Financial Tammany In Trinity Riverland

Yuck. Financial tammany has come to Trinity Riverland here in Fort Worth, Texas.

And that’s no compliment.

Seems that a publicly-supported entity, the Trinity River Vision Authority (TRVA), headed by J. D. Granger, is spending around $1 million to hire a public relations consultant for the next four years. Part of the services this consultant will provide is:

• Fair contracting consulting services
• General consulting services
• Responsibility for filing registrations and reports with regulatory authorities
• Documentation of all contacts and communications with third parties
• Updated mailing lists and databases of same

On top of this, the contract requires the PR consultant to obtain certifications from the North Central Texas Regional Certification Agency (NCTRCA) as a woman-owned business, disadvantaged business, and minority business enterprises. Interestingly, the contract stipulates that the PR consultant must act professionally at all times.

Additionally, the consultant is required to supply the TRVA with evidence of insurance coverage blah blah blah.

After all this, immediate tasks are set forth that include TRVA staff training, community outreach (duh!), market surveys, printed materials, Web site responsibilities, special projects and solicitation of private donations.

Did I forget to mention that the contract was let without an RFP? And that the award went to none other than personal friend of Granger, Bryan Eppstein, a political consultant who’s been behind most of the campaigns of the county’s elected officials? When the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported (and supported) the award, I could hear the ghosts of Tammany Hall cheering all the way from New York City.

That ghoulish cheer was raised again two short weeks later when the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD) hired Eppstein’s group to be a consultant for that publicly-supported body by further giving him another $750,000 contract. That’s $1.75 million altogether, an outrageous amount of payback.

Did I forget to mention that Eppstein was responsible for ensuring that two of the TRWD members get elected this past year? And that one of these members still owes Eppstein $30,000? That would be board member Jim Lane, who insisted that by voting to approve the contract with Eppstein, he wasn’t breaking any laws, though admittedly he realized that “it would raise a lot of eyebrows.”

Well, by Tammany Hall standards, this contract has “honest graft” written all over it. But until taxpayers in my neck of the woods let it be known that they won’t stand for it, I’ll be one of the few voices to call it like it is: The most dishonest “honest” graft to come along since George W. Plunkitt.

Question of the Week: Should Texas state law require RFPs for all services of publicly-funded bodies?


So, I'm Having a Conversation with Betty Now...

Continuing the dialogue with a Betty user, what if....

Just to refresh your memory, this product was launched by Betty Beauty, a New York startup that is marketing pubic hair dye for “the hair down there.” The dye comes packaged in kits with names like Brown Betty, Auburn Betty, Blonde Betty, Black Betty and Fun Betty (hot pink). And it’s not just for female Bettys either.

I ended my last post with having started an imaginary conversation with you about why you use Brown Betty and your friend uses Fun Betty and why I don’t use Betty at all. And from a PR point of view, that’s great. But if our ultimate PR goal is to adhere to a two-way symmetrical model, then that means that I have to not only hear you but also respond to what you’re saying.

So, we have a difference between us. I don’t see any reason to use Betty products, but you do. And in order to convince me that Betty products are worth using, you’ll have to tell me a lot more about the product itself. For instance, what’s in the product? Are there any ingredients that are harmful? Where is the product made? Since it’s new, do we really know about all the side effects of it? Do we really know that the dye isn’t permanent?

In answering these questions, what would happen if, for instance, you tell me that using Betty products is helping provide jobs in a Third World country? Shouldn’t that make a difference to me? And what if, through PR’s two-way dialogue, I find out that Betty folks are launching a campaign against nonusers simply because they’ve developed the idea that a real Betty is defined as one who uses Betty products?

If collectively we don’t continue a conversation, tensions could presumably escalate to the point where opinion becomes belief and belief is translated into action. And the actions of Bettys might not be all that fun to the rest of us. What if Bettys everywhere united and made it their mission to make everyone a “real Betty”? The role of PR becomes more important, seen from this viewpoint. Why? Because through PR, we can discuss what is reasonable, what is principled and what is conscionable. And in the end, together we might find that “Betty truth” may exist somewhere between the nonuser position I advocate and the user position you advocate. Another result might be that Betty users realize that nonusers pose no threat—and vice versa. And that’s a conversation worth having if it transcends the disrepect inherent in promoting our own definition of what a real Betty is. Maybe in the long run, a real Betty means continuing the conversation. And that's what PR does best.

Question of the Week: When someone disagrees with you, do you continue the conversation?


Viva la différence!

This headline caught my attention:

Launch of Pubic-Hair-Coloring Product Line Scores PR Coup

Betty products. For the hair down there.

Made for Bettys everywhere, the product was launched by Betty Beauty, a New York startup that is marketing pubic hair dye for “the hair down there.” The dye comes packaged in kits with names like Brown Betty, Auburn Betty, Blonde Betty, Black Betty and Fun Betty (hot pink). And it’s not just for female Bettys either.

The owner of Betty Beauty is Nancy Jarecki and to date, she’s only spent $1,995 on advertising. Yet, her product is the current buzz from Bean Town to Star Town.

In thinking about all the Betty products, I was reminded of cosmopolitanism. Now, you might not see the immediate connection, so bear with me.

Nancy was inspired with the idea while she was on vacation in Italy. As to her epiphanous thinking, she says, "I thought, 'Of course, who wouldn't want to be a true blonde? "' On her return home, she worked with a gynecologist, a chemist and a toxicologist to develop a gentle, no-drip formula and special dye tools.

