Category Archives: Ethics and Responsiblities

A land of things and ideas…

Today I will blog…ABOUT BLOGGING. I think Rod Serling’s introduction to the Twilight Zone best describes this experience:

“You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into… the Twilight Zone”

Do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do!

The power of blogs and the importance of blogger relations is a phenomenon one could only imagine in a fictional story. Bloggers are like the little man in the Wizard of Oz who rules the Emerald City–but instead of a curtain, they hide behind a computer screen. Bloggers, such as myself, can write whenever (it’s currently 1am), wherever (snuggled in bed), and about whatever (blogger relations) they want.

It’s the PR professionals’ job to scour the internet for the best blogs. So how does one choose from the plethora of active blogs in the cyber universe?  You have to find the blogs with the strongest communities of followers and the material that is most relevant to your cause. Bloggers today are becoming opinion leaders and influencers that should not be ignored. Once you find the right blogs for you, build those relationships as you would with journalists because you never know when you’ll need them!

Just look at how bloggers are taking on the American beef industry. Chef Jaime Oliver recently revealed “pink slime,” or the lean meat grounds that are treated with chemicals like ammonia and pressed into a burger patty. As a vegetarian, I hate to say I told you so, but you know how it goes.

People around the nation were horrified to learn that their beef looks more like play dough than food before it is packaged and sold. Unfortunately, the American publics’ cries of disgust aren’t enough to stop a major American food industry. But when blogger Bettina Elias Siegel gained over 200,000 signatures on a digital petition, they could not be ignored. The purpose of the petition was to have the chemically treated meat removed from school systems and the US Department of Agriculture listened.

Needless to say, the beef business is suffering from this industry-wide crisis. BBC recently covered the incident and took an interesting approach to the dilemma. They discussed how the beef industry had an opportunity to rebrand with this “pink slime,” but have since lost the power. This is a classic lesson in PR—if you don’t control the message, you better believe someone else will!

Bloggers can be your biggest advocate or your worst nightmare. There is only thing worse than an influential blogger working against you; entire communities of them who think you are the spawn of Satan. I’m talking specifically about the One Million Moms (OMM) online community.  These ladies have a problem with everyone who isn’t a Stepford Wife.

They tried to boycott JCPenny when the company hired Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson because they didn’t agree with her “lifestyle.” Both JCPenny and DeGeneres had to remain composed in the situation and resist the temptation to retaliate.

OMM however, saw how social media can turn against you when they created a Facebook page to represent their protest. Rather than gain support for the boycott, the Facebook page brought an outpouring of praise for DeGeneres. Check out Ellen’s response to the OMM community on her show.

In the end, JCPenny and DeGeneres prevailed and the OMM scampered off with their aprons all in a bunch. So to repeat myself, if you don’t control the message, you better believe someone else will! I’m sure the One Million Moms will think again before they decide to make a public Facebook page on a controversial matter.

As for my blogging career? I’m just getting started! This blog has been a great experiment, but my efforts to gain clout in the blogosphere have been minimal. I think the best blogs can stand on their own, while simultaneously building their own communities of supporters.

"...pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"

The Great and Powerful Oz once said, “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” But I’m going to disagree with him there. I feel it’s important to come out from behind the curtain and mingle with the munchkins who so fervently support your work.

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Rinse and Repeat

"...or else the whole thing will come undone."

I’ve diverged from my usual corny metaphors these last few blog posts, but I’d like to return to my literary roots to discuss crisis communications.

WARNING: Extended Metaphor to Follow

So you have this wool sweater, right? And it’s like your favorite article of clothing, but the knit pattern poses a serious concern. At any given moment you could get caught on something and cause a snag. So what do you do? Obviously you aren’t going to put it on and sit in bed all day, surrounded by the safety of your blankets.

That would be a bit extreme, but chances are you are going to avoid mosh pits when wearing it. You plan to wear it on a nice calm day with lots of book reading, until—uh-oh! You’re friend’s zipper gets caught on the threads when you are hugging. Now you have a giant loop hanging from the sleeve.

You must act quickly and tend to the snag, or else the whole thing will unravel, leaving a gaping hole for all to see.

This, my friend, is crisis communication. It’s all about awareness, preparedness, and action. PR professionals, and all members of a company, must be vigilant before, during, and after a crisis to achieve effective communications.

All to often, a company does not have a crisis plan in place. A lack of crisis planning can have disastrous results. Preparation can greatly decrease the magnitude of a crisis and make it easier to handle. It’s not rocket science folks, but people make mistakes in crisis management every day.

I will admit, that not all crises can be avoided or even predicted. Skittles, for example, is in the early stages of a PR crisis of a very unique nature. Both the New York Times and the blog Spin Sucks have provided coverage on the issue. According to the New York Times, “Trayvon Martin, the teenager who was shot and killed by a crime watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., last month [was] carrying only a packet of the candy and a bottle of iced tea.”

