Elizabeth Holmes and media coverage: subconscious bias at work

First, a full confession: I used to write about tech startups in the dotcom boom. I met hundreds of internet entrepreneurs, financiers, self-styled tech wizards and gurus. Some were brilliant and deserved their eventual success, while others I thought were ‘fake it till you make it’ pretenders still managed to extract funding from desperate venture capitalists before their businesses went belly up.

I know better than most what goes wrong when journalists are trying to write in boom times. As in all gold rushes, media coverage can veer from the excited to the positively breathless. I’ve seen reporters get carried away. And, after the bubble bursts (which they all do), everything changes, the media sharpens its claws, and everyone associated with the boom gets a kicking, all of them tarred with the same brush, whether they deserve it or not.

So far, so dotcom boom.

Back in the UK in 2000 after the ‘correction’ in tech company valuations, things soured to the point that Lastminute.com’s founders Martha Lane Fox and Brent Hoberman, who I interviewed several times, briefly became totemic figures for public and investor disillusionment with the tech sector.

Once, mid-way through an interview some time after the oversubscribed Lastminute IPO and the subsequent crash in tech stocks, a weary Hoberman told me he wouldn’t have minded so much if journalists just slagged off the company. Much of the media animus directed at him and Lane Fox, however, was so personal that it was as if reporters thought there was something wrong with them as individuals.

Unquestioning coverage helps no one, fair coverage does

How things changed over the following years. Media coverage of tech startups resumed its previous unquestioning stance. In the US this trend was particularly notable. Partly driven by their owners’ demands for page views and that other all-important commercial driver, ‘reader engagement’, journalists outdid each other in their glowing coverage of the people and companies coming out of Silicon Valley.

Elizabeth Holmes rode this wave like a pro. In 2003 the then 19-year-old founded the company that would become Theranos, eventually raising more than $700 million from investors and commanding a heady $9 billion valuation within a decade. It took till 2015 before the Wall Street Journal (behind paywall) published the first damaging revelations about Theranos’s technology, leading to legal challenges on all fronts and the company’s eventual collapse.

With Holmes’s conviction yesterday on four charges of fraud, including conspiracy to defraud investors, the question has to be asked: why did it take so long to uncover what the US Securities and Exchange Commission described as a “years-long fraud”?

Puffing up Elizabeth Holmes

The media has a lot to answer for. It puffed up Elizabeth Holmes. Hailed her as a guru. Lapped her up and promoted her as the great fresh face of tech entrepreneurs. She became one of the most idolised, most revered female entrepreneurs in the tech industry.

Her image graced the covers of business magazines and fashion titles alike. Even her dress sense, which aped Steve Jobs and his signature black turtleneck jumpers, was somehow seen as a sign of excellence.

Now, post Theranos, journalists seem to be belatedly regaining their credentials as people who realise they have to hold companies and their leaders to account. Critics will say this is no more than ‘doing a reverse ferret’, journalese to describe an abrupt reversal in an organisation’s editorial or political line on a particular issue

The media does now seem to acknowledge that the tech industry is not a just a world populated by aspirational and well-meaning geeks who run startups from the spare bedroom of their parents’ houses. But it’s a very late-in-the-day realisation that some of these people do wield real world power, whether it’s through commercializing our personal data, facilitating those who undermine elections, or what some might paraphrase as ‘doing stupid stuff’.

Many of the journalists who wrote flattering articles about Holmes back in the day clearly regret it now, even if they don’t say so. Fortune Magazine, to cite just one culprit, wrote this generous profile back in 2014 and published this creditable and lengthy mea culpa a year later. Wired did this one – but try finding their mea culpa or those of others.

So why did the media swallow Holmes’s hype? I’d argue subsconscious bias may have been at work.

Did male journalists just get carried away with this female CEO?

The male/female dynamic is far too simplistic an explanation.

Holmes certainly looked the part. She dressed the part. She talked the talk. She had big name investors. She amassed a star-studded board of directors. She did also tick a lot of the boxes for the many male, often middle-aged business journalists out there looking for a ‘good story’: Blonde. Female. Charismatic. Dropped out of a prestigious university to launch her business. Dressed like Jobs. Had a deep voice (honestly, even that’s been questioned). Made journalists feel special by maintaining extraordinary eye contact (seriously, there are even articles about how she likely taught herself to do this). Oh, and the technology her business did sounded sort of cool and game-changing.

