The Affront of Front Groups

“A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers,” a report to allay growing fears of smoking’s health risks, from the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, 1954.

AP reports that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was a secret consultant in the last decade to advance the interests of Vladimir Putin’s regime. According to the article, his work included the establishment of front groups. See below a post I wrote on this important public relations topic…

In “Law and Ethics for Public Relations,” a course I developed for Mid-America Christian University, we study front groups, “an organization that purports to represent one agenda while in reality it serves some other interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned.” This definition comes from Sourcewatch.org, one of many organizations dedicated to communications transparency that reveal front group backgrounds. Critics of the public relations industry have denounced front groups as communications professionals using their skills to deceive the public, disseminating information from seemingly authoritative and neutral bodies that is an actual effort to sway opinion in favor of the obscured–and often mistrusted–backers of these groups.

Coca-Cola is the among a long list of industries and companies sponsoring front groups. The New York Times and the Associated Press report that Coke gave $1.5 million to the Global Energy Balance Group, a scientific body that claimed physical activity has a significant effect on weight and can offset the consumption of high-calorie foods and beverages. A damning string of emails showed the depth of Coke’s involvement with the group, down to guidance on logo design. Principals of the group, Professors James Hill and Steven Blair had provided numerous quotes to media and received millions in funding from Coke in prior years.

The history of front groups spans decades. Author and professor Patricia J. Parsons cites PR pioneer Carl Byoir as a pioneer as well of front groups. In the 1930s, he launched groups such as the National Consumers Tax Commission to argue against taxation. Such groups’ names and aims sounded noble enough. Less noble was the fact that Byoir did this work for his client, the A&P grocery chain, to stop higher taxes on chain stores.

In the study of front groups, the tobacco industry is frequently used as an example. In the 1950s, new scientific reports presented cigarettes’ health risks. In response, the tobacco industry formed the Tobacco Industry Research Committee under the counsel of leading PR firm Hill and Knowlton. The committee released regular communications to doctors and media disputing the link between lung cancer and smoking, citing other possible causes including air pollution. The tobacco industry kept broadcasting messages to defend its position even after the Surgeon General’s 1964 report on smoking’s dangers, including the claim that nicotine increased mental acuity and the demand to “Get Government Off Our Backs.”

The Public Relations Society of America, PRSA, clearly advises public relations professionals regarding front groups:

RECOMMENDED BEST PRACTICE: PRSA members should recognize that assisting front groups and individuals that represent undisclosed sponsorships and/or deceptive or misleading descriptions of goals, cause, tactics, sponsors or participants, even if such activities are lawful such as 527 organizations, constitutes improper conduct and malpractice under the PRSA Member Code of Ethics and should be avoided.

Professor Parsons offers more in the way of best practice:

The bottom line is that there is considerable opportunity for public relations professionals to be more innovative in their approaches to solving PR problems or capitalizing on PR opportunities. But in the heat of the creative process, we cannot afford to lose sight of the potential ethical quagmires into which we may be falling.

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Sales Vs. Marketing 2017

king-kong-vs-godzillaForbes presents an excellent article on unifying sales and marketing. Note the emphasis on content and joint keyword strategy among its many important points. This article leads me to repost my entry from a few years back on sales and marketing working together:

Ali vs. Frazier. Magic vs. Bird. King Kong vs. Godzilla. Cool. Sales vs. marketing. Not cool. Still, this internal conflict persists in many companies. Philip Kotler, one of the giants of marketing, co-wrote “Ending The War Between Sales and Marketing,” an excellent overview on creating cultural and operational harmony between the groups.

Having worked both sides of the sales/marketing fence, I know the perennial complaints… “Marketing doesn’t give us stuff we can use” … “Sales just likes to ‘wing’ it.” … “You spend a ton of money on fancy marketing that nobody cares about.” … “Sales is just looking for someone to blame when they can’t close.”

Kotler and his co-writers, Neil Rackham and Suj Krishnaswamy, speak wisely on the need to define roles between sales and marketing, moving toward the ideals of alignment and integration. Dialog and cooperation are the watchwords. Unfortunately, as Kotler, Rackhame and Krishnaswamy point out, many companies struggle with any form of interdepartmental coordination (you can say “synergy” until you turn blue). Under these circumstances, even the proximate functions of sales and marketing are likely to remain in their proverbial silos.

