Deconstructing Communications in a Competitive Environment
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Deconstructing Communications in a Competitive Environment

Alan Kelly's new book, The Elements of Influence, focuses on the ways in which public relations people, and others in the influence business use communications to position themselves, their products and ideas—and deposition others—in competitive markets.

Paul Holmes

Years ago, when asked to define “reputation management,” I broke it down into two components. First, I said, it was “a counseling discipline that recognizes the importance of reputation as an organizational asset, and seeks to ensure that management decisions are taken in an environment in which reputational implications are fully understood, evaluated and considered, so that an organization’s behavior earns it an appropriate reputation with important stakeholder groups.”

Second, I believed reputation management to be “a results-oriented management function that seeks to leverage reputation for competitive advantage, enlisting important stakeholder groups—including employees, consumers, communities and investors—to assist the organization in the achievement of its strategic design while seeking to minimize the resistance of those groups to legitimate management objectives.”

I reiterated that definition of reputation management in every issue of the magazine of the same title for more than five years, and discussed it with many leading practitioners. Most of them were enthusiastic about the first part of the definition; I have a friend who calls these practitioners the “priests” of our profession. Far fewer were excited about the second part of the definition; these are individuals my friend calls “warriors.”

I believe that the best public relations professionals are both warriors and priests. They provide wise counsel, hopefully reminding their CEOs that unethical or self-serving behavior destroys long-term value. But they also understand that a good reputation is not an end to itself but rather a means to an end. It is relevant only insofar as it helps the organization achieve its objectives in a competitive marketplace.

Alan Kelly, founder and former CEO of Applied Communications—a technology public relations firm that is now part of Next Fifteen’s Bite Communications—obviously understands the latter. His new book, The Elements of Influence: The New Essential System for Managing Competition, Reputation and Buzz, focuses on the ways in which public relations people, and others in the influence business (from advertisers and marketers to politicians) use communications to position themselves, their products and ideas—and deposition others—in competitive markets.

To better understand that process, Kelly focuses on various communications strategies, what he calls “plays.” He has identified 25 of them, organized them into classes, and in The Elements of Influences he analyzes how each of the plays works, when they should be used, their benefits (and possible negative consequences), the ways in which they can be identified (decoded) by both competitors and their intended target audiences, and even the appropriate plays to use in response.

In so doing, he provides the first comprehensive framework for understanding how communications works in a competitive environment, a toolkit that will be equally useful for those in the influence industry and those with an interest in deconstructing the corporate and political messages with which they are bombarded every minute of every day.

Says Kelly: “The pursuits of strategy, positioning, influence and advocacy have virtually no standard or reliable reference for plotting and planning the movements and motives of players in their marketplaces, whether of allies and rivals alike.”

The question, of course, is whether they need such a reference. Kelly himself concedes that “The Playmaker’s Standard is more a discovery of something that has always been than an invention of something that should be. I’m not suggesting that the influence industries don’t already have their math. In fact, they’re glutted with methodologies and metrics that give structure to their work.

“What I do mean to suggest is that these tools (linear planning models, field polls and focus groups, media measurement tools…) are under evolved because these don’t define the units on which campaigns are built and competitive thrusts are measured and analyzed. For all their wealth of experience and dedication to measurement, the practitioners of influence have neither a standard definition for their most basic foundational materials—strategies—nor a reliable framework that is easily understood or applied.

“As playmakers, we need a new math. And we need a discipline to nurture it.”

The best professional communicators have been doing on instinct what Kelly now suggests needs a desk reference. But that doesn’t mean that even they—and certainly the rest of us—can’t benefit from a deeper understanding of how communications works.

“It’s not that what we do is broken,” Kelly admits. “It’s just that it’s archaic. The state of our science rests on superficially described terms of art whose documentation is inconsistent and whose application is instinctive. It’s a condition that can be corrected and whose correction is long overdue….

