UPDATE 2 – 3/25/13: See Below
Mark Twain once said “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
Let’s test that hypothesis in the era of social media.
Right now, students at Grand Valley State University are circulating the image above which appears to be a screen capture from a mobile phone showing an email from a GVSU faculty member describing in elaborate detail why classes will be canceled tomorrow (3/20/13).
Some of my students forwarded it to me and inquired if I’d heard anything. To date (7:50 pm on 3/19/13) I’ve received no emails from the administration, and there are no announcements on the college’s website, nor any messages pertaining to a cancellation on the college’s Facebook or Twitter pages. Moreover, there are no cancellations for GVSU in the news media.
So it’s probably false.
What also makes me think the image is a fake is that there’s no date in the email (and I’m not aware of any version of the Gmail client that doesn’t at least show the date or time in the header information of an email). I’m betting it was probably photoshopped. To test my suspicions I ran the photo through Photoshop Killer, an online tool that detects when changes have been made to images. The report seems to indicate photoshopping; in addition to the lack of EXIF data about the image, it appears to have possibly been sharpened (possibly to hide traces after blurring out some portions to edit them).
It’s true, the weather hasn’t been optimal today – but it’s hardly bad enough for GVSU to cancel all of its classes at all of its campuses.
It’s also true that there was a bus accident on campus today A student was struck by a bus at GVSU a month ago – however the female student who was struck by a Rapid bus only suffered minor injuries. Also definitely not reason enough to cancel all classes.
I sent an email to Dr. Kevin Cole, the professor from whom the email purportedly originates.
Updates to follow. It would be great if we could debunk this in real time.
UPDATE: 9:40pm 3/19/13
Dr. Cole returned my email in record time confirming that, indeed, the email is a hoax. Here’s his response:
It’s going to be interesting to see what GVSU’s Computing and Technology Support department finds when they go through the digital trail that this email likely left behind. Unless this person was seriously savvy, it’s likely they will have left multiple bits of identifying information behind as a result of sending this message.
UPDATE: 12:45pm 3/52/13
A couple of days after this blog post, GVSU responded to the situation; apparently there were several instances of these fraudulent emails being sent. Today they announced that they were able to track down the student who was responsible (who may now be charged criminally and possibly disciplined by GVSU).
As I write this, Burger King’s Twitter Account (@burgerking) has been hacked by Anonymous and turned into a McDonald’s account with the parody storyline that BK has been acquired by McDonald’s. It’s still posting updates (including photos of drug use and links to rap videos on YouTube) unabated.
What’s particularly amazing about this situation is that it’s now almost an hour into the hack and no one has taken action (neither Twitter, nor Burger King), though that may attest to the resourcefulness of LulzSec – the security wing of the unofficial hacker collaborative Anonymous.
[Disclosure: I applied for the University of Michigan Social Media Director position.]
In October of 2011, the University of Michigan announced that it had created a Social Media Director position. I was elated; it was a great sign that the practice was gaining the recognition it deserves. In February of 2012 they announced that after “dozens” of applicants (a suspiciously low number for that high-profile of a position with an elite school that paid $100k/year) they had selected Jordan Miller to be their new Social Media Director.
Flash-forward to December 7 when a post appeared on Reddit titled “UM Social Media Director Jordan Miller lies on resume about bachelors degree, keeps job.” posted by citizenthrowawayx. The post contained links to three scans of documents that pretty conclusively demonstrated that Miller had indeed lied on her job application claiming to have completed her studies at Columbia College in Chicago when in fact she had not.
There’s a lot more to the story (that the anonymous individual who did the legwork and posted the damning information is an ex-husband who happens to also work at U of M and who is involved in a custody battle, alleging that Miller manufactured child abuse allegations against him to negate his custody of their child) but I’m less interested in that than the larger ramifications of this case study in how not to approach social media.
Beat the Dead Horse: Radical Transparency
What I can’t get over is that someone would think they could get away with something like this in applying for (1) a social media leadership position at (2) one of the best universities in the US. Who thinks this sort of deception can last in such a position of scrutiny?
Forget unethical (although it’s certainly that), in the age of radical transparency duplicity is just plain impractical.
