Sunday, 29 April 2012

PR History - The Elevator Pitch That Made Modern Japan

Every PR professional with any experience is familiar with the idea of the elevator pitch. Alternately known as the 'elevator speech' or 'elevator statement', it's a short summation used to get a point across as quickly and coherently as possible - hypothetically within the time typically spent on an elevator. It's the sort of thing PR people the world over are enlisted to help business executives, politicians and other public figures develop and deliver. It's also the sort of thing that comes in handy to PR folk themselves, either when trying to transmit key messages over the phone (or, potentially, on an actual elevator) or even trying to convince somebody that our services are absolutely invaluable.

There are plenty of online resources dedicated to crafting and delivering the perfect elevator pitch, as well as a glut of blog posts purporting to tell you the top five or top ten or top two secrets to the perfect elevator pitch. This is not one of those posts. For one thing, so many of these posts state what to my mind is plainly obvious, namely that you need to keep it short and concise and refine your key messages. The one point I would add to the predictable adages would be to practice your pitch on your dog - or if you don't have one, somebody else's dog. If you can get your message across within the length of time the average dog can sit still and pay attention, you're good to go.

Do elevator pitches work? Absolutely. And sometimes they change the course of history. And in certain cases, they have actually taken place in elevators. The story of a young lad named Kakuei Tanaka and his chance meeting with one of Japan's most influential prewar industrialists on an elevator in Tokyo shows just how valuable having that 60-minute self-promotional sales pitch at the ready can be

Former Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka is without doubt Japan's most memorable postwar political figure. While perhaps not the greatest prime minister in Japanese history, he was most definitely the most fascinating - and arguably the most influential. He was gregarious, megalomaniacal and possessed with an almost fanatical devotion to his constituents and allies. Tanaka was, in Canadian terms, a sort of amalgam of Chrétien's down-home charm, Trudeau's arrogance and Mulroney's ethical pliancy - with more than a little bit of Berlusconi thrown in for good measure.

Born into a destitute farming family in rural Niigata Prefecture in 1918 and arriving in Tokyo as a teenager with a eighth grade education and an thick Niigata accent, his rise to power was totally improbable. While his tenure as PM lasted only two years (though long compared to the parade of lemmings that have occupied the office in recent years), the man thoroughly defined Japanese politics for well over a decade and his ghost still haunts the halls of Nagatacho 20 years after his death. Twice jailed for accepting bribes from industrial stakeholders and dogged by scandal his entire career (most notably by the notorious ANA-Lockheed Scandal in the 1970s), his Robin Hood/Mafioso persona continues to fascinate and polarize.
File:Tanaka and Nixon 1973.gif
Watergate, shmatergate! 12 bribery scandals and I'm still king of the world!

In a sort of flawed Horatio Alger story, Kaku-san (as his supporters called him) went to the big city with a mission: to bring hinterlands like his own into modern Japan through mass infrastructure development. His system, known in Japan as the 'construction state' (土建国家, Doken Kokka), has been lauded for making Japan a world leader in infrastructure and helping spread the country's postwar prosperity to its farthest flung corners and derided for fostering corruption, littering the countryside with ugly (and often unnecessary) public works  and ratcheting up the country's national debt. Love him or hate him, he remade his country.

What few people know about Tanaka is that he would most likely have lived a life of total anonymity were it not for a chance meeting on a Tokyo elevator in 1937 with the Viscount Masatoshi Okochi, a powerful industrialist in prewar Japan. Tanaka was 18 years old at the time and working as an errand boy for a construction company. Tanaka biographer Steven Hunziker tells the story thusly:

Kakuei, a novice at Nakamura, was often sent to the headquarters of Riken for delivery and pickup. One day, while on just such a mission, he rushed through a crowd of waiting employees in the lobby of Riken in an effort to catch a strangely empty elevator. It was empty because the Viscount Okochi was on it. Kakuei's impertinence was indeed embarrassing. A few days later he found himself in an identical situation. However, this time he demonstrated some circumspection and waited outside with the others. The Viscount, remembering the youth, inquired as to why he was being so slow to get on the elevator. Kakuei, always opportunistic, took his cue and joined the Viscount.
From there, he secured a chance for a meeting in the Viscount's office later that day. He quickly related to the Viscount the tale of his pilgrimage to Tokyo. Responsive to Kakuei's ambitious nature, Okochi decided to give the lad a chance to prove himself capable of higher station and promised to grant one wish. Kakuei requested help in establishing his own drafting office. The Viscount complied and thus the Kyoei Architectural Office came into being. The Viscount supplemented the request with a healthy array of introductions to potential business clients.
From this point on, Tanaka wasted no time marrying his way into the upper classes and maneuvering his way into politics. By 1948 at the age of 29 he was appointed Vice Minister of Justice (an astounding achievement in the gerontocratic world of Japanese politics), and he continued to climb the political ladder in a system dominated by blue-blooded hereditary politicians. As PM he was unafraid to antagonize the United States over trade caps while causing some consternation in Nixon's White House by normalizing diplomatic ties with the People's Republic of China ahead of Washington. And while Tanaka and Nixon would both be toppled in 1974 due to scandal, Tanaka only seemed to grow stronger with controversy - and was even managing party affairs from his prison cell.

The moral of this story? Look for an opportunity to accost an influential person on an elevator, barge in, go completely above your station, defy whatever cultural conventions you were born into - and get that elevator pitch across. It also helps to have vast reserves of insouciant self-confidence, something that Tanaka demonstrated at every juncture. It also helps to have a good story, and the story of the Niigata farm boy determined to take on the big boys in the capital not only impressed the Viscount and got Tanaka his first job, but also drove his career and sealed his sordid spot in Japanese history.

Stephen Hunziker's delightful illustrated biography of Kakuei Tanaka is unfortunately out of print. Fortunately, the book is available online in its entirety here.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

10 Public Relations Lessons from Monty Python

I've been a die-hard fan of Monty Python - both the films and the original Flying Circus series - for as long as I can remember. For whatever reason, the Pythons' inimicable blend of surrealist social commentary and crass ridiculousness for its own sake makes me laugh just as much now as it did when I first discovered it, and now thanks to YouTube I can find pretty much whatever Python vignette I get a hankering for.

A large part of the everlasting appeal of Monty Python has, for me at least, always been the obvious intellectual diversity of its cast. Between the six of them, the Pythons covered the disciplines of medicine (Graham Chapman), law (John Cleese), history (Michael Palin), English (Eric Idle and Terry Jones) and political science (Terry Gilliam), making them a veritable university unto themselves. Their penchant for high-minded themes was matched only by their glee with which they tore them to shreds. From existentialist philosophy to politics right and left, from old English mythology to the Gospels, nothing was ever off limits.

A recurring theme throughout much of the Pythons' work (and in related series like Fawlty Towers) was the absurdity of human communication. A great many of Monty Python's classic routines centred around the maddeningly inefficient and counterproductive ways human beings communicate with one another as well as the great lengths people will go to conceal obvious truths when a simple admission of error or wrongdoing would have been far less painful. As a PR practitioner, I have indeed gained a whole new appreciation for the Pythons' brand of humour, as I believe it has much to offer us in the way of communications and crisis management lessons.

Here are 10 examples.

1) Always expect the Spanish Inquisition.

