by Tim Roberts, Lecturer
When it comes to brand ambassadors, National Football League fans are hard to beat. On any given fall Sunday, hordes of logo-clad, face-painted followers pay top dollar to see their wishes fulfilled or hopes dashed.
And, as any Cleveland Browns fans would agree, poor on-field performance doesn’t necessarily translate into a loss of affection. We almost instinctively keep coming back for more.
The NFL and its 32 teams have financially capitalized on that seemingly unshakeable brand loyalty, but this year a series of ethically questionable decisions and reactions to players’ criminal acts have placed league officials in full crisis management mode and caused some to call for an NFL Boycott.
While the finger-pointing over who knew what when continues in the Ray Rice-Roger Goodell saga, the lesson to be taken away is a no-brainer for any PR practitioner—tell the truth as you know it and when you know it to maintain trust and credibility.
What's in a name?
But a lesser-known transparency issue involving one NFL team can provide even more valuable ethics lessons, especially to aspiring PR pros. For several years, the Washington Redskins organization has been fending off criticism of the team name, with a growing number of groups calling it racist and offensive and demanding a name change.
Owner Dan Snyder has not budged publicly in his support for the name. Last July, a website called Redskins Facts was launched to defend the name, with former Redskins players billed as a steering committee. The About Us section portrayed the site as a grassroots effort by team supporters.
But on July 29, the online news site Slate posted a well-researched article linking the site to the Redskins and Burson-Marstellar, a public relations agency known for its crisis management work. The authors tracked the site’s source code to a Burson-Marstellar site, and, in addition, their reporting revealed the Redskins Facts site had the look and feel of other Burson-Marstellar crisis management site templates. A team spokesman danced around the question whether the Redskins was involved with the site and Burson-Marstellar did not even respond to Slate.
After the story appeared, however, both Burson-Marstellar and the Redskins acknowledged their involvement in a Reuters article published July 30, with the agency saying through a spokesman it was representing the Redskins.
While astroturfing may be too strong of a word considering both the team and the agency acknowledged their roles after the Slate article appeared, the initial lack of transparency and fudging by the Redskins and especially Burson-Marstellar is disturbing.
It’s easy to criticize the agency for not being open with Slate about its involvement with the team and the website, as well as not insisting the Redskins make clear on the site its relationship. The Disclosure of Information section in the PRSA Code of Ethics covers that ethical misstep with clarity.
What does this mean for PR ethics?
As PR practitioners, we advocate for our organizations and clients. But we also are supposed to provide wise, ethical, and informed counsel.
Both ethically and strategically, the Burson-Marstellar agency didn’t do the job. Research is the alpha and omega of public relations, and the agency should have insisted on conducting objective, scientific and targeted research to gauge what Redskins’ fans think of the name and the controversy. (The Redskins Facts site does link to ESPN and Washington Post polls showing a plurality of support for the name.)
If the research was in line with the other polls and showed fans supported the current name or were apathetic about it, the agency would be obligated to report that. Then, it should take the ethical high road and insist the team be transparent about who was responsible for the website.
If the team resisted, it would be appropriate for Burson-Marstellar to turn down the website assignment. It wouldn’t be the only agency that ever “fired” a client over ethical issues.
PR pros need to start taking ethical inventories of themselves, their organizations, and their clients. And when they do so, they need to remember the old adage, “When you lay down with dogs, you get fleas.”
Red isn't our color
by Steph Martoccia
Social media and online news outlets are buzzing about the Urban Outfitters sweatshirt that features the Kent State University logo and what appears to be splattered blood, alluding to the May 4, 1970, shooting on campus where four individuals were killed.
Thousands of people are tweeting their outrage, making both “Kent State” and “Urban Outfitters” trending topics on Twitter. The worst part about this whole situation is Urban Outfitters has either lied to the public about the motive behind its sweatshirt, or its designers are very ill-informed about historic events.
Urban Outfitters apologized for the outrage the sweatshirt caused. The company released this statement on the morning of Sept. 15:
"Urban Outfitters sincerely apologizes for any offense our Vintage Kent State Sweatshirt may have caused. It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such. The one-of-a-kind item was purchased as part of our sun-faded vintage collection. There is no blood on this shirt nor has this item been altered in any way. The red stains are discoloration from the original shade of the shirt and the holes are from natural wear and fray…"
From a public relations standpoint, this statement is not good. There are hundreds of universities in the nation Urban Outfitters could have placed on this sweatshirt, yet the company wants its publics to believe it was an accident Kent State was featured on a faux-bloodstained sweatshirt. Kent State colors are blue and gold; why would Urban Outfitters choose red for this sweatshirt?
