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Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at

Updated: 2018-01-28T13:11:07.820-05:00




As you may already have figured out, this blog is closed.

I am now blogging at:

You can also follow me on Twitter (@sabreawards) and become a fanof The Holmes Report or SABRE Awards on Facebook.




Gay-Bashing SuperBowl Ads, An American Tradition: I don’t know why the gay community is so upset about this Snickers SuperBowl ad and accompanying website. It doesn’t actively promote violence against homosexuals; it merely suggests that (a) revulsion is a natural reaction to anything gay; (b) violence is an appropriate response; and (c) that the revulsion and the violence are both highly amusing. What’s the problem?

UPDATE: The site is now down, and Masterfoods says the ads won’t run again. But for those unsure what all the fuss is about, the ad showed two mechanics eating the same Snickers bar until their lips accidentally touch, whereupon--in one of the alternate endings features on the Snickers site--they proceed to beat each other senseless with wrenches and other profoundly masculine objects.



Guerrilla Marketers Mistaken for Real Guerrillas: Doubtless, many column inches will be devoted to the foolishness of the Turner Broadcasting System “public relations” people whose guerrilla marketing campaign on behalf of the Adult Swim cartoon show Aqua Teen Hunger Force led to bomb scares in Boston on Wednesday. And doubtless there will be those who take some satisfaction in the brief arrest of two men. Certainly, Turner was quick to issue an apology.

But I’m inclined to agree with Time’s James Poniewozik, author of the best television blog on the Internet, when he writes that the marketers’ real mistake was “what's the nice way of saying this?--overestimating the intelligence of the homeland-security apparatus.”



What's Fair?: One of the posters responding to my Disney Disgrace item questions whether the use of clips from Disney Radio Station KSFO are really “fair use.” Under the circumstances, a definition might be handy.

From the U.S. copyright office: “Section 107 contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered ‘fair,’ such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.

“Section 107 also sets out four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair: 1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; 2. the nature of the copyrighted work; 3. amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and 4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.”

Spocko was clearly using the Disney segment for the purposes of criticsm, comment, and news reporting.

The use was clearly not for commercial purposes, and equally clearly was for educational purposes.

He used only excerpts, and did not post “the copyrighted work as a whole.”

The use had no effect upon the potential market value of the copyrighted work. Indeed, the nature of the news business is such that the market value of the work was non-existent by the time Spocko made his post. (It may have had an effect on the market value of KSFO's future output, but that's a separate issue.)

In other words, it is difficult to imagine a more clear-cut case of fair use.



Meatpuppet Alert: If you were still wondering why wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has it in for public relations people, Ben Goldacre provides an example of the kind of inept and unethical activity that tars the whole profession with the same brush.

Goldacre is the author of the excellent “Bad Science” column in The Guardian, which is dedicated to exposing the most egregious examples of junk science. (That’s junk science as in science that is deeply, fatally flawed. Or non-existent. Not junk science in the Steven Milloy sense, which is to say science wll-supported by the facts but in conflict with the short-term interests of big corporations.)

Anyway, at his blog Goldacre discusses the editing of a wikipedia article about self-styled nutritionist Patrick Holford. (In the U.K., anyone can call him or herself a nutritionist; Holford’s only relevant qualification appears to be a Diploma in Nutritional Therapy, awarded by his own Institute of Optimum Nutrition.

Goldacre had written critically of Holford’s credentials and his tendency to make claims unsupported by science. A reference to those criticisms made it into wikipedia, but was later edited out. Some solid—but not especially brilliant—detective work by Goldacre traces the editing to a user calling himself Clarkeola, who turns out to be an employee of Holford’s public relations firm, Fuel PR.

Clarkeola has been banned under wikipedia’s “meatpuppets” policy, and once again the public relations industry as a whole is made to look sleazy, deceptive and—most worrying of all—completely out of tune with emerging digital media.



