Ethics

Opening Putin's hoodie

Putin-Hacker-481x230The U.S. security agencies' report on Russian hacking makes a pretty strong case that Vladimir Putin did his best to influence the 2016 election.  

President-elect Trump's change in tone suggests the classified section of the report was pretty convincing.

But the security agencies point out they "did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.” 

I personally doubt the Russian disinformation campaign had much effect on the election results.

After all, despite Russia's interference, Secretary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly three million ballots. There's little reason to believe the Russian propaganda campaign was more effective in the key electoral states she lost than elsewhere.

In any case, it's not the security agencies' job to make that assessment. And, while the Democratic National Committee will undoubtedly try to figure out what happened, they obviously have an axe to grind, making whatever conclusion they reach suspect.

But what's the point anyway?

It pains me to say this, but America cannot afford another president whose legitimacy is questioned from the moment he takes the oath of office. Like it or not, Donald J. Trump will soon be our president.

But that doesn't mean we should all pretend the 2016 election was normal. It wasn't. It represented a tipping point in in the social construction of meaning. 

The Internet democratized media, making everyone a publisher, from the proverbial 400-pound loner living in his mother’s basement to ideologues of every religious, political, social, and fabulist stripe.

Digital media wrecked the business model of most news organizations, not only siphoning off advertising dollars, but also cheapening the value of content, turning it into a commodity measured in clicks rather than in substance. Celebrity is the new credibility.  Fake news has become the muzak of the echo chambers in which too many people live. 

Vladimir Putin exploited these changes. But he wasn't alone and he won't be the last to don the hacker's metaphorical hoodie.

That's where we need to focus our attention and efforts.

Here's an idea: the advertising industry has an organization called the Ad Council that for 75 years has overseen the creation of advertising campaigns to fight everything from forest fires and racial discrimination to drug addiction and obesity. All created by volunteer agencies and run in media donated by publishers and broadcasters.

Why doesn't the public relations industry have a similar organization? Individual agencies do good pro bono work for a range of worthy causes. But a coordinated network of agencies, responding to an issue of this scope right within our own wheelhouse, would be much more effective.

It could teach people the basic skills necessary to be savvy media consumers, like how to fact-check emails, Tweets, and Facebook postings. How to respond to racist, homophobic, or hateful email and postings. How pictures and statistics can lie. And how to disagree without being disagreeable.

It could teach people the basics of cyber-security and how to fight the spread of hateful propaganda, whether from a neo-Nazi in his parent’s basement or a member of ISIS on a laptop in Syria.

But it won’t happen by itself. It will take the combined efforts of clients, agencies, and media. The result could be better informed consumers and a public relations industry demonstrating its true worth to society.

 

 

 


Philosophers: Back in style?

Philosopher_for_hire_green_mugHere's a startling prediction from the digital media experts at Ogilvy:  "By 2020, corporate demand for philosophy graduates will reach its highest level since Aristotle."

It isn't entirely clear Ogilvy is serious about this, but it builds a good case for it in Key Digital Trends for 2017.

To wit, they predict the rise of chat-bots, algorithmic-driven content delivery, and autonomous vehicles and appliances will result in a wholesale "abdication of ethical decision-making."  

We may be seeing some of the early signs already: serving content based on algorithms of users' pre-existing beliefs not only exacerbates people's confirmation bias, but also makes them ripe for exploitation by opportunists and extremists.  Think of the recent tsunami of Fake News.

Another example: as automation plays a bigger role in our lives, the quality of human decision-making declines.  The FAA is already concerned that pilots' manual flight skills are being dulled by auto-pilot systems.  

"Handing over control doesn't just mean handing over the mechanical activities of daily life," Ogilvy notes. "It means handing over choices -- some big, some tiny -- about what's right and wrong."

What does this have to do with public relations and marketing?  According to Ogilvy, everything.

Automation will force ethical standards to evolve and brands will inevitably be caught between traditionalists and progressives.

Increasingly polarized stakeholders will make it harder for brands to stay true to a single set of values.

But brands have no choice: they can't pretend to be different things to different people.  They need to develop a process with broad stakeholder input to define the basic ethical principles manifest in everything they do and in every product or service they offer.

I don't know how many philosophers that will take, but I believe public relations leaders will have an increasingly important role, working with their C-Suite colleagues, in figuring it all out.  

 

 


Real-world ethics

Good Bad Choice"Why do good people do bad things?" need not remain a rhetorical question, thanks to a PhD dissertation by Christopher McLaverty at the University of Pennsylvania.

McLaverty interviewed 30 senior executives in India, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and the U.K. about ethical dilemmas they faced at work. His dissertation obviously doesn't pretend to be the last word on the subject, but it makes an important contribution to understanding it in a real-world context.

Among the author's findings:

The executives interviewed reported facing more than 50 ethical dilemmas over the last five years. (An ethical dilemma was defined as “a complex situation that often involves an apparent mental conflict between moral imperatives, in which to obey one would result in transgressing another.”)  

Few (16%) of the dilemmas involved headline-making issues like bribery, corruption, or anti-competitive behavior. More often, they resulted from competing interests, incentives tied to unrealistic goals, trade-offs between people and resources, and cross-cultural differences.  

Codes of conduct, regulations, and laws weren’t particularly helpful in managing ethical dilemmas. In fact, only a minority (29%) of senior leaders consulted their compliance officers in figuring out what to do. Even fewer executives (13%) said they had received training in making ethical decisions, even though 75% of their companies claimed to offer it.

Many senior executives felt poorly prepared for the dilemmas they faced and they made decisions they later regretted.

 

 

 


Oppo research

Oppo resOpposition research is one of those sexxy-sounding hardball tactics politicians use and some corporate CEOs covet when they're under attack. The temptation to dip your toe into it is almost too hard to resist, particularly when your boss suggests it's what "the pros" all do.

Two exercises in opposition research within the same week of November 2014 demonstrate the dangers. In one, the Edelman public relations agency proposed to research a client’s opponents; in the other, a senior executive of the Uber car service proposed to research a reporter who had been critical of the company.

Edelman’s client had proposed to construct an oil pipeline across Canada. Greenpeace, which opposed the pipeline’s construction, somehow got its hands on a copy of Edelman’s public relations strategy, which called for developing “detailed background research on key opposition groups,” and posted it online. That prompted the New York Times to characterize the whole affair as an attempt “to spread any unflattering findings about the opposition.” 

Meanwhile, as reported by Buzzfeed, a senior Uber executive attending an industry dinner “outlined the notion of spending ‘a million dollars’ … to dig up dirt on its critics in the media—and specifically to spread details of the personal life of a female journalist who has criticized the company." The executive who made the suggestion later explained he thought he was speaking “off the record.” He said he “regretted [the remarks] and that they didn’t reflect his or the company’s views.”

There is nothing unethical about analyzing what reporters have written to better understand what they think of your company and its industry. Nor is it wrong to track public details about a reporter’s life or information he or she is willing to share, such as a spouse’s name, children, alma mater, and hobbies. Such information can help build a stronger personal relationship with the reporter. But digging for embarrassing information is clearly unethical.

