Net Neutrality Unplugged

Posted on September 30, 2010 by Comments Off

This week, National Journal leaked Rep. Henry Waxman’s (D-CA) anticipated draft net neutrality legislation, which seeks to reach a compromise between net neutrality hardliners and industry supporters. The bill, which reads very similar to a plan put forward by Google and Verizon a few weeks ago, would still implement many of the net neutrality principles championed by the FCC, albeit with some caveats:

Now, the debate on why business should oppose net neutrality or why network neutrality is good for business is a long and complicated narrative that I’m not going to touch upon, but talking points aside, where, how and why did all of this net neutrality mess begin? What is this argument all about?

In 2004, then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell developed four governing principles to guide the FCC’s role in maintaining an open and free Internet:

  1. Freedom to access content — Consumers should have access to their choice of legal content.
  2. Freedom to use applications — Consumers should be able to run applications of their choice.
  3. Freedom to attach personal devices — Consumers should be permitted to attach any devices they choose to the connection in their homes.
  4. Freedom to obtain service plan information — Consumers should receive meaningful information regarding their service plans.

Thus, the net neutrality debate in the U.S. began. Last year, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski introduced another two principles as part of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan last year:

  1. Non-discrimination — Broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications.
  2. Transparency — Providers of broadband Internet access must be transparent about their network management practices.

Given that Congress is so close to its November election recess, it looks like the window is rapidly closing for any sort of action on net neutrality. Will Waxman fast-track his bill through the House and gain some Republican support? Better yet, will it even matter if Waxman’s bill passes through the House at the last second, given that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) took control of the Senate and vowed to stop all legislation not on his desk by Tuesday? We’ll know soon enough, hopefully.

Image Protection: The #Provincetown Condom Conundrum

Posted on June 29, 2010 by Comments Off

As a child in Massachusetts, I would long for the dog days of summer when my family and I would pack up the car and drive down to the Cape for a few weeks. And it’s pretty much an unwritten rule that every Cape Codder must make a day trip to our beach Mecca — Provincetown — at LEAST once a year. Our beloved and liberal “P-town” has everything an oceanside community should command: stunning beaches, killer shopping, cute little cafes and bistros, and, of course, the proud GLBT community for which you would have to be absolutely crazy to miss the joy of the daily Main Street parade.

But now P-town finds itself in a legal squall over its typically calm waters.

On Thursday, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick urged Provincetown school district to revise its policy allowing students as young as in elementary schools to get condoms if they are believed to be sexually active. The policy — unanimously passed on June 10 by the school committee — has no minimum age on supplying condoms to students. It allows nurses to give condoms to students they think are sexually active after counseling and education without informing their parents. It is due to go into effect in the fall, but the committee plans to re-examine its wording amid the concerns.

There are endless moral edges to examine in this conundrum, but I will focus on a few core communications issues:

  • Issue to Crisis. Sex Ed is a long-standing issue in public schools. As sensitive an issue as prayer in schools (recall the Reagan years), each decade has brought new thinking and acceptance to educating our children about their bodies on the taxpayers’ dime. The distribution of condoms through the nurse’s office is not new; however, the element of young age has sparked this round of controversy. The key to getting ahead of a crisis is to manage the issue before it becomes a crisis. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall during the school district’s debate to develop, draft and pass this policy. Perhaps this small community, which is seemingly at the edge of the Atlantic, thought it would continue to be isolated in the Internet Age.
  • Audience. This is an issue with a far-reaching constituency. The students, parents, teachers, nursing staff, local, state, and national government officials, and the general public all have a stake in the future of our children. No one wants anything negative to happen to our future, but there is obvious disagreement about how to manage their education and who is ultimately responsible. This again questions whether the government (teachers) or the parents are in charge of developing our young people. What got parents’ goats is that under the policy they will not be notified if their children participates in the program. This raises huge issues about the rights of minors versus the rights and duties of parents to be their protective guardians. Not to mention the criminal laws regulating the sexual behavior of children under the age of 16.
  • Spokesperson. Policy author and Provincetown school district superintendent Beth Singer is the person on the hot seat for this issue. She has conducted a few broadcast interviews and has been quoted in the Boston and Cape Cod daily newspapers. In addition to coming under fire for the policy itself, she is receiving criticism for being somewhat casual and cavalier about the issue. It’s difficult to tell if she’s not taking the crisis seriously, thinking it’s easily remedied with an amended policy or staying in a typical mode of kick-back-take-it-easy-I’m-on-the-Cape attitude. Whatever the case, Singer will need to prepare for round two of inquiry when the policy is revised and passed again. School may be out for the summer, but she could be sweating it out.
  • Impact. The real effect is on the students and the town itself. I was curious to know what young children thought, and I caught some “kids on the street” video and was surprised to see that children were mostly negative on the policy, calling the policy “disgusting” and “gross.” I guess if you want to know where kids stand on the issue, just ask one! In the interest of protecting abused children that desperately need help from public agencies, the Provincetown school district should make clear how and where children can receive the 24-hour help they need. Lastly, P-town is legendary for its liberal attitude around sexuality. And Massachusetts is known for passing groundbreaking legislation that other states tend to adopt.  Creating a brouhaha around condom distribution in Provincetown public schools simply creates more focus on a reputation that doesn’t need to be put under a microscope.