Disney Disgrace: It’s always unedifying to see giant corporations use legal bullying against their critics in the media, but there’s an extra irony when the giant corporation involved is in the media business itself.

Disney has filed a copyright infringement suit against blogger Spocko, who has been waging a campaign against radio station KSFO and right-wing talk show host ?????. Over the past few years, it has become commonplace for leading supporters of the Bush administration to call for the imprisonment or even the execution of the administration’s critics, and Disney’s Melanie Morgan joined the parade earlier this year, calling for the death of New York Times editor Bill Keller.

Spocko posted audio clips from KSFO programming, triggering a letter-writing campaign that prompted advertisers including Visa and MasterCard to reconsider their support for the station. Disney responded by sending a cease-and-desist letter to Spocko’s ISP, claiming the use of the audio clips was an infringement of copyright and Spocko’s site was shut down.

The truth is that the use of audio clips was almost certainly within the “fair use” provision, which allows news sites to use selected material to illustrate stories. If Spocko was a vast news organization with large resources, Disney would never have considered using such a spurious lawsuit. But Spocko is a lone blogger, and his ISP apparently has no interest in defending the right of free speech on the Internet, so Disney has been able to shut down the site, for now.



Paying a Premium: The Wall Street Journal seeks to defend Robert Nardelli’s $210 million severance from Home Depot by pointing out that most of the money he received in exchange for his departure wasn’t severance money at all, since it was guaranteed in the contract he signed when he joined the company—a distinction without any appreciable difference.

The Journal’s broader objective is to defend the extraordinary amounts paid to CEOs, which it does by claiming: “Top executive talent is hard to find, and boards are willing to pay a premium to get it. Their hiring decisions don't always work out—whose do?—but they'll pay a lot to reduce that risk.”

Spend a moment thinking about that and the argument boils down to this: CEOs are paid so much because they’re expensive.

What the Journal doesn’t claim is that CEOs who cost a lot are better than CEOs that cost only a fraction as much. It doesn’t claim that because it can’t. It can’t, because there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest it’s true.

The reality is that no one knows how much a good CEO is worth: it’s impossible to isolate the impact of the CEO from other factors—the quality of the management team, changes in the competitive landscape, global economic conditions—that affect corporate performance. It’s also pretty much impossible to predict whether a CEO who appeared to perform well in one job (perhaps because of some innate skill, perhaps because he was in the right place at the right time) will perform well in another.

Boards of directors are spending massive amounts of money based on nothing more than guesswork. It’s not even particularly educated guesswork. Top executive talent, as the Journal says, is hard to find. It’s even harder to identify with any certainty. So perhaps companies should avoid spending hundreds of millions of dollars until they know exactly what they’ve bought—any CEO confident of his own ability ought to be happy to accept a genuine pay-for-performance arrangement.



Ticket Masters: Washington Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Washington Wizards basketball franchise and Verizon Center, has taken a bold stand against Democratic plans for ethics reform in Washington, D.C.

The company claims that any benefit to the public interest likely to result from curtailing the use of bribes by lobbyists eager to curry favor with lawmakers is far outweighed by its own need to profit from those bribes. Thus it will oppose efforts to close a loophole that allows lobbyists to furnish lawmakers with the best tickets. (The current law says lawmakers must pay face value for sports tickets, but stadium owners have circumvented the law by declining to put a value on individual luxury box tickets.)

“We support the concept of full and open disclosure on the part of lobbyists and lawmakers to comply with ethics standards,” says Matt Williams, senior vice president at WS&E. “However… this ban of tickets to sporting events as gifts will cause a negative impact on our business. Probably more than any other franchises in professional sports, Washington, D.C.-area teams count business from lobbyists as a contributing factor to our bottom line.”



Sound-Bite Science: There’s a lot of nonsense in the world, and a good amount is spouted by celebrities (not as much as by politicians, activists, corporations or journalists, but still…) so a new initiative by the U.K.-based Sense About Science is to be applauded.

