Ghosts in the machine and the Marriott hack

Last week brought another large-scale security hack. This time it was the hotelier, Marriott that was the subject of unwanted attention. More precisely, it was their recent acquisition, the Starwood group, which was targeted. The business operates a number of well-known brands, including W Hotels, Sheraton, Westin and Aloft. The size of the operation goes some way to rationalise the scale of the breach, which is reported to have impacted as many as 500 million Starwood customers. To put the numbers into context, that’s second only to the 2013 attack on Yahoo, which affected 3 billion users. A distant second place, I recognise, but even so, these are astronomical numbers.

I don’t bring this up in terms of the crisis response; in fact, the Marriott actions to date have been laudable, including the neat idea of giving those who have been affected, the opportunity to use a web monitoring tool for up to a year to gauge whether there is unauthorised use of their personal details.

No, from a crisis communications perspective, the real interest lies in what was happening ‘upstream’. What I mean is that the Starwood hack is four year old! Its defences were breached in 2014, which is two years prior to the Marriott acquisition. The Marriott systems, apparently, are not affected. My point being – as is invariably the case with crisis communications – is that this is a crisis preparedness issue.

In short, mergers and acquisitions have always had their challenges for the reputation specialist, whether they were cultural differences, the inevitable job losses, or market volatility. The Marriott case, however, is illustrative of the inherent sensitivities of corporate acquirement in the digital age; principally the fragility (or not) of the systems, security and associated employee behaviours that’s characteristic of the newly purchased asset. To be clear, I don’t point the finger at Starwood, but make the point to best demonstrate the changing nature of reputational risk, and more importantly, to highlight a need to involve communicators sooner rather than later if an intrinsic threat – however feint - exists. The process of due diligence is tightly marshalled, typically, due to the sensitivities of the circumstances, but it’s vital that a link is established between those who delve ‘under-the-bonnet’ in the first place, and those of us who are tasked with managing the brand and any innate frailties thereafter.

This piece first appeared on the Mumbrella website:


Would a crisis by any other name make you click?

Being someone who supports organisations in terms of their respective reputations, I’m acutely aware that I have a rather slavish relationship with crises. To clarify, it’s in my professional interest to keep abreast of business mishaps, cynical misdeeds and product failings the world over. I gauge the context and privately evaluate the response. I tell you this as I feel I’m moderately qualified to say that crisis is getting too big.

That last point needs some explanation. Crisis, as a concept, has grown exponentially in recent years. For a simple illustration, check out the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which shows use of the term has virtually doubled since the end of the Second World War. The irony that crisis was less talked during the turbulence of D-Day and the Third Reich than it is today, can’t be lost on us.

To be clear, crises sadly happen, but not at the rate at which the crisis circus – namely the media, insurance firms and some aspects of the public relations industry would let us believe. Crisis has been industrialised as it can be inordinately profitable for those who purport to have the credentials to help. Crisis – as is the case with terrorism – is increasingly being applied with indiscriminate flair to a range of events and situations. In recent weeks, we’ve had the media refer to the crisis in Syria, the crisis afflicting German football, the Thai cave crisis and crisis talks in regards to the NEG – that’s the National Energy Guarantee to the unitiated. My concerns with the broad-brush approach primarily relates to the inherent associations with the word, crisis. Our understanding of the world is shaped by the way the world is labelled. We perceive crisis to be big, calamitous events, and subsequently, we expect big repercussions if they are not managed effectively, such as the loss of senior people and a plummeting share price. It’s a short step indeed from ‘crisis’ to that other favourite media omen, ‘embattled’. Crises call for accountability. The English language is fantastically accommodating in its breadth, and to that end, to read about the Thai Cave Accident, or the Plight of the Thai Cave Boys would have been as accurate a reading of the situation as we had, but I guess they’re not as exciting, nor are they as exacting in their demands if things go wrong.

This article first appeared on the Mumbrella website

Orthodox thinking will be the death of agency

The prophetic George Orwell once wrote that “at any given moment, there is an orthodoxy – a body of ideas – which it is assumed all right-thinking people will accept without question and a genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing”.  Orwell’s sentiments, have, sadly, never been as resonant as they are today.

We live in an age when it is becoming increasingly difficult to have a nuanced conversation about a seemingly growing number of non-sensitive issues, whether it’s same-sex marriage, immigration, Islam, or Israel. Clearly, there are others – the list is not exhaustive – but the substantive point is the corrosive effect that this new norm has on our relationships and our future welfare.