Urban Outfitters should not try to cover up its mistake; it makes for a shallow apology. It should be telling the truth behind the motive of this shirt instead of saying the “sun-faded” discoloration has led to the appearance of blood splatter. The validity of the statement is hard to believe, making this a public relations catastrophe.
Kent State released a statement as well, stating:
"We take great offense to a company using our pain for their publicity and profit. This item is beyond poor taste and trivializes a loss of life that still hurts the Kent State community today. We invite the leaders of this company as well as anyone who invested in this item to tour our May 4 Visitors Center, which opened two year ago, to gain perspective on what happened 44 years ago and apply its meaning to the future."
The Urban Outfitters spokespeople could learn a thing or two from Kent State media relations pros. This statement not only demonstrates a clear, concise reaction to the event, it also promotes the May 4 Visitors Center, something that may not have gained any national media attention otherwise.
The release of this sweatshirt is truly offensive to the Kent State community, and the way Urban Outfitters has chosen to handle this dilemma is testing the loyalty of its remaining customers. Many people have declared via social media they will never shop at this store, again. Whether their statements are true or not, it is clear this company has to work on its communications before it is able to regain public trust.
by Jamie Brian and Gabrielle Gentile
Kent State University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication hosted an open forum on Sept. 10 to recognize the 13th anniversary of 9/11 and discuss the effects of terrorism on American society.
The panel discussion “Terrorism and the Media” featured JMC faculty members Jan Leach, Stephanie Danes Smith and Wendy Wardell relating their views on terrorism from experiences in their respective fields.
The panel examined the moral and ethical impact of terrorism on public relations, advertising, journalism and digital media.
JMC Director Thor Wasbotten encouraged students to participate in the discussion.
“Your first media memory was a terrorist attack that led to a lot of other things happening throughout this country and the world. It’s been a part of your life for as long as you can remember,” Wasbotten said. “Terrorists will exploit whatever tactic that gains the most media attention. This isn’t just a news issue. It affects you, too.”
Wardell offered her view from an advertising perspective. She said advertising is all about the connection between people and brands and, more importantly, brands to consumers.
Some may have been confused why advertising was present at a terrorism event. Wardell explained much of terrorism employs very sophisticated, strategic advertising. ISIS demonstrates this very complex marketing and advertising.
ISIS' increasing strength caused growing concern among students and faculty. Former CIA senior executive Smith said ISIS’ messaging is extremely sophisticated and effective.
“Terrorism today is more complicated, more widespread and, potentially, more dangerous than 9/11,” Smith said. “ISIS is not a terrorist organization; it is a terrorist army.”
ISIS uses semantics and words that resonate strongly with its target demographics. ISIS recently declared the creation of the Islamic caliphate. Smith explained the word caliphate holds a very deep and spiritual meaning with Muslims.
Smith said she has confidence the U.S. will be successful in destroying ISIS but posed a concerned whether or not the U.S. will ever be successful in destroying the ideology behind it.
Leach added her own perspective on terrorism via her media ethics background. She explained pictures and videos can be very effective but can also be offensive. She said it is vital to examine the newsworthiness and ethics behind a picture and how to minimize harm as a reporter, journalist or consumer of media.
Leach responded to a student who noted media in the states is very American-centric. She explained American media is in the business to make money. Americans want to buy and hear the media they want to hear. Wardell elaborated by explaining what Americans say they want to consume and what they actually want to consume are two very different things.
Leach closed the conversation with a call for students to take the future of media into their own hands.
“You are the future, and you can make a difference. I see in you, the opportunity to use other forms of media to sell the information,” Leach said.
Students were very engaged and eager to share their thoughts during this discussion. The room was full of passionate young people ready and willing to take Leach’s call to action.
The event had a great turnout and was a complete success for everyone involved. It is always a humbling and enchanting experience when faculty and students meet to collaborate on a prominent world issue.
Wasbotten plans to host forums once a month to engage student and faculty perspectives. Next month’s conversation is entitled “Diversity Redefined.”