The only way is ethics #PRethics

The debate in Committee Room No 10 / pic by Kate Matlock

Committee Room number 10 in the House of Commons in London was the setting in the evening of July 7 for a vibrant debate on a big topic, formally titled “Wearable technology is an ethical nightmare for the communications, marketing and PR professions.”

Organized by The Debating Group and sponsored by the CIPR, the motion was proposed by Stephen Davies and seconded by me; and opposed by Stephen Waddington and seconded by Claire Walker.

About 100 people formed the audience, many of whom contributed opinion and running commentary on Twitter as each of the four speakers made their cases for the motion and against it. Once the formal addresses had been made, debate chair Alastair McCapra opened the debate to the floor where 18 people offered their perspectives to the debate.

It was a most interesting few hours. Opinion during the motions seemed pretty evenly divided, which seems to me to be fairly reflected in the commentary on Twitter. But when it came to the moment of voting, we were firmly defeated – 55 votes against the motion with only 28 for it.

Yet those stark numbers hide one reality, which is that it’s clear to me that this topic is not as black and white as it seems, offering only agreement or disagreement as your options. It is phenomenally nuanced, with so many shades of grey, and where almost everything you might say needing to start with “It depends.”

It’s also clear that the two opposing sides to the motion were far closer in thinking and belief than it may seem. Closer in the view that the topic is largely about people’s behaviours rather than about the wearable tech – meaning, what the tech enables people to do and so what they do or don’t do with it – and largely about providing codes of conduct that would be the roadmap for PR practitioners’ behaviour in how they use wearable tech.

I wholly support that idea although I’m far less optimistic that PR practitioners will simply abide by a code of conduct and not do bad things. If some PRs can’t get even the basics right, why should I have confidence that they can be trusted to do the right thing on their own with something far more important? Having a code is great, but it needs by-example leadership and professional behaviour to make it work at all.

Hence the “it depends” idea where I firmly believe that there won’t be an ethical nightmare as long as we – the profession, consultancies and clients, and individuals – take firm and clear steps to make the landscape anything but an ethical nightmare. We must do this, actively and proactively, collectively and individually.

Unlike my fellow speakers in the debate, I didn’t make a prepared speech. Instead, I prepared talking points from which I highlighted my perspectives to support Stephen. For the purpose of this narrative, let me highlight the bottom line of my argument:

Is there (or will there be) an ethical nightmare for PR, marketing and communication professionals?

I have 3 answers…

Yes, if…

1. Yes, if we do nothing to raise awareness and educate our publics on the SWOT of wearable tech.

2. Yes, if we fail to recognize the critical importance of the trust consumers place in our clients, in our employers and in governments that their behaviours are ethical.

3. Yes, if we fail to take advantage of the opportunities to advance our profession at the vanguard of understanding the ethics, scope and scale surrounding the enabling technologies that are before us, and what they will do – and do not – for our clients, our employers, consumers and businesses, and society at large.

Will we do this?

You tell me.

And here’s the argument in detail by the lead debaters:

My complete notes on Scribd:

I’ve seen some great reports and commentary about the debate, notably:

And of course, the curation of all the tweets, etc, in Storify by Gabrielle Laine-Peters:

And finally, credit where credit’s due – hard to resist a pun on the word ‘ethics’ as I use in my headline above. “The only way is ethics” is a play on “The only way is Essex,” a popular (?) reality TV show in the UK. So, full credit to Wadds for first use in the debate!

PR spam on an industrial scale

Spamalot

When done well, PR pitching can be almost an art form.

If your pitch meets the criteria of the recipient of your outreach, its likely your message will be well received and may even produce the action you are aiming for.

The opposite is also true when a pitch is as thoughtless in its creation as it is mindless in its execution. You know the kind of thing I mean, email pitches in particular.

What if such pitching were to be automated, where the targets of your pitch weren’t individually assessed to see if each were the “right” target for your message (and for your client or employer)?

Instead, what if you created a hit list of thousands of email addresses and hit them up with automated email pitches on the basis that if you hit a large enough quantity, a small but sufficient enough number will respond to make your effort worthwhile.

Sound familiar?

