Friday, March 28, 2008

Toyota for the Birds?

The Audubon Society announced this week that a recent Toyota grant of USD 20 million, the largest that the 103 year old organization has ever received, will fund its “TogetherGreen” programme for five years. “TogetherGreen” is a nationwide Audubon program to fund conservation projects, train environmental leaders, and offer volunteer opportunities to significantly benefit the environment according to the Society. TogetherGreen is about giving people the knowledge, the support and the opportunities they need to truly make a difference," said Audubon President John Flicker. "We will engage people of all ages, from every community and all walks of life to help shape a healthier future."

Toyota has garnered substantial kudos from environmental groups for its environmental commitment and, among other things, its Prius car, a high profile hybrid suspected of substantial greenwashing about both its performance data and its real environmental impact (see Tesla Motors article below). Toyota has said it will engage its 36,000 U.S. employees and invite its business partners to join with others through TogetherGreen as conservation volunteers to take the individual steps that will add up to significant conservation results. And the company’s commitment to environmental responsibility is pretty hard to shake a stick at either internationally or inside the US. Its environmental initiatives and auditing are rigorous by any standards.

Teaming with Audubon should come as no surprise. The Society is not only one of the oldest conservation organizations in the country, it has historically been one of the most sensible and well run. Not only is the Society well organized on a national basis and at the local level with strong grass-roots organizations, it has a history of rational action behind an unassailable cause. From a corporate perspective, there is very little risk exposure in an association with Audubon and considerable benefit. Birders are much more likely to be interested in Toyota sedan and SUV hybrids than the sort of young environmental activists that are associated with the seemingly more militant environmental organizations. Your Genteel Moderator congratulates the Audubon Society for not only its preservation and conservation work but for its excellent positioning and communications which have made it an ideal beneficiary organization for corporate giving. And hats off to Toyota for putting its money where its mouth is; $20 million is real money in any vocabulary. Mind you, it isn’t all smooth sailing for the company. It has taken criticism from environmental groups over the poor fuel economy of its brand portfolio and its carefully crafted green image is not above suspicion.
The Bleeding Heart could barely restrain himself. Forgetting or forgiving his perceived slander of the Prius in earlier posts, he waxed lyrical about Toyota’s social and environmental responsibility and went on in great detail about some type of swallow that he examines in apparently great detail on the grounds of his Connecticut country digs. The only comment that seemed noteworthy above all the gushing was “Of course, Toyota needs to carry its commitment to the environment through to increase fuel efficiency and emissions reductions across its car and SUV range”, a potentially telling remark. The Bloated Plutocrat was more circumspect. He writes, “ Well, I would have rather seen this money and some of the other fortunes that they are giving away issued in the form of dividends, but I suppose the tax deduction is in order. I don’t particularly mind birds, other than those d***ed pigeons, and I do like a good pheasant shoot, so on balance I take it that this is no bad thing.”

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Blinded with Science?

Am I the only adult in the Western world who doesn’t quite understand how so many leading financial institutions got themselves in so much trouble and why that trouble seems to be accelerating as of late? Reading the newspapers, it certainly seemed so, but it appears that I am not, at least in this case, suffering from a substantial intelligence deficit. Instead it appears that arcane, indeed near mystic, arts applied to the business models of many leading financial institutions may be the issue. Not that they will admit to it of course. The problem, according to the great Wall Street firms, all stems from foolish consumer borrowing. On the plus side, this has the ring of credibility since most people regard “others”, at least in the abstract, as entirely capable of vast degrees of foolishness. However, if the borrowing was so obviously foolish, why were the Wall Street titans buying the debt?

Apparently there is a case to be made that the Wall Street kingpins may not have entirely understood their exposure. This may also be a leading reason why there is little explanation from the likes of Citigroup and Bear Stearns about “how it all happened”. Rick Bookstaber’s seemingly prophetic 2007 “A Demon of Our Own Design”, did much to outline how the increasingly specialized and sophisticated financial constructs, akin at times to the spice dependent navigational techniques of the Spacing Guild in Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series, are creating substantial risk that few other than the “quants” that construct such devices can begin to understand.

In summary, it looks like the alchemistic formulae employed by Wall Street to develop ever more specialized financial instruments may have multiplied inherent and widely understood market risks, added debt loads beyond what investors would generally deem entirely prudent, and minimized the number of people who may understand the level of risk being developed. That’s nothing new. Those of us of a certain age remember similar critiques applied to Neolithic junk bond traders, and even more recently there was a collective head-shaking around the so-called “ bubble”. But Wall Street's great trading houses are doing little to allay fears of further failures and, in failing to explain in terms that even network news anchors can understand what led to their over-exposure and how they intend to mitigate that risk, are encouraging increased fear and more talk of recession.

