Posts filed under ‘Social Media’

Communication and Revolution

Social media has received considerable attention amid the overthrow of Middle East autocrats. CBS News says it has tipped the regional balance and reports the State Department’s multimillion-dollar program to support dissident bloggers. Mashable examines YouTube dispatches from Morocco and Libya. A Facebook page memorializing Khaled Said, who died at the hands of Egyptian police after collecting evidence of police corruption, became an early rallying point in Mubarak’s usurption. And on the lighter side, an Egyptian named his baby daughter “Facebook” to celebrate the social media site’s role in his country’s transformation.

Social media may be a new catalyst in global affairs, but communication itself is a traditional component of revolution and conflict. In my article “Adams, Paine and Jefferson: a PR Firm,” I analyze the use of modern public relations during the American Revolution. Among the tactics discussed, Samuel Adams’ Committees of Correspondence were the most similar to today’s social media.

Fast forward to the 20th century. President Wilson formed the Committee on Public Information (the Creel Committee) during World War I to build support for the war; many notable communicators worked with the committee including Edward Bernays, Walter Lippmann and Arthur W. Page.  Twenty years later, the Allies and Axis intensified mass communication and propaganda in World War II, exemplified by Britain’s “V for Victory” campaign, a pre-Internet example of viral marketing. During the Cold War, the West directed anti-communist communications into the Soviet Bloc. The documentary “How The Beatles Rocked the Kremlin” places the Fab Four alongside Lech Walesa and Ronald Reagan as architects of the USSR’s demise for their defiant yet optimistic message that spurred change in young Soviets.

There are differences between these past communication models and the current one in the Middle East. Thomas Paine’s pamphlets, the BBC’s broadcasts, Ronald Reagan’s speeches, The Beatles’ bootlegs: these were unidirectional, created by a few main influencers and usually emanating some distance from the lines of intellectual and physical confrontation. The mass communication driving the Middle East revolts claims mass authorship and onsite origin. Anyone with a social media account and a smartphone becomes a mashup of Alexis de Tocqueville and Robert Capa. There are no core strategists, gatekeepers or figureheads.

Last summer, Egyptian-born columnist Mona Eltahawy gave a prophetic interview to the Voice of America about social media’s role in bringing democracy to the Middle East. Historic change is now underway, but democracy has yet to prevail in the region’s governments and society. The democratization of its communication, however, is firmly in place.


February 23, 2011 at 4:58 pm 4 comments

Pile On Groupon

Groupon: time for a lot of PR and a new ad

The “fastest growing company ever” owns today’s fastest spreading controversy. Groupon has triggered outrage with Super Bowl ads that appear to mock serious issues, primarily China’s occupation of Tibet. Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton begins the key commercial by acknowledging Tibet’s woes only to segue into the virtues of fish curry from a Tibetan restaurant purchased at a discount thanks to Groupon. The ad’s tagline is “save the money.”

On the face of it, the ad appears to be a sophomoric satire linking a company’s everyday offerings with a global crisis, a la Kenneth Cole’s widely criticized tweets about the Egyptian uprising. Only later has it been explained that Save the Money is a legitimate cause-based program, not an iteration of Groupon’s discounting premise. The ad is meant to simultaneously spoof celebrity sanctimony and Groupon’s viral bargains. The problem is that Groupon is too clever for us. Its CEO, Andrew Mason, confirms as much in a next-day blog response that The Wall Street Journal calls a “non-apology apology.”

Groupon seems to be joining other web ventures that proved their clout with a Super Bowl sponsorship, although turning down Google’s $6 billion buyout is a much cooler demonstration. Amending a media mix (television now in addition to online) entails reaching out to new audiences as well as re-connecting with current ones. It calls for a basic message, not an obscure one made under the assumption that everyone already grasps the company. It can have humor–a Super Bowl advertising staple–but it must use that multimillion-dollar window to display the brand. So beyond their controversy, Groupon’s ads miss the mark as effective communications. Articles on the ads have cited the agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, as being known for edgy work. This invokes Al and Laura Ries’ warnings in The Fall of Advertising & The Rise of PR about shops that are more focused on artistic expression than marketing fundamentals.

Groupon has deepened its self-inflicted wounds with CEO Mason’s off-putting response on his company blog. He insists that the ads support real social causes (impossible to tell at first glance). He then points fingers at other offensive Super Bowl ads, primarily those that objectify women. He defends his ad agency, citing their precedent for irreverence with their commercials for In short, Mason acts upset that people are upset with his company. He is going to need a lot more PR, an infusion of contrition, and a new ad:


A “backstage” setting with lights and cables visible. A clapperboard fills the screen, scrawled on its face: GROUPON “WE’RE SORRY” AD.