Monty Python- Spanish InquisitionOne of the most important steps in formulating a communications plan is the SWOT analysis, in which you determine an organization or company's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. And once your threats have been identified, you have to be ready for them - and have a communications response at hand. And in the Python universe, being ambushed by Cardinal Ximenez and his goons (and tortured in the 'Comfy Chair') is a very real threat. In other words, there's really no excuse for not expecting the Spanish Inquisition.

2) Argument is not the same as contradiction.

There's an art to countering false or libellous information, and as a PR practitioner it's your job to 'set the record straight'. However, saying "no it isn't" in the style of the legendary 'Argument Clinic' sketch doesn't cut it unless your aim is to thoroughly annoy the media. Address the allegation, acknowledge whatever elements of truth it may contain and give the querant the benefit of the doubt while proceeding to counter the allegation. Getting upset or just smugly saying "you're wrong" will just piss people off.

3) Obfuscating obvious truths along the lines of "He's not dead, he's resting" will get you nowhere.

One of the most important principles in good public relations is that you tell the truth and you get it out fast, even when it hurts (in fact especially when it hurts). And yet companies continue to follow the example of Michael Palin in the 'Dead Parrot' sketch insisting that the bird in question is resting, stunned, pining for the fjords etc., reputation management liability be damned. Rather like Syncrude and the ducks when you think about it. And those birds were definitely not just resting.

4) When asked a difficult and potentially dangerous question, try answering in the form of a question.

When asked by an evil bridge keeper what the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow is, the correct answer is, of course, "What do you mean? European or African swallow?" As a PR professional you can't lie, but you can always turn the tables on a hostile journalist and assume the role of the interviewer. This works well in politics and the undisputed all-time master of it was Pierre Elliott Trudeau. In his famous 'Just Watch Me' interview, virtually every 'answer' he gives the press is actually a question. Brilliant!

5) Get straight to the point without any unnecessary preamble, especially when summarizing Proust.

In the 'All-England Summarize Proust Competition' skit, the contestants had a total of 15 seconds to summarize Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. When you've got that short a span to time to get your message across, don't get into an in-depth preamble of the literary significance of the book, as the first contestant did, or for that matter stumble all over your words or riff on a single key message along the lines of "Proust in his first book wrote about, wrote about...." unless you want to lose your job to Carol Cleveland with enormous fake boobs.

6) Don't launch a communications plan (or a silly walk) until it's fully developed.

Remember that you're going to be duking it out for the public ear amid the relentless media noise and countless other competing messages. If you have a silly walk and want to promote it, make sure it's silly enough to get noticed and you've tried, tested and fine-tuned it for maximum silliness. Do your research and familiarize yourself with other communications plans and key messaging, and make sure you differentiate your own from the competition. And then stick to it.

7) When disseminating translated material, make sure you get a second opinion.

Monty Python- Dirty Hungarian PhrasebookThe notorious 'Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook' sketch clearly demonstrates the dangers of improper translation, and PR practitioners working in the domain of intercultural communications need to be mindful of this. When transmitting information in translation, it's always a good idea to get a second opinion on said translation. While it's unlikely that your official communique to a Taiwanese electronics CEO contains the phrase 'Drop your panties, Sir William, I cannot wait 'till lunchtime," it doesn't take a mistranslation of that magnitude to cause serious damage.

8) Things rarely, if ever, simply explode for no reason at all.

The exploding penguin on the television set or the inexplicable falling 16-ton weights are, on the surface at least, examples of sudden crises, the type that occur without warning. But in most cases, crises that appear to be sudden are in fact smoldering crises resultant from previously unaddressed weaknesses and threats. And when communicating, saying "Things explode every day" is not going to cut it. Tell the media that you'd get back to them, do your research, and then get back to them.

9) Avoid sticking to your messaging when the facts have obviously changed.

In one of the more surreal and gory scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur's Black Knight opponent not only refuses to capitulate even after he's had all four of his limbs chopped off, but he also stubbornly sticks to his increasingly unconvincing messaging of "'Tis but a scratch" and "It's only a flesh wound". Try this in the PR world and while you may not be left to bleed to death surrounded by your amputated limbs, you may well get dismembered by the press.

10) Always look on the bright side of life.

Well, this is something of an exaggeration (in fact perpetually dwelling on the positive will make you come off as insensitive and/or a complete idiot), but in a crisis communications scenario, it's always a good idea to have good news stories at hand to use once the crisis has been brought to a close. Especially if your company or organization has been (figuratively) crucified by the media, you're going to want to have something positive to tell your publics as you begin working to restore the organization's image. "When you're chewing on life's gristle, don't grumble, give a whistle...."

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Earth Day Special - 6 Great Enviro PR Campaigns


PR professionals get a lot of flak. We're too often regarded as used car salesmen types whose job it is to skate around the truth, push platitudes on the public and block people's access to the big muckymucks who make important decisions behind closed doors. On the political left, we're vilified for serving the interests of nasty corporations. On the right, we're pooh-poohed for filling the ranks of swollen government agencies. Either way, PR people can't seem to win the war of public opinion, ironic as this may be.

For more on the stereotypes that bedevil the PR profession, read this article from Ragan's PR Daily.

Like most stereotypes, there are elements of truth to the above. Yes, PR people are beholden to the mission objectives of their employers, which, in the case of major corporations, is to generate profit for the company and its shareholders. And yes, PR people do act as gatekeepers for the top dogs - if for no other reason because no CEO in the world could ever personally communicate with all publics and stakeholders. Our job is to provide communications support and part of that is protecting the higher-ups from exposure to potentially damaging situations. Without that, major organizations wouldn't be able to function.

While some of the clichés are at least in part true, it is equally true that PR professionals do a lot of good in the world. In the post-Enron, post- Lehman Brothers world, corporate social responsibility is being taken much more seriously by the world's leading corporations. And corporate social responsibility is inextricably tied to the PR profession, not only in the communication thereof but in creating such policies in the first place. Name any positive corporate or government-led initiative in modern history, and I guarantee you there's a PR strategy behind it.

One such area is the Green movement. Sadly, these days the ecological movement seems to have lost its way, at least in this country. The current government of Canada has made it pretty clear on numerous occasions that the environment is not a priority, through everything from withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol to muzzling climate scientists to denouncing oil sands critics as 'radicals'. And here in Alberta, there was barely any mention of environmental issues during the recent leaders' debate - this in spite of the fact that the province remains at the eye of the storm of one of the biggest eco-controversies of our time.

Nevertheless, I hold out hope that the tide will turn once again. It has to. Our planet is warming up, our resources asre being depleted at an alarming rate and ecosystems are on the verge of collapse. And when that tide does turn, it's pretty much guaranteed that it will be public relations people leading the way behind the scenes. Some of the most beguiling PR campaigns in recent history have been for ecological causes. While environmentalists the world over have a reputation for being angry, deliberately confrontational pitbulls, the campaigns I've outlined here have all the hallmarks of good PR - non-confrontational calls-to-action that manage to balance feel-good populism with a sense of urgency.

Some of them are pretty entertaining too, which also helps.

The Easter Bilby

Organization: The Foundation for Rabbit-Free Australia

Objective: To increase awareness of the threat to Australia's ecosystem posed by feral rabbits by way of an alternative to the Easter Bunny.