To help me better understand the cause of these current difficulties and what was likely to happen next, I turned to the Bloated Plutocrat, whose recent harumpfing on the subject suggests that he has not been negatively impacted by the credit crunch or the gargantuan debt write-offs on the Street. His take was not entirely candid however. “The problem with the golden youths who imagine that they move markets today is that their experience amounts to a drop of water in New York harbor. The simple fact is that there are simple ways to make money that virtually anyone can understand. “Buy low, sell high” is not just some t-shirt aphorism. If you don’t understand what you’re investing in, the chances are rather good that you will soon be shirtless. Investing in mechanisms that require a greater knowledge of higher math than use of common sense will yield results accordingly”. From this, I took it that the Bloated Plutocrat had gotten out of mortgage heavy mutual funds and other instruments some time before mid 2007 and was feeling particularly smug about doing so.

The Bleeding Heart was not much more helpful. “The teetering house of cards made up of our Wall Street financial institutions has brought this plague upon themselves and were it not for the many small investors who will pay the price for their arrogance, I could care less. This situation highlights the need for greater regulation and oversight by the government. What these quantitative analysts call “innovation” is no more than a somewhat ritualized form of gambling – with other people’s money! Now is the time that Congress should intervene and, following intensive investigations into the cause of these failures, develop a raft of new regulatory measures aimed at diminishing the negative impact of these highly speculative financial transactions on the common man." From this, all I could really gather was that the Bleeding Heart was unhappy about recent developments in the adjustable sub-prime mortgage that he had used to buy his Connecticut dream home with in 2006…

It seems that what the Street needs right now are fewer math geeks and more oily flaks. The Street can’t reverse the losses caused by its speculations in the mortgage markets, but if they would at least put some glad handing, smooth talking flaks out there to calm investor fears and mitigate the multiplying media frenzy, they might arrest the headlong run towards “recession” that the media and pundits seem hell-bent on getting.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Tesla Motors – More Greenwashing in the “Green Economy”

Are power plant emissions from burning fossil fuels substantially less harmful to the environment? I still don’t know. After trawling through cyberspace and having read through a number of scientific papers that purport to offer the answer to just that question, it seems that electricity generation may deliver less CO2 than the equivalent power generation by a gasoline powered car engine. However, when you add the emissions from the power plant used to generate the electricity that powers Tesla Motors sporty 125 mph top speed electric Roadster to the emissions generated in building the car and throw in the higher energy cost and carbon footprint impact of disposal of an electric vehicle drivetrain, over its lifetime a ¾ ton low sulphur diesel pick-up truck comes out ahead on environmental impact. The recent defeat of a Toyota Prius by a diesel BMW 520 in an mpg showdown underlines the real green-power of clean diesel. In fairness to Tesla Motors, they claim to have already identified a company that will recycle the lithium-ion battery packs after their intended 100,000 mile life-span and built the recycling cost into the vehicle’s MRSP of approximately $ 100,000.

The vehicle has received DOT approvals and passed all Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, although Tesla have not released information on how it faired in these tests other than Vice President of Vehicle Integration, Malcolm Powell rather aptly noting, "I always find it interesting when people say, 'Isn't it dangerous carrying all those batteries around?' Well I don’t know about you, but I’d rather carry a load of relatively inert battery cells than 10 gallons of highly volatile, flammable liquid". Exactly 6,381 lithium-ion battery cells, of the same sort that you will find in your laptop or mobile phone, will power the car. The car will allegedly have a 200 mile range on an estimated 3.5 hour charge. Producing some 248 HP, peak torque from a standing start right up through 13,000 rpm, and a top speed of 125 mph, this two-seater loosely based on the Lotus Elise will make the Toyota Prius look like what it is, the car of dweebs.

But is it “green”? Tellingly, the company was the brain-child of Silicon Valley dotcom start-up uber-geeks, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, who allied themselves with Elon Musk, of PayPal fame, back in 2003 to form the company. Neither Eberhard nor Tarpenning are still with the company but the dotcom bravado marketeering that has made successful IPOs out of so much hot air has served Telsa well. After substantial delays in production and a shake-up last year that saw CEO Eberhard replaced by Ze’ev Drori, the company has allegedly sold the first 100 vehicles that it will only begin making this month, despite the fact that they will be produced with “temporary” transmissions that substantially diminish performance. The Roadster has been successfully pitched to the media and public as “green” and, based on the claim of $ 10 million in sales prior to production starting, it may well make Musk, Drori and others plenty of green, regardless.

The Bloated Plutocrat is enthusiastic. He writes, “Smart little car. 248 HP chucking 2700 lbs of sportscar around corners sounds like fun to me. Glad to see a group of entrepreneurs building a business that also makes environmental sense. That’s the way to save the environment. Let the markets lead the way. It’s democratic and rational. It’s not like these unwashed, ill-shaven hippies running around screaming about the Kyoto Treaty and all that nonsense. When people believe that new technologies and new products will deliver positive environmental change, they will adjust purchasing habits accordingly and the markets will deliver. It won’t exactly hurt the coal and oil stocks with fossil fuel still firing the power grid, but if it makes some people happy and other people money, there can’t be much harm in it.”

