Remember The West Wing, the cult TV series? Its last episodes describe the end of President Jed Bartlet’s term and portray his Chief of Staff and former Press Secretary, C.J. Craig, deluged with job offers as she struggles with the emotions of leaving her beloved President. Emissaries of Fortune 500 corporations, CEOs of fictitious tech companies, heads of NGOs are all making the trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with high six-figure contracts in hand. Because she’s a smart and generous women – and the series is suffused with utter political correctness – C.J. Craig leans toward a big foundation, eager to build highways in Africa — it could have been worse: a Carbon-Free nuculear plant, for instance.
As you’ll see in a few seconds, there is great irony in the following coincidence: the West Wing’s main writer was Aaron Sorkin, who also happens to have won an Oscar for his Facebook movie script…
Reality beats fiction: Robert Gibbs, Barack Obama’s former press secretary definitely looks less idealistic than the sharp-tongued West Wing character. Having left office in February, Gibbs is said to be in talks with Facebook (story in Times’Dealbook). The stakes are high: Facebook’s IPO looms. Private stock transactions currently put a $60bn valuation on the company and such lofty expectations come with many PR challenges. And the West Wing “high six figures” will be suitably updated to seven or more…
Gibbs won’t be the first White House hand to move to Silicon Valley. As Politico recalls, Joe Lockhart, Bill Clinton’s Press Secretary, joined Oracle. And former John McCain’s communication chief Jill Hazelbaker is now at Google. Even higher, we have former Vice-President Al Gore: he now is a rain-making General Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital giant and, for good measure, also sits on Apple’s Board. When it is about lobbying, tech firms don’t cheap. They hire the best talent money can buy.
The paradox: Then, why do these high-tech firms do such poor public communication? The answer lies two or three levels below the big hired guns, where talent and decision-making power disappear. There, PR people are mostly employed in stonewalling tasks. And the corpocracy likes them that way. The power structure condones an incestuous hiring process. Senior flacks recruit junior flacks. And, as in all consanguineous reproductive activities, DNA rarely improves. Most hires are expected to be docile; initiative is strongly discouraged by paranoid upper management layers.
Take Google. This company could supply an endless stream of great stories in every possible area of high-tech and cultural endeavors. Without compromising any trade secret (the real ones are beyond general understanding), the search giant could lift the veil on enthralling subjects ranging from computer science to business, engineering or literacy.
Instead, PR people at the Googolplex feed the media herds with the same repetitive stream of boring anecdotes. Most PR flacks are actually prevented from talking to engineers. In Europe, when a reporter asks nerdy question, his request is routed to a London-based PR specialist in charge of the relationships with engineers. Needless to say, there is a great deal of time and information loss in such process. Great subjects will be corroded within the bowels of a timorous PR bureaucracy – most often marginally competent when it comes to Google’s core technologies. When Larry Page says he’s committed to cutting through the red tape, he ought to consider a communication overhaul as well. (To be fair, change could be already under way as we hear Google hired seasoned former journalists at key positions).
On stonewalling, Apple is in a league of its won. Secret is an obsession that turned into a key marketing tactic. But the most compelling knowledge behind Apple’s achievements will remain under wraps for long – which is a pity, not only for business journalists, but also for B-schools, design colleges and computer science departments as well.
Another paradox: The companies who best understand today’s communication needs are not the ten or twenty-years-old technology firms but rather old corporations with first-hand experience in the evolution of journalism. They might have been slow to understand, but now they got it. And with that hard-earned understanding comes efficiency and a bit cynicism.
Here are some key components of the shift in communication:
1 / The public’s appetite for information has never been greater. Permanent connection to various newsfeeds – from smartphone apps to social medias – causes people to expect a higher flow of real-time information.
2 / At the same time, due to crumbling business models, editorial resources within news organizations are depleting fast. It usually goes for quantity as well as quality – the overall competence of the journalistic crowd is moving downward.
3 / Opinion makers have changed. Twenty years ago, large corporations had to deal with a bunch of clearly identified specialized journalists from mainstream medias. Some were good – independent, working their own sources outside PR’s circle of influence – others were bad, sleeping with the enemy (sometimes literally).
4 / Today, a large chunk of the news cycle is controlled by legions of digital serfs, glued at their workstations, constrained by the need for rapid-fire news delivery. The task of spinning information had to adapt to different needs. (If you doubt this, read the 58 slides AOL Way memo, leaked by Business Insider; it shows in painful detail the productivity obsession in modern “churnalism”). Spin-doctors are now dealing with the mass of opinion-shapers rather than with the quality of reporting. In a sense, this makes their jobs easier. It’s simply a question of contents and tools.
5 / Contents are now tailored for the needs of digital media. As one of the renegade journalist recently told me – a fine female reporter disappointed by the trades’ evolution –, corporate communication departments are switching from the usual press release to almost-ready-to-publish stories. She showed me compelling examples of product announcements treated in a variety of manners. The communiqué was largely ignored, but its transformation into a pre-packaged version showed up everywhere: internet, but also mainstream medias, newspapers, TV, radio. The PR advisor was herself surprised by the efficiency of the process (and rather happy for her client): none of the media were eager to go outside the path she defined; reporters called the specialists she suggested, used the photo and video material she provided; no question asked whatsoever.
The underlying facts: most journalists no longer have the time, the training, nor the motivation or even the management supervision to go beyond the surface. So, let’s feed them with what they need and we are in full control. That’s the plan. And most of the time, it works beyond expectations.
6 / Tools are morphing in the same fashion. As real-time becomes a key element, corporate newsrooms adjust their channels accordingly. Crisis centers now include their own communication units, able to setup ad hoc newsfeeds in an instant. Dedicated twitter-like streams, newsletters, instant messaging, SMS services will target groups of journalists selected for their ability to maximize a well-designed reverberation of the spin. (The targeting process will also include the tiny number of specialists lurking here and there). Instant-obsessed websites will propagate the feeds. And as they are closely monitored (or sometimes owned) by mainstream medias, the corporate-originated communication will soon bear the stamp of respectable news organizations.
Several factors converge to reinforce this appalling trend: Media companies see their editorial resources eroding; newsroom management becomes non-existent, so does the notion of strategic editing (which collides with the imperative of urgency and immediacy). Again, for most of them. At the same time, big corporations allocate ever larger resources to improve their spinning capabilities – which remain a negligible expense line when compared to their server farms or their legions of sales people. In the end, they might win the communication battle.