Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category
The world was abuzz this week with the story of Karen Klein, a woman from upstate New York who was taunted mercilessly while working as a school bus monitor. As is so often the case, the taunters were not only mean and vile, but stupid enough to record their actions. If you haven’t seen this, you may or may not want to expose yourself to the 10 minutes of evil vapidity.
The video, as is the cliché, went viral. Millions of views. Then a guy in Toronto named Max Sidorov was touched by the video. He set up a campaign on Indiegogo to give her a vacation. He set a goal of $5,000, saying “There’s even a point in the video where one of the kids touches Karen’s arm in an attempt to make fun of her. I’m not sure why these kids would want to bully a senior citizen to tears, but I feel we should do something, or at least try. She doesn’t earn nearly enough ($15,506) to deal with some of the trash she is surrounded by. Lets give her something she will never forget, a vacation of a lifetime!”
Then Sidorov’s campaign went viral too — in spades. In a matter of days, the campaign raised more than $545,000.
All of this is heartwarming. This is a 68-year-old woman who was treated more than shabbily, and it’s lovely to think that she’s going to be helped by this.
But let’s be honest here. Does Karen Klein need a half-million nest egg? Does the pain or embarrassment she suffered warrant a half-million payday?
Let’s take another example — Caine’s Arcade. The release of a short film about Caine’s Arcade led to a college fund of more than $200,000 and a matching fund to help other kids as creative and deserving as Caine.
There’s no doubt that these stories are inspiring. But I have this feeling that even the desire to good using the tools of social media can go too far. In themselves, the 25,000 donors to the Klein campaign each did an undeniably good thing. But is the best use of the $545,000 and counting that has been raised to simply go to Ms. Klein?
The other side of this is the response by viewers to reach out to the school or the school district.
The school district website has a message which reads in part:
“The behaviors displayed on this video are not representative of all Greece Central students and this is certainly not what we would like our students to be known for. We have worked very hard to educate students on the damaging impact of bullying and will continue to do so.
We have received thousands of phone calls and emails from people across the country wanting to convey their thoughts. People are outraged by what has happened and they feel the students should be punished. While we agree that discipline is warranted, we cannot condone the kind of vigilante justice some people are calling for. This is just another form of bullying and cannot be tolerated.
We all need to take a step back and look at how we treat each other. It is our job as educators and parents to teach children and lead by example. We encourage parents to use this as a springboard to begin a dialogue with their children about bullying, respect and consequences. As a school community, we will continue to take the lead in bullying education and we encourage all students and employees subjected to bullying and harassment to report it as soon as it occurs and to take a stand if they are witness to bullying in their lives.”
I can only imagine the sheer volume of contacts. How could a small upstate New York school or district reasonably handle this level of outrage and demand for response? And what would my angry e-mail add to the situtation?
I don’t really have any answers here; I’m just trying to think through how a bad thing can, through social media, lead to a good thing and then, again through social media, perhaps the good thing becomes too much of a good thing.
What do you think?
It seems like just a year or so ago that Netflix found itself in the New York Times apologizing for hiring actors to pretend to be excited about the company entering the Canadian market. And didn’t the US Federal Emergency Management agency have to apologize for pretending that its own employees were journalists, when it faked a news conference? Oh yeah, they did!
But hey, those guys are amateurs. They are certainly not “Canada’s home for hard news and straight talk”, a network that is “unwavering in their commitment to uncover the real stories impacting the lives of everyday working people and their families“.
So when Sun News wants to cover a citizenship ceremony, what ends up happening? The minister’s office sends down the orders to put together a ceremony at the Sun studios (not where Elvis and Jerry Lee hung out, sadly), and when they have trouble putting together enough warm bodies to make the ceremony look legit… the ceremony gets faked, with public servants posing as new Canadians. Here’s the video, in all its cringeworthy glory. Keep in mind as you watch it, that six of these people are not “new Canadians.” They are federal employees.
I’m guessing the two small people on the end aren’t the public servants. They appear to be children, although in this topsy-turvy world who can tell? Here’s the story as reported in the Globe and Mail, obtained through Access to Information requests by the Canadian Press.