As we all ponder the difficult moral aspects of this situation, a few words of wisdom…

How you SHOULD be spending your summer in P-town if you’re a first grader at Veterans Memorial Elementary School:

  • Building sandcastles supported by seaweed
  • Taking swimming lessons
  • Wearing your flip-flops or going barefoot on the hot sand
  • Climbing Pilgrim Monument
  • Going sailing with your parents
  • Driving your brother or sister insane
  • Eating as many stuffed quahogs as possible
  • Practicing how to spell and write your name
  • Remembering to wear sunblock
  • Breaking your cheap sunglasses
  • Riding your banana-seat bike with an American flag bell and a woven flower basket

There Are No “Do-Overs” With the Media. #McChrystal is latest reminder

Posted on June 24, 2010 by 7 Comments

I can’t count the number of times I have counseled colleagues and clients over the years that there really is no such thing as “off the record.” It is best to assume that everything you say can and will be used against you.

History is brimmed with examples of private or off-the-record comments that have ended up in the headlines. There are some classics, such as the time former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s mother Kathleen (thinking the comment was off the record despite the rolling cameras) whispered to Connie Chung on national television that she can’t say what her son thinks of Hillary Clinton, “…but it rhymes with witch.”

Or more recently when L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt was slammed for alleged tax evasion in France after secret recordings made by her butler found their way into the press. (The butler did it.)

Even more dumbfounding, is when someone makes reproachable or down-right stupid comments on the record.

Helen Thomas managed to end a legendary career as a journalist by making anti-Semitic comments to a rabbi at a Jewish-American Heritage Month celebration.

Brooklyn Dodgers great Al Campanis talked himself out of Major League Baseball when he offered his personal thoughts on why there are not more African American managers in baseball. Nightline with Ted Koppel is not the best place to launch into your personal view on anything, let alone race.

And now most recently, General Stanley McChrystal was dismissed from duty after chumming it up with a reporter from Rolling Stone. This guy is a decorated four-star general. I guess they don’t give out medals for common sense.

What are these people thinking? Or were they thinking at all?

 One more time, here are some fundamental tips on how keep your foot out of your mouth:

  1. Assume that everything is on the record and that the walls have ears. This adage takes on added importance in a world where social media is gaining dominance and information travels instantaneously. Case in point: President Obama had made the decision to dismiss McCrystal before the Rolling Stone article hit the street.
  2. Be prepared. Know who you are talking to; craft a cogent and succinct narrative, and stay on point.
  3. Stay focused. It is important to set the agenda and control the discussion. Have a conversation, and don’t let yourself be interrogated.
  4. Keep your personal opinions to yourself. It is called a “personal” opinion for a reason. And, don’t talk about things you don’t know about.
  5. Speak with purpose. Keep comments brief and to the point. Don’t pontificate, and avoid verbosity.