But the reality is that at one time all journalists, whatever their gender, were gushing about her.

Some argue that Holmes’s ought not to be the only conviction here. The media is also guilty – of monstrous hype. Of misleading its audiences. Perhaps even of overlooking a fraud through its failure to probe sufficiently and ask hard questions.

Will it learn any lessons? Could the media make the same mistake again? We could be charitable and hope some lessons can be learned from the Theranos saga. Maybe, then, the next time a big investor wave comes along the media won’t just sweep us along in their excitement. We can but hope. But there are few signs to be all that confident.

Image: TechCrunch, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


How to fight claims you’re just ‘blah blah blah’

Imagine being a public relations adviser and having to combat Greta Thunberg. She has truly mastered the art of the soundbite.

Her criticism that COP26 was just ‘blah blah blah’ was a clever cover-all response to combat any of the advances claimed by the politicians.

COP26’s last-minute stitched together final agreement underlined Thunberg’s view that big dirty industrial polluters and countries with poor environmental records will only respond to a big stick and that the stick isn’t nearly big enough yet.

A bigger regulatory stick for the big polluters

The public’s appetite for using a bigger stick is growing, however. Which is bad news for the big polluters. Especially those who spent so much time in the run-up to COP26 talking up their green credentials and and sustainable practices and products. Phrases like ‘clean coal’, ‘net-zero carbon flights’, ‘sustainable mining’, even ‘clean-burning natural gas’ swilled around like so much greenwash.

Those who invest in big polluting industries face a similar challenge.

Why? Because the lack of transparency is hindering consumer choice. For example, consumers know that switching to a sustainable pension could be 20 times more effective in cutting their carbon footprint than giving up flying, eating meat and driving a car with an internal combustion engine. Yet few know what to do about it or whether they can believe the sustainability claims of the companies their pensions are invested in.

An end to greenwash?

Regulators agree this is unacceptable. So tough new guidelines to tackle this are coming. Guidelines that will curb the ability of big industrial polluters to make sustainability claims that don’t stack up.

Regulatory changes will address claims that too many companies readily use terms about their environmental ‘impact’ and ‘zero carbon’ products that are either hard to verify or just cannot be true. In future, they’ll have to prove these claims.

Just one example, here in Switzerland, the main financial market regulator FINMA has issued draft regulations to tackle greenwashing in collective investment schemes at fund and institutional level. It hopes to end some of the worst abuses that it sees, mostly as a result of a lack of transparency in products offered to investors.

Claims about sustainability must in future be backed by evidence: proof that a sustainable investment strategy is actively being pursued or implemented, and that in any collective investment scheme a large share of assets must be allocated in line with that strategy.

FINMA is one of several significant regulators to be turning the screw on funds that can’t back up outlandish claims of their sustainability with hard evidence. ESG claims will have to be justified. Unwarranted ‘sustainability’ labels for products will have to be dropped.

A new global framework for sustainability reporting?

Underpinning all this regulation will be globally accepted sustainability reporting standards and a single internationally recognised framework for sustainability reporting.

The recently announced merger of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board and the Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB), to form a new International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) will help. It paves the way for a new global sustainability disclosure standards body to oversee the introduction of more transparent and globally comparable sustainability disclosures compatible with companies’ financial statements.

Proving deliberate mis-selling is hard when precise definitions of words like ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ are a matter of debate. But new regulations mean this day is coming.

More transparency, less PR?

Greater transparency will ensure everyone understands how to make informed decisions about their pensions and investments. Fighting claims that what they say and do is all just ‘blah blah blah’ will require companies to change, and to show clearly that they have done so. That’ll good for investors and good for the planet.

What Greta might describe as a ‘win/win’ rather than ‘blah blah blah’.

Photo by Carlos Roso on Unsplash

5G and Covid fuel Swiss digital media transformation

A newsstand in Bern, the capital of Switzerland

One of the features of the Swiss media market that first strikes foreigners is the apparently robust health of its print media. Newsagents seem packed with titles and relatively high levels of newspaper and magazine readership sit at odds with the experience in other major European countries.