The introduction of rabbits to Australia in the 19th century stands as one of the country's biggest ecological disasters. The total damage caused by rabbits in terms of plant and animal species loss has yet to be determined but is believed to be widespread, and the invasive mammals have caused severe soil erosion and have cost the country's agricultural sector untold millions in crop damage. Various measures ranging from fences to biological agents have been enlisted to cull the continent's rabbit population, but the bunny plague remains a formidable threat to the country's ecological health.

The concept of the Easter Bilby as an indigenous Australian counterpart to the Easter Bunny was first proposed in 1968 in Rose-Marie Dusting's children's story Billy The Aussie Easter Bilby. In 1991, the Foundation for Rabbit-Free Australia embraced this character as a means of depopularizing rabbits in the popular imagination. "Very young children are indoctrinated with the concept that bunnies are nice soft fluffy creatures, whereas in reality they are Australia's greatest environmental feral pest and cause enormous damage to the arid zone," said a spokesperson for the foundation says.

Slowly but surely, chocolate bilbies have come to replace the traditional bunnies on Aussie shelves at Easter time, and given the extensive international coverage the campaign received this year, it seems to be making a breakthrough.


Organization: Häagen-Dazs

Aim: To increase awareness of collapsing honey bee population and promote action aimed at protecting bees.

In late 2006, reports began surfacing of an epidemic of 'colony collapse disorder' among honey bees in North America and Europe. In some places, reports of collapsing bee populations greater than 50 percent were reported in 2007, raising alarm about the possibility of honey bee extinction. Various explanations were proffered for the CCD outbreak, ranging from various insect viruses to a loss of genetic diversity through selective breeding to electromagnetic radiation from cell phones. All experts, however, agreed that declining honey bee populations was a dire ecological problem as well as a direct threat to much of our human diet.

Then, in early 2008, in came the ice cream manufacturers Häagen-Dazs with their Häagen-Dazs Loves Honey Bees (stylized as HD♥HB) campaign. With the stated goal of increasing awareness of the honey bee issue, the campaign website encouraged consumers to plant bee-friendly habitats with a first-year goal of planting 1 million bee-friendly flowers while providing a storehouse of information on bees and their centrality to much of the food human being take for granted. Further, the company's 'Buy a Carton, Save a Bee' campaign helped raise considerable capital for honey bee research.

The campaign was an emormous success - both for the company and for the honey bee cause. While CCD remains a serious problem, considerable research is being done on the subject and, thanks in no small part to Häagen-Dazs, awareness of the problem is widespread.


Organization: The Metropolitan Government of Seoul

Aim: To curb citizens' consumption of bottled water by way of promoting the safety and health benefits of the city's tap water.

The latter half of the 20th century saw the Republic of Korea embark on a spectacular trajectory of economic growth that catapulted the country's living standards from sub-Saharan African levels in the 1960s to western European and North American levels by the 2000s. Nevertheless, some of the country's basic services - most notably its water infrastructure - failed to keep pace with the country's overall modernization, and as recently as 2000 the tap water in Seoul and other major cities was still considered unfit for human consumption. However, by 2007, the city of Seoul announced with much fanfare that the city's tap water was 100 percent safe for drinking. Unfortunately, very few citizens believed the announcement - and continued to buy bottled water at an alarming rate.

The Seoul Municipal Government responded with an aggressive PR campaign aimed at discouraging consumption of bottled water by touting the virtues of the city's water supply. In a campaign that mixed environmental consciousness with high-tech sheen and a dose of patriotism, the city rebranded its water 'Arisu' (a classical Korean word meaning 'Big River'), advertised it relentlessly on television and on billboards and famously held blind taste-tests featuring Seoul's Arisu water and popular imported bottled water brands.

While old habits die hard and many Seoulites are still reluctant to drink directly from the tap, the city's water PR campaign was accoladed by international organizations and has become a symbol of Korea's capital city. And while the city has prohibited the sale of Arisu for export (which would kind of defeat the purpose), it was supplied to earthquake victims in southwestern China and most recently northeastern Japan as part of South Korea's disaster relief efforts.

Plan A

Organization: Marks & Spencer

Aim: To promote sustainability and position Marks & Spencer as the UK's greenest retailer.

In 2007, the British retail giant Marks & Spencer embarked on one of the most ambitious environmental CSR campaigns in history. Called 'Plan A' (with the tagline "Because there is no Plan B"), the campaign sought to dramatically increase the company's environmental sustainability within a five-year period. Unlike the aforementioned campaigns, Plan A covered a whole range of environmental targets, including achieving carbon neutral operations, curbing waste sent to landfills, extending sustainable sourcing, helping improve the lives of people in their supply chain and helping customers and employees live healthier lifestyles.

As of August 2008, the company had three wind turbines in operation, generating enough power to supply three stores via the UK's national grid. In April 2009 the company began purchasing 2.6 TWh of renewable energy from Npower, enough to power all Marks & Spencer stores and offices in England and Wales. It also introduced a number of schemes aimed at discouraging the use of plastic bags and encouraging consumers to return plastic clothing bags and hangers. Ironically, the 2008 market crash and subsequent recession proved to be a major boon for the campaign at a time when most companies were quietly discarding green campaigns, allowing M&S to differentiate itself in its dogged commitment to green practices.

The campaign continues to this day, with new M&S chairman Sir Stuart Rose having personally committed to reducing non-glass wastage by 25 percent and plastic bag usage by 33 percent.

Earth Hour

Organization: The World Wide Fund for Nature (Australia)

Aim: To raise awareness of the need to take action on climate change and encourage energy conservation.

The venerable advertising firm Leo Burnett Worldwide has run ad campaigns for a wide range of major corporate brands over the decade, including a number with less than salubrious reputations such as McDonald's and Philip Morris. Nevertheless, the company can be given credit for one of the most recognizable and successful worldwide environmental campaigns to date, which was launched for the first time in Sydney, Australia in 2007 with a view to "engaging Australians on the issue of climate change" by emphasizing the issue of energy conservation.

The first international Earth Hour was held the following year on March 28 from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. local time, whereupon people in over 400 cities in 35 countries turned off their lights for an hour to conserve electricity. By 2011, that number had grown to a record 5,251 cities and towns in 135 countries and territories in all seven continents. Interestingly, enthusiasm for the campaign has been particularly pronounced in developing countries. In Vietnam, the country's electricity demand fell 400,000 kWh during Earth Hour 2011 and the country managed to save US$23,809 thanks to the saved power.

While Earth Hour has its critics, including Jeremy Clarkson, host of the BBC's Top Gear, who claims to make a point of switching on every single appliance in his home during the hour, Earth Hour has helped bring the issue of energy conservation to the forefront at a time when environmental campaigns have taken a back seat to economic worries.

shark week showShark Week

Organization: The Discovery Channel

Aim: To create a better public understanding about sharks and disspell negative preconceptions about the species (and increase ratings in the process).

If there was ever an animal badly in need of a PR overhaul, it's sharks. Vilified as man-eaters in the Jaws movies and countless other cheeseball flicks, sharks have long been a feared and misunderstood species. While anti-whaling activism beginning in the 1970s helped bring many endangered whale species back from the brink, sharks have enjoyed no such popular support and to this day many of the most iconic shark species - including the dreaded great white - remain vulnerable if not endangered, and one out of five species are close to extinction.