Something Funny Is Going On … @BPGlobalPR

Posted on June 14, 2010 by Comments Off

BP is facing a public relations disaster on yet another front — this one over the highly publicized fake Twitter account BPGlobalPR. The social media hoax, called “brandjacking,”  tweets sarcastic news about BP’s missteps and suspect corporate behavior.  It currently has more than 150,000 followers and continues to gain attention.

This week, the tweets finally caught the attention (or hit a nerve) of BP’s communications team, who demanded that the site declare itself to be a parody. Those behind the BP parody tweets are refusing to back down. If BP presses the issue, things are going to get nasty.

Two observations jump out from this situation.

First, why did BP wait so long to try to stop the hoax? Were they not monitoring what was being said about them in social media? Is it possible that a multinational corporation currently embroiled in an environmental disaster failed to recognize the influence of Twitter?

Second, this issue speaks to a growing acceptance of pseudo-news and comedian commentary as a mainstream source of information and influence.  

Granted, editorial cartoons have been a mainstream source of influence for centuries (it has been a Pulitzer Prize category since 1922), and for years The New York Times Week in Review section has included quotes from late-night hosts such as Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman in its news summary, but something funny is going on here.

The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are now routine stops for politicians, authors and opinion leaders. More young adults get their news from these programs than from nightly broadcast news shows.

Blogs such as the Huffington Post and The Drudge Report regularly cover items that are decidedly ironic or funny (and generally with a political bias).

The list of bogus Facebook pages and YouTube videos has also proliferated.  By some estimates, roughly 40 percent of Facebook postings are ficticious. 

Funny thing is, these parodies are proving to be effective tools. They enter the web of influence and have a lasting and profound impact on public opinion.

I guess everything is news in the ever evolving environment of influence.   A valuable lesson for all of us.

U.S. Debt Bomb, Part II

Posted on May 10, 2010 by Comments Off

Last month, I posted about America’s impending struggle to responsibly manage its fiscal affairs and how this represents a huge potential crisis for brands and industries that might make attractive targets for policymakers needing to raise revenue and cut services. Well, this week’s Dow drop has moved this scenario from interesting theory to in-your-face reality. The Greek debt crisis (which really is a European debt crisis) is now pounding on Uncle Sam’s front door, with many experts saying we face the same challenges as Greece. This is here and now, folks, and trust me when I say that there will be winners and losers when policymakers are finally forced to grapple with it. Don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line – prepare now.

The Public Affairs Crisis That Every Brand Should Be Prepared For

Posted on April 20, 2010 by Comments Off

Whenever folks in the communications business see a brand struggling through a crisis we always lament; “How could so many bright and thoughtful leaders have known of this risk for so long, yet not had a crisis plan in place?” It’s an all too common (and frustrating) refrain among crisis communicators.

As we’ve discussed here often, organizations almost always know where a crisis will hit them, yet, for some inexplicable reason, seldom take the time to develop a smart, high-level strategy and plan. And while I hope this post inspires at least some corporate communicators to put pen to paper and develop plans that address their organization’s specific weaknesses, I also want to get brands (and entire industries) ready for one of the most obvious impending crisis in our lifetime – the public sector debt bomb.

From our smallest towns and school boards to our largest states and of course the federal government, America’s public sector budgets are a complete and utter disaster. Several years ago, many of us wondered how that seemingly regular, middle class family down the street with two shiny SUVs in the driveway was able to live in that newly built “McMansion.” Well, we now know the sad ending to that story. Unfortunately, it also applies to our various layers of government.

Over the past decade, we have enjoyed a public sector lifestyle that can no longer be financed with existing tax revenues. In fact, it’s not even close. I’ll spare everyone a rehash of how we got here and instead focus on the options for getting out of the hole.

In a nut shell, we have essentially three choices:  drastically raise taxes, drastically cut spending, or some combination of the two. Having spent two decades around state and federal policymakers, I’d bank on the third option and only after the big, hairy crisis is directly in front of our collective faces (which frankly is… right now).

