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

“Only the dead have seen the end of war…”

They said it would be over by Christmas. But its horror was prolonged for four years, devouring a generation in suffering and slaughter.

Anyway, I decided that today, on such a glorious summer day, I would make time for quiet reflection. Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important. This short blog is my priority, fuelled by a desire to mull and consider as the world re-absorbs the magnitude of the outbreak of World War One. My focus is on two lost souls I am entwined with who perished in the hideous conflict, as the flaming winds of this gruesome war wreaked havoc, presiding over sacrifice loss and pain.

The First World War is this year’s crucible for re-examining ourselves. Major events in history can feel like a disconnected typeset, words on a yellowing page of a dusty history book. But as we set aside time to contemplate the tumultuous events of a century ago we should pinpoint somewhere in our soul a connection. I have two very good reasons to spend today remembering this sad and somber occasion

I live in house, where Elijah and Esther Annie Damsell trod the original floorboards: who’s son, (born in the room I sleep) was lost to the Great War. The Damsels’ boy, Frank, was a Private and he died on the 29th October 1918, only 20, having returned from the hell a month after the end of the conflict , unable to recover from his wounds sustained in battle. A Gloucestershire lad perhaps harbouring ideals that once commanded great loyalty, perhaps taken for granted. It’s the older men who declare war, however, it is youth that must fight and die. The nation owe a debt of gratitude to the soldiers that have paid the ultimate price for a cause, Chesterton called the heroic language used at the time “abstract words such as glory, honour, courage, are hallow and obscene.”

Closer to my own family blood line there was also a tragic loss. This evening as I light a candle with the nation at 10 o’clock, it will be an opportunity to remember and pay tribute to my Great Uncle Emrys Davies. Born in the mining village of Tirphil, in the heart of the South Wales coalfield, Emrys enlisted soon after the outbreak of the war. He was accustomed to the physical hardships of manual labour as he endured the depths of a coalmine shaft. I guess the decision to enlist in a patriotic military adventure, seemed ironically more palatable. He became a Gunner – W/3110 Royal Field Artillery 466th Bty, 6th Bde. “W” prefix indicates his original enlistment in the RFA destined for the 38th (Welsh) Division: these were the 119th to 121st Brigades RFA plus 122nd (Howitzer) Brigade, and 38th Divisional Ammunition Column.

His medal index cards states he served in France from 24 December 1915, and this is near enough for the date the Divisional artillery went over to fight. His broad narrative is now familiar. These man would have endured the most brutal form of warfare. I guess he suffered a series of terrible physical and emotional experiences. He would have been 30 when he died of his wounds on November 19th 1917. He rests in the St. Sever Cemetery Extension, Rouen.

So the Great War was a war to end all wars. Today, it is hard to understand the patriotic spirit that fueled both of these men. Ernest Hemingway once said “They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war, there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.”

I’d like to think both men felt it was a just to volunteer to fight, a noble resistance against the evil repression. Who can ever evaluate the enormity of the human cost to their respective families? Their gentle integrity should never be forgotten. Google must not forget their names. A generation of men hell-bent on a divine mission to achieve noble things must be etched on the digital wall of remembrance. Two men from so many, who believed the war was right. We should not forget the mangled corpses nor the ‘horrors’ so ‘beastly”. These should never become a footnote.

Because where we live and who we are, will always sustain a connection and expose man’s ultimate inhumanity to man. Wars are a deep-seated but absolute part of human nature. Wars reflect man’s basest instincts, untamed by rationality. As we witness the carnage and butchery of civilians in Gaza, we can only reflect on a thought: Only the dead have seen the end of war.

Common sense is NOT always so common.

So was it a case of hope over reality after all? Secret Cinema will go ahead finally with founder Fabian Riggall admitting that it was his determination to go ahead that was responsible for the catastrophic last minute cancellation. It’s a story that says a lot about leadership, decision making and business growth. Then also common sense and communications in a crisis. Let’s face it, things do go wrong. But Secret Cinema got it wrong, underestimating the passions of their audience and what they needed to hear. The question here is how do you deal with the responsibility that growth and ambition demands?

First off, this world demands a concession to conversational instinct. The English language with all its fantastic elasticity can transform the humble apology into escapology. Beware of media confessions and how they are received and decoded by the public. Mistakes are attributed to ‘uncharacteristic hiccups’, or ‘rogue employees’, or even blamed on ‘the regulations’, for which the public (sorry that’s you and me again) are ultimately responsible.

Secret Cinema, who had used social channels so brilliantly at the beginning to support and promote their vanguard movement, failed horribly faced with their crisis when they hid behind newspaper links to explain their issue instead of coming out and dealing with the crisis honestly, carefully and with empathy for the hundreds who had traveled, prepared and invested in the event. Disgruntled followers on Facebook, which Secret Cinema used to deliver messages described this as a test case PR disaster. I am beginning to wonder whether there is a growing trend for brands to try and bury a crisis on social media, using it, but not in any way effectively in their hope to paper the cracks.

So in the case of Secret Cinema they got the headlines, but not the ones they would have hoped for.

Anyway, it is certainly true that brave brands grow in a crisis – the brands that show strength will ultimately reap the rewards down the line. Leadership is a vital ingredient here.