Now, I’ll be the first to give Nancy credit for her spark, naming creativity and persistence. But I have to admit, I just don’t think I’m ever actually going to use her product. I don’t see a reason to. But I’m not going to stop you from using it, if that’s what you feel compelled to do. I’m definitely going to talk to you though, to try to understand the reasons you have for using Betty. (Be prepared, however. I’m too nosy not to also want to know which Betty product you use!)

And essentially that’s what the heart of cosmopolitanism is, being able to create dialogue where there are differences. And during that conversation, I might discover that you use Brown Betty while a good friend of yours uses Fun Betty. And then we could talk about whether you might ever use Fun Betty or whether you only want to use Brown Betty. I might also discover, through that dialogue, that using Betty products is worth trying. And then again, I might decide Betty products are worthwhile but still not have the desire to try it.

So many options can come from that conversation. And that’s the point for PR. Starting the conversation. And that’s for Bettys everywhere.

Question of the Week: How can you start a conversation with your pubics, er, publics?


WOMMA, ignoring Big Macs?

Well, they finally did it. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) adopted an ethics toolkit this past week. The toolkit provides guidance, and in some cases, even templates, for companies and marketers to use, depending on the communication and the medium. WOMMA guidelines cover word-of-mouth campaigns and the blogosphere along with providing an assessment kit.

After a summer brouhaha over an intern’s disparaging blog response to Jeff Jarvis' Dell Hell, Dell Computers was the first company that issued a statement in which they pledge to abide by the association’s guidelines, stating that they are, well, committed to online transparency and that their employees and vendors better be, too.

Not only was Dell’s situation a public relations snafu, but Wal-Mart underwent a similar flogging. I suspect McDonald’s tripped up, too, but that hasn’t been as widely discussed. I think if WOMMA is going to jump in and put Edelman’s on probation, they may as well address other companies who have skirted the fringe.

According to WOMMA, if a company is employing a fictional character, then disclosure is unnecessary. The problem is, if you’re paying someone to act like a customer—and they’re really not one—then the person and the company can always claim that the exercise was the opinion of a “fictional customer.” I don’t like this loophole. Online, it’s just too hard to tell who’s real and who’s not. Don’t forget YouTube’s Lonely Girl (aka paid actress).

One thing I do think WOMMA is correct in promoting is the requirement for corporations to encourage their vendors to adopt an ethics program. That type of peer B2B policy may just actually work to the point that it has an effect. The policy states:

You can do your part to end stealth marketing practices by educating your vendors, and by requiring them to honor the WOMMA Ethics Code in their own operations.

I’d actually like to see the PRSA explore avenues in which PR practitioners could encourage those within their sphere of influence to adhere to—or at least inquire about--an ethics philosophy. And that’s not fiction!

Question of the Week: Who is within your sphere of influence that you could encourage to act ethically?

PS Check out Mohawk Paper’s CSR policies—they’re great!

About Mohawk Fine Paper

Mohawk Environmental Papers

Mohawk's Commitment to Wind Power

Mohawk Press Release in Trade Publication

Mohawk Makes EPA Green Power List

Press Release on Mohawk


Going Gaga Over Google

Is this name worth protecting?

I’m an avid blog reader, but I don’t necessarily read the same blogs every week. This week, I read Gord Hotchkiss’ guest blog for Media Post’s Inside Search. I’m not terribly surprised that he blogged on Google, what with all the recent buzz about the company, including Bush’s reference to The Google.

I wasn’t surprised either, that as a marketer, he thought Google’s defense of its trademark was lame. How easy his job would be if all those nettlesome lawyers and public relations folks would just get out of his way and let him do his job—make the brand recognizable across the landscape with the thought that if people just recognize your product or service, it will sell, seLL, SELL!

It’s exactly this shallow view of communications that, in my opinion, doesn’t hold up in the new media. Communications has converged too rapidly for that, making integrated communications a staple now and for the foreseeable future. Being in PR, I’d rather take the long view—and the trouble—to sit down with my marketing counterpart to plan strategy. Ditto for advertising.

Hotchkiss’ explanation for companies defending its trademark is that these companies are basically in the “getting complacent” stage which is just another way of saying that they’re getting lazy about their brand. On the contrary, I don’t see Google in that light at all. I see Google as an innovative, take-risk brand that has a terribly reliable product. And I think that’s worth protecting, however the company chooses to do it.

And let’s not forget the legal ramifications if a company doesn’t protect its name. That could ultimately lead to a whole different set of headaches.

Of the 20 or so responses to Hotchkiss’ commentary, eight were supportive of Hotchkiss’ view (although two of the responses were posted from the same person, making it seven people who agreed with him). I think the majority of attorneys and public relations people (and, I’d venture to guess, the advertising crowd, too) understand broader implications of brand management than what Hotchkiss stated.

Ultimately, if you’re not going to defend your brand, why work so hard to develop one in the first place?

Question of the Week: If you noticed your company’s brand being used outside of trademark, would you ignore it?


All Things Eeeeeee…

Eeeeeeeee as in Enron. This past week, Jeff Skilling, former president of Enron, was sentenced to 24 years and four months, and will soon be remanded to the Federal Correctional Center in Butner, N.C. According to federal guidelines, Skilling must serve at least 85 percent of the sentence before he is eligible for release. If authorities note his good behavior during incarceration, however, he will be eligible to rejoin society when he is 72.