Clapper Loader (off screen): Groupon, take two!

The clapperboard claps and is pulled out of the shot, revealing CEO Andrew Mason sitting in a tall director’s chair. Standing around him are actors Timothy Hutton, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Elizabeth Hurley.

Mason: Hello, I’m Andrew Mason, CEO of Groupon. By now, you’ve probably heard about our Super Bowl ads that offended many people who thought we were making fun of important social issues such as human rights in Tibet.

We’re sorry. The ads were confusing and sent the wrong message. The right message is that Save the Money-dot-org is a real program soliciting donations and building awareness for worthy causes around the world. Groupon supports this program because while we’re working to save you money locally, we’re also thinking globally. Please visit Save the Money-dot-org to learn more and to give. Thank you for your understanding.

Timothy Hutton nervously leans toward Mason.

Hutton: Do you want us to say anything?

Mason (pleasant): No.

Hutton straightens back up. The foursome smiles and waves at the camera.

FADE IN: Groupon logo with titles beneath:



POSTSCRIPT 1: Groupon CEO Andrew Mason blogs a straight-forward apology on Thursday, Feb. 10, and pulls the ads.

POSTSCRIPT 2: Groupon fires Crispin, Porter + Bogusky with CEO Andrew Mason saying they placed “too much trust” in the ad agency. CP+B says it was simply end of project work and wishes Groupon well.

February 8, 2011 at 3:02 pm Leave a comment

Mass Killers and Communication

Mass killers are communicators. They communicate their anger, their disconnection from reality, their progress toward violence. They communicate vividly and frequently. They find audiences who receive and understand their messages. And despite their prodigious output of warning signs and pronouncements, mass killers go unchecked. This is the ultimate lesson of the attack in Tucson that killed six people and wounded 13 including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

In 1993, I wrote Anatomy of a Massacre, a true-crime book about what was then the worst mass shooting in American history: George Hennard’s attack on Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, TX, October 16, 1991, that left 23 dead. Hennard was a communicator, as was Jared Loughner, perpetrator of the Tucson mass shooting.

Hennard exhibited bizarre, threatening behavior in the lead-up to his crimes. He stalked a family–Jane Bugg and her daughters, Jill and Jana–who lived down the street from his parent’s home where he was living alone. Jane’s complaints to local police brought no official action. Hennard made his own complaints to law enforcement. He reported to the FBI that “a secret group of white women” had formed a nationwide conspiracy against him. He made a pilgrimage to the site of the San Ysidro McDonald’s where James Huberty set the previous mass shooting victim record at 21. He voiced his hatreds, paranoia and speculation about killing people to those around him. His physician father openly deemed him mentally ill.

Still, nothing happened to stop Hennard. He drove his pickup truck through Luby’s front window at lunch hour, exited the vehicle, and began firing on the building’s occupants with two 9mm pistols. Five minutes later, several police officers engaged Hennard in a gun battle. Twelve minutes later, he was dead in the restaurant’s back hallway. Twenty-three innocent people had been fatally shot with approximately 40 wounded.

Hennard communicated the outcome of Oct. 16, 1991, to anyone who would pay attention. Huberty communicated his instability and intent as well. So did Charles Whitman, the sniper atop the University of Texas tower, who killed 16 people in 1966. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the mass killers at Columbine High School, documented their threats and early dangerous acts online. Seung Hui Cho, who exceeded Hennard’s death toll by killing 32 at Virginia Tech, was a known menace to family, students, teachers and authorities. Nidal Hasan, murderer of 13 at Fort Hood not far from the location of Hennard’s attack, recurrently expressed extremist views and sent intercepted e-mails to terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki.

And now we hear the all-too-familiar story of Jared Loughner, his ominous behavior, his outbursts, his YouTube video speaking of genocide. In Comm 4144 at University of Denver, we are currently studying communication models. Emulating flow charts, they track the path and effect of communications. Repeatedly, the communication model for mass killers is:


It’s time for a new model.

January 13, 2011 at 6:57 am 1 comment

UC Execs Get an F

Dean Christopher Edley, graduate of the Lloyd Blankfein School of Public Relations

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that 36 top executives in the University of California system are demanding increases in their pensions. The group has written a letter to the UC Board of Regents calling the increase a “legal, moral obligation” and threatening to sue if the demand is denied. The executives cite a 1999 agreement to boost pensions if the IRS lifted a cap; it did so in 2007.

