Telephone eavesdropping as a new ‘listening’ tool for pr: the recent cases of Hewlett Packard, Telecom Italia and George Bush

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I imagine that of the many tools we currently adopt to ‘listen’ to stakeholders (focus groups, participatory observation, network analysis, quali/quantitative research, opinion polls, meetings….) the one which, in many countries, appears more widely used today, is telephone eavesdropping. Nothing new: this form of ‘listening’ has at least one century of history and the ‘normal’ processes of business, politics and journalism have many times been devastated by the excessive or unlawful use of this tool. At least three recent highly publicised cases come to mind, but I am sure that others will want to add and comment different recent cases.The first case has been occupying much of the political debate in the USA in these recent weeks and has to do with the Administration having some time ago decided, without the approval of Congress, to use all tools and methods available to intercept conversations of suspected terrorists. It now seems that an acceptable (only to the divided republicans..sofar) compromise has been reached which will inevitably embarrass the democrats, as President Bush will want to use this in the campaign for the upcoming and highly important midterm elections.

The second case come from Italy and, at lest indirectly, involves the nation’s largest telephone operator Telecom Italia. In its simplest terms, the Italian Cabinet last Friday approved a decree (immediately effective, although it needs to be approved by Parliament in sixty days) by which all existing non legally authorised records of telephone eavesdropping (a truly national sport in my country, an avid early adopter of mobile communication, since many years…) must be destroyed, while publishers, editors and journalists who publish the contents of these conversations (as they have been doing for months..) are immediately fined up to 1 million euro. This decision comes from the discovery by Italian prosecutors of a major phone eavesdropping operation organized by the security manager (now in prison, together with twenty other individuals) of the ex monopolist Telecom Italia and which involved many thousands of unaware individuals from the business, the political and the media communities who have been constantly eavesdropped. It is not yet fully clear how many of these were eavesdropped by request of the company’s management (but its now past CEO denies this) or by private clients who operated directly with the security officials, now incriminated. This incident also intertwined with a major clash between the CEO of Telecom Italia (who abruptly resigned and was immediately replaced) and Italy’s Premier who has accused the former of having led public opinion to believe that the Government had been informed of (and, one would assume, had approved) a major strategic restructuring of the company, when this was not the case.

Finally, the third case is the recent Hewlett Packard case which led to the resignation of the Chairperson and of at least two members of the board after it was confirmed that the Company had illegally eavesdropped on board members as well as journalists in order to trace who was leaking board proceedings to the media. For this story please see Fraser Seitel’s brilliant op-ed (Seitel.doc) in the odwyerpr.com newsletter.

Ok. So why take your time and focus on these incidents and what have they to do with us, public relators. In my view one hell of a lot.

The history of public relations is full of episodes in which professionals have been directly or indirectly involved in illegal proceedings related to processes of ‘listening to stakeholders’: to the point that for many social critics of our profession, espionage is a constitutive component of our core competences.

To be frank, in almost forty five years of practice, there have been several cases in which not only was I not sure that what I was being asked to do (and in some cases doing) was fully legal, but there have been specific instances in which I actually received credible third party confirmation that the information I was providing to my client (say, a corporation) was being used by both the State Department and the CIA in my country to influence public policy and the political careers of some individuals I referred to in my weekly confidential reports on ‘the situation’. In one specific case, I was even directly victim of this procedure: a major corporation, in order to avoid a huge fine, accepted, without informing me, to post on the Internet all the classified information I had been supplying for many years ….can you imagine my embarrassment? And, can you imagine the fortune I could have made had I decided to sue that company for breach of years of reciprocal non disclosure agreements? In another recent case, in which I was not directly involved, but experienced it from close by, a colleague of mine actually convinced a client who knew his mobile was being tapped to use this very channel of communication to orient eavesdroppers and their clients in wrong directions…and, believe me, it worked like charm!!!

Having said this, the recent widespread and global development of mobile communication, accompanied by the sudden growth of a parallel and flourishing eavesdropping industry, has certainly changed our mode of professional practice and we should be fully aware of this.

So what, you say?

The only rational thing I can think of is to go return to the very concept of transparency. A highly abused term, and not only in public relations. In my view, and I very much welcome dissent and criticism, in any professional public relations circumstance you are transparent in a relationship with a stakeholder only if:

a- you say who you are

b- you say who you represent in this specific instance

c- you say what your specific objective is

d- (only when the law allows it or you are not revealing sensitive information which could harm your client or another party) you say which process you intend to adopt in reaching that objective.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Toni,
    first of all, thanks for this dialogue-space, this is an important opportunity to grow our passion and to grow up like professional.
    I have to be honest, it’s very hard for me to consider telephone eavesdropping or espionage like a tool for the pr. Maybe I’m too young, maybe I haven’t enough experience, maybe I’m too naive but I don’t want consider them like tools for my profession and for my future. Even if it’s clear that these aspects are a reality, an harsh reality.
    I prefer to consider eavesdropping as only a tool for the justice. Can I do it?
    I don’t know…unfortunately you’re right and so we have to consider them as tools for our profession and not only for it.
    But is it correct to use them for our profession? Or we’re running the risk of create a wrong work system? I’d prefer to think that others are our tools.

  2. Stefano,
    I also read your post on this (in italian) in your blog. You should not be surprised nor scandalised. Of course I was not advocating we purposely use illegal telephone eavesdropping as a tool, but we also should not ‘turn around and do like the three monkeys’ when we become aware that such tools are being used, and it is our duty to counsel our client/employers on how to deal with this. Whether they listen to us rather than their legal counsel is another issue.. In the case I mentioned in my post, the advice was to consciuosly deviate the attention of listeners whne speaking with others on the phone, in order to mix up their agendas. In the HP case, I tend to agree with Richard Nicolazzo’ recent op-ed in http://www.odwyerpr.com in which he advocates that pr directors be, ex officio, members of the board in publicly quoted companies…
    In any case we cannot be Cinderella’s and we must cope with all those variables which come up suddenly and mess up our carefully researched and thoughtfully planned programs.

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