The Bleeding Heart has a different take on the issue, and almost refused to comment after my posting The Times article about a BMW 520d beating the pants off a Toyota Prius, but he is pleased about news of Tesla beginning production. “Given the government’s collusion with automakers, oil companies, and the tri-lateral commission, it’s amazing that Tesla ever got its Roadster off the drawing board, let alone into production. I can only imagine the merry dance they were led on trying to meet what were undoubtedly the moving goalposts of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards as a last-ditch effort to stymie production of this revolutionary vehicle. With more of these vehicles in the pipeline, soon we can end our dependence on foreign oil, reduce greenhouse emissions, reverse global warming, and change the world!"
Cool ? Yes. Green? Well,.....maybe

Monday, March 17, 2008

Will the Tibet Crackdown Put a Kink in Corporate Sponsorship of Beijing Olympics?

With Chinese troops in the streets of Lhasa and an estimated 50-80 already dead while unrest spreads to ethnic Tibetan enclaves in the Sichuan and Gansu provinces, more violence can be expected. George Clooney was already making news in the run-up to the Olympics about pressing Omega, the company that he promotes watches for and a 2008 Olympics sponsor, to “talk” to China about the Sudanese government’s policies in the Darfur region. Long-time Tibetan campaigner Richard Gere is already making the circuit backing the Dalai Lama’s calls for an investigation by the international community into what he terms China’s policy of “cultural genocide”. Mind you the airtime won’t hurt Gere’s fading career either. Meanwhile, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge issued a statement expressing concern about the Chinese government’s crackdown in Tibet and calling for [I kid you not] “an appeasement as soon as possible”. Let’s hope that’s a translation issue. Nevertheless, he was quick to forcefully reject any talk of a boycott of the games to be held in Beijing later this year.

This is going to make things tricky for Olympic sponsors in a way that the Darfur issue hadn’t yet. Clooney and Spielberg making noise over the Chinese government’s unwillingness to confront client state Sudan over its human rights abuses is one thing. Scenes reminiscent of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests - and don’t think that B roll isn’t coming out of the can this week - while the Nobel Peace Prize winning Dalai Lama talks about the oppression of his people is going to be quite another. So are the likes of McDonalds, Omega, Visa, GE, Kodak, Coca Cola, Johnson & Johnson, etc., ready to address the pressure they may come under in coming weeks? Omega doesn’t look ready. In response to their own spokesman Clooney’s call to action, the company issued a statement saying its policy is “not to get involved in politics”. That might have held water over the Sudan, but it isn’t going to cut it over Tibet.

So what can they do? Let’s assume that withdrawing from the games is not a viable option at this time. Unless things get considerably worse in China, there will be no boycotts and sponsors with millions in sunk costs are not going to walk away from the Olympics. But they face the prospect of several months of dancing around China’s issues and, potentially, facing consumer boycotts over their failure to address those issues head on.
Here are some strategies that the non-Chinese sponsors of the games should consider:

Safety in Numbers”. Were a large number of the non-Chinese sponsors (nobody can seriously expect the Chinese companies to act, can they?) to adopt the same approach, the safety of the herd would likely protect them from the wrath of Beijing. A joint appeal, rather than demand, to the Chinese government to use the games as a platform for making a more robust commitment to human rights both at home and abroad could be worded in such a way so as to appease most of their Western consumers and critics while not overly provoking the Chinese government. Of course, Beijing has traditionally not reacted well to this sort of pressure and signature sponsors run the risk of alienating a billion Chinese consumers. This approach would likely work well if a sufficient number of sponsors opted in. Without support by a substantial number of sponsors, it is unlikely that any smaller number of sponsors or single company would feel secure enough to undertake what Beijing would likely view as confrontation.

Do the Hustle”. Well, not literally. But in the great tradition of politics, when criticized about a specific instance of poor judgment, a transgression etc., dance around it while talking about all the other great work one has done. In this instance, companies would acknowledge and “express concern” about China’s human rights record, state that they do not involve themselves in politics, and then go on at length about their own social responsibility programmes and initiatives. Provided things don’t get much worse with Tibet between now and the games and provided there are no well-organized consumer boycott campaigns, this strategy is the safest bet. Listening to corporate flaks drone on about corporate social responsibility is so boring that the media are likely to turn down the heat on sponsors just so they don’t have to endure the experience.

