Get Your Freak On (JOUR 4460)

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has faced a lot of scrutiny over the past few years; the majority of it due to privacy concerns.  Those concerns won’t be going away any time soon.

On Monday, Oct. 24, lawyer and writer Jill Filipovic tweeted the following picture of a note left in her suitcase, alongside her vibrator, after a flight:

She also blogged about it, saying, “Total violation of privacy, wildly inappropriate and clearly not ok, but I also just died laughing in my hotel room.”

The TSA was quick to investigate and released a statement today informing the public of the guilty employee’s termination.  As hilarious as I find this incident, from a PR perspective, they did the right thing.  Just two days after the picture was tweeted, the organization had identified the guilty individual, removed them from screening operations and personally reached out to Filipovic to apologize.  And, in a respectably ethical move, the TSA withheld the employee’s name from the press to respect his or her privacy.

This was great crisis management.  Because Filipovic didn’t appear to be too upset or offended by the incident, the TSA probably could have gotten away with treating the situation lightly.  But they did the right thing for all parties involved (although I’m sure the fired employee might disagree with me there).

Somewhat surprisingly, Filipovic thinks the TSA went too far in their response.  After learning of the employee’s suspension, she wrote on her blog:

“As much as this is a funny and titillating story, when I put the note on Twitter for what I thought was a relatively limited audience, I was hoping it would open up a bigger conversation about privacy rights (or lack thereof) in post-9/11 America. It unfortunately…has turned into a media circus.  The note was inappropriate, the agent in question acted unprofessionally when s/he put it in my bag, there should be consequences and I’m glad the TSA takes these things seriously. But I get no satisfaction in hearing someone may be in danger of losing their job over this. I would much prefer a look at why ‘security’ has been used to justify so many intrusions on our civil liberties, rather than fire a person who made a mistake.”

Now, for someone who seems to be an intelligent person, she said something pretty ridiculous in her blog.  Since when is anything posted on Twitter only for a relatively limited audience?  Unless you decide to have no friends on Facebook, no connections on LinkedIn and no followers on Twitter, anything you post or share can spread like wildfire regardless of your privacy settings.  It’s a little ironic her goal was to start a conversation on privacy rights, but somehow failed to understand Twitter is anything but private.

In the span of a few hours, social media can turn a lit match into a forest fire.  And something this newsworthy and entertaining might as well be a barrel of gasoline just waiting to explode.

According to Filipovic’s blog, she’s worried about being known as the “Get Your Freak On” girl for the foreseeable future.  It’s very possible.  But at least she can find some solace knowing she helped spread a valuable lesson: one innocuous tweet can transform itself into national news.

Welcome to 2011.

Sunny, with a 50 Percent Chance of Apocalypse (JOUR 4460)

Harold Camping is regarded by many as a fool.  He was widely ridiculed for his prediction that the world would end on May 21, 2011, with a violent earthquake that would suck every sinner into Hell.  Once that day came and went without 98 percent of our planet’s population falling into Satan’s barbecue pit, Camping changed his tune.  God had spared the world…for five months.

Today, Oct. 21, 2011, is supposed to be the Apocalypse.

The majority of Americans may say he’s crazy, but that doesn’t mean he’s not smart.  Media coverage of the May 21 prediction dominated the airwaves in the months leading up to our supposed Doomsday.  As a result, he accumulated a surprising number of loyal followers who were willing to take drastic measures to spread the word.

One man spent his entire life savings, which was in the low six-figures, for the country-wide advertising campaign.  Another group of people quit their jobs and started caravanning around the country to spread Camping’s beliefs.

Some PR professionals would probably sacrifice a limb to rally up that kind of support for their clients.  Regardless of what Camping’s message was, he knew how to stir up a certain passion in people that is commonly known as “fear.”  Yes, his followers wanted to get into Heaven.  But I’m sure they were more concerned with not going to Hell.  And although fear-based tactics are typically seen as tacky and manipulative, there’s plenty of evidence to indicate that they work.  Exhibit A: Fox News.

The problem with using fear as the catalyst to inspire your stakeholders is that fear can easily be overtaken by logic.  You can only cry wolf so many times before the town stops listening.  Now that Camping has lost his credibility to the public, it’s not surprising to see very few news stories covering today’s expected Armageddon.  He was wrong once before (actually twice if you count a similar prediction he made in 1994), so what motivation do people have to believe him now?

The lesson to be learned from this is that fear-based tactics can work, but they rely on the ignorance of the audience to sustain their momentum.  If the people on the receiving end of the message wise up, not only will they stop believing the message itself, they’ll also feel deceived and lose all trust in the source of the message.

However, at 90 years old and in ailing health, Camping probably doesn’t care about his followers losing faith in him at this point.  In an extremely unethical move, he revealed that his company, Christian Family Radio, would not be returning the money donated to his “end of the world” cause.  Now he’s got thousands of dollars in his pocket thanks to all the people who were duped into believing his fire-and-brimstone radio broadcasts.

