Nike “Gold Digging”

August 16, 2012

The US women just completed an amazing Olympics.  Blog writer loves track and field so I will mention the world recording 4 by 100 relay and a blistering 4 by 400 relay by the women runners.  Allyson Felix stood out by winning 3 gold medals and making the finals of the 100 meters.  If you like other sports there are story lines for those as well.

One thing the Olympics cannot escape is sponsorship issues.  The negatives for the US women revolved around sponsorship issues.  The issue as Rule 40.  Basically athletes cannot use the Olympics to market/promote no-Olympic sponsors.  That means Adidas is okay but not Nike.  So athletes like Sanya Richards-Ross complained about it.  This was commercial not free speech and detracted from Olympic performances.  The Olympics sets rules and participation is an honor not a right.  Detraction number 1.  Detraction number 2 was the controversy over the women’s soccer team donning shirts reading “Greatness has been found.”  It was considered gloating and in poor taste.  Again, it becomes about the sponsors and what they want harms the athletes.

Now Nike has a new shirt that is raising eyebrows and protests.  As full disclosure, I do not hate Nike.  In fact I own many Nike shoes and running apparel.  However, there are times when even companies you like do things that are questionable.  The new shirt is for women and says “Gold digging.”  The shirt is meant to be funny.  Gold digging is traditionally a women looking to romance/marry for money.  In this case it means winning gold at the Olympics.  We can question (1) is the joke funny at all and (2) is it more offensive than funny.  Here is one take on it:

We don’t like to be super sensitive about these things, but something about this seems… off. The t-shirt features metallic gold lettering and Nike’s signature check logo and is only available for women (because women presumably love to be called gold diggers). But we can’t help but wonder if some ladies will be less than pleased with this kind of depiction.”

Questions to Consider?

1.  Is the shirt situation a crisis or an incident for Nike?  Explain your decision.

2.  Is it unethical for non-Olympic sponsor to pressure athletes into marking for them during the Olympics?  Why or why not?

3.  What arguments can be made for and against the US Women’s Soccer Team wearing the victory shirts?

4.  Overall, how have Nike’s actions impacted potential customers, especially women?

5.  If you were Nike, how would you defend the gold digging shirt?Image


JetBlue’s Deja Vu: Sort of But not Exactly

October 31, 2011

In 2007, JetBlue received intense media coverage (traditional and social) for stranding passengers on the tarmac, in a snow storm at the JFK airport in new York City for up to 14 hours on St. Valentine’s Day.  It became known as the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” for JetBlue.  JetBlue became an icon for crisis communication as its CEO, David Neeleman, began a series of media interviews to apologized for the situation and announce JetBlue’s “Customer Bills of Rights.”  The Bill of Rights set up a compensation program for flight delays including being stuck on the tarmac.  Neeleman even appeared in YouTube video to offer the apology.  Though people were horrified that passengers could be stuck on a plane for 14 hours in the snow for a supposedly three hour flight, JetBlue was generally praised for its response.  In part, the crisis was viewed as an extreme event that was unlikely to be repeated.  The snow storm was unusually bad and the planes just happened to leave the gate at an inopportune time.  This would not happen again, probably.

JetBlue seemed to experience déjà vu in October of 2011.  On Saturday, October 29, JetBlue Flight 504 departed Fort Lauderdale, FL for Newark, NJ.  An unusual October snow storm moved into the northeast causing flight problems for Newark and other nearby airports.  Due to the weather, Flight 504 was re-routed to Hartford, Connecticut (Bradley International Airport).  It is not unusual to re-route a plane because of weather.  Neither the airline nor the passengers like re-routing.  Passengers are not where they should be neither are the planes and crews.  The airline has to sort out how to get the passengers, planes, and crews to where they should be.  In short, re-routing is unpleasant for all involved.  But the problems with Flight 504 were just beginning. 

Flight 504 arrived at Bradley International at 1:07 pm.  The passengers left the flight at 9:00pm.  That was over seven hours on a tarmac waiting to de-plane.  JetBlue management was having a form of déjà vu.  They had a freak snow storm and people stuck on the tarmac.  The situation was not exactly the same as in 2007.  In 2007, the planes had left the gate with the hopes of taking off from the airport.  The planes could not takeoff nor could they return to the gate.  The circumstances that lead to the plane being on the tarmac were different but the had the same general outcome:  passengers stuck on the tarmac, due to snow, for a long period of time.  Moreover, there were the same issues of the plane running out of water and food while bathrooms broke down as well.  Here is a short description for a Washington Post Story about the experience:

“The toilets were backed up. When you flushed, nothing would happen,” said Andrew Carter, a reporter for the Sun Sentinel of Florida, who was traveling to cover the Miami Dolphins game against the New York Giants. His plane took off from Fort Lauderdale for Newark Liberty International Airport at around 9 a.m. After being diverted to Hartford, the plane sat on the tarmac between around 1:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., he said.

The situation was complicated further by passengers with medical conditions.  In fact, the news reports indicated that the reason the situation was resolved was the need for medical attention. 

Here is short chronology of the situation based upon a news report:

“At the three-hour mark they told us by law they had to let us off the plane. They were waiting for a tug to take us to a gate. We heard that same message at the four-hour mark, and continuing until state troopers boarded the plane for a medical emergency,” said Robert, a passenger who did not want to give his last name.