The group has listed statements made by stars on topics such as organic food, pesticides and ways to avoid cancer, and supplemented the celebrity advice with actual scientific information. It says it will offer a helpline for celebrities so they can check their facts before going public—something that should prevent both embarrassment and misinformation.

“There is a real problem when people present things as though they are scientifically grounded,” says the group’s director. “There is always going to be a fair bit of nonsense around, and particularly with the big interest in lifestyle. We are saying, ‘Before you go public, check your facts.’ All it takes is a phone call to us.”

It would be nice to see something similar in the States.



Unjust Rewards: Last year, Home Depot gave Robert Nardelli $30 million in pay and stock option for serving as its chairman and chief executive. This year, the company will pay him $210 million for doing nothing… unless you count his decision to step down as a major contribution to the company’s fortunes, which shareholders apparently do: Home Depot stock was up 2.3 percent yesterday following news of his departure.

It is obvious that executive pay in America is distorted, grotesque and out of control. This is only the latest, and probably not the most extreme, example. Nardelli will receive almost twice as much for leaving the company as he received over the course of his six year tenure ($125 million) during which Home Depot’s share price went from $40.75 to $40.16. And that’s to say nothing about the company’s reputation: once a leader in employee engagement, social and environmental responsibility, the company is now just another big box retailer.

The outrage over Nardelli’s rewards is likely to add fuel to incoming House Financial Service Committee chair Barney Frank’s interest in investigating executive compensation, but it’s hard to envisage a cure that is not worse than the disease. The only solution likely to work involves boards acting responsibly of their own volition.

It would be nice to believe that those who have contributed to this sorry state of affairs would feel a little discomfort, but how do you embarrass people who have no shame?



Plague of Flogs: Here’s my hot tip for the big public relations buzzword of 2007: “flog.” A “flog,” for those who have not been paying attention, is “a fake blog typically used as a sales tool.”

Early examples include, most notoriously, the Wal-Marting Across America blog created by Edelman for the giant retailer, which featured a written by a Washington Post staff photographer and his partner, a freelance writer, as they traveled across the U.S. in an RV, parking for free at Wal-Mart stores all across the country and posting conversations with Wal-Mart employees full of praise for the notoriously generous and tolerant retail giant. Unfortunately, the authors forgot to mention that their entire jaunt was subsidized by the company.

The latest example is brought to you by Sony, which shortly before Christmas set up a blog called alliwantforxmasisapsp (it’s now been taken down, but it’s parodied here), written in an “urban patois” by a hip hop artist called Charlie, whose cousin Pete really, really wanted a Sony PSP for Christmas but who couldn’t afford one.

If you haven’t already guessed, neither Charlie nor Pete was a real person. They were fictional characters created by some Sony marketing whiz whose enthusiasm for the blogosphere was matched only by his (or her) contempt for Sony’s customers.

“It’s a stealth marketing practice that’s unethical,” Andy Sernovitz, chief executive of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, tells the Sacramento Bee. “A business pretending to be a consumer is always wrong,” he adds—something that should be obvious but clearly is not. “I don’t think it’ll become a big trend, because they get busted almost as fast as they happen. The blogosphere does a great job of enforcing itself.”

So the technique is both deceptive and stupid. For that reason, I expect to see much, much more of it over the next 12 months.



Public Interest? Don't Hold Your Breath: In his recent book Profit with Honor (reviewed in our newsletter last year), Daniel Yankelovich expressed the touchingly naïve hope that companies practicing what he calls “stewardship ethics” (a fancy new term for enlightened self-interest) would take the public interest—and not just their own narrow self-interest—into account in their public affairs activities.

How likely is that? Exhibit one for the prosecution: the Motion Picture Association of America.

A California law that would have prevented companies and their private investigators from using “false, fictitious or fraudulent” representations in order to obtain private information such as telephone records, has been killed because of lobbying from the motion picture industry.