With a view to encouraging awareness and improving the image of these important pelagic predators (as well as increasing its ratings), the Discovery Channel launched a week-long series of television programs dedicated to sharks in July of 1987. What began as a TV special evolved into a full-fledged PR campaign, and by 2010 over 30 million viewers were tuning in to Shark Week. As a PR campaign for sharks, Shark Week deftly combines Hollywoodesque gratuitousness with education and ecological calls to action, most notably on the issue of the cruel practice shark finning for the worldwide sharkfin soup industry.

While shark populations remain vulnerable worldwide, Shark Week has proven to be a powerful counterforce to the Jaws phenomenon in the 1970s and 80s. If the popular portrayal of sharks in recent animated movies like Finding Nemo and Shark's Tale is any indication, these vilified animals are finally starting to get some love from the public. And the shows are now available at anytime courtesy of the Discovery Channel's Shark Week website.

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

PR History - Reputation Management in Stalin's USSR

Nikolai Bukharin (second from left), with Rykov, Kalinin, Uglanov, Stalin and Tomsky
at Lenin's tomb, 1927. (Source:

It is often said that public relations, as a profession, is a product of the free, democratic and economically advanced world. Certainly the profession as we know it has flourished in countries with a vibrant civil society, societies where the court of public opinion (as measured by votes and retail dollars) matters a great deal. The birth of modern-day PR is generally considered to be early 20th century America, as heralded by two fascinating, if controversial, characters - Ivy Ledbetter Lee and and the notorious 'father of spin' (and nephew to Sigmund Freud) Edward Bernays.

While PR as a formalized profession is relatively new, the tools of the trade have been around a whole lot longer. A convincing argument could be made for the father of public relations (at least in the western world) as being Protagoras, the pre-Socratic sophist who took then (and even now) controversial view "man is the measure of all things". Taking the view that human beings, as opposed to deities, hold the key to human destiny, Protagoras took political rhetoric and key message crafting to a whole new level in his 40 years as Classical Athens' most in-demand political pundit.

Even among absolutist regimes (at least among the more successful ones), there has been some degree of recognition of the importance of reputation management. In ancient China, the philosophical concept of the 'Mandate of Heaven' (天命,Tiānmìng) differed somewhat from the medieval European notion of the divine right of kings in the sense that it was predicated on the conduct of the ruler in question. As such, the concept of the Mandate of Heaven allowed for the removal of incompetent or despotic rulers, and in doing so placed placed the onus on imperial dynasties to demonstrate to their subjects that they still retained the mandate, be it through acts of charity, public works or extracting tributes from neighbouring states. Not exactly the two-way symmetrical model of modern PR, but a start nonetheless.

But what about in truly despotic regimes with effectively zero room for public participation in governance and reign by terror? It's probably safe to say that there is no PR industry to speak of in modern-day North Korea or Turkmenistan or in fast reforming but still destitute Myanmar. Nevertheless, even in most extreme cases of state-sponsored repressiveness reputation management still counts for something. And in such cases, saving your reputation while minimizing harm to yourself - and those close to you - becomes an art form unto itself.

Reputation Management for Beyond the Grave: Bukharin's Final Plea

Soviet Defence Minister Kliment
Voroshilov, as caricatured by
Bukharin (Source: Wikipedia)
Of the cast of characters that made up the Bolshevik Revolution, Nikolai Bukharin stands as one of the most fascinating. A founding Bolshevik party member at age 20, Bukharin was one of the party's most erudite and pragmatic strategists. He frequently clashed with Lenin on theoretical issues pertaining to Marxism and was also largely responsible for elevating a thuggish but politically useful young Georgian Bolshevik by the name of Joseph Stalin and helping him craft several key articles that solidified his presence within the party. He was also a gifted cartoonist and known for being something of a smart-ass within the Bolshevik entourage.

Following the death of Lenin in 1924, Bukharin became a full-fledged member of the Politburo and entrenched himself within the right wing of the party in his advocacy of an extension of the New Economic Policy (which allowed for limited capitalist enterprise within the communist system) and against leading successor candidate Leon Trotsky, who favoured abolishing the system. For those of you who don't remember from Grade 12 history, the NEP was initially implemented to shore up an agricultural economy that had been devastated by the Russian Civil War and alleviate famine and was, in a sense, a precursor to the reforms ushered in by Deng Xiaoping in China some 60 years later.

Those familiar with the early history of the USSR know that Stalin initially favoured extending the NEP together with Bukharin (a purely strategic move aimed at positioning himself as Trotsky's main leadership rival) but then dumped the policy following his formal accension as party leader in 1929, whereupon he launched the first of his Five-Year Plans. In the first few years of Stalin's reign of terror, which saw the purging of Trotsky and all those party members aligned with him, Bukharin appeared to be safe, and in 1934 was appointed to the prestigious position of editor of the newspaper Izvestia, in which capacity he wrote empassioned editorials on the perils of Europe's emergent fascism.

Nevertheless, by 1936 Stalin was determined to purge the party of any potential rivals, which included all of the surviving veterans of the October Revolution. And as a visible symbol of the revolution, Bukharin was an obvious target. Bukharin was arrested in February 1937 on the dubious charge of being member of the 'Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites'. In his trial, which ran from March 2 to 13, 1938, Bukharin and others were accused of trying to assassinate Lenin and Stalin from 1918, murder Maxim Gorky by poison, partition the Soviet Union and hand out its territories to Germany, Japan and Great Britain.

Consider for a moment what must have been going through Nikolai Bukharin's head as he sat down in his cell to pen his final plea. He knew full well that his verdict was a foregone conclusion, that the penalty would be death by firing squad, and that there was absolutely nothing he could do to save his own life. He also knew that unless he offered up a satisfactorily contrite confession that he would either be subjected to more torture or, more likely under the circumstances, that the NKVD (the precurser to the KGB) would go after his wife and young child. On the other hand, he knew that the international press would be covering the trial and that his last words would long outlive him. In sum, he knew this was his last chance to give anyone a piece of his mind, salvage his reputation and maybe even stick it to his former ally.

What did he do? The greatest communicator among Lenin's top brass delivered what has to be one of the most perplexing 'confessions' in courtroom history. He opened his final plea as follows:

In Court I admitted and still admit my guilt in respect to the crimes which I committed and of which I was accused by Citizen the State Prosecutor at the end of the Court investigation and on the basis of the materials of the investigation in the possession of the Procurator. I declared also in Court, and I stress and repeat it now, that I regard myself politically responsible for the sum total of the crimes committed by the 'bloc of Rights and Trotskyites'. I have merited the most severe punishment, and I agree with Citizen the Procurator, who several times repeated that I stand on the threshold of my hour of death.

This over-the-top genuflection and self-flagellation carries on for some time....until he gets into the specifics of the accusations against him. At this point, Bukharin offers a bit of perspective.

Nevertheless, I consider that I have the right to refute certain charges which were brought: a) in the printed Indictment, b) during the Court investigation, and c) in the speech for the prosecution made by Citizen the Procurator of the U.S.S.R. I consider it necessary to mention that during my interrogation by Citizen the State Prosecutor, the latter declared in a very categorical form that I, as one of the accused, must not admit more than I had admitted and that I must not invent facts that have never happened, and he demanded that this statement of his should be placed on the records.

But then he carries on with the "I've been a bad, bad boy" banter.

