War of the Words

The political banners under which we operate may be different, but the forces that drive our world are still the same. After many years enjoying comparative warmth and reconciliation following the fall of the USSR, the imperial eagle of Russia is narrowing the eyes of its Western head and turning once more towards the East.

This week, the New York Times reported that Russia is set to <http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/09/24/world/europe/russia-takes-step-to-extend-control-over-news-media.html?ref=europe&smid=tw-nytimes&_r=1&referrer=> “limit foreign ownership of Russian media outlets to 20 percent, targeting several prominent publications critical of the government and extending the Kremlin’s control over the nation’s independent news media”. Russian lawmakers claim that the West has been using the media to attack the Russian government, particularly in light of the situation in the Ukraine.

Whilst this may seem like a political grizzly bearing its teeth at basic freedom of expression, there is an element of truth in the lawmakers’ claims. Media Land has been the frontier of many a Cold War, and the West is just as guilty of the manipulation and dissemination of meddlesome information or misinformation, as the East. A brilliant article in this week’s LRB by Frances Stonor Saunders entitled The Writer and the Valet <http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n18/frances-stonorsaunders/the-writer-and-the-valet> provided an excellent exposé of the War of Words that took place during the last Cold War. Specifically, the article explored the theft and illegal circulation of Pasternak’s novel Dr Zhivago by Western political powers ranging from the BBC, MI6, the Vatican, and the CIA to attack Russia in a move dubbed Operation Dinosaur. It is evident that power structures in the West were also content with putting lives at risk in the crossfire of media jousting.

The Financial Times reports that <http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f83e04ee-4339-11e4-be3f-00144feabdc0.html> “some executives believe the new rules may also be aimed at helping Gazprom Media, the country’s largest media holding, gain full control of radio station Ekho Moskvy, the lone liberal bastion on Russia’s airwaves”. The link to Gazprom Media is significant, as the giant has ties with Michael Maslov and Ketchum, the PR heavyweight behind Putin’s communications – whom we wrote about in 2013. <http://www.markborkowski.co.uk/ketchum-pr/> CNBC wrote an interesting piece on their relationship this year <http://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CCEQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.cnbc.com%2Fid%2F101465564&ei=OaMiVLyVPIyd7gaArYGADA&usg=AFQjCNE8w7vwcQD1eY3J5xAoMTMpLaj1YA&sig2=hgbrT88feE4DFhGCleoIbg&bvm=bv.75775273,d.ZGU> , too.

As Russia wraps her wings around herself once more, we can be sure that this War of Words will provide ample ground for the spreading of mischief on both sides of the world. Pasternak is just the tip of the iceberg.

Curiosity about what we don’t understand needs to exceed that which we do!

So Scotland has voted. All the hype, the rhetoric, propaganda, and social chatter boiled down to one thing. In the end the majority are still cautious and rather than embrace uncertainty and change (an opportunity some did in this case)  stick with the status quo. The crowd certainly has the power these days to change opinion and spin a media charge, but arguably only up to a point. The loudest voices aren’t always the pioneers and there is a big question around data, but that’s another blog altogether!

switch-off-your-brainAnyway, this is not a radical new thought. But it’s one I keep coming back to.

It’s the listeners, the doers, the seekers and the questioners that don’t sit with the status quo that make change happen. Yet in an ever changing media landscape it’s more and more impossible to allow for distraction and time out to reflect on new ideas and thinking.

Blinkered by habit and time pressures we glance around rather than look with acuity. Yet what we see and what we notice aren’t the same. CEO’s so often fail to step outside of their own echo chamber, so they fail to see the bigger picture or the legacy from the past. We shouldn’t write off what’s gone before, as taking experience forward is vital. But it must be done with an open mind. This means building cultures where mistakes are allowed.

For experience is based on repetition and rigidity.

In many cases when businesses hit a crisis point, either in communications or strategy, they call for an “expert”. After all there is no one more expert than an “expert!”. But an expert will see that your question gets answered as if it’s been answered many times before, and the resulting solution is actually more or less the same answer!

