Today in evil PR: A student loan company invents a guy who talked to journalists

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that LendEDU invented a guy named Drew Cloud to run The Student Loan Report, which purported to provide fun insight and good information about the burgeoning student loan industry.

Cloud was quoted by multiple media organizations, including MSNBC and The Washington Post. There was a picture of Cloud on the website, along with a bio describing him as a college graduate.

But Cloud isn’t real. And when The Chronicle had a hint he didn’t exist, someone at the site pretending to be Cloud lied when telling The Chronicle that Cloud “was traveling and had limited access to his account.”

Only now does The Student Loan Report acknowledge its sneakiness, saying it should have told everyone that Cloud was a pen name. But a “pen name” is one thing; it’s another to invent a plausible backstory, including the lie that Cloud “always had a knack for reporting throughout high school and college where he picked up his topics of choice.”

They also cite five times they mentioned the student loan company that owns them, LendEDU, without noting the relationship. (Ask Shawn Hannity about what happens when people find out.)

The discovery raises some questions:
1. The Student Loan Report claims its information is accurate. But if its staff can make up a person — and lie about it when caught — how can we trust what it says about student loans, especially with its ownership by a loan company? What credibility does it have now? Why would any news organization, especially ones burned, use its information?
2. Can we borrow money from its owner and pay back in counterfeit bills?

 

 

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The Ethics of artificial intelligence: Platform magazine says public relations has to think about AI, too.

Artificial intelligence is slowly taking over the world. And, as usual, the technology is bounding far ahead of the law and the ethics.

In this Platform magazine article, student writer Skylar Spencer raises some of the questions that everyone — whether in the AI business or a consumer of AI-enhanced technology — ought to be asking. South Carolina’s Dr. Shannon Bowen discusses honesty, which is the basis for public relations and all ethical communication. The keeper of this blog says the same thing, with a hint of transparency.

And speaking of transparency: Platform magazine is sponsored by the The Plank Center for PR leadership, at the University of Alabama.

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Charleston Post and Courier vs. Battery: Reporter does the right thing and a soccer team owner overreacts

UPDATE: That didn’t take long. The United Soccer League stepped in a few hours after this happened (on April 8, 2016), and the Post & Courier has its credentials again. League president Jake Edwards’ statement spanked the club owner:  “We will be taking the appropriate steps to prevent instances like this from happening again.”

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A Charleston Post & Courier reporter this week did exactly what quality journalists do: He sought comment from a party in a lawsuit before publication.

The subject is Eric Bowman, the multimillionaire owner of the Charleston Battery, a minor-league soccer team. His response was even more minor league: He removed the press credentials of the P&C’s sports staff.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning paper responded by announcing that it will not cover the the team, with editor Mitch Pugh saying “our news coverage cannot and will not be swayed by the withholding of media credentials.”

Some quick thoughts on why banning journalists for doing their job is foolish:

* If the paper had published the story without seeking comment, Bowman would rightfully howl. It’s right there in the SPJ code of ethics, under the “Seek Truth and Report it” section that says journalists should “diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.

Trying to punish someone for doing right is a rarely good strategy in business, PR or life.

* It’s a legitimate news story, because the team owner was part of a major Charleston business. And in civil lawsuits – where a plaintiff can pretty much claim anything against a defendant – it’s particularly important to seek a defendant’s response to allegations.

* The sports section has nothing to do with the business section. (If you’re mad at a spouse, do you kick the dog?) Grownups who deal with media know that business, sports, news and opinion are separate parts of a news organization, and the advertising side is separate from the news operation.

* It doesn’t help the United Soccer League, of which the Battery is a member. SB Nation explained a few reasons why, but it missed one: Often, news organizations make deals with each other to swap stories so they don’t have to travel to away games, particularly for smaller-time sports such as soccer.

* It doesn’t work. Florida International University learned this the hard way in 2014, when it tried to ban a Miami Herald reporter who was writing tough stories about the hapless program. It led to lots of stories nationwide about FIU’s shenanigans, and FIU quickly backed down.

* The business story doesn’t go away.

* Major league sports don’t do this. While reporter access (at least to those working outside of the networks that pay billions of dollars for rights) is tightening, major leaguers know that scrutiny and criticism is part of the definition of being a major leaguer.

* If other media in Charleston do the right thing, they will ask the same question about the lawsuit so they can be banned, too. Or they may simply choose not to cover the team out of solidarity. While news organizations revel in their independence, a fact that PR practitioners use to their advantage, media occasionally join together when one is slighted. This seems like a good time for that.