“The sheer size of the influence industries and their obvious acceptance into business, politics and public life demand better analysis and understanding of how this all works, how brands are pumped up and deflated, how reputations are won and lost, how credibility is given and taken away, and how trust is earned and abused.

“It’s time, in other words, for our own periodic table of elements, a system that properly identifies, categorizes, and organizes the plays that form and inform the way these intangible assets are managed and influenced.”

And the need for greater understanding of how communications work goes beyond the professional community.

“Plays are everywhere,” says Kelly. “From an audacious Super Bowl TV ad to an outrageous blog posting, from a coworker’s power play to a competitor’s end run, plays are the strategies we employ to get us where we need to go, whether as a by-product of our ambitions, our sense of duty, or our sense of survival….

“You run plays. Plays are run on you. Every organization and every person runs plays to increase their relative competitive advantage in busy marketplaces. Some do it well. Some try to avoid it. Some do it directly. Some use surrogates. Some run one play at a time. Some run many simultaneously. Almost all do so on instinct and fewer yet with the support of stated objectives, policies, and augmenting research.”

A play, according to Kelly, is “a stratagem, one of a finite set of discrete strategic maneuvers a person or organization employs to improve its relative competitive advantage in a marketplace.” A Playmaker is “a strategist whose stock in trade is to call, run, decode and counter competitive moves in a marketplace.” And Playmaking is “a discipline for deploying and systematically managing plays… to continually influence, control and sustain the sentiments, discussions and decisions of a marketplace.”

“Plays can and should move a player forward, hold another in check, or both,” says Kelly. “It’s ideal, of course, to propel an entity up and away from the other guy, particularly if the plays you’re running are at allies, like employees and customers. But it’s okay, too, if progress is made by stopping or slowing the competition. And if both occur, so much the better, because a play’s central purpose is to create relative competitive advantage.”

It’s clear he anticipates a negative response from some of the more priestly practitioners of the communications arts—and that he has experienced such a response in the past, not only from PR people but also from their employers.

“In my 25 years in business, I have been consistently amazed at the number of companies that are utterly fear-struck to compete in their markets, who have no confidence they can join in the discourse of the industry, much less influence or even lead it,” says Kelly. “More than a few CEOs and other executives have told me during strategy sessions, ‘We want to rise above. We want to take the high road.’ Others have wagged their fingers, ‘We don’t bash our competitors.’ I don’t ever recall recommending that a client take the low road, or talk trash, but this is sometimes how old-school leaders respond to a call to action.”

Kelly acknowledges that a number of the play types identified in The Elements of Influence exist “to embellish, bend, spin, and even misrepresent both the factual and the subjective.” They are included, he says, “because they do exist, and this book’s first purpose is to describe what is there, not judge it.” Kelly says playmaking has much in common with ancient pursuits such as rhetoric and concedes that “it’s also not far from the troubled pastime of propaganda,” although it might be more accurate to acknowledge that the techniques of playmaking can be employed by the propagandist as easily as by a public relations professional—and that several of the play types Kelly identifies are better suited to the former than they are to the latter.

That’s because the book is a flinty-eyed look at the world as it is rather than as we might prefer it to be; Kelly is nothing if not a pragmatist. Negative campaigning is a reality not only in the political world but also increasingly in the business world, as corporations compete with one another and do battle with NGOs and other critics. 

And in reality, The Elements of Influence has the potential to empower critics of our industry, helping them to identify the plays that are being run on them by politicians or by businesses. Because while the ostensible target of a play is the playmaker’s competition, the true target is often the public. When Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched their campaign to rewrite John Kerry’s war record, there’s no doubt that the Democratic nominee was the most obvious victim, but the public—deceived by the group’s lies—was also abused.

So what happens are the public becomes more sophisticated, better able to identify the plays being run on it? To a certain extent, that’s already happening—today’s consumers are better able to deconstruct advertising than the consumers of a generation ago—but The Elements of Influence will serve to accelerate the process and perhaps provide a common language for critics of the public relations industry and its more manipulative tactics.

