According to Shannon Bowen, “Critics often argue that there can be no ethical public relations because the practice itself is akin to manipulation and propaganda. An unfortunate belief among many journalists, policy makers, and laymen is the belief that the term ‘public relations ethics’ is an oxymoron: either an unreal possibility, or smoke and mirrors to hide deception” (Bowen, 2007. Ethics and Public Relations; http://www.instituteforpr.org/ethics-and-public-relations/). For this reason, I feel it is only proper to recognize ethics as a key trait PR professionals must have in order to have a place at the managerial table.
Bowen goes on to highlight the mistrust involved with the PR field in past years. However, there has been some progress involving ethics within public relations. We learn from the article that ethical value is highly dependent on organizational managerial choices. There are codes of ethics that can be put in place for an organization, but memberships to these groups are voluntary. Therefore, the aspects of power and ethical reliability come full circle from the PR professional to the dominant coalition of an organization. Still, ethical values should be a key aspect of any successful PR professional in order to be trusted by upper management.
One Harvard article stipulates another integral skill that PR practitioners should exhibit. “With the shifting media landscape, the plethora of channels and digital tools, and the influence of audience preferences and expectations, public relations practitioners in the field must continuously evolve or face antiquation” (Top Skills Every PR Professional Should Have, 2014-2015; http://www.dce.harvard.edu/professional/blog/top-skills-every-pr-professional-should-have). What can we gather from this information? The ability to evolve could possibly be the difference between being respected by managerial peers or never being able overcome the strategic management barrier.
With a broad term like “evolution” there are many facets to discuss. How can PR practitioners evolve in this day and age? One crucial new resource available to PR professionals is social media. By the usage of one hashtag, you can reach a variance of demographics, cultures, and places around the world. This can be an excellent way to maintain relationships with your public, while forging new connections locally and abroad. The options are endless. PR professionals should be steadily evolving with this new digital age in order to truly gain the recognition they desire from senior leadership.
In society today, we live in a disconnected world, where users feel they are untouchable and free from consequence. Whether they are endangering others, issuing threats or even physically hurting themselves for the world to watch, they are detrimental to society. This happened quite frequently when I worked as a Social Media Analyst at Regions Bank. There were threats of “blowing up a branch” on Twitter because of overdraft fees almost weekly. Oftentimes, the account would have a generic image and would be hard to track down. At what cost should we continue letting someone hide behind a mask, even if the person is detrimental to themselves or others?
Take the recent murders and suicides on FB Live for example. Could reporting someone have prevented these occurrences? Certainly, in these cases, it was not in social media users' best interests not to report it. Author Danah Boyd explores this idea. Boyd states, “Yet, how do we as a society weigh the moral costs of shining a spotlight on someone, however "bad" their actions are?” (Boyd, Danah. 2012. Truth, Lies, and ‘Doxxing’: The Real Moral of the Gawker/Reddit Story. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2012/10/truth-lies-doxxing-internet-vigilanteism/).
There are also those like Damon Poeter that believe, “legislative attempts to somehow ban Internet anonymity are misguided at best and in some cases, outright assaults on free and open political discourse” (Poeter, Damon. Shed No Tears for Violentacrez. 2012. Retrieved from http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2411001,00.asp).
Social media can be a useful tool to share and broadcast services, businesses, people or a brand. The concept was created around sharing, therefore limiting the amount of privacy one can have, especially if they are posting acts of questionable or illegal activity. Wouldn't a person owe it to society to report something they see a follower posting about murdering someone? Wouldn't you want to know if someone was threatening harm to you or exploiting your daughter/son on the Internet?
There are several examples of how not reporting someone engaging in potentially harmful behavior has ended detrimentally. The most vile example we can look to is Dylan Roof. Through a manifesto online and social media posts, he proclaimed his hate to the world and no one took it serious. As a result, eight people died. When the safety of someone is compromised due to the actions of users, the person’s boss and the public deserve to know.