 

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A Call to Arms: Using ethics in digital media

By Judah Martin

I would hesitate to call myself a practicing journalist. In fact, I think such a claim would be patently wrong.

In the years that I have worked as a student writer for The University of Alabama’s engineering college, I have written news releases, research articles, award announcements and “In Memorium” obituaries for engineering alumni who were generous enough to donate to the college. On more than one occasion, I have flipped open one of our now tabloid-sized editions of the Crimson White to see one of my news releases copied nearly word-for-word by an up-and-coming reporter. In the world of public relations, this is precisely the coverage we want. It means that whatever entity we are representing is depicted to the public exactly as we had intended.

In the low-stakes world of UA inter-university communications, little consequence arises from a reporter copying and pasting a description of this or that professor’s research interests. However, this tendency hints at what I think is a larger issue among professional journalists. Various politicians, celebrities and corporations can pedal their agendas across media platforms and I worry that, aside from in an occasional Atlantic or Jezebel think-piece, many reporters seldom challenge the narratives that are fed to them.

I would wager that the chief catalyst driving this disturbing trend is the advent of online journalism and social media. Such powerhouses demand content, sometimes daily, sometimes nearly constantly. The unfortunate reality is that journalists come to rely more and more on public relations professionals to satisfy that need for content and, arguably, the quality of their journalism is suffering.

There is no evidence that journalism’s enabling relationship with the world of public relations will be ending any time soon. According to data from the Pew Research Center, the public relations job market is growing at a substantially higher rate than the market for journalists. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 22.5 percent growth in PR jobs, as traditional journalism jobs continue shrinking. More and more, journalists are relying on PR professionals for story ideas.

In these precarious times, journalists should cling more closely to their codes of ethics than ever. Take, for example, the TARES test, which calls for:

Truthfulness of the claims made by the persuader.

Authenticity of the persuader- integrity, virtue, sincerity, loyalty, independence.

Respect for the ‘persuadee’s’ dignity/rights/interests/autonomy.

Equity of the persuasive appeal- fairness/justice/parity of the persuasion ‘playing field.’

Social responsibility for the wider public interest or public good rather than self-interest.

Ironically, this is a model popular among advertisers and PR professionals, but the values represented in the model can also be useful for the journalists who are relying on them for stories. Specifically, journalists should be always striving to uphold the dignity of the reader in their reporting process, because the quotes and the information that they include in their stories will ultimately determine their credibility. When reporters rely on news releases and official quotes to shape their stories they risk insulting the intelligence of their readers and, ultimately, they allow journalism to take a backseat to the expanding PR field.

Sources:

Alderman, Eric, “How P.R. is Killing Journalism” http://www.takepart.com/feature/2015/02/13/pr-jobs-journalism-jobs

Baker, S., & Martinson, D. L. (2001). The TARES test: Five principles for ethical persuasion. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16(2-3), 148-175.

Black, J., & Roberts, C. (2011). Doing Ethics In Media: Theories and Practical Applications. New York: Routledge.

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What Cam Newton could learn about public relations from Satchel Paige

There are some things you cannot control, as Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton learned during Super Bowl 50 on February 7, 2016.

The ’50’ in Super Bowl 50 may stand for the number of words a frustrated Cam Newton spoke to reporters before walking away from a press conference on Feb. 7, 2016.

The only thing you can control is how you respond. And Newton showed little control in one of the few things he could control – how he dealt with journalists after the 24-10 loss to the Broncos.

Newton was roundly criticized for his post-game behavior, including jabs from former pros.

It’s OK to not talk to reporters, or to be consistently terse.1 But it’s not OK to clam up only when things go bad. When hubris is followed by nemesis, critics pile on when you duck during difficult times the very thing you embrace when times are good.

Reporters deal with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-when-times-are-bad sources all the time. Nearly all reporters can tell you of people, politicians and organizations that purr and make life easy when they want something, but consistently erect roadblocks and/or refuse comment when it’s a topic they don’t want to talk about.

Ethical journalists don’t sulk when dealing with two-faced organizations, but they do their best to be transparent when explaining to the public that the organization erected roadblocks. (A thought for journalists: Find a consistent phrase for “refused to comment” to make Google searches easier.)

Meanwhile, solid PR practitioners know that the two-way symmetrical model of ethical PR means being consistently available when times are difficult.

The great Satchel Paige had the best advice for Newton and others who play this sort of PR game: “You win a few, you lose a few. Some get rained out. But you got to dress for all of them.”