This is all changing – and the shift from print to digital is accelerating, however, according to a major new entertainment and media industry analysis by PwC.

Pandemic problems

The pandemic has emphasized the rate of change, hitting both print circulation and advertising as lockdowns cut the numbers of people buying papers on the journey to and from work.

Newspaper industry revenues are expected to fall from CHF 968 million in 2020 to CHF 842 million by 2025, a drop of -2.3% annually.

While major media owners are moving over to new platforms this is not without difficulty. Publishers are running into the age-old problem that users think digital equates to free content. Finding new ways of monetising digital audiences will be key if publishers are to survive.

Competing with TikTok and Snapchat

Media companies are shifting to digital models, producing more audio and video content, but even so they will have their work cut out to compete for revenue and reader attention from established rivals such as Google and Facebook to emerging forces like TikTok and Snapchat.

There have been some successes: The free German-language tabloid Blick launched in francophone Switzerland in June. Its owner, Ringier, has also launched an online TV channel. Meanwhile, the biggest online news site in French – http://www.20min.ch/fr – increased audiences across its various channels (print newspaper, app and website) in 2020 to reach nearly 3.0mn readers each day.

That’s pretty impressive when you consider the country has a population of just 8.7 million, though it reflects traditionally high level of news readership and the fact that trust in traditional news sources here remains high at 44%.

Online advertising is the place to be, however. Switzerland’s Internet advertising market is already the sixth biggest in Western Europe, with total revenue of CHF 3.2bn in 2020. This is expected to increase at a combined annual growth rate of 6.5% to reach CHF 4.4bn by 2025, making Switzerland the third-fastest growing market in the region.

The impact of 5G

While online advertising continues to grow, PwC sees a surge in mobile ad revenue following the increasing take-up of 5G between now and 2025.

Switzerland is something of a trailblazer for 5G in Europe. It is now available to most of the population through two major providers, Swisscom and Sunrise. Revenue from mobile ads overtook that of wired for the first time in 2019, when it accounted for 54.1% of total revenue. By 2025 mobile will make up 64.4% of total Internet advertising revenue in Switzerland.

It adds up to a huge challenge for traditional media companies, who must adapt their business models quickly, or die. Those packed news stands in Switzerland may soon become a thing of the past.

Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

What PR advice would you give Prince Andrew?

I set up a communications agency earlier this year. During a conversation last week with a prospective client about reputation management, I was asked how I would dig HRH The Duke of York out of his current predicament.

Prince Andrew is currently in limbo. In PR terms, he remains a Royal PR sore, ridiculed by the news media, pilloried on social media and still living (indirectly at least) on the public purse with no one willing to offer him work.

The toughest of tough PR gigs

For a PR practitioner, Prince Andrew would be the toughest of tough gigs. His ‘brand’ is toxic thanks to his friendship with the deceased sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. His ill-advised attempt to explain it away in an interview with respected BBC journalist Emily Maitlis was a catastrophe. And now he faces a civil lawsuit from an American woman, Virginia Giuffre, who alleges that he sexually assaulted her.

The court of public opinion has already made up its mind about Andrew – guilty of poor judgement to some, he is guilty of far worse to others.

Lawyers say there is no good legal way forward. If Andrew fights the lawsuit he will look unsympathetic. If he ignores it, he will cause collateral damage to the rest of his family and possibly even to the institution of the monarchy. Even if he settles with no admission of anything, some will still see it as an admission of something.

Start with an apology

Nothing can happen without a full and unreserved apology. And not the mealy-mouthed type he made when he announced he was stepping back from public life ‘for the foreseeable future’. Andrew has to acknowledge his own serious failings in associating with Epstein and has to admit he fell seriously short in terms of both his own judgement and the public’s expectations of a senior royal figure.

He then has to resolve his legal woes. Ms Giuffre was a vulnerable 17 year old – and thus a minor in the eyes of the US legal system – when they were photographed together at Ghislaine Maxwell’s London mews house in 2001. Andrew could apologise for the distress his association with Ms Giuffre caused her without admitting to any sexual activity. However, this will depend on a legal settlement and a generous financial offer to her. Only then would the damaging drip-feeding of allegations in the media stop and enable both sides to draw a line somewhere.

