Snowden’s “Trap” for Putin Misses Its Mark

Vlad Snowden Snowdens Trap for Putin Misses Its Mark

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Edward Snowden.

Edward Snowden is raising questions about state-sponsored citizen surveillance. No, this is not a repeat from last May. The former National Security Agency contractor, whose classified disclosures exposed a host of US global surveillance programs, is proving himself to be an equal opportunity agitator by taking aim at his homeland-in-exile, Russia, and his putative host, Vladimir Putin.

In what was widely dismissed as a propaganda stunt for the Russian president, Snowden showed up on Russian television on Putin’s annual call-in meeting with the nation. Appearing via a video link, Snowden asked Putin whether Russia spies on its citizens like the US does. The former KGB agent responded that Russia’s “special services are strictly controlled by the state and society, and their activity is regulated by law.” He added, for good measure, that Russia has neither the money nor the “technical devices” the US has.

Snowden himself followed up with a newspaper column to explain the ulterior motive for his appearance: He was hoping to trap Putin with a question that “cannot credibly be answered in the negative by any leader who runs a modern, intrusive surveillance program.” His motive, he said, was to spark a debate over Russia’s own surveillance programs. Fat chance of that happening in his adopted land.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Edward Snowden, whose naïve idealism could be his undoing.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Don’t believe your own hype. Edward Snowden wants to expand his crusade, doubtless fortified by world reaction to date. Whether hero or traitor, though, his stature in either capacity doesn’t travel well, nor might it live long. His disclosures of US spying did, in fact, ignite an international debate. No chance of that same scrutiny happening in Russia. Nor is Putin likely to care much if Snowden’s “trap” sparks global condemnation. Just ask Ukraine.

Google, Walmart Internal Memos Go External

 Google, Walmart Internal Memos Go External

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Google and Walmart.

A set of “talking points” is a basic element of the PR professional’s toolkit. But should talking points be broadly distributed to employees? The short answer: maybe.

Two incidents this week suggest talking points are best kept under lock and key. Both involve documents, intended for internal use only, that were leaked. At Google, talking points about the company’s private buses, which are irritating most of San Francisco, sounded imperious and gave the impression the company was putting words in Googlers’ mouths. The memo suggested employees say that eliminating the buses would increase city congestion because they’d have to drive to work, and a condescending “Feel free to add your own style or opinion” also rubbed people the wrong way. And Walmart‘s fictional scripts about unionization were leaked by Occupy, the protest group against economic inequality. The scripts  were goofy theoretical representations of how employees might discuss the prospect of unionization.

What was wrong with these documents wasn’t the content but the tone. Google comes off as superior (Valleywag.com described “a memo from the overlords”), while Wal-Mart’s fake conversations feel like they’re trying to put one over on employees. These companies might have escaped  some of the negative PR from these leaks if they’d just provided workers with straightforward facts that articulated their company’s position – nothing more.

THE PR VERDICT:  “C” (Distinctly OK) for Google and Walmart. Good ideas, clumsy execution.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: A company with employees is a company with spokespeople – lots of them. Trying to manage your workers’ public commentary is futile, not to mention potentially damaging from a PR perspective. Instead, be up front. Don’t tell employees what to say or think, just provide the company’s reasons for doing what it’s doing (and leave out the hyperbole and manipulation). Employees who agree with you are smart enough to adopt your eloquent words for their own. The ones who don’t? Well, a company memo won’t change their minds anyway.

Obama’s Proposed NSA Reforms Fall Flat

 

 Obamas Proposed NSA Reforms Fall Flat

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for President Obama for his NSA speech.

Bold change seldom comes from modest action; just ask President Barack Obama. The proposed reforms he announced last week for how the National Security Agency goes about collecting data are hardly the stuff of decisive, game-changing leadership. But that was probably never the Administration’s intent.

