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Why the Race of the Public Relations Firm Representing Ferguson Matters

August 21, 2014 Leave a comment

Ferguson PR Crisis and Diversity

By now you’re likely aware of the conflict erupting in Ferguson, MO resulting from the shooting death of an unarmed black man named Michael Brown. The city has done an abysmal job responding to the situation overall (including from a public relations perspective), highlighted most recently by the hiring of an all-white public relations firm to handle the crushing national media response to the race-motivated crisis.

The perception problem created by the hiring of an all-white PR firm was further escalated when the firm failed to immediately respond to critics via social media after the announcement went public. In its defense, Common Ground has since partnered with a minority-owned firm (The Devin James Group) to complement its capabilities. We’re reminded again that a few hours is a lifetime in the age of social media.

Some have defended the decision, arguing that it’s racist to consider the racial makeup of the PR firm hired to assist with this crisis. They are wrong and here’s why:

It’s not the PR firm’s fault, but we should all care that the firm is all white because it’s another reminder (like the Ferguson crisis) that minorities continue to be underrepresented in positions of leadership across the US.

The city has defended its hiring of Common Ground PR on the basis that the scope of the firm’s work is to assist the city’s internal PR staff in responding to the deluge of national media requests that have come in – not to rebuild the city’s relationship with the minority communities. That’s a fair point – but it further reveals the extent to which racism is systemically integrated into American life; the vast majority of the national media are white and can be served by an all-white PR firm.

The origins of this tragedy are at least in part due to the fact that the Ferguson police department is 92 percent white, policing a population that is 67 percent black. The PR firm should have known from the start that the racial composition of their employees was going to be an issue – because the PR industry as a whole is well aware of the diversity problems across the US (and within our own profession – nearly 70 percent of PR practitioners are white). A PR firm dropped into this situation should have first prepared to tout its experience with (and connections to) the African American community even if they weren’t necessarily relevant to the work performed. Moreover, it should be aware that because the PR industry has championed diversity as an issue – it is held to a higher standard when it comes to internalizing diversity.

Experience matters, which is why all of us list it on our resumes – and why PR firms list it (as Common Ground does) on their websites. Unfortunately I see nothing on the firm’s website that would hint at experience working with the African American community, nor relationships therein (not on their Crisis Communications page, nor in their Accolades page, nor their Partners/Memberships page, nor listed among the causes they support on the “Giving Back” page). They absolutely may have it – but the only indicator we’re left with to judge them on their expertise with diversity is the racial makeup of their employees.

Understanding your audiences is one of the most basic components of public relations. It’s well-known in public relations (but rarely discussed) that to work with minority audiences, you need to have minority representation within your organization – it’s an important indicator that you’ve internalized the importance of diversity. That sounds racist, but it’s not – it’s a response to the legacy of racism which excluded minorities from professional positions (which is why they’re still underrepresented today).

That legacy of exclusion is why there are separate professional groups and news outlets for minorities today. The dominant white culture excluded minority professionals and failed to cover news in minority communities – so they had to create their own.

Here’s a thought exercise: if you had to reach a majority white audience, would you feel that you could be best represented by an all-black PR firm? How about your C-Suite? – You’re lying if you say yes. Yet we expect the opposite to be true for Ferguson.

What’s “racist” is pretending that race doesn’t matter – it does.

UPDATE: Are Classes at GVSU Canceled Due to a Bus Accident and Weather? – HELLS NO

March 19, 2013 1 comment

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.

GVSU Email Confirmed Fake

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).

Photoshop Killer Analysis of the Image

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:

GVSU Email is Confirmed as HoaxIt’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).

Budweiser Fights Back Against Watering Down Accusations With Social Ads

March 3, 2013 Leave a comment

Today I noticed in my social stream on Facebook that Budweiser was using ads to fight back against the accusations that they are watering down their beer.

This little advertisement popped up humorously takes a jab at the plaintiffs in a lawsuit by offering the possibility that they mistakenly tested one of the cans of water Anheuser-Busch has produced to meet the emergency needs during one of the recent crises like Hurricane Sandy (a practice that dates back to the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906):

Budweiser Rebuttal Facebook Ad

 

Other than the ads BP blanketed the socialsphere with following the Deep Water Horizon disaster, I don’t think I’ve seen much of this practice by major corporations.  I actually think it’s a smart and effective strategy (particularly in the budget department).  It simultaneously addresses the lawsuit while reminding the public of its social good campaigns.