Smoke and Mirrors”. A variation on “the Hustle”, this is essentially about buying absolution. If a company can’t afford to anger the Chinese government, there are plenty of governments that it can. Now may be the time for example to divest from unprofitable operations in Colombia over allegations that right wing factions with government connivance are targeting union leaders for intimidation or worse. Setting up a fund to help soon to be unemployed workers there and making a big donation to a civil society organization in the country of choice would all allow the company to talk about its serious commitment to human rights while dodging the China issue with “…one country at a time, we’re involved in a serious course of action in Ruritania right now and don’t want to diminish focus on that critical process at this juncture”. It would certainly get them through the games.

Masterful Inactivity”. A time-honoured classic and the default mode for most large organizations, it could also be named “toughing it out”. Companies don’t actually “do” anything about criticism over sponsorship of the 2008 Olympics and hope that media and consumer pressure never mount to a level where any action is required. As a sort of pressure release valve, they formulate some bland language about how their “engagement” in China will contribute to the further development of civil society and improved human rights, how “criticism from afar is unlikely to produce any results” and how their support for the games and increasing involvement in the Chinese economy “will ultimately give us a stronger voice at the table”, without suggesting what words that voice might utter. Unless things do deteriorate further in Tibet over the next week or so, or unless another big issue emerges in the coming months, this strategy is a pretty safe bet. Of course, if things do get worse and criticism mounts, “masterful inactivity” puts a company behind the curve and could exacerbate a problem that a somewhat more proactive approach would have been able to manage.

Unfortunately neither of my learned commentators was available to join in today’s post. The Bleeding Heart is apparently in an ashram somewhere in Northern California spinning prayer wheels at a frantic pace, while the Bloated Plutocrat is allegedly busy at a board meeting… Shanghai.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sea Shepherd International: 1, Japanese Whalers: 0. The Whales? Whatever…

Your Genteel Moderator must disclose his admiration, bordering on awe, for the PR prowess of environmental campaigners. Their fierce self-righteousness, unswaying conviction, and utter disregard for inconvenient truths and facts make them the best, if not always the most effective, campaigners. Add to that their studied ‘activist chic’ style sense, Gobbelsesque flair for mythology creation, and ruthlessly provocative stunstmanship, and they are a news generation and fundraising machine extraordinaire!

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is among the ‘best’ of such campaign organisations. From the renaming of one of their ships – sent to harass the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean below Australia and New Zealand – to the allegations of being shot at by the Japanese Coast Guard, to their declaration of “Mission Accomplished” at least three weeks before the whaling fleet is scheduled to leave the killing grounds, they have had a whale of a season (the Bleeding Heart is not amused by the admittedly poor pun) creating crises and manufacturing drama on the high seas. On the other hand, if their claims are true, they have also severely limited the killing of whales by Japanese ships during the Southern Ocean season.

Whaling is entirely unnecessary, is in no way justified by the tawdry fig-leaf of ‘research’ that the Japanese government seeks to hide behind, and is repugnant to even the hardest of hearts. Why, even the Bloated Plutocrat appeared somewhat teary-eyed when drafting his remarks on this topic. Why does Japan defend and promote whaling, the rounding up and slaughtering of dolphins (e.g. the annual Taji dolphin cull), and all other manner of pointlessly cruel sea mammal slaughter ? Well, it isn’t about consumer demand.

Current demand for whale meat in Japan is abysmally low. Even in a town like Ayukawa, a coastal community with a century-old whaling tradition, officials are struggling to preserve the tradition of eating whale meat by serving it in classroom lunches. Whale nuggets stewed in ketchup was on the menu on a recent Friday.” Norimitsu Onishi, IHT 13/3/07

Most analysts believe that this obstinate insistence on killing sea mammals stems from a nexus of nationalist pride and the country’s concerns about food source security. Essentially what it boils down to is that the Japanese government opposes regulation by the international community that would diminish the country’s ability to harvest the seas, while the Japanese people, who appear to favour whaling but don’t much like whale meat, just don’t like foreigners telling them what they can and cannot eat. And, for PR at its worst - of a sort not seen since tobacco company “social cost” studies - check out Japan’s “Institute for Cetacean Research” whose motto, translated from Japanese, reads something like:

We Just F^*?ing Hate Whales, okay?”

Meanwhile, Greenpeace, Oceana, Sea Shepherd, etc., can thank the Japanese for providing the kind of spectacles that keep the focus on their issues and the donations rolling in. Environmentalists clashing with “armed Japanese Coast Guardsmen” on the high seas while interdicting whalers? This is as good as it gets for the environmentalist image without serious consequences such as the death of Greenpeace photographer, Fernando Pereira. He was killed in Auckland (NZ) harbour when the French security services mined and sank the Greenpeace flagship "Rainbow Warrior" in 1985 prior to its sailing to the French held Muroroa Atoll to protest nuclear testing there.

As previously mentioned, the Bloated Plutocrat was nearly teary over the subject. “These ‘sea shepherds’ should take a bath, shave, put on some proper clothing and get jobs, instead of sky-larking around the oceans creating a risk to navigation. These youngsters are undoubtedly more highly motivated by the chance to booze it up and engage in sexual escapades with their fellow activists than they are in saving the whales. But the Japanese are being foolish. It’s one thing to tell the hippies off about all that Kyoto Treaty nonsense they allowed to be cooked up over there, but killing Flipper? Well, that’s just not cricket.”