Legal settlement is essential

In the wake of a near total mea culpa and a legal settlement, something like internal exile and some form of charitable work is possible for Andrew. No public events, no waving from the balcony at Buckingham Palace, no media appearances, no more riding with the Queen, no more Air Miles, no golf. Some have suggested sending him to Africa as a charity worker but this would have bad optics. Andrew would be the very worst kind of ‘white saviour‘. He needs to find an appropriate charity in the UK and devote his life to it.

The only public figure whose example sets anything like a precedent would be the disgraced politician John Profumo. The then Secretary of State for War was forced to resign in 1963 after it emerged that he had lied to Parliament about a sexual affair with Christine Keeler, a model who was also in a relationship with the naval attache at the Soviet Embassy. Profumo later went to work for a charity in the East End of London and maintained an absolute public silence on the matters that led to his resignation. This redeemed Profumo to some and the media more or less left him alone to his good works for the rest of his life.

What is the best he can hope for?

Nothing Prince Andrew has said or done suggests he fully understands his current predicament. His former PR advisor resigned after the Prince rejected his advice not to go ahead with his ill-fated interview with the BBC. No one in their right mind will take Andrew on as a client until he accepts that he has transgressed and that he needs serious help. Once he does, he will have to work hard to cease being newsworthy. That is the best he can hope for.

Photo by Anika Mikkelson on Unsplash

How language changes: an ode to emojis

When I was younger I greatly admired the British journalist Miles Kington, who was credited with the invention of Franglais, a made up language that combined French and English.

Yes, I know, Shakespeare had examples of it in his writing, Monty Python had a sketch using it…but Kington really was the grande fromage of them all, IMHO.

Vous gettez the drift générale. Franglais was absolument nonsense of course, and while it might have instilled de la confiance in the average Rosbif, armed with the mighty French O Level (grade C), it utterly confused any French person who read it.

So, I’d love to know what Kington would have made of emojis. Why? Because Saturday is world emoji day. 🙌 World emoji day – who knew it was ‘a thing’?

Actually, it’s more than 20 years since the very first tiny emotive characters appeared on Japanese mobile phones. There are now many thousands of them and they have gone mainstream, across cultures and languages, even leaping from casual use to the professional.

The first time I saw one at work was when an investor relations adviser wanted to include 😃😃😃 in a financial results press release. When I suggested that the company should stick to ‘tried and tested’ language rather than emojis, I was told in plain terms that I was clearly ‘quite old’ and ‘didn’t get’ what they were all about. 🤦

Actually, I believe Emojis are a vital part of linguistic evolution. Just as I don’t address my partner as ‘thou fair maiden yonder’ so too in our increasingly digital communications space we are always on the lookout for new ways to express ourselves, and emojis are ‘it’.

Emojis convey a very basic thing well…that emotional nuance which can alter the plain text in which they appear. And that’s a very good thing.

We all know that texting is a hopeless way of communicating emotion. Once, in the early stages of dating a new partner, I was temporarily dumped because my texts apparently did not convey enough interest. If only I’d used a ❤️, I could have avoided some, er, heartache.

Sarcasm is particularly difficult with texts too…because you don’t hear that cutting tone or, when you think it is there, you risk overreacting. A 🤷 or an 🙄 followed by a 🤣would convey so much more – the other person is slightly irritated, but 🆗.

That’s not to say emojis are always welcome. I’ve seen bullies use smileys at the end of an unpleasant work email, a sort of passive aggressive language that allows them to be really mean while hopefully stopping just short of what is required for a harassment lawsuit. 👨‍⚖️

All this means we expect more and more from emojis as we seek to avoid causing offence or a misunderstanding, something that remains as important now as it did in Shakespeare’s day. This means emojis will continue as vital linguistic tools. A digital lingua franca, if you like. I’m sure Miles Kington would have liked that one.

Photo by Denis Cherkashin on Unsplash

(By the way, I’m a professional storyteller and run Portman Communications, a content and reputation management company in Switzerland. We work for clients all over the world. If I can help with your content or communications needs, get in touch!)