The UC system is currently in a budget crisis, as are all public schools in California and the state itself. Per the SF Chronicle, UC has over $20 billion in unfunded pension obligations. The increase demanded by the 36 executives would cost more than $5 million a year and $51 million in retroactive reimbursements from the 2007 trigger date.

Among possible self-inflicted PR wounds, money grabs are some of the most infuriating. The UC execs have infamous company:

2003, American Airlines. While exacting more than $1 billion in concessions from workers, executives at American Airlines concealed hefty retention bonuses and pension protection for themselves. After outcry, the execs surrendered the perks and CEO Don Carty left the following year.

2009, AIG. After receiving $170 billion in bailouts, insurance giant AIG announced $165 million in bonuses to members of the financial products unit, the company group at the center of the 2008 economic collapse. Public, political and media outrage came swiftly. Most of the top execs returned their bonuses.

2009, 2010, Goldman Sachs. The Wall Street giant has paid billions in quarterly bonuses during the Great Recession. Each bonus announcement burnished Goldman’s image as the epitome of Wall Street greed. The abrasiveness of their PR chief, Lucas van Praag, only worsened the firm’s rep. In an attempt to counter negative reactions, Goldman contributed $500 million to a small business development fund and switched compensation for its advisory committee from cash to stock.

All the above groups, including the UC execs, have made similar arguments: the financial rewards are necessary to attract and retain top talent. AIG’s rationale deserved a special honor for circular logic: the people receiving the bonuses were needed to undo the mess they had created.

As we have become a nation of expendable workers, no one can sustain an aura of indispensability. Scan the comments section accompanying any online news coverage of the UC execs’ pension demands and you will read dozens of calls for the execs’ termination.

Many have already turned the execs’ “a deal is a deal” argument back on them, citing the University of California’s deal to provide quality, affordable education, a deal undone by curtailed classes, slashed staff and hiked tuition. The UC homepage promises the system’s 10 schools will “open their doors to all who work hard and dream big.” The same homepage links to an overview of pension revisions for standard university employees. Here’s a hint: future retirees will take their lumps.

Amazingly, parties with self-inflicted PR wounds have the strength to twist the blade anew. As criticism and scrutiny mounted, Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein stated that his firm was “doing God’s work.” Amid the UC pension flap, Dean of the UC Berekley Law School, Christopher Edley, is the only one of the 36 UC execs to speak to the media to date. He defends the demands for higher pensions as important to his family. He sarcastically refers to himself and his 35 colleagues as “craven scum,” acknowledging yet dismissing the PR fallout of their actions.

Predictions for the new year:

  • Outrage and protests will grow as students, students’ families, and ordinary Californians return from the holidays. Social media will increase awareness of the story. I learned about it on Facebook from my state assemblyman, Jeff Gorell.
  • Every politician and pundit with a pulse will be able to score easy points off greedy execs and any milquetoast regents.
  • There will be defections among the 36 executives demanding higher pensions; people were ready to march on the homes of the AIG bonus recipients. By signing the letter to the regents, all these execs now bear a scarlet letter.
  • As self-appointed spokesman for the execs, Dean Christopher Edley stands with Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein in issuing cringe-worthy quotes. If he keeps opening his mouth, he may join the league of BP’s Tony Hayward. Like Hayward, Dean Edley may be looking at an early retirement, with or without a fatter pension.

POSTSCRIPT 1: UC faculty launch an online petition condemning the pension demands of the high-paid execs, a group they dub “the gilded 36.” The executives’ disregard for public relations begins with disconnection from UC’s vast internal audience.

POSTSCRIPT 2: California State Assemblyman Jerry Hill introduces a bill to cap all state employee pensions. It would categorically enforce the upper limit of calculable annual income: $245,000. The IRS’ lifting of this rule for UC due to its nonprofit status precipitated the pension demand letter by the 36 UC execs, all of whom have salaries near the standard limit or well above it. The bill is a predictable response to the furor, resembling to moves in the U.S. Congress to staunch the AIG bonuses.

January 1, 2011 at 2:07 pm 5 comments

Involuntary Transparency

WikiLeaks screen shot. Hard to come by these days as the site is the top target on the Web.

The title phrase–involuntary transparency–comes from Andy Greenberg’s cover story for Forbes on WikiLeaks. A fascinating juxtaposition of the unpleasant and the noble, the term harkens to a post on this blog, “The Automated Honor System.”

Are we truly transparent or honorable when it is forced upon us? Despite the seeming revolution of Web 2.0’s power to disclose and shame, it is simply another example of the Internet providing venerable products and experiences fast-fast-fast, to adapt Anacin’s tagline from 50+ years ago. In short, the Internet is a labor-saving device for delivering consequences, the eternal tool for behavior modification.

