Taking a break part three

Andrew Bolt

 The blog has read all of Peter Corris’ books and regularly reads his column in the Newtown Review of Books published by Gleebooks.

In a recent post he recounted his meeting with a matelot. “In April 1998 Captain Ken Blyth, a Scot and an experienced and respected merchant mariner, was in command of a tanker transporting thousands of tons of fuel through the South China Seas. The vessel, named the Petro Ranger, was boarded by pirates, diverted to a secure harbour and held for some time, with the crew under restraint, while negotiations went on between various interested parties.”

“Matter-of-fact as his delivery mostly was, Captain Blyth did, however, become animated on the subject of Andrew Bolt, who, representing himself as working for the Brisbane Courier-Mail, twice bravely ventured out in a sampan to the ship while it was under guard by Chinese police. He secured one interview with the Captain but according to Blyth his reports were partly fictional, self-aggrandising and their publication caused difficulty in the negotiations underway with the Chinese. Bolt exaggerated the threat he had faced and, when he was detained by the police, issued an apology for the offence he had caused – although once back in Australia his subsequent article denied he had apologised. Far from being an accredited journalist, Bolt had entered China on a tourist visa and was ignominiously deported.”

Financial PR

 One of Australia’s leading financial PR people, Anthony Tregoning, who the blog mentioned in an earlier post about financial PR, emailed the blog about some of the problems the sector is facing in terms of the decline of the print media – the medium which counts among its few readers CEOs and CFOs.

Anthony said: “The decimation of financial news desks presents all of us with additional challenges. It makes expert communication even more important for the following reasons: we are having to compete more fiercely for journalists’ attention and editorial space; and, in many cases we are having to educate inexperienced journalists in financial terms/products with which they are unfamiliar.”

“This requires the PR practitioner to have extensive financial/business experience and to be able to explain often-complex concepts in simple language. As financial and business media opportunities decline, direct communication with stakeholders is becoming more important. This requires excellent writing skills, which many companies don’t have” he said.

The upshot is good news for financially literate PR people who are good writers and have innovative ideas on how to communicate. Fortunately for Anthony and other experts in the field these are still skills in short supply.

The reputation bank

It is commonplace to argue that making deposits in the reputation bank stands organisations in good stead when things go bad. While in general terms this illustrates the problem of confusing metaphors with measurable yardsticks it is also probably just plain wrong.

The inimitable Tony Jaques has posted, in his regular newsletter, a fascinating analysis of the concept referring to both the risk guru, Peter Sandman, and Warren Buffett.

Sandman sees the concept as ‘simplistic’ and, as Tony says: “The snag is that the metaphor assumes everything is equal – that withdrawals and deposits are in common currency. That if you deposit $1,000 worth of reputational credits and then withdraw the same amount in reputational damage (or vice versa) your reputation somehow returns to neutral.” “In other words, if a company does a whole lot of bad stuff, then doing an equal amount of good stuff will restore its reputation. However it just doesn’t work like that. Sandman argues that good reputation and bad reputation should be seen as separate variables which exist at the same time. What that means, he says, is that if your positives are high and your negatives are low, on balance you have a good reputation. However, if your positives are low and your negatives are high, on balance you have a bad reputation,” he says.

Tony also discusses the Warren Buffet argument that years of positive reputation can be destroyed in days or weeks by unacceptable or improper behaviour, no matter what the theoretical ‘balance.’  Tony says: “When organisations behave badly and then keep repeating the same mistake, the reputational withdrawals are not just dollar for dollar, but multiply with accumulated penalty interest” and cites the US academic, Harlan Loeb’s insight that ‘reputational debt’ is ‘non-negotiable ballast’ which can’t be traded or hedged and which can persist for decades. “Just ask BP” Tony suggests.   Tony’s advice is sage and implementable. “The reality is that a bad reputation distinguishes an organization from the rest of the pack a lot more than a good reputation does. Reporters, customers and commentators are far more likely to focus on the bad stuff you’ve done rather than the good performance you have been working on. So organizations are best advised to expend effort in avoiding or repairing a bad reputation rather than trying to create a good one. Any organization which sets out on a ‘programme to build reputation’ has likely forgotten the old adage that branding is what you say about yourself, reputation is what other people say about you.” And in a further discussion of the risk and, possibly futility, of pursuing the bank account metaphor, Tony cites the Bond case. “When failed Australian tycoon Alan Bond died last year, some of his supporters tried to mitigate his devastating corporate collapse by emphasising that he helped Australia win the America’s Cup yachting trophy. It made a good story of reputational redemption, but it meant nothing to the investors who had lost millions.”

Hume and Burke – what should Malcolm do and what would you have done?

 There is never a bad time to think about David Hume or Edmund Burke – in the latter case whenever some Tory makes a comment about mandates. The first general political use of the mandate concept was by Quinton Hogg (later Lord Hailsham) and basically he meant it as a means of arguing that no Labour government had a mandate to do anything. Modern day conservatives in Australia use it partly in the same sense but also to justify implementing all their policies irrespective of the election outcome in a bicameral legislature.

Burke on the responsibilities of MPs is quoted so often that it becomes banal but it is particularly apposite in modern changing societies. In even Australia’s derisory three year term Parliaments too much can change to make election policies (even good ones) eternally relevant.

Burke’s relevance is demonstrated by the recent proliferation of books about him. Richard Bourke’s Empire and Revolution illustrates just how relevant his principles and policies are 200 odd years after his time in Parliament. It counterpoints his radicalism with the often superficial recruitment of him to conservative viewpoints in contradiction to his attitudes to tolerance and social diversity. David Bromwich’s The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke amplifies these views.

And as for Hume, the emphasis on intellectual life, is reflected in a new biography, An Intellectual Biography by James Harris. The blog hasn’t read it yet but finds it difficult to believe it can match Mossner’s brilliant Hume biography but various reviews suggest it explores in some detail some issues such as Hume’s attitude to the “design argument”. This has always seemed an anomaly in the context of Hume’s famous argument about miracles and his clearly deist views. Indeed, Daniel Dennett once argued that Hume had ‘caved in’ to the design argument.

But this has always appeared to the blog as a rather arrogant post-facto interpretation of historical reality. After all Hume was writing about half a century after the last execution for heresy, for Thomas Aikenhead, in Scotland. As one must ask Dennett, along with others who pontificate about the errors of others faced with intolerable circumstances in the past, what would you have done?