Since the controversial murder, Skittles’ sales have skyrocketed and the candy has become a symbol for supporters of Trayvon. Some media outlets and consumers are calling Skittles out on the profits made from the tragedy. They feel the candy’s slogan “Taste the Rainbow,” gives the company a perfect opportunity to support racial equality.

Instead. Skittles has only released a broad statement offering their condolences to the Martin family. And in this situation, I think they have done the right thing—for now. If the pressure for a corporate donation continues to build, Skittles’ will be forced to address the public. I am not saying they should donate, but I do think they should at least make a statement.

I don’t think they should concede to the public’s pressure—they did not encourage purchase of their products for the cause—it happened organically. I do, however, think they could highlight other ways people can contribute to the Martin family.

It may not be possible to predict all tragedies, but organizations can still prepare on a broad level. An overall understanding of risk factors can help avoid crises or at the very least make them easier to manage. The lessons are right there in my sweater story:

  • Avoid Mosh Pits = Avoid Risky Situations
  • Plan = Uh…Plan
  • Uh-oh! = Recognize Crisis
  • Tend to Issue or Leave a Gaping Hole = Action
  • Rinse and Repeat = Apply in the Future

Whatever you do, don’t ignore the crisis, or else the whole thing will come undone!

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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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Who pulls the strings?

"Public relations is the string that connects the puppets (businesses) to the masters (consumers)..."

All too often I read how businesses dictate what consumers want, but in my opinion, it’s the other way around. If the consumer doesn’t like something it goes kaput. Public relations is the string that connects the puppets (businesses) to the masters (consumers) and ensures there is no miscommunication.

Some businesses overestimate their power and act on their own accord, but the consumer is always there to put them back in their rightful place. Even corporate giants like the Coca-Cola Company are subject to such scrutiny. This past winter, they learned their lesson when they introduced a special “arctic home” can to raise money for the World Wildlife Fund.

You’re probably wondering what kind of heartless fiends don’t care for polar bears. It wasn’t the cause that bummed customers out–it was the cans that were the problem.

Consumers felt the specialty cans were too similar to Diet Coke can’s in their appearance. They took to social media to voice their confusion and frustration. Some people even complained that the new packaging affected the flavor of the coke.

ABC’s Consumer Report covered the debacle and even listed a few other instances where brands had to backtrack after consumer criticism. The Coca-Cola company finally conceded to consumer outrage and agreed to put red cans back on the shelves once the white cans were out of stock. If I recall from my toddler days back in ’93, Pepsi made a similar mistake with “Crystal Pepsi,” a colorless Pepsi product. Now I think the Coke critics were bring a bit nit-picky, but colorless Pepsi? That’s just unnatural!

What do you think, are the consumers or the businesses in control? And how does public relations fit into this whole mix?

I can only speculate how Coca Cola could have handled things differently… Perhaps a few more focus groups would have given them the insight to axe the polar cans from the start.

Sorry Coke, but you might want to get a hanky–this one’s a real tear-jerker.

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We Are Fam-ilyy

"...communities are a lot like families. There are communities you are born into whether you like it or not and ones you choose to join."

This week we’re talking about Public Relations and community! No not that NBC show with Chevy Chase (although you should check that out too).

Community is when a  bunch of people untie over shared interests and common goals. Sometimes communities lives together, other times they are driven by a similar upbringing–or as Guth and Marsh prefer to call them, “geographic communities” and “psychographic communities,” respectively. Come to think of it, communities are a lot like families. There are communities you are born into whether you like it or not and ones you choose to join. Regardless of the circumstance, the concept of “community” effects how individuals behave–and that’s important to communications professionals like me!

One thing that struck me about this chapter in Issues in Public Relations, was its description of the virtual community as “a fairly recent creation.” I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again, this is not the most recent guide to communications studies, however, it does show how rapidly things change in this business. Rather than focus on past instances of community relations, I’m going to look at the not-so-recent development of the virtual community.

Facebook is a community. Twitter, also a community. LinkedIn, Pintrest, Tumblr, blogger–need I say more? And within each of these major online communities, are millions of even more targeted segments. Virtual communities are an advertisers dream come true because they bring specific demographics together and make them accessible.

The best brands don’t just tap into existing communities, they create their own. In doing so, they control what and how messages are delivered to community members. I saw this concept in action at one of my past internships with a mid-sized marketing firm. For legal reasons, I’ll just call the firm MKT.

MKT created a Brand Ambassador program on behalf of a client to establish a virtual community. The MKT team updated a blog and Facebook page daily to maintain and strengthen the community. The posts ranged from random comments about the brand, to poll questions, videos, and even exclusive competitions/challenges. Unlike many other brands, MKT remains transparent throughout their communications. In a meeting, an MKT team member talked about how all the Ambassador’s knew him and even called when they had questions.

The MKT Brand Ambassador Program is the perfect example of how to utilize communities in Public Relations practices. The community gives its members positive feelings toward the brand, and as a result, the ambassadors spread the love.