Here is just a sampling of the ripples Miller’s lying has sent off in the direction of everyone she’s had contact with:
U of M Human Resources: Why doesn’t the University of Michigan’s Human Resources Office vet the higher education credentials of its applicants? How many of the rest of the university’s employees are lacking in degrees from accredited higher education institutions? Why didn’t the HR department take action on this information when it was forwarded to them “a few weeks ago?” Why did it take contacting the university’s Compliance Hotline to get something accomplished?
Past Employers: Now that we know Miller lied on her U of M job application, does that mean that she lied on her application to the Ann Arbor News? As a journalistic organization that trumpeted her hire and is now reporting on her downfall – it’s incumbent upon them to now shine that same light on themselves and their hiring practices. How many of their other reporters are lacking in degrees from accredited colleges/universities? Why don’t they verify higher ed credentials? Ditto to Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the advertising agency that employed her for a year and a half.
References: This kind of situation makes me less inclined to want to give out references or endorsements, which are becoming ever-present on social networking sites. You practically trip over them logging in to Linkedin, they’re on Facebook and its apps (like Branchout) and everywhere else.
Past Work: If Miller lied about something as substantial as her higher ed credentials, what else is lurking in her past? Has she fabricated any of the information in the stories she wrote for the AnnArbor.com?
Social Media Pros: Specializing in social media is already a profession that hurts for credibility. Here’s a comment from the story announcing Miller’s hire typical of the opinions of many people on social media:
“Wow. $100K per year to Twitter (aka “gossip”) and create seminars teaching other people how to Twitter (aka “gossip”). It’s too bad the UM doesn’t have any marketing students or anyone like that, who could devise and maintain “social media” strategies as part of their degree programs. What’s another $100K in taxpayer dollars anyway? It’s just disgusting. A hundred THOUSAND dollars a year. It’s incredible.” – YpsiVeteran
This act can’t help but contribute to the sentiment that social media pros are charlatans and hucksters. As a result, all of us suffer.
The Other Applicants for the Position: There were some other applicants for the position who were probably better-qualified than Miller (whose social media credentials I found to be surprisingly sparse – leading me to long suspect that there was some sort of backroom arrangement for the hiring process which is depressingly common at higher ed institutions). Forget me, Lindsay Blackwell comes to mind – even I was impressed by the multimedia site she set up to apply for the position. I worry that U of M will eliminate this position and kill a great opportunity for someone else (and an opportunity to show how far ahead of the business world the academic world is in terms of social media acumen).
The Silver Lining
Radical Transparency is here to stay. It is the norm. It is one of the rules of the ecosystem.
As we work to get past the social norms that are in conflict with this new reality, we can facilitate this by making use of all of the amazing computing power arrayed before us. There is value in verification – think of what Linkedin could do to further attract employers as a job posting website by offering the verification of credentials.
I’m not optimistic about the odds of it happening, but hopefully the human resources world takes this opportunity to reflect on how outmoded its conventions for vetting job applicants are. There are so many ways to measure the abilities of people online, and so few HR departments are flexing all of those resources.
Regardless, it’s going to be interesting to see how this all plays out (and it is literally playing out right now on Reddit as Miller’s ex-husband is able to respond to the questions and comments of other Redditors).
Online nothing goes away, and anything can come to light if enough time and pressure are applied.
George Zimmerman is about to find that out because the Miami Herald found his MySpace page. I’m kind of surprised this didn’t come to light sooner. In a bit of dark humor, he was just awarded the “In the Spotlight” badge because people are flocking to pore over his updates for clues.
We can’t undo the advances into the era of Radical Transparency, we can only adjust to it. That isn’t a bad thing.
Just as social media can have a negative impact on someone’s life, it can also have a positive impact. It depends on how much of a person is positive or negative.
Social media is only a tool – it has no inherent qualities. It can only reflect those who use it. The same social media platforms that are providing fodder to back up the allegation that the shooting of Trayvon Martin was a hate crime motivated by mistrust of a race are ALSO raising funds for Zimmerman’s defense fund and spreading the message of his fervent right-leaning defenders. Con artists on both sides of the case have faked content to support their side – and virtually all have been caught and debunked.