That’s what PR Hacker is doing in the US, according to a report in The Holmes Report quoting PR Hacker founder Ben Kaplan describing the business approach from his previous experiences in book promotion that he’s bringing to his PR firm:

[...] His model relies on A/B testing and 1% conversions from massive media blasts to generate lots [of] media coverage quickly for clients – without the status reports, weekly update calls and other administrative overhead of traditional agencies.

Here’s how that works. The PR Hacker team blasts pitches to a database of 7,000 tech media and expects a 1% conversion to land its client, at least, 70 hits. Kaplan also keeps databases on money/business media and relationship/romance media that each have upwards of 5,000 contacts – so a multi-vertical pitch, by his estimates, should yield close to 200 hits assuming the minimum 1% conversion. To keep the pitches from seeming too much like spam, he personalizes various fields within each pitch.

“We A/B test our pitches on the lower tier guys first,” he explains. “Then we go to the top-tier with what’s been tested…And a great story will trump all. So rather than focusing too much on personalizing, we focus on getting the story right.”

Looks to me like an approach to spam on an industrial scale. At least, a “by the numbers” game.

Is this what this element of public relations practice will become? A percentage return on a massive database-blast investment? It doesn’t look like it will fit well with professional standards of behaviour defined by the PR establishment, not in the UK at least.

Yet Kaplan’s approach is clearly outside such standards – perhaps the clue is in the name of his firm – and goodness knows some poor PR behaviour may benefit from a shake-up that Kaplan could well be responsible for.

In any case, get your email spam filters up-to-date.

[Picture at top by Coast to Coast Tickets who have lots of tickets for Monty Python Spamalot performances across the US this year. I thought the Spamalot metaphor works well for this post.]

Is wearable technology an ethical nightmare for PR?

The Borg

Amongst the buzz and hype surrounding Google Glass, health and fitness monitoring wristbands, smart watches, implantable devices, talking cars  and the rest of the burgeoning field labelled ‘wearable technology,’ an important aspect is largely overlooked if not ignored.

That aspect embraces multiple issues, from privacy of personal or confidential information to ethical behaviours we expect from companies and brands who may use wearable technology in their marketing, communication and other activities that let them reach out to consumers and employees.

It seems to me that, too often, we’re overlooking a key point that technology, wearable or otherwise, is about what people do or not do, not the shiny new objects themselves.

So I’m looking forward to the opportunity to discuss such concerns as part of a debate that will take place in London next month at the House of Commons, organized by the CIPR:

On the evening of Monday 7 July in Committee Room 10 at the House of Commons, the CIPR will be hosting a Debating Group event to debate the motion ‘Wearable Technology is an ethical nightmare for the communications, marketing and PR professions’.

Chair: Lord Clement-Jones

Proposing the motion: Stephen Davies, Founder, Substantial Digital Health

Seconding the motion: Neville Hobson, NevilleHobson.com

Opposing the motion: Stephen Waddington MCIPR, CIPR President, Digital and Social Media Director at Ketchum Europe

Seconding: Claire Walker FCIPR, Chief Executive, Firefly Communications

This a red-hot topic, in my view, one that’s swimming with “It depends…” elements, and one that we must debate and get on the attention agenda of public relations practitioners.

The debate is free to attend but you must request an invitation. Details on how to do that are on the CIPR’s event page.

Hashtag: #CIPRdebate.

Redefining today’s communicator in Norway

Communications Day 2014When I look at the landscape of the communication profession around Europe, I see similar issues that concern communicators, most notably how strategic are communicators (and the profession itself), abiding by codes of conduct and practicing ethical behaviour, and being professional.

It’s a topic in the front of my mind as I finalise plans for a keynote presentation to the members of the Norwegian Communications Association on March 27.

The devil’s in the detail, of course, and what’s hot in one country isn’t necessarily at the same temperature in another.

In the UK, for instance, a current strong focus is on professionalism following the findings published by the CIPR last month in its ‘state of the profession’ survey and a clear call to action by CIPR President Stephen Waddington who asked, “How serious are PR practitioners about putting their ambition to be considered a professional into practice?”

I do wonder at times how serious people really are: behaviours people say they want to emulate too often don’t match what I see people do.

Actually, I think this is a very hot issue everywhere even if many individuals may not realise it is. You only have to read the Edelman Trust Barometer 2014 – the results of a survey of 33,000 people in 27 countries – to get a sense of why it’s hot.