Prior to his sentencing, Judge Sim Lake allowed former employees and shareholders to speak, many of whom urged Lake to hand down a tough sentence. The judge had no choice but to follow federal sentencing guidelines which require judges to consider numeric calculations that take into account many factors, one of which is dollar loss if fraud has been committed.

Skilling's sentencing has turned into a hotbed of debate within the legal community. At issue is whether the sentence is appropriate for a first-time, white-collar offender. Attorneys point to the fact that repeat violent offenders often get less time and are eligible for parole sooner.

I think that with so many lives affected, Skilling should be held to a high level of responsibility. White collar crime affects more people and requires cunning intent. Surely that fits the definition of “evil.” That said, I think the sentence is rightfully severe, and I’m disappointed that Andy Fastow is not being required to serve more than the six years he was given for his role in the undoing of this corporation. Federal sentencing guidelines are meant to be a clear warning to capitalists in this country to control their greed.

I’m not sure if anyone from Enron’s communication or human resources areas could have affected or influenced Skilling. Probably not. But they certainly would have been able to ask the hard questions. To ask the right questions. I think that, more than anything, would have been a huge service to employees under the circumstances. Instead, they took a different road and became management’s “easy speaks.”

More than likely, Skilling will serve his time at the low-security facility near the Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, along with 1308 other inmates. (But Federal Bureau of Prison officials make the final call.) Visiting hours are: Monday, Thursday and Friday from 2:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturdays, Sundays and all federal holidays, from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

And moreeeeee…

Edelman's is still dealing with the fall-out over the failed Wal-Mart “flogging.” I visited Richard Edelman's blog to find out what he had to say about it and especially, what he intends to do about it.

I was very impressed that he took the rap, made no excuses and then asked for suggestions on how to ensure that this doesn’t happen again within his company. He even responded to me with an e-mail in which he acknowledged there was more work internally to do. To that end, he’s brought back Mike Morley, a recently-retired Edelman VP, to act as ombudsman and to speak about ethics to all Edelman offices globally. Edelman is also requiring its employees to attend "Ethics in Social Media" training, hosted by Edelman’s me2revolution team along with outside experts.

I think Edelman is serious about transparency and if that doesn’t start at the top levels of a company, then the company is probably already in trouble. So, an attaboy for Edelman’s for its proactive treatment of this issue.

Question of the Week: Do you agree with Jeff Skilling’s punishment?


Mickey Mouse and The Roller Coaster of Kid-Friendly PR

I’m feeling poorly about my posts which, in truth, have been particularly aimed at poor and unethical PR. I’d like to set the record straight and mention two PR campaigns that are communitarian-based and are focusing on policies that are meant to address a larger picture, doing what’s right for our kids.

One PR campaign was announced this week by
Six Flags Theme Parks,
stating that they are implementing a code of conduct at all its parks.

Six Flags is putting the skids on roller-coaster behavior.

The code is aimed at getting a handle on unruly teens who dress inappropriately, consistently cut in lines and who otherwise bully their way around the parks. Corporate Six Flags has determined that at least some of this behavior is contributing to lower attendance figures by families. I applaud the code because of its communitarian-based ethics. It’s easy for teens to find their way to locations that don’t monitor behavior—and easy for harried working parents to let them. By prominently displaying conduct requirements, Six Flags is sending a message to everyone. The message? We won’t put up with thinly-veiled juvenile delinquent behavior. Now the hard part comes. Six Flags and its employees must be committed to these standards by enforcing them at all 29 of its parks. Only then will teens realize their boundaries and will families feel welcome once again.

The other PR campaign comes from
which also made an announcement aimed at kids.

Disney puts Mickey on kid-friendly diet.

Disney’s theme parks will begin serving nutritionally balanced meals and only make restaurant endorsement deals with chains that limit fat and sugar items on its menus. To that end, Disney ended its 10-year deal with McDonalds. The Disney campaign is a follow-on to the announcement by the Federal Communications Commission that it will study links between ads, viewing habits and the rise of childhood obesity as marketing of food to children is presently unregulated. Disney’s communitarian campaign recognizes the heft that Disney and its characters have on children’s perceptions and Disney's proactive stance is reinforcing the idea that Disney is in a position to make a difference. I like the health-friendly campaign that Disney's undertaken as it considers children’s health over advertising dollars.

I also think that if more companies--whatever the industry or the primary stakeholders--implemented at least some communitarian-based campaigns, we'd see a widespread change in today's corporate culture.

Question of the Week: What communitarian-based PR is your company implementing?


What do Larry Flynt and J. W. Marriott, Jr., Have In Common?

Quite a lot as it turns out. Larry Flynt became a household name after a landmark pornography case was decided by the Supreme Court. In that case, Flynt fought for the right to express pornographic parodies of a public figure (Jerry Falwell) under First Amendment protection. Ever since, he’s become an icon for the pornography industry.

Larry Flynt: The original Hustler

With technological developments, the porn industry has continued to evolve from Flynt’s Hustler parodies to an industry that has been testing placement of an ever-moving line between what is defined as pornographic material and what is not, what is one’s right to express and what speech is not acceptable to express. The fact that pornography, the hard core kind, is widely available has helped the industry become socially acceptable. Don’t believe me? Well, when captains of industry, corporations like AT&T, Yahoo!, Direct TV and Marriott International, begin to accept your wares, can Wall Street be far behind?