The Bleeding Heart had to be sedated before I could elicit comments that could, in decency, be published. “Murder. Whaling is murder. We cannot sufficiently thank the likes of Sea Shepherd, Greenpeace and others who have done so much to raise awareness about the continuation of this barbaric slaughter by the Japanese. Thousands of sentient beings are being slaughtered for no other reason than the inhumane traditions of a handful of profiteering commercial fishermen in Japan. It’s on a par with genocide, I say”.

Well as the “Steve Irwin”, Sea Shepherd’s recently renamed anti-whaling ship, wends its way back to Australia, running low on fuel, and drink no doubt, Your Genteel Moderator can only express a degree of admiration for any success in diminished whale kills that they may have had, and yet again, a sense of awe at their campaigning prowess and powers of exaggeration.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Apparently there are some things even PR agencies won’t do…

During questioning before a House of Commons select committee on public administration last week, Bell Pottinger, agency head, Peter Bingle, announced that the agency had backed out of negotiations with the government of Zimbabwe (timing undisclosed) to “advise” it on public affairs. The London agency, arguably the leading UK public relations and public affairs firm, is part of the Chime Communications group, chaired by former Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s press adviser, Lord Bell. Bingle explained to the select committee (holding hearings on the subject of regulating lobbying yet again) that “We will turn down clients. We had a call from Zimbabwe asking to advise Zimbabwe. We said thank you very much, but no. It would have been a fairly malign campaign if someone had run it.” Of course Zimbabwe is also a conveninet throw-away in such a context. It’s unlikely that the Zim government would respond to a House of Commons request for verification of the Bingle claim…

It is not that Bell Pottinger doesn’t represent some controversial and potentially unsavoury clients. According to wire stories released last July surrounding the detention in and deportation from Katanga Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo (is it the Congo again?) of Billy Rautenbach, a well-known business associate of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, Bell Pottinger was at that time representing either the Province of Katanga or the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The firm has, like many other successful agencies, represented any number of high profile and controversial individuals, companies, and government entities. But apparently, there are those it will not represent. As Bingle explained, when considering offers from a foreign government “we would talk to the [UK] foreign office, take a view, look at whether we would want to work for that type of country or company”. Myanmar can scratch Bell Pottinger off their short list then.

So, is public relations not as blind as justice? Defense attornies often argue that even guilty clients require representation to ensure that their rights are respected. Does the PR profession not believe that even repugnant clients like Mugabe deserve good PR representation?

The Bloated Plutocrat thinks not. “Mugabe is a thug. Regardless of whether Bell Pottinger backed off representing Zimbabwe because of pressure, direct or percieved, from the Congolese or other African clients, or because they were doing the right thing, it was the right decision. To do so would have been bad for business. It would have put them in their own PR pickle and would have soured things with their friends in high places in both Houses of Parliament and the Government.”

The Bleeding Heart is equivocal. “Mugabe has made horrible mistakes and has undoubtedly betrayed some of the democratic goals of the liberation movement that he led, but he was the leader of a hugely important liberation movement and there is no doubt that much of Zimbabwe’s ‘bad press’ is the result of sour grapes and bias on the part of the British media. There’s no good reason that Bell Pottinger should not have worked to help the government of Zimbabwe. After all, they worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. There is no reason except that it would have complicated their lobbying efforts at home in the UK where President Mugabe is vilified out of all proportion. The US has North Korea, Cuba, and Iran as its bogeymen. The UK is stuck with poor Zimbabwe.”

Regardless of Bell Pottinger’s reasons for rejecting a Zimbabwe overture, if in fact they did, it looks like there are some things even PR agencies won’t do. That's nice to hear.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Goodyear Makes Case for Transparency, Wins PR Week 2008 Campaign Award

Negotiations made public and Goodyear lands award.

Among the winners of the 2008 PR Campaign Awards announced by PR Week yesterday was Goodyear, in the category Crisis or Issues Management, for its handling of communications around their 2006 labour negotiations and resolution of a strike called by the United Steel Workers. In previous negotiations, management had agreed to a news blackout thereby allowing a small group of union officials to control the flow of information about negotiations to employees. This time around, Goodyear set up a fact based communications network focused on a website accessible to employees, the media, and the general public - - and backed by regular interaction with plant community media.

The strategy was that of forced transparency. This is a great approach when the strategy driver believes that they have realistic and sensible positions on an in issue and either, other parties to a negotiation/issue are strong on influence and weak on substance, or the decision maker has an agenda it would prefer to be hidden. Critical to such a strategy is that the driver remain factual and credible in all its communications and avoid the temptation to turn such communications into advocacy pieces for its positions. The point is to let the facts speak for themselves and to diminish the ability of other players to manipulate or hide those facts.

