Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

When and how your business should take a stand

It’s easy for a business or organization to shy away from taking public stands. Don’t want to offend anyone, right? But when should you take a public stand on something? And how best to do it?

I started to think about this when I saw a stand Toronto Public Health took on July 22.

Toronto Public Health went to Twitter to call for ABC to not add celebrity Jenny McCarthy as a permanent host of their morning talk show The View. McCarthy, originally a Playboy model, has developed a career as an actress, an author, and more recently as an anti-vaccination activist. She has said her son Evan was diagnosed with autism, that the autism was caused by vaccines, and that he has recovered from autism. In a CNN op-ed, she (and then partner Jim Carrey) wrote: “We believe what helped Evan recover was starting a gluten-free, casein-free diet, vitamin supplementation, detox of metals, and anti-fungals for yeast overgrowth that plagued his intestines. Once Evan’s neurological function was recovered through these medical treatments, speech therapy and applied behavior analysis helped him quickly learn the skills he could not learn while he was frozen in autism. After we implemented these therapies for one year, the state re-evaluated Evan for further services. They spent five minutes with Evan and said, ‘What happened? We’ve never seen a recovery like this.’”

McCarthy’s hiring has sparked a significant controversy. The blog post announcing the hiring has hundreds of comments, some supportive, more critical (in my estimation).

So why would Toronto Public Health, a Canadian city agency, go public on this?

I twice asked for an interview with Toronto Public Health, but they chose not to make someone available to me. So I’m going to speculate a little, based on the media release and material they sent me (I guess if I’m wrong enough, they’ll ask for a correction.)

First is the numbers argument, which was amply illustrated by this infographic they distributed when they went public.

ImpactOfVaccines

When you look at the reduction in incidence of some very serious, if not fatal, diseases, I would suspect that public health professionals felt the potential for misinformation by McCarthy (both explicit misinformation from her discussing her views on the show and the belief that her appearing on the show would lend her credibility) was more important than the risks of going public.

Second, I would guess that there was a discussion of whether going public with opposition would in itself lead to publicizing her views more.

Third, I would assume that  while it was more or less certain that Toronto Public Health would gain some widespread attention as a result of their stand, they were more interested in raising awareness of the importance of immunization in their local market.

A media backgrounder from the agency tells of a local outbreak of measles that had been caused by parents delaying childhood measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination.

It’s uncommon for a private-sector company will take a proactive stand on an issue, and it’s rare that government departments will do the same (excluding policy decisions, which are government stock in trade, and politicians taking positions, which they do all the time – it’s kind of their job). It’s much more common to see not-for-profits or associations take on the task of taking on a point of principle. But businesses taking stands is far from unheard of: in the US, the same-sex marriage debate has seen corporate interventions on both the pro side (Starbucks’s Howard Schultz telling a shareholder unhappy with the coffee giant’s support of same-sex marriage to sell his shares) and the con side (Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy tweeting that the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act was a “sad day” for the US), to point out just one example.

So when you see something happening that your company seems to have an interest in, think about whether you want to take a public stand. Here are some tips:

  • Be aware of the risks of speaking out as well as the potential benefits. Prepare yourself for backlash or criticism. Think outside your own organization and supporters. Brainstorm what the strongest opposition to your stand would or could be.
  • Decide how relevant the issue you’re looking at is to your organization’s mission. You might have a strong opinion on vaccination. But if your organization doesn’t have a lear link to some aspect of the issue, you run the risk of being accused of “newsjacking” or just making people go, “huh?”
  • Ensure you have senior-level commitment to the position. This HAS to be something the leadership of the organization must be comfortable with.
  • Base your arguments on information and fact, not on purely emotional appeals, and vet your messaging very carefully.
  • Don’t hide any interests your company or organization has in the issue. Transparency will lessen the probability that someone will come back later and attack you for a bias you didn’t disclose.
  • Have a listening post set up to monitor the progress of the conversation both before and after you intervene. (I’m going to write about this later this week).

 

The PR / journalist firewall is not a bad thing

I have to admit to some shock at the announcement that the just-announced successor to Ted Koppel at ABC News’s Nightline program is Dan Abrams. Why?

Because while Dan Abrams has some significant experience in journalism, he’s most recently been a CEO in the PR and marketing industry. Koppel, by contrast, was a lifelong journalist (and, of course, remains a journalist and commentator).

Many journalists leave that trade to begin working as public relations practitioners. That’s nothing new; there are decades of history pointing to that, including my personal history. It’s much less frequent to see people move from the PR industry back to journalism.

For what it’s worth, I think there are good reasons that PR people should be PR people and journalists should be journalists. When you embark on a media relations initiative, the theory is that media coverage tells the reader / listener / viewer that while there may be a “PR angle” to the story, the “media” have judged it worthy of coverage. Hence the phrase “newsworthy.”