Granted, fixing the White House’s PR mess over citizen eavesdropping is a tall order. The President’s speech in the Great Hall of the Justice Department follows months of the dripping faucet of leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, not to mention a particularly bad month for the intelligence community in general, with a critical judicial ruling and a tough review from a White House-appointed panel. In announcing the modest reforms, Obama spent a good portion of time defending the NSA’s most controversial programs as necessary measures in the ongoing battle against terrorists.

What irony, then, that Obama’s speech came on the same day another US President, Dwight Eisenhower, warned Americans about the “military-industrial complex” that threatened American democracy from within. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” Eisenhower said back in 1961. “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” Against that standard, the verdict for Obama’s effort suffers.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for President Obama, who tried to walk the middle road, to no one’s benefit.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Be mindful of history. Obama might not have channelled Eisenhower specifically, but he could have relied on more than modest reforms and a good speech to answer all the criticism over spying dropped on his doorstep. He surprised and satisfied no one with his tepid response to spying – not Congress, not tech companies who were obliging or grudging accomplices, not the American public. Pleasing no one with a middle-of the-road approach might be a somewhat effective strategy for governing, but not so much for PR.

Department of Defense In De Facto Denial

dod computer1 Department of Defense In De Facto Denial

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the Department of Defense.

While NSA secret-leaker Edward Snowden apparently bides his time in the transit zone of Moscow’s airport, the repercussions of his actions continue to confound US officialdom – and their PR teams, it seems. The latest questionable move comes from the Department of Defense.

Last week, The Herald of Monterey County, California learned that internet access to UK newspaper The Guardian, which first broke Snowden’s revelations, had been restricted at a nearby army base. Except it wasn’t just at the base, and it wasn’t just the Guardian’s site: The DoD was blocking all articles about the NSA leaks from millions of government owned computers. Automated filters were installed to censor any article containing information still deemed classified – even though details have been spread to the four corners of the known Interwebs.

Spokespeople for the US Army and DoD cited the need for “network hygiene” to keep the once-secret information from further unauthorized disclosure. A primary concern was money: According to one military flack, it takes “a lot of time” to remove classified material viewed online by news-reading military personnel on government computers. The flack generously noted that DoD “is also not going to block websites from the American public in general.” Just those serving in uniform, apparently.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the Department of Defense, for sticking to a rulebook that no longer makes sense.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: When events are moving fast, be ready to improvise. How does it look to go by the book when no one else is following the rules? This applies especially in the lightning-fast realm of information technology. The Defense Department’s PR team sought to spin the site-censoring as a cost issue. But why spend money at all on what seems an absurd exercise to begin with? DOD’s policy, and its PR positioning, make as much as sense as – ahem – keeping your head in the sand when the horse has already left the barn.

Being a Libor-Tease with the New York Times

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The PR Verdict: “D” (It’s a Dud) for the Department of Justice.

Don’t you hate a tease? The New York Times set the tone for this week’s Libor coverage with its weekend story that the Justice Department (and other regulators) is thinking about filing criminal charges against banks and individuals involved in Liborgate. “It’s hard to imagine a bigger case than Libor,” said one of the unnamed government officials. Golly! What’s next?

The news presumably sent a chill through banks and their senior management. We all know what happens when a firm faces criminal indictments: If true, things could get very ugly, and it’s normally over in a matter of hours. Just talk to Enron’s former auditors Arthur Andersen.

The Times article reported that the DoJ is building its case, though they hedged by saying this could take time. But since publication two days ago, the Libor waters have been further muddied. Did the Bank of England knowingly overlook rate fixing? And what did the US Federal Reserve know? Talking about a criminal prosecution, even unofficially to The New York Times, might have been a little premature. The facts are not so simple and there is enough blame to go around, including even possibly some regulators. In the end, the Justice Department may not be able to prosecute. That’s one story that won’t help the weakened PR image of law enforcement.

The PR Verdict:  “D” (It’s a Dud) for the Department of Justice. This might do more PR damage than good, if not followed through.