It is a violation of the reporter’s privacy. It muddies the waters of public discussion by casting irrelevant aspersions on the person reporting it. It's not responsible advocacy by any measure.

The key word here is “relevance” and that could be the safe harbor for Edelman.

If its background research was intended to reveal relevant information about the pipeline’s opponents, such as conflicts of interest or extreme positions they have taken in the past on similar projects, it could be ethical.

As Edelman’s own plan suggested, “To make an informed decision on this project, Canadians need to have a true picture of the motivations not only of the project proponents, but of its opponents as well.”

Ethical or not, the publicity embarrassed TransCanada and it parted ways with Edelman within a matter of weeks. The Uber executive was publicly rebuked by the company's CEO for remarks that "showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideals." Thrown under the Uber or not, he's still with the company.

 

 


CEOs and Politics

SwitzerlandWhen it comes to politics, most corporate CEOs are Switzerland, with no enemies and friends on all sides.

But now two academics have taken to the pages of the New York Times to suggest CEOs might want to step up their game. They suggest that, as brands seek to "personalize" their relationships with consumers, "adopting a political orientation might be part of closing the deal."

As they put it, "In an era of political polarization, corporate neutrality may be outdated. Perhaps it is better in 2016 to be intensely loved by a few than inoffensive to many."

They even see evidence CEOs can contribute to political change when they take a public stance "on controversial issues like race relations and gender equality that are unrelated to their core businesses." And they think this new outspokenness can increase sales at the same time.

Aaron K. Chatterji of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke and Michael W. Toffel of Harvard Business School admit their position is based largely on anecdotal evidence.

For example, after the chief executives of Intel, Salesforce.com, and Unilever opposed a “religious liberty” bill allowing faith-based businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia promised to veto it. 

That was consistent with an earlier field experiment they conducted when Apple CEO Tim Cook expressed opposition to a similar bill in Indiana. 

In that experiment, when voters were exposed to a statement of Cook's position, support for the bill declined among all but opponents of gay marriage. Interestingly, purchase intent for Apple products increased among gay marriage supporters.

While it's important for CEOs to demonstrate they care about issues important to their customers, I don't think they should drag their companies into controversies "unrelated to their business," as the good professors put it. 

From a practical, dollars and cents point of view, why would a company want to alienate any customers and stakeholders? From an ethical perspective, spending shareowner money on something many might oppose, without a compelling business reason, is questionable.

Having said that, I would argue that gay marriage -- part of respecting the human dignity of gay people -- is important to any company's core business, as are race relations and gender equality.

No company can afford to ignore or marginalize employees, customers, or other stakeholders simply because of who they are. Not only would that be a serious violation of their rights, it would waste their talent.

The same logic applies to a number of other hot-button "cultural issues," depending on the company. Starbuck's, for example, has a legitimate reason for barring guns from its stores even in states with open carry laws. 

Every company needs to make that judgment for itself. And while it may sound complicated, there is one fool-proof test. Before taking a position on an issue, ask yourself this: if the poop hits the fan on this, are you willing to go to the mat on this issue, to do whatever it takes to win?

If you can't say "yes" to that question, save yourself some grief and stay out of the fight.

 

 

 


From Barnum to Trump

Barnum & Trump.001Public Relations people like to think they not only outlived P. T. Barnum, they outgrew him and his outrageous publicity-seeking techniques.

Not quite.

Those techniques live on in the more juvenile corners of the practice. And in one presidential campaign.

Strictly speaking neither P. T. Barnum nor Donald J. Trump can be categorized as PR people. But so many techniques of the craft have been so central to their success, they serve as appropriate and rich case studies.

Barnum and Trump share more than the same hairline, less comb-over. They're both teetotalers, though Barnum came to sobriety after a period of dissolution and, while Trump doesn't drink wine or vodka, he peddles them. 

Barnum entered politics late in life, serving as a state legislator and as mayor of Bridgeport, Conn. Trump was in his late 60s when he decided he wanted to be president.

They both amassed great fortunes. Barnum was one of the first millionaires in the U.S. Trump claims to be worth $10 billion. They both also made good use of the bankruptcy statutes.  

Both have been best selling authors. Trump wrote The Art of the Deal, telegraphing his approach to domestic and international issues. Barnum wrote the more straightforwardly titled The Art of Money Getting

And they can both credit much of their success to their genius at generating publicity. In fact, just 4 days before he died, Barnum wrote a friend, “All I have, I owe to the press.”  Trump could say the same, although he would probably add “those disgusting, dishonest human beings.”

Disgusting or dishonest, Trump knows how to deal with the media. His strategy is fairly simple and Barnumesque in its own way. "One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better," he wrote in The Art of the Deal. "If you are a little different, or a little outrageous, the press is going to write about you."

And write they do. Sometimes, just turning on their TV cameras and watching him in front of adoring crowds.  Over the course of his campaign, Trump earned nearly $2 billion worth of media attention — twice Hillary Clinton’s $746 million, more than all the other GOP candidates combined, and 190 times more than he spent directly. 

Now, you would think volunteering for all that attention, Trump has been playing with fire. But he learned how to handle the media in his real estate days, as he explained in his best seller. "When a reporter asks me a tough question, I try to frame a positive answer, even if that means shifting the ground," he wrote. "If someone asks me what negative effects the world’s tallest building might have on the West Side, I talk about how New Yorkers deserve the world’s tallest building."

In the trade that's called "bridging" or evading a question by answering the question you wish had been asked. Like Barnum, who posted signs reading “this way to the egress” to keep people moving through his sideshows, Trump is a master of misdirection. 

He has also been more prolific than any other candidate in “shared media,” accumulating about 7 million Twitter followers and tapping out more than 32,000 Tweets and re-Tweets. That’s more significant than it seems. At the beginning of the 20th century, people like Walter Lippmann believed newspapers played a key role in telling people what to pay attention to and how to think about it. In the 21st century, social media has usurped that role.  

Like Barnum, Trump knows what ordinary people want. "I play to people’s fantasies," he wrote. "People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion." In the trade, that's called "spinning," making the good look better and the bad look good.

Barnum.001Barnum called it “Humbug” -- "putting on glittering appearances by which to suddenly arrest public attention and attract the public eye and ear." In fact, he called himself the "Prince of Humbugs.” He would have seen kindred royalty in Donald Trump. 

Few of the attractions Barnum promoted came close to the outrageous buildup he gave them, but people were so entertained, they didn’t feel deceived. The lie was part of the entertainment. He sewed the body of a fish to the torso of a monkey and presented it as “a scientific curiosity” called the Fee-Jee Mermaid.

More troubling, Barnum’s “Humbug” exploited the prejudices, racism, and belief in eugenics common in his day. He promoted the deformed, disabled, and different -- like “General” Tom Thumb, Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, and conjoined twins Cheng and Eng. He promoted a mentally disabled black man as “Pinhead,” the missing link between man and ape. And even though he was an abolitionist, he bought a slave and presented her as Washington’s 161-year-old nanny.

