Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Online privacy

A few weeks ago in class, we saw an episode in the BBC series "The Virtual Revolution". The episode was called "The Cost of Free" and was about how most people didn't realize how much of our online activity that is being watched, made a record of and used for commercial purposes.

As some of the kids interviewed in the programme said: "We use the search engines and social media for free and in return they get to send us tailored ads on Facebook and the like. We think that's a fair deal". I must say I'm with the kids on this one. I'm just not frightened by the fact that Facebook somehow can detect that I’m searching for a deal on holiday houses in Tuscany, and uses this information to put ads for villas in Florence in the Facebook sidebar.

People who do get worried point to the fact that this means there’s a huge amount of data stored about my internet use somewhere, and that this could be misused if it fell into the wrong hands. And this is true. I’m sure there would be embarrassing bits if someone managed to make my entire Google search history public. For some, it could even be dangerous.

There are two main reasons I don’t worry. If some unsavoury character should somehow get hold of all this information, my internet history would be one among billions. Why would they worry about little old me? I’m surely not that interesting. Someone will probably be run over by a car somewhere in the world in the next hour, but I don’t spend time worrying if that will be me either.

Some people get very upset with all the CCTV cameras there are in the public space these days, feeling that it’s an invasion of privacy to be filmed wherever you go. I feel safer with all the cameras. If someone were to kidnap me, those cameras could help the police track down the culprit! (At least that’s how it works on TV).

The other reason is that there are other databases with far more sensitive information about me that already exists. There’s information stored about me somewhere detailing my hospital records, my personal economy (in Norway all tax records are made public), where I travel, what I spend my money on, who I vote for and criminal records for some people. Even if I never even went online, these things will be stored about me, and I don’t really worry about that either. Possibly because I don’t really feel I have that much to hide.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Obama code – not suitable for everyone

Barak Obama’s 2008 election campaign has among other things been hailed for its innovative use of social media and online technology. Especially voters aged 18-29 can be hard to reach with your message, as they may not read traditional media, or watch political broadcasts on TV. So Obama took his message to them, to where they were, to the internet.
Through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and his webpage he was looking like the first two-way presidential candidate and he managed to excite and engage people with his messages of change. The result was a whopping 65% election participation, the highest turnout since the election in 1908, and a comfortable win to Mr Obama himself.
Was this all due to getting his campaign online? Of course not. In politics, as in real life, if you’re going to convince anyone of anything you have to be believable and credible. You have to have a message that resonates with the people you need to convince, and you actually have to be yourself.
When David Cameron tried to copy the success through his YouTube channel “WebCameron”, it failed dramatically. Trying to prove he was a “regular guy” just busy with his kids and the dishes like every other father, just didn’t ring true. The obviously staged clip (if communicating with the British people was so important, why not do it in his office, or somewhere else where he wouldn’t be occupied with his kids and the household chores) just annoyed voters as it seemed dishonest and fake, and at complete odds with his posh image.
See WebCameron here:

The point is, social media no magic potion in politics either. It’s just another platform to reach people who may have been hard to reach before. The rules are still the same: You still have to have an appropriate, engaging message, credibility and trust. It's about being genuine.

I follow Norway's Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, on Twitter. He states on his page that most of the tweets are written by him personally, and the rest are dictated by him but written by his assistants (who he names). He tweets about politics, his party and his opinions and the odd personal tweet about the Norwegian football team or the nice weather we're having. In short it seems like genuine stuff, and he also occasionally engages in conversation with other twitter members.

Jens Stoltenberg is a popular politician in Norway. He has
also succeeded in building a reputation as a "normal guy".
Photo: Erik F. Brandsborg, Aktiv I

I know his presence on twitter is a carefully thought through PR strategy, but I'm still falling for it. I still feel that I know him better now, and that, if I should so desire, telling him how I feel about something is only a tweet away. It's a transparency that invokes trust.

However, should I one day find out that Stoltenberg hasn't tweeted a single thing himself, that whole trust disappears and I will feel cheated. So unless you can be yourself, be genuine and be transparent as a politician, you should probably not try to conquer the social media scene. Voters are not stupid, and cheating is not accepted.
Sources: PR Media Blog and Brian Solis.

Should CSR be the job of PR practitioners?

