Friday, May 12, 2006

What? Me Worry? 

I suppose as a PR practitioner who believes strongly in privacy and the First Amendment, I should be horrified by the revelation that the National Security Agency has collected billions of phone records. Curiously, I'm not. I suppose I should also be worried about cameras watching 24 hours a day in one city after another around the world. Nope. That's comforting.

I live in the anonymity of millions. To retrace my life would take time, as it would to track yours. When there are millions to watch, a government needs a vast bureaucracy to do the watching. The government doesn't have that. The US is not a police state, although any country can turn into one.

What we are dealing with is fear -- fear of change. From a PR perspective, the White House has handled it badly -- again. But, one expert on the radio last night noted that what the NSA is doing is an old technique in use since World War II. It's called traffic analysis. One looks at the volume of information passing from point to point and uses that to determine possible change in intent. One does not look at the information itself.

We do that everyday on the internet with click counts and cookies.

What this episode confirms is that when PR goes bad with an organization, it tends to get worse, not better. There is almost no way to stop piling on. This administration looks hopelessly incompetent. It's not. My guess is that it will be judged average to slightly below average in years to come. But, from a public perspective today, it is far worse. And, it's amazing how quickly the public turned. Presidents tend not to be historians (except Harry Truman), but they should be. If I fault the president for any one thing, it is that he should have seen this coming. Maybe he did, and he felt powerless to stop the tide of opinion. We won't know for years to come until after historians have plowed through the millions of records and recollections.

Still, from a PR perspective, can it get any worse?


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