Boyd, Danah. 2012. Truth, Lies, and ‘Doxxing’: The Real Moral of the Gawker/Reddit Story. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2012/10/truth-lies-doxxing-internet-vigilanteism/
Poeter, Damon. Shed No Tears for Violentacrez. 2012. Retrieved from http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2411001,00.asp
Chen, Adrian. Unmasking Reddit's Violentacrez, The Biggest Troll on the Web. 2012. Retrieved from http://gawker.com/5950981/unmasking-reddits-violentacrez-the-biggest-troll-on-the-web?discussion_truncation=5&utm_expid=66866090-56.xSggy8zmSwG3vMsivr7rOg.2
Before a company can successfully prepare for a strategic approach to crisis, it must have a strong internal relationship with the employees and stakeholders that keep the company afloat. A company can deal with crisis online and cultivate relationships with stakeholders and the public by building trust in the organization. Author Lan Ni said, “Organizations with meaningful interpersonal communication may achieve a better shared definition of the organization” (Ni, Lan. Strategic Role of Relationship Building: Perceived Links Between Employee-Organization Relationships and Globalization Strategies).
There is an element of trust that may be impacted when a communicative gap begins to form internally that can impact external relationships online and offline.
The objectives of an organization’s communication plan should be centered on transparency. If the employees within a company do not think their organization is engaging in ethical practices when handling crisis situations, company loyalty and production will falter. “Studies have shown that employees, who used to be proud of their organization, change their perception of the organization according to crisis type (product recall, mismanagement, rumors, etc.) and the manager’s handling of the crisis situation” (Johansen, Winni).
When Regions Bank faced litigation due to overdraft fees being charged incorrectly, internal communication was needed to deal with customer and employee concerns externally online. Strategically, the company could have taken a more proactive approach in voicing key messages to employees internally that should be relayed to customers. In order for employees to answer customer inquiries through digital communication platforms regarding overdrafts, there needed to be working knowledge of the crisis Regions Bank was facing.
“There is a strong correlation between having a crisis management team/crisis manager in the organization and the typical reactions to crises among employees. Organizations that have established a crisis management team or appointed a crisis manager seem to experience loss of motivation and engagement to a lesser extent than organizations without this strategic instrument. Their employees are perceived to be less frustrated, they feel less insecure, and are less afraid in a crisis situation. The employees also do not seem to leave the organization” (Johansen, Winni).
“The old adage about the customer always being right is as true today as it always has been. No matter how certain you are that the customer was at fault, denials, counter claims and buck passing are the social media equivalent of throwing a grenade into your own side’s trenches” (Jones-Brynley, Luke. 6 Examples of Social Media Crises: What can we learn? Retrieved from http://oursocialtimes.com/6-examples-of-social-media-crises-what-can-we-learn/).
This is what Regions Bank does effectively in social media – treat the customer as if they are always correct. The goal of a social media representative is to handle a crisis by offering to speak with the social media user offline in a more personal setting to resolve their issue. The issue is never simply removed or challenged on public social media channels.
Jones-Brynley, Luke. 6 Examples of Social Media Crises: What can we learn? Retrieved from http://oursocialtimes.com/6-examples-of-social-media-crises-what-can-we-learn/.
Winni, Aggerholm, & Finn, Entering new territory: A study of internal crisis management and crisis communication in organizations.
Ni, Lan. Strategic Role of Relationship Building: Perceived Links Between Employee-Organization Relationships and Globalization Strategies p. 105
In grad school, I took a course about the law of advertising in PR. Our first assignment was to argue for the point of “original intent” or “original meaning” in regard to the Constitution. I dug up the forum and my response to compare how the intent of the Constitution back then could impact our ability to communicate freely now.