As corporate social responsibility is becoming more common and more important, is seems important to consider the logistics of the increasing significance of ethics in business. So far the responsibility of CSR have been largely placed with the public relations departments, but is this really the best solution?
Simon Goldsworthy (Senior lecturer in PR at Westminster University) doesn’t think so. In a chapter entitled “PR ethics: forever a will o' the wisp” in the book “Communication Ethics Now” he argues that PR practitioners are no more qualified to act as ethical councillors than other members of the organisation. He suggests this notion has come about due to the apparent large amount of “socialists” in the PR industry, who wishes to bring about a new dawn for more ethical business, and therefore takes the responsibility upon themselves.
Other PR ethicists, like Kathy Fitzpatrick and Phil Seib, points to PR practitioners duty to society as a reason why it’s natural for them to be involved in CSR. They thereby place PR as the social conscience of the organisation linking good, ethical behaviour with a good reputation.
Personally, I side most with the latter argument. While all PR practitioners might not be educated particularly on the subject of ethics any more than CEOs, HR or whoever else could be in charge of CSR, there are good reasons why they should be. There is an undeniable link between good behaviour and a good reputation. What constitutes “good behaviour” changes over time. While it not many years ago might have been enough to ensure financial gains, these days most of an organisation’s publics also crave ethical behaviour on one level or another. It seems to me that public relations practitioners, who are dealing with these publics, are well placed to be involved with CSR.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Nonviolent action? Let me count the ways...

Nonviolent action has been the tools of NGOs, freedom fighters and individuals seeking political and social change without bloodshed for centuries. Advocates of nonviolent resistance include Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, and modern examples are for instance the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the "velvet revolution" in Iran and the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
The last examples have by many been attributed to the writings of the American Harvard Professor and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Gene Sharp who in 1973 published the hugely influential book “The Politics of Nonviolent Action”. His idea is that no ruler can rule a people who refuse to obey, that any ruler is only as strong as his subjects’ obedience to his orders. Ultimately the power of any state derives from the subjects of the state.
Gene Sharp
Included in this work, and in his consequent publications (including the widely distributed and translated work “From Dictatorship to Democracy”, the “guidebook” to nonviolent revolution) is a list of 198 different methods of nonviolent action, ranging from the use of colours to the importance of public assemblies (like the orange in Ukraine and the Tahrir Square in Cairo).
As the list was written back in the 70s, naturally it does not take into account new inventions and developments like the internet and social media, which turned out to be an important part in uprisings such as the one in Egypt). It would be really interesting, especially to those working in NGO PR, to see what tactics could be added to the already extensive list of tools, whether you’re trying to topple a dictator or fight things like racism or social inequality on a smaller scale.
Any suggestions on what should go on such a list?

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Has PR and spin undermined trust in politics? To a certain degree.

The original motion at the Westminster University debate was:  “PR and spin have undermined trust in politics”, and it is a complicated matter. It would have been much easier had the motion been “PR and spin is the only reason why people have no trust in politics” or “PR and spin had no part in undermining trust in politics” (the answer would be “no” in both instances).
Personally I think that PR and spin has some responsibility for the trust deficit, but that politicians and the media also has played their part. What can be done about it?
Knowledge is power. Too much power
First of all, the system under Blair with Campbell as the autocratic ruler of all information was bound to be bad both for trust, for transparency and for democracy. In most democratic systems of governance, power is divided (between executive, legislature, and judiciary branches) to prevent anyone getting too powerful and thus threaten the democratic process.
A free and independent press is also crucial to a democracy, and “rewarding” “obedient” journalist or “punishing” journalists who dare to write things you don’t like, is a very slippery slope towards corruption. And if there is anything that corrodes trust, it’s corruption.
Together we stand, divided we fall
But here journalists and editors also have a role to play. Playing along with this game is completely self-destructive for a so-called free and independent press. I totally understand that being the only one who says no will be catastrophic for that newspaper, being the only one not getting the juicy news.

And I also get (and have witnessed first-hand) that there is so little money in newsrooms these days. Journalists are under a colossal pressure to produce sensational news, without being given the time or resources to do their job properly. To also go up against powerful government aids, might be a little too much to ask for.
But seriously, there is going to have to be a change in culture, and the media will have to put their foot down to such un-democratic tendencies. THAT is their job.
And it’s PRs job, as an ethical profession to make sure such practices are not being used, no matter how tempting.
Politicians need to get their act together
And lastly, if the main problem is a lack of trust in politicians (rather than politics, which is the system, rather than the people), then of course the politicians themselves bears the biggest responsibility to act trustworthy. As an elected represent of the people it is your duty to them to be intensely ethical, transparent and above board with everything. All the PR and the media coverage in the world can’t make or break you as good as you can yourself.
After the whole debate I ended up (as one of few) voting for the motion. I think PR and spin has at least played a part in the break-down of trust. I was appalled by the stories of the spin doctors’ behaviour, and the lack of backbone in the media. But in the end, if the politicians want to be trusted, then they had better start to act the part.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Has PR and spin undermined trust in politics? NO!

