Monthly Archives: March 2012

Political Claustrophobia

A PR pro once said, “Public Relations has cluttered our already choked channels of communication with the debris of pseudo-events and phony sound bites that confuse rather than clarify.”

"We're gonna need some Aloe Vera for that burn..."

Ouch, we’re going to need some Aloe Vera for that burn.

This is how Guth and Marsh decided to end their chapter on Political and Public Policy Communication–with a biting quote from the late public relations educator, Scott Cutlip. I don’t mean to argue with the deceased, but wasn’t this the natural progression of politics? I’m not sure if we can justly blame public relations for “choking” communication in public affairs…but maybe we can?

Truthfully, I’m torn on this matter. If political campaigns are all about presenting a positive image for a candidate, does that mean there is an inherent “spin” factor? I remember learning about propaganda techniques in high school; such as card stacking, testimonials, and glittering generalities. I can’t help but read the descriptions of these unethical means of persuasion and see some overlap in public relations.

For example, Glittering Generalities is defined as, “words that have different positive meaning for individual subjects, but are linked to highly valued concepts. When these words are used, they demand approval without thinking, simply because such an important concept is involved.” Remind you of anyone? Think Quest has a full list of techniques if you are interested in learning more.

When I think about PR and politics, I am reminded of a book I read a few years ago called Boomsday, by Christopher Buckley. In short, the book follows “a morally superior twenty-nine-year-old PR chick” and blogger (oh God, remind you of anyone?) who aids in a controversial political campaign. The story is set in the near future where the American population is struggling to support the large baby-boomer population as they enter retirement. The PR chick councils her client, a presidential hopeful, to campaign for government incentives for euthanasia of the elderly.

Say what?!

Turns out the PR chick did not actually believe euthanasia was the answer; her efforts were meant to bring attention to her client and the issue at hand. Thankfully this is a work of fiction because it is wrought with unethical behavior. The book does, however, represent the power of public relations and campaigning in politics.

It can be difficult to distinguish between the many faces involved in a political campaign—like what is the deal with lobbyists?  According to NPR, lobbyists have similar goals to PR professionals, but “lobbyists have to disclose their activities. PR professionals do not.” Now that is a loaded statement! The NPR broadcast, Under the Radar, PR’s Political Savvy, takes a direct stance on the work of PR professionals in politics. Needless to say, the broadcast is less than favorable to the profession.

The broadcast received criticism from practicing PR professionals who use the PRSA as their religion. One commenter argued, “This is incorrect, at least for the 32,000 PR professionals in the U.S. who abide by the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics.” Perhaps as a young professional, I am able to see both sides of this argument. I mean really, how does the PRSA enforce ethical practices?

I have every intention of practicing PR in a fair and just manner, but I can’t speak for others in the field. After all, there are always a few bad apples in every orchard. But does that mean you should burn the thing down? I hope that a few bad apples won’t undermine the integrity of the public relations profession.

My advice? Don’t do drugs and stay out of politics.

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Assuming You Have a Compass…

"But you know what they say..."

We all have a moral compass…it’s just that some work better than others. Unfortunately ethics, morals, and integrity are not something that can be taught in the classroom or even from a book as good as “Adventures in Public Relations.” It takes years of life experiences and wrong turns to get the damned thing working properly. It’s assumed that we will figure it out by the time we reach the professional world. But as they say, “if you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.”

An ethical dilemma in the communications field is both on the individual practitioner and the business as a whole. Sure, your communications person may have a defective moral compass, but it’s up to the entire organization to make sure everyone produces work they can stand behind. Conversely, it is the individual’s responsibility to step down if she feels a campaign is unethical.

Photoshopped diversity is a new classic in my opinion. It’s that thing where a company edits marketing material to include a minority in an attempt to appear diverse. You know?  The Society Pages wrote an interesting post about an incident  of “Photoshopped Diversity” at the University of Wisconsin. Apparently there was only one black student in the whole school. The University decided to take the

one picture they had of him and superimpose it into different school events. They just assumed (there’s that word again) he wouldn’t notice or care. Well, he did notice and he sued them for their actions.

