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 Saying Spying Allegations “Hard to Imagine” Calms No One

googlelogo Google Saying Spying Allegations Hard to Imagine Calms No One

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

Much haranguing and hand-wringing has come in the wake of revelations of internet spying by the government, with the possible complicity (or willful ignorance) of the tech world’s biggest firms. But what if those firms themselves are spying on users and defending it as a right ot service? We’re looking at you, Google.

Michael Arrington, the tech venture capitalist and blogger who founded the industry-tracking Techcrunch blog, wrote recently “about that time Google spied on my gmail” in response to leaked information he received. The alleged breach, which Arrington is “nearly certain” occurred, drew a direct response from Google’s general counsel, Kent Walker, who answered the “serious allegation” noting that although Google’s terms of service “might legally permit such access, we have never done this and it’s hard for me to imagine circumstances where  we would investigate a leak in that way.”

Such equivocacy hardly quells concerns, but Google is not alone here. Arrington’s initial post came in response to word that Microsoft spied on Hotmail users in the interest of corporate security. (Other firms have also been cited.) But Microsoft followed its initial double-talk defense with an unambigiuous avowal that going forward it would not read user emails and instead refer matters to law enforcement when necessary. No word yet on whether Google got the message.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Google, whose top lawyer’s spying denial didn’t do the job.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Watch legalese. Google’s response here points up the dynamic tension between good lawyering and good PR. Corporate lawyers and imageminders both claim their firm’s best interests at heart. But in answering public criticism or accusations, the two sides  must work together to craft the right language. Lawyers shy away from absolute statements that might come back to haunt in litigation, while PR pros push stronger language that puts matters to rest. Each instance must be weighed on its own, keeping in mind that a non-denial denial satisfies no one.

Steamed Facebook CEO Complains to President Obama

mark zuckerberg Steamed Facebook CEO Complains to President Obama

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has had just about enough of the government meddling with his website and spying on his users. So last week he called a pal to complain – President Obama.

Zuck casually mentioned the call in a Facebook page post responding to the latest revelation from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden (via activist journalist Glenn Greenwald). The story, which the NSA flatly denies, described how government computers masqueraded as Facebook servers to send malware that infected Facebook users’ machines in order to spy on them. The automated process meant the NSA could target millions of users.

In his post, Zuckerberg said he was “confused and frustrated” by the continuing reports of  government surveillance. “When our engineers work tirelessly to improve security, we imagine we’re protecting you against criminals, not our own government,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, it seems like it will take a very long time for true full reform.”

The White House confirmed the conversation took place but offered nothing more, and nothing will really come of it. Zuck and his tech pals are in the right, of course, but powerless to do anything other than complain – loudly and visibly.

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) to Zuckerberg, who, if immobilized, at least needs to show he’s good and steamed.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Talk the walk. In this matter, there seems to be little else that Facebook and other Tech Titans can do, at least publicly. With each new damning revelation, the public trust in sites like Facebook dies a little more, and that directly and dramatically affects the bottom line. When Snowden’s leaks first hit the press, the implication was that Facebook et al were complicit in the spying. That taint has never quite dissipated from the  seemingly interminable storyline. Zuck reached out in an necessary symbolic gesture with his phone call to the President – but it probably ended with, “Thanks, Obama.”

 

 

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.

NSA’s Defense On Ally Spying: We Didn’t. But We Would

Merkel NSA 150x150 NSAs Defense On Ally Spying: We Didnt. But We Would

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (“PR Problematic”) for the NSA. (Pictured: German Chancellor Angela Merkel)

The National Security Agency (NSA) this week defended itself against explosive charges that it has spied for years on top world leaders, including US allies. The accusations, which have infuriated Europe, come courtesy of Edward Snowden, the US citizen holed up in Russia who continues to dole out incriminating and deeply embarrassing tidbits about what the US has been up to since the Cold War ended.

Appearing before the US House Intelligence Committee, the NSA’s top brass responded to the charges in a way befitting a spy shop, both denying and acknowledging the accusations. To paraphrase: No, they did not spy on France and Spain; France and Spain did that themselves, and sent the information over to the US. However, they do think spying on one’s allies is perfectly fine.

It is? Yes, according to the Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., who said snooping on other countries’ leaders has gone on for decades. “It is one of the first things I learned in intelligence school in 1963. It’s a fundamental given.”

It may be a given in spy school, but it comes as a bit of a shock to everyone else, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is livid over claims the US has been tapping her mobile phone for years. President Obama has left his intelligence chiefs to fend for themselves, intimating he was unaware of their overzealous eavesdropping.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (“PR Problematic”) for the NSA. The revelations, and embarrassment, just keep on coming.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Sometimes stating the obvious isn’t, well, so obvious. Industries besides espionage – think medicine or technology – operate in ways that aren’t easily understood or accessible by those outside. That makes PR tricky when matters spill over into the outside world. Good PRs invest time in educating journalists about their clients. Those regular lunches or “meet-and-greets” with senior personnel don’t always yield stories, but they do give reporters a basic knowledge of how companies or industries work. It works well with technical industries; perhaps “PR 101” should be added to the intelligence school’s curriculum too.

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.

Edward Snowden Keeps His PR Cool

 Edward Snowden Keeps His PR Cool

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for Edward Snowden.

He’s an international hero, a whistleblower fighting the good fight against Big Brother! He’s a villain, a spy, a traitor exposing US secrets to those who would harm the nation! Whichever you believe, apparently Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA who has been exposing intelligence gathering secrets for the US National Security Agency, isn’t embracing any role that the media, government officials, or his supporters are creating for him. “I don’t want the story to be about me,” Snowden has said. “My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”

The media frenzy about Snowden, and whether he’s good or evil, has been fueled by no shortage of people willing to pick sides. Even Snowden’s own father appeared on Fox News asking his son to stop leaking sensitive information about the government’s spying practices.

Yet, despite his nearly folkloric status, as well as the US’s embarrassment at not being able to find him, Snowden hasn’t taken any opportunity to boast to his supporters or to taunt his detractors. His contact with the media has been limited to staying on-brand with a simple message: I am not a traitor and I am not a hero.

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for Edward Snowden, holding PR steady in a media environment that wants him to take sides.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Stay true to your message. When that message is volatile, don’t get bogged down in public, or political, opinion. Ideas about what Snowden is doing vary wildly, and he’s had every opportunity to get lost in that spaghetti sauce – which would only dilute his message. By standing firm on his purpose, Snowden’s motives stay unquestioned sans vainglory.  That’s one secret definitely worth sharing.