Revelations of the US government's PRISM data surveillance programme have raised profound PR issues for various players affected by the unfolding saga, including government bodies, technology companies, Booz Allen Hamilton and whistleblower Edward Snowden himself.
In the following article, the Holmes Report calls on a number of comms specialists to explore how different parties should respond to the specific PR issues that they now face.
The NSA: 'Face it head on'
By John Davies, founder and CEO, Davies Public Affairs
Since it’s the NSA, why should I have to tell them how to manage perceptions concerning the leak? If PRISM is as vast as stated, they should already know what I would recommend. They would know because the advice is the same as to any of our clients:
Be ready. It’s coming. (Obviously too late for the NSA) Assume it’s going to get out. Have a plan and messages prepared and defend it publicly, or don't do it at all. America doesn't do secret government.
Understand what issue you are managing. No one under 35 is shocked or concerned that every digital thing they do is being collected – they’re outraged by the lies and cover-up. Anyone over 50 doesn’t trust the government and are outraged – they must learn why it’s being done and will cool down. While the collection is not a surprise or as big of a concern, the security and use of the data is a great concern. Address the real issue.
Have a defendable message. What’s your story? (One true story.) The NSA said it’s no big deal, everyone knew they were “facilitating a statutorily authorized collection.” Then said the leaks, "affects the safety and security of this country." So which is it? The duplicity triggers a tipping point of credibility.
Invite media in the front door or they will enter every other door. You know it’s not going away – face it head on.
If there is more bad news, get it all at once. A daily drip of bad news (think IRS) only breeds mistrust.
Get third parties to carry your POV. Others need to say PRISM is important. Legal experts need to say it’s what the Patriot Act called for.
Keep communicating until everyone is bored. Trying to avoid a few news cycles hoping the attention deficit public moves on will not work for this. This is going to be around, so keep defining the debate.
Tech companies: 'Big Data has rendered anonymity obsolete'
By Brian T. Regan, SVP & GM NY, Access Communications
First, we need to begin by accepting the premise that big data has rendered anonymity obsolete. Technology companies understand this and I would argue accept the Faustian nature of the bargains they make with the NSA in order to continue their pursuit of using big data and personal information to create the products that will increasingly predict our needs, store our memories, and improve our lives - they want little regulatory and policy interference from Uncle Sam and of course it's those kinds of innovations that make people throughout Washington drool in anticipation, as well.
Now, I didn't envy my colleagues this week who are with the tech companies involved in the NSA's PRISM project. As the PR guy, you always want to have all the answers in advance, but the fewer people inside a Google who have top level security clearance the better - it makes plausible deniability much easier when you can send your senior press representative to the podium and have him or her ape Sergeant Schultz from Hogan's Heroes: "I know nothing!"
But this story does has multiple levels of concern to those of us who work with technology companies. It presents at first blush a prickly moral dilemma depending on your individual stance on privacy and your beliefs on the extent to which the Government should have access to all this information in the name of national security and protection of its people. We as corporate communications professionals must forcefully defend and validate our clients' or employers' right to use people's digital footprints to market us a better pair of shoes or a sushi dinner close to our hotel...should we not also defend Uncle Sam's intrusion if it helps to put the hammer down on a guy intent on loading his underwear with C4 before boarding the 7 local in Manhattan?
We are living in a time when we are seeing people's lives - our lives - played out at a level of data. It requires of us in technology that we take a pragmatic, modern view of how much we reveal - knowingly and unknowingly - in exchange for staying connected. Despite one's political affiliation maybe a little erosion in civil liberties is the price we pay for increased protection from terror no longer restricted to battlefields.
Booz Allen Hamilton: 'It's a good time to go dark'
By Lou Hoffman, CEO, The Hoffman Agency
No doubt, the cliché "between a rock and hard place" has been uttered a time or two within the Booz Allen corridors the past few days. Becoming the poster child for spying on Americans doesn't exactly enhance the brand. On the other hand, A huge percent of those billions in revenue comes from Federal agencies. Without the US government, there is no Booz Allen.
With that as the backdrop, how should Booz Allen communications respond to the PRISM debacle?
A simple acknowledgement of the issue would make a good starting point. I recognize there's enormous complexity and sensitivity around the leaks on the US surveillance program. Still, there's logic in the Booz Allen CEO stepping forward with a letter that acknowledges the issue, reminds people there are American lives at stake and explains the interests of the country are best served by the company working through proper channels with Federal authorities. This should be highlighted on the company's home page with a hyperlink to the letter.
Two, Booz Allen PR needs to be in lockstep with their federal counterparts. The communications strategy should reflect the needs of both organizations, recognizing there's no magic wand to make this one go away.
