Epilogue (JOUR 4470)

This has been a surprisingly interesting ride.  Over the past four months, JOUR 4470 successfully expanded my ethical horizons.  While some of the material was slightly less than exciting, a lot of what we learned struck a chord with me.

I think the majority of college students who make it to a 4000-level course are (hopefully) smart enough to understand basic ethical standards on their own.  But this class solidified my existing knowledge about the PRSA Code of Ethics and several of the better-known ethical theories like utilitarianism and communitarianism.

The case studies I did with my group were my favorite assignments. My group was great, and they were a huge part of why I enjoyed this class so much.  I liked having the opportunity to apply the material being covered in class on a semi-regular basis instead of just learning about it and then regurgitating it a few weeks later on a test.

Going forward, I’ll feel comfortable with making solid judgments about the ethical quality of companies, coworkers, etc.  I’m fortunate to already be working for a company I believe to have strong sense of ethics.  With the telemarketing job I had a few years ago, the bar was set pretty low.  Now the exact opposite is true.  And thanks to this class, the bar will remain high for the rest of my life.

I had a genuine “oh, wow” moment the day we analyzed the Summer’s Eve advertising campaign.  My thought process wasn’t exactly, “oh wow, my worldview has been forever changed.”  It was more along the lines of “oh wow, I can’t believe we’re talking about this in class.”  It was definitely a good “oh wow” moment.  Our discussions about current events and older, interesting cases kept the class interesting.  Before the semester started, I expected a lot of vocabulary and boring examples.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Another thing I’ve learned this semester (not just from this class), is that when it comes to public relations writing, brevity is a virtue and unnecessary fluff is a sin.  Clear, concise statements are the most effective way to communicate ideas.  That’s why this blog is a little shorter than my previous ones.  I don’t want my last ethics entry to seem forced and bloated.  Honesty is the cornerstone of ethical behavior, and I’d like to go out on an honest note.

Farewell, 4470.  It was fun.

Please Set Your Voice to “Silent” (JOUR 4460)

I’m a little late on hearing this news, but it intrigued me enough to write about it almost five months after it happened.

In August, the San Francisco public transit system, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), shut off all cell phone service at four of their stations in an effort to prevent a planned demonstration against their company.  A group of citizens, under the banner of “No Justice, No BART,” had planned to express their outrage over the fatal shooting of a man by BART police by protesting at various underground platforms.

Service providers like AT&T and Verizon weren’t notified about the shutdown until after it happened, which made the choice to cut off service seem ill-planned and impulsive.  The citizens were understandably outraged by BART officials’ rash decision, which in the end, only motivated the protesters more.  Numerous protests occurred in the following weeks, which clogged the train stations and delayed service.  In the end, BART shot themselves in the foot and caused far more problems than the initial group of protesters would have.

From an ethical public relations perspective, this whole fiasco was a nightmare.  BART officials never offered an apology for their actions, but the public outcry warranted one.  They were compared to Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt, who also shut down cell phone service to prevent protesters from gathering.  That didn’t work out so well for him once the dust settled.

Michael Risher, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said, “All over the world, people are using mobile devices to protest oppressive regimes, and governments are shutting down cell phone towers and the Internet to stop them.  It’s outrageous that in San Francisco, BART is doing the same thing.”

After the incident, BART officials issued a new rule, which only added insult to injury:

“No person shall conduct or participate in assemblies or demonstrations or engage in other expressive activities in the paid areas of BART stations, including BART cars and trains and BART station platforms.”

The “expressive activities” wording is a ludicrous blanket statement that further illustrates BART’s piss-poor PR strategy.  Their public relations team, if they even have one, should have advised against shutting off cell service in the underground stations.  But beyond that, they needed to release a statement explaining their actions in a compassionate way and clarifying that they value and respect their customers’ right of free speech.  These protesters weren’t looking to start an “Occupy BART” movement; it was an isolated incident.  The original issue involving the man’s shooting death would have blown over in a matter of weeks, but instead this debacle has carried on into December.