The story’s money quote:
When a bureaucrat sent Sun News a list of possible citizenship ceremonies to cover in Ontario, a network employee suggested another scenario. “Let’s do it. We can fake the Oath,” reads an email from a sunmedia.ca email address, the name blacked out of the document.
I suppose I should draw the lessons, although I can’t imagine I have to:
- Journalists shouldn’t create pseudo events or cover them as real events.
- Public servants should have more integrity.
- Hard news and straight talk don’t mix well with “Fake the Oath.”
Let’s all be a bit better than this.
The political appointee Candice Malcom appeared on Sun News today to apologize for the event. Sun News host Pat Bolland claimed that they knew nothing of the fakery. For what it’s worth, I never would have suggested the strategy followed in the wake of this muffup. Here’s the video:
UPDATE 2: Sun News Network’s David Akin weighs in with his take on the event.
Get enough public relations professionals together, and you’ll inevitably hear the conversation. The one I’m thinking of starts around war stories, then moves to why the corner office folks (or the C-suite, if you’re more modern than I am) don’t listen to us, don’t take us seriously.
You know why? Because we cheapen ourselves. We do things that we shouldn’t, and we suffer the consequences.
Case. In. Point.
In California, water is a big deal. The water 18 million people in southern California use to drink, wash, and take care of their sewage arrives in their houses via a 240-mile pipeline all the way from the Colorado River. So I’d figure that the topic of water there is discussed a bit more than it is here in my city of Ottawa, where a mighty river brings all the water we need to our figurative doorstep.
The Los Angeles Times ran a story yesterday about one of the authorities which manage the water supply for 2 million folks living south of LA, the Central Basin Municipal Water District. The CBMWD apparently signed a $12,000/month contract with a consulting firm to write and place stories about them on a news site called “News Hawks Review.” The documents around this were obtained by the Times:
The selling point? That this would be indexed by Google News as a news outlet. Well, that door’s slammed shut — as of this morning, Google News has de-indexed News Hawks Review. In discussions with the LA Times, Coghlan claimed to have no editorial role with the News Hawks site. However, he was a frequent contributor to the site and was listed as a “reporter” with an affiliated “newshx.com” e-mail address.
Before I start opining, a caveat. I attempted yesterday to contact News Hawks Review, Coghlan (the company seems to not have a web site, which is curious for someone working in social media), and the CBMWD for comment and to ensure that the LA Times coverage was not inaccurate. None of those people responded to phone calls or emails. So if I’m extrapolating from incorrect information, be aware that I tried to verify the facts as reported.
There are two issues here, to my mind. The first is that what was done is, in my opinion, unethical. This was an attempt to create a simulacrum of news coverage without disclosing the financial interests.
I asked PRSA for a comment about this, and here’s what Prof. Deborah Silverman, the chair of their Ethics Board, told me by email:
“This practice is contrary to the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics, which espouses honesty and accuracy in communication, the free flow of information, and disclosure of information. The Central Basin Municipal Water District’s use of a communications firm to create “news” disguised as media coverage is a serious breach of ethical standards, and the district is operating in a manner that does little to aid the public’s decision-making process.” I’m sad to say that I also e-mailed my professional association, the International Association of Business Communicators, and nobody responded.
Did CBMWD know their communications person or people were engaged in unethical behaviour? Did they endorse it? I don’t know.
Second, this is a ridiculously ineffective use of thousands of dollars. What is the measure of success here? What opinion was changed by these innocuous stories? A youtube video accompanying the story has a whopping 101 views:
Meanwhile the documents posted by the LA Times show the communications folks for CBMWD referring to this as a “unique and innovative utilization of an internet news service to distribute actual news.”
If we as PR professionals can do no better than to use the tools at our disposal in unethical and deceptive and ineffective ways, then why SHOULD the C-suite listen to us? And if the boss thinks this is what we do, why would he or she think of us as anything other than unethical shills?