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1The lone exception might be public organizations and politicians that use taxpayer dollars, who usually have an obligation to explain themselves.)

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Cross-dressing PR: Why trust in government continues to decline

On the left, a man dressed as a woman for a photo op. On the left, someone who may know the difference.
On the right, a man dressed as a woman for a photo op. On the left, someone who may know the difference.

Trust in local government tends to be higher than state and federal government, but is there a relationship between decline in trust and the rise of PR in government?

That’s too big of an issue to address on a Friday afternoon.

Instead, here’s a story from Cranston, R.I., where a male van driver for a government organization dressed up like a woman for the photo op about a snow-shoveling program for senior adults. After news media blew the whistle, the head of the program resigned.

If you can’t trust government to do something so obviously goofy for a photo op for a program designed to help people, the public can’t help but wonder what happens when nobody’s looking.

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On the ethics of doing public relations for the Russian Federation

A Bloomberg story reminds us why transparency is an imperative for ethical communication–but sometimes a bad thing for public relations companies who might rather not tell us that they are working for governments that would not allow them to exercise the same freedoms they have in the United States.

The reporters searched federally required disclosure forms by Ketchum Inc. and other public relations companies to track their work done on behalf of the Russian Federation. Ketchum, which owns a PR firm in Russia, has brought in more than $10 million from the federation and Gazprom, the state-owned natural gas pipeline. (Here’s the latest six-month form from Ketchum, which is registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.)

The Bloomberg story noted how RussiaToday — a site built by Ketchum for the Russian Federation — doesn’t set an agenda that would have readers think about “anything on the violence in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin testing his military’s combat readiness, or his government’s crackdown on the press.”

Instead, the site is filled with content such as a feature about a Russian literary celebration in London (with no mention of  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) and entire section called “Policy Initiatives” (with no mention of Russia’s policy toward Ukraine, and remarkably limited mentions of Ukraine on the site since 2013). A run through the site feels like its target audience is amnesiacs who don’t follow the news and don’t mind drowning in vatrushka filling.

The PR industry’s business of representing people, groups and governments with bad reputations is nothing new, and part of their job description. Working for the Russian Federation ties into PR founding father Edward Bernays’ use of the word “counsel” to compare what lawyers do in representing clients in court with PR practitioners representing clients in the marketplace of ideas.

But as we note in Chapter 9 of  Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications, the analogy fall short:

The “PR practitioners-are-like-lawyers” comparison ultimately fails, however. “Discovery” rules require lawyers to provide evidence to their opponents; no such rule exists in public relations. The reality is that the court of public opinion has no guarantee that adversaries will square off and exchange comprehensive truths, and an impartial judge will oversee the process. Just as a lawyer has no obligation to be considerate of the weaknesses of his courtroom opponents, so the public relations person can clearly claim it is another’s obligation to provide countering messages. The egoistic public relations professional will likely cherish the situation in which opposition remains silent; the more socially conscious one will welcome fair competition. (p. 276).

A new edition of the book would add another point: While the history of PR has been one of the “unseen hand” that manipulates public opinion, lawyers must sign their names to the work they file in public courts. Ketchum’s puts its name on the “About Us” page — but never says it’s a PR firm, has no hyperlink to its site and no mention that the Russian Federation is a client.

This story is among several that have questioned Ketchum’s ties to the Russian Federation and work on Putin’s behalf. Bloomberg quoted several professors to make other points in its story, including those who noted the vital need for a free marketplace of ideas – but that PR firms also must serve as a conscience to their clients.

Syracuse’s Guy Golan goes even further, noting that many in the public would take a dim view of Ketchum having contracts with both the U.S. and Russian governments: “I wouldn’t give Ketchum an A+ for ethics.”

To its credit, and unlike most other PR firms working for Russia, Ketchum commented about its relationship with the Russian Federation. A spokeswoman repeated the talking points from March 2014, when other media questioned the company’s ties to Russia. The Ketchum party line: It advises on “economic development and investment,” not “foreign policy or the Ukraine crisis.” Furthermore, Ketchum “is complying with sanctions.”

But if Bernays were with us, he might say those talking points are differences without distinction. In his 1965 Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays, he tells the story of a 1933 dinner where he learned that Nazi propaganda leader Joseph Goebbels “was using my book Crystallizing Public Opinion as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me. … Obviously the attack on the Jews of Germany was no emotional outburst of the Nazis, but a deliberate, planned campaign.”