Today, BART announced new cell phone shutdown rules, which states they’ll only cut off service in “extraordinary circumstances.”  The FCC gave BART some guidance in their wording of the new rules, but made a point to say they did not endorse the new policy.

Hopefully BART has learned a valuable lesson: there are few crises worse than the ones that are self-inflicted.

Evil Four Leaf Clover (JOUR 4470)

The written word can be a powerful weapon.  Printed defamatory statements can sometimes cause more damage than a knife to the gut.  However, the explosion of social media over the past five years has opened an almost-uncontainable Pandora’s Box.  With hundreds of millions of messages posted every day, it’s easier than ever for libelous statements to go unnoticed.

A defamatory statement in a newspaper or magazine sticks out like a throbbing, sore thumb.  It’s easy to spot and save, making the plaintiff’s case much easier if he or she decides to take legal action.  In the realm of social media, tracking down a libelous allegation is like finding an evil four-leaf clover.  This is why there has been so few libel cases related to social media over the past few years.  And while the number of lawsuits has more than doubled from seven in 2009-2010 to sixteen in 2010-2011, a comment found at the bottom of this article makes a solid argument as to why this is hardly a cause for concern.

First – when the numbers are so small, it’s hard to draw any statistically significant conclusions.  Second – one has to compare the number of lawsuits per year to the number of social media messages posted per year.  Even using a conservative estimate of 200 million messages posted per day, which comes out to 730 billion messages per year, the number of lawsuits per message is astronomically small.  Third – given the increase in popularity of social media over the past year, it’s almost a certainty that the number of lawsuits per message in 2009-2010 is larger than the number of lawsuits per message in 2010-2011.

Another reason social media-based libel goes unpunished is because it’s much easier for the perpetrator to hide behind their personal computer than it would be if they worked for a national publication like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal.  I could easily send out a tweet claiming a certain celebrity who is known for having no discernable talent and an embarrassingly short marriage has been spreading her herpes all over the state of California.  Is it unethical?  Yes.  Would I get in trouble for it?  Probably not.  With a paltry 50 followers, my (hopefully) baseless claims would gain little-to-no traction.  It would be like trying to use a feather to create a splash in a pond.  However, if I were Pete Cashmore from Mashable and I said the same thing, it wouldn’t be a feather landing in the water; it would be a two-ton boulder.

The influence and reach of the message are two major factors when it comes to determining damage and injury in a libel case.  Printed publications like NYT or WSJ already have an assumed influence and reach, which is why defamatory statements hold a lot more weight when published in a newspaper or magazine.  But I would guess 97 percent of social media users’ reach and influence doesn’t extend past their family and friends.  And while it’s certainly true that sites like Twitter and Facebook enable news and gossip to spread at the speed of light, Internet trash-talk has become so commonplace now that most people decide to take matters into their own hands instead of taking the “attackers” to court.

Another reason for the low number of libel cases related to social media is the fact that the average citizen won’t be able to pony up the same kind of money a large organization like US Weekly or People can.  Internet service providers and social media site owners aren’t held responsible for the content users post on their sites, so after factoring in expensive court costs and lawyer fees, taking someone to court over a tweet or a status update hardly seems worth it.

The issue-du-jour a year ago was cyber bullying, which was the layman’s term used by media outlets for “libel.”  It made headline news across the country, but very few lawsuits actually made it to court.

The cacophonous ongoing conversation in social media makes picking out a single defamatory statement like finding a needle in a haystack.  It can be incredibly difficult to do, and in most cases barely worth the effort.  While words will always have the ability to damage, our increasingly short attention spans combined with the lightning-fast pace of the digital age we live in make most Twitter and Facebook posts little more than a blip on the radar.

There’s no doubt in my mind that statements published on the Internet should be held to the same standards as statements published in the press.  However, there’s also no doubt in my mind that people will continue to get away with libel through social media for years to come.