The law, proposed after the scandal over HP’s egregious invasion of reporters’ and board members’ privacy earlier this year, was apparently sailing through the Senate before the MPAA voiced its opposition.

The MPAA claims—essentially—that it needs to engage in fraudulent behavior in order to combat film “piracy.” If there’s a more egregious example of an industry putting its own narrow self-interest ahead of the broader public interest, I can’t imagine what it would be.



Welcome Additions: What better time than the New Year to update the blogroll with some interesting new additions to the ever-expanding public relations blogosphere.

First up, Leslie Gaines-Ross moved from Burson to Weber Shandwick in the middle of last year, but continues to blog prolifically and provocatively on corporate and CEO reputation issues here.

Ruder Finn has a weekly ethics blog, written by chief ethics officer Emmanuel Tchividjian. I’m a little dubious about the “weekly” thing, since it doesn’t appear to have been updated since early November, but it’s certainly a worthwhile topic.

In a similar vein, Arment Dietrich has launched a new blog dedicated to the “Fight Against Destructive Spin.”

And finally, Cohn & Wolfe’s corporate and technology practice has launched WolfTracking, which follows “the ever-evolving media landscape” and kicked off with a bunch of case studies and this post on the shifting media landscape.



Cross Purposes: I’ve been following the controversy in the U.K. over a dispute between British Airways and one of its employees with interest. In short, BA bars uniformed employees from wearing hanging jewelry—necklaces, in essence—outside their uniforms, ostensibly because of the risk that they will get tangled in luggage, etc. The employee in question, Nadia Eweida, sought an exception for a Christian cross, claiming that since Muslims can wear veils and Sikhs turbans, she should be able to display her cross.

I happen to think that BA should be a little flexible here: whatever point it’s trying to prove is probably not worth the trouble. But the notion that this is an issue of religious freedom—or “a blatant act of religious oppression,” as the reliably hysterical Daily Mail would have it—is ridiculous.

In a free society, people have a right to exercise their religion, but there is nothing in the tenets of Christianity that says wearing a cross publicly (Eweida was told she could wear it under her uniform, but refused) is essential to the practice of the faith. This is not a dispute about the religious freedom but the right to proselytize on behalf of that religion in the workplace.

But it’s a fairly mild and inoffensive form of proselytizing, and as I’ve said, I think the goodwill BA would have earned for allowing it would have outweighed the cost in defending a principle.



Bought and Paid For: I’ve railed in the past about the politicization of science over the past few years, but it’s still disappointing to learn that the National Science Teachers Association has been bought off by the enemies of sound science.

The association was offered free copies of Al Gore’s global warming movie An Inconvenient Truth, which might have made a useful teaching aid. But it rejected the offer, explaining that accepting the DVDs would place “unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters.”

One of those supporters, the Washington Post reveals, is ExxonMobil, a company dedicated to ensuring that the truth about climate change is obscured and distorted. The NSTA has received $6 million from the oil company over the past decade. Other corporate donors include Shell and the American Petroleum Institute.



Smoke Screen: The New York Times editorializes about a new study showing that the anti-smoking efforts sponsored by the tobacco industry are “notably ineffective and possibly even a sham.”

Companies like Altria (the former Philip Morris) have spent millions of dollars on ads purportedly designed to discourage underage smoking, but the ads seem to have been more effective at deflecting criticism of the industry than at reducing teen cigarette usage.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health and authored by academic researchers supported by the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, concluded that ads aimed directly at young people had no beneficial effect, while those aimed at parents were actually harmful: the greater teenagers’ exposure to the ads, the stronger their intention to smoke and the greater their likelihood of having smoked in the past 30 days.

Without taking sides on the merits of the study, one thing is clear: if Philip Morris wants people to believe it is serious in its intent, it is going to have to produce better evidence of its commitment than it did in response to the Times, boasting about the number of teenagers exposed to the campaign. Exposure, obviously, is not the issue, and the company needs to research the impact its anti-smoking ads are having.