First, imagine the scene as policymakers wait until the last minute to address this crisis: Our rare and coveted AAA debt rating is about to be down-graded. Financial markets tank, inflation spikes. Teachers are laid-off en masse. Senior citizens are on the verge of losing heath care benefits and social security checks. Soldiers are faced with unprecedented cut backs. In the halls of Congress and various state legislatures, there is an historic, never-seen before, mad scramble for additional tax dollars.

So, are you working for a brand or industry that a majority of Americans believe should pay more in taxes?

With a single tweet, could an enterprising political operative make a case for why your brand or industry should contribute more of its fair share to avert a national crisis?

Do you count the government as one of your biggest customers?

If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, then you need to start planning immediately. This public affairs challenge will make past and current debates such as health care, financial services reform and energy look like a walk in the park.

My message – get to work right now with a plan that builds a broad and diverse community that can powerfully (and digitally) communicate your unique value to America’s 21st century economy and society. Like in virtually every crisis, those at risk know who you are…the question is whether you’ll be ready.

When the Going Gets Trough the MPs Get Going

Posted on March 30, 2010 by Comments Off

“Influence peddling,” “lobbying” and “making representations” are all euphemisms for influencing the political system on behalf of special interests. Alternatively, the right-wing press and commentators in the UK have been quick to draw comparisons to pigs with their snouts in a trough when it comes to Westminster’s finest.

Members of Parliament have seen their standing plummet in recent months, thanks to a coordinated campaign by the British media to expose what they see as outrageous manipulation of office and abuse of the archaic expenses system. In some circles, MPs are likely to rank around the level of real estate agents or traffic wardens in the affections of the British people’s hearts. “Sleaze” is the operative word, but it isn’t the seedy fleshpots of Soho that a significant number of our MPs have been frequenting; it has been white collar in its nature. Using contacts to gain cash and embezzling the public purse to clean moats, but more of that later.

Taken individually, each of the scandals to have beset parliament do not appear overly serious. Bundle them all together against a backdrop of similar swine-like activity in the troughs of the city and people’s faith in the parliamentary system has been shaken to the core. With a crucial election just over a month away, alarm bells must be ringing themselves stupid in Westminster.

A series of scandals was topped off this week with the revelation that three former cabinet ministers had been stitched up royally by the famously acerbic “Dispatches” investigation programme on Channel 4. Stephen Byers, a former trade minister was caught on a hidden camera boasting that he was “a cab for hire” charging businesses £5,000 a day for his “influence.” As a serving MP, this leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

Numerous MPs have been caught by the expenses scandal that exposed many of them to have been claiming thousands of pounds against the rules. Members have been claiming for vital services such as moat cleaning for their castles, paying for mortgages that didn’t exist and even pornographic movies. All of this has eroded public confidence in one of the world’s oldest democracies and does not bode well for the future.

With huge numbers of MPs standing down at the next election, there is something of a Westminster exodus in the pipeline. This is a crisis in confidence in the system and like any other industry, without a good reputation it surely cannot attract the brightest and best anymore. With trade union-led strikes piling up on the horizon, the immediate future for Britain is bleak, or are we just a glass-half-empty kind of people?

SeaWorld: Swimming in the Deep End of Crisis Management

Posted on March 3, 2010 by Comments Off

The evolving reactions to the SeaWorld “incident” are quite interesting.

As the story has developed, the opinions of the public and SeaWorld officials have become more frank and realistic than the initial emotional reaction. At first, the public didn’t want to admit that Shamu (actually Tilikum) isn’t a cuddly little pet or acknowledge that trainer Dawn Brancheau was taking on personal risk. On the day of the attack, BBC coverage was noticeably more open and willing to examine the issue than American press, telling us that Tilikum has been involved in previous incidents with humans.

Why couldn’t we call it what it actually is? Sometimes it takes time to come to terms with the truth. Denial is a powerful coping tool, but looking at the facts can pull us through:

What’s the Real Story?

There were two versions of what happened circulating during the first post-attack press conference:

  1. She slipped and fell into the pool (SeaWorld’s version?)
  2. She was grabbed by the whale (witnesses’ account?)

Two hours later, SeaWorld confirmed that Brancheau was pulled down by her ponytail.