Kelly has organized his 25 plays into a periodic table of sorts, The Playmaker’s Table, which he says will enable playmakers answer critical questions from what are we doing and how are we doing it to what is our competition doing and how should we react to it.

The plays are divided into three classes: assess, condition, and engage. “If a marketplace is worth a player’s time and attention, there us always some mixture of assessment, conditioning or engagement to be planned and carried out, and because there is no such thing as a noncompetitive marketplace, the game is played around the clock, in real time and without breaks—always assessing, conditioning, or engaging. In other words, a playmaker’s work is never done.”

Plays in the Assess class, which Kelly defines as “subtle, typically passive monitoring and profiling of players and marketplaces) are typically less confrontational than those in the Condition class (“moderate, often indirect, encouragement or suppression of actions to influence or reform the sentiments of players and marketplaces”) while the most confrontational of all are in the Engage class (“active, usually overt, interventions that destabilize players and marketplaces, assert a player’s leadership, or invite competitive responses”).

“As you move to the right of the spectrum, from Assess to Condition to Engage, you wander closer to certain conflict,” he says. “You move from a position of silence and discretion to outright advocacy—from the flicking of a feather under a drowsy competitor’s nose… to the yanking up of its eyelids.”

But that doesn’t mean the more confrontational plays are necessarily the most risky, despite the reluctance of some business leaders—and public relations professionals—to engage in overtly confrontational tactics.

“You might be inclined to think of the left-sided plays of the Assess class as lower risk and, correspondingly, the right-sided activities in the Engage class as chancy,” says Kelly. “Experience tells me otherwise. There can be perilous consequences to the player who runs left-sided plays, like the seemingly innocuous Pause.”

He says the leadership of the former Soviet Union, for example, ran a Pause in the wake of the meltdown at Chernobyl, refusing to comment on the disaster for two days while gauging the fallout—both literal and political. One might also make a case that the leadership of the Democratic Party in the United States has been more inclined to Assess and Condition plays, while the leadership of the Republican Party—Karl Rove in particular—has been more inclined to Engage, often very aggressively. For the past decade, at least, the Republican strategy has been more successful.

Perhaps the least confrontational play of all is what Kelly calls the Pass, which is a way of disengaging from a marketplace. But the Pass “is not a playmaker’s license to run screaming, white flag waving, from a rough situation…. What we have in the Pass is a play that embodies the principle of strategic withdrawal. It’s a move that helps players make smart decisions about staying with or getting out of a marketplace… When the decision is to get out, a well-run Pass helps players pull back rationally and to consolidate and refocus resources intelligently, rather than just surrender them.”

IBM executed a Pass in late 2004, when it exited the personal computer business, selling its $9 billion a year PC division to Lenovo, China’s largest PC maker. Having decided that the PC business was not central to its strategy, IBM “used the Pass to burnish its position in its core businesses of enterprise computing, software and services—sending a powerful message to all of its stakeholders, from employees to investors.” 

As Kelly identifies each of the 25 plays, he provides a handy guide, including a definition (a Pass is “the strategic withdrawal from a marketplace or play action); upsides (conserves resources to create new competitive options, cuts your losses) and downsides (proves and improves a rival’s superiority, can unduly discredit the player, invites gloating and depositioning); the appropriate time to run the play (your strategy has changed and you need to refocus, you are about to be beaten, your position is off-strategy even if you appear to be winning); the keys to decoding the play (either it’s announced by your opponent or your rival simply disappears from view); and techniques for countering it (attack the exiting player with a Call Out, run a Peacock boasting of your superiority, run a Recast that congratulates your opponent for recognizing that the market is going in the direction you predicted or desired).