USW hardly remained silent. They too spoke out on their excellent website and to the media. However, it appears that they were unable to adjust to Goodyear's change in approach and continued to communicate using confrontational language from yesteryear that may have masked the legitimacy of their negotiating positions even to their own members.

The Bloated Plutocrat is bemused. “Negotiations? Transparency? Communications campaigns? What a lot of rubbish. ‘Get back to work or I’ll call in the Pinkerton's is the only communication required in dealing with these Bolshevik labour types.”

The Bleeding Heart is torn. “While one cannot argue with transparency, it seems that the aim of Goodyear’s efforts was to exert undue pressure on union leadership hampering their abilities to negotiate in a robust manner.”

Meanwhile, Your Genteel Moderator believes that the PR Week judges got it right. Well done to Goodyear for a relatively inexpensive and minimalist approach. It looks like the company believed its offer reasonable and appropriate, stuck to the facts, and dragged the issues into the light. USW and Goodyear reached an agreement in December 2006.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Branson's Biofuel Greenwash, a Babassu Nut Boon?

It is extremely difficult to pass on reviewing virtually anything pitched by marketeering showman Sir Richard Branson. His history of attention grabbing stunts is peppered with case studies in how to generate organic media coverage that adds (ads?) bang for buck to commercial campaigns.

Which one is the babassu nut?

His latest stunt sees Sir Richard transforming the airline industry and saving the world through support for biofuels as an alternative or supplement to ye olde JP2 jet fuel. On the 24th of February a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 (using GE propulsion ?) traveled from London Heathrow to Schiphol in Amsterdam with one of its tanks allegedly full of a biofuel made of coconut and babassu oils, making it the first airline in the world to use such a "renewable energy source". The biofuel constituted an approximate 20% of fuel used, the rest being conventional jet fuel.

Branson claims that the flight was important for generating data about allegedly decreased emissions from the biofuel mix (the EU claims airline emissions count for approximately 3% of total "greenhouse gas" emissions - but jet fuel particulate exhaust is also a contributor to "global dimming" and, therefore, to global cooling, so the Bloated Plutocrat insists it's a wash) and for demonstrating the possibility of diminished airline dependence on fossil fuels. However, organizations such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and others had a field day. Greenpeace's chief scientist Doug Parr called the whole thing a "high altitude greenwash". Given that the Amazonian babassu nut is a key ingredient in many soaps, he may be onto something....

Meanwhile, European Federation of Transport and the Environment's Director, Jos Dings, says that biofuel does not equal environmentally friendly. "It depends crucially on what sort of biofuel you use, how much land that biofuel actually uses," he said. "If Virgin would power its entire fleet with biofuel, it would have to use about half of the UK's arable land."

But Branson and his partners in the effort, Boeing, General Electric and Imperium Renewables, do have answers for their critics."Virgin Atlantic will move forward rapidly to produce algae" to make biofuel, said Branson. "We're talking to a lot of sewage plants about setting up algae plants above and using a lot of the CO2 coming off those sewage plants" to feed the algae.

And it's not like he isn't putting his money where his mouth is, committing to invest some $ 3 billion in Virgin Fuels, a commercial enterprise to develop alternative fuels - an enterprise not hurt by Virgin Atlantic's biofueled flights. And a year ago pundits claimed that a biofuel mix couldn't be used for jet propulsion because it would congeal in the ultra-low temp, high altitude operating environment. Problem solved with this initiative.

The Bleeding Heart is impressed. He writes, "Branson is a socially responsible entrepreneur who has repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to fighting global climate change. When commerce genuinely acts in the public interest we should recognize and reward the effort". The Bloated Plutocrat, less so. "Who? That long-haired, furry gobbed gambler? He's no entrepreneur. He's a common showman. No surprise that he's grasped onto this environmental change lark to squeeze a few pennies out of the youth of today".

Regardless of whether you are in the Bloated Plutocrat's or the Bleeding Heart's camp on this, you have to admire Branson's stuntsmanship. Whether this is first and foremost about commerce or the environment, once again he has shown the ability to mix it up, successfully obfuscate, and turn the media spotlight on himself and the Virgin empire.

Commission Common Sense. What Next?

Despite the Bloated Plutocrat and the Bleeding Heart taking predictably polar stances on the issue, it appears that the Commission's legitimacy in demanding or imposing regulatory transparency on others is questionable. Nevertheless, regulatory measures that increase transparency, public knowledge, media scrutiny, and law enforcement oversight of the groups that communicate and advocate with government, clearly define how they do so, and and require some disclosure of what it is that they advocate, must on balance be viewed as in the public interest. That is provided such regulations do not unduly inhibit the ability of such groups to state their case. Nor should such regulations be deemed at odds with the corporate interest. A level playing field should be the end goal.