The only criticism I have of the ad as a public relations move is that it doesn’t send those who click on it to a page addressing the accusations, rather it goes to Budweiser’s main fan page (which likely won’t help address the crisis among people who aren’t familiar with it).  There’s print on the ad that likely explains this, but it’s far too small to read in the tiny dimensions of a Facebook ad.

Budweiser Facebook Fan Page

Update – Burger King’s Twitter Account Hacked; Finally Suspended 1 1/2 Hours Later

February 18, 2013 Leave a comment

[Update: the @BurgerKing account was finally suspended about an hour and a half in.]

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.

Image

@BurgerKing Account Suspended

How Not to Handle Controversy You Invited Upon Yourself – ArtPrize at The BOB

September 20, 2012 Leave a comment

ArtPrize Controversy at The BOB

As ArtPrize opens in Grand Rapids, an actual controversy has finally broken out.

It’s not the usual controversy (ie art snobs being upset that “commoners” are allowed to express opinions on what constitutes “good art).  It’s actually controversy over work considered to be obscene. Read more…

Facebook Change to User Emails is Case Study in the Limits of Spin

June 29, 2012 1 comment

The @Facebook.com Bait and Switch

As you’re likely aware, recently Facebook changed the email settings of all users so that the email they signed up with is no longer visible – replaced by their @facebook.com email address.  The company rolled out an email service back in 2010.  My guess is that adoption was lagging so given the new pressure they’re under as a result of their IPO to monetize the service, they made the switch.

They’re perfectly entitled to do this; after all they’re a private company providing a free service to users.

HOWEVER, what you’re ENTITLED to do and what you SHOULD do are two completely different things.

MOREOVER, WE do not control the language – THE PEOPLE DO (in this case, the users). Read more…

George Zimmerman is the Latest Case Study of Radical Transparency – the MySpace Page

May 2, 2012 Leave a comment

George Zimmerman's MySpace Page

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.

Important Research on the Relationship Between Public Relations and Wikipedia

April 19, 2012 1 comment

Wikipedia Edit

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]

A PR Pro’s Plea to TV Journos – Don’t go Geraldo Like WWMT

January 25, 2012 3 comments

WWMT Pulls a Rivera

A colleague of mine recently had an unfortunate experience with WWMT Channel 3 here in West Michigan.  One of their reporters burst into the offices of Patriot Solutions with cameras rolling and accusations flying.

It offers a “teachable moment” to point out two problems I see public relations professionals encounter with their counterparts in the news media:

Problem 1 – Not Doing One’s Homework

The basis of the investigation is that Patriot Solutions is classified as a “service-disabled, veteran-owned company.”  WWMT noted that the disability rating of the owners is “0 percent,” so they are alleging some sort of fraud.

The problem is, as the National Veteran-Owned Business Association could readily tell you, having a “0 percent” disability doesn’t mean that a veteran wasn’t disabled as a result of their service to their country.  What it means is that their disability is not at a “compensable level” – meaning it doesn’t “substantially [limit] one or more major life activities.”

So, for example, a veteran could have a “0 percent” disability rating if they suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but are able to make it to work every day and lead a relatively normal life despite suffering from mental health issues.

Problem 2 – Asking Questions One Knows Can’t be Answered

What WWMT did with their ambush interview was put Patriot Solutions in an impossible position: every journalist worth his/her salt knows that any employer has to decline to comment on private personnel matters.  It’s against the law – employees have privacy rights.  Same with patients; showing up at a hospital and demanding information on someone being treated is a HIPAA violation.  Further, the same is true of students; their privacy is protected by FERPA.

Veterans of the Marine Corps and the Army (which the owners of Patriot Services are) deserve respect and fair treatment as much as all other citizens (if not moreso).  What WWMT essentially did was attack these individuals during business hours and demand that they cough up sensitive, personal medical information because its reporter doesn’t know how to use the  Google Machine.

Dick move, WWMT.  Dick move.  Hopefully they do the right thing and nix the piece before they do more damage.