Unless, of course, it already has such research, and is secretly pleased with what it shows.



A Missed Opportunity?: An interesting article from Knowledge@Wharton, the online (and subscription-only) magazine of Wharton Business Schools, focuses on a new development in product placement—the targeting of churches.

Did you know that church pastors were offered a chance to win a free trip to London and $1,000 in cash if they mentioned the Disney movie The Chronicles of Narnia in their sermons? Or that Chrysler is sponsoring a gospel music tour featuring Patti LaBelle in order to promote a new luxury SUV to affluent African-Americans?

Rather than bemoaning the spread of commercialism to what some people see as a non-commercial venue, the article focuses on the opportunities. The real potential of churches, according to Wharton experts—and I think they’re right—is in word-of-mouth marketing.

“They offer a particularly tantalizing opportunity for those intent on network or ‘word-of-mouth’ marketing, a strategy that capitalizes on social relationships to spread product information and influence purchasing, according to Wharton marketing professor Patti Williams: ‘Megachurch members are drawn together by a strong common bond. Networks that exist naturally facilitate word-of-mouth marketing, because people tend to share information with those they are close to,’ she says.”

And “pastors make ‘great connectors,’ adds Wharton marketing professor Christophe Van den Bulte, ‘because they reach a large audience once a week, and their words carry extra weight.””

PR firms all across the land have practices targeting African-Americans and Latinos and gays and lesbians. Does anyone have a practice targeting evangelicals? If not, why not?



Because It Works: The morning after the nastiest election campaign in living memory (something that could be said after almost every election in recent memory), The Wall Street Journal op-ed page includes a piece by former Boston Globe columnist John Ellis bemoaning the negative tone of recent political advertising and making a “business case” for greater civility.

His basic point is that most smart marketers don’t spend billions of dollars attacking each other. “Imagine, if you will, what your taste for Miller beer would be if Anheuser-Busch spent half of its annual advertising budget describing all of the various Miller brands in the most unsavory terms. Or, what your taste for a Budweiser would be if the lads at Miller unleashed a $500 million negative ad campaign against ‘the King of Beers.’ Imagine both at the same time and you get some idea of what domestic politics is like for most Americans.”

Leaving aside the fact that Miller and Bud do, in fact, take pot shots at each other all the time (a campaign featuring football referees comes to mind), Ellis—now a partner in a venture capital firm—misses the big difference between politics and marketing, which is that politics is pretty much a zero-sum game.

“One would think that the major parties would grasp the concept that they are destroying the very profession they purport to love, and act accordingly,” says Ellis. In all likelihood, they grasp that fact, but the incentives to carry on as they do are simply too powerful.

The bottom line is that negative advertising works. There’s good reason to believe that the race-baiting ad run by the Republican National Committee against black Democrat Harold Ford in Tennessee swung the momentum back in his opponent’s favor.

In marketing, a rising tide can lift all boats. Convince people that a category is worthwhile, and all the products in that category can increase sales and profits. But in politics, if one “brand” is going to win, the other has to “lose” and the sad reality is that messages of fear and hate are easier to communicate and ultimately more effective in motivating people than positive messages.



The Media, Protecting You From the News: In what surely provides the most telling evidence to date that traditional mainstream media have completely abrogated their responsibility, the Washington Post reports, eight paragraphs into its story on election night coverage:

“The biggest behind-the-scenes change in network coverage involves what has been dubbed the Quarantine Room. Determined to avoid a rerun of recent years, when its exit polls leaked out by early afternoon to the Drudge Report, Slate and other Web sites, a media consortium is allowing two people from each of the networks and the Associated Press entree to a windowless room in New York. All cellphones, laptops and BlackBerrys will be confiscated. The designated staffers will pore over the exit polls but will not be allowed to communicate with their offices until 5 pm.”

Yes, the elite media are devoting their greatest energy on election day to making sure that information does not reach the public.