And this is where things become very odd indeed. The EU’s Green Paper for the European Transparency Initiative outlines some surprisingly sensible “essential components” that it says must be recognised in developing a regulatory framework for lobbying (p.5, Section II Transparency and Interest Representation):

1. Lobbying is a legitimate part of the democratic system, regardless of whether it is carried out by individual citizens or companies, civil society organizations and other interest groups or firms working on behalf of third parties (public affairs professionals, think-tanks and lawyers).
2. Lobbyists can help bring important issues to the attention of the European institutions. In some cases, the Community offers financial support in order to ensure that the views of certain interest groups are effectively voiced at the European level (e.g. consumer interests, disabled citizens, environmental interests etc.).
3. At the same time, undue influence should not be exerted on the European institutions through improper lobbying.
4. When lobby groups seek to contribute to EU policy development, it must be clear to the general public which input they provide to the European institutions. It must also be clear who they represent, what their mission is and how they are funded.
5. Inherent in the European institutions’ obligation to identify and safeguard the “general interest of the Community” is their right to hold internal deliberations without interference from outside interests.
6. Measures in the field of transparency must be effective and proportionate.

The Bloated Plutocrat writes: "This is remarkably sensible thinking from the Commission, although one may well take issue with number 3. After all, if I’m paying for a lobbyist, I most certainly want him to 'exert undue influence on the European Institutions', albeit not in a particularly improper way. I wouldn't think very much to one who touted his services as exerting 'exactly the same influence as other lobbyists and not an iota more'! Nevertheless, for such a generally muddle-headed organisation as the Commission, the Green Paper shows a high degree of common sense, suggesting that they have indeed listened to those of us in the business community, for once."

The Bleeding Heart retorts: "Listened to the business community? It appears that the Commission is prostrate in supplication at the alter of special interest! From voluntary codes - and let's face it, regulating lobbyists through voluntary codes is like promoting the withdrawal method as a form of contraception for teenagers - to weak regulations that have absolutely no enforcement mechanism. Even the EU Parliament's unused threat of diminished access - "you boys and girls better be good little lobbyists or we'll take away your hall pass!" - is better than a simple register of interests. If the EU will not simply banish these corporate wolves, then the adoption of a much more detailed and strict regulatory framework is required."

In addressing the issue, Finnish MEP Alex Stubb further breaks with EU politico tradition in his blog by using plain speech and making sense:

“I believe that for most politicians, it is the strength of an argument that counts, not how much money is spent on promoting it. Certainly, European decision-makers need information about the sort of organisations that are backing different interest groups…However, debate over practical questions should not mask the underlying principle that whatever method of regulation we adopt, it must apply equally to all. It does not matter if someone comes from Greenpeace or McDonald’s, a trade union or employers’ federation, a think-tank or a firm of lawyers; when they are trying to influence an MEP’s position on a piece of legislation, they are all lobbyists. And if we don’t treat them as equals, we are on a slippery slope towards controlling free speech.”

Surprised by this uncommon sense, the Bloated Plutocrat asks, "What next? Minimum personal hygiene standards for French MEPs?"

In a representative democracy, policy is arrived at through the interaction and balancing of various interests. Representative government necessarily requires that knowledgeable, interested parties present their views and information on subjects under review by the legislature and executive. Is this not already the case in the judiciary? What is a trial but the representation of interests before judge and/or jury?

As a long time interlocutor with governments around the world, I find it simply impossible to adequately convey the shocking levels of ignorance - active and passive – about the issues evidenced by the vast majority of regulators, legislators, administrators, and bureaucrats that I have come across. It should come as no surprise that those elected by the people from the people are no more knowledgeable than the people on almost every subject other than campaign financing. This ignorance is the norm rather than the exception. Without the special interests providing their views and information on many issues, decisions would often be made on no more solid a basis than a coin toss. Good legislators, regulators, and other government decision makers are those willing and able to review input on a subject from the many interests involved and arrive at a sensible compromise.

Having said that, there is a need to regulate the ways in which lobbyists, interest representatives, etc., interact with government, and such regulation requires effective enforcement mechanisms. Your Genteel Moderator suggests that the EU Commission is right in seeking to regulate such activity and notes that its Green Paper shows some very good thinking on the subject. However, effective regulation requires not only that the law be clear and practical, but that it be applied evenly to all and that there be sufficient penalties for non-compliance so as to instill a healthy self-interest in compliance.

The Bleeding Heart remains outraged at the continued Commission stance in favour of regulated lobbying and strongly condemns the Bloated Plutocrat's last statement as an example of "ethnolfactorycentrism"...

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Regulatory Legitimacy for Commission? We think not...

Before further investigation of the merits of proposals by the Commission to regulate "interest representation" ("lobbying" is sooooooo 20th Century) with the aim of greater transparency, it is worth examining the Commission's credentials and legitimacy on the topic.