So while professional associations like the CIPR and the Norwegian Communications Association look at the big picture and ways to galvanize action among its members, I’m focused on what individuals can and must do to be professional, whatever their role in organizational communication and whatever their level in their organizations.

On March 27, I’ll be in Norway at Communications Day 2014 (or, rather, Kommunikasjonsdagen 2014 – hashtag #komdagen) to deliver a keynote presentation that I’ve titled “Redefining Today’s Communicator.”

From the description on the event website:

Today’s communicator must, as never before, have clear vision and understanding of how communication and the communicator are key strategic assets that support measurable business objectives. Today’s communicator has a key role to play in the rapidly-changing landscape that embraces organization change, behavioral change and technology change; and the online world where the three intersect.

In an age where anyone can claim to be a communicator in business, Neville Hobson will illustrate what professional communicators must do to prove their relevance and context in what they do for their employers and clients.

A pretty broad brush, but I intend to speak to that big topic of professionalism and present some ideas on what we all need to do. I want it to be a relevant piece of the jigsaw, the whole of which will be revealed by presentations from others on the day – Michael Murphy, for instance, talking about the challenges, disruptive influences and opportunities which are shaping the communications functions of the future; and Sigbjørn Aanes, State Secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office, talking about “communication, sausages and politics” (can’t wait to hear that one!).

The organizers tell me that over 520 communicators will be there on March 27 – a really great representation of the communication profession in Norway.

There’s still time and space to sign up if you haven’t yet. And right below is a bit more information – an ad that was published in a Norwegian magazine last month.

Looking forward to being part of your day!

 Kommunikasjonsdagen 2014

How serious are PRs about being genuinely professional?

So many embargoed press releases...

A simple, musing, rhetorical, tweet on Monday evening about PRs who send out press releases under embargo prompted a wide-ranging conversation on Twitter among a handful of people about professional behaviour, education and training, and being prepared for the PR workplace.

Sending out press releases under embargo isn’t an unusual practice. On the contrary, it can be a worthwhile activity for a PR professional, agency or client-side, when you want to enable journalists and others you believe can help tell your story be as prepared as possible and be ready to go live at an agreed future time.

What prompted my tweet was the sense of despair I feel all too often these days upon receiving press releases under embargo from PRs I don’t know or with whom I have no actual relationship.

And relationship is key, in my view. I’ve always regarded making any public announcement under embargo part of a process of trust-building, where both parties to an embargo have, beforehand, mutually agreed to respect the terms of it.

That requires some kind of prior personal connection, either physical or virtual, between two parties that is the building block for a relationship of some kind.

What I see nowadays, though, has nothing to do with relationship (nor, hence, trust-building or even respect) when I get press releases embargoed for days forward from people I don’t know and with whom I’ve not agreed any terms of any embargo.

They just send out the press releases anyway, usually mail-merged in bulk to distribution lists built from Vocus or Cision subscription databases – in spite of clear guidance from those two respected firms that you’re not supposed to do that – and with little or no thought to understanding whether the press release contains information that is at least relevant to the receiver.

Relevance is a highly significant aspect of this. The worst case is when I get an embargoed press release from a PR I don’t know, and it’s totally irrelevant to me.

Remember An Inconvenient PR Truth’s push against irrelevant press releases a few years ago? Go on, remind yourself.

An Inconvenient PR Truth from RealWire on Vimeo.

I’ve written about this topic a lot over the years, filed under the ‘Spam’ category.

So, to my near-rhetorical question: “Why should I respect embargoes?”

I do, actually, but in a passive sense – there’s no way I will write or say anything about a company or its product or service, embargo or no embargo, on information I get sent this way. Ever. I just delete the email and any attachments that come with it, and move on.

So musing on Twitter provoked some others to share their thoughts on the topic. Quite a few like minds, thank goodness, starting with Barbara Nixon and David Kamerer in the US:

And leading to a lengthy discussion involving Gabrielle Laine-Peters, Chris Owen and Paula Stei in the UK:

Gabrielle captured the scores of tweets into a Storify curation so please review that for the full conversation flow, or see the curation embedded at the end of this post.