To move from the conceptual, the idea of not being able to fully debate an issue is particularly problematic for creative work spaces, especially agency-side, whose point of differentiation is the imaginative value of their work to the client. We need to give voice to all of the feelings provoked by such issues during the creative process if we’re to achieve great work. A campaign’s objective is to persuade its target audience; that audience doesn’t think homogenously, so nor should we.

I would go as far as saying that our creative leaders – whether it be advertising, PR, or marketing – are obliged to push these boundaries, and not revel in the harmless and the anodyne. Pushing those boundaries undoubtedly takes courage, but it’s vitally important that we try as conservatism is a deadening force in creativity. Clients are increasingly risk averse, but creative leaders cannot allow that to influence their creative process. Political and economic disruption in recent years has shrunk the creative space; it can’t afford to get any smaller.  

Leaders cannot do this alone, but their freethinking will prove to be the catalyst for others to join them in looking to achieve better work. Ultimately, it’s critical that the dissenters and the heretics are embraced by business for a brand to stand any chance of succeeding. It is only with these people on board do we achieve a fuller understanding of the issue (and views) at hand, and only then can teams produce an honest depiction of such matters.

It has to be said, that I don’t look to undermine the real feelings that some people may have about such issues, but to acknowledge the need to legitimise all aspects of the debate irrespective of its flavour. So, I’ve done the easy bit of identifying the potential problem – what about the solution? The idea of having a richer creative business means we need to assess how our corporate cultures can be loosened; whether that’s in the shape of recruitment or our brainstorming sessions. For instance, we need to recognise the benefits of appointing those who don’t quite think and sound like us in terms of personal viewpoints; I would also urge us to rethink the notion of collective problem solving as the reluctance to voice ideas among team members is a lot more widespread in such situations.

The heretical ones need to be welcomed and orthodoxy has to be challenged. The dissenter can, ironically, bring us closer together as team members; they can also open our eyes to those threats that have yet to emerge and the opportunities that we cannot see.

This article first appeared in Mumbrella

Is Storytelling in PR worthless?

Naturally, there will be exceptions to the rule, but on the whole, the industry is not equipped to produce compelling stories. I recognise that’s a bold, if not heretical, claim which is in need of some supporting arguments, so here goes.

PR professionals, as with the rest of the communications community, have been slavish to the idea of story, but we haven’t been astute enough to recognise that we tend to do it wrongly. Here’s what I mean, as practitioners we rely on conventional rhetoric to persuade. We mirror our clients, who have been trained this way; as creative writing guru, Robert McKee says, we build our case on facts, stats and quotes from authorities. We see it as an intellectual process, because we can’t see it any other way. Subsequently, we miss the vital component that make stories persuasive – the emotion!

Which begs the question – why do we miss it? As I said, this is partly down to producing what we think the clients want – a safe, logic-driven, data-based approach that typically leaves audiences cold at best. Ultimately though, we can’t do this properly, because as practitioners we’re schooled to keep those emotions in check.  This is especially the case with agency staff – I include myself here as a former agency man – who are immediately alerted of the paramount need to keep clients happy. I’m not saying that agency folk lack maturity per se; of course not, there are some brilliant minds at work here, but I fear they reflect their environmental upbringing which is essentially about one thing – profit. If we don’t fully explore our feelings in this space, including the reality of failure and the uncertainties of a tech future, how can we expect to produce rich, meaningful narratives for others?

Disruption is affecting us all at dizzying speeds, businesses are feeling increasingly vulnerable, so it is incumbent on us as professionals to embrace greater emotional exposure – to demonstrate how we feel - to produce stories and relationships that are reflective of our growing sensitivities and befitting of a more engaged audience.

This article first featured in Mumbrella on the 19 December


Erasing Your Revenge Porn Past

Yes, I’ve succumbed to the lowest common denominator to best grab your attention. How shameful to stoop so low, when I’ve been schooled to present an accurate reflection of the subject matter in question. Call me the clickbaiter. There are, I hasten to add, mitigating circumstances. Namely, generating your interest in the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, but hang on there, it is important. You can read more here.

Developed by various parts of the European Union (EU), the regulation intends to strengthen data protection for those inside the European community. It comes into play from the 25th May 2018 and also incorporates the transfer of data outside the EU. It should be on any discerning corporate reputation specialist’s radar. Without getting into the regulatory minutiae, this is essentially about addressing the perceived imbalance in terms of data control, between the general public and big business; whereas it’s perceived that the latter has too much control, so it’s only right that citizens enjoy more power over their own personal data and thus the new, all-governing regulation – hurrah.