I learned my journalism in a simpler time. Back then, it was widely believed that the role of reporters was to report the news, not to suppress it The argument, I suppose, is that the public isn’t responsible enough to handle this particular information, that voters might respond to it in ways of which the media disapproves. So the media would like us all to understand that it know what’s better for us than we do.

The next time you hear some reporter talking about the public’s right to know, just remember that not even the media believe that sanctimonious claptrap. As far as the mainstream media are concerned, you only have the right to know what they want you to know, when they want you to know it.



Fatal Short-Termism: I have long suspected that the Bush administration would be less remembered by history for its actions in the war on terrorism than for its inaction on the far greater danger of global climate change.

An administration driven by ideology rather than facts managed to fabricate reasons for invading Iraq despite the complete absence of any supporting evidence for its claims, while at the same time ignoring an overwhelming scientific consensus around global warming and electing to pretend it just wasn’t happening.

In a way there’s nothing new about the conclusions of a report, issued today by former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern, which focuses on the potential economic impacts of climate change. The issue has never been whether we could afford to cut carbon emissions in order to slow the pace of warming, but rather whether—as a society—we would prefer to pay millions today, or billions tomorrow.

It should be no surprise that the Bush administration has chosen the latter. Almost all of its policies have been based on the same premise: that it is acceptable to steal from future generations so that today’s voters can live more comfortably. The burgeoning deficit is only the most obvious symptom of this approach.

What’s telling is that big business (with some notable exceptions: ExxonMobil) has been far quicker and more responsible in its approach to climate change than the government. Companies such as BP, business leaders such as Richard Branson, and a host of corporate titans have taken steps to improve their environmental performance and reduce their emissions.

Business leaders are notoriously focused on the short term, driven by quarterly profits, but the truth is that most of them care about the long-term sustainability of their enterprises. They make an attempt to balance the need for short-term profits with the desire for long-term security. But the current administration in the U.S. is uninterested in anything that happens after the next election cycle. That’s somebody else’s problem. As today’s report makes clear. It’s yours and mine.



Wiki Whackiness: Reading through Strumpette’s article asking whether PR has become synonymous with spam, I was struck once again by the reasoning—or lack of it—behind Wiki-pedia’s decision to ban PR people from posting.

Strumpette quotes Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales: “The big problem with paid editing on Wikipedia is NOT that someone is getting paid to write, but rather that this causes a rather obvious conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety.”

There are a couple of fallacies at work here. The first is that the appearance of impropriety seems to be more important to Wikipedia than the real issue, which is accuracy of information. Can the fact that someone is being paid lead them to post inaccurate or biased information? Of course it can. Is it the only, or even the main, reason for posting inaccurate information? Not even close.

Some people post inaccurate information for ideological reasons, too. They hate Bill Clinton. They think big pharmaceutical companies are profiting off other people’s misery. They don’t like the environmental policies of large chemical companies. They think Greenpeace is trying to destroy the free market system. Do these people get a free pass because their motivation to spread disinformation is untainted by money?

The second problem is collective punishment. If there are paid PR consultants posting inaccurate information to Wikis—and I don’t doubt that there are—then by all means punish them. But to punish an entire class of people for the actions of a few members of that class makes no sense to me. Would Wales ban anyone who has an ideological bias—members of political parties or activist groups, for example—because some ideologues have posted inaccurate information?

Of course not. That would be absurd. But no more absurd than his current position.



Still a Minority Pursuit: Information Week reports that despite the massive volume of words written about blogging over the past couple of years, fewer than 10 percent of the largest companies in America have a presence in the blogosphere.

According to the article: “For many businesses, blogs remain a mysterious medium dominated by teenagers and technology geeks. Most execs ‘do not read them, they do not understand why people write them,’ Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li says.”

GM and Wells Fargo get kudos from the magazine.



Tomorrow’s Responsible Leaders: The FT reports on a study showing that MBA and graduate students in America overwhelmingly believe businesses need to balance profits and social responsibility.