While Marriott, Jr. hasn’t gone to court on his offerings of pornography, let there be no doubt that Marriott is a part of the porn business. They have inked a deal that allows their hotel guests to order up pornographic movies. In return for this use of airwaves, Marriott gets to keep a percentage of the cost of each movie purchased.

Of course, their PR folks water this down. Marriott’s PR gurus want us to believe that since they don’t make these movies, and since they don’t watch these movies, that their chain is upstanding and respectable. They say Marriott is merely making these movies available because their customers demand them. So, how much demand is there for pornographic movies in motels? That seems to be a closely-guarded secret. In other words, Marriott, Jr. isn’t telling what his take of the porn pie is, although expert guessers have pegged it at between 70 and 80 percent of all in-room profits. And that can add up to a rather large amount of qwan.

J.W. Marriott, Jr.: Just another hustler?

On the contrary, on Marriott’s Web site, you can find out that Marriott, Jr. is an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, that he has four children and 12 grandchildren. You can also read that Marriott supports the community through various programs.

In all this hubris you can even find Marriott’s commitment to engaging women-owned businesses to supply key products and services.

Something is terribly amiss here. I think in a period when we, as a society, have experienced grotesque killings of young girls—of our nation’s young women—that Jackson Katz is onto something. I think it’s time—past time—to open a dialogue about the increasing acceptability by men in our society of pornography and to take a hard look at what this means for us—for all of us.

James B. Weaver, Professor of Communication and Psychology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute & Technology, reported on research into how pornography is affecting our society. Among other things, his testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation revealed the following:

• The marriage between pornography producers and corporate America has served to legitimize pornography to millions of Americans.
• Pornography reinforces the message that women exist merely for the gratification of men.
• Pornography is affecting the sexual socialization of our society’s teens.
• Social science studies—conducted for more than 20 years—have consistently shown that watching pornography negatively impacts our most basic attitudes, beliefs, and values about sex, intimacy, and family.

What this means is that pornography facilitates sexual aggression and fosters misogyny, the very point that Katz made.

I need to mention here that one hotel chain, Omni, had the courage to implement a no-porn policy. And that hotel has consistently been ranked by J.D. Powers as top of the heap in guest satisfaction among upscale hotel chains. That award, given in July 2006, debunks the notion that Marriott (and all other major hotel chains) cannot be a hotel of choice without offering pornography as an in-room amenity.

Like Katz, I believe that until these other hotels begin to consider a communitarian perspective, our society will continue to wrestle with these kinds of misogynistic crimes.

And at some point, Marriott, Jr. needs to wake up and ask himself, “Is offering pornography worth it?” And I’m going to suggest that the answer is not to be found in a thinly-veiled bribe to women-owned businesses to become partners with a corporation that, while doling out money to women from one hand, is raking it in off the backs of women with the other.

Question of the Week: Is it ethical for Marriott International to offer pornographic movies and then offer business contracts to women-owned businesses?


Blowin' in the Wind

Bob Dylan singing new song for CEOs?

The post-scandal laundry is still being put out on the line to dry as far as two high-profile California companies, Hewlett Packard (HP) and Apple Computers, are concerned.

I think it’s worth taking a closer look at the actions of these companies' top dogs to get a handle on the public relations’ ethics involved.

Ex-chair of Hewlett Packard, Patricia Dunn, was indicted this week by California Attorney General, Bill Lockyer. Her improper judgment in a board-authorized investigation led to her separation from HP. After this, Congress subpoenaed her to testify before an oversight and investigations subcommittee of the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee. Although she could have refused to testify, as HP’s ex-counsel Ann Baskins chose to do, Dunn participated fully and, in her testimony, she made several recommendations to the committee on the issue involved, pretexting.

In deconstructing her actions, I see both utilitarian and communitarian threads woven in HP’s pile of clothes. For instance, her launch—albeit zealous—of an investigation of the board was motivated by her desire to protect the company, to “circle the wagons,” believing that finding a news leaker would protect HP’s proprietary data and thus, their position in the market. Once the actual circumstances of the investigation popped to the surface, however, the question of the methodology’s legality became a prime topic in the news. The company issued press releases that announced it was internally investigating the methods used.

However, Dunn ended up resigning from her chair position and from the HP board. Both resignations were utilitarian-based—again, protection of the company and doing what was in the best interests of HP. However, I see a shift in her perspective, beginning with the decision to testify before the committee. She made several recommendations to Congress in her written statement and in her testimony on the issues involved in pretexting, demonstrating the essence of communitarianism. Had she, like Baskins, chosen not to testify, then she would have been acting from a utilitarian base. The fact that her testimony may have caused Lockyer to issue indictments against her—and not Baskins—is truly ironic and, if this is the case, truly pitiful. If you believe her sworn testimony, Dunn has consistently said she relied on Baskins and Kevin Hunsacker, HP’s ethics counsel, for legal advice. A CEO is, after all, only as good as its company counsel.

