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.

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.

Tech Titans Flex Anti-Surveillance Muscle With… a Website?

SurvReform Tech Titans Flex Anti Surveillance Muscle With... a Website?

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Big Tech’s anti-snooping website.

The tech sector’s biggest names – Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others – have taken a hit this year for their complicity with government surveillance programs. With each new creepy disclosure on the depth and scope of the spying, the tech firms have found more courage to fight back  for the freedom of the Internet and the privacy rights of their users. Hence this week we have their boldest move to date…um, a new website?

Well, a feckless-looking Silicon Valley had to do something. Eight firms with a combined value of $1.4 trillion have signed on to an effort to reform “global” government surveillance – though clearly the main bogey is the US. Taking the time-honored but largely symbolic tack of an “open letter to Washington,” the tech firms cite the “urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide” and implore the US to take the lead. “For our part, we are focused on keeping users’ data secure,” they add. Not to mention their business models.

What’s missing? How about telecom companies, network equipment makers, financial interests like credit card companies? Again, it’s a start. As a skeptic notes, the effort is driven more by economic than good-government interest, as the firms continue to face backlash for cooperating with the surveillance effort in the first place.

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for the tech sector backers of surveillance reform.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Give your cause higher purpose. You’ll win more friends, allies and better headlines. The Tech sector backers of the surveillance reform effort have a clear economic interest in protecting their users from prying government eyes. But “Don’t spy on our users – we might lose money” is hardly a rallying cry. Silicon Valley is imbued with a libertarian spirit that abhors government intrusion, if not always for the noblest reasons. Whether the website is just a PR move, or a lead-in to real political action backed by the sector’s considerable economic might, will be monitored closely. And not just by government snoops.

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.

What’s the PR Verdict on the Latest Chess Move by Murdoch?

murdoch and the sun Whats the PR Verdict on the Latest Chess Move by Murdoch?

The PR Verdict: "B" for a chess move designed to startle.

Rupert Murdoch’s announcement that he will begin publishing the Sun on Sunday has surprised followers of the phone-hacking scandal.  In one move, Murdoch has managed to change the conversation from criminal charges and ongoing arrests, to one about a new newspaper, and fresh jobs for journalists. The 81 year old has moved quickly and as a game changer this is perfect.

Though unanswered questions will continue to plague Murdoch’s empire, the company now has a definitive reason to start talking about its future without having to answer questions solely about the past.  By creating a new newspaper, News International can confidently reply:  That Was Then –  This Is Now.

The PR Verdict: “B” for a chess move designed to startle.  The new story about News International will be the Sun on Sunday’s actual content and business performance.

If News International really wants to put the past behind it, the first issue of the Sun on Sunday should carry a pledge from management and journalists making a clear break with the past, outlining core values and making a public promise of integrity to its readers.  It might just be the definitive line-in-the-sand the public has been waiting for. After that, the editors will need to work out just what type of paper they can create when they are not putting celebrities under surveillance or hacking phones for gossip.

Will the Sun on Sunday be that different from News of the World?  Let us know.