns? 

These are the kinds of questions posed by lawyer Anthony Fitzsimmons and insurance expert Derek Atkins in their book Rethinking Reputational Risk, in which they get to practical grips with the notoriously knotty, slippery topic of reputation risk management.

Rethinking Reputational Risk

Drawing on analysis of recent high profile crises such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, Barclays’ LIBOR rigging, Tesco’s false accounting, and the VW diesel emissions scandal, the authors argue that the problem lies in the complexity of many modern businesses, the emergence of multiple online ‘unseen systems’, fast-changing stakeholder behaviours, inadequate listening, issues management and crisis preparedness, and an unwillingness to get to the root problem of problems and failures, chiefly due to over-confidence, complacency and hubris.

All this sounds familiar. But the book comes into its own when it addresses the failure of ‘classical’ risk management and the three/four line of defence model, which is regarded as overly rigid and ill-suited to handling the many and varied behavioural risks, from weak culture and values and inappropriate incentive schemes, to the blurring of personal and professional lives and the character and personality traits of senior leaders.

The authors rightly argue that reputation risk is first and foremost a leadership responsibility, and too often it is at Board level that things fall down. Board failures were involved in 50% of the 42 crises studied. Why? As Boards are essentially self-selecting, and overly reliant on people with financial and operational experience, as opposed to the forensic, analytical, behavioural and digital skills that are required in today’s globalised, networked and inherently volatile economies. There is much in this.

Since concerns about Facebook’s approach to privacy first started emerging several years before its murky dealings with Cambridge Analytica came to light, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg have admitted that they should have taken user privacy far more seriously.

The important question on why they didn’t heed the warning signals earlier appears to have a single plausible answer: user privacy was regarded as a price worth paying for growth, and they would make the most of it while the sun shone and regulators, politicians, customers and the general public had more important fish to fry.

Mark Zuckerberg may insist he is personally responsible for Facebook’s privacy lapses, but Facebook’s board is also responsible and must prove itself equal to the task of fixing the holes properly, and holding its CEO to account. Its members would do well to read Fitzsimmons and Atkins’ excellent book.

Meantime, Facebook must shoulder part of the blame for the many rumours about it – be they accurate, misinformed, or plain false.


Tim Bell has been widely – and rightly, in my opinion – excoriated for his ‘car crash’ Newsnight appearance before Kirsty Wark defending his role in Bell Pottinger’s demise.

With his (former) company on the verge of bankruptcy, his own name being dragged through the mud, and mindful of the potential impact of his own consultancy Les Frontieres, Bell set out to distance himself from events, and from his sparring partner James Henderson.

Arguably, he just about managed it, even if he also came across as arrogant, dismissive, and shifty.

 

He also made a notable gaff by leaving his phone switched on.

But was this the silly, cringe-worthy error it appeared?

Bell is a seasoned PR hand who prepped Margaret Thatcher, amongst others, for media interviews.

There is almost zero chance he would accidentally have left his phone on. And even less chance that he would have failed to turn it off again during a high-profile, high stakes interview.

Bell deliberately left his phone on and enlisted friends to call and message him in order to disorientate and distract his interviewer from the outset.

The diversionary tactic failed. Wark stuck doggedly to her task and proved she was not for turning – leaving Bell in an even deeper hole.

Thatcher can only be turning in her grave.

How you are seen to respond to a crisis matters, and with the internet a critical source of information, especially in a crisis, both your offline and online communication must be credible and consistent. McDonald’s handling of the ongoing meat expiry scandal in Hong Kong shows all too clearly what happens when the two channels get out of sync.

The backstory: The Shanghai Husi Food Co is found to be selling meat past its expiry date to its customers, including Yum Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut), McDonald’s and Starbucks. Systematically. And condoned by management. Customers on the mainland quickly suspend sales of relevant products. McDonald’s Japan, also a customer, suspends sales of chicken products.

Meantime, McDonald’s Hong Kong denies it has a relationship with Shanghai Husi to the Hong Kong government, which launches an investigation that quickly establishes otherwise. McDonald’s then argues with the local health authority about who should make a statement and when it finally does so itself, issues a ‘sincere’ apology and refuses to answer any questions.