The other honcho involved is Steve Jobs who has publicly admitted that he knew about options backdating at Apple. Besides being investigated by the SEC, the company conducted a three-month internal investigation, finding 15 instances of backdating between 1997 and 2002. Jobs has taken the unusual step of issuing a public apology for the illegal accounting at his company. And, very quietly, the company let go its CFO, Fred Anderson, and its chief counsel, Nancy Heinen—who promptly hired two criminal defense attorneys. Jobs’ actions seem, at this point, utilitarian-based. I suspect that not only is his purpose aimed at protecting Apple, it’s also aimed at protecting him. Although Wall Street analysts have been quick to breathe a sigh of relief, I don’t believe the public—or the SEC—is that ready to overlook his passive acceptance of the practice—so what that he bequeathed us the iPod? Already shareholder advocates are saying this is not the end of his culpability.

Given the special precedence of Dunn’s indictment, and the fact that several other CEOs have been indicted for options backdating, we’ll see how this plays out. But regardless, I firmly believe that Dunn actually thought she was doing the right thing in a legal way, and I know that Jobs allowed the wrong thing to be done in an illegal way. Which is to say, I don’t think that all Apple’s dirty laundry has yet been washed.

The results of these two scandals could mightily affect future public relations models which, at present, tend to respond quickly and transparently to all stakeholders. If, however, by doing so, CEOs become a target for legal actions, greater pressure will be brought on PR professionals to keep a company's doings in the dryer, away from public scrutiny. After all, how long do you think your career would last if your advice leads to your company's CEO blowin' in the wind?

Question of the Week: Do you think that Steve Jobs should resign based on his knowledge of options backdating?

Linda@the saltlick


Forget T.O. The Bigger Problem is K.E.

I'm fuming mad right now. And the reason? Two words: Kim Etheredge.

She's the self-proclaimed publicist for Terrell Owens, wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys football team. I really think she has raised the term “spin doctor” to an altogether new iniquitous state.

Kim Etheredge, public relations' most recent "maquiller"?

Although I did search for Ms. Etheredge’s credentials—which seem to be sadly absent—I knew beforehand that I wouldn’t find anything. She does sell soap for the hair. Most of the rest of us would call that shampoo. But far be it from me to stand in Ms. Etheredge’s way to spin those words around.

According to her Web site, her primary credentials seem to be that she participated in everyday activities of “sun, water, fun and convertibles” in Los Angeles, which, she notes, is the entertainment capital of the world. Well, beside the fact that sun, water and convertibles are not, strictly speaking, activities, she got it wrong again. Since her presence in Dallas, I want to wager that, given enough time, Dallas' entertainment will certainly rival L.A.'s, if Ms. Etheredge has anything to say about it.

A publicist who makes statements, misstatements or "unavailable for comment" statements like these should be raising the eyebrows of bona fide public relations practitioners across the country:

"I don't remember everything I said. I really didn't know what was happening at the time." – Fort Worth Star Telegram

“On Wednesday, Etheredge denied saying he was depressed.” – Dallas Morning News

“Etheredge, who said she was the friend cited in the police document, told Dallas-area media Wednesday that the police got the story wrong.” – Dallas Morning News

“Etheredge did not immediately respond to repeated calls and e-mails from The Associated Press.”– Associated Press

“Owens took part in a risque promotional stunt with one of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" that later prompted an apology from the network.” – Dallas Morning News

“He was unable to attend because he was injured.” statement explaining Terrell Owens’ absence at an autograph session after Owens participated in an Eagles practice – Sports Goons

“When Etheredge spoke Wednesday, she lashed out at authorities, saying, 'I am just upset that I just feel they take advantage of Terrell. Had this been someone else, this may not have happened.' " – Dallas Morning News

“Owens' agent, Drew Rosenhaus, was unavailable for comment, and his publicist, Kim Etheredge, had no comment.” – USA Today

“Terrell has 25 million reasons to be alive.” – Fort Worth Star Telegram

“He is not a disruptive person.” Etheredge said. – Football Guys

“It's 15000 square feet. That's a very large house for one person.” - CNN

“Owens' publicist, Kim Etheredge, and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, both declined to speculate about his future.” – AP Sports

Okay. If you’ve managed to make it through these inane witticisms, you need to consider these instances:

1. Kim Etheredge managed to show up last July when Owens was practicing and an envelope just happened to fall at his feet. Inside? “Legal papers” that indicated that he was served. No explanation for these mysterious papers was ever given.

2. Back in Philadelphia, Ms. Etheredge managed to highlight T.O.’s trip to get gas. That resulted in a public disagreement with Eagle’s management. Ms. Etheredge insisted that T.O. should not have been told by team management to use inferior gas.

3. T.O. fires his long-time trainer but keeps Ms. Etheredge.

If all this sounds like Barnum & Bailey tactics, it’s because they are.

Public relations has moved so far beyond this, that I can’t believe more media relations folks aren’t, like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, screaming, “Off with her head!”

Most PR practitioners seem to have taken the Wizard’s advice when he said, “Don’t pay any attention to that man behind the curtain.” But we ignore Ms. Etheredge at our own peril.

Somebody, please, anybody, unplug her before our reps are slandered anymore.

Question of the Week: Do you think that PRSA should adopt a policy of issuing statements disassociating itself from unethical practictioners who are not members of the organization?


The Politics of Papal PR

I’m not a Catholic. Still, when the Pope speaks, as the old EF Hutton commercial goes, people listen.