Transparency has always been mandatory, but we don’t always follow rules, written or unwritten. Mr. Greenberg’s use of the word “involuntary” suggests the matter has been taken out of the hands of governments and corporations, and by extension all of humanity. My past post on the subject humorously assumes as much.

However, just as the old laws and standards have had a hard time keeping people in line, WikiLeaks will fare little better. “Do the right thing” has rarely been a natural strategy, even though many are calling for such epidemic honesty as the only antidote to the WikiLeaks onslaught.

I am not dismissing the newest demands for disclosure and ethical behavior. I like “involuntary transparency” in a wistful, PR professional kind of way. Nevertheless, transparency must be completely voluntary. It must come early. It must be consistent. It can’t be applied like an anti-virus program. I regularly cite PR legend Al Golin, the man who coined “the trust bank.” From his book, Trust or Consequences:

  1. Trust is the most basic element of social contact–the great intangible at the heart of truly long-term success.
  2. Trust is both a process and an outcome; it’s at the heart of dealing with every relationship.

WikiLeaks will not improve transparency because it is not a vehicle for trust. The confidential communications it has acquired from the American government result from espionage and treason. We can add blackmail to those unsavory terms as embattled WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange threatens a mass release of more damning files, all encrypted and dispersed among a network of supporters, if anything happens to him or his site.

In the end, WikiLeaks is not a game-changer for public relations, although it is a formidable practitioner of the discipline as it has driven much of the news in recent days. It is not a sanctuary for whistleblowers. It is not a virtual version of the World Court. It is simply a brand that trades magnificently on malfeasance, gossip and finger-pointing. In short, it is the greatest tabloid on earth.

December 5, 2010 at 11:37 pm 1 comment

Shirley Sherrod and the Social Media Fail

Shirley Sherrod

On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre troupe performed a live radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds.” It was the day America learned the perils of blind trust in a new medium as Welles’ faux news bulletins convinced many that the Martians had landed in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.

On July 20, 2010, a leading communication technology again triggered hysteria. The racists were among us, in the form of government representatives infiltrating an organization founded to fight bigotry. Social media delivered the proof., a blog by Andrew Breitbart, posted a short video of Shirley Sherrod, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Director for Georgia, telling an NAACP audience about not applying “full force” efforts to help a white farmer avoid foreclosure earlier in her career.

The edited Shirley Sherrod video:

Orson Welles was considered a genius, but he didn’t compel FDR to send troops after the Martians. On the other hand, Andrew Breitbart managed to rock the administration of the 44th President. With no alien hordes to vanquish, they did the next best thing: they ousted an inconvenient official.

By October 31, 1938, we knew there were no Martians in New Jersey. By July 21 2010, we saw there was no racist at the NAACP podium. Social media, the great fact checker, lie detector, and collector of the crowd’s wisdom had failed. It had not saved us from our knee-jerk reactions and lack of due diligence.

Shirley Sherrod’s defense was her own words, the complete 43-minute video of her speech, a poignant narrative of her life and career. During her childhood and early adulthood, local versions of Bull Connor were sheriffs in her home county in Georgia. A white man killed her father. A group of white men burned a cross in front of her widowed mother’s home.

The complete Shirley Sherrod video:

Ms. Sherrod said that she swore to leave the fields but never did. As she took her career path after college, she admitted that her vision of helping people was originally limited to African-Americans. She explained how her attitudes began to change after handing off the white farmer to a white lawyer, “one of his own kind,” only to delve back into the foreclosure case when the lawyer failed to produce results. That part of the story didn’t make the cut in the video shown on, the video used to condemn Ms. Sherrod.

How many of us joined the kangaroo court? I read the initial story on Ms. Sherrod, watched the short clip, and posted the link to the Facebook page for my social media class at University of Denver online under the heading “social media drives the news.” Indeed. The story got heavy play in the media. The denunciations from the executive branch and the NAACP were swift. Ms. Sherrod said that she was ordered to pull her car over and resign by BlackBerry.

How many of us, chastened, watched the complete video? I did, after making  a “not-so-fast” post about the Sherrod story to the class’ Facebook page. What I saw was not Van Jones or Jeremiah Wright. This was a candid woman explaining her personal journey to racial inclusiveness in the course of her public service. For once, “taken out of context” was not a PR dodge. It was the truth.