If today really is the end, it’ll be interesting to see what The Man Upstairs has to say about that.

Lost My Buzz (JOUR 4460)

Google Buzz is on its deathbed.  In a few weeks, the company’s first attempt at social networking will be buried to make room for the expanding Google +.

While I think it’s admirable that Google has followed the late R&B singer Aaliyah’s advice, I can’t help but wonder if the world really has any use for another social networking site that is used primarily to connect with friends.

Facebook has had a major, worldwide impact on the way people communicate and relate to one another.  It played a crucial role in the Egyptian uprising earlier this year.  Relationships can start and end because of it.  Families are able to reconnect through it.

In order for another social platform to be successful, it will essentially have to make Facebook obsolete.  Personally, I don’t believe they could peacefully coexist.  This is how the futility of having two social networks to manage manifests itself in my head:

Me:  Did you see what I posted on your wall?

You:  Not yet, is it the picture of us at the lake?

Me:  Well I posted that on your Facebook wall, but I’m talking about                 your Google + wall.  I posted a message on there.

You:  Oh, no, I haven’t checked that today.

If I wanted to share two things with you, why would I take the time to visit two different websites to do it?  It’s a waste of time for me and for you. In today’s society, when someone says the word “wall,” they’re more likely referring to their Facebook page instead of the structures that prevent your ceiling from collapsing.  For a company to try and compete with that type of cultural influence requires a lot of ambition.  Unfortunately, there’s also a big chance of failure.  In the real world, Goliath usually triumphs over David.

LinkedIn manages my professional connections; Facebook and Twitter manage my social connections.  There’s not any networking void in my life for Google + to fill.  So no matter how many interesting little changes they make, like the friend circles, it still won’t serve a unique purpose.

I think if a company ended up putting a chink in Facebook’s armor, Google would be the company to do it.  But I don’t think they’ve achieved it yet.  Google Buzz is almost dead, and at this point Google + merely seems like its wealthier and prettier, but not necessarily smarter, sister.

Who knows what will happen?  Google + could blow up in the next three months causing Facebook’s castle walls to start crumbling.  However, I won’t be part of the revolution.

My social media appetite is satiated.  I don’t have room for more.

Why Texas is Ready for Gay Marriage (JOUR 4460)

There seems to be an unspoken belief among some of our nation’s citizens that if the LGBT community is denied the same rights as everyone else, we will eventually cease to exist. Unfortunately for them, the “ignore it until it goes away” tactic isn’t going to work.

Do people think by promoting discrimination against us, we will all wake up “cured” one day and no longer be a threat to their hetero-normative lifestyle? The majority of Texans’ answers may surprise you.

According to a poll commissioned in December 2010 by Equality Texas and conducted by Glangariff Group Inc., an independent national polling firm, a large percentage of Texans support pro-LGBT legislation, including domestic partnership. When asked if gays and lesbians should be allowed to get a civil union, 63 percent of the respondents answered “yes.” On the subject of gay marriage, 42 percent answered “yes,” saying it should be legal. This is a significant shift in public opinion since 2005, when the Texas Marriage Amendment passed with 76 percent of voters’ support.

Texas is ready for gay marriage. All the talk about “protecting the children” and “preserving the sanctity of marriage” is simply fear-based political rhetoric. When gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts in 2004, were any children endangered? No. Were any heterosexual marriages suddenly less valid? No. Seven years since the legislation was passed and the country has not fallen into anarchy.

Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Washington D.C. have also legalized gay marriage without any kind of social fallout taking place. And although Texas politicians may say otherwise, the people they claim to represent are ready to follow suit.

In a separate poll conducted by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune in February 2010, 28 percent of respondents thought gay marriage should be legal, while 35 percent thought civil unions should be legal. Adding those two figures together, more than half of the people polled believe the LGBT community deserves domestic partnership rights. Only 30 percent said gays shouldn’t be able to marry or get civil unions.

Looking at social trends over the past decade, the number of people supporting gay marriage is only going to rise. So my question for Texas is: why wait? In 1970, it took legal action (United States v. Texas) for our state to desegregate its schools, 16 years after Brown v. Board of Education had been passed down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Let’s not be on the wrong side of history again.

However, we can’t leave it up to our politicians to lead the charge. In the past, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert was very supportive of the LGBT community, participating in the International LGBT Press Tour and several Dallas pride parades. However, now that he’s resigned, supposedly to go after Kay Bailey Hutchinson’s Senate seat, he has come out against the Obama administration’s decision to no longer enforce the Defense of Marriage Act.

