V for Victory and Viral

Churchill_VJuly 19 marks the anniversary of World War II’s “V for Victory” campaign. New York Times article of the day describes it as a “nerve war” against the Nazis in occupied Europe. Launched by the BBC, championed by Winston Churchill, and executed by countless brave people in conquered countries, V for Victory was quintessential propaganda. It was also viral marketing in an era when the only computers were a handful of top-secret, room-sized machines (also part of the fight against the Nazis, used to break their coded messages).

The concept began in early 1941 with a BBC radio broadcast by Belgian refugee Victor De Lavelaye. He urged those under occupation to use “V” as a rallying symbol, the first letter in the French “Victoire,” the Flemish “Vrijheid,” and the English “Victory.” BBC editors embraced the concept, and the service beamed the official campaign to occupied Europe.

Per the NYT account, a BBC announcer with the nom-de-guerre “Colonel V. Britton” read a statement from Prime Minister Churchill:

The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny. So long as the peoples continue to refuse all collaboration with the invader it is sure that his cause will perish and that Europe will be liberated.

Col.  Britton urged listeners to create “V” graffiti, to chalk or paint the letter on walls and pavement. The “V” theme continued as it was construed as the Roman symbol for the number “5.” Listeners were instructed to read Daniel 5, beginning with the fifth verse–the “writing on the wall” foretelling the downfall of the Babylonian empire that had enslaved the Jews.

Additionally, Col. Britton told the audience to tap out Morse code for the letter “V,” three dots and a dash for the benefit of friend and invader alike. That rhythm mimicked the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth (again, V as 5), a motif likened to “fate knocking at the door,” an extra affront to the Germans that co-opted the greatest work of one of their greatest composers. The first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth became the BBC’s call sign for its broadcasts to continental Europe throughout the war.

V for Victory spread across Europe, as one defiantly drawn or tapped “V” sparked another and another. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels quickly countered, claiming the campaign was a Third Reich invention signifying the German “Viktoria.” The Nazis posted their “V” on banners and newspaper front pages and used Beethoven’s Fifth in their radio broadcasts. It is true brilliance when you can get the competition (enemy) to carry your message.

V for Victory was viral marketing. A major media platform, the BBC, created the spark and the people did the rest. The great communicator of the age, Winston Churchill, continually flashed the V sign for photographers, maintaining his role in the movement. Seven decades before social media let people strike blows against dictators and report from battlefields, V for Victory gave voice to Hitler’s involuntary–and temporary–subjects.

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Three Examples of Bad PR, Q2 2014

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Controversy about the treatment of veterans is as old as the nation, from the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783 which drove Congress from the then-capital of Philadelphia, to the Bonus Army of 1932 protesting economic conditions, to revelations in the 1970s and 1980s about the harmful effects of Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War. In short, the federal government has historically lagged in addressing veterans’ needs.

Recent revelations of excessive waiting times at VA hospitals and coverups of those lapses constitute a spike in a chronic crisis regarding the VA’s healthcare services spanning several presidential administrations. As frequently seen in scandals, misconduct to conceal misconduct–secret lists tallying true wait times for veteran patients, retaliation against whistleblowers–fails its intended purpose and only intensifies the public’s outrage. An official report pointed to a “corrosive culture” at the VA, underscoring the the foundation of public relations: the cultural integrity of the subject organization.

The scandal has prompted multiple resignations in the VA’s top ranks, including Secretary Eric Shinseki who received White House support to the end of his tenure. President Obama nominated former Procter & Gamble CEO and West Point graduate Robert McDonald as the new VA secretary.

Hillary Clinton: “Hellish.” “Disastrous.” These are descriptions of Hillary Clinton’s recent tour to support her book Hard Choices. Many considered the tour to be a trial run for another campaign for president in 2016. If so, the experience has exposed “flaws in the machinery,” per Bill Clinton’s former press secretary, Dee Dee Myers.

Missteps in media interviews have punctuated the tour and cast doubt on Ms. Clinton’s preparedness as a candidate. The signature quote:

We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt. We had no money when we got there, and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages, for houses, for Chelsea’s education. You know, it was not easy.

Critics howled and supporters winced as Clinton seemed to blithely ignore the many millions in speaking, consulting and book fees that were essentially guaranteed her family upon Bill Clinton leaving office. In subsequent mitigation attempts (i.e., damage control), she admitted her comment was not “artful” but still asserted that she and her husband were “not truly well off” compared to other wealthy people.

Other interviews on Benghazi and support of gay marriage have been shaky as well, the latter prompting a “testy” exchange with an NPR reporter. Pundits have been quick to point out that she has not campaigned (officially or unofficially) in years and that the last time she did, she lost in the primaries to Barack Obama. Ms. Clinton’s poll numbers have dropped from their highs, but she still handily beats all potential GOP contenders in hypothetical matchups.