I once more repeat that I admit that I am guilty of treason to the socialist fatherland, the most heinous of possible crimes, of the organization of kulak uprisings, of preparations for terrorist acts and of belonging to an underground, anti-Soviet organization. I further admit that I am guilty of organizing a conspiracy for a 'palace coup'.

The entire translated transcript of Bukharin's final plea is available here. It's a fascinating read, if for no other reason because in the midst of all of Bukharin's "I'm a bad, bad communist and a traitor and a terrible person who should be spanked shot" he actually doesn't admit to anything specific. All of his 'confessions' are entirely vague in nature, whereas when it comes to people he supposedly had conversations with or meetings he is accused of having attended, he qualifies his 'confession', stating that while he is indeed guilty of being a traitor, that particular aspect of his being a traitor wasn't true. And so on and so forth.

Lessons for PR Practitioners?

It is often said that a good reputation is great insurance for a company or organization. The same is true for individuals, especially individuals in prominent positions. Moreover, Bukharin's last plea - and the man's subsequent posthumous stature - shows just how much the right messaging and the right type of communication can accomplish in sealing that reputation, even for beyond the grave.

Bukharin's confession did exactly what it was intended to do. In the actual trial, his deftly inserted barbs against the regime went pretty much unnoticed within the morass of self-flagellation and vague admissions of guilt, and in March 1938 he was quietly executed. While his widow Anna Larina (a great communicator in her own right) was briefly dispatched to a labour camp, she was shown relative lenience and her and their son Yuri survived the great terror - and lived to see Bukharin's full rehabillitation by Gorbachev in 1988. She died in 1996, vindicated after a lifetime of fighting to clear her late husband's name.

Were he alive today, Nikolai Bukharin would no doubt have made a formidable PR professional. After all, he accomplished a communications feat that most would have thought unimaginable in one of history's most repressive regimes. By sticking to his messages - both bogus and legit ones - he managed to save his family and make a mockery of the system that did him in. Sad he wasn't around to see the results.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Jock Talk: Don Carman's List of 37 Annoying Baseball Clichés

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES - Don Carman #396 DONRUSS 1989 MLB Baseball Trading Card
"I'd rather be lucky than good." - D.C.
Professional athletes aren't generally known for being the world's most skilled communicators. Sports interviews tend to be mind-numbing affairs along the lines "Well, uh, we've got a lot of momentum going, and we just need to keep it together as a team and go out there and score lots of goals and hopefully come out on top." There you go: 34 words (35 if you count 'uh') which said absolutely nothing. Why sportscasters even bother interviewing a lot of these guys is frankly beyond me.

It would, however, be unfair to blame the intelligence of these highly paid athletes for the vapidity of most sports interviews. A great many athletes, particularly in the football, baseball and basketball worlds, are college-educated and far from unintelligent. Even professional hockey players are today a far cry from the toothless Big Bobby Clobber stereotype of yesteryear. However, the absurd amounts of money invested in today's professional sports leagues make sports communications a very sensitive, risk-averse business. In this world nobody wants to rattle the hornet's nests. Even the mildest of taunts (as was evident in the recent LA Kings Twitter controversy) has the capacity to cause fallout.

The upshot of this hyper-sensitive communications landscape is that most athletes don't dare say anything even remotely controversial, hence the proliferation of tired sports clichés. (It doesn't help either that sports journalists tend to ask the same tired old questions.) But this hasn't prevented some of sports world's smarter and more sarcastic standouts from making jock talk work for them - and even making a mockery of such banter. And nobody did this better than former Major League pitcher Don Carman - a man who, in my opinion, deserves to be inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame for excellence in sports smart-assery.

Don Carman was a lefty who enjoyed a moderately successful career between 1983 and 1992, mostly with the Philadelphia Phillies as well as briefly with the Cincinnati Reds and the Texas Rangers. He had occasional flashes of brilliance on the mound, with four complete-game shutouts and once taking a perfect game into the ninth inning before giving up a single hit. He was also a famously smart guy who ended up becoming a sports psychologist in his post-baseball life, and was renowned for his dry sense of humour. His wit became legendary following a particularly bad outing in 1990 when he posted this list of quintessential baseball clichés on his locker in anticipation of a round of vapid sporting press interrogation.

"You saw the game. Take what you need.”

  1. I’m just glad to be here. I just want to help the club any way I can.
  2. Baseball’s a funny game.
  3. I’d rather be lucky than good.
  4. We’re going to take the season one game at a time.
  5. You’re only as good as your last game (last at-bat).
  6. This game has really changed.
  7. If we stay healthy we should be right there.
  8. It takes 24 (25) players.
  9. We need two more players to take us over the top: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
  10. We have a different hero every day.
  11. We’ll get ‘em tomorrow.
  12. This team seems ready to gel.
  13. With a couple breaks, we win that game.
  14. That All-Star voting is a joke.
  15. The catcher and I were on the same wavelength.
  16. I just went right at ‘em.
  17. I did my best, and that’s all I can do.
  18. You just can’t pitch behind.
  19. That’s the name of the game.
  20. We’ve got to have fun.
  21. I didn’t have my good stuff, but I battled ‘em.
  22. Give the guy some credit; he hit a good pitch.
  23. Hey, we were due to catch a break or two.
  24. Yes.
  25. No.
  26. That’s why they pay him _____ million dollars.
  27. Even I could have hit that pitch.
  28. I know you are, but what am I?
  29. I was getting my off-speed stuff over so they couldn’t sit on the fastball.
  30. I had my at ‘em ball going today.
  31. I had some great plays made behind me tonight.
  32. I couldn’t have done it without my teammates.
  33. You saw it … write it.
  34. I just wanted to go as hard as I could as long as I could.
  35. I’m seeing the ball real good.
  36. I hit that ball good.
  37. I don’t get paid to hit.
We miss you, Don!

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Apology Accepted, Captain Needa

When public opinion strikes back
In one of the most darkly humourous scenes in the film The Empire Strikes Back, the ill-fated Captain Needa, the commander of the imperial warship in hot pursuit of Han Solo and his Millennium Falcon, loses track of his quarry (which is in fact clinging to the side of Needa's own ship) and is forced to apologize to Darth Vader for his screw-up. Moments later, the captain is lying dead from telekinetic asphyxiation, whereupon the Sith Lord dryly quips, "Apology accepted, Captain Needa."

While this scene tells us a lot about the HR dynamics of the Galactic Empire, what you don't see in this scene is what Captain Needa's apology actually entailed. While Vader's response clearly indicates that he wasn't impressed by his subordinate's attempt at contrition, it would be interesting to know what the captain actually said. Did he explain the situation in adequate detail? Did he try to deflect blame on his own subordinates or his equipment, or say something like "Boba Fett made me do it"? Furthermore, we know nothing about Captain Needa's prior reputation, whether this was his first such screw-up or if this was a pattern for this guy. Given Vader's reaction, it's likely that the latter was the case, but with the empire dead and buried and Darth Vader long gone, we'll never know for sure.

The art of the well-crafted apology is an essential component of public relations, and of crisis communications in particular. It is often said that that in the corporate world, PR professional and lawyers exist on opposite ends of the communications spectrum. At the heart of bipolarity is the contrast between the court of law, wherein the accused person is considered innocent until proven guilty, and the court of public opinion, wherein an accused person (or organization) is generally guilty until proven innocent - and even then not necessarily safe from reputational damage.