Other plays in the Assess class include the Pause (the strategic suspension of activity by a player, intended to allow the player to assess the opposition and marketplace and let playing conditions ripen); the Ping (an oblique reference or suggestion); and the Trial Balloon (the preview and testing of preliminary ideas or tentative plans).

The Condition class includes the Disco, a term Kelly borrows not from the annals of 70s music history but from forensics, the art or study of formal debate. The Dictionary Debate defines a Disco as a technique of argumentation by which competitors “drop or agree with certain arguments in a debate in order to make a case for winning the debate.”

Kelly’s definition, meanwhile, “requires a player to concede or sacrifice an element of its platform in order to preserve or advance its overall agenda or argument. The central tenet of a Disco is that forward progress cannot be achieved by the player unless or until the player first moves backward.” Discos, he says, are typically run “when something goes wrong or breaks.

“They’re run when some part of a player’s position or agenda fails to materialize or fails to operate as it should, and has to be discarded or figuratively amputated from a player’s main theme or argument.”

Perhaps the best known example of a Disco in the public relations realm is Johnson & Johnson’s response to the Tylenol crisis. After the tampering incident that killed seven of its customers, J&J accepted responsibility for a packaging design that made tampering too easy and voluntarily recalled 31million bottles of the painkiller—a move that cost the company millions of dollars in the short term but earned it the trust of consumers over the long-term.

I suspect that there are those who worked for Johnson & Johnson in the early 80s who would take offense at the suggestion that the company was running a Disco, that it was running any kind of “play,” and who would argue that the company was simply doing the right thing, in line with a company credo that emphasized its ethical responsibility to consumers.

That may be the case, but I don’t think it undermines Kelly’s argument, which is that companies run plays all the time, often without even realizing it. And putting a name to this particular play may help companies that do not have J&J’s credo to guide them to understand that sometimes they need to make a difficult decision in order to regain public trust.

“This is never a pleasant or a natural thing to do,” says Kelly. “In most marketplaces it’s simply contrary to prevailing wisdom, executive ego, the shareholder-value ethic, and often legal advice. To acknowledge a mistake or a vulnerability, after all, creates exposures and potential liabilities that most attorneys are loath to confront, whatever the merits….

“What J&J did is something few organizations ever do, but they should. A simple Disco might have saved many souls in the case of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandals. It might have salvaged the sinking fortunes of Enron and WorldCom. And it might have preserved the legacies of Martha Stewart and Bill Clinton. It’s a powerful play that preserves and even strengthens a legacy, because when it’s done fully and without equivocation it arrests a player’s slide in the court of public opinion and arguably dwarfs its penalties in a court of law.”

Discos should be run during a crisis, when the public expects an organization to take responsibility or offer an apology, when the competition or third parties can only be mollified by a sacrifice, or when an organization is clearly in the wrong. Running a Disco can turn a negative into a positive, enhance a player’s credibility, and disarm opponents. But it can convey an admission of guilt that increases a player’s exposure, and if run too often can have a cumulative negative impact on credibility.

“Two determinants to a Disco’s success are timing and intent,” Kelly says. “To be fully effective, Discos need to be run quickly, with as little time as possible separating the Disco from the matter gone wrong…. As well, Discos need to be run with full transparency. As a rule of thumb, players should endeavor to give more information than they might like or might think is appropriate…. It’s better to err on the side of over-disclosure—to show and tell everything and, even more, what you the player have done and what you’ll do about it.”

As for countering a Disco, Kelly suggests several potential plays, including a Mirror, designed to remind the public of the original mistake, or a Challenge, which may work if the Disco is either incomplete or insincere.

Other plays within the Condition class include the Deflect (an attempt to divert a rival’s attack, either to avoid or minimize its impact); the Red Herring (an action or communiqué that draws an opponent away from its preferred position or intended course of action); the Recast (the reinterpretation of an action or message so as to lend support to a player’s position or neutralize a competitor’s position); and the Jam (an attempt to disable or disorganize a rival’s activities or communication to obscure, slow, or prevent the delivery of ideas and information).

