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