In a way, Trump is following the same playbook, exploiting people’s fears and anger. He appeals to people who feel disenfranchised by globalization, stagnant wages, and demographic change. They like his brashness and directness. Whatever he says is always clear enough for a 4th grader to understand. And it’s expressed in simple, angry terms that can fit in a Tweet with plenty of room for exclamation points.  

It’s a proven formula. Anger and fear are easy to evoke because they come from people’s unconscious. And once aroused, those feelings are immune to rational argument.  People who are scared and angry don’t want someone to tell them they shouldn’t be. They want someone to listen, play back what they’re saying, and give them an easy, quick solution.  

As unlikely as it may seem, blue collar billionaire Donald Trump has become that person.  He doesn’t talk like a politician, but says what the guy on the next bar stool is thinking but afraid to say. He’s “authentic.” 

Politifact reports nearly half (47%) of what Trump has been saying on the campaign trail is completely false. Another 21% is so outlandish it's scored as "pants on fire.”  In 4.6 hours of Trump speeches and press conferences during one week in mid-March, Politico found more than 5 dozen untrue statements, or one every five minutes.

Despite this, polls say 60% of Republicans think Trump is honest and trustworthy. How can that be?

His supporters aren’t listening to the semantic meaning of what Trump is saying; they’re listening to its emotional and symbolic meaning -- what his words mean to them, beyond their dictionary definitions.

For example, in his Florida victory speech, Trump said that under the Iran nuclear deal, "we give them $150 billion, we get nothing." In reality, the money was already Iran’s to begin with, just frozen in foreign bank accounts under economic sanctions. In return for releasing it, Iran curbed its nuclear program and submitted to independent monitoring.

But Trump’s supporters knew what he meant is "we didn't get enough for releasing the embargoed money." That’s more opinion than statement of fact. Who's going to quibble about the details?

Do Trump supporters really think he can clear the country of undocumented immigrants in two years, or get Mexico to pay for a border wall? No.  And they don't think he does either.  He’s just underlining the threat of so-called “illegal immigrants” and promising to be ruthless in addressing it. 

Like Barnum, Trump is an entertainer, playing a role. He has less in common with politics than with professional wrestling. 

And like performers in World Wrestling Entertainment, Barnum and Trump have operated in a largely fact-free zone. Sometimes, their free-wheeling way with the truth is relatively innocent puffery delivered with a wink, as when Barnum claimed something was “the greatest" or "the rarest.” Or when Trump declared he has "one of the world's best memories." 

But Barnum also perpetuated the basest prejudices toward people who were disabled, mentally challenged, or of a different race. Barnum’s so-called “freaks” may have been complicit in his exploitation of them, but it’s hard to justify the social cost.

Trump.001Trump’s major ethical failing is similar. He demonstrates a lack of respect for voters by pandering to their resentments, validating and reinforcing them rather than seriously addressing their underlying causes. 

He campaigns in heated rhetoric, offering little substance on policy other than promises he “could get a better deal.” 

He disregards the consequences of his divisive rhetoric, accepting no responsibility for violence at his rallies but offering to cover the legal fees of anyone arrested for roughing up protesters. Or at least did until it looked like the bills would keep piling up.

The way Barnum and Trump have practiced public relations may have filled their bank accounts, it may even get one of them a nomination or, God forbid, the presidency, but it is  literally de-meaning because it robs whole groups of people of meaning, reducing them to a cliché, a punchline, or a menace.

That’s the real danger in the three-ring circus surrounding Trump. At best, it’s trivial and superficial humbug designed to get attention.  At its worse, it cynically exploits voters’ resentments towards whole classes of people. It is de-meaning, which is the darkest use of public relations.

 

 

 


The Ethics of Mac 'N Cheese

Mac n cheeseSometimes you can lie by not saying something. Sometimes you’d be lying if you did.

That was the position Kraft found itself in when it eliminated artificial flavors, preservatives, and dyes in its venerable mac and cheese. To keep its yellow-orange hue, Kraft substituted natural spices like paprika, annatto, and turmeric for yellow dyes number 5 and 6. Instead of chemical preservatives, it uses salt.

In fact, the new ingredients showed up on 50 million boxes of the stuff before Kraft called attention to the change. No claims of “we’re going natural,” no “new, improved.” What gives?

The company actually announced its intention to make the changes way back in April 2015. It even announced the changes would take place in January 2016. But then it said nada.

Like generations of marketers, the good folks at Kraft and its ad agency were seriously spooked by the brouhaha surrounding the introduction of “New Coke” back in 1985. They had nightmares about people pouring the “new” Kraft mac ‘n cheese down sewer grates, millions signing Facebook petitions to “bring back the old mac, and supermarket shelves piled high with iconic blue and orange boxes nobody wanted.

So they pulled a fast one and waited the introduction out. Some would call that a “soft launch.” Others might wonder if it’s even ethical.

To my mind, it’s perfectly ethical. Kraft announced its plans in advance. But it also knew that making a big deal about the changes would cause many consumers to perceive a change in flavor that wasn’t really there. In fact, some people claimed the product “tasted different” after the 2015 announcement, even though nothing had changed yet.

Waiting to confirm the recipe changes had been made protected consumers (and the company) from that psychological quirk. The proof that it was ethical is that no one noticed. Of course, if lab tests had found taste differences, or if it had substituted potentially harmful ingredients to save money, this would have been a whole other story.

But as it is, Kraft responded to many parents’ concerns about artificial ingredients. And that’s an ethical practice in itself.


Trumpian ethics

Trump-o-meter.001Politifact reports that nearly half (47%) of what Donald Trump has been saying on the campaign trail is completely false. Another 21% is so outlandish it's scored as "pants on fire."

From what I can see, the folks at Politifact do their job as objectively and carefully as anyone could. But the accuracy or truthfulness of Trump's rhetoric is really beside the point. 

Anything a politician says has three levels of meaning -- semantic, pragmatic, and symbolic.

The semantic is the literal meaning of the words, whether they conform to reality and are factual. That's what Politifact is measuring.

The pragmatic meaning is the "why" of the statement. What motivated the candidate to say it now and in this particular place? This meaning is harder to nail down, but no less important to the intended audience. If the pragmatic meaning is well-chosen, the audience will get it even if it flies over the heads of the rest of us.

The third meaning is symbolic. It's what the candidate's words signify to his listeners, what they mean beyond their dictionary definitions. In Trump's case, that's the real meaning. Whatever he says is always clear enough for a 4th grader to understand. It's brash and direct. Trump says what his followers are thinking. His words say "I'm with you."

Do Trump supporters really think he can clear the country of undocumented immigrants in two years or get Mexico to pay for a border wall? No. And they don't think he does either. It's enough that he's expressing the same frustration and anger that they've been experiencing.

They're so fed up, they're willing to take a flyer on a guy with a bad combover, hot wife, and hefty bank account. At least he'll shake things up.