Now, it’s a broad piece of governance, but there’s some interesting aspects in there, including a soundbite to thrill the ears of any sci-fi aficionado – get this, the ‘Right to Erasure’ – it’s made for a lyric, but I digress. Individuals can require the “controller” – say, Google – to erase data. It’s not altogether new; it has been with us for a few years; there was a landmark case in 2014, when the European Court of Justice ruled against the Big G, in the case of Mario Gonzalez, who unfortunately requested that a link to a Spanish paper about an auction for his foreclosed home for a debt that he subsequently paid, be removed. He won, but his misfortune lies in the fact that his case was first and so he has very little chance of being forgotten for the next few years.

Now, this gets more interesting I feel, in light of the fact that any request to erase is hindered by the subjectivity of the notion of ‘public interest’. For instance, the individual who contracted HIV a decade ago would claim that such a story has very little in the way of public interest and I would have sympathy with this view. However, the story would have far more interest for the individual’s health insurer. So, who’s to make these big decisions about our personal histories and playing the arbiter in terms of public interest? Yes, you’ve got it - the so-called data controllers – unelected organisations will have court-like influence to change the record, or not, without the fundamental checks on their own power. Grave new world, anyone? As always, comments welcome.  

The London acid attacks - are Muslims involved?

It was reported late last week that a couple of miserable bastards have carried out a number of acid attacks across east London. It’s believed that the majority of those targeted are food delivery drivers; that much I learnt from the Daily Mail’s UK edition. What I didn’t learn from the Mail, The Guardian, or the broadminded Independent was whether this was an attack motivated by racial, or religious hatred. The ‘M’ word – Muslim – was almost conspicuous by its absence, especially considering the recency of another attack on cousins Resham Khan and Jameel Muhktar – yes, you guessed it, Muslims.

To raise this argument without appropriate context would appear loaded, but I bring it up in view of the Sydney Morning Herald’s report of the same incident, which you can read here. To quote, reporter Henrietta Cook, “the incidents follow a spate of recent acid attacks in east London, which have left some Muslim residents fearful about leaving their homes amid speculation that they [the attacks] may have been motivated by racial, or religious hatred”. Now, either Henrietta knows more than her UK counterparts, or they are having to be far more circumspect in light of the sensitivities and the proximity of the attacks. I suspect it’s the latter. The facts need to be fully checked before you run the risk of ensuing panic in certain communities.

However, in view of the fact that the police officially treated the attack on Khan and Muhktar as a ‘hate crime’ and the importance of the public service remit of the media to keep publics fully informed, particularly when there’s a threat to human health, it would appear fully justified to include this aspect of the narrative. I will follow future coverage closely.


What does TV impartiality look like in the age of Trump?

National broadcasters, such as the ABC and the BBC have a statutory duty to ensure that the information they share is suitably impartial. Fundamentally, the networks need to demonstrate a diversity of perspectives from a diversity of sources on a range of subject matter. This is not the same as balance; minority views, for instance should not be given equal prominence to the prevailing consensus. It’s what the BBC refer to as “due weight” – you can read their guidelines here.

So, how much weight do the broadcasters afford to the views of Donald Trump? His Chinese hoax theory in regards to climate change has been well documented – and stands in stark contrast to the scientific consensus, but he is the President of the United States. It’s a relatively easy one for the broadcasters to bat away, despite the President’s status – it’s not a position that’s widely supported (despite the tweet’s 66,000 ‘likes’) and Mr Trump has a track-record for outlandish commentary. However, despite its left field origins, the comment is clever. Why? Well it leads any curious journalist to question what exactly the Chinese are doing in regards to global warming. It’s a great example of framing an issue; there may not be a hoax, but it does put the proverbial tennis ball back in the Chinese court.

Moreover, Mr Trump’s appointment also puts the national broadcasters in an uneasy position in view of the bashing they invariably receive for their perceived left-wing tendencies – here’s a 2016 piece from the Herald. The dilemma lies in the key role that’s expected of any discerning media operator, which is to rigorously interrogate the workings of those in power, including the President of the United States. If they do what’s expected of them, the likes of the ABC and the BBC face continued charges of one-sided journalism and the loss of objectivity (which gives further leverage to the free marketeers). Yet, if they pull their punches, they stand supportive of a regime’s policies, however outrageous the facts. So, what will it be?  The question, of course, brings us back to diversity – the need for a diversity of views from a range of people. As the impact of the silent majority begins to take shape, the trick to be achieved here is getting them to speak in the first place.

Are Class Actions on the rise?

Centrelink, the Australian Government’s welfare services program is in a spot of bother. Days prior to Christmas, its new automated system started firing off letters for non-existent debts; lots of letters, 20,000 each week apparently. You can read more here.