Early in my marketing career, I heard a definition that resonated: “Marketing’s job is to put prospects as deep into the sales pipeline as possible.” To the salesman in me, that meant qualified prospects, aware of the product and the value proposition, whose objections have been reduced due to information and impressions already received.

Gleaning from the observations of Kotler et al. and my own experiences, here are some steps to synchronize sales and marketing:

  • Get field reports from sales. What’s working? What’s not? What’s the competition doing? What are customers saying? Make sure sales has supporting evidence.
  • Involve sales in the strategic marketing process (see above). This minimizes surprises and resistance when the strategy becomes tactics and the tactics become deliverables.
  • Prep sales in message delivery. Review active marketing messages with salespeople to make sure these themes reappear in sales presentations (or are not contradicted).
  • Create a strong sales support function. Let sales know that marketing has its back for customized communications as needed.

Sales and marketing must be united since they are two elements of a single process: identifying prospects and converting them into satisfied customers. Their disconnect is ridiculous, destructive, and all-too-common. Open the peace talks now. Have a senior exec (C-suite if possible) take ownership of the new cooperation between sales and marketing. Leave the rivalries for sporting events and monster movies.

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Fake News and Real Gatekeepers

Image result for pope francis trump fake newsIn the wake of Donald Trump’s election, fake news has become a major news topic (note the irony). These are fabricated stories published on the web, designed to stimulate traffic with sensational headlines and claims. The sites presenting fake news resemble traditional media in name and design. Their content is easily shared on social media.

Fake news epitomizes the post-truth era, a social and political climate in which emotion and pre-existing belief outweigh independently collected and verified facts. Amid the victories of Trump and Brexit, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as its international word of the year. Concern over the effect of fake news on public opinion and actions surged when a gunman stormed a pizzeria falsely identified as a front for a child sex ring led by Hillary Clinton.

Publishers of fake news have multiple possible motives:

Fake news is not a monolith, nor is it the product of a oligarchy as traditional media companies have been considered. Fake news is a decentralized consequence of the Internet, which has greatly simplified the broadcasting of content and fragmented its consumption. Tabloid stories, propaganda and conspiracy theories are not new. Their presentation and distribution, however, has undergone a revolution in the past two decades. The Internet, the heralded “fact checker,” has become the great source of disinformation.

In their book Media Now, Straubhaar, LaRose and Davenport explore the theories that describe the relationship between society and media. The gatekeeping theory establishes the deliberate efforts of editors, producers and journalists in mainstream media outlets to select and shape news stories. New media bypass such gatekeepers who would enforce accuracy and objectivity among their functions. Concurrently, public trust in mass media has hit an all-time low. Detractors of mainstream media consider its gatekeepers fallible and biased, requiring web-based watchdogs for balance. Two landmark cases illustrate this shift:

Three election cycles after the mainstream media debacle that forced Dan Rather’s retirement, many are rethinking the freewheeling approach of Internet journalism and commentary. Such retrenchment is by no means certain. Mainstream media, and the polling they reported, failed to anticipate Trump’s win. Newspaper editorial boards overwhelmingly denounced Trump, including those of several major conservative publications and the historically neutral USA Today. All this suggests mainstream media being out of step, a perception that will continue to invigorate fake news.

Jeffrey Herbst, president/CEO of Newseum, insists that the media gatekeeper is not extinct; the job has moved from media producers to media consumers, the “demand side.” That means us. Factcheck.org offers guidelines for spotting fake news. It takes some work. The ability to filter, assess, and benefit from media is known as media literacy. Straubhaar, LaRose and Davenport make the case for such active involvement with media:

Instead of simply letting media bombard you with a cacophony of messages, you can learn to use different media effectively to obtain the information you need to make productive decisions. You can be an active seeker of information and an active participant, contributing to the market place of ideas and a democratic form of governance.

As the demand side, will we demand enough of our institutions, our leaders, our media old and new, and ourselves to neutralize fake news?

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