The ethics of Trump's campaign has less to do with how well his political statements conform to reality than with their larger meaning. There's not much room for nuance in a political speech. For example, it's not true that under the Iran nuclear deal, "we give them $150 billion, we get nothing," as Trump claimed in his Florida victory speech. In reality, the money was already Iran’s to begin with, just frozen in foreign bank accounts under economic sanctions. In return for releasing it, Iran curbed its nuclear program as confirmed by independent experts.

But what Trump could have meant is that we didn't get enough for releasing the embargoed money, which is more opinion than statement of fact.

If that sounds like an unnecessarily generous interpretation, it's simply meant to put more emphasis on the larger ethical issue at play in Trump's campaign -- his lack of respect for voters' intelligence and his disregard for the consequences of his divisive rhetoric.

Trump has assumed no responsibility for the violence levied on protesters at his rallies. And he continues to campaign in sound bites and heated rhetoric, offering little substance on policy or programs. He's pandering to voters' resentments, reinforcing them rather than addressing their causes.

That's the biggest ethical lapse of all.

 

 

 

 

 


New Koch, Old Questions

New KochJane Meyer's New Yorker piece on the Koch Brothers "rebranding" strategy does a nice job of describing what public relations can do while raising legitimate questions about whether it should be done.    

On the tactical side, she puts her finger on the two factors that weigh most heavily on the Koch Brother's reputation: affinity and meaning. (Competence, the third leg of trust, is more-or-less a given when you're a billionaire.)

Affinity is not only likability, but also a sense that someone cares about you, that they identify with your cares.

As American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks explained, only a third of Americans believe Republicans care about people like them and fewer than half think Republicans care about the poor. 

Meaning is what people think you stand for, and Brooks diagnosed the brothers' weakness there as well.  The Democrats are “the fairness guys,” he said.“They’re the ‘helping-the-poor guys.’ Who are we? We’re the ‘money guys’!”

So the Koch Brothers have been on a tear to make themselves more likeable and broaden what they stand for. For starters, they hired former Burson-Marsteller executive Steve Lombardo as Koch Industries' chief communications officer.

Meyer apparently didn't speak to Lombardo, but she quotes extensively from a piece he wrote for O'Dwyer's newsletter in which he said the key to building a positive brand is to "to reach the public’s subconscious mind,” and the most effective “pathway” to the subconscious is “storytelling,” in part because it taps into emotions. 

I can't argue with Brooks or Lombardo. I've said many of the same things in this blog.

But Meyer's article does raise a couple of ethical questions.

When does "tapping into people's subconscious" constitute emotional manipulation?

And assuming your "storytelling" is truthful in every sense of the word, what if its intent is misdirection, that is, to distract from a larger truth?

As to the first question, it seems to me that appealing to people's emotions is ethically legitimate as long as you don't overwhelm people's capacity to reason. Some political candidates have crossed that line in appealing to people's fear of such groups as immigrants and Muslims. I've seen no sign Koch Industries' re-branding campaign has been guilty of anything like that.

The second question is more problematic. Meyer says some Koch strategists want to reframe their free-market ideology as "a movement for well-being," all while admitting that their real goal is to eliminate regulation to raise profits. To me, that's where reframing becomes Orwellian spinning. On the other hand, she concedes that the brothers' efforts on behalf of criminal justice reform predate the rebranding effort.

So call me undecided on the ethics of working for the Koch Brothers.

As Harold Burson once told me, "I believe that every institution, every person is entitled to have public relations representation,” but “I do not believe that I am compelled in any way or manner to be the one who provides that representation.”

In the end, the ethics of any engagement depends on a client’s goals, as well as the way practitioners try to achieve them. If a client’s purpose is unethical, nothing a practitioner does can compensate. 

 

 

 

Still more housecleaning (auto division)

Car-being-repairedLast July, I took General Motors to task for its slow response to ignition problems that led to hundreds of deaths and injuries. I quoted a front page story in the New York Times that revealed the company knew more about the problem than it had been admitting.

In a book I co-wrote with Don Wright, Public Relations Ethics: How To Practice PR Without Losing Your Soul, I quoted another New York Times story that accused the company of not notifying customers it knew were eligible for compensation even though the application deadline was looming.

Those stories appear to have been accurate. GM extended the application deadline a week after the Times' story appeared. And while it is still unclear what GM's top executives knew about the ignition problem -- and when -- the company has responded aggressively.

It hired Kenneth Feinberg -- a lawyer who has developed a unique specialty in victim compensation.

In GM's case, he appears to have had an unusual amount of discretion. GM left all decisions on eligibility and awards to Mr. Feinberg. It didn't try to use the bankruptcy law to shield itself from compensating victims. And it put no upper limit on what it would pay.

Under Feinberg's direction, GM sent notices of the compensation program to 5 million current and former owners of vehicles with the faulty ignitions. Mr. Feinberg reviewed 4,343 claims, determined 399 were eligible for compensation, and awarded $594,535,752 in compensation. Over 90% of the awards were accepted by the claimants.

My opinion: GM's initial response reflected the turmoil of a company under siege, but in the end, it did the right thing. Feinberg's final report is here.

 

 


Housekeeping Department

Housekeeoing

Time for housekeeping. Between now and the start of the new year, I'll be following up on prior postings.

A few weeks ago, I posted about a firm that purported to practice "dark PR," generating negative stories about competitors, opponents, and anyone else who has crossed you or constituted an enemy. I was appalled, and so were many readers.

Now I've heard from the owner of that outfit. It turns out his firm specializes in Search Engine Optimization and the page to which I linked was simply a means of demonstrating his ability to manipulate Google results or, as he acronymically put it, "optimize search results."

"Please google 'negative public relations' or even 'negative pr,'  we are at the top, before wikipedia," he wrote. "The irony is that we are now, an 'authority' in negative campaigning." The irony, apparently, is that his firm doesn't actually do negative PR, it just claims to -- all in the interest of tricking Google. 

It seems his firm does help clients "clean up" negative information about themselves, but most of its work is optimizing search results. The promotional page he created simply took advantage of a quirk in Google's algorithm.  "Google loves negative information," he claims. "They rank it on top, because they make more money from negative search results, than positive."

All this was a relief on two levels. First, apparently his firm is not a gun for hire, spreading negative information across the web. And even better, I don't have to worry about being its latest victim.

 


The Road to Hell

GlassrMilton Glaser is one of the most celebrated designers in the world.

He created the "I💗NY" logo, designed the psychedelic Dylan album cover, and founded New York magazine with Clay Felker.

He also came up with a quiz he called "The Road to Hell" that he gave to young designers.  Here it is:

Would you—

  1. Design a package to look larger on the shelf?
  2. Do an ad for a slow-moving, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy?
  3. Design a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it’s been in business for a long time?
  4. Design a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent?
  5. Design an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring?
  6. Design a package for a cereal aimed at children, which has low nutritional value and high sugar content?
  7. Design a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer who employs child labor?
  8. 8. Design a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work?
  9. Design an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public?
  10. Design a brochure piece for an SUV that turned over more frequently than average in emergency conditions and caused the death of 150 people?
  11. Design an ad for a product whose continued use might cause the user’s death?