About 81 percent of the students said companies should try to work “toward the betterment of society”, while 18 percent thought most of them were already seeking that goal. Nearly 90 per cent said business leaders should factor social and environmental effects into their business decisions, with 60 per cent saying such an approach could be profitable.

And 80 percent said they wanted to find socially responsible employment.

Whether their idealism survives contact with the real world of American business remains to be seen, of course.



Are PR Ethics Incompatible with the Web: Strumpette sends in a comment to the Edelman/Wal-Mart post below, as follows:

“How much do you want to bet it happens again?

"This was inevitable. There is a fundamental contradiction between what PR does and what the web expects and demands. PR is summarily being locked out because of how PR defines ethics. (See

"C'mon Paul. At the scene of the accident, it's probably a good time to put your pom-pons down.”

Will it happen again? Probably. There are a lot of PR ppractitioners who won't learn the lesson from this, which is not so much that this kind of thing is unethical (though it is, as everyone seems to have acknowledged) but rather that it's dumb. Does anyone seriously think Wal-Mart's image (or Edelman's for that matter) is better now than in was when it started this blogging adventure?

Quite simply, good blogging -- joining in the conversation in an authentic, transparent, unspun way -- will benefit companies and their PR firms. Bad blogging -- opacity, dishonesty, spin -- will hurt them.

Assuming PR people will act in their own self-interest, in other words, there will be fewer indicents like this in the future.



Snatching PR Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: The Bush administration and the public diplomacy office headed by the president’s close friend and adviser Karen Hughes have not gotten a lot right in public relations terms, but the comments of director of public diplomacy Alberto Fernandez during an interview with Arab news channel Al-Jazeera over the weekend looked as though they might finally have earned the U.S. some much needed and long overdue credibility in the region.Said Fernandez: “We tried to do our best [in Iraq], but I think there is much room for criticism because, undoubtedly, there was arrogance and there was stupidity from the United States in Iraq. If we are witnessing failure in Iraq, it's not the failure of the United States alone. Failure would be a disaster for the region.”Yes, I know Fernandez was only speaking the truth—and a truth that is obvious to anyone who has paid even passing attention to recent events—but it was refreshing to hear such candor from a high-placed official, and for a moment there it looked as though the U.S. public diplomacy effort might actually be embracing the concept of honest communication.Yes, there was some predictable criticism from right-wing groups in the U.S., concerned about how these remarks might play in this country in the run up to the election. But Fernandez’s job is not to help the GOP in the midterms, it’s to improve the standing of the U.S. abroad, and there’s no question he did that. For Arabs used to patronizing platitudes, Fernandez’s words were a revelation, making the front pages of the regional media and, as the Christian Science Monitor observed, striking “the sort of tone that public policy experts say the US needs if it is to regain some of its credibility in Arab eyes.”Determined to snatch public relations defeat from the jaws of a rare media victory, the Bush administration moved swiftly. Fernandez was forced to apologize.A little context is provided by Arab media expert Marc Lynch, who says that reading a transcript of the interview “makes clear that the parts of Fernandez’s comments which have been quoted extensively are mostly a throat clearing preface to saying that Arabs need to move on and talk about Iraq’s future instead of ‘gloating’ over American problems. This is a way of establishing credibility and a reputation for candor with Arab audiences: two things that almost all American spokespeople who stick to the administration’s script lack. “His humility treats those audiences with respect, rather than trying to force talking points crafted in Washington down the throats of skeptical listeners who live in the region and know better.”Moreover, “Fernandez has conducted literally hundreds of interviews in Arabic with various Arab media outlets at a time when few American officials could be bothered or could perform effectively when they tried…. What made him effective was not just his fluent Arabic, but that he is willing to argue, to get angry, to make jokes—in short, to offer a real human face and not just a grim diplomat reading from a script.”Clearly Fernandez has the instincts of a great public relations person. Too bad he’s working for an organization that views his ability as a liability.[...]