Yet, I ponder…

Where should a brand draw the line of intimacy between the customer and the organization? And what are the ethical implications of Brand and Ambassadors? What can brands do to prevent overstepping their boundaries?

OR ARE THERE NO BOUNDARIES LEFT?!

   Just kidding. Of course there are. Brands have a right to mediate their messages and virtual communities–or any communities really–are fair game. With that said, brands should be careful not to overstay their welcome or else they may not be invited to the next family reunion.

 

 

 

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Who’s Your Daddy?

"...behind every successful company is a Sugar Daddy handing out the cash."

I must admit that I was not too excited about Chapter 5, “Investor Relations” in Guth and Marsh’s Adventures in Public Relations. Something about the words “investors” and “shareholders” lull me to sleep. But alas, PR professionals have to face the facts; behind every successful company is a Sugar Daddy handing out the cash.

Investor Relations is a seemingly complicated topic, but it ultimately boils down to full disclosure and honesty. Money is the backbone of investor relations–making this relationship even more sensitive than those with other publics. Some of the greatest PR blunders are a direct result of poor communication between a company and its investors.

Enron is a perfect example of investor relations gone awry. The major energy and commodities company provided false information about the company’s financial condition in an attempt to keep investors. When the company filed for bankruptcy in 2001, however, the truth was revealed.

Investors and shareholders were furious about the deceptive practices and took legal action. Enron’s top executives took the brunt of the punishment, including Mark Koenig, who had to serve an 18-month sentence in federal prison. Can somebody get this guy a box of Kleenex?

So how does a company avoid Enron’s and poor Mr. Koenig’s fate?

A recent article in CFO World offers some smart tips on how to maintain relationships and assure stability in a floundering global economy. The article suggests that a C-suite remain a prominent figure when communicating with investors. This gives the information more credibility and will help quell any concerns.

CFO World also suggests establishing a succinct message from the start and sticking to it. I think this is a necessary step in all PR campaigns. Consistent and stable communications convey a sense of reliability. It is important to build this foundation of trust long before any form of crisis occurs. Many professionals make the mistake of waiting until it is too late to form a coherent direction for their company.

The book explains how PR professionals are becoming less involved with investor relations as it shifts to other areas of a company. Should PR professionals step aside and let someone else take over? How many people does it take to make investors happy?

I think investor relations should be a three person job; one person who understands the numbers (Bill from accounting), another who can translate those stats to the general public (PR Guru, duh), and finally a C-suite who can give his/her stamp of approval. A trifecta such as this would not only provide honest information, but offer it in a palatable and satisfying manner for the resident Sugar Daddy.

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It Starts from Within

"People at all levels can inadvertently develop tunnel vision."

The communicative relationship between a business and its employees is not only important–it’s necessary! Like any structure, a company must have a strong foundation before it can start to build or expand. Unfortunately, it looks like there is a disconnect between how and what information is communicated from upper to lower level members of a business. According to Guth and Marsh of our handy blog guide, Issues in Public Relations, 71% of managers feel they are truthful with employees, yet only 53% of employees agree!

Yikes! So what is the issue here? I feel, especially in large corporations, there is a lack of understanding for how each department functions independently. People at all levels can inadvertently develop tunnel vision. They become so hyper-focused on their work and forget what is best for the other departments involved, and even the overall company.

Should employers offer full disclose to their employees? Or would excessive information become overwhelming?

It seems unfair to expect each individual in a company to understand every department inside and out, however I think companies should require employees to meet (at least once a year) to discuss what they are doing. Managers today need to keep all lines of communication open and strong.

The best businesses go above and beyond mere business communication and see the well being of each employee as a major concern. Dealer.com is a business in Burlington, Vt that exemplifies this philosophy; they hookup their employees with fitness centers, nutritionists, entertainment, and more. Talk about kickbacks! Just like little Johnny needs a gold star from the teacher, so does Steve in the IT department.

To what extent does a business spoil it’s employees? After all, aren’t consumers equally important?

Target was recently faced with a PR crisis of their own when employees at a Texas location shunned a breastfeeding customer to the fitting rooms. The customer was outraged and ordered the members of the Mom Squad to join her in a National demonstration. The poor Target Corporation was stuck between the lactating mom’s and their uneasy employees.

What should a company do in this situation? Stand by its employees or the customers?

Target remained neutral, but ultimately leaned toward the customer. They released the following statement, “We continually educate our team members in stores across the country on store policies to ensure all guests have a great experience. Target has been in touch with the store to ensure all team members are aware of our breastfeeding policy. Target is proud to support all mothers who breastfeed year-round, including today.”

While this didn’t turn into a PR catastrophe, I would say Target’s attention to employee relations is sob-worthy in this instance. Come on guys, don’t leave your employees high and dry!

Employee relations means taking care of a key public in good times and bad. It’s important for businesses to maintain communications across all departments and offer rewards when they are warranted. Poor employee relations can lead to a low morale and mediocre output. Public Relations practitioners must keep in mind, everything starts from within the company.

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