There is no doubt that increased transparency would be a good thing for European governmental institutions (indeed, government institutions the world over), from the Commission on down. Perhaps the Commission would be on more soild ground regulating the speech and activities of others were itself more transparent. Indeed, many member states, particularly a number of the more recent entrants from Eastern Europe that perhaps having gained democratic government more recently seem to value it more highly, have expressed concerns about the lack of transparency evidenced by the Commission and other institutions in their decision making. Yet, the Commission is colluding with the Member States to substantially diminish transparency and democracy in the EU with regard to ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon, a thinly veiled retooling of the EU Constitution that was defeated by popular referendum a scant few years ago.

While clearly an advocacy position, the following short presentation by Danish MEP Jens-Peter Bonde (in English) on Commission-Member State collusion vis-a-vis ratification is compelling:

With the bumbling Tories seeking legislation today that would require a referendum on the Treaty in the UK, the Lib-Dems displaying typical waffle, and Gordon Brown's government demonstrating the Euro-manipulation and disdain for the popular will that has characterized New Labour for the last decade, there is considerable popular campaigning by those who want such a referendum:

And of particular interest to public affairs professionals is the adoption of tactics by the pro-referendum movement stolen straight from Greenpeace's own very effective stunt-book. Two men from a group calling itself "We are Change" and affiliated with the "I Want a Referendum" group, last night scaled a crane above the Houses of Parliament unfurling banners demanding a referendum:

There is no indication that Brown intends to reverse opposition to a UK referendum despite results of a so-called "mini-referendum" undertaken in key Parliamentary constituencies (clever that!) that claim to show 88% popular support for a referendum.

BP: "Hah! What ye sow, so shall ye reap! Bully for the protesters. Let the demagogues and populists get a taste of their own poison and remember why representative government was originally designed to be limited in scope to those responsible enough to make policy. When you raise the rabble, be aware that the rabble may raize your house!"

BH: "It is difficult to understand what the anti-Lisbon Treaty people are after. Are they the unwitting pawns of the narrow-minded Euro-sceptics who fail to understand the need for greater integration and stream-lined decision making in the EU. Or, are they misguided democrats so dispirited by the corporatist nature of politics today that they can no longer differentiate between the democratic process of government (ratification by the elected legislature is a democratic process afterall) and its suborning by special interest groups that so often stifle democracy in aid of business interests?"

YGM: Those of the rational and democratic bent would seem to find it difficult to argue against ratification by referendum. But then, the fact that there is apparently not a single readily readable version of the Treaty available to the public would of course make a reasoned decision on the issue somewhat difficult. On balance, it would appear that the Commission's legitimacy as a transparent and democratic institution is open to further question...

Monday, March 3, 2008

European Transparency: Myth or Reality?

With the Lisbon Treaty, Europe's latest "reform treaty", under ratification process in the member States, the Bloated Plutocrat and the Bleeding Heart are at odds over transparency in Europe's institutions, the Commission's efforts to regulate "lobbying", and the uncommonality of common sense.

Ireland likely to vote NO on Treaty of Lisbon:

Commission Under Pressure to Curtail Lobbying Influence:

BP:"Is irony dead in Europe as a whole, or simply among the unwashed loony left? Do the "50 civil society groups" touting the restrictions on democracy advocated in their missive not see that should the economic interests of Europe be barred from the exercise of democratic speech with its minimally accountable bureaucrats, clouded in the mists of arcane bureaucracy and often acting solely in the national interests of the member states, so too may a case be made that their own brand of naïve drivel ought be suppressed? Are they further blind to the fact that whither the interests of Europe's economic institutions and industries, so too the interests of those whose employment, livelihood, and extensive tax-funded entitlements are dependent on them? Pish! A plague upon the unwashed whiners!"

BH:"Would that there were 10 civil society groups, let alone 50, on the American side of the Atlantic willing and able to mount such a necessary and well-reasoned argument for curbing the influence of the corporate lobbyists that have so polluted the waters of democratic government. Nevertheless, even this effort falls short of the necessary reforms to reestablish the preeminence of the people in politics. Demands for transparency, regulation and oversight of the hoards of lobbyists, lawyers, PR operatives, and "communicators" fall far short of the need to eliminate their influence altogether. Indeed, without more radical efforts to bar corporate special interests and their operatives entirely from exerting influence on legislators, regulators, and executives, this plea may be seen as nothing more than a job substitution programme, in which the self-same operatives will become modern day Mandarins of a registration and oversight regime for special interest groups damned with its own increasingly opaque transparency as working groups are established, committees formed, and “watchdog bodies” entrenched. No more! Let these corporate assassins of our public good be rounded up and ejected from the arena of government!"

Commission Green Paper on the European Transparency Initiative:

And the inevitable catfight:
"Commission defiant over lobbying transparency criticism"