This is not to say that the Russian Federation and Nazi Germany are the same. Still, it is worth noting that Bernays likely would have turned down work for Germany’s 1936 Olympics, an event Ketchum might have called an issue of “economic development and investment.” Ketchum and Russia’s 2014 Olympics? See for yourself.

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Chrysler: If you can find a journalist for sale, buy him

LeeIacoccaYou might recall the 1980s Chrysler ads where then-chairman Lee Iacocca challenged buyers: “If you can find a better car, buy it!”

A post from Jalopnik site suggests Fiat-Chrysler has a new line: “If you can find a journalist for sale, buy him.”

Automotive News journalist Nick Bunkley noted that the company, at a media event unveiling its five-year plan, put documents on Samsung Galaxy tablets for journalists to take – or, if the journalists’ ethics would not allow, let them donate the tablet to Detroit city schools. As Bunkley tweeted: #ethicssmethics.

The ethics of automotive journalism can be tricky, given the jumble of issues related to access to vehicles for review, the power struggles between the industry and journalists, and the billions of ad dollars spent by the industry. It’s indeed a love-hate relationship.

Having said that, of course it’s unethical for people who cover a company to accept anything of real value from that company, and a $300 tablet is both something of real value and completely unrelated to the requirements to write about the company.

The concern here is with Chrysler for making the offer.

The company knows that many of journalists who cover it have corporate or personal (or, we hope, both corporate and personal) obligations to accept nothing of value. The reasons are obvious — real bias by weak-willed journalists swayed by swag, or the perception of bias by news consumers who believe that journalists are weak-willed and swayable.

Simply making the offer created a multifaceted ethical dilemma:

  • If you take the tablet and work for an online site, do you have a legal obligation under Federal Trade Commission guidelines to tell readers that you accepted the tablet?
  • Does Chrysler have an ethical or legal obligation to tell those blogging journalists who take the tablet that they may have entered into a commercial relationship with the company?
  • If you take the tablet, have you harmed a student who otherwise won’t have access to a tablet that Chrysler would have donated?
  • If you don’t take the tablet, is it really a “donation” in the first place? (My choice to follow my company’s ethics rules does not mean I’ve done anything noble by donating a tablet to charity.)
  • If you don’t take the tablet, do you have the obligation to tell readers that you turned down the offer — but others writing about it took the tablet. (The “accountability” section of the SPJ Code of Ethics, for example, tells journalists to “expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.”)

My advice to Chrysler: Let journalists do their jobs without having to make decisions that have nothing to do with the task at hand. It creates a further divide among “journalists” and people using journalism for their (and your) ends, and confuses the public between that distinction. And uncouple the connection between a tablet giveaway to journalists and a charitable donation to schools, which makes it look like you’ll only donate when it doesn’t meet your other purpose of buying coverage.

Or to be even more cynical, Chrysler can change the words “the British journalist” to “the auto journalist” in Humbert Wolfe’s poetic ditty from a few decades ago.

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How responsible are journalists for catching liars Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o and others?

Political cartoonist Chip Bok, a Pulitzer finalist, pulls together both recent strings of jock lies.

The world’s most famous cyclist, Lance Armstrong, lied and lied and lied, and even sued a news organization who called out his lies. (He may have even lied while backpedaling for Oprah.)

Notre Dame defensive player Manti Te’o, whether he meant to or not, lied about what turned to be an imaginary girlfriend.

The result is another round of hand-wringing about the “diminished role” of investigative journalism and media who, as National Public Radio wrote, “let its guard down.”

It should be “let their guard down,” because media are plural, dangit. But confusing media as a singular entity helps prove the point of this post, which reminds us that even as lots of journalists failed to catch the lies, eventually a journalist caught the lies.

It’s tough to be a journalist, because lots of people and organizations lie to you (and, by definition, to the public), stonewall with “no comment” or piecemeal answers, provide general “statements” on a topic instead of answering specific questions, or bend their answers so far in their own favor that the truth is broken by most ethical standards.

More than once I heard Randy Henderson, my late city editor at The Birmingham News, say to a caller complaining about a story: “We print lies every day, because people lie to us every day.” Journalists cannot look into the hearts of others. Journalists don’t have subpoena power but must be more exacting than prosecutors, because a prosecutor who loses a criminal case won’t face libel charges.