The situation has, unsurprisingly, led some commentators to point to a possible class action if the matter was to affect the emotional or physical wellbeing of those in receipt of the letters.

Much has been written in recent years about social media’s ability to unite affected individuals in terms of such lawsuits; the Volkswagen emissions scandal of 2015 is one such example, whereby a plethora of platforms were used to galvanise plaintiffs to register their grievance towards the car manufacturer. Although, in an interesting aside, the dispute in the United States between Gawker Media and a group of its former interns did demonstrate the complexities of such cases, when the federal court ruled that plaintiffs could reach out to known interns via social media, but were not permitted to “friend” individuals on Facebook – see more here.

In light of such coverage, I was keen to gauge whether my instincts – which told me that class actions were now growing at an exponential rate – were correct. Now, here I need to give thanks to Monash University’s Professor Vince Morabito for producing a highly illuminating study on class actions in Australia. The study assesses the Federal Court of Australia’s class action regime across 24 years, from 1992 to 2016, which recorded 370 such actions. So, was it case of an avalanche of disputes since the advent of social media? No it wasn’t, as the study shows 189 proceedings filed in the first 12 years (1992 – 2004), and 181 filed thereafter. Clearly, the reasons behind such actions are many and it would be remiss to point to any one aspect of the equation being dominant; however, the findings do offer a resolutionary opportunity to start challenging my instincts. 

The NAB Sydney move needs to be the start of something bigger.

National Australia Bank (NAB) – one of the country’s big four financial institutions – is moving its Sydney headquarters. The new home will offer staff the latest in “state-of-the-art offices” – you can read more here.

I bring this up as the bank has had its fair share of reputational woes in recent years; primarily providing customers with what’s been ruled as bad financial planning advice; in fairness, they are not alone here, with the same charges leveled at the Commonwealth Bank (CBA), ANZ and Westpac.

So, it begs the question did the bank – NAB – make its move to address its difficulties? The bank’s problems signal a need to examine the organisation’s culture; the CEO, Andrew Thorburn has, rightly, said as much, commenting that it would take 5-10 years to get “true integrity and consistency”.

Moving office presents businesses the opportunity to change, or reinforce the dominant culture. Smart companies get this; there’s enough smart people at NAB to identify the prospects that’s been afforded by the change, I’m sure.

Management guru, Edgar Schein came up with the idea of ‘cultural artifacts’ which are the tangible manifestations of corporate culture, such as buildings, uniforms and logos. So, in simple terms, the NAB state-of-the-art offices need only be state-of-the-art if the behavioural values sought by the bank, dictate that it be so – an open office arrangement would suggest an open culture, for instance.

However, it has to go further than that; a new building needs to mark the start of a process, not its culmination. The NAB move needs to be the catalyst to evaluate all aspects of the business – from recruitment, to employee benefits. If the process is limited to the seating arrangements, then the bank has already lost.



American Greats?

I appreciate that the blog’s usual preserve centres on the finer points of corporate reputation, but in light of THAT result, I hope you can indulge me this one time.

Amidst the recurring US bashing and to assuage my personal sense of upheaval on news of the 45th American President, here’s the reminder to self that it is a place of greatness and no doubt, will continue to be. Here’s my download of those Americans who ripped up the rulebook and did it their way. In no particular order, and yes, there should be more women, and yes there should be more African Americans, and certainly more Hispanics, but it was borne of instinct. America, we salute you.

1 Johnny Cash

2 F Scott Fitzgerald

3 Christopher Walken

4 Philip Roth

5 Daniel Kahneman

6 Iggy Pop

7 Gillian Anderson

8 Scooby Doo (All of them)

9 Francis Coppola

10 Norman Mailer

11 Muhammad Ali

12 Deborah Harry

13 Albert Einstein

14 Jack Nicklaus

15 Robert Frost

16 Jack White

17 Jack Cole

18 Thomas Edison

19 Ella Fitzgerald

20. David Lynch

21 Dwight D Eisenhower

22 Benicio del Toro  

23 Dian Fossey

24 Harry Callahan

25 Marvin Gaye

26 Isadora Duncan

27 Harper Lee

28 Jesse Owens

29 Neil Armstrong

30 Andrew Carnegie

31 Bill Gates

32 George Washington

33 Michael Jordan

34 Jackson Pollock

35 Walt Disney

36 Henry Ford

37. Martin Luther King

38 Rosa Parks

39 Charlie Parker

40 Edward Murrow

41 Ernest Hemingway

42 Pocahontas

43 Amelia Earhart

44 Abraham Lincoln

45 Sylvia Plath