There are many ways in which the wall between editorial decision-making and the advertising / marketing / PR / communications world gets chipped away. When I edited some magazines nearly 25 years ago, I would regularly have the sales manager come to me, saying “You know, it’d be great if you covered something about McBlatherston’s, they just took a full page…” I didn’t do that. And the ongoing tension and conflict was a big reason I left that job.

Publications often create “special advertising sections” that use cheaply produced or free copy that surrounds ads. There are  “infomercials” that try to mimic the look and feel of news reports or programs. There was the VNR, or Video News Release, which caused quite a scandal in the 2000s. And there are publications which simply sell their editorial space. Sometimes it’s completely obvious, as in a full-page article on a business with a facing page ad for the business; other times, it’s much more subtle.

When Abrams left journalism to start PR businesses, his first idea was to have working journalists consult with corporate clients on communications strategy. That didn’t fly, so he moved on to a suite of websites (probably led by Mediaite, a media news blog) and Abrams Research, “a full service digital and social media agency, specializing in the development of web-based digital marketing campaigns, in addition to advising on social media strategy for non-profit, international, financial, political, sports, entertainment and Fortune 500 clients. In a nutshell, we help brands direct their social media efforts to efficiently reach and engage their target audience(s).” Now, he’s back in journalism as the anchor of a TV show with a fearsome reputation for indepth journalism.

ABC has said that Abrams no longer has any responsibility within the companies that bear his name. But he remains an owner of those companies. I don’t like that. This is a game of perceptions. If and when I watch Nightline with Abrams, I don’t want to be asking myself if the guest is or was a client, or whether there were arrangements made with one of his companies regarding the questions to be asked.

I’ve noticed a trend in retail: auto parts stores selling grocery items; pharmacies selling electronics; office supply stores selling food; grocery stores selling DVDs. I want to buy my drugs and antiperspirant at the pharmacy; I want to buy my food at the grocery store. AND I WANT MY JOURNALISTS TO BE JOURNALISTS, NOT PR  PEOPLE.

I think that this sort of thing not only harms journalism, but also reduces the ability of a public relations campaign to actually influence its audience. If there’s no editorial coverage that isn’t bought, if there’s no more trust, why bother doing media relations at all? Just do social media.

Why PR doesn’t matter to the boss

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:

Central Basin News Site Agreements

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.

In interviews, you never control everything.

The Christine O’DonnellPiers Morgan kerfuffle (thanks Shel and Neville) this week intrigued me. Here’s the video of the segment in question.

Now, there’s no doubt that this isn’t the first walk-out, or the first time there was distinct squirminess in an interview.

Cases in point: Paris Hilton, post-jail, on David Letterman:

Or, Mike Lazaridis on the BBC:

Ann Coulter on Fox News:

Carrie Prejean on Larry King:

So what’s going on here?

In my opinion, these incidents stem from agendas that don’t meet in the middle. In many cases, interviews have become nothing more than glorified promotional opportunities. Hollywood has this down to a science, flying dozens of journalists to junkets for movies with the tacit — or perhaps not so tacit — understanding that the coverage will be uniformly chirpy and positive. Angelina Jolie probably took this to its apogee when she had a lawyer write up a contract (which The Smoking Gun obtained) for interviews promoting her film “A Mighty Heart” (ironically, about journalist Daniel Pearl and his wife):

Another example? The US Federal Emergency Management Association held this 2007 news conference to talk about wildfires in California:

You’ll note that the reporters don’t identify themselves. That’s because they’re FEMA employees. There were no reporters, and when it came out, the head of FEMA was not amused.

The upshot of this is that celebrities and leaders — in Hollywood, politics, business — grow accustomed to dictating the terms under which they will be covered. To a certain extent, that’s all well and good. Hopefully, no PR practitioner would recommend doing every interview and answering every question.

But in celebrityland, the prevailing belief seems to be that all the questions will be softballs and that the intent of the interview is more or less entirely promotional. And, if you read Eric Snider’s “I was a Junket Whore“, you’ll discover that the revenge on those who break that contract — or even expose it — can be swift and intense.

The bigger question is what this means for you and me, the person who does interviews that aren’t nearly so visible, who isn’t recognizable like a celebrity. This means that regardless of what you THINK the conditions of an interview are, be prepared for them to change. Don’t assume that because you’re a good person, you’ll be treated fairly. Don’t assume that because you think your story is positive and interesting that the person on the other side of the pen or mic will as well.

One of the things that strikes me about the video examples above is that people handled the shifting interview agenda REALLY badly. They saw that the ground had shifted under their feet, but they were unable to regain their balance and respond, so they walked. One way to ensure the interview agenda never shifts is to fake it, as FEMA did. Another way is to do what San Francisco’s BART transit system did earlier this month, by uploading its own version of news about how they shut down a protest:

Control is good. But in the real world, it’s better to acknowledge the limits of your control and to prepare for interviews that go out of your comfort zone than it is to be rigid and break when the wind shifts.