In the case of Te’o, I’m reminded of this scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in which principal Ed Rooney is right when he doesn’t believe that Sloan Peterson’s grandmother is dead. He calls out Mr. Peterson (that is to say, Ferris) on the phone:

Oh, sure. I’d be happy to release Sloane. You produce a corpse and I’ll release Sloane. I want to see this dead grandmother firsthand. … That’s right. Just roll her old bones all over here and I’ll dig up your daughter. It’s school policy.

A journalist wouldn’t do it that way, of course, and even Principal Rooney was snookered by Bueller, a high-quality liar.

I believe it’s tougher than ever for journalists to move beyond the carefully constructed PR façade of athletics, much less catch liars, in this age when top college athletic departments censor their own athletes, restrict journalists’ access, seek to dictate what can be reported, pressure journalists who oppose the PR line, and bypass media gatekeeping with information delivered to a public that may not distinguish the difference or want to kill the messengers who deliver bad news about their favorite teams. (Feel free to replace the references to athletics with “politicians,” “radio morning-show hosts,” “businesses,” or other liars as you wish.)

This does not excuse bad journalism, of course, and there’s plenty of that to go around. Many journalists don’t ask the right questions, don’t want the truth to impede on a good story, are too busy feeding the never-sated digital beast, or want to believe that people are basically good, or lots of other reasons.

The (sort-of) good news: In the cases of Lance and Te’o and others, remember that journalism eventually did its job:

  • Even as Armstrong lied and lied and sued and lied and intimidated and lied, some journalists continued to pursue the truth.
  • It wasn’t until after the Deadspin story that Notre Dame, which knew about the hoax possibility for weeks, hastily called its press conference and (began to) explain the situation. Meanwhile, Te’o admits that he “tailored” accounts of his story, even after Notre Dame says it had begun its investigation.
  • We can go on, with examples of Olympian-turned-felon Marion Jones and plenty of presidents (Nixon, Clinton, etc.), presidential candidates and many more famous people who invested years lying to journalists.

The world’s ability to lie outstrips journalism’s ability to call out the liars. And in this world of more-and-better liars and fewer journalists, it’s not getting easier.

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Remember the PR backlash against news about News of the World’s ethics?

News Corp. said it will close News of the World in the wake of criminal probes into the paper

With news that News Corp.’s News of the World will fold in the wake of criminal investigation involving the paper’s considerable hacking into private phone voicemail accounts, a few thoughts worthy of an ethics class discussion:

  • Is it ever right to hack into a phone or computer system? There’s nothing new about this. (Compare what’s happening in England with what happened in Cincinnati.)
  • Notice that Fox News’ story didn’t include any discussion of News Corp.’s efforts to buy the majority of British Sky Broadcasting Group PLC that it didn’t own. (To its credit, The Wall Street Journal (another News Corp. property) did mention that British regulators are having second thoughts about the British Sky deal in the wake of News of the World scandal.) But neither story mentioned advertiser boycotts, although The News Corp.’s Times of London did.
  • Some note that the closing of the Sunday-only paper appears “cosmetic,” since News Corp. bought the domain name “TheSunOnSunday.co.uk” two days before the closure. While access to financial information about News of the World isn’t available, there has been no mention of whether the 3.7-million circulation paper’s closure will hurt News Corp.’s bottom line. Given that the company already has The Sun and The Times in the UK, the decision to close News of the World may well bring no financial pain — and perhaps some gain — to News Corp.
  • While several hundred people may lose their jobs, News Corp. continues to defend Rebekah Brooks, who was editor when the phone tapping began and is now head of News International. Some suggest that the person in charge of the company’s news operations ought to be out, too. Vanity Fair says it’s not fair that top-level executives won’t lose their jobs.
  • Does The New York Times deserve an apology? The Times reported on the wiretapping with a September 2010 magazine cover story, and News of The World managing editor (and now editor) Bill Akass’ response (after not talking to The Times during its reporting) was to claim shoddy journalism, saying that The Times wrote about it as a shot at News Corp.’s purchase of The Wall Street Journal and efforts to hone in on The Times’ traditional audiences. Arthur Brisband, then The Times’ public editor, said The Timeswas mostly fair.

Now, as it turns out, The Times’ reporting was deadly accurate, and Akass now comes across as either a PR hack or an incredibly out-of-touch journalist. What are the implications for public relations when facing criticism? Is attacking the messenger a reasonable course? Do you have an obligation to apologize when you’re wrong, especially to people/organizations whose credibility you attacked?

The Bottom Line: Is closing the paper a matter of doing the right thing but for the wrong reason? If so, does it matter when it’s a distinction between a person and a corporation? How does all of this play into questions of corporate, personal, and ethical values?

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