At the onset of a crisis, the first order of business for a crisis communicator is to tell the truth and tell it fast, even when it hurts - in fact especially when it hurts. The crisis communicator is accutely aware that not being forthcoming with information is not only delaying the inevitable, but also results in a loss of control. This is especially true when the crisis at hand really is your fault. If you don't tell your own bad news, you can be sure somebody else will - and it's pretty much guaranteed it'll sound a hell of a lot worse coming out of their mouths than your own.

Once you've done your homework and come to the conclusion that you or your organization are clearly to blame for a crisis, then what?  While the obvious answer is apologize, it is worth bearing in mind that not all apologies are created equal. A well thought out apology is far more likely to be well received than a poorly executed one. When formulating an official apology, it's worth considering that virtually all news media inquiries boil down to a set of nine basic questions that everybody wants to know about a crisis situation. As such, to make your apology count, it needs to answer the following:

  • What happened?
  • How/why did it happen?
  • Were there any deaths or injuries?
  • What is the extent of the damage?
  • Who or what is responsible?
  • Were there any warning signs?
  • Has it happened before?
  • When will the crisis be over?
  • What is being done to fix the situation and ensure that it doesn't happen again?

A textbook apology is the one made by Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain following the listeriosis outbreak in 2008, an outbreak linked to Maple Leaf's meat products. It was a serious crisis, which resulted in 57 confirmed cases of listeriosis and 22 deaths in various Canadian provinces. In sum, it was a crisis that could easily have resulted in a total business disaster for one of Canada's largest food processing companies. However, the CEO's now-legendary apology, which in addition to being broadcast on TV also made the rounds on YouTube, did much to save the company. See for yourself.

Consider again that list of questions. McCain touches on every single one of them, either directly or indirectly. What happened? A listeriosis outbreak. How did it happen? A failure at a Maple Leaf plant. Were there deaths or injuries? Yes. Who is responsible? The company. Were there any warning signs? No, or at least that's the implication. Has it happened before? Again, it's implied that it hasn't given his remark that this is "the toughest situation we've faced in 100 years." When will it be over? The products have already been pulled off the shelves nationwide and the plant where it came from has been shut down.

Add to that the fact that the CEO personally apologized, immediately offered his condolences to the victims, kept the emphasis of the message on the affected party (the customers). It also helped matters that he was dressed appropriately for it - smartly but casually and without a tie - and that he frankly comes off as a sincere and thoughtful guy. Moreover, Maple Leaf followed this message with a similar TV spot a month or so later, in which the CEO appeared again, this time highlighting the changes that had been made by the company in their pledge to improve safety and regain consumer trust.

The result? Maple Leaf Foods recovered quite quickly from the disaster and remains one of Canada's leading food processing companies four years later. Unfortunately, not all companies spokespersons have shown such empathy and contriteness in their responses to crises for which blame clearly rested. Consider the statement drafted by J. Bruce Ismay, Managing Director of White Star Line, following the 1912 sinking of the company's flagship vessel, the HMS Titanic. Suffice it to say, the company's 'apology' left a lot to be desired.

A PR disaster of 'titanic' proportions
In the presence and under the shadow of a catastrophe so overwhelming, my feelings are too deep for expression in words. I can only say that the White Star Line, its offices and employees will do everything humanly possible to alleviate the suffering and sorrow of the survivors and of the relatives and friends of those who perished.

The Titanic was the last word in shipbuilding. Every regulation prescribed by the British Board of Trade had been strictly complied with, the masters, officers and crew were the most experienced and skillful in the British service.

I am informed that a committee of the United States had been appointed to investigate the circumstances of the accident. I heartily welcome the most complete and exhaustice inquiry and any aid that I or my associates or our builders or navigators can render is at the service of the public and the governments of both the United States and Great Britain. Under the circumstances, I must respectfully defer making any further statement at this time.

Reading this statement, it is worth bearing in mind that 1) it had already been established that the ship's striking of an iceberg in the North Atlantic was the result of errors made by crew employed by White Star; and 2) it was also clear that the ship had been woefully underequipped with lifeboats, resulting in the loss of life of roughly three quarters of the passengers and crew. Moreover, this non-apology answers virtually none of the above-listed questions. Even Ismay's attempt at empathy with the victims manages to come off as self-centred.

The result? Although Ismay was cleared of any wrongdoing by both British and US authorities, he was pilloried in the press and to this day is remembered as a villain (right up to his portrayal as a callous reptile by actor Jonathan Hyde in the 1997 James Cameron blockbuster). White Star Line became synonymous with bad management and never recovered. The company struggled on for two decades before it was swallowed up by its chief rival, Cunard Line. Apology accepted, Captain Needa.

The moral? If you're going to apologize - especially for something truly egregious, make it a good apology. Good apologies do actually save companies and organizations. Bad apologies send them to the ocean floor. Of course, even the best, most heartfelt apologies are no guarantee of foregiveness or that you won't be strangled to death by a telekinetic force choke. It's generally best not to screw up in the first place.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Facebook: Helping People Feel Inadequate Since 2004

I like having Facebook in my life - for the most part. It's a useful tool for a lot of things and I would say that, on the whole, my life is better with it than without it. Nevertheless, there are days where I'm forced to wonder if Zuckerberg and Co. are deliberately trying to undermine humanity's sense of self-worth.
In particular, I wonder sometimes if Facebook app designers specifically set out to find new and ingenious ways to make us feel inadequate.

Consider, if you will, the 'My Friends Map' app. For those of you who don't know it, this is an app that allows you to produce a map of where all your Facebook friends live, which you're expected to then post to your wall. For the sake of reference, here's what mine came out looking like:

This is meant as an example, not to make me look cool. Trust me, the 'international-ness' of my friends is the least interesting thing about me.

As a geography geek, I can appreciate this sort of thing, and it's certainly an interesting visualization. Nevertheless, it bothers me that the intended purpose of this app is to publish such maps on your wall to show off to your friends not only how many friends you have but also how international your group of friends. It's easy to say "Who frickin' cares if Jessica has three friends in Istanbul and five dots in what looks like Belarus?", but in the end we all care how we look to our friends - and apps like this are pretty much guaranteed to make us feel less cool, less sophisticated, less worldly and, well, simply less than.

(Note: this tool could have potential unintended consequences. For example, if the lion's share of your overseas friends are located in Yemen, Sudan and northern Pakistan, you probably want to avoid advertising that fact on your wall - unless you want to have CIA operatives with binoculars crouching behind your rose bushes.)

But My Friends Map isn't the worst of the self-esteem-undermining tools that the Book of Face has to offer. Consider this lovely app. This takes international one-upmanship a step further, whereby you get to advertise to everyone in your Facebook network how awesome you are based on the number of countries you've visited.

Oh yeah? Betcha you haven't been to Antarctica and Andorra!

There you have it. Now not only can you take that whirlwind European tour you went on when you were 21 and make yourself out to be a globetrotter comparable to Kofi Annan or Hillary Clinton, but you can also turn that four-hour layover you once had in Addis Ababa into a bona-fide travel experience that you can brag about to your friends. Does anyone really care? Of course they do - it's on Facebook!