Right now the big headlines are the racist missives against Hispanics that the MySpace profile contains, as well as some allusions to criminal behavior.
That won’t be the only headline, and a fuller picture of Zimmerman is already being illustrated in the news media as we all endeavor to learn more about him and his motivations. The Herald noted that he has a racially-diverse group of friends (as depicted by his photos). Likely there are other positive features of Zimmerman which will come to light.
I tend to think anything that helps make us more aware that the world is a complex, gray place with few (if any) absolutes is a benefit to us all.
One of the first places people go (from Google, that is) for quick answers and information is Wikipedia. The size of the audience it commands, and its ability to become a critical resource for developing the narrative from current events mean that it’s of critical importance to any public relations professional.
Unfortunately the PR community is largely ignorant of how to interact with Wikipedia.
According to a new study done by Dr. Marcia W. DiStaso of Penn State University,
- 25 percent of public relations pros were completely unaware of the state of Wikipedia entries about their organization.
- Worse – only 21 percent were familiar with the rule that PR pros should not edit articles on behalf of a client or organization they represent.
This is unacceptable. A healthy understanding of Wikipedia and the dynamics of the collaborative space online (which eschews back-room deals and undemocratic influence) is critical for every PR pro (and journalist) to understand. This is the stuff of textbooks.
The study was prompted after a very thorough and productive discussion that has been happening on a Facebook group called CREWE (Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement) created by Phil Gomes of Edelman. The group has brought together Wikipedians (including founder Jimmy Wales) to promote broader awareness of the relationship between PR pros and Wikipedia editors:
- On the one hand, Wikipedians want to ensure that all information on the site is accurate and free of bias.
- On the other hand, PR pros have a legitimate complaint in that following the established process for contributing or editing content (to post suggestions to the “Talk” page in the hope that it will be evaluated by a Wikipedian with no connection to the story and ultimately considered for application to the Wikipedia entry) is often ineffective as it can be difficult to get the attention or consideration of editors.
The study done by Dr. DiStaso also contains a very helpful infographic pulling out some of the important points from the study. You can find everything here:
Measuring Public Relations Wikipedia Engagement: How Bright is the Rule?
Public Relations Journal — Vol. 6, No. 2 | Author: Marcia W. DiStaso, Ph.D.
Abstract: The study by Dr. DiStaso explores the views, experiences and beliefs of public relations/communications professionals about editing Wikipedia for their company or client. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has what he believes to be a “bright line” rule whereby public relations/communications professionals are not to directly edit the Wikipedia articles about their companies or clients. Through a survey with 1284 responses, this study found that the “bright line” rule is not working. This is because, among other reasons, 60% of the Wikipedia articles for respondents who were familiar with their company or recent client’s article contained factual errors. When the talk pages were used to request edits, it was found to typically take days for a response and 24% never received one. Plus, most of the public relations/communication professionals in this study were unaware of the rule and almost half of those who were familiar with it did not understand what it meant to them.. [Download Article]
Earlier this week, a YouTube video from a security camera made the rounds showing a FedEx employee carelessly tossing a package (containing a computer monitor) over a fence to deliver it. As of today, the original has over 4 million views and opportunistic content-scrapers who have re-posted to their own profiles have garnered hundreds of thousands more.
Huge public relations crisis, right? Nope.
FedEx delivered a master class in crisis communications with its response that should be taught in PR classrooms. Check it out:
Let’s break down what happened (which is an affirmation of the principles articulated by Arthur W. Page):
- They responded quickly. They didn’t wait for the situation to reach a tipping point; only two days passed between the uploading of the original video and the response. Can you imagine the kind of effort it takes during the heaviest delivery season to negotiate and organize a well-crafted video response to a negative customer service experience for a global corporation? Right now the response video is the #2 video, right under the original negative video which is #1. It has over 116,000 views – six thousand of those were accrued in the time it took me to draft this blog post, so it’s gaining traction.
- They told the truth. At no point did they try to write it off as an isolated incident, a hoax, or try to blame a third party contractor or regional human resources department. They embraced it.
- They made it right with the customer (a YouTube user with the alias ‘goobie55′). Before anything else, they reached out to the party affected and fixed the situation. Unfortunately, goobie55 has not (yet) done the right thing – which is to post an update to the video noting FedEx’s response – hopefully that will still happen.