Dr. Oz: In June, Mehmet Oz, physician, author and TV host, found himself in America’s hottest hot seat: appearing before a senate panel on Capitol Hill. In the same forum that saw Dick Fuld answering for Lehman Brothers’ collapse and Akio Toyoda apologizing for Toyota’s defects, Dr. Oz testified about endorsing dietary supplements on his show.

Oz has touted supplements such as green coffee extract, raspberry ketones and Garcinia camboja as “miracle” weight loss products. Sen. Claire McCaskill said to the doctor, “I don’t get why you need to say this stuff because you know it’s not true.”

Oz defended the products and his actions with statements that included:

My job is to be a cheerleader for the audience when they don’t think they have hope.

I have things I think work for people. I want them to try them so that they feel better, so that they can do the things we talk about every day on the show [like diet and exercise].

When I can’t use language that is flowery, that is exulting, I feel like I’ve been disenfranchised.

Oz told the senators that he has toned down his language but will still endorse dietary supplements on his show. He has faced heavy criticism from lawmakers and commentators, but it is too soon to say if his sponsors and audience feel the same way.

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Three Examples of Bad PR, Q1, 2014

Chris Christie: 2014 opened with a scandal centering on Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who went into the year widely considered the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president in 2016. The Record broke the story that Christie staffers and appointees closed access lanes in Ft. Lee, NJ, to the George Washington Bridge to punish the town’s mayor for not endorsing Christie in the 2013 gubernatorial race. A series of emails and texts were the smoking gun as deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and Port Authority board member David Wildstein planned the commuting nightmare under the guise of a traffic study.

Christie denied knowledge of the plot and said he was misled by his people in the weeks leading up to the media bombshell. Resignations and firings commenced as Christie sought to distance himself from the scandal. The typically bombastic governor was contrite in his first press conference regarding the scandal. In subsequent weeks, his reputation continued to suffer as he was a labeled a longtime political bully, an image reinforced by his attempted unseating of Thomas Kean, Jr., as state senate minority leader the previous fall, drawing a rebuke from former NJ governor Thomas Kean, Sr., the senator’s father and Christie’s political mentor. Christie authorized an outside law firm to investigate the lane closures and ensuing coverup with the final report absolving him of involvement, which many called a whitewash.

Christie returned to his trademark combative form in his first press conference in more than two months after the scandal broke. His poll numbers dipped then stabilized with a 50% job approval rating. Regarding his appeal as a presidential candidate, he places in the pack of GOP hopefuls in many surveys.

Tim Armstrong: As CEO of AOL, Tim Armstrong is no stranger to controversy and bad press. His company remains a beleaguered symbol of the dotcom crash, its 2001 merger with Time Warner routinely called “the worst business deal in history.” In 2013, Armstrong was dunned for publicly firing a creative director for taking photos during a company meeting with 1,000 people listening in by conference call.

Armstrong sank to a new PR low in February when he announced that he was cutting back 401(k) benefits for his workers because of rising healthcare costs. He cited two “distressed babies” born to AOL families whose medical issues each resulted in $1 million in costs. The outrage and snark were immediate, with traditional and social media lighting up in condemnation of Armstrong. He tried to explain his position in an internal communication that fell short of a public apology in the eyes of many.

The most poignant protest came in an article by the mother of one of the two babies cited by Armstrong. Deanna Fei writes, “(Armstrong) exposed the most searing experience of our lives for an absurd justification for corporate cost-cutting.” The article is calm but heart-wrenching as it tells the story of a little girl born in the fifth month without warning who defied the odds to survive. Armstrong ended up apologizing as well for the 401(k) cuts and reinstating previous benefits.

Kelly Blazek: This fall from grace is a reminder of the power of viral stories and the special responsibility that communications professionals have in their public conduct. Kelly Blazek, a Cleveland communications pro and head of the Cleveland Job Bank for marketing and communications job postings, sent an angry, snide reply to Diana Mekota, a recent college graduate requesting a LinkedIn connection.

“Wow, I cannot wait to let every 25-year-old jobseeker mine my top-tier marketing connections to help them land a job. Love the sense of entitlement in your generation. And therefore I enjoy denying your invite, and giving you the dreaded ‘I Don’t Know’…” Blazek wrote Mekota, denying her as well a subscription to the job bank. Mekota sent a conciliatory reply, despite being told “Don’t ever write me again.” Upon receiving no further response, Mekota shared Blazek’s screed with friends by email and posted it to several social media sites.

As was the case with the Armstrong debacle, outrage and snark exploded in traditional and social media. Blazek’s self-description as a “job bank mother” treating subscribers as “little brothers and sisters” heightened the scorn, as did her recent award as “Communicator of the Year” from the Cleveland Chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators. Others came forward having received the same nasty treatment by Blazek for trying to connect with her.

National and international media picked up the story. Blazek issued a public apology in The Cleveland Plain Dealer and shut down her online presence. The Cleveland IABC accepted return of the Communicator of the Year award by “mutual agreement” with Blazek.

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