By the time you’ve reached the end of this blog post, at least a million more like it will have sprung up across the Internet.  And someone might have written the most awful thing about you on their Facebook page, their Twitter page or their blog.  And you wouldn’t even know it.

I Wish I Unhated This (JOUR 4460)

United Colors of Benetton have unleashed their latest attention-grabbing campaign, and it appears as if they took a page right out of the PETA handbook.  All shock value; no substance.

The ads, which contain digitally manipulated pictures of (mostly male) world leaders kissing each other with the word “UNHATE” branded across the top, are meant to promote a message of worldwide tolerance.  As a gay man, I certainly don’t have an issue with the intention behind the campaign.  The LGBT community’s fight against discrimination has been a global issue and political hot button recently.  If nothing else, United Colors of Benetton are certainly “on trend.”

However, the manipulation of the images is a huge problem for me.  Photoshopping a picture of Pope Benedict XVI kissing Egyptian Imam Ahmed el Tayyeb without their consent is unethical, and it doesn’t sit well with me.  If someone were to create an ad of me drowning an infant for a completely unrelated product, like frozen pizza, I would be incredibly upset.  The crux of the issue is the respect of personal values.

Pope Benedict and I probably have opposing viewpoints on almost everything (except for things like drowning infants, hopefully), but it doesn’t mean his opinions shouldn’t be treated with respect.  To knowingly use his image in a way that will obviously offend and upset him is tacky and inconsiderate.  I can’t imagine the other world leaders featured in the campaign are over the moon about their inclusion either.

United Colors of Benetton are known for producing controversial ads, but before now, the effort never seemed desperate.  The famous image of a black woman breastfeeding a white baby is a favorite of mine.  It’s simple, powerful, raw and most importantly, real.  No digital manipulation required.  If Obama were to actually lay a kiss on China’s President Hu Jintao for the sake of fighting discrimination, it would be a historic image.  But he didn’t.  So UCB decided to make it happen by letting their graphic design department run wild.

Their PR team will be probably on high alert for the next few days.  They already removed the Pope/Imam image due to complaints from Pope Benedict’s camp.  I can’t imagine their jobs being much fun when they have to keep pulling out their crisis communications skills because the client gets a kick of creating their own crises.

I think one of the best aspects of advertising is its power to provoke and encourage discussion.  But I feel like these particular ads are only going to draw criticism of the “gay agenda” (a side note – I hate that phrase).  Previous UCB ads created an air of prestige and intelligence around their clothing line.  These simply remind me of a giggling eighth-grade boy who has too much time on his hands.

They may be trying to spread the message of “unhate,” but I predict this campaign will have the opposite effect on the public’s opinion of the United Colors brand.  Only time will tell.

Hopeless (JOUR 4460)

This blog is hard for me to write.  The Jerry Sandusky scandal is so revolting; I can barely read the ongoing news coverage.  However, this story is too big to ignore, especially from a public relations and media perspective.

Penn State’s reputation is ruined.  For years to come, the school will be associated with Sandusky, his unconscionable actions and the administration’s laissez-faire attitude toward the whole ordeal (until now, that is).  A rule of thumb in PR is, “If the public thinks you have a problem, you have a problem.”  So how does the rule apply if you know you have a problem, and the public is unaware?  Apparently if you’re Penn State, it doesn’t.

To be fair, very few Penn State officials had knowledge of the allegations against Sandusky.  But all it takes is one person to do the right thing, and none of them did.  Now, they’re trying to make up for it by cleaning house.  But no matter who they fire or place on administrative leave, it won’t undo any of the damage caused by Sandusky or those who failed to come to the defense of the victims.

I read the first few pages of the grand jury presentment and couldn’t go any further.  It literally made my stomach churn.  I’m aware we live in a sensationalist society, but the media coverage of the scandal has disappointed me.  I was horrified when I saw major news outlets reporting the exact, graphic details of the case I was trying to avoid.  Specifically, when the grad student walked in on Sandusky and the young boy in the shower.