Glazer thought it important for designers to think about "what we actually do in life." He believed you could get pretty far down the road to hell if you didn't think about the ethical implications of the choices you made, especially the clients you took on.

The same could be said about public relations. So with apologies to Mr. Glaser, here's "The Road to Public Relations Hell":

Would you --

  1. Promote an old product as "new and improved" if the only real difference was the packaging?
  2. Promote a slow-moving, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy?
  3. Position a new vineyard to suggest that it’s been in business for a long time?
  4. Promote a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent?
  5. Do public relations for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring?
  6. Publicize a cereal aimed at children, which has low nutritional value and high sugar content?
  7. Do public relations for a manufacturer who employs child labor?
  8. Promote a diet product that you know doesn’t work?
  9. Represent a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public?
  10. Publicize an SUV that turned over more frequently than average in emergency conditions and caused the death of 150 people?
  11. Promote a product whose continued use might cause the user’s death?

 The point of both tests is to see how close we come to what Glaser considers the "function of art," which in many ways is also the true function of public relations -- to enable people "to understand what is real."

 

 


How PR can get a seat at the table

Table.001Corporate public relations people want nothing more than a seat at the table where decisions are made. But their path to that station is increasingly unclear.

Shannon Bowen, a professor at the University of South Carolina, warned back in 2009 that "a fight for the soul of public relations" would ultimately lead to its splintering.  

She characterized the battle as "advocacy versus counseling" and suggested it was being fought "both in the academic discipline and in the industry."

If so, I was a non-combatant for my more than 30 years as a practitioner. I had both responsibilities at AT&T. Of course, I worked at Arthur Page's desk, and his philosophy so imbued the company in those days, it was understood the head of public relations would report to the CEO and participate in the company's top councils, what academics call "the dominant coalition." 

I was certainly expected to be a vociferous advocate on the company's behalf in the marketplace and the corridors of power. But I was also supposed to provide objective counsel to its leaders on both what we did as well as what we said.

Since retiring in 2003, I've learned how unique that was. In fact, the person who succeeded me quickly discovered the new CEO she inherited didn't see it that way at all. She soon left, and her successors have reported to marketing ever since. Across industry, about two thirds of public relations organizations report to someone other than the CEO.

That doesn't mean they never offer counsel on their company's policies and practices. But it does suggest their internal clients are more likely to see them as hired guns paid to advocate on their behalf, not to advise them on what to do.

Bowen suggested this state of affairs would result in the splintering of public relations into separate disciplines. Those who see themselves as advocates would retain the public relations moniker; those who fancy themselves counselors would rechristen themselves as commmuications or public affairs officers. 

It seems to me that's exactly what happened. But it wasn't inevitable -- it is possible to be both an honest advocate and an objective counselor. 

Bowen suggested what could bridge the two disciplines:  

"Clearly, those who see themselves as counselors to senior management need academic study of moral philosophy before they are thrust into ethical decision-making in jobs with frequent ethical dilemmas.

"Those who see themselves as pure advocates also need to study ethics because they are both the first and last line of ethical decision-making in their relations with publics."

Most importantly, an in-depth understanding of ethics -- along with deep business knowledge -- could be a practitioner's ticket to a seat at the decision-making table.

Yet, according to one study, seven years after a commission of academics and practitioners recommended more attention be paid to the study of ethics in public relations programs "few programs require an ethics course or even recommend one as an elective." Instead, most "embed" ethical considerations into other courses through "case studies, simulations, and small group discussions."

As the study notes, that makes it "difficult to assess ethical knowledge." And since what isn't measured is seldom done, many practitioners leave school without the ticket to that proverbial seat at the table.

 

 

 

 

 

 


The ethics of nudging


NudgePublic relations people are widely considered "nudges," i.e., those who encourage others to do something. (This is opposed to "noodges" which Merriam Webster defines as "pests" but that's for a different posting.)

Nudges, as it happens, are practitioners of the highest form of behavioral science. 

Daniel Khaneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for driving a stake through the heart of homo economicus, the imaginary human being who only made rational decisions. Although a psychologist by training he was midwife to the new field of behavioral economics.

Economists may have been late to the party, but public relations practitioners have long understood human thinking and behavior are shaped by cognitive illusions, unconscious urges, and hidden biases.

Edward Bernays, for example, consulted psychoanalysts in preparing public relations campaigns for clients ranging from American Tobacco to United Fruit. (In the first instance, he was advised that cigarettes are a symbol of male power, i.e., the penis, and proceeded to attach smoking to the suffragette movement.)

Behavioral_scienceWhether Bernays's success was due to psychoanalytic insight or a good nose for publicity is arguable, but there's little question understanding how the mind works can help increase an message's persuasiveness. For example, create the illusion of scarcity ("Only four seats left at this price.") and people feel pressure to click the "buy" button. We know more about human decision making today than ever before.

Richar Thaler and Cass Sunstein wrote a book called Nudge to show how the government and other institutions can capitalize on these behavioral insights to "improve decisions about health, wealth, and happiness." For example, "A school cafeteria might try to nudge kids toward good diets by putting the healthiest foods at front." 

But recognizing that these techniques can be used for bad as well as good -- and perhaps outraged by his personal experience being nudged by airlines and publishers -- Thaler recently set forth three rules of ethical nudging: 

All nudging should be transparent and never misleading.

It should be as easy as possible to opt out of the nudge, preferably with as little as one mouse click.

There should be good reason to believe that the behavior being encouraged will improve the welfare of those being nudged. 

That last point in particular is a good reminder of our ethical responsibility as public relations practitioners.

 

 

 


Write the right thing


Wright thingSay you're a speechwriter for a large animal health company and your CEO calls you into his office. He wants you to put together his remarks for an upcoming speech to the 10,000 attendees of the Future Farmers of America annual convention.

He lays out the main point he wants to make: "The world’s growing demand for meat, milk, and eggs is a more urgent priority than American consumers’ desires for food that is organic, antibiotic-free, or pasture-raised. Industrial farming is not only necessary but also a moral imperative to feed an estimated 9 billion people by 2050. We don’t need more animals. We need productive animals.”

Corporate speechwriters are often in this position, though their clients' direction is not always as crisp and articulate. And as they leave their CEO's office, if they aren't auditioning opening lines in their head, they're probably running through the resources they can tap to flesh out the speech with gee-whiz factoids and heart-warming anecdotes. 

How many consider the ethics of what they've been asked to do?

Speechwriters often joke they make corporate policy with the words they put in their clients' mouths. In reality, few CEOs are meek enough to simply read what's put in front of them in 14-point Arial type. And once they review, edit, and approve a speech, they own it even if they didn't come up with any of the clever turns of phrase themselves.

But speechwriters should be more than wordsmiths; the good ones are also guardians of the corporate character and values. And that is a decidedly ethical responsibility.

The "client input" above is based on a BusinessWeek story about Jeff Simmons, president of Elanco, Eli Lilly's animal health division. Except for the last two sentences about not needing more animals, he didn't say those exact words, but it's representative of his perspective. And he definitely sees his business in a moral dimension.