Per the value proposition of technological marvels, we expect social media to be a labor-saving device, feeding us bite-size chunks of information screened and endorsed by experts and influencers. In the end, it is just another tool, only as good as the people who wield it. Amid modern cynicism, its free structure gives it “verisimilitude,” a term that has been used to describe the sense of truthfulness and authenticity in Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” production. A surreptitious or overlooked video has become social media’s symbol of authenticity. In contrast to Web 2.0, 1930s radio was a medium of commonality and authority. Welles achieved authenticity with the simple, grave announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program…”

Orson Welles knew he was putting on a show. What kind of spectacle were the proponents of the edited Shirley Sherrod video anticipating? More importantly, what kind of spectacles will we enable from now on? Will we take time from our busy schedules to confirm there is no smoking crater in Grover’s Mill?

July 22, 2010 at 10:47 am 6 comments

When Corporations Act Too Human

Corporations are often advised to put on a human face. Per legal definitions, a corporation can be construed as a “person” or “entity.” All said, three corporations are acting too human in displaying the mortal traits of defensiveness, insensitivity and petulance.

Toyota LogoToyota: The carmaker’s PR missteps are well-documented; however, a recent behind-the-scenes move has caused more reputational damage. Toyota enlisted Joel Benenson, President Obama’s chief pollster, to test messages that questioned the credibility of two key witnesses who testified against the company on Capitol Hill: safety consultant Sean Kane and auto technology professor David Gilbert. When congressmen upbraided Toyota for this communications initiative, the carmaker said no official campaign had been launched based on the preliminary work.

Per the Washington Post’s description of Benenson’s survey, entitled the Kane/Gilbert Debunking Message Test, it appears to be a “push poll,” often seen in politics when a questioner rattles off negative comments about a candidate and then asks respondents their opinions about the person based on what they just heard. In the political arena, such tactics are less about research and more about disparaging the opposition. This was a bad move by Toyota that smacks of vindictiveness.

Procter & Gamble LogoProcter & Gamble: The company is facing a PR crisis and a federal product safety investigation over claims that its Pampers Dry Max diapers can cause severe rashes and chemical burns. A Facebook page urging the recall of the Dry Max line and the return of Cruisers/Swaddlers has over 10,000 members.

Understandably, and appropriately in theory, P&G is fighting back. They have commissioned independent experts to verify the safety of Dry Max diapers. They have paid for doctor examinations of children said to be affected by the product. They have enlisted influential mommy bloggers to spread the word about the product’s integrity (with all necessary disclaimers about any compensation–mainly product samples and  travel to the Cincinnati headquarters). In its most important factoid, P&G has said that while Dry Max are 20% thinner, their components are not new and have never been associated with burns. All these actions are good.

Where P&G goes wrong is in its tone, first seen in the news release refuting charges against Dry Max. The title “Pampers Calls Rumors Completely False” contains two emotionally charged words, “rumors” and “false,” and the qualifier “completely” just in case we didn’t get the message. “Pampers Confirms Safety of Dry Max” would have been a more positive and dignified start.

Within the release, Jodi Allen, Pampers VP, says:

These rumors are being perpetuated by a small number of parents, some of whom are unhappy that we replaced our older Cruisers and Swaddlers products while others support competitive products and the use of cloth diapers. Some have specifically sought to promote the myth that our product causes ‘chemical burns.’

The mood is accusative and defensive, echoed by P&G spokesperson Bryan McCleary in Bloomberg Businessweek: “We’re insulted that someone would imply that our products are dangerous.”

P&G may be furious about the accusations and the social media tactics of their accusers. They may be absolutely convinced that Dry Max diapers are safe and have reams of scientific data to prove it. That still does not bestow license to “take it personally.” Be passionate, be responsive, protect your brand. But don’t get shrill.

BP LogoBP: In what is shaping up to be the year of bad public relations, British Petroleum is leaving Tiger Woods, Toyota and even Goldman Sachs in the dust. The company has obviously read all the PR articles about making your CEO visible and accessible. Unfortunately for BP, that CEO is Tony Hayward. Goldman Sachs’ vilified communications chief Lucas van Praag (see my previous post, “Goldman Sachs: PR and the Bottom Line”) must be relieved that Hayward is now the media’s top source for gaffes and outrageous remarks.

BP incarnate is a solitary executive who has riled the public, elected officials and the media, whose signature line “I would like my life back” has eclipsed “doing God’s work” from Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. It is mandatory for any corporation whose products/services impact public wellbeing to undertake preemptive crisis communications planning and training. Of course, many have cited BP as unprepared for the oil rig explosion itself, let alone its subsequent communication duties.

June 6, 2010 at 9:35 pm Leave a comment

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