The burger chain subsequently publishes the message below to its local website. A textbook guide to poor crisis communications could hardly have put it any better.

McDHK_meatexpirycrisiswebsitemsg

 

 

Some brief observations:

  • The message is not addressed to anyone
  • It appears selectively misleading (‘…we have proactively suspended relevant food ingredients’)
  • There is no hint of remorse
  • The customer apology is buried at the end and appears wholly insincere
  • The company provides no hint of how it is going to stop a similar incident happening in the future
  • It is unhelpful, providing no additional information or ability to ask questions online or via a hotline
  • It is unclear who owns the statement – the local CEO?
  • The English is badly mangled and the paragraphing awkward (at best).

In the final analysis, McDonald’s appears both evasive and incompetent.

All is not lost. Nobody has (yet) fallen ill and Ronald and his companions have plenty of goodwill in the tank – even weddings are held between the hallowed yellow arches here.

To re-build trust they will need to take concrete actions to ensure this cannot happen again, and communicate these actions simply and clearly. While bearing in mind that what is said online is consistent with what is said offline.

 

 

Public relations is fifteen times (pdf) more effective than advertising. And at least 95% of public statements and PR pitches end up as email detritus, spiked by hard-pressed or incredulous journalists or funnelled down the black hole of news aggregation services.

Why?

After all, much of the paraphernalia of today’s PR practitioners – press releases, media advisories, backgrounders – are carefully scripted, on message, and pour out of corporate offices and PR agencies like streams of confetti.

Sounds like music to journalists’ ears.

The reason, according to Alex Singleton in his new book The PR Masterclass, is that most PR pitches fail to understand the needs of journalists – story ideas that grab their readers’ attention.

The PR Masterclass, by Alex Singleton

Singleton should know. A former journalist at The Daily Telegraph and Mail Online, he would have developed an instinct for what his readers were interested in, the kinds of stories that would grab their attention and what constitutes successful, and ineffective, PR.

The PR Masterclass is studded with examples of good, bad and ugly PR, from a local tea blender on the south coast of England wooing the BBC by creating the world’s largest tea bag, to Whitehall departments refusing to pass on interview requests to their political bosses and a top global bank attempting to spin layoffs as ‘repositioning actions to reduce expenses’.

For those of us who have worked in journalism much of this sounds familiar, a good deal of it depressingly familiar.

But while this book is notable for the thoroughly practical way it sets out how to develop newsworthy story ideas, maintain a effective list of journalists, write and pitch press releases, run an effective press office and many other PR basics, what sets it apart is its refusal to succumb to the disease of many business books: a delight in pointing out what is challenging or wrong but providing all too few actionable solutions.

And here the solutions are set out in technicolour detail. How to write a press release headline and build an effective media list. Why anonymous letters can work for personal finance sections of newspapers but not for general readers’ letters. Why most newswire services are a waste of money, but which are worth their salt. And so on.

Arguably, The PR Masterclass suffers from a couple of limitations.

First, it is written from an (unashamedly) western perspective. But while building strong relationships with journalists is central to PR anywhere, a well-trodden path to media coverage in China (and plenty of other emerging markets) is to pay the journalist and/or buy advertising space.

The book also takes a fairly narrow view of PR, centred on media relations. Singleton argues persuasively that the conventional media still matters, despite all the talk about social media.

I concur.

But what constitutes mainstream media has now expanded significantly, with some blogs rivalling the online efforts of major broadcasters and newspapers.

The Business Insider now has a higher readership than the Wall Street Journal.

And as Ryan Holiday has pointed out, these organs can operate by very different rules and demand a muscular and visual approach to PR.

Nonetheless, neither seriously detract from a highly readable and eminently useful addition to the PR canon, and one which should be required reading not just for communications students but for any organisation that wants to get its message out credibly and persuasively.

 

Disclosure: I was provided with a review copy of The PR Masterclass by Wiley

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