MORPH: Lasting Impressions

MORPH: Lasting Impressions

When former Spike Networks CEO C. Chris O'Hanlon embarked on a pre-IPO marketing offensive two years ago, the company he founded seemed on the road to riches. The flamboyant dot-com chief was already famous for his penchant for a positive spin. Even so, he fielded the media reservations with an insightful frankness: "There is a certain amount of self-realisation in all of this," he told the author of this article when quizzed about the way he was telling the Spike fairytale. ("A very virtual Creed", ARN, 26 May 1999). "One tells a compelling story and then if you live it out, it becomes real. The narrative of Spike binds us together," he offered at the time. But the "narrative" never had a chance. If anything, it played a significant role in O'Hanlon's own undoing.

One of the reasons the ‘compelling story' of Spike did not come to realisation was that its day-to-day business reality turned out to be a lot grimmer than the daily barrage of press releases the company was directing at the media ever cared to suggest. Even as he was weaving the ‘binding narrative of Spike', 12 of O'Hanlon's most senior developers and business managers were getting ready to leave the company for a competitor. They cited disagreements with O'Hanlon's management style as the motivation behind the exodus. O'Hanlon's version of the events played the "restructuring" line. At the same time, Hollywood encounters remained high on the list of Spike's daily press release feed. Later, when the saga of Spike's incredible cash-burn rate became public and O'Hanlon stepped down for "medical reasons", the press had a field day. Needless to say, the company's reputation suffered sending investor confidence plummeting. (Spike's share price is still hovering around .20 cents at the time of going to press, only a slight improvement on the all time low of .10) Both will take time to recover.

As a part of the dot-com pack, Spike would have had a lot easier media ride had its story not been over-told, over-spun and over-sold in its pre-IPO stages. Yet, like so many of his industry peers, the Spike founder had fallen victim to the disease of positive spinning and total image control. To his defence, in doing so, he was simultaneously defining and capturing the zeitgeist of the (dot)communication age. Being on both ends of the sender-channel-receiver communication paradigm, it was probably difficult for O'Hanlon, as it seems to be the case with most of the IT industry, to debunk the somewhat fetishistic relationship he had cultivated with the media. Not unlike other "Net revolutionaries", he carried the belief in the media's power to make or break a business around his neck like a juju without questioning any of its inherent problems. Put simply, he treated the press simply as a more credible from of advertising, selling them an unsustainable company image, instead of communicating information.

In doing so, O'Hanlon broke three media relations rules: he made Spike too visible, he relied on a positive company image as the sole premise of that visibility and, when in crisis, he could not bring himself to make even a Clintonesquelly absurd, but nevertheless effective admission of the ‘I smoked, but didn't inhale' kind. In other words, he created the type of media relations monster that makes journalists' ears prick up with a suspicious attentiveness.

Falling short of self-criticism, it has to be said that the ubiquitous hand of the media sometimes shoots the messenger simply because communication channels between businesses and the media often tend to be closed for any other than the PR savvy. Which brings us back to the art of managing public relations in a business context. O'Hanlon's failure to successfully manage his former company's relations with the media epitomises one of the problems at the core of the spectacular rise and the subsequent decline of faith in the ‘Internet economy', which has been a part of our daily media staple for over a year now.

Interestingly enough, in an industry that has communication at its core, little has been said about the role communication with the media in particular plays in shaping events of consequence to the industry. On a macro scale, you need look no further than the fact that the same media which worked with the industry on creating a dot-com frenzy has been eagerly accelerating the dot-com demise since the extent of misinformation they were fed in the ‘courting' stage became insultingly apparent.

The problem is that, whether one likes it or not, journalists are akin to general practitioners, which someone once described as the best educated ignorami you're likely to come across. Where business is concerned, journalists depend on companies to inform them about their business strategies, performance or goals. More than in any other area of life, in IT they also need to understand ‘specialised knowledge' which they often depend on companies to educate them about. This relationship is, or should be, based on trust. Yet businesses tend to see a highly controlled communication model (usually premised on the idea of a positive spin) as an acceptable alternative.

So, what happens when this sort of communication fails? Worse still, what happens when the addiction to weaving positive notions into the public consciousness gets "exposed" as self-serving buggery? A media-induced blood letting is one of the likely outcomes.

One of the founding fathers of public relations, Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Barneys, taught us that to successfully communicate a concept, create an image or sell a product, you often have to pretend to be doing something else. But if you've learnt anything from the last year of dot-com carnage, it's that pretending to change the world when you're simply trying to boost your IPO doesn't work. And, for the record, journalists might be accused of ignorance, but they also have long memories.

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