Meanwhile, food activists as well as some scientists and regulators oppose the use of some of the antibiotics and growth enhancers his company makes. Consumer sentiment seems to be moving away from food grown on industrial farms towards more "natural" and "organic" versions. Fast food chains like McDonalds are moving towards using largely antibiotic-free beef, chicken, and milk. 

Does that mean animal health companies need to get in line?

In some ways they have. Both Elanco and competitor Zoetis have agreed to the Federal Drug Adninistration's voluntary guidelines on the use of antibiotics in farm animals. They recognize the ethical importance of keeping human antibiotics out of the food supply to avoid the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria. In fact, Elanco is applying the FDA guidelines worldwide.

But the ethical implications of giving human antibiotics to animals falls into the category of settled science, meaning there's a scientific consensus that the preponderance of evidence indicates it's dangerous to human welfare.

There is no such consensus on other issues -- like the development of animal-only antibiotics and genetically modified seeds, the use of muscle growth drugs, or indeed tconsuming animal meat itself. 

As long as Elanco  doesn't fudge facts or tell lies, respects those who hold opposing views, and doesn't try to undermine people's ability to consider all sides of the issue intelligently, it is perfectly ethical to present its perspective as forcefully as it can. And that includes framing it as a moral issue.

Which is what a good speechwriter would do.

 

 


Dark PR or Killing by Web

UhohYesterday, I ran across a company that offers "negative public relations services" a.k.a. "dark services."

"The objective in Negative Public Relations," the company explained, "is to discredit someone else, who may pose a threat to the client's business or be a political rival. Common techniques include using dirty secrets from the target, producing misleading facts to fool a competitor."

This has to be a joke, I thought. After all, the company calls itself "Webcide," obviously a play on "homicide," "suicide," and other forms of "killing."

So I went to the website -- Webcide.com -- and, sure enough, it seemed to be an ordinary reputation management company. Its home page describes its services this way:

"Webcide.com Reputation Search Engine empowers you to find accurate, precise and relaible (sic) negative information about a person or a company.   

"Our sophisticated searching tools will show you all lawsuits, bankruptcy, legal issues, negative articles, negative comments, negative customer complaints, scam reports, fraud alerts, arrest records, negative blogs, negative forum posts, negative mentioning, negative reviews about the person or business searched. 

"Webcide is also the first and only online reputation management company that permanently removes negative information about you and your business from Google Search Results."

The ethics of all this depends to a large extent on the use to which all that negative information is put, though manipulating Google Search results sounds unethical on its face.  

But wait. There's more. Lurking in a description of the company's full range of services is dark PR itself. 

Webcide offers to "persuade the public, prospective customers, investors, partners, employees, and other stakeholders to maintain a certain negative point of view about [a competitor or business enemy], its leadership, products, or of (sic) political decisions." And it promises "to execute such a campaign in the most discreet and confidential way, while using only and exclusively legal methods ."

In fact, these "top level professionals in the field of Negative PR" offer to produce "negative corporate and financial communications, negative investor relations and negative opinion research." As they point out, the mistrust this negativity produces "can take years to repair."

Among the techniques they use:

  • "Improving the tagging and search engine optimization of  negative published materials, such as  negative customer testimonials in order to push up negative content. 
  • "Publishing original, negative websites and social media profiles, with the aim of outperforming negative results in a search.
  • "Submitting online press releases to authoritative websites in order to promote negative brand presence and promote negative content. 
  • "Creating fake blogs pretending to be a different person that shares the same name in order to push up negative search results on the actual person or brand. 
  • "Using spam bots and denial-of-service attacks to force sites with positive content off the web entirely. 
  • "Creating anonymous accounts that create negative reviews or lash out against positive ones . Proactively offering free products to prominent negative reviewers."

But not to worry,  Webcide claims to "practice ethical forms of negative reputation management." Empasis added.

I'm not making this up. See for yourself at https://www.webcide.com/#!negative-public-relations-/cp1 

Unless Webcide itself was the victim of malicous hacking of its website, this is probably the most unethical form of public relations I've seen in a long time.

And if, by chance, anyone at Webcide sees this and wants to explain how any of it could possibly be ethical, I invite them to comment.  

Or will I become a victim of Webcide myself?

 

 


Why do good people do bad things?

Right way wrong wayA friend of mine is a prominent financial columnist who has written about the misdeeds of many executives. Even when he's sure he has the goods on someone, it's tricky stuff to write.

I once asked him what ethical principle guided him in his work and he told me, "To never write anything I'd be criticized for on the front page of the New York Times." When I asked what ethical principle he thought public relations people follow, he said, "Not to get caught."

I don't think he realized the two principles are functionally equivalent.

Actually, I suspect he put his finger on the reason for current interest in public relations ethics. No one wants to get caught doing something wrong and, in recent years, the papers have been full of examples 0f just that.

But public relations practitioners should be motivated by more than the risk of being caught. Because public relations by definition involves some kind of exchange between two parties, it's an inherently ethical undertaking.  So everything we do involves some kind of ethical choice, whether being truthful, respecting the human dignity of others, or fulfilling our duties as citizens and practitioners.

Those happen to be the drivers of three major ethical theories-- considerations of virtue, consequences, and duty. Most recently, a feminist approach to ethics has put additional emphasis considerations of care.  But whatever ethical theory you follow, applying it to life in the real world is a challenge.

For example, what do you do when duties conflict, as they almost always do? Which consequences matter more, those affecting the client or those affecting customers or society as a whole? Is it better to be caring or fair? And, to quote an acient Roman, what is truth? Isn't it a public relations person's job to present the client's conception of truth?

The PRSA, IABC, and other professional associations have done a pretty good job of articulating the practical implications of those ethical theories. They all admonish practitioners to serve the public interest, for example. But practitioners are pretty much on their own to define just what the "public interest" means and what to do when client and public interests collide.  

Navigating ethical questions like those require more than memorizing codes of conduct, as thoughtful as they may be. It requires understanding the thinking behind them.

As I've discovered in ethics workshops I've conducted over the years, almost every practitioner knows it's wrong to lie, but when pressed the only reason many can offer is because that's what they were brought up to believe. Unfortunately, if you don't know why something is wrong, the chances of recognizing it when it presents itself diminish rapidly. And knowing what to do is even more problematic.

But according to a recent report on public relations education, "Overall, educators perceive ethics instruction to be very important for PR students, but few programs require an ethics course or recommend one as an elective." Instead, ethical considerations are supposedly woven into discussions of current events. That non-systematic approach is almost guaranteed to be incomplete and makes assessing students' actual knowledge of ethics quite difficult. 

That's why my friend Don Wright and I wrote Public Relations Ethics: How To Practice PR Without Losing Your Soul.  

Don is Harold Burson Professor of Public Relations at Boston University and has written broadly on the topic over his 40-year career. We both hope our book contributes to the study and practice of ethics within public relations.

Of course, no book can pretend to be the last word on the subject so we've also created a website to update the cases covered in the book and to make other observations that illustrate the concepts it covers.

Take a look for yourself at Updates.PRethics.comAnd join the conversation by commenting on the posts already on the site.

 

 


Got beef?