After analysis, “original intent” appears to be an outdated perspective when considering the laws of today. If we are to take the Constitution at face value, various laws would become nothing more than inferences. “Liberty interests under the Fourteenth Amendment, such as the right to terminate a pregnancy, are not specified in the Constitution. Thus the protection of these rights must be justified on theories other than originalism.” (Thomas, Kenneth. 2011). The reading goes on to illustrate how the Founding Fathers responsible for the Constitution provided no guide for interpretation. How can you take laws at face value without a true understanding of their interpretive meaning?
Since there were not instructions for interpretation, civilization has modified certain laws based on their own interpretations of legality. This is where the aspect of “original meaning” comes into play. According to author Kenneth Thomas, “This doctrine of objective “original meaning” emphasizes how the text of the Constitution would have been understood by a reasonable person in the historical period during which the Constitution was proposed, ratified, and first implemented.” (Thomas, Kenneth. 2011).
Many envision the U.S. Constitution as the framework for every aspect of civilization we witness today. “Mass Media Law” states, “One Supreme Court justice described a constitution as a kind of yardstick against which all the other actions of government must be measured to determine whether certain actions are permissible. The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Any law or other constitution that conflicts with the U.S. Constitution is unenforceable.” (Pember, Don and Calvert, Clay. Mass Media Law. P. 9. 2011).
The last comment is detrimental to the true mission of our nation. Historically, there have been certain aspects of the constitution that could not be followed by measuring “original intent”. One online source, “Scholastic Newstime”, illustrates the evolution of the constitution. “America has grown and changed during the last 200 years, and so has the U.S. Constitution, including amendments to our voting laws and age, and limiting presidential terms in office.” (Scholastic Newstime. 2016).
“The American legal system has several layers, more possibly than in most other nations.” (Friedman, Michael. Introduction: Outline of the U.S. Legal System). Each of these layers should work as a cohesive element and create laws that will evolve with the needs of the people. This cannot be done by following the “original intent” of the ancient framework embodied in the constitution.
Pember, Don and Calvert, Clay. (2011). Mass Media Law. Scholastic Newstime. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/how-us-constitution-has-evolved-over-time.
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A study from Laura Mayes on the company Coca-Cola, dissects their web presence and the good/bad elements of their digital communication. When working at Regions Bank as a Social Media Specialist, a central part of the job was monitoring listening software called Radian 6 each day. There were key words implemented into the software that were flagged whenever used including, but not limited to: “Regions”; “bank”; “support”; and etc. With this information, we were able to garner which customers and individuals to seek out for a call or if they needed assistance with banking issues.
Every company should have a social or digital media plan to effectively listen to concerns about their company so that they can be addressed. If a company does not, it is behind in the entire scope of digital public relations and communication.
In her study, Mayes touches on how the Uses and Gratification Theory is helping shape Coca-Cola’s digital messaging. Her research states, “As defined by Katz, Blulmer and Gurevitch, uses and gratifications theory is concerned with: (1) the social and psychological origins of (2) needs, which generate (3) expectations of (4) the mass media or other sources, which lead to (5) differential patterns of media exposure (or engagement in other activities), resulting in (6) need gratifications and (7) other consequences, perhaps unintended ones” (Mayes, Laura. Effectively Incorporating Social Media: A Case Study on Coca-Cola).
Coca-Cola also provides ease of access to their social media platforms, which makes customers feel as though their concerns can be heard and resolved. “Coca-Cola is active on numerous social media platforms. On the company’s website, there are direct links to take the viewer to each social networking site the company is involved with. Once a viewer travels to any of those pages, there are links and buttons to direct the viewer to other Coca-Cola social media pages” (Mayes, Laura. Effectively Incorporating Social Media: A Case Study on Coca-Cola).
Voice and tone in the social media realm are also keys to a successful digital media campaign. Since most digital communication methods are disseminated through words, it can be very easy to misconstrue them through a virtual tone. For this reason, certain words must be used by each member of a social media team. The goal is to sound like one voice – a voice that is always speaking from a brand perspective. With Coca-Cola, “posts on Twitter and Facebook are conversational, engaging and rarely have a promotional feel. Interaction via YouTube is daily, new videos are updated frequently. Flickr photos are updated at events Coca-Cola holds or sponsors, the most recent being the 24-hour session with Maroon 5” (Mayes, Laura. Effectively Incorporating Social Media: A Case Study on Coca-Cola).