There are three aspects from the conversation that have been rattling around my head since yesterday:

  1. The practice of sending out press releases under embargo as I’ve described here is anachronistic at best, unprofessional at worst, especially at a time when authenticity and relationships are two watchwords for creating the climate of trust that every PR professional surely ought to be striving to do (read the Edelman Trust Barometer 2014 to see why).
  2. That leads to focusing on the word ‘professional’ and how PRs clearly wish to be perceived as such by others, according to the latest ‘State of the Profession’ survey from the CIPR, published last week, saying, “Whilst nine out of ten respondents wish to be acknowledged as ‘professional’, results indicate a practice which seemingly struggles to embrace its desired professional ambitions.”
  3. To that end, CIPR President Stephen Waddington issued a challenge to CIPR members (one that every PR should pay heed to, CIPR member or otherwise): “How serious are you about putting this ambition [to be considered a professional] into practice?

It would be an easy matter to stay in exasperation mode and dismiss all of this as so much snow in Hell.

Even Stephen thinks it may take quite a while to see change.

Yet perhaps now, there’s a chance that some people in, or about to become part of, the public relations profession care enough that they themselves will be the architects of change.

Consider Paula Stei’s comments in the Twitter conversation yesterday. She’s a third-year PR student at university, who has a clear view on what feels right or not, and questions some behaviours. Maybe Paula and others in her generation can be the drivers of change. I’m certainly optimistic that I wouldn’t get an embargoed press release from Paula if we didn’t know each other.

From little acorns do mighty oak trees grow, as an old saying has it. The meaning is clear – great things may come from small beginnings. Behaviour change in how you do press releases is a good example of a small beginning that can lead to bigger things.

Maybe it’s changing a small thing such as this that can get you on the road to being perceived as a professional.

  • Related: In this week’s FIR podcast episode 744, my co-host Shel Holtz and I discuss the CIPR survey and Stephen Waddington’s challenge, looking at other options that professional associations may consider for the big-picture of professionalism, including attaining accreditation or passing an examination as a condition and requirement for a member to be able to practice public relations. That discussion starts about 16 minutes and 50 seconds into the show.

And for the Twitter conversation that prompted this post, here’s the Storify curation of tweets by Gabrielle Laine-Peters:

Think of the new Gmail/Google+ features as part of the identity jigsaw

Gmail and Google+

Last week, Google announced the addition of an interesting new feature to Gmail – the ability for people you know on Google+ to email you even if they don’t have your email address. And vice-versa.

I first heard about it through seeing posts and reports galore about “how to disable Google’s new Gmail feature,” clearly suggesting that an awful lot of people see this as something really bad and to be avoided.

In fact, I’m ok with the idea as explained by Google, that enables anyone in my circles on Google+ being able to send me an email just by typing my name and using the result offered by Google.

And crucially, says Google…

[...] Your email address isn’t visible to a Google+ connection unless you send that person an email, and likewise, that person’s email address isn’t visible to you unless they send you an email.

I’m quite happy with that.

Interestingly, there’s an aspect of this that is much more significant than the simple matter of exchanging emails with people you’re connected to on Google+.

In a post yesterday at re/code, guest writer Hunter Walk has an intriguing idea:

Here’s what I think the integration of Gmail and G+ messaging is really about: Making communications about people and permissions, rather than possession of contact info.

I like this future-thinking as he expands on that idea:

[...] Current generations of kids aren’t going to have to worry about knowing your phone number or email or street address. They’ll be able to press your name or picture, and depending on the app or need, will initiate a text, call, delivery, whatever. Twitter has been experimenting with various DM permissioning. And why do you think Snapchat’s user base didn’t care much when phone numbers leaked? Because the phone number is the least personal data on a phone, compared to your text messages, photos or other app data.

My bet is that a year from now, G+ will be much more about communications, with content sharing as part of the interaction, rather than a social stream. If you were building Gmail and G+ from scratch today, they’d be the same product. And that’s the logic behind the messaging permission changes.

Project that out further and think about this as one potential element in identity verification. Not just your G+ profile or Gmail address, but the whole concept of verifying “name + picture = you” via rich sources of information in trusted databases.

It brings to my mind something that already happened to someone last month where his Facebook profile was accepted by the TSA in the US as validation of identity.

This is a big canvas that paints a huge picture that is one piece of the digital jigsaw that is identity and verifying it, balancing privacy and a lot more.

Lots to figure out.