What is this app trying to say? From the standpoint of this app, the six years I spent living and working in Japan, learning the language and absorbing the culture is no different from the seven hours I once spent in the terminal building in Kuwait City. It's a country. It goes on the list. This is to say nothing of the fact that some of the most worldly and globally aware people I've met are not particularly well travelled and that a great many self-proclaimed globetrotters that I've met are, frankly, closed-minded and blinkered by their own cultural conditioning. It's all about the points you rack up in life. That is all.

Numerous studies have pointed to Facebook and other social networks having a negative effect on people's self-esteem. Furthermore, the great paradox of Facebook is that the more friends you have, the greater the negative impact on your sense of self worth you're likely to suffer. A recent article in Men's Health on the subject notes that the more 'friends' a person has, the more likely they are to be spending their day enviously reading about someone else’s paradise vacation, new girlfriend or job promotion.

Given the fact that FB already puts us in a precarious position vis-à-vis our own self-esteem, is it really necessary for app designers to keep coming up with new ways for us to feel inferior? I would like to issue a challenge to whoever the people are who design these things to actually create something that will foster people's sense of self-worth rather than perpetuating this endless cycle of social media one-upmanship.

In the meantime, I'm keeping my Friends Map hidden. Whoops, I just posted it. Guess I'm just as guilty as the rest of y'all.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Tweet Heard Round the Hockey World

It doesn't take much to start a fight in the game of hockey. In this electrifying, fast-paced sport, sticks fly, gloves come off and blows are exchanged with startling regularity and among the game's 'enforcers' penalty minutes earned are as much of a status symbol as goals scored.

However, in the opening game of the Western Conference quarter-final series between the Los Angeles Kings and the Vancouver Canucks, the on-ice spectacle paled in comparison to the social media theatrics that went on immediately after the game. Following the Kings' 4-2 defeat of the heavily favoured Canucks on Wednesday, the following tweet appeared in the LA team's Twitter feed, prompting an angry backlash from Vancouver fans - and a flurry of media coverage and SM activity by hockey fans everywhere:

"To everybody in Canada outside of BC, you're welcome."

For any Canadian who hasn't been living in a cave for the past year, this message requires no explanation. For the benefit of international readers, however, here's a bit of background. The last game of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, in which Vancouver suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Boston Bruins, was followed by the worst riot in the city's history. In spite of the best-laid plans by Vancouver police (who were prepared for unrest following similar riot in 1994), the June 15 riot quickly consumed the city's downtown core. In the end, some 140 people were injured (including nine police officers), at least four people were stabbed and 117 arrests were made. Property damage was estimated at around CA$4.2 million.

The riot - and the subsequent international media coverage of it - was a colossal black eye for a city that had previously been basking in the afterglow of the 2010 Winter Olympics. It also proved to be a reputational liability for Canada as a whole, a country that generally enjoys a worldwide reputation for being a peaceful society with a high level of public safety. Not surprisingly, this tweet provoked an immediate angry backlash from Vancouver fans, as well as a flurry of discussion in print media and SM networks over whether the LA Kings' social media team had crossed the line.

In the end, the winning team's head office issued an apology for the inflammatory tweet. "We encourage our digital team to be creative, interactive and to apply a sense of humour whenever possible. To anyone who found it offensive we sincerely apologize,” said Kings' vice-president Mike Altieri in an email earlier today. However, some hockey fans defended the tweet, saying that this social media jab simply added to the tension of the series and was part and parcel of the team rivalry culture that has long defined the NHL. Others contended that the fans in Vancouver frankly deserved it.

One wonders why a sport that celebrates on-ice pugilism and venerates the game's greatest goons would be so sensitive to social media barbs like this one. Moreover, shouldn't the Kings be saying "you're welcome" to Vancouverites, who would be the ones to bear the biggest brunt should history repeat itself in its streets this year?

Monday, 9 April 2012

No More Mixed Tapes For My Girl...

By Pierre Bokor Jr.

In this latest guest post on Brush Talk, it is my great honour to welcome an old friend of mine, Pierre Bokor Jr. Pierre and I were in a great many university drama productions together, including a particularly epic rendition of Eugène Ionesco's La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano). He currently languishes in the 'hardship' post of Barcelona where he works as a teacher and translator and has recently launched a superb online project/blog/workshop aimed at helping parents with their kids' education called Inside A Teacher's Mind. You can also see it on the Book of Face here.

Once upon a more miserable time, it was raining and night had come. In a field, awaiting battle, a man sat on a wooden makeshift bench, with a quill in hand. He had a candle to see the paper on which his words and his tears fell and melded into one. The letter finished, he poured a spot of hot wax on the folds, took off his ring, kissed it, and with it, moulded his blazon onto the seal.

He handed it to a messenger and gave the rest of his money to him. The messenger rode through the downpour, forcing his horse through the mud. He kept riding until the sweat of the horse and the rain were one. Together, they rode on through the day, as the sun came up and burned them and scorched their path. The horse’s nostrils bled from the effort, yet they continued on, till they reached the house.

The messenger delivered the letter to the lady’s maid. The maid ran into the field behind the house, to give the letter to the lady. The lady took it, put it to her chest as she let out a sigh that proclaimed the overwhelming joy of receiving a word from her love. She sat down in her chaise and looked up at the sky, wondering if her lover is looking up at that same sky, before opening the letter...

In a much wealthier and more prosperous time, the guy grabbed his iphone out of his pocket. As he stood in line at Starbucks, he tried to decide if he should iMessage, Skype, Viber, Whatsapp, Tango, GoogleChat, SMS, or go formal by emailing his babe. “Whatevs! It’s the thought that counts, right?”

He composes and writes “Yo Bae, luvs ya. Havn a good day? U no I missU2. ♥.” He sends and sees a second check mark appear on his screen, as a sense of chivalry and accomplishment passes over him.

The other day, I spoke to a friend about a picture that I saw on Facebook that said “I wonder how long it will be before people don’t remember why we ‘unroll’ the window.” One conversation led to another and I soon told her that I think it’s tragic that mixed tapes no longer exist. I remember making mixed tapes for the girls I was courting. The entire procedure, the thought, the love, the energy, the feelings, everything that went into it. I don’t even know what the equivalent is today. Perhaps, sending my playlist to someone? I really don’t know.

What I do know is that our methods of communicating are getting more and more advanced, faster and more efficient, all the whilst our abilities, our messages, and our depth of commitment to what we communicate is getting smaller, more feeble and ephemeral.

I don’t know if the solution is to be a ‘throwback’ like me, going around writing with a fountain pen and insisting that people learn the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’. I do know that change is inevitable, technology will push us to communicate ‘bigger, faster, stronger’, but I believe that we can have the fortitude to fight the ease of laziness and to put a little more thought into every message.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Twung Fu: Why Microblogs Work Better in Asian Languages

I confess to being a relative latecomer to the world of Twitter, having joined it less than a year ago. Nevertheless, I am now a full-fledged convert, or Twaddict, as such people are known in the Twitter universe. As a fan of punchy, concise text, I find the 140-character format absolutely brilliant. Not only is it a great way to disseminate and find information, by the microblogging format saves you the trouble of sifting through irrelevant and excessively wordy text on your way to the information you're looking for.