I also think Booz Allen should apply some communications sense to this unique window. For example, every time it distributes a news announcement it provides another opportunity for the media to rehash its role in the perceived mismanagement of intelligence. Aside for must-have announcements like quarterly earnings, it's a good time to go dark. And someone should be scrubbing the company’s home page, perhaps shelving promotional copy like what falls under the headline "Turning Big Data into Big Insights."
It's revealing to look at a passage from the last Booz Allen annual report:
"In all walks of life, our most trusted colleagues and friends have this in common: We can count on them. No matter what the situation or challenge, they will be there for us. Booz Allen Hamilton is trusted in that way. You can count on us."
In these words lies the primary goal for Booz Allen communications-- To retain the trust it's cultivated with US government. And hopefully get through this "ordeal" in one piece.
Privacy groups: 'Separate the facts from the hyperbole'
By Judy Brennan, EVP, Ogilvy PR
If there was ever a lightning rod issue for protecting civil liberties, the outing of the NSA’s PRISM program last week is certainly it. The firestorm of outrage and debate and the confusion around what’s going on and what’s at stake reach a new fever pitch daily.
As such, privacy groups are well positioned to help drive and shape this raging debate. The solidarity these groups have shown in these early days will be key as the battle wears on. They must coordinate closely to mount a finely tuned campaign that will first separate the facts from the hyperbole and then bring opposing factions together to find a solution that strikes a balance between protecting Americans’ privacy and protecting our country’s national security.
Using digital solutions to attack a digital problem will strengthen the campaign muscle of political advocacy groups overall. One initiative breaking new ground in the PRISM debate is Stop Watching Us. This coalition of privacy organizations launched a digital-based grassroots advocacy campaign calling for greater privacy protections for government electronic surveillance programs. The campaign is gaining traction quickly, gathering over 160,000 electronic signatures in a matter of days to support its petition and Open Letter calling on Congress to enact reforms, establish investigation committees, and hold accountable public officials who are culpable.
A campaign employing a full range of tactics ranging from lobbying and Congressional hearings to traditional grass roots and media outreach is important. But combining them with a robust digital platform will win the day.
Eric Snowden: 'He will never recover his reputation'
By Sam Singer, president of Singer Associates
It’s never a good thing when headlines ask the question “Traitor or Hero?” Assuredly, the very question itself leads most to the conclusion that even if Edward Snowden may have intended to raise a public debate over top-secret leaks about U.S. surveillance programs he is mostly a traitor. From a public relations perspective, Snowden is off to such a bad start that he will most likely never recover his reputation and accomplish what he allegedly sought to do, which was to create a public debate over government surveillance.
He has two big challenges that will almost be insurmountable to overcome at this point. The first is his credibility and the second is the fact that he fled after the ‘crime.’ It will be hard for any public relations strategist to position Snowden as a positive role model. Look at former military intelligence analyst Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, the founder of the anti-secrecy web site WikiLeaks. They are emblematic of what will happen to Snowden. Essentially, the only people that will side with him are the progressive left and the ACLU. The vast majority of people, middle-America as the news commentators like to say, will never side with someone who betrays national security. Even fewer will find comfort that a man who says he wanted to start a discussion fled the scene to avoid it, anticipating the backlash. No one likes a cowardly leaker, even less so one that flees the country.
There may be more mock horror than real concern over government surveillance both by the media and with the public. If everyone was so deeply concerned, no one would be using social media, Facebook, Google or the internet, all of which are, unfortunately, as equally intrusive as the allegations and leaks put forward by Snowden. He is toast.
Marketers: 'We need to be working now to develop our own moral and ethical constructs'
By Mark Stouse, VP of Global Connect at BMC
There’s an old dictum in psychology that today’s abused become tomorrow’s abusers. In a strange sort of way, I find this increasingly relevant in B2B marketing and communications circles when it comes to the rapid advances in marketing automation and analytics. These technology advances have handed our profession untold power and insight after years of struggle for significance, investment and the proverbial seat at the table. If we're not careful, we'll also find the seeds of future scandal and discredit there as well.
As someone who has built a career in technology, I’m obviously a huge fan. I’m an early-early adopter, something my wife often notes with a small sigh. A key learning from my experience and from history is that most technology is amoral – it can be used for good, or it can be used for other purposes. Building the right fences around its use entails a deep understanding of the intersection between what it actually can do and where human beings are likely to be tempted to go too far.
The fact is that most marketers and communicators do not understand the power they hold in their hands today – though many believe that they do. The siren song of control, precision and influence is very, very seductive. But like Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues at Los Alamos, we need to be working NOW to develop our own moral and ethical construct for this new-found power.
History is a great teacher and a fearsome judge. Let’s apply her lessons quickly and avoid the draconian regulatory response that is likely to follow when one of our more exuberant colleagues goes way too far one day. PRISM is just the latest in a series of big flashing yellow lights for our profession. These lights aren’t signaling us to stop, but they are warning us to be very, very careful.