So who is at fault here? The administration for sucking at including minorities, the marketing director who said “more diversity,” or the graphic designer who did the Photoshopping? They all had a hand in the situation, so do you fire them all? I don’t know man, but my motto is you shouldn’t do it if you don’t want your name on it. While you are trying to answer my hard hitting questions, check out these photos of Photoshopped diversity (it’s a real term I swear…kinda).

The Huffington Post was involved in an ethical controversy of a different nature back in August. The internet newspaper held a design competition inviting readers to submit a new logo for them. AKA “Hey you design professionals should create work for free!” The Post assumed (ahem) everyone would be okay with it. They were wrong. There was major backlash from the design community who accused the paper of unfairly treating designers.

This dilemma is a little less black and white than the University of Wisconsin ethics crisis. If the designers willingly submit work–even without compensation–then what’s the problem? There are plenty of jingle writing or logo designing contests out there. Do they all offer some form of compensation or is the recognition and publication of your work enough? Regardless, it would have helped smooth things over if the Post gave the winner some kind of prize.

Some ethical dilemmas are more obvious then others. I can’t speak for entire organizations, but as an individual, it’s important to go with your gut. You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach? Yeah, that’s your moral compass trying to steer you in the right direction. If something doesn’t feel right to you, there is a good chance someone else will feel the same way. And for Pete’s sake, don’t assume!

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Soup of the Day: America

So we’ve talked about every public known to man; businesses, consumers, media, communities, and all that jazz. But what about all the little nuances of each of those sub-groups? Take consumers for example, they are so diverse! They can’t just be clumped together in one big ball, you have to treat every one like the shining star they really are.

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"America has been called a melting pot, but I think that is in reference to more of a soup than a fondue."

In Adventures in Public Relations, my dear friends Guth an Marsh discuss cross-cultural communications. The basic jist is that you have to be aware of the differences in cultures–not just internationally, but domestically as well. America has been called a melting pot, but I think that is in reference to more of a soup than a fondue. By that I mean that you can distinguish the different parts of the whole.

Culture can be defined in many different ways, but Guth and Marsh offer an all encompassing definition:

“Culture refers to a group or community with which we share common experiences that shape the way we understand the world.”

Different ethnic groups are the most obvious example of cultural differences that may require special attention. A well-known example in the communications world happened when an America company tried to supply African citizens with their product. They offered the African people jars of baby food with a picture of a baby on the label. The people were horrified because they thought they were being served ground up babies. If the supplier had done its research, it would have known that, in Africa, the picture on the label of food is an indication of its ingredients. Yikes!

There are many case studies in which cultural and language differences between a company and its consumers led to miscommunication. It is important to do your homework before positioning a campaign–especially when targeting an unfamiliar culture. The site Kwintessential.com has a few more real life (real funny) examples.There are some valuable lessons to be learned from these PR slip-ups.

It’s not easy to communicate with a population as diverse as America’s. These things happen everyday! Ben & Jerry’s recently issued an apology after putting fortune cookie pieces in a limited time flavor, “Linsanity.” The flavor was intended to celebrate the Taiwanese born basketball star, Jeremy Lin, but it inadvertently offended some people. Ben & Jerry’s is known for their celebration of diversity and did the right thing by responding to their publics with honesty and sincerity. This just goes to show how difficult it is to predict how people will react!

To wrap this up, I thought I would share a touching and quite strategic move in cross-cultural communication. The South African burger chain, Whimpy, gained over 800,000 media impressions (and counting) when they created a campaign specifically for blind individuals. Yes, disabled individuals are a whole other culture to consider.  Trust me, I studied the American deaf culture and language for four years. It’s fascinating, complicated stuff!

Anyway, the burger chain arranged sesame seeds on burger buns to spell out words and phases in braille, such as “100% beef.” They then surprised fifteen blind individuals by asking them to feel the bun before eating it. You have to watch the video to understand the feel-good nature of the campaign! Their efforts showed that they are both culturally sensitive and creative.Image

Other companies could learn a thing or two from this campaign. Plus, it’s just plain nice. Now go watch the video and smile!

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