PRISM, Through the PR Looking Glass

 PRISM, Through the PR Looking Glass

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for Silicon Valley’s tech giants, for keeping it short but not mincing words in response to PRISM allegations.

PRISM, news outlets reported last week, is a clandestine program under which the US National Security Agency obtained “direct” access to the servers of Microsoft, Apple, Google, AOL, and Facebook, all of whom signed on to the program. The disclosure came on the heels of similar revelations about the government obtaining call logs of Verizon customers and spying on journalists. As described by the media, PRISM, an acronym for “Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management,” appears to be far more obtrusive and Orwellian than previously thought. One anonymous source said it enabled the NSA to “literally watch you as you type.”

Or does it? Faster than a trending tweet, the companies mentioned as being complicit in the citizen spying issued unambiguous denials. “Outrageous,” said Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. “Never heard of PRISM,” said Apple. Those denials, plus the government’s declassification and disclosure of some PRISM details, cast doubt on the story, which drew surprisingly muted public outrage anyway. Verizon’s response, in contrast, seemed contrived and concerned more with containing PR damage. The Washington Post, one of the outlets that broke the story, appeared later to walk back its initial reporting as other media outlets found experts to assert that the leaked PRISM documents had been misread.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for Silicon Valley’s tech giants, for keeping it short.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Keep it simple. When the story is misleading or just plain wrong, don’t waste a second in responding. Don’t get bogged down in ambiguous language that produces the infamous non-denial denial. Sometimes PR is not just about PR; it’s about setting the record straight, and doing so before a story long on accusations but short on facts spins wildly out of control. Journalists can make mistakes and some – gasp! – have agendas. When the press bites, reach out to your journalism friends (you have made some friends, haven’t you?) to set the story straight. And remember; bonus points for acting aggrieved, not angry.

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William Dentzer About William Dentzer

William Dentzer, a San Francisco-based writer and communications/media consultant, has managed corporate communications and media relations at global firms such as UBS, Bain & Company, The Associated Press, and British consultancy Arup. He previously served as a mayoral press secretary and was a longtime political reporter and columnist with the Gannett newspaper chain in New York.

What is Your PR Verdict?

  1. Paul Marrone Paul Marrone says:

    Perhaps a more cautious score by PRV should be provided to online companies. Their denials can lead to more reporting disclosing lack of complete transparency and truthfulness if they are complying with law enforcement requests. Just the “terms of service” – which many may not read – for those companies, many of them public, provide for compliance with just that kind of government request. So while they deny knowledge or participation in PRISM it does not mean they have not provided, and continue to provide, data to government agencies. The SEC and FCC along with DOJ will be watching. This is a story that will not go away and will have quite a long tale as media continues to dig and angles in on sharp denials by Facebook, AOL et al.

  2. Pen Pendleton Pen Pendleton says:

    I guess I am less sanguine. The privacy/PRISM issue may be a storm that will pass after pr folks in Silicon Valley clean up some sloppy reporting. But maybe not. Given the secrecy surrounding a govt inquiry, it seems reasonable to assume that cooperating companies are legally prohibited from disclosing any facts or knowledge. It’s a PR Catch-22. Companies are obliged to cooperate but may be unable to show how they are protecting users’ privacy when the Federal government comes calling. Perhaps the public doesn’t care but I know some editors who would like to ask a follow-up question or two.

  3. A week or so out now, I think the SV co’s are still doing/saying the right thing on this. They pushed/are pushing to release details of government requests for data (which is not “direct access to servers”). Google wants OK to break out specific numbers of FISA court requests. (See story from SJ Mercury News. http://bit.ly/12VsVKw.) Obama/NSA not doing as well on PR front, of course. But the inaccurate “direct access to servers” story line has been effectively killed.

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