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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.