Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Myth of Control

There's a myth in public relations that you can completely control your message. Yes, it's true you can do your best to make sure your messages are out there and you want to make sure that if you, as the company spokesperson, are speaking, it is within the messages that you have laid out.

But complete control does not exist.

No one "controls" the message better than the current Presidential administration. The George W. Bush White House is known for keeping a strong hand on what information gets out and how it is presented. You can make your own arguments about what this means, I'm not going to get into a political discussion here, but laying out daily "talking points" for members of the party and having the ability to stay "on message" on such issues as Iraq, the War on Terror and even the economy in this modern news environment has been impressive.

But here's where it all falls apart: anonymous sources. Many have probably read my opinions about them before and about how I, as the reader, want to get a sense of who is actually doing the talking.

The December 19 issue of Newsweek contains a very unflattering story about President Bush called "Bush in the Bubble" that paints him as somewhat out-of-touch with what is going on in the rest of the government, if not the world. Written primarily by Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe, but also reported by Holly Bailey, Daniel Klaidman, Eleanor Clift, Michael Hirsh and John Barry, the story contains no less than 11 anonymous sources to only seven who were directly interviewed and named. This is my own count and in no way scientific, I also have no insight into how the reporting was done or over what period of time.

Most sources are identified by their basic position as a staffer, friend or even "a former senior member of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad." These are pretty specific, which I appreciated.

According to the piece "virtually all White House officials (in this story and in general) refused to be identified for fear of antagonizing the president". In fact, the reporters seemed to run out of ways to characterize this fear, waiving off one identification by noting the subject's "fear of giving offense".

So, why do I note this? Two reasons. First, it shows how good reporting by a professional organization is still necessary as a check on the government. How a key elected leader sees the world is important for the public to know and understand. A blogger working on his or her own would not necessarily have the time, money or staff (note the large number of contributors) to create such a piece.

Second, it shows how no group can truly control the message in this modern day. Even without Newsweek breathing down your neck, any organization that tries to completely control the message by shutting down or quieting dissent will only find that dissent in the public anonymously. If the President and his top aides cannot keep their own staff quiet, how can the CEO of a small company?

Even with all this apparent fear, these staffers still spoke to reporters for a prominent publication. And I guarantee they KNEW to whom they were speaking. I'm confident these staffers, friends and officials were not tricked into saying things against the President, since they knew enough to conceal their identity.

You can do your best to work with reporters, present them with your story and make sure they have all the materials they need to properly represent your company and your messages, but in at the moment when the fingers hit the keyboard, only the reporter knows what shows up on the screen. The same holds true for bloggers, who may be your customers, employees and partners. Secrecy and forced silence may seem like an enticing policy for a while, but it always risks falling apart.

Is that a risk you are willing to take?

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