What are three aspects that Coca-Cola does well in digital media? The company is effective in its tone, voice and accessibility to customers or individuals who would like to learn more about the company. With the listening tools used and the response of Coca-Cola to customer or individual concerns, the company has control of its own story. There is no one person on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter that is left to tell Coca-Cola’s story and respond to others about its company. The company is there and ready to provide clear messages of its goals and what it would like to do for the community and customers. (Mayes, Laura. Effectively Incorporating Social Media: A Case Study on Coca-Cola)
This is why Coca-Cola’s online listening and responding in real-time has a positive impact on its company and the world.
Mayes, Laura. Effectively Incorporating Social Media: A Case Study on Coca-Cola. (2011).
Katz, E., Blumler, J. G., & Gurevitch, M. (1974). Uses and Gratifications Research. Public Opinion Quarterly, 37(4), 509-524.
Prior to the 1920s, members of society deemed the elitist class corporate puppets that only focused resources and interest toward the wealthier members of society. In the late 1920s, strategic public relations and propaganda evolved to counter this perspective by utilizing the same ingredients we see today in political and social campaigns – the “humanizing of business” and “competition.”
“The more a business is crowded with personality, the faster it will grow and prosper. “In the late 1920s, many labored to purge the image of the ‘soul-less corporation’ from the public mind” (Ewen, Stuart. PR: A Social History of Spin. 1996). It is apparent that social media has been utilized as a tool to humanize the presidential family since the new administration has taken office. Amidst controversy and criticism surrounding immigration, women’s rights and cabinet picks, the family is striving to alter the big business symbolism associated with the Trump name to a more reserved and connecting representation.
Why did PR and political figures in the past switch to the “humanizing business” tactic? One detrimental effect of a company being labeled a “soul-less corporation” is the negative impact it will have on its workforce. However, job-seekers have different concerns when searching for a good employer that include trustworthiness and good internal communication. Before ideas about big business began to evolve in the late 1920s and the “humanizing business” tactic took effect, maintaining a sustainable workforce was most likely an issue if the workers felt the company only looked out for its own interests.
There is another factor to consider. After the public began to view businesses through a more humane lens, they became inspired by business leaders and aspired to be successful in big business themselves. Ewen states, “A family on the comfort level will often sacrifice much - perhaps even mortgage its house - to possess an automobile of respected make, not only because it enjoys riding, but because a wealthier neighbor has one” (Ewen, Stuart. PR: A Social History of Spin). This created competition amongst individuals in the public. Consequently, the propaganda tactics of that time not only convinced the public that they should embrace big business and wealth, but that to be someone of stature, they must symbolize these lifestyles as well.
Martin, Annie. Ivanka Trump's son Theodore crawls for first time in White House. UPI. 2017. Retrieved from http://www.upi.com/Entertainment_News/2017/01/26/Ivanka-Trumps-son-Theodore-crawls-for-first-time-in-White-House/1471485442937/.
Derigan Silver stated, “Information tends to lurk in the dark corners of the Internet for years and years” (Silver, Derigan. Social Media and the Law). The evolution of digital media has caused many businesses to thrive, but it has also caused some individual reputations to falter. Since certain aspects can never be completely erased from social media or the Internet, content written by a reporter on a site can truly last forever. An element of concern is that accusations or descriptions don’t have to be proven fact before the resulting negative connotations of a situation are broadcast to millions. With one hashtag, a reputation can be ruined.