UPDATE: Thanks to the PRbuilder blog, I discovered two things. First, Ragan’s PR Daily covered this issue, and second, that the LA PRSA chapter has sent a letter to the Times calling this an “egregious breach.” I don’t think the letter’s been published in the Times yet, but the Ragan story has it.
Food giant ConAgra and its PR firm Ketchum found itself in a reheated soup recently, when an event for bloggers in which food bloggers were fed frozen dinners as a “secret surprise” went wrong. At least some of the bloggers took offense, and a retreat was hastily beaten.
The story is an interesting one, as written by Andrew Adam Newman in the New York Times. But I was most interested in the quotes by PRSA ethics expert Deborah A. Silverman.
Here’s what Newman’s story closed with:
The promotion was “unfortunate” and “struck me as being not quite where they should be in terms of honesty,” said Deborah A. Silverman, who heads the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards at the Public Relations Society of America.
In an e-mail message, Ms. Silverman added, “Ketchum has an excellent reputation for high ethical standards,” but “the social media realm (including bloggers) is new territory for public relations practitioners, and I view this as a valuable learning opportunity.”
I have some issues with this. First, Ketchum’s “excellent reputation” has at least one gigantic hole in it in the shape of Armstrong Williams. I wrote about the Armstrong Williams scandal when it happened in 2005. It stank then and it stinks now.
They’ve also been sharply criticized for their use of Video News Releases (VNRs) — criticism serious enough to cause PRSA to issue a bulletin about their ethical usage.
Second, the idea that social media and blogger relations are “new territory for public relations practitioners” is hokum and hooey.
A quick Google on blogger relations found articles from Lee Odden in 2006 and John Cass in 2007 on doing blogger relations right. Neville Hobson wrote an article for IABC’s Communication World magazine in May 2006 about blogger relations (I’m not a PRSA member, so don’t have access to their resources as I do IABC’s). I pointed to some guidelines from Cory Doctorow in 2008 on this blog.
I asked Deborah Silverman, who is a PR prof at Buffalo State in New York, if she wanted to expand on her view, and she did. Here’s her response:
“The social media realm, including bloggers, is relatively new territory for public relations practitioners, as evidenced by the large crowds who attend social media workshops. Social media have been around for only about five years. Although many practitioners may be familiar with social media, there are numerous new ethical issues that are arising; one of those is where bloggers fall within the consumer-advocate-journalist continuum. So I do believe that this situation was a learning experience for all of us. Above all, it reiterates the ethical tenet in PR that disclosure of motivations, intentions and/or sponsorship is paramount.”
First, it’s unfortunate that Silverman chose not to respond to the concerns over Ketchum. Second, I disagree with her on a number of points. First, the fact that social media training attracts crowds doesn’t necessarily mean it’s new. People still go to speechwriting workshops and speeches aren’t new; people learn to write news releases and the news release is more than a century old. And while this may be a “learning experience” for Silverman, ConAgra, and Ketchum, I think a lot of social media practitioners only learned a new way to screw up blogger outreach.
One could be charitable and say that it’s too soon to REALLY know how to do this. But it’s not true. There’s no reason to not know how to do this well, and to do it.
May have more about these issues soon.
UPPERDATE: Tonia Ries at the RealTime Report has more thoughts and references related to this story, as does the always readable Jen Zingsheim at Media Bullseye.
After I posted my little rant about social media ideas last night (Sunday late-night posting bad for traffic? IN YOUR FACE), there was some Twitter talk, including this from Scott Monty: “Au contraire. Social media *leaders* need to be strong enough to withstand criticism. #socialmedia”
I agree. Let’s test this: Scott Monty, YOU SUCK!!! Just kidding.
I think that Scott Monty and I are actually in agreement (as you’d expect from a guy who does a Sherlock Holmes podcast and a guy who does a Stephen King podcast), but that we’re coming to a place of agreement from two different directions.
While I argued that ideas must be strong enough to stand up to criticism, I read Scott’s tweet as saying that those who make the ideas must also allow their ideas to stand on their own merits.
There was a medeival French philosopher named Michel de Montaigne. He once apparently wrote “We need very strong ears to hear ourselves judged frankly, and because there are few who can endure frank criticism without being stung by it, those who venture to criticize us perform a remarkable act of friendship.”