I’m not easy to offend, and I’m certainly not a prude, but there’s a time and place for sensitivity and tact.  This is it.  Instead of explicitly stating what was occurring between Sandusky and the boy, I personally believe a general euphemism would have been a more responsible road to take as a journalist.  Refer to it as a “sexual act” and leave it at that.  The case has enough shock value on its own.  For the people who want the details, they’ll be able to find them.

But the media isn’t the villain here; Sandusky holds that dishonor.  Penn State also shares some of the shame, and I don’t envy the people employed on their public relations team.  There’s no forgiveness for allowing a crime to go unpunished for more than a decade.  The statements released so far by the administration have been appropriate, but it’s like trying to use a wine cork to replace the Hoover Dam.  It will never be enough.  At this point, the university just needs to prepare itself for what the future holds.

Moody’s, the credit ratings agency, is considering downgrading Penn State’s rating.  I’m sure the university will lose a huge amount of funding in the next year as well.  It will be interesting to see the size of their freshman class come Fall 2012.  I know if I were a parent, my child would be going somewhere else.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes (JOUR 4470)

I was nervous and scared.  As I left my college advisor’s office, I combed over the information I had just received.  In my hands, I held my new life.  After taking two years off from school, I would be returning as a public relations major.  At that point, I knew very little about what PR involved.  Due to the explosion of celebrity-obsessed media over the past decade, I saw a lot of coverage involving statements released by the publicists’ of various stars.  After being somewhat successful in a sales position for several years, I thought, “I’m used to spinning stuff.  That’s basically what a publicist does.  I can do that.”  I started on my new path with an unethical mindset, completely unaware of what I was getting myself into.

Now, almost two years later, as I sit here reading over the PRSA Code of Ethics, I realize how much I’ve changed.  The concepts and rules suggested by the PRSA, which once seemed so foreign to me, now register as simple common sense.

In the PRSA Member Statement of Professional Values, the first listed value is advocacy.

“We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent.  We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.”

This was the only aspect of PR I was somewhat familiar with when I restarted my education.  The majority of people view PR professionals as spin-doctors, and I think that belief (incorrectly) stems from this particular aspect of our job.  The key word in the PRSA’s explanation of advocacy is responsible, which I feel is unfortunately overlooked sometimes.  We’re viewed as a paid mouthpiece for an organization.  I can’t fault anyone for having that point of view; I was standing in their shoes once.  The only remedy is to change the public’s perceptions through our actions, not just through our words.  This is where the other values in the PRSA Code of Ethics come into play.

Honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness round out the Statement of Professional Values.  Each one represents a key element to maintaining ethical practices in the world of public relations.  These guidelines have not only significantly shifted my perceptions of PR, but they also changed the way I handle my everyday communication.

Under the “Independence” section, the Code of Ethics states, “We provide objective counsel to those we represent.”  Additionally, under the “Fairness” section, the Code of Ethics says, “We respect all opinions and support the right of free expression.”  While it would be a stretch to say these two provisions directly influenced my behavior, they certainly added some new ingredients to the gumbo that is my brain.  I once lost a friend because I refused to only see her side of the story in an argument she was having with someone else.  I was trying to be objective, and that didn’t fly with her.  If I had been in that situation before being exposed to various ethical codes, like the PRSA’s, I can’t say for certain I would have taken the same course of action.

Another crucial section in the PRSA Code of Ethics concerns the free flow of information.  The guidelines expressed here directly combat the negative image many have about the inner workings of public relations.  Specifically, that we only promote the good and try to bury the bad.  Once again, we must show this change instead of simply talking about it.

The Code of Ethics isn’t a long read, but if I were to create a SparkNotes version, it would look like this:

Be Honest.

Be Objective.

Be Accountable.