BeefThe meat industry has a beef with the World Health Organization, which just accused its product of causing cancer.

What is a public relations practitioner in that industry to do?

We saw how industries from tobacco to soft drinks reacted -- they did their best to cast doubt on the research. In fact, Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for Science in the Public Interest, claims, “The playbook of every industry under attack is to instill doubt in the evidence.”

So how should the meat industry respond to the World Health Organization's recent meta-study, which according to the Wall Street Journal, concluded processed meats like bacon and salami are "carcinogenic" and fresh meats like steak and pork chops "probably cause cancer." 

The ethical principle that should guide public relations people in this case is to ensure customers have all the information they need to intelligently interpret the research and guide their behavior.

Not incidentally, that means dealing with sensationalized headlines (New York Post: "OMG! Bacon causes cancer.")  that suggest eating processed meat is as dangerous as smoking a cigarette or sucking on a diesel exhaust. 

Interestingly, the New York Times'  report on the research had all the elements of an ethical response:

It put the research in context, quoting third party experts with no axe to grind, and explaining the World Health Organization's categorization system.  For example, it pointed out that although research put processed meat into the same category as smoking and air pollution, its actual risk was "relatively small." Most importantly, it said experts not involved in the report advised people to "moderate" their consumption of processed meats. 

No meat industry spokesperson is likely to suggest its customers eat less of their product. But it wouldn't be out of the question for them to advise people not to over-indulge in it. The alcohol industry has been doing that for years. 

Nor would it be unethical to refer reporters and even customers to experts who can provide context and advice. But it would be unethical to refer anyone to experts who are far outside the mainstream of scientific opinion, not to mention publicizing their reports. 

And it would be perfectly ethical to highlight the benefits of eating red meat in moderation. Red meat is, after all, a good source of protein and vitamins. It might even be in the industry's own interests to conduct research into the mechanisms making processed meats a health risk -- is it the nitrates or something else?

But it would be unethical if the sole purpose of the research were to cast doubt on the consensus findings that eating large quantities of processed meat is unhealthy. 

In general, an ethical response would focus on what's best for customers and society at large. 

Not an easy task. But one that deserves great thought and attention. That's where the real beef is.

 

 

 


NFL Update

Nfl dom vioAbout a year ago, in reaction to the off-field behavior of some players, the National Football League promised to do more to fight domestic violence. 

ThinkProgress recently assessed the league's efforts and found the NFL has indeed devoted a lot of money and time to the issue. But significant gaps remain.

"The local domestic violence and sexual assault centers that provide direct service work — the ones that the national groups rely on for the on-the-ground assistance — are still struggling to stay afloat," it concluded. "And while the NFL is trying to address its internal issues through training and regulations, changing the culture of the league is far easier said than done, particularly with the same leadership intact."

The NFL consulted about 150 experts and organizations. It committed $5 million a year  for five years to a national hotline for domestic abuse victims. It donated $2.5 million in cash and equiment to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and an additional $1 million to 58 local anti-rape organizations, amounting to about $20,000 each. 

To get its own house in order, league teams scheduled educational sessions on sexual violence and domestic abuse during its annual training camps. 

But the NFL's highest profile effort was a series of public service announcements to increase awareness of domestic violence. Amounting to about $40 million of airtime, it was by far the league's biggest investment in the issue. To some it seemed like a classic "PR move." 

Critics said the league needed to move beyond awareness to action. For example, despite the NFL's $1 million contribution, local organizations are still seriously under-funded and support from individual teams is uneven. There was little followup to the training sessions all players were expected to attend, beyond a 24-hour "crisis hotline." Meanwhile, while the league is gotten a bit tougher on players arrested for sexual assault, its stances have been inconsistent. 

Furthermore, in December 2014, the NFL directed every team to form a "Critical Response Team" by the end of 2015. These teams were to be trained to deal with crisis situations and work with domestic violence organizations in their communities. When ThinkProgress followed up with all 32 teams, it found very uneven progress, not only in establishing the Critical Response Teams, but also when it comes to vetting and responding to instances of domestic violence or sexual assault.  

"As Domestic Violence Awareness Month kicks off this month," ThinkProgress notes, "the NFL's initiatives to address the issue remain a work in progress."  Meanwhile, the NFL's annual breast cancer awareness campaign kicks off in a flurry of pink ribbons and pom poms on October 13.


Big Pharma's Duty

BigPharmaDeadlyRisks062314When a drug company defines its "duty" as maximizing value for its shareholders, I suspect even Milton Friedman is rolling over in his grave.

Sadly, that seems to be what drives Big Pharma these days. A Wall Street Journal study revealed that "for prescription drug makers, prices increases drive revenue" even when demand for a medication falls.

That's not how Adam Smith's invisible hand is supposed to work. It's certainly not how Big Pharma used to define its duty.

And you don't have to look far for examples. Just today, William Campbell, a researcher at Merck, was awarded a Nobel Prize for work he did back in the mid-1970s. Campbell discovered a cure for river blindness, a parasitic disease common in the developing world. 

Ironically, Merck never made a cent on the cure because it didn’t have a presence in the countries where the disease was most common.  But the company's senior executives recognized the drug's promise – one annual dose could treat the disease and prevent blindness, and if an entire community was treated for the 12 to 14 year lifecycle of the worms that caused it, the disease could be totally eliminated.

So Merck made an open-ended commitment to give the drug away until river blindness was no longer a threat to public health.  In 1988, the first year of the program, it lined up half a dozen non-profit organizations (NGOs) to distribute about 100,000 doses. 

Today, more than two-dozen NGOs help distribute 90 million doses a year.  The World Health Organization projects that Latin America could be free of the disease in a few years, and the goal even seems within reach in parts of Africa.  

All because at least one drug company defined its "duty" more broadly than making money for its shareowners.

 


Timing Is Everything

KeepCalmStudio.com-Crown-Keep-Calm-And-Manage-The-MediaTiming is everything. In life and particularly in media relations. But when does it cross an ethical line?

Once upon a time, it was considered smart to issue bad news on a Friday afternoon to minimize coverage. But that rule of thumb went the way of print media's dominance. In an always-on, 24-hour news cycle, it hardly makes a difference. 

Nevetheless, faced with a request from the New York Times for information about concussions incurred in mandatory boxing classes at West Point, the Army Surgeon General recommended delay.

"Timing is everything with this stuff," she reportedly told the Army public affairs staff. Delaying the release would give her time to interest other publications in doing more favorable stories about the same subject.

Advocates of greater transparency in government called the incident "disturbing." Reports that the Army Surgeon General had used the same tactic in the past to manipulate news coverage probably didn't allay their concerns.

So is this smart media relations or is it unethical? 

The New York Times, for its part, thinks it "undermines the news media." The whistle blower who brought the story to the paper's attention says he did so because not being open with journalists "damages democracy."

We're with them. 

The kind of behavior described here goes way beyond putting information in context. First, it's unfair to the reporter who requested the information in the first place. But even more importantly, it attempts to create an alternative version of the truth, which undermines a free press and, ultimately, violates the public's right to reason. It's time such behavior stops.