Rick Perry also did some recent backtracking. After New York legalized gay marriage, Perry said, “Our friends in New York, six weeks ago, passed a statute that said marriage can be between two people of the same sex. Well you know what, that’s New York and that’s their business, and that’s fine with me.” His unconcerned approach to the subject resulted in a fair amount of criticism from his fellow GOP members and he changed his tune. “Obviously, gay marriage is not fine with me,” he said a few days later in an interview with the Family Research Council. He continued, saying New York’s law was a threat to other states.

We have to make our voices heard. I’m not just talking to the LGBT community; I’m talking to everyone. We have the power to influence our representatives’ opinions. Their number one priority is to stay in office, and they can’t do that without enforcing the beliefs of their constituents. Let’s make our beliefs known to them.

Former Massachusetts State Rep. Paul Loscocco, a Republican, decided to vote against an attempt to remove their legalization of gay marriage from the books in 2007 because of what he was hearing from the people in his district. “I can’t tell you how many calls I got from people saying, ‘I called you before and now my grandson is gay — now they’re a couple — now I’ve changed my mind and I want you to vote the other way,'” he said in an interview with CNN.

We can make a difference; all we have to do is speak up. We’re ready. Texas is ready.

International Femme Fatale (JOUR 4460)

Amanda Knox’s trial has captivated media across the globe for the past several years.   And depending on which publication you happen to be reading, she could be portrayed as a wholesome all-American girl, a femme fatale or a villainous “she-devil.”

The media coverage in the U.S. has been mostly favorable, especially after the shaky DNA evidence on which she was originally convicted was tossed out during her appeal.  This can partially be attributed to Gogerty Marriott, a Seattle PR firm that agreed to help the Knox family handle all the attention they were receiving from the press.  They also landed interviews on every major news network in the country:  NBC, CNN, CBS, ABC and Fox News.  In a way, they gave Amanda Knox a voice to publicly tell her side of the story through her parents, which some are now saying was a major factor in her conviction getting overturned.

Giuliano Mignini, the Italian prosecutor, was quoted as saying, “This lobbying, this media and political circus, this heavy interference, forget all of it!” and complained of the “media’s morbid exaltation” of Knox and her ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito.  However, Knox’s lawyers countered by saying the two defendants had been “crucified” by the media.

The PR campaign set up on Knox’s behalf was very effective in changing her public image, at least here in the states.  The majority of the U.S. media coverage has focused on her return to the states, how’s she’s feeling and what her plans are now that she’s free.  However, in the UK, they’re spinning a different story.  Take this recent Daily Mail headline for example: “Will Foxy spare a thought for the Kerchers?”  Using the “Foxy Knoxy” moniker given to her by the international press to go along with her femme fatale image, the Daily Mail is still attempting to stir the pot.  By focusing on the pain of Meredith Kercher’s family and using a photo of Knox arriving home with a big smile on her face, the author is subtly trying to portray Knox as callous and uncaring.

The Daily Mail was also guilty of publishing a completely false story claiming Knox’s conviction was upheld and that she would immediately be returning to prison.  In the article, they had fictional quotes from the prosecution and included little nuggets of “information” like: “Both [Knox and Sollecito] will be put on a suicide watch for the next few days as psychological assessments are made on each of them but this is usual practice for long term prisoners.”

I’m sure in big cases like this it’s not unusual for publications to prepare two versions of the same story so they’re ready to go to press as soon as the verdict is announced.  However, to make up facts and quotes is sloppy, unethical and in this case, biased.

Another European publication focused more on “American PR” and its supposed influence in the case, along with the Italian public’s angry reaction to the appeals verdict.

My personal opinion is that while Gogerty Marriott did a great job of controlling Knox’s public image, I don’t think they’re responsible for her conviction getting overturned.  Almost every piece of evidence used against Knox and Sollecito in the original trial was either thrown out or re-attributed to Rudy Guede, the man who was also convicted for killing Meredith Kercher and is currently in the middle of a 16-year prison sentence (more information on the evidence can be found here).  There was simply not enough proof for any reasonable person to say Knox and Sollecito were definitely involved.

The media has an obligation to investigate the facts and try to be as unbiased as possible in their reporting of the news.  And while American journalists certainly aren’t perfect, rarely have I found such obvious bias like what I’ve seen in the European press.

Like I said, I don’t think the work of Knox’s PR team influenced the judges in her case.  However, I think their work was instrumental in transforming her image from a kinky, sexual murderer to something a little more realistic: an actual human being.

Robbed (JOUR 4460)

Bank robbers are criminals, no question about it.  But what happens when a bank tries to rob the people?  Thanks to Bank of America’s latest announcement, we’re about to find out.

Yesterday, news broke of BoA’s plans to charge customers a monthly $5 fee for using their debit card starting early next year.  Because the government is putting a cap on how much banks can charge merchants for debit card transactions, the customers will now be paying $60 a year to cover those lost funds.  Even if you only buy one $2 cup of coffee for the entire month, the fee will still be charged to your account. 