What the General Public Is Saying

  • “She knew the risk – they ain’t called Killer Whales for nothin’”
  • “But we love SeaWorld”; downplaying or making fun of the situation
  • The topic continues to run majority negative on the WE twendz analytic tool for Twitter feeds

 What SeaWorld Is Saying

  • Dan Brown, spokesperson for SeaWorld, was using much softer language, calling it an “incident” or “drowning” instead of a death or killing.
  • SeaWorld is cooperating with OSHA and a few other government regulators for a full investigation.
  • SeaWorld says it is doing a full review of its operating procedures.
  • SeaWorld says that safety of the employees, the public, and the animals is its No. 1 priority.

In the end, the most authentic and effective story is the one grounded in reality. Stick to your story or you’ll end up in the deep end.

Strike Two for Senator Bunning?

Posted on March 1, 2010 by 2 Comments

Any pitcher in Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame should know the importance of hiding your signals.  So what was going through former MLB pitcher and current U.S. Senator Jim Bunning’s (R-Kentucky) mind when he flashed a certain middle finger signal to an ABC News producer? Was he calling for a high hard one? A curve ball? A change-up?  

Or perhaps it is just vivid evidence of what outgoing Senator Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) has called the lack of civility in the Senate of the United States.

Bunning’s “flipping of the bird” came amid his efforts to block passage of a $10 million bill to extend unemployment and health insurance benefits to Americans who are out of work.

We all have had emotional lapses, but most of us learn from our mistakes and try to control any repeat outbursts. Evidently, Senator Bunning is beyond help in that regard. Last week the senator allegedly muttered “tough sh-t” as Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) criticized Bunning’s stance on the package.

Rule No. 1 in crisis and issues management:  Never let your emotions get the better of you, no matter how tense the situation. That rule is especially true if you are in the presence of a journalist — a producer for network news nonetheless.

Tiger Unplugged: Too Scripted. Too Long. Too Melodramatic. Just Way Too Much.

Posted on February 19, 2010 by 1 Comment

Tiger Press ConferenceIn the first public comments from Tiger Woods since he issued a statement apologizing for his marital transgressions, we were witness to a press conference called by Tiger himself to address the controversy that has surrounded him, his marriage, and his alleged infidelity. From a crisis management vantage point, the only real challenge Tiger had coming into the event was to appear genuine, appropriately contrite, and committed to making it right for his family. That’s really all the public wants to see and hear from public figures who are coming to us for some degree of redemption or forgiveness.

But unfortunately, we were treated to the exact opposite. What began on an appropriate note with something along the lines of  “I am deeply sorry for the irresponsible and selfish behavior I engaged in. … I had affairs. … I cheated” sadly ended somewhere after that. Exactly where isn’t clear since the obviously scripted statement was a really long and winding road, which quickly became almost too painful to keep watching.

Before the tsunami of commentary commences, let me go on record suggesting that watching the just-completed Tiger Woods press conference was probably one of the most painful experiences I’ve had in my adult life – excepting the triple root canal, perhaps.

Aside from rambling on for way too long, doing a pretty poor job of appearing genuine, and making the classic mistake of scripting his remorse – all the while making South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s post-infidelity discovery press conference look like a candidate for an Emmy – Tiger did himself and his image no favors, and perhaps did more damage than his complete silence for the last 70 days.

The blogosphere and traditional media have for weeks been screaming about the need for Tiger to say something about his reported infidelity, to provide some sort of context or rationale that the public could use to put his behavior in context, but there was nothing. Not a peep. Not a sighting. Not even a Tiger-penned article somewhere, besides that vaguely written blurb posted on his Web site about two weeks after the crash. Then earlier this week came the news that an official press conference was planned. We were alerted that media access would be tightly managed, with no questions allowed. Not long after it became clear exactly how tightly media access would be managed by Tiger’s people, the golf writers’ group made the decision to boycott the entire event, expressing dismay at the ban on questions.

Suffice it to say that today’s press conference will go down in history as perhaps one of the most awkward, mismanaged and disingenuous events in the history of spouses attempting to make atonement for their indiscretions. One thing is for sure. We certainly know more than we did before the press conference began, but in my opinion we know none of what we really wanted to know.

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