These standards show up in one form or another in every communication organization’s code of ethics, including the International Association of Business Communicators, the American Advertising Federation and the Society of Professional Journalists.

In general, all the ethical guidelines set forth by these organizations can work for our personal lives as well.  However, like I’ve written in several of my previous blog posts, money has an enormous influence when it comes to ethical decision-making.  For some, the cliché is true:  money makes the world go round.

These codes of ethics are vital to the survival our respective industries.  They won’t be able to prevent every unethical action in the future, but they will be able to educate people entering the profession about proper conduct and best practices.  Some will hold on to the information, some won’t.  I’m proud to say I did.

Every section of the PRSA Code of Ethics is equally important, but the last section is what I take most seriously: enhancing the profession.  When I tell people I majored in PR, the most common responses are, “Oh…what is that?” and “Oh, really?” with a raised eyebrow.  One of my goals as a soon-to-be professional is to do my part to build the public’s trust in my industry.  Thanks to greedy businesses and bratty celebrities, society’s faith in public relations is shattered.  It can be restored.

Doing the right thing isn’t always easy.  But a clear conscience feels a hell of a lot better than a fat wallet.

Sources

http://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Ethics/CodeEnglish/index.html

http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

http://www.aaf.org/images/public/aaf_content/images/ad%20ethics/IAE_Principles_Practices.pdf

The Blame Game (JOUR 4460)

Herman Cain is an interesting guy.  If it wasn’t already obvious by his ever-changing stance on abortion or the truly bizarre campaign video he released online, his recent method of defending himself against sexual harassment claims solidifies my personal belief that his thought process can be a little jumbled at times.

Two anonymous women have come forward stating they were victims of sexual harassment at the hands of Cain while he was president of the National Restaurant Association.  Even though Cain maintains his innocence, both women were paid a settlement at the time of the dispute and forced to sign a gag order.  Now, one of the women wants to release a statement and Cain has been wildly pointing the finger at anyone he can think of, like an unmanned machine gun.

So far, he’s blamed:

  • Rick Perry
  • Curt Anderson, a former aide of his who now works for Perry
  • Politico, the news organization responsible for breaking the story
  • Liberals in general, but more specifically: The “liberal media,” and liberals who are trying to scare black conservatives

Where is his PR team through all of this?  Instead of releasing a single statement and leaving the controversy alone until it warranted further comment, Cain has been running his mouth to anyone who will listen.  As CNN notes in the linked article above, his campaign team appears ill-equipped to rein him in and keep him quiet.  If the allegations aren’t true, Cain shouldn’t even be wasting his time.  Slinging mud and inventing controversies are (unfortunately) par for the course when it comes to politics.  But his determination to defend himself only makes him look guiltier.  Cain didn’t help matters when he openly admitted to having fuzzy memories of certain events, like whether or not he ever told Curt Anderson about the incidents or, more importantly, the identity of the second woman.

Cain’s spokesman, J.D. Gordon, said a possible lawsuit against Politico was being discussed.  The news organization has come under fire from Cain’s campaign for not revealing their sources, but any credible journalist would behave the same way.  Unless Politico has been taken for a ride by their anonymous sources, I don’t believe they have anything to worry about if Cain decides to press charges.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I would never work for a Republican campaign.  I also have less than no experience when it comes to political communications.  However, if I were on Cain’s team, this is what I would do:

First – When Politico reached out to Cain 10 days prior to publishing the story, I wouldn’t ignore it.  I would research the agreements reached by Cain and the two women to have a full understanding of the original situation.

Second – Once the story was published, I would instruct Cain to say something along these lines: “Giving these baseless claims more exposure is a waste of the American people’s time.  We are working to investigate and resolve these accusations as quickly as possible so we can focus on more pressing issues like our alarming budget deficit.”

But, judging by the polls, Cain wouldn’t need me on his team.  Despite this controversy, Cain is only trailing Mitt Romney by one percent in the GOP polls.  If Cain wins the Republican nomination, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.