 

 


What Were They Thinking?


Good bad chouceThe question was posed in the headline of a New York Times editorial.  It concerned Volkswagen, accused of rigging auto software to manipulate emission readings and evade regulatory limits.

But it could have just as easily applied to the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals who bought the rights to a drug used to treat a rare but life-threatening infection and promptly jacked the price up from $13.50 a pill to $750.

It could even have applied to Ben Carson, neurosurgeon-turned-presidential-candidate, who said Muslims aren't fit to seek the office.

Carson sought shelter in the current campaign against "political correctness." The ostensible concern, explains the New Yorker's Jelani Cobb, "is that the parameters of polite (or at least non-bigoted) discussion get in the way of truth-telling, leaving us with good feelings and palliative falsehoods."

Of course, as Cobb also points out, there is no necessary relationship between truthfulness and offensiveness. One does not naturally flow from the other. A lot of what passes for political correctness -- e.g., using gender neutral sentence construction, avoiding racist and homophobic slurs, etc. -- is actually an effort to conform our language to more enlightened ethics. Carson's offense was not failing to respect political correctness, but engaging in religious bigotry. 

Similarly, Volkswagen and Turing's behavior represent ethical failures. Some will argue that Turing was simply attempting to price its drug to what the market will bear. The "market" reacted and now the company will adjust. That's how capitalism works.

It will be harder for Volkswagen to cloak itself in the principles of the free market. Even Milton Friedman, outspoken apologist for capitalism, cautioned that, in the pursuit of "shareowner value," companies had to "follow the rules of the road." 

Unfortunately, the only limit most companies put on trying to shape those rules is what they can get away with. And it isn't a long leap from that to trying to circumvent the rules entirely. Especially if you think your basic purpose -- or reason for being -- is to generate profits.

That, alas, is what the people at Volkswagen and Turing who were ultimately responsible for this behavior were thinking. But they misunderstood their purpose. Sure it's to create value, but not just for the people who own the company. They also need to create value for everyone who contributes to their company's successes and bears the risk of its failures.  

That is a company's true ethical purpose. And that's what should guide every capitalist's thinking.

 

 

 

 

 


Web journalism arrives

Journalism.001The Internet ran over journalism. And a lot of people are just waiting for the victim to stop twitching so they can bury it. 

There are plenty of reasons to despair that it was a hit-and-run. Advertising and readers fled print media to go online. Traditional newrooms emptying or shutting down completely. PR people now outnumber reporters 5 to 1 and make 40% more.

Worse, most of what runs on the leading "news" websites are repurposed stories from the remaining legacy media. Endless "listicles" seem to be the web's most signifiant contribution to the trade. Otherwise, partisanship reigns in online echo chambers of conspiracy hounds and smear mongers. Elsewhere the newsweb exhbits a weird fascination with cute pets, ordinary people being stupid, and celebrities behaving badly.

But now a ray of hope has emerged from that dark cloud -- a one-man story factory named Steven Brill partnered with Huffington Post on invesigative journalism worthy of the likes of Upton Sinclair and Seymour Hersh at their best.

 "America's Most Admired Lawbreaker" is a 15-part narrative about Johnson & Johnson's marketing of the anti-psychotic drug Risperdal for "off-label" ailments like dementia in the elderly and autism in children. 

Brill is a lawyer-turned journalist-turned entrepreneur who founded American Lawyer magazine in  1979 and Court TV in 1989. After that, he turned his attention to other ventures, some of which failed (e.g., Brill's Content) and some of which succeeded (e.g., Journalism Online, sold to R. R. Donnelly for $45 million in 2011). Inbetween, he has written book-length invesigations into everything from America's public schools to its healthcare system.

Brill can type faster than most of us can write. His output is prodigious and its quality is first-rate. When he dives into a subject, he descends to the depths of an unmanned submarine and he turns over rocks embedded in the seabed for millennia.  

I should add here that I have no idea if the accusations he makes about J&J are accurate. But I should also note that the company has settled federal, state, and private suits over its marketing of Risperdal to the tune of more than $2.5 billion. 

But what's remarkable about Brill's story is not only its length, but the way it exploits all the capabilities of the web. This story was carefully constructed with sidebar links to videos, trial transcripts, depositions, and other primary source material that expands on the narrative and gives readers an opportunity to make their own judgments.

It's a devestating chronicle, exactly the opposite of shoveling content online. And an example of what web journalism may one day be. It also represents both a challenge and an opportunity for public relations practitioners. 

The opportunity of course is to use the same techniques to tell an organization's own story. The challenge is what to do when someone else uses them to tell a story about you.

J&J alas may be a case study of the latter. And every public relations practitioner should read and view "America's Most Admired Lawbreaker," not for schandenfreud's sake but as an object lesson in the power of new media.

 

 

 


Like a girl

Bic adEveryone knows sexism is wrong. Yet company after company stumbles into situations like the ads Bic posted on Facebook and then took down in the heat of a subsequent firestorm.

Is it because sexism is a matter of taste and highly subjective?  Or is it because, like many ethical issues, few people understand the principles by which to judge something right or wrong, good or bad? 

Make no mistake: sexism is an ethical issue, not simply a question of taste or manners.

Bic's ad is sexist because it's built on a demeaning series of stereotypes - literally de-meaning because they rob women of what it means to be female. It denies their full human possibilities.  It essentially says that to succeed women have to dress and act like pretty girls, while hiding the fact that they can think and work like men.  

That violates the three major ethical theories of virtue, duty, and consequences. Not to mention contemporary feminist ethics. It is uncaring, unjust, and obnoxious.

Like a girlAt the other end of the spectrum are ads promoting Always feminine hygiene products.

I have no inside information on the thinking behind the Always campaign, but I suspect it wasn't entirely idealistic.

Always' marketing team probably despaired of convincing women to switch away from the brand they had been using since puberty. So they chose to focus on their daughters and selected a message that would resonate with both -- girls can do anything, and they shouldn't let anyone put them down by saying they throw, run, or do anything "like a girl."

It's great branding. And ethically, it was a home run.  

 

 

 


Deja vu all over again

CokeOne of the cases in my new book about public relations ethics concerns the tobacco industry's 20-year effort to sow doubt about the dangers of smoking. It was a diabolically clever campaign dreamed up by the Hill & Knowlton PR firm back in the 1950s.

The idea was to create a scientific-sounding group with two goals: first, to raise questions about research linking cigarettes with cancer and heart disease and second, to find and publicize other causes such as pollution, bad diets, and genetics.

The Wall Street Journal called it "the longest-running disinformation campaign in U.S. business history." 

I included this case with some trepidation because it happened so long ago. Apparently, that concern was unwarranted because just this week the technique resurfaced on behalf of a new industry: soft drinks.

Coca-Cola  is sponsoring the "Global Energy Balance Network" to suggest exercise -- not cutting calories -- is the best way to control obesity. 

Faced with declining sales, Coke -- like the tobacco companies before it -- is trying to sow doubt about the major contribution surgary soft drinks make to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. 

It's the 1950s all over again.