Among the Engage class of plays, meanwhile, there is the Call Out, which Kelly defines as “an overt public expression of doubt or concern, usually aimed at a competing person or organization, intended to call into question the opposition’s position of message set. Call Outs often have a tone of moral authority; they’re judgmental and direct.” A good Call Out exposes a rival’s shortcomings or misdeeds, destabilizes an opponent’s broader message platform, and pressures a rival to redirect resources to defend the play. On the downside, however, a Call Out can cast the attacking player as overzealous, cruel or even unethical, and can draw the ire of an opponent and its supporters.

“The Call Out is high risk because it has the potential to shame an opponent and spur a reaction, particularly if the blow is personal,” says Kelly. “Some plays, as in physics, often invite reactions of equal and opposite force. They are best used to start play action, not end it, and in fact enflame an issue or provoke an opponent. They are used by master strategists as opening gambits and preludes to a series of subsequent moves.”

As an example, Kelly cites a Call Out in which he was personally involved: Larry Ellison’s 1995 statement that “the PC is a ridiculous device.” (Kelly’s old firm, Applied Communications, was Oracle’s agency of record at the time.”) That play served to open up a new debate about the future of computing and to focus attention on Oracle’s concept of “network computing,” and was successful in setting the agenda for discussion if not for ultimately overthrowing the Microsoft hegemony.

Other examples include Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen’s famous response to Dan Quayle’s attempt to compare himself to John F. Kennedy (“I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”) and the “rapper wars” between 50 Cent and Ja Rule, each of whom has attempted to portray the other as lacking street credibility.

The Call Out, Kelly says, should be run when you are certain you are right and your opponent is wrong, when you need to raise the standards on a particular issue, or when you know your competitor is not up to the task and you are the right person to call him on it. But it can be countered by a Disco (a quick acknowledgement that your opponent’s argument has some truth), a Recast (to refocus on your own agenda rather than that of your competitor), or a Deflect (refusing to let the Call Out provoke a response).

Other Engage plays include the Fiat (the declaration of information or demonstration of capability to a marketplace), the Crowd (an attempt to match or adopt an opponent’s position, to affiliate with a trend, idea or issue), the Peacock (parading an unusual action or innovation to attract attention), the Draft (an attempt to feed off the energy of a developing marketplace or innovation with the intent of overtaking the incumbent leaders), and the Crazy Ivan (altering the course of an impending attack by inviting or even initiating the attack).

Kelly’s explanation and analysis of The Playmakers’ Table accounts for more than 230 pages of this 300-page book, and it provides a thorough and fascinating explanation of the building blocks of playmaking. But it leaves precious little room for an explanation of the process by which the right plays are selected for the right situation.

This is obviously a complex subject—plays have to fit not only the circumstance but also the character of the player (consensus-oriented or confrontational, risk-averse or bold) and any given situation presents numerous options.

For example, Kelly scrutinizes the different plays run by current and former Major League Baseball players called to testify before the House government reform committee’s hearings on the use of steroids in the sport. Jose Canseco ran a Peacock, boasting that steroids in baseball were “as acceptable in the 80s and mid-to-late 90s as a cup of coffee.” Sammy Sosa ran a Filter, acknowledging that steroids were bad without admitting or denying his personal use. Rafael Palmeiro ran a Fiat, a complete denial (which later turned out to be a complete lie). Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling ran a Bear Hug, telling the committee: “I think the fear of public embarrassment and humiliation upon being caught is going to be greater than any player ever imagined.” And home run king Mark McGwire ran a Deflect, telling the committee that “my lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family and myself.”

So while the playmaker’s process is “structurally quite simple,” as Kelly says, it is by no means easy to execute, and in some ways the dozen or so pages he devotes to process in The Elements of Influence feel like a précis, a beginner’s guide—and perhaps the outline for a sequel that examines the topic at greater length.