Let’s analyze the effects of persuasion in relation to digital content and messaging. Persuasion can be a key element to your profession as a public relations practitioner, but can also be a detriment to an organization or individual if the content used to persuade an audience is defamatory. Through the social media world the art of persuasion can fall on altruistic needs, such as a man being motivated to get a checkup to protect his family more than to protect himself. It can also be focused on fear appeals. Regardless of the persuasion method used, it can have a detrimental effect when the content provided is not true.
Since the art of persuasion is so prevalent on social media due to the availability of a broader audience, organizations have found creative ways to combat it. Daxton Stewart, author of Social Media and the Law, described the impact of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP). Daxton illustrates, “The purpose of a SLAPP suit is not necessarily to win damages. Rather, the goal is to discourage criticism because libel suits can be time-consuming and costly” (Daxton, Stewart). He goes on to mention examples of SLAPP lawsuits that have occurred in recent years. “In one case, Justin Kurtz, a student at Western Michigan, was sued for $750,000 by a towing company after he created a Facebook page called “Kalamazoo Residents Against T & J Towing.” (Daxton, Stewart). Although this method to combat defamation has been used countless times, 29 states have passed anti-SLAPP laws in recent years. Citizens can also counter sue, so this is not a viable defense against defamation.
The motivation to fight against defamation will be an on-going battle if more detailed laws are not passed involving defamation and digital media. As digital platforms evolve, the law must play catch up. Even other nations are witnessing digital media being the new tool utilized to defame individuals. Roy Greenslade from The Guardian Online stated, “There has been a 23% rise in the number of reported defamation cases in the UK over the past year, up from 70 to 86, according to research by Thomson Reuters. The growth in the number of reported defamation cases is partly due to a sharp rise in claims brought over defamatory material published through social media and websites. In the last year alone the number of cases relating to new media, such as internet-only news services, social media, text messages and online review sites, has more than quadrupled, rising from six to 26.” (Greenslade, Roy. 23% increase in defamation actions as social media claims rise).
"The increase in claims arising from content on social media and websites reflects the growing impact and importance of new media compared with traditional news providers," said Keith Mathieson, head of media at City law firm RPC and a contributor to Thomson Reuters' practical law service. "Many of the new media cases are taken against the individuals responsible for the publications rather than companies such as Google or Twitter that host the material, as those companies are likely to have special hosting defenses, particularly if they take material down following an initial complaint” (Greenslade, Roy. 23% increase in defamation actions as social media claims rise).
How often have you heard the phrase, “We’ll leave the light on for you”? Motel 6 spokesman, Tom Bodatt’s melancholy voice would typically turn off a listener’s attention. However, the art of storytelling used by the company connects listeners and viewers around the country. In one Motel 6 Superbowl advertisement, you can witness how Bodatt utilizes superior storytelling to connect with individuals that may be technologically-challenged. If we have not experienced the headache of auto-correct personally, we know someone whose texts are often discernable due to misspellings. Within seconds, the spokesman connects with the listener by simply telling a familiar story.
The advertisement goes on to intentionally mispronounce various words because Bodett created his commercial script on his phone and the mobile spellcheck altered his words. Although he still provides a discernable persuasive argument during the commercial to convince individuals to stay at the motel, he does so in a funny manner that draws the listener in.
Kalle Lasn states, “The most powerful narcotic in the world is the promise of belonging.” (Simmons, Annette). The common phrase, “We’ll leave the light on for you” has a direct connection to belonging. When you choose an overnight amenity, you want to feel as if you belong and have all the comforts of home. Tom Bodatt provides this connectivity through these words, while acknowledging a common phone mishap with autocorrect.
The ad also provides us with the “human condition”. Honesty is not only key to maintain a good reputation, but essential to creating human characteristics that make a company more trustworthy. Someone proclaiming that they do their job well 100 percent of the time is detrimental, but if the person states they do their job well 80 percent of the time, it is more believable. “When we try to sound logical, we end up sounding less human” (Simmons, Annette). If a person feels as if you cannot connect to their plight in a non-robotic way, they will lose interest. This explains why the technologically-challenged Tom Bodett resonated with listeners. He showed that we’re all human and have faults. His fault just happened to be a common issue others have experienced which is managing autocorrect.