A furor arose after Benedict XVI delivered an address at the University of Regensburg on September 12. The emotional response was a reaction caused by the Pope’s publicized reference to Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, a conversation that occurred in the late 14th century. According to the Medieval text that Benedict quoted, Manuel II declared, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Pope Benedict XVI

Reaction to the speech was swift and sure. The Pope’s words resulted in riots, burnings, proclamations of condemnation from both Western sources and Muslim leaders, vandalism of seven Christian churches in Gaza and the West Bank—two of which were destroyed—and one death—a Somali nun whose murder is being widely linked to the Pope’s address.

Fairly serious stuff, all resulting from words. These reactions certainly provided enough questions for me to go exploring, though I’m not Catholic. I’ve now read the text of Benedict’s speech, numerous news articles that reported the speech, Muslim and Western reaction to the speech and Vatican clarifications of the speech.

In deconstructing the Pope’s message, I necessarily need to look at the end result: A week and a half later, Benedict has focused world attention on two issues:

1. The disparity existing between the religion of Islam (the faith) and the violence of Islamic jihadists (the rationalization)

2. The disparity between Western modernization (the rationalization) and Western religion (the faith)

All this, along with securing a meeting, set for September 24, with Islamic leaders from Italy and ambassadors from Muslim nations (including Iran), convening at, no less, the papal summer residence, Castel Gandolfo.

Correct me if I’m wrong, here. But I have to admit that papal PR has been a success—if the goals were to focus global attention on the effects of rationalization on faith within two of the world’s great religions and to open a dialogue with Muslim leaders.

Of course, I am in no way inferring that the Pope intended loss of life or property when planning his speech. But I’m also certain that he must have considered possible reactions to it. An interesting consideration is whether he anticipated mass media response and sound byte attributes. (I’m guessing no, but I’ll discuss that a little later.)

Benedict must recognize that Catholicism today faces several problems. One is that the continent of Europe no longer reflects a predominantly Christian face. Europe has been systematically de-Christianized by the onslaught of secularism while at the same time, housing a rising Muslim population. Another problem Benedict is acutely aware of is the lack of religious freedoms for those practicing minority religions—primarily Christian—in Eastern countries, a point made by Daniel Henninger, deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal, on September 22:

Across the region (with some exceptions), non-Islamic minorities -- which by and large means Christian minorities -- are being driven out through physical abuse, legal discrimination, murder and the destruction or confiscation of homes, businesses and churches. Call it religious cleansing. It is a political strategy that would eventually give Iran, Iraq, Egypt and the Holy Lands of Palestine a cultural homogeneity that has never existed in human history, before or after Christ.

From a utilitarian viewpoint, Benedict knows the reality of religious persecution for Christians in the Middle East. Iran’s Christian population has been depleted to a third of its former size in the past three decades; Egypt’s Coptic Christians still experience brutality as a way of life and the mass exodus of minority religions from Iraq, even after the U.S. engaged in the war effort there, is plain. If Benedict had considered the greatest happiness for the entire Christian population, he would have understood that his comments would not result in justifiable gains for the majority of Christians. After all, his message was partially targeted to Western sensibilities, and not in a good way, either.

But, considered from a communitarian viewpoint, Benedict’s message resounds alternately with wisdoms or warnings—depending on your personal viewpoint—for the entire global community, a message that cuts through religious and political fronts. His remarks, while you might not agree with them, are meant to bring us all, no matter our religious or political persuasion, back to the most fundamental tie of all, that between a higher being, God, and a lower being, man. Clearly, Benedict is not extolling individual rights, though I’m sure that he would like to see minority lives protected, but instead, he is seeking to open a dialogue between two religions that have gone to war with each other in very real political contexts. It seems to me that he’s calling for one big communal time-out, a time-out during which dialogue can take place, no matter how difficult a task.

I think Benedict, or the papal press office, did consider the timing—the U.S. issued its 2006 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, shedding illumination on 197 countries or territories, within days of the Pope's speech. And I’m pretty sure that out of all the texts that discuss Islam and Muhammed, the Pope, an academic in his own right, could have figured one that wasn’t quite so provocative. That he did indicates that he anticipated focus, though I’m fairly certain that he didn’t bargain for the accompanying frenzy.

What I also don’t believe the papacy counted on was the sound byte that the media would make of the papal speech. The speech is named “Three Stages in the Program of De-Hellenization,” and I believe that what the Pope intended for the media to pick up on was the speech’s main thrust—the (highly personal) point of intersection between faith and reason. This is, anyway, what the Vatican press office succinctly points out in post-speech releases.

The fact that the media got it completely wrong, as far as the Vatican is concerned, is evidenced in a news release issued today in which the Vatican insists “that the Pope was a victim of phrases taken out of context and reactions deliberately inflamed.” Further in the release is this message, “The quotation was a way to introduce a series of reflections. This approach was not understood by many in a media culture that relies on 5-second sound bites to convey messages.” Both these statements are clear indictments of irresponsible journalism.

That the Pope has been careful to explicitly state his respect for Islam and for Muslims in every release issued since his speech, along with his plethora of apologies, are also evidence that the Pope is vitally interested in not only opening dialogue on these issues but also in maintaining that dialogue. And for that, his approach can only be seen in a communitarian light.

Question of the Day: Do you think Pope Benedict XVI should have chosen a less incendiary text to focus global attention on religion?