The PR Takeaway: Crying wolf messes with your PR. With a public increasingly incredulous that no big name is behind bars following the financial crisis, there is certainly PR mileage in saying”This time around, someone is going to stand trial.” But unless it’s a certainty, this is one headline that should have been delayed until a criminal prosecution was given the all clear. A disgruntled public, suspicious of the cozy relationship between regulators and Wall Street, might find yet again that hefty fines and civil charges are they only penatlies ultimately on offer. Failing to press charges won’t help the PR image of independent enforcement and regulation. Next time, why not pause before making the splashy unofficial announcement?

Is the Department of Justice being a big Libor-tease? Give us your PR Verdict!

The New York Times and When Not To Publish

 The New York Times and When Not To Publish

The PR Verdict: C (Distinctly OK) for The New York Times. (Pictured: Times editor Jill Abramson.)

When does The New York Times decide it won’t publish something on the grounds that it might impinge on national security? It’s a question the paper of record has had to address recently. An angry Congress wants clarification, as do some readers. What to say?

The controversy stems from recent articles published in the NY TImes about President Obama’s “kill list,” as well as the U.S. government’s computer virus warfare against Iran.  Obama’s critics claim the information came directly from the White House in order to bolster the President’s tough image on national security. Obama’s PR says this is dead wrong and that the President is intent on cracking down on staff leaking classified information.

The Times‘s defense? It always consults with government officials prior to publication. The paper confirms that government officials had not asked the paper to spike the two stories in question, and it rejects any suggestion that national security was endangered. “No story about details of government secrets has come near to demonstrably hurting the national security in decades and decades,” is the official quote. Case closed for The New York Times (for the moment).

The PR Verdict: C (Distinctly OK) for The New York Times, whose response still keeps the decision to publish or not in the realm of a high level of discretion. Something more objective might help the debate.

PR Takeaway: Freedom of speech and public interest rest on a continuum of interest and competing concerns. The Times has chosen to portray the issues as relatively straightforward – dangerous to release, or not? Why not talk about the issue as a long continuum with transparency at one end and secrecy on the other. List and weigh factors that might have a bearing on publication. Think of it as a point system; it will undoubtedly be imperfect, but it would change the debate from a discretion-based decision to something more independent and apolitical.

To read more, click here.

Is The New York Times releasing information that could compromise national security, or exercising the freedom of press? Give us your PR Verdict, below.

Rattling the Vatican’s Cage and Telling All.

vatican21 Rattling the Vaticans Cage and Telling All.

The PR Verdict: "B" for the Vatican Leaker.

Headline news and colorful photos coming out of the Vatican this weekend concerned the admission of 22 new cardinals. However what generated far more attention in the lead up to the ceremony was the constant drip feed of damaging confidential information coming from unknown Vatican sources.

Recent leaks of internal information to the media have covered a multitude of issues including allegations of financial mismanagement, money laundering, political cronyism and sensitive security data. The unauthorised and unflattering news has hastened pressure for reform as succession plans take shape for the 84-year-old Pontiff.   Vying factions seem intent on destabilizing the status quo and are preparing to take the reins when their moment comes.

The Vatican spokesman responded to the wave of leaks by commenting, “We must resist and not allow ourselves to be swallowed by the whirlpool of confusion, which is what those with bad intentions want.”

The PR Verdict: “B” for the Vatican leaker whoever you are. The strategy to weaken management by having it respond to numerous unforeseen crises seems to be working and has the current leadership defensive and distracted.

Leaking is always an effective way for internal stakeholders to get what they want without having to argue the case publicly. The oldest trick in the book is to confuse and distract current management so that it is vulnerable to being displaced or sidelined. When the top spokesman refers to “whirlpools of confusion” its clear that attempts to destabilize are working their magic. The Pontiff and his spokesman might want to take up The Prince by Machiavelli for some bedtime reading.

To read more click here.