Although by definition persuasion is “an activity or process in which a communicator attempts to induce a change in the belief, attitude or behavior,” effective storytelling connects before attempting to convince (Wilcox, Dennis and Cameron, Glen. Public Relations Strategies and Tactics). Simmons illustrates, “Genuine influence occurs between people who feel comfortable with each other” (Simmons, Annette). With each Motel 6 advertisement, the company goes out of its way to create a calm and inclusive demeanor so effectively that the listener may not realize they are being persuaded to complete an action at all. The goal of Motel 6 was not to bombard the listener or viewer with an advertisement, but for each person to get lost in a story.
John Hagel discusses the difference between stories versus a narrative in his research. The central contrast of the two according to Hagel pertains to the role of the audience in the content. If the contextual ideas for a company focus on what its audience is doing, it is considered a narrative. However, if the context focuses solely on the company, it is considered a story.
In my eyes, successful storytelling is an art form. When reflecting on this talent, it’s crucial to analyze hindrances facing a storyteller. Many public relations practitioners fall into the trap of exaggerating a corporation’s narrative for financial gain. This is ineffective in conveying a corporation’s true financial narrative.
We can look at the Federal Drug Administration’s (FDA) actions against the makers of the cancer drug Photofrin as an example of overreaching to increase product fascination. “According to the FDA, patient and physician videos on the (drug’s) web page presented Photofrin as helping patients live symptom free, or even providing a cure. However, the studies on the efficiency of the drug did not support these claims.” (Stewart, Daxton. Social Media and the Law. 2013)
Hagel states, “A powerful narrative can differentiate – it can help a company to stand out from the crowd in a powerful and sustainable way. Narratives are by definition a long-term, sustaining call to action” (Hagel, John. The Untapped Potential of Corporate Narratives). While come PR professionals and investor relations departments struggle with conveying corporate financial narratives, other excel through effective and luring storytelling.
When contemplating whether or not something is ethical, you must first decide if it is truthful. Oftentimes, if someone is not honest in their communication, their actions will be unethical. It has become commonplace for a music artist to have ghostwriters or for a PR professional to write a quote for the CEO of their organization. Throughout my career, I’ve been tasked with creating quotes for CEOS or department heads to include in content that is disseminated to the media.
“There has been considerable debate on PR professionals’ blogs about whether undisclosed ghost blogging is ethical” (Gallicano, Brett, & Hopp, 2013). It goes on to state, “In a recent survey of public relations professionals, most respondents expressed approval of undisclosed ghost blogging, provided that the stated author provides the content ideas and gives content approval” (Gallicano et al., 2013).
While it shows good moral value to credit a ghostwriter on a song, informing the media that a quote the CEO included in a press release was written by a PR professional is not. However, if the company or individual is writing in the same voice and being honest, it should not be unethical.
The public knows that the CEO of an organization does not have the time to delegate exactly what will be on the organization’s social media. Companies hire various teams for this purpose and train the new employees to know the company’s mission, goals and message. They should be able to relay this information in an honest manner that is not unethical.
Since a “front group” by definition is a public relations technique that is used “to influence public opinion and public policy on behalf of undisclosed special interests”, it does not have a respectable moral code at its core. “Such special interests are usually large organizations or industries whose business practices and motives are often ethically questionable and conflicting with public interest” (http://ethicsinpr.wikispaces.com/Front+groups). This presents a different scenario. There’s already a lack of trust in this type of group, so even well-intentioned actions may seem unethical.
Circumstances that could make me view a person ghostwriting a speech or song as being unethical would have to include dishonesty. If the PR professional was questioned about content and where it originated, being as transparent as possible is key. In most cases, the media will find out the truth through research. It’s better if the story comes from the organization or PR professional.