Archive for category Public Relations and business strategy

Charlie Sheen, Conan O’Brian, Middle East Revolution and Paddy Chayefsky

What do Charlie Sheen, Conan O’Brian and Steven Slater (the flight attendant who quit his job, grabbed a beer and slid down the emergency chute) have to do with protestors in the Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Iran and possibly Saudi Arabia? 

And what do any of these people have to do with a 1976 movie written by Paddy Chayefsky?

A lot. In that film, “Network”, a fictional news anchor, Howard Beale, decides that he is “mad as hell,” and that he is “not going to take it anymore!” The network decides to keep him on the air, he becomes a phenomenon and called a Mad Prophet.

Sheen, Conan O’Brian and Flight attendant Steven Slater were all frustrated with their employers. They all left their jobs loudly rather than quietly and became folk heroes in the process. Folk heroes fueled by the internet social sites, Facebook and Twitter in particular.

Chayefsky was three decades ahead of his time and the word “Network” today has a larger meaning. In the movie the public at large joined the “Mad as Hell and not going to take it anymore!” movement. Today people across the world are mad as hell.

People have been “mad as hell” for a while. The current global economic downturn has frustrated people across the planet. The difference is that now people have decided that they “…are not going to take it anymore.”  The internet and social networking in particular, are providing a way to express the anger.  More than that, the online world is providing a way to organize and get results.

The results are real. Conan O’Brian was able to keep his fan base despite being barred from broadcast television. Charlie Sheen may be onto a new career as an online Mad Prophet selling Tiger’s Blood and promoting “winning.” In the Middle East, two strongmen who held power for decades have fallen, one is in a civil war and others may still be deposed.  

The plot twist in the 1976 movie was that the “Network” decided to keep the Mad Prophet on the air in a cynical ploy for ratings. In today’s network, the TV Networks could not keep Charlie Sheen, Conan O’Brian off the air- at least not off the internet. Neither could an Egyptian state run TV station silence a Google manager.

When people are Mad as Hell in this new Communications/Information age, those in power will have to listen – they can no longer just pull the plug. The Mad as Hell side is “winning.”

That changes everything.

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Is your organization prepared to be Wikileaked?

The giant Wikileaks data dump is making headlines for the contents of the revealed documents. It is also making headlines as a landmark internet event. The revelation of thousands of pages of Pentagon, US Department of State and other government documents was followed with the news that a major financial institution is next.

This will not be the last event of this kind. Digital documents, downloading, thumb drives and processor speeds have made this too easy. It can happen to you and your organization. There are technical people who can advise you far better than I can on how to beef up your information security. The history of information technology teaches us that almost all security measures can eventually be defeated.

That leaves you with no choice. You must have a communications strategy ready if and when a data dump happens to you.

Know thyself

When running political campaigns, one of the most vital departments is “oppo” – or opposition research. Researching the opposition is good – researching yourself is vital. 

Years ago , when starting a campaign for a candidate for public office, I did my due diligence and asked the candidate my usual series of uncomfortable questions. The list included “Have you ever been arrested?” The candidate told me “No.” Three days later, the candidate sheepishly admitted that he had been arrested once in college days. It was a case of mistaken identity and nothing came of it.

Sure enough, as my candidate was heading for a big win, his desperate opponent trotted out the arrest record. Since we had done our research, the campaign was ready and turned the tables on the mudslinging opponent. There was no “deer in the headlights” or “gotcha!” moment. The result was victory.

In the same way, your organization must find out what is in your files. Are there potentially embarrassing internal assessments about clients, vendors or competitors? What about evaluations of current and former employees, or even current top management? Are there any digital skeletons in your virtual closet?

Keep it Confidential

This must be done by a highly trusted and discrete individual or team– either inside or outside the organization. After all, you will be handing this person or team the “keys to the kingdom.” The last thing you want to do is choose a person who ultimately becomes a leaker!

Here’s an idea on how to help keep their findings confidential; hire the assignment done under the retainer of an attorney. This may keep their findings in the undisclosable realm of attorney client privilege. (Disclaimer: please verify this with your own legal counsel, I am not an attorney nor do I play one on the internet.)

You may want to have a team do this research since financials as well as language can come into play.  Were there any comments that could be misunderstood from your audits, or tax records?  Are there any legal issues? It helps to have someone who can analyze financials, someone with legal and someone with a public relations background.

Have a Plan

Once you have done your self-audit, ask yourself how bad is it? What will this look like as the main headline of the Drudge Report or the equivalent for your industry?  Do not pooh-pooh the impact – after all you know the reason behind each revelation, don’t trust that your entire side of the story will cut through the Fog of Scandal. What will your answer to embarrassing questions be? This means questions from media, from clients (angry to be a part of the scandal), business partners, investors and employees. The answers for each of these audiences may be different to address their concerns.  Think them through and have them ready.

If you get a sinking feeling in your stomach when you read the results – consider placing on retainer public relations professionals with crisis management skills and experience. These are people who can help you weather the digital storm by staying calm, at the very moment almost everyone in your organization will be flustered.

Prepare Now

Proper preparation is vital today. Who knows who will be leaked next? If you are ready, you can at least minimize damage, and possibly even turn your fifteen minutes of infamy into a positive.

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