There are, Kelly says, five steps to the playmaking process.

The first is what he calls Fit and Friction. “Since the goal of playmaking is to achieve relative competitive advantage, then no play can usefully be run without attaching itself to a feature, benefit, idea, issue or analogy that is distinctly embraceable, debatable or both,” Kelly says. “Competitive advantage, after all, is the by-product of distinction, so shrewd playmakers look for things that fit with the sensibilities of other players, things that resonate… things that are arguably good.

“They also look for ideas that have friction, that are dissonant with prevailing values, policies, events or other trends… things that go against the grain of someone or some organization, things that are arguably not good…. If there’s an object lesson for playmakers, it’s this: you can’t move a marketplace if you don’t stand for something.”

Public relations professionals concerned that Kelly’s system imposes too much rigor and discipline on what is still a creative business, a business dependent on insight and judgment, should take heart at this. The playmaking approach provides a framework through which big ideas can be presented, but it does nothing to diminish the role of big ideas. Indeed, many of the bolder approaches Kelly outlines can only be effective if the strategic insight that propels them is both authentic and powerful.

The second step is calling the play. “Plays can be called and run in the blink of an eye,” Kelly says, “so to suggest that playmakers choose their plays with forethought might seem far-fetched.” It is doubtful, for example, that Lloyd Bentsen consciously flipped through all the available options before deciding to run a Call Out on Dan Quayle. “But this is not to say that the moves of Lloyd Bentsen or any other fast-thinking playmaker can’t be broken down or, when time allows, rationally and even meticulously planned out.”

Again, the selection of the right play is more art than science. It will draw upon the playmaker’s knowledge not only of playmaking, but of the market in which he or she operates, including the competitive set, and understanding of the audience he or she hopes to influence. It will require experience and judgment. (Although Kelly believes that with sufficient study, it ought to be possible to identify the most effective plays in a given situation.)

The next step is to run the play. Having “presumably found sources of fit and/or friction, having identified what it believes are appropriate and powerful plays,” the player needs to target the play, aiming at specific stakeholders or segments of the market; select the most appropriate medium and delivery vehicle (perhaps using a partner or surrogate or third-party influencer to deliver the message); and finally ensure the timing of the play is correct.

Next comes a Pause, during which the player must ask him or herself several questions: Is the play working? Is it creating any unforeseen consequences? How are stakeholders—including allies and opponents—responding? Does the play need more time to unfold before we run another? The answers to that question will help drive the final step, which is to either press ahead with the original play or change strategies.

There are other, minor, quibbles with the book. Some observers will have difficulty with the imprecision of some of these terms: is there really a major difference, for example, between a Ping (“an oblique reference or suggestion”) and a Trial Balloon (“the preview and testing of preliminary ideas or tentative plans”)? Or between a Bait (“the overt provocation of an opponent, usually intended to draw an emotional rather than rational response”) and a Call Out?

Indeed, Kelly acknowledges as much when he discusses the Pepsi Challenge, which he sees as a Call Out, because the company’s central strategy was “to document, expose and drive the fact that more cola drinkers preferred Pepsi over Coke.” But that play also resembled a Bait or, obviously, a Challenge.

And is the Leak (“the selective disclosure by a player of normally privileged or confidential information) really a type of play, or is it just an alternative vehicle for making a play? A player can, presumably, use a Leak to float a Trial Balloon or to issue a Call Out, just as he or she could use a press conference or a news release to do the same thing.

But The Elements of Style will be a valuable addition to the library of anyone engaged in advocacy. It will provide younger professionals with a framework for deciding how to introduce new ideas to the marketplace and to respond to the ideas introduced by their competitors, and even older and more experienced practitioners are likely to find that the playmaking approach clarifies their understanding of the communications process.

Finally, for those who wish to better understand and deconstruct the spin, manipulation and deceit with which they are confronted daily, The Elements of Influence will be invaluable.

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