Strong leaders not only have to make decisions, but, even more importantly, they also have to make sense of a complex, confusing, fast-changing, multi channel world and a crowd with all the power to disrupt. Out of the jumble of incomplete facts and shreds of information, leaders MUST assemble a clear and compelling message, defining a new order and a strong direction. They should generate confidence and build momentum, leveraging the issue to greater effect. It’s no use developing a psychopathic defense system that obscures the consequences. Yet there is proof that the folk managing the content across multiple channels are finding it increasingly complex and are often not equipped with the knowledge to find the influencers that will change their course. The danger then is the potential to turn a crisis into a catastrophe with very little effort.

Here’s the avoid list.

1. Don’t be overly optimistic.
You can’t just identify a solution! You need a balanced view of the reality along with some optimism to keep everyone truthfully informed.

2. Don’t deny the problem exists!
Denial simply serves to escalate the issue.

3. Don’t abandon common sense!
It would appear that common sense is actually not so common. Trusting instincts alone to survive a potential business crisis may result in the wrong problem being solved really well! Applying some common sense will confirm if your actions are helping or hurting. Get good and trustworthy outside advice.

4. Learn to be emotional.
During a crisis, it’s important for the audience to see that leadership is connected and in touch with the situation. This is the time when followers need to connect emotionally. Without that connection your audience quickly disconnects and the disruption begins.

5. Never blame others. Ever.
Blaming others always makes a business look weak, and it sends a clear message that the business is not in control of the situation.

6. Be prepared for any eventuality.
This demands rigorous planning and expert language communications.

7. Prepare your internal network.
Obvious. But many don’t.

8. Do not underestimate the passion and power of the crowd.
Stories quickly get out of control if not prepared for and controlled from the outset.

Secret Cinema had a passionate following that had grown out of a cult status. To grow now they will need to be brave and put this behind them, dealing with their public with respect and more than an apology. Hopefully their maverick leader will realise that sometimes you must go backwards to emerge further forwards…

Fame and the media game: What is fame now? And can you enjoy it without press intrusion

As you may have seen on The Drum here are my thoughts on Cheryl. Cheers have greeted the news that our 21st century Vera Lynn has wed! So?

Well, what’s unusual about Cheryl Cole’s holy union announcement is the manner of its outing. The impressive tactics deployed to stay below the radar before breaking official news proves a high-net-worth celebrity brand can have their cake and eat it.

Is it a post-Leveson new celebrity indicator or a steadfast willingness to prove a point?

This style of announcement benchmarks the Cole brand against other organisations inside and outside of her sector.

Thankfully, we were spared a tsunami of speculation on the possible marriage. There were no titbits on potential venue, flower arranger, dress designer, wedding singer and magazine buyout deal. Sadly this will follow.

The absence of the usual slew of headlines, innuendo and rumour pertaining to the complex his and hers tattoo – inevitably inked onto the last bit unmarked flesh available – might have been an added distraction. Instead, in its place a short celebrity haiku declaring the marriage had taken place. Alongside a picture of her wedding ring, a statement on Cole’s website said:

“I usually do not discuss my personal life but to stop the speculation I want to share my happy news.

“Jean-Bernard and I married on 7/7/14. We are very happy and excited to move forward with our lives together.”

After Leveson there is certainly a new celebrity statute of engagement. A prestige gleaming hindrance between the figures of interest and the public. The feral press beast has been neutered, and the skills to keep a client in view of the public eye have been subtly adjusted. The debate on privacy and press regulation pre-hacking was defeating. But whisper it. If a public figure truly chooses to conduct their life in secret, even in this hyper-connected social whirl, it’s possible.

For years the tabloid press has made its reputation on “exclusives” involving celebrities’ private lives. A sea of publicists have turned the volume knob up and down on the amplification of celebrity. This industrial process has been generally charmless. Driven by market forces, stars frequently exploit private happiness for financial return discarding all common sense.

Some stars have been vocal on the issue of privacy, hungry as they are to exploit the fame cycle as they rise to the top.

Then moaning about invasion of privacy when they feel they are at the summit wax.

The unspoken truth is the relationship between celebrities and the media is such that, arguably, one cannot exist without the other. It’s always been a delicate balance. However the means to stay below the media line is achievable for the sensible and strategic.

Whatever games are played with the media, the clever celebrity wrangler has always dealt with privacy issues with a clear grip of honesty and truth. I forget who said: “Unfortunately once you push the toothpaste out of the tube it’s hard to get it back in.” But you know what I mean…

An appetite for fame is insatiable. But success always occurs in private, and failure in full view. Nowadays the press rep can more easily keep a client properly in the public eye. But it’s taken time to prove a point.

There had always been a delicate balance between celebrities from the Z list up to the C list, who are quite happy to reveal their inner secrets, and the A and B list, who go about their business and guard their private lives.

The smart celebrities realised that to a certain extent they are public property, but chose carefully their friends and confidants not mixing business and pleasure. Many proved it was possible for them to have a private life.

Privacy is a delicate balance between the needs of promoting what you have to professionally – and your ‘real’ life beyond it.

It requires a long-term commitment to the amount of fame you have generated and a strategy of dealing with it.

Anyway, I prefer to contemplate Leszezynski Stanislaus wisdom:

“What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little.”

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.

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