That is why a critical friend with an open mind is more vital than ever. There is no one answer these days or at least there is a wide picture to glean before the answer is arrived at. So someone who is not fooled by fashion, tamed by reason and trapped by experience is what a business should look for. Leaders are required to become masters of reaction which requires a wholly new mind-set and approach – one that embraces uncertainty, empathy and learning how to communicate in a way that can be engaged with. Everyone talks about disruption which is fine as long as you don’t paper an Emperor.

Successful campaigns and services are designed around compelling ideas, organisation and immaculate detail. A given of course.
But not easy to reach that point. Working with people who inspire new thinking allows us to go beyond where we are capable of getting to alone…

The Recipe

Identify the goal.
Capitalise on every channel.
Hook celebrity.
Keep it simple…
And fun!
Make it immediate.
Consider the power of viral multiplication.
Allow participants to feel good.
(Ensure its not really worthy.)
Indulge the emotional connection.
Sit back and watch it grow.

ALS. It doesn’t matter if it’s not new. Kudos!

Call of Duty propaganda is Goebbels for new age

For a split second I thought I was watching an episode of Homeland. The slaughter of the American journalist was styled with HD cameras using an arid backdrop straight from Breaking Bad.

From the very beginning, Islamic State (IS) understood the culture they wanted to undermine and the need to create emotion among the crowd in doing so, and they are masterful at it.

The past 24 hours has ushered in a new age for sadistic and sophisticated propaganda.

In a Call of Duty era, the video employed the highest level of technical expertise, thought-through location and almost certainly an autocue to ensure the evil message had maximum impact. Then it was posted to YouTube with designs for viral circulation.

This is not only a message to America, it’s a message to us all.

These propagandists know exactly how to tell a story and leverage it at maximum speed across social channels, disrupting the well-oiled Western propaganda machines and placing them on a back foot.

They take their haters’ thoughts as inspiration. It’s toxic stuff.

Just as Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels used the Nuremberg Rally and swastika to turn a generation, the Islamic State propaganda machine will reinvent terrorism for the social media generation.

Do not underestimate the tactics of terror.

(Commissioned by The Sun, Thursday 21st August, 2014)

So what exactly IS reputation?

We need to get used to the fact that these days there is no fixed mark on reputation.  Along with the Buzzfeed generation comes the hint that the old media traditions fail, with short form memes feeding the wires, and less emphasis on the elongated and researched story.  Brands and individuals must become comfortable with their imperfections and vulnerabilities because we have a crowd and a ‘can know anything’ psyche, where reputations are savaged in an instant and often with no grounding in reality.  The emotion of the crowd gathers momentum and careers along gathering falsehoods before the accused has even woken up to the storm.

Last week, as a prime example, Cliff Richard had his reputation blasted across the globe shockingly aided by both the police and the BBC, without giving him any chance to refute the action – a basic human right after all.  The police are now briefing the media as a means to seed an idea although in this instance of course, the police underestimated what Cliff means to a section of the British imagination and plenty struck out in his staunch defense and trampling of his basic rights.  But trial by media and particularly Twitter remains a regular meme.

In the face of it all as a business or individual, the best thing to do is remain resolute.  But you can only do that if your roots are seeded in authenticity, and many reputation debacles illustrate that the basic problem has its origins in strategy decisions gone wrong.  In the Now Economy transparency has become a real thing (as opposed to a buzz word people are fond of adding to mission statements).

So a critical friend is vital at times of crisis.  One who can identify vulnerabilities and set boundaries for the story and the responses.  It is certainly possible to come back from a point of critical reputation exposure, driving what appears to be a hopeless case into a new space for growth.  Kate Moss did.  Jonathan Ross has.  With clever tactics it is a case of re-focusing what people thought (or believed they thought anyway!)

We all have the tools for comment so perhaps it’s time for us all to make a stand.  Not by attacking what’s there. But by making it irrelevant.  Refusing to buy the stuff it sells and the fear it promotes because arguably the production and consumption of news isn’t in long credible reportage.  The ups and downs of the media swirl is owned by those who can synthesise popular ideas and rise above the tipping point.

Scottish independence debate: ‘Salmond’s PR advisers should hold their heads in shame’

Two hours that could change Scotland in a big TV debate. It’s big stuff. But as I settled down to watch Tuesday’s referendum TV showdown, I was slightly apprehensive. Would it be the much hyped game changer? Could it really be that good? Did someone mention Don King?