My embrace of the Twittersphere has also more or less coincided with my return to studying Japanese. My search for good, east-to-digest and relevant reading material in Japanese not surprisingly led me to Twitter, and I currently follow a number of Japanese tweeters of various descriptions. Whereas Facebook was slow to gain currency in Japan, Twitter took the country by storm very early on. Today roughly 30 million Japanese are on Twitter, putting the country in third place in the Twittersphere behind the United States and Brazil.

The prevalence of Twitter use in Japan was graphically illustrated in the aftermath of the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami. As Twitter was one of the few reliable communication tools still working in the affected areas, it proved to be instrumental in disaster monitoring and delivering rescue operations, as well as in the government's own communications efforts. Then Cabinet Secretary and government spokesman Yukio Edano became something of a Twitter celebrity in the weeks following the disaster through his ceaseless stream of tweets and the now-legendary hashtag #edano_nero (Edano, go to sleep).

After a while of following and reading Japanese tweets, I began to realize why this tool had become so popular in Japan - and how Japanese and other Asian languages have a systematic advantage over the likes of English in this digital domain. It's simple arithmetic. Spell out 'Shanghai' or 'Guangzhou' like this and that's eight or nine characters respectively, as opposed to two Chinese characters (上海 and 广州). In Japanese, the word niwatori (chicken) is eight characters in Roman script, as opposed to a single kanji (鶏). Even Korean, which uses a phonetic rather than a pictographic writing system, enjoys the same compactness. Type 'Pyongyang' in English and you've used nine characters. In hangul it takes two (평양).

The upshot of this, of course, is that in Asian languages, tweets often amount ot full-fledged blog posts. Consider the following tweet, which was translated by an anonymous tweeter in the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown. Compare and contrast the original Japanese with the English translation:


And in English....

The media is making a fuss about the radiation level, loudly saying it's 16 times the standard, but you would be exposed to the same level from a single PET/CT scan at a hospital. Isn't it enough to tell us not to stand for long periods in front of nuclear power plants? Just staying away from them is enough to be safe, isn't it?
The original tweet runs 87 characters, including punctuation, well below the 140 character cutoff. That same tweet translated into English, including spaces (of which Japanese conveniently has none), consumes 330 characters, more than twice the limit for a tweet. In terms of Twitter-ficiency, there's no contest between the two languages - it's Japanese hands down. And in a country long synonymous with pithy, compact wordcraft as best exemplified by haiku poetry, it's not hard to see why Twitter is the social media vehicle of choice.

And it's not just Japan that's embracing microblogging with aplomb in East Asia. Since the launch of the Korean language version of Twitter in early 2010, Twitter use in South Korea has grown to 3.34 million users, with the country tweeting at twice the global rate. While South Korea's embrace of Twitter has not been without controversy, as seen in criminal cases involving allegedly pro-DPRK tweets, officials in Asia's fourth largest economy appear to be adopting a more relaxed attitude to the tool, as the recent overturning of a ban on Twitter use during national elections demonstrates.

Meanwhile, Twitter launched a Chinese language interface in September 2011. Although the service has been blocked in the People's Republic of China since 2009, Twitter is hoping to increase usership in Taiwan and Hong Kong (which have no such restrictions) as well as among overseas Chinese in Southest Asia and in the western world. Meanwhile, China's Twitter ban has resulted in a proliferation of homegrown microblogging services. Of these, by far the most popular is Sina Weibo (新浪微博, literally 'Sina Microblog'), a service whose prevalence in both Hong Kong and Taiwan presents a formidable challenge to Twitter.

The People's Republic vs. the Weibo Dynasty

In spite of the popularity of Sina Weibo and other microblogs, life for China's tweeters remains uneasy. China recently launched its toughest censorship move since the rise of social media, with Sina Corp and fellow microblogging platform Tencent temporarily barring users from commenting on other posts. The move came after an announcement that six people had been detained and 16 websites closed for spreading rumours about a military coup in Beijing, rumours allegedly circulated via China's domestic microblogs.

Web censorship in the PRC is, of course, nothing new. The Chinese Communist Party has long censored Internet content that it deems to be too politically sensitive, namely anything to do with the Tiananmen Massacre, Tibetan or Uygur independence movements, Taiwanese independence and political protests in general. Beijing officials also apply pressure on SM providers like Sina Weibo to do their own censorship. While the Chinese government doesn't make its blocked words public, Sina does - and currently has a list of 378 banned words. Here are a few examples:

  • 丹增嘉措 (Tenzig Gyatso, the 7th and current Dalai Lama)
  • 藏独 (Tibetan separatist)
  • 东突 (East Turkestan, the ethnic Uygur name for their homeland in Xinjiang province)
  • 一党专制 (One-party dictatorship)
  • 台湾独立 (Taiwan independence)
  • 天安门 (Tiananmen Square)
  • 法輪 (Falun (Gong))
  • 快闪党 (Flash mob)
  • 大麻 (Marijuana)
  • 维基揭密 (Wikileaks)
  • GFW (Great Firewall)
  • 做爱 (Sex)

In spite of the Chinese government's best efforts, however, censoring the microblogosphere is easier said that done - even in China. Moreover, here too Asian languages like Chinese present a distinct advantage (or disadvantage, depending on which side you're on) when it comes to communicating via Twitter and other Twitter-like tools - and skirting the censors while doing it. Chinese phonetics are such that many characters may share the same sound with a different tone (and a different character), making it relatively easy to disguise politically sensitive language. The censors eventually catch on, but the nature of the language makes it easier for dissidents to stay ahead of the authorities.

Finally, enforcement of the 'Great Firewall of China' has never been entirely consistent. Cracks in the wall  occasionally appear (followed by heightened suppression), during which time dissidents and ordinary Chinese netizens have been able to gain access to Twitter and other platforms for brief periods, and armed with a language crammed with pithy meaning-laden phrases that can fit within the character count of LMFAO, a flurry of well-crafted tweets can pack quite a punch before the fissure in the wall is sealed shut once again. Others, like famous dissident artist Ai Weiwei (@aiww), have parlayed their overseas renown into steady Twitter presences housed outside the country.

Currently, the crackdown against Sina Weibo and other microblogging platforms is at a fever pitch. All evidence points to a Chinese government in a state of panic over its perceived loss of control over its citizens' online communication.

Twitter and Kanji - A Return to Beautiful Language?

While Chinese government officials may be bemoaning the proliferation of microblogging in their country, in Japan, one group of people that is surely applauding it is language arts instructors. Since the advent of text messaging a decade ago, older Japanese, and language arts teachers in particular, have complained about its perceived detrimental effect on the younger generation's use of kanji characters. The youth, they argue, have become increasingly sloppy in their writing, opting for trendy hiragana or katakana (phonetic) spellings of words rather than proper characters.

Twitter stands to reverse this trend - at least potentially. Consider a word like samazama ('various'), which in modern Japanese is typically written phonetically as さまざま. By writing it in the traditional kanji as 様々, you save yourself two characters. I have yet to speak to any Japanese language instructors about Twitter as an incentive for using well-crafted language, but I would be curious to know if Twitter's new-found ubiquity in Japan has had, from their perspective, a beneficial effect on the Japanese language. I suspect it's good news for the language of haiku.

Incidentally, a good number of contemporary haiku poets are now on Twitter. Among them is renowned haijin and Tenrikyo priest Kuniharu Shimizu, who composes poetry (and tweets) in both Japanese and English. You can follow him at @seehaikuhere.