When you’ve worked to develop a concept, a program, a web site, something — it’s hard to hear it criticized. The natural tendency is to protect it. And sometimes, the most accurate critiques are those that sting the most. We clutch our ideas in our metaphorical arms, desperate to keep them from harm. And we sometimes lash out. Or, in the case of social media, our friends lash out on our behalf.
I think we need to ensure that if we’re the target of criticism, we first take the time to recognize whether the criticism is of us or our work. Then, be courageous enough to decide whether the criticism has a basis of truth. If there’s something in it, then USE it. If there’s nothing, then choose whether to ignore it or to respond.
I think there’s one more post in me about this — about the rights and responsibilities of critics in social media. Maybe today, or possibly tomorrow.
I shouldn’t need to write this post. But somehow, I think I do.
On July 18, in Gatineau, the city across the river from my city of Ottawa, someone recorded this:
So not surprisingly, this bus driver was quickly up for discipline.
It’s the job of the driver’s union to represent him. So, Local 591 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (French site) did so, with both his employer, and with the media.
The CBC story about the ATU response says:
“Felix Gendron, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union in Gatineau, said the driver’s privacy rights were violated after a passenger shot video of him and posted it on YouTube…’I think that the person who makes the video, if they don’t like the way the driver’s doing that they should go tell the driver. Not go put that on TV,’ said Gendron…Gendron said the union asked STO to ban passengers from being able to record drivers.”
Here’s the part that I can’t believe I’m writing:
- If you’re a bus driver responsible for the lives of dozens of riders and other motorists around you, don’t fill out paperwork while driving or steer the bus with your knees.
- If you get caught doing something that stupid, accept the fact that you were caught doing something that stupid. Focus on serving your customers (by not endangering their lives) rather than shoot the messenger. The person with the camera wasn’t the one in the wrong.
Someone once said “Everyone has a book in them. In most cases that’s where it should stay.” But like a lot of people, I dream of publishing a book. I’ve got a novel underway, and had a very cool creative coaching session this week with Alison Gresik to try to keep momentum there. I also would like to write a business book.
But enough about me. This is about a horrible error in the publishing business.
Ottawa writer Mark Bourrie had successfully placed his book on censorship in the Second World War The Fog of War with Key Porter Books, a major Canadian publisher with 30 years of publishing books by many prominent Canadian writers. And then in September 2010, the company announced a major round of layoffs, leaving only one person on the editorial team and six employees total.
Bourrie blogged at that point that he wasn’t sure about his book’s future. Then in mid-October, he received a letter saying the book was a go, and the final tasks of layout, cover, indexing and the like were being completed. By December, the book was, according to an e-mail Bourrie sent me, at the printer, and he thought he’d made it through.
It was communicated to me today that you had called our publicity department to query the status of your title, THE FOG of WAR, and to learn the anticipated release date of same.
It would seem that a significant breakdown in communication has occurred in that you were not notified of the hold status placed on this publication. It would seem that several members of our team were all thinking that the other had spoken with you, while in reality none of us had. This is regrettable. This is embarrassing and I suspect this is incredibly upsetting, frustrating, angering and disappointing for you.
I am available to speak with you today, or this week, at your convenience, to discuss this situation. Key Porter Books has recognized the necessity to restructure our business in light of the current market conditions and the challenges and considerable impact that this has had on our operations. The publishing industry is going through difficult times and we as a result have made drastic changes to our house in order to adjust and strengthen our position.
Again Mark, it is with sincere regret that we find ourselves in this position and even greater regret that this was not properly communicated to you.
I will look forward to speaking with you at your convenience.
I can’t imagine how shocked I would be to receive this e-mail. The sad part to me is that the publisher chose to communicate this shattering news to his author, who not only dedicated a number of years to the project but had gone through all of the hoops of the publishing process with an e-mail. It strikes me that having cut your workforce to only six, the “we all thought someone else did it” explanation seems a bit odd. It’s also a bit of salt in the wound to still see Bourrie’s book listed in their catalogue.
