Monday, May 22, 2006


For the past week there has been a standoff between a major US telecommunications company -- BellSouth -- and a newspaper, USAToday. The issue is serious. USAToday named BellSouth as one of the companies that gave phone records to the National Security Agency for analysis. BellSouth denies it. USAToday had been unyielding. (I don't know where the publication stands as of this hour.)

This is the worst kind of PR crisis. One organization's word against another, and because of the security involved, there is almost no way to find out whom to believe. Usually, citizens think the worst first in these situations. Contrary to general opinion, there isn't much of a credibility bank to rely on.

We talk of transparency in situations such as these, but there isn't transparency that works. How does one show reporters that records haven't been extracted from a database? If no-name sources say that the company was among those who turned over data and the sources have been correct about other companies, why distrust them now?

BellSouth could sue for defamation, of course, but that will take years, and the newspaper can and will hide behind confidentiality.

There are PR situations out of reach of normal practice. I've been through them: You have too. If BellSouth is correct that it did not produce the data, then one can feel sorry for the predicament the firm is in. On the other hand, if data did come from the firm in one way or another, and BellSouth doesn't know or is not telling the truth, it is digging a deeper hole for itself. One hopes no company would be so foolish.


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