This time it’s Alex Salmond versus Alistair Darling – independence versus the Union. Would the wedding limo chauffeur thrash the golf club accountant? A game of PR – cat on cat action.

The referendum facts are fixed; the herd understands the nuances of a now familiar script – EU border controls, currency and all that… Salmond is a consistent wily seasoned pugilist, a man who seems well prepared for the opportunity in whatever shape it arrives. Against Darling, the man with all the passion and charisma of an edition of Gardeners’ Question Time on a wet bank holiday weekend.

Sadly, the media build up of the debate was a bit like the diminished Edinburgh Fringe festival. This issue should be more important nationally.

Early nerves subdued the opening. Styled in conservative and funeral black Marks and Spencer’s suits, there was nothing to scare the ladies of Comely Bank, Stockbridge and Morningside. I was expecting to see Salmond, in full Biff Tannen (Back to the Future) mode, but sadly the Linlithgow lad was in full statesman guise. Pitifully under prepared, my guess is that Salmond’s PR team had been watching far too many Farage vs Clegg re-runs.

The PR advisers should hold their heads in shame. They forgot the devil is in the detail. Great PR folk know where the cue ball will finally rest. Their charge was overconfident, believing he’d won the encounter before he’d entered the ring. Never believe your own hype, its a recipe for disaster. With an over reliance on bad jokes and sad one-liners augmented by daft scare mongering stories, it was all a bit juvenile.

One wag on Twitter suggested his poor performance was a ruse to lure Cameron to debating with him. Whatever, it really wasn’t Salmond’s best night. I’m sure the viewers were surprised by the less authentic projection of the clichéd political statesman. This stripped back his appeal and his core authenticity.

His passionate strength in the past, has been tackling serious questions whoever goaded him. Here Darling proved a more polished sort of smoothie, rarely breaking a sweat. The battle at times was more heat than light, throwing up familiar rhetoric.

Darling lurked in his corner, delivering a sucker punch and the currency issue became the trump card. A well prepared joker delivered with aplomb – a blow Salmond spent too much time deflecting, blustering, totally skewering on the one issue he should have been scripted to counter. The former chancellor was well rehearsed; he relentlessly pushed on, not allowing Salmond any space and very little light.

Salmond’s team missed a trick to finesse their boy. Those Awareness, Ego And Values classes a waste of time! Poor Alex wasn’t familiar with the quality of his opposion, further proof he was very poorly prepared, particularly as none of the questions were surprising.

Salmond did gags. Darling did detail.

Another Darling win was aided by his Social media wonks. They seemed to provide Darling with great Twitter feed fodder. His soundbites captured Twitter interest throughout the debate – his points neatly repeated and one powerful meme echoed as he laid into Salmond with a scripted remark: “Your answer is that everyone is wrong except you.”

Sadly the platform should have been a space to better inform the public about the confusing issues locked inside the intimidating world of Scottish politics. The biggest surprise of the night was Salmond’s appalling preparation. Instead of owning the night, he struggled against the format, failing to effectively answer the questions posed.

Sadly the broadcaster STV was guilty of the bigger fail of the night. Why do the Scottish media lack ambition? Limiting the debate locally and not providing efficient access to the thousands of Scottish voters isolated south of the border was a mistake.

I wonder how all parties will handle the disappointment? They could cheer themselves up by booking a ticket for the fringe zombie attack thriller: The Generation of Z . This immersive theatre production brings audiences face-to-face with the undead. Now there’s a thought.

My thoughts can also be found on The Drum

Mark’s lively and informative talks, speeches and panel appearances offer provocative perspectives on the past, present and future of communications. Why not extend an invitation?

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In his talks he draws on the analytical, advisory and creative work of the company, which places it at the heart of debate and developments concerning consumers, communication and technology. But he also draws on his 30 years’ practical experience as a publicist. 30 years during which he has earned a reputation as one of the most free-thinking, innovative and challenging practitioners of the art of consumer communications.

Please e-mail laura@borkowski.do to inquire about possible speaking opportunities.