It appears that the book is in limbo for a number of months. There are contractual rights that publishers have in the books. What can be done for Bourrie? I don’t know. But there’s a lesson here. Don’t deliver bad news impersonally. Take the hit and call. And if you can’t bring yourself to do that, at least write like a human being. “It was communicated to me today… a significant breakdown in communication has occurred… This is regrettable… this is embarrassing.”
I’ve asked some questions of Key Porter by e-mail, and will report back if I get any response.
UPDATE, 5:00 pm January 6: Canadian publishing trade magazine Quill & Quire says that this is part of what is effectively a suspension of the company’s publishing program, and that the only editorial employee has been laid off. Jordan Fenn’s assistant responded earlier this afternoon to tell me he would be responding on January 7.
UPDATE, 7:20 am January 7: The Toronto Star and other media are reporting, based on quotes from Mark Bourrie, that Key Porter is shutting down.
UPDATE, 4:20 January 7: The Quill & Quire blog is running a statement it received from Key Porter, which reads:
As reported in several media outlets today, Key Porter Books has temporarily suspended publishing operations while it pursues a restructuring of its business. Key Porter Books is considering a number of restructuring options, including the sale of certain titles in its valuable catalogue of Canadian works, all with a view to continuing as a leader in the Canadian publishing industry. In the meantime, Key Porter Books is supporting its authors through the continued marketing and sale of previously published works and distribution through H.B. Fenn and Company Ltd.
“Key Porter Books has played a leading role in giving a voice to the Canadian story,” said Jordan Fenn, Publisher of Key Porter Books, “and we will do everything possible to ensure that voice continues to be heard.”
UDPATE: 2:40 January 14: I heard an interview on CBC Radio this morning, reinforced by an updated blog post from Bourrie, that made me very happy. It appears that his book has found a new home at Douglas & McIntyre, another Canadian publisher (the highly rare return Flacklife reader may remember that D&M are now distributing the Giller-winning Johanna Skibsrud novel The Sentimentalists.) This is great news for Mark. Of course, the dire situation of Canadian publishing doesn’t get fixed because one guy’s book gets saved.
I’m really excited to announce that the new podcast PR and Other Deadly Sins is LIVE.
Mark Blevis is someone that I have a tremendous amount of respect for, as well as someone I like a lot. So it’s a kick to think that we’ll be doing this as often as we can. How often that is, we’ll figure out as we go. But for now, it’s just a thrill to get the first one out there.
“Statements by more than a dozen lawmakers were ghostwritten, in whole or in part, by Washington lobbyists working for Genentech, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies.
E-mail messages obtained by The New York Times show that the lobbyists drafted one statement for Democrats and another for Republicans.
The lobbyists, employed by Genentech and by two Washington law firms, were remarkably successful in getting the statements printed in the Congressional Record under the names of different members of Congress.
Genentech, a subsidiary of the Swiss drug giant Roche, estimates that 42 House members picked up some of its talking points — 22 Republicans and 20 Democrats, an unusual bipartisan coup for lobbyists.”
Now, I suppose that the folks working on behalf of Genentech likely went back to their client with huge smiles on their faces. LOOK, they likely said, at the results our efforts got for you.
Now, I’m not a lobbyist. But I guess as a PR guy, I’m sort of a kissin’ cousin to what lobbyists do. So why does this story get me down?
It seems to me that this sort of relationship between a company and elected officials isn’t good. I’m sure that members of Congress, like MPs here in Canada, are incredibly busy and pulled in a hundred directions by the issues of the day.
But it just seems to me that when these folks can’t be bothered to even ask their staff to rewrite the talking points delivered to them by someone with an obvious interest and bias, there’s something wrong with the system. Even if the only problem with this is that it makes the system look cheap and shoddy, that’s a big enough problem, I think.
Am I a traitor to PR for saying that? I dunno. I want to advocate for clients, to argue their case, to highlight the most positive attributes. But do I want to see that news release printed verbatim in the paper? Not really. And when it happens, it kinda makes me feel bad.
Am I off-base on this?