Just managed to make my way through the New York Times story on the Pentagon’s efforts to manage the message around the Iraq war. Great stuff and a bit chilling. But more than that, very … familiar.
As I read, I found myself thinking about what we PR folks would advise clients. With technology companies we advise them to engage industry analysts and experts. The bigger companies — and even some of the smaller ones — might have regular “analyst summits” to get an inside view of the company’s future plans. We’d do the same with the trade media, as well as key bloggers, consultants and pundits.
Ideally, if the resources are there, we’d give out embargoed previews of upcoming news and interviews with key executives.
This is public relations … influence the influencers, get legitimate, credible experts to tell your story for you — whether it’s reporters, experts, analysts or customers. It is usually the right thing to do. You put your story out there for people who can credibly retell that story…and usually, they do. It works especially well when you have a good story.
Most of my clients have been underdogs who need to be tenacious to build their credibility with analysts. One client was big enough to hold analyst summits and have the top people in the industry make the time to be there. But even then, we — the client and the agency — insisted on openness. We laid out the plans, showed off the product, made our case, gave them a classy but not ostentatious dinner and sent them on their way… and from there, they wrote what they wanted. Most of it was good, but the company took its share of criticism as well.
But if we’re honest, there’s a game being played in high tech, too, and the real question is not how it serves the public. The whole industry analyst field is a conflict of interest minefield. The big firms still take briefings with non-clients, but more and more, you’ll find a sales meeting part of the deal. It’s a lot easier to be a client — that way, you can be sure you have access when you have something to say … and heck, you may need their advice, too. It’s easy to pay $40K+ to sponsor a whitepaper by a well-known analyst firm, and there’s little chance your company will be handled critically their market analysis. You’ll rarely see a disclaimer with an industry analyst media quote to advise readers about their relationship with the subjects of their reports and comments.
It’s only human nature for a corporate executive to not want large contracts going to analysts who are tearing them apart in the media.
So where’s the line? The Pentagon is the only game in town for the military analysts and their arms manufacturers, lobbyists and consultants. They have a civic obligation to inform the public and working with military pundits is, in theory, the right thing to do. In practice though, the conflict of interest here cannot possibly be managed. If your livelihood depends utterly on access to the Pentagon, and the Pentagon — our government — tells you to “say this or you lose access,” that’s wrong for the government and the public.
Corporations in a position to wield this kind of influence should take note, because the next scandal could belong to them. The world today is far to open and credibility far too diffuse for any organization to command the message for very long.