American's Response to ABC's Path To 9/11

I think, like every American citizen and many people who aren’t, 9/11 is personal in a way that, even now, five years later, is difficult to express. 9/11 showed us all that, in the end, we are vulnerable in many ways, that we don’t have complete control over our lives, and that any one of us could have been the victims that day.

Hard facts to face up to.

ABC aired a two-part movie this past Sunday and Monday nights, which showed a version of events that led up to this horrific tragedy. After the movie, Roger Frizell, VP of Corporate Communication and Advertising, posted this comment on Americablog.

Ms. Robinsong,

I think it is important for you to know that the Disney/ABC television program, The Path to 9/11, which began airing last night, is inaccurate and irresponsible in its portrayal of the airport check-in events that occurred on the morning of September 11, 2001. A factual description of those events can be found in the official government edition of the 9/11 Commission Report and supporting documents.

Please know this was a tragic event in our company’s history and we hope you will be sympathetic to our employees and our airline on this day. Again, we are outraged by this situation, and we alerted ABC about its gross error. It is very unfortunate.


Roger Frizzell
Vice President, Corporate Communications & Advertising
American Airlines

My family has a long history in aviation. Besides the fact that I worked for a commercial airline for a decade, I have written for two pilot unions, (Allied Pilots and the Air Line Pilots Association), and my husband is a retired commercial airline pilot—who was still flying on 9/11/01.

I checked the Web sites of both pilot unions and United’s Web site, to see if they had anything to say about ABC’s docudrama. Not one of these three made specific statements about the movie, but both pilot unions had posted moving memorial messages about the crews and passengers lost in 2001.

After reading Frizell’s response, I couldn’t help but note that, along with corporate communications, he’s also in charge of advertising. I find that to be a very interesting duality.

In my work, I’ve primarily been involved in corporate communications, and I know that these two areas of communications are very different in practice and focus. The fact that American chose not to issue a message aimed wholly at honoring their past—and, for that matter, their present—crews, seems to me to be a little hardened. I think it denigrates the crews that died by focusing attention on a movie that portrays them in a questionable light rather than contributing anything substantial to their memories. And, I think, it also points out some serious flaws with naming one person to wear two very different communications hats. I’m a little suspicious when I hear a “message” coming from someone who specializes in advertising. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, interestingly, watered down his title to “airline spokesman.”

I think, in this case, American’s response was not merited, and to me, represents a classic example of when a corp should refrain from speaking. Their right to corporate speech aside, I don’t think they contributed to honoring the memories of those who diligently worked for them. Historically, Hollywood has never portrayed the aviation industry in a “real” light—from Die Hard 2 to Air Force One and the most recent, Snakes On A Plane. But I haven't seen airlines exercise corporate speech to contradict them.

The director of Path to 9/11, David L. Cunningham, publicly stated that his view is not based completely on fact and that, where questions existed, his writer referred to the 9/11 Commission’s Report.

If every corporation spoke out against fictional books and movies that portray their industry in what they perceive to be a negative manner, I believe undue pressure would be brought against First Amendment rights. And I also think that American would have been better served to let folks--its customers--decide this very personal issue for themselves.

Question of the Week:
Do you think that American Airlines overreacted in their response to the ABC movie, Path To 9/11?



Let'em Eat (Cheese) Cake!

I’m not sure that I will ever feel the same again about the Godiva chocolate cheesecake that is an original concoction of The Cheesecake Factory. I have no taste for it anymore though I’m an avowed chocoholic.

My distaste has to do with the issue of options backdating. It’s not as glamorous as the HP pretexting flap, but it is just as illegal. Options backdating, put simply, is when a corporation grants an "in-the-money" option—that is, an option with an exercise price lower than that day's market price, according to Christopher Cox, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) chairman. Corporations misrepresent the date of the option grant to make it appear that the grant was made on an earlier date when the market value was lower (Wall Street Journal, September 6, 2006). By disguising an in-the-money option through backdating, the company avoids showing the option as compensation on its financial statements. Oh, and the person who obtains the option, the grantee, potentially realizes larger gains. If this sounds cheesy, it is in a very strict illegal sense.

It reminds me of Bobby Ray’s statement in Sweet Home Alabama, "A plantation by any other name is just a farm, but it does roll off the tongue a little sweeter now, doesn’t it?" Well, let’s just call this “corporate theft” though, admittedly, “options backdating” does have a more official ring to it.

The practice of options backdating began in the early 1990s. At that time, Congress and the SEC addressed the issue of executive compensation, and Congress signed off on SEC rules that were intended to make executive pay more transparent. Unfortunately, the law was deficient in achieving this purpose, and, ironically, led to the prevalence of stock options increasing in executive compensation packages. And with that increase in stock options came a corresponding increase in abuse.

To mitigate harm, the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act of 2002 tightened up a corporation’s reporting of stock option grants by requiring real-time disclosure. And in 2003, the SEC required companies to publicly disclose the material terms of their stock option plans to shareholders for their approval. As a follow-on, in 2004, accounting rules favoring stock options issued at-the-money were eliminated (Accounting Rule FAS 123R). Most recently, in January 2006, the SEC passed “new executive compensation rules that now require a complete quantitative and narrative disclosure of a company’s executive compensation plans and goals,” according to Cox. The SEC will issue complementary accounting guidance on this subject in the near future.