Unsurprisingly, consumers’ reactions have been toxic.

“Bank of America is like a man who’s been saved from a burning building and then kicks the fireman in the nuts,” read one tweet.  This is in reference to the fact that BoA received $45 billion in government bailout money just three years ago.   I guess that wasn’t quite enough for them.

BoA sent out this tweet earlier today, “#BofA customers who don’t use a #debit card for purchases or use it only at the ATM can avoid the fee.”  And a response I found soon after couldn’t have summed up my thoughts any better: “Bank of america charging $5/month if u use ur debit card…well what else are you supposed to do with it? Frame it? #stupid”

Exactly how is BoA’s response supposed to make their stakeholders feel better?  It’s like going over to a friend’s house right after they get back from grocery shopping and saying, “For every bite you take, I’m going to take some food out of your grocery bags and pantry to keep.  But if you don’t eat the food, you’ll have nothing to worry about!”

BoA said the charge would enable them to “keep an array of features customers like.”  Of course, they neglected to explain which features they’re referring to. 

As Netflix learned a few months ago, when announcing such a controversial change, a little finesse is required.  BoA didn’t issue a press release, they only commented on the new policy after the news broke.  That was a big mistake.  It reminds me of being sixth grade, when I found out my first girlfriend had broken up with me after lunch.  When I wasn’t even there.  One of her friends informed me after last period, “Carrie broke up with you at recess today.”

Bank of America let the news outlets do their dirty work.  It makes them look cowardly and guilty.

They should have released an empathetic statement announcing the new fee.  Even saying something as simple as, “we understand this change may be frustrating for some our customers, but…” would have cushioned the blow.  Instead, the public is stuck with yet another company who views their customers as dollar signs with legs.

Once the policy kicks in, I will no longer see my debit card as a form of payment.  I’ll see it as a little plastic thief.

The Broken Classics (JOUR 4470)

The term classic refers to something that can stand the test of time and still be worthy of recognition.  Some of the classical ethical theories are still relevant today; the term almost fits, but not in a very flattering way.

Now, just in case any outsiders stumble onto this blog (and if you did…sorry), I’d like to give a quick ethics lesson.

  • “Intuitionist” moral reasoning – we’re born with a general sense of what’s moral
  • Consequentialism – the ends justify the means (if the consequence is good, the act is good)
  • Distributive Justice – a moral society will consider the needs and rights of all its members
  • Egoism – An act is only morally right when it promotes one’s long-term self interest

I think two of those four theories can still be applied to modern advertising and public relations.  The other two can be applied to our society, but not our advertising and PR practices.

I believe most people are born with a sense of what’s moral.  I don’t remember my parents ever telling me, “Don’t kill anyone!” as a child.  I just knew not to do it.  I find it strange that companies, which are made up of people just like you and me, seem to function with a completely different mindset.  Do you think pharmaceutical companies would blatantly state all their medicines’ fatal side effects in commercials if the law didn’t require it?  Probably not.  Generally speaking, it isn’t good business to tell your customer that your product could potentially kill them.  And that’s what it comes down to: “good” business.

In a modern application of Consequentialism, the “end” that justifies the “mean” will be money at least 75 percent of the time.  In my first blog post, I wondered whether HP’s announcement to stop producing the TouchPads was part of a PR stunt to generate buzz and public interest. It’s unethical to deceive your stakeholders, but if that was their plan all along, do you think they care now?  The TouchPads flew off the shelves at a discounted price, and HP now has a hit product on their hands.

Distributive Justice is similar to Intuitionist moral reasoning in its relation to modern American society vs. modern advertising and PR.  In America, we make a valid effort to give the minority a voice.  In modern advertising and PR, the minority only gets a voice when money is at stake.  If an advertisement is accepted by the majority of the middle class, but rejected as offensive by some of the wealthy upper class, the ad agency would pause and consider what the upper class has to say because they have more money.  However, if the ad is accepted by the majority of the upper class, and rejected by part of the middle class, the ad agency probably wouldn’t lift a finger.  That’s why the FCC exists.

For Egoism, I hate to beat an ethically dead horse with a broken ethical stick, but Enron still reigns king.  The executives involved in that scandal had nothing but their long-term self interest in mind.  Bernie Madoff is another A+ example of this theory.

Money is a thorn in ethics’ side.  Two of the four ethical theories mentioned above are applied in a negative way to modern advertising and PR.  And the other two would be applied in a negative way if it weren’t for laws forcing companies to do the right thing (which brings in the rules-based approach to ethics, deontology).

Shakespeare’s classics have been preserved throughout the years with their original meaning and value.  Unfortunately for PR and advertising ethics, its classics have been slowly twisted over time.  Rather than help the man who is dangling upside down from a third-story window, let’s just catch the money falling from his pockets.