- They took it seriously. FedEx knows how quickly information is shared online and they responded swiftly with senior management. They didn’t let the situation linger unanswered or task local staff to handle it. They also likely used all the resources in their arsenal – which may have included a traditional public relations pitch campaign (given the over 150 articles covering the response).
- They internalized the problem. According to FedEx Senior VP Matthew Thornton, they are also are now sharing the video with employees as a case study in why careful handling of packages is important.
- They gave the organization a face. You could hardly find a better face for the organization than VP Matthew Thornton; the nonverbal communication is fantastic. He’s in a shirt and tie (no suit coat), with thick-rimmed glasses and a similarly-thick mustache – he looks like a working-class executive who is personally-invested in the company and doesn’t shy away from rolling up his sleeves. Though he’s likely reading from a prompter, Thornton is convincing nonetheless. In a way he projects the feel of a small business owner who knows well how accountable he is to his customers.
- They had a track record to stand on. This is perhaps the most important part of any crisis is what happens BEFORE the crisis – something that can’t be emphasized enough. Every organization needs to make quality service and products a priority (which should go without saying, but it doesn’t – plenty are operating on an old model of sub-standard quality upholstered in glitz and style). No crisis response, no matter how eloquent, can save an organization that sucks at what they do from a high-profile example of their suckage – the companies that conduct themselves that way are only able to do so because they’re a monopoly (think AT&T or Comcast).
The only improvement I might have made is to have Thornton add an action item at the end of his video (you can provide hyperlinks within YouTube videos very easily) that invited any other customers with a bad experience to immediately share, or link directly to the process for resolving disputes, it so it could be fixed. But that’s just me nit-picking.
Hopefully a lot of people are able to learn from this – kudos to FedEx.
Muskegon Public Schools New Social Media Policy an Unenforceable Slap in the Face to Employees and Students
The Muskegon Chronicle (“Personal drinking photos could get teachers fired in Muskegon”) and Michigan Education Report (“More districts eye social media policies”) have reported that the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District has adopted an extraordinarily-restrictive new social media policy (available here courtesy of the Muskegon Chronicle).
The policy implies consequences (ie firing) if any content appears online that shows “use of alcohol, drugs or anything students are prohibited from doing” (students are prohibited from using profanity – so apparently if you tweet the F-bomb that can get you canned). The policy was crafted and adopted at the advice of at the advice of the MAISD legal counsel (which should be the first sign that the policy is problematic; lawyers and social media don’t mix).
Here are some specific problems with the policy (which is very reminiscent of the ban on contact that the Missouri Legislature just repealed):
1. We Don’t Control What is Posted Online Read more…
Update: Senator Brownback has apologized for the actions of his staff which he has characterized as an “overreaction.” This is a commendable move, though it’s unclear if the apology will travel as far and wide as the original story (which I still saw circulating via social media this morning).
The Scene: A group of high school students is touring Topeka, Kansas and visits the Governor’s office. After meeting briefly with Gov. Sam Brownback, a student by the name of Emma Sullivan jokingly tweets the following:
“Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot” | November 21, 2011
Rather than let the tweet die a quiet death virtually unseen in the vast sea of digital ether, Brownback’s Communications Director Sherienne Jones-Sontag decided to report Sullivan to her school and turn the entire event into a very public frackus that made the Governor of Kansas look like a moron wasting time with trifling matters and picking on a high school student.
Here’s a breakdown of why the situation was completely mishandled: Read more…
Right now, the Southern Illinois University Carbondale is in the middle of a contract negotiation dispute which has resulted in a strike by the tenured faculty. As one would expect in a situation such as this, the faculty has urged its supporters to be vocal on the union’s behalf and some students took to the SIU Carbondale Facebook Fan Page to urge a resolution to the contract dispute.
Unfortunately, the SIU Carbondale administrators of the page began deleting those messages. One report noted that they began by deleting only the messages of support for the faculty, but later began deleting all messages related to the dispute – and even went so far as to ban some users. Read more…
"...and you shall have no pie."As my parents tell it, when I was an infant my first word wasn't a word - it was an entire sentence. Very little has changed.
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