What’s the impact today? The SEC’s Division of Enforcement is currently investigating more than 100 companies concerning fraudulent reporting of stock option grants, and the FBI is handling 45 investigations on this topic. Five indictments have been handed down thus far, and one former executive is on-the-lam, as in AWOL. Companies being investigated span multiple industries, are located throughout the country and include firms of all sizes, one of which is—you guessed it—The Cheesecake Factory.

We’re not talking small sums here either, folks. Broadcom has disclosed its erroneous reporting may total $1.5 billion. Billion. That’s a lot of cheese.

Public relations practitioners are often involved in writing the narrative of corporate annual reports and should know, or at least be aware of where to resource, information concerning SEC rules in order to avoid liability.

Art Stevens, APR and Fellow of the PRSA, is already advocating that a corporate reputation oversight committee be mandatory for publicly-traded companies. According to Stevens, the primary function of a corporate reputation oversight committee would be “to guard, restore and maintain a company’s reputation and trust among its constituencies. It would research and evaluate the manner in which a company does business and how it communicates it.” Studies do show that consumers buy services and products from companies they trust—and creating trusting relationships is what public relations is about, after all.

I’m not sure if this dramatic paradigm change to the profession will help get corporate big cheeses under control. But one thing I know, I’m going to make it a routine habit of curling up with my SEC rule book, so I at least can avoid being toasted cheese. And I will recommit myself to doing my part so that corps don't leave shareholders eating (cheese) cake.

Question of the Week: Do you think creating a mandatory corporate reputation oversight committee will solve corporate fraudulence?



Whose Ethics Are You Anyway?

I am a member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). As such, I am obligated to adhere to, and abide by, their Code of Ethics. I’m happy to do so. I’ve found from personal experience that the principles they expound are in everybody’s best interests—the public, my clients, and my own.

The PRSA Code of Ethics is based on six values: advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness. All of these serve the public interest in some manner and assist in creating a robust environment for informed public debate, especially important to a democracy.

In thinking about the code, I’m going to go back to the theory behind this model. The code, in the largest sense, is a normative theory, meaning that it attempts to describe how practitioners should operate.

Drilling down into normative theory, I believe the code, in some respects, follows other normative theories that attempt to explain how public relations operates. One of these theories is the communitarian model. In this model, the importance of the community is stressed along with the idea that individuals have connections to the community. In short, communitarianism moves away from the idea of individual rights to an idea of social responsibility (see Legal and Ethical Restraints on Public Relations by K. K. Gower).

As applied to public relations, this model encourages practitioners to inspire organizations “to fulfill their responsibilities to communities in which they are a part” (Gower, 10). This is clearly illustrated in the code’s requirement for practitioners to disclose information. Revealing all information to the public in an accurate manner so that informed decision-making can take place is in the best interests of the community at large. The best interests of the organization are subservient to the community’s welfare: what is best for the community will ultimately be best for the organization. The code’s element requiring free flow of information is also communitarian in that it ensures that accurate and truthful information is available to the community. Inherent in protecting the community’s interest requires the practitioner to avoid conflicts of interest and to decline to represent those entities who advocate actions contrary to the code. Even the requirement that practitioners report violators of the code to the appropriate authority is predicated on the welfare of the community and speaks directly to the element of competition found within the code.

The code does have a trace of utilitarianism-ethical acts produce the greatest possible balance of good over bad for everyone affected (Gower, 3). One element is the requirement of practitioners to safeguard confidences of organizations. This is clearly directed to the organization’s preservation without regard for the community’s interests. It denigrates laissez-faire doctrine, for instance, if a community is home to an organization that is the only one to offer a particular service or product.

In other respects, the code is libertarian; certainly releasing all honest information into the public domain places the onus on the audience to ultimately decide which product or service is best.

In my practice, I’ve twice had to make the hard choice to adhere to these principles. In effect, I fired myself in order to remain loyal to the code. That, too, is a communitarian model at work, at least, in the sense that I knew releasing information from these companies, in the manner in which I was asked, would have negatively impacted the community—not to mention the companies involved!

Too many times practitioners are not ready to make these kinds of choices. Thinking about the ramifications of living the code can help prepare you for these worst-case scenarios. And I suspect they are not isolated incidents.

Question of the Week: How many of you public relations practitioners have been asked by an organization to do-si-do with the truth?

Am I standing alone in the pasture?

Linda@the saltlick


Do-Do's In The Field

I've been in public relations long enough to know that sooner or later, some pretty ugly questions are gonna rear up. And when they do, they seldom go away without some action being taken by someone. In my experience, it's always better if that someone is the p.r. practitioner.

Along my circuitous route in the field, I've also discovered quite a bit about myself. For instance, I've found that if a client and I are at moral odds and that one of us-meaning me-has to exit stage right, it won't mean I'm going to starve. In fact, it means that I've just defined the type of client with which I prefer to work. I've also found that working in harmony with clients who share my personal and professional ideals gives me greater satisfaction. Who knew that a simple thing like client compatibility could be so enriching?

Not adhering to the profession's standards can also mean less self-respect. Never mind that you become your client's obsequious lackey; but do you really want to sully your own rep because someone else chooses to act disreputably?

If something is emitting an odor, even a whiff, it'll probably be just a minute before you smell the pungent aroma of "Oh, s#@!" Better to be at The Saltlick than out (side)stepping in the field.

Call me one naive cowbilly, but I happen to think there's actually a cure for mad cow disease.

Everybody have a great day in the city!