Yesterday we looked at the arguments for why PR and spin should take the blame for the lack of trust in politics, today we'll here some opposing views. Francis Ingham and Lance Price were on the panel athe the Westminster University deabte speaking in defence of PR, and here is what they had to say:
Francis Ingham agreed that spin has played a part in the loss of trust in politics, and then especially the excessive control practised by Alastair Campbell. He also agreed the PR gimmicks and obvious lies make politicians less trustworthy, as the public sees right through it.
He however refused to accept that PR was the singular or even main culprit, and pointed to the politicians themselves and the media as other possible offenders.
He pointed to the expense scandal, tory MPs preaching about family values only to be exposed as cheaters, and the hiring of Russian beauties (who turn out to be spies) as examples of how MP behaviour undermines trust, entirely without the help of spin doctors.
The media crisis
An increasingly sensationalist media also has to take part of the blame, he said. Political journalists have gone from reporting without question what politicians say, to now assume that everything that comes out of their mouths is a lie.
24-hour news and the incessant need for new angles and stories coupled with vicious cuts in news teams, demands sensational and dramatic stories.
A politician having a re-think about a decision becomes “an embarrassing U-turn”, and not only in the tabloids. Ingham concluded that while PR does play a part, it is a junior part compared to the other two culprits.
Spin is nothing new
Lance Price then claimed that professional political communication is actually good for politics, and indeed increases democracy. He pointed out that 20-30 years ago only the Tory party were using all the classical spinning techniques, and that Thatcher managed to convince voters that there was no real alternative to a Tory government. He felt that since only one side used spin, democracy suffered.
His other argument was that spin doctors are only as good as the politicians they work for. The only reason they could help get Blair into power was that he was already popular, and no amount of spin seemed to be able to save Gordon Brown.
He was also of the opinion that the politicians did a fine job of eroding trust themselves, with the help of a witch-hunting media. He said: “trust in politics is lost when politicians say one thing and do the oposit” and mentioned examples like the changing stances on tuition fees, forests and the importance of libraries.
Tomorrow I will look at both sides and analyse what we can learn from this debate.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Have PR and spin undermined trust in politics? YES!

You often hear that political ‘spin doctors’ are to blame for the lack of public trust British politicians are experiencing these days.  PR practitioners claim that it’s the journalists who are doing the spinning, and that the British press is the cause of politicians being so untrusted.

Interesting debate
I attended a debate at Westminster University a few weeks ago where the motion: “PR and spin have undermined trust in politics” was put forward. On the panel we found Kevin Maguire (political editor of the Daily Mail) and Sheila Gunn (formerly political journalist and John Major’s press spokesperson) for the motion and Lance Price (Former Labour spin doctor) and Francis Ingham (Chief Executive PRCA) against the motion. It was a really interesting debate and I found myself being swayed each time a new person presented their views.
I will today sum up the arguments for the motion, and tomorrow I will look at the arguments against it.

Abuse of power
Sheila Gunn told us about her experiences with Alastair Campbell during the Blair years. She told of how he had gotten himself in a position where he had full and absolute control of all information, and how he was not afraid to use this power to his advantage.
If journalists displeased him, he would refuse to talk to them again, and keep them from getting important info other, less upsetting journalists would get. If he was happy with you, he would drip feed you good stories.
Her point was that an all-powerful spin doctor is not healthy for democracy and that when good headlines becomes more important than running the country, a lack of trust will surely follow.

Personal experience
Kevin Maguire also blamed PR, saying that it’s the spin doctors that has to step up and take their part of the responsibility. And with a fine selection of anecdotes from his experiences with both Campbell and David Cameron when he used to work in PR, he made a very good case for the motion.
So spin doctors’ abuse of power and letting headlines become more important than politics are good reasons for why PR is guilty for the lack of trust in politics, but there are also very good reasons why they should not take all the blame. Find out tomorrow!