A paraplegic on the flight had a medical issue, and about seven hours after the plane landed.  It was at that point that police and firefighters came onboard to render medical assistance.  

“Still on the plane. We haven’t moved. Now EWR closed. Getting ugly in here. People yelling wanting to get off,” Andrew Carter said via Twitter just before 6 p.m.

One passenger noted at the end of the above news report:  “I’ll never fly JetBlue again, and I’ll never fly through Connecticut again”

CNN reported the following as JetBlue’s response: 

JetBlue apologized for the situation and blamed it on a “confluence of events,” including intermittent power outages which complicated matters.

“We worked with the airport to secure services, but our flights were six of the 23 reported diversions into Hartford, including international flights (picture big jets carrying hundreds of people), the airline said on its website. “Getting all the flights deplaned at the same time in a small airport is not unlike trying to get an elephant into a smart car; it’s not an easy fit.”

Passengers deplaned around 9 p.m., according to JetBlue.

Here is more of the JetBlue statement:

 “JetBlue is doing everything possible to ensure our customers affected by today’s unusual combination of weather and infrastructure issues are being well cared for. We apologize for the experience.”

Unfortunately, no official statement appeared on the JetBlue web site within 24 hours of the crisis.  Most of the news stories noted a representative for the Bradley International Airport was not available for comment.  Hence, the airport was silent immediately after the crisis.

The social media was filled with stories, including some video from the plane, and commentary about Flight 504.  Here are some comments from the Washington Post web site about the story:

As long as people continue to willingly do business with corporations who care not a damn about them — due in the main to Congress’s refusal to hold those corporations responsible… for anything — then people have only themselves to blame for how they are treated. Want customer service at the airlines to improve? Simple: STOP. BUYING. TICKETS.

What is it about airlines that renders them so incapable of dealing with what should be a relatively simple problem? If the plane isn’t ready to go, allow passengers to disembark. It’s incredible that this scenario keeps repeating itself, and the airlines almost never offer any reasonable explanation once the ordeal is ended. It’s as if they’re just clueless.

Here are comments for the Huffington Post about Flight 504:

I thought it was good reportage to get all the facts before publishing a story? The 3 hr. rule was violated, by whom? Jet Blue who seems to be getting the brunt of the bad press. Or the Connecticu­t airport authoritie­s?

This happens every year. You’d think after all this time they’d learn how to deal with something like snow.


JetBlue has gone social in its response, similar to the 2007 crisis.  A statement about the crisis appears on the JetBlue blog, BlueTales.  Here is the posting:

October 30, 2011

Dreaming Of A White Halloween? Information Regarding This Weekend’s Storm

Some people dream of a white Christmas; apparently Mother Nature was dreaming of a white Halloween this weekend. Winter reared its ugly head earlier than usual yesterday, causing a major crease in air travel.

On top of the obvious operational hiccups to flying airplanes in bad weather – wind, rain, hail, snow and ice – an additional unfortunate mix of circumstances caused a messy day operationally and has made the recovery for us and other airlines operating along the East Coast more challenging.

During the storm, multiple instrument failures occurred at JFK and Newark, affecting all carriers. This equipment is needed for flights to land when visibility is low; while it was out of service, both airports stopped accepting arrivals and eventually, a number of flights had to divert elsewhere to get more fuel.

Six of our flights diverted to Hartford. We worked with the airport to secure services, but our flights were six of the 23 reported diversions into Hartford, including international flights (picture big jets carrying hundreds of people). Getting all the flights deplaned at the same time in a small airport is not unlike trying to get an elephant into a smart car; it’s not an easy fit. As if things weren’t challenging enough, the airport experienced intermittent power outages, which made refueling and jetbridge deplaning difficult (not to mention the roads there were bad, which put a wrench in getting buses to the airport to alternatively get everyone where they needed to go). Temporary loss of de-icing capability added yet another challenge to being able to get planes out in Hartford.

Diversions in general, especially weather-related, are something that we plan for regularly. If heavy winds or a blizard are coming in, we look at our major cities and secondary cities in advance, sending the area’s airports a list 24-48 hours out asking what their capabilities are for handling diversions. We look at things like: does the airport have TSA on hand, buses, staffing, customs agents, etc. so we have it ahead of time. Flights are planned with alternates in mind and fueled accordingly.

Most diversions during weather are what we call “fuel and go” events. They happen specifically so we can get enough gas to navigate around the weather that’s built up in a certain area. Sometimes, the diversion is simply to wait out the storm.  In the case of Hartford, unfortunately, a power outage and failure of back up power resulted in the fuel supply being disrupted and the fueling of all airline diversions was halted.  The capability to refuel aircraft was restored later, after which we planned our four extra sections for today (3 to JFK, 1 to EWR) and approximately 500 of the roughly 700 customers who were diverted there are booked on them today.

A special thank you goes out to John, our General Manager Hartford and his team for working through the night and into today to recover the operation there. Another thank you goes out to JFK who sent additional crewmembers and leadership to Hartford to assist in preparing our aircraft and processing customers for today’s extra flights. And a big thank you goes out to our customers for their patience during this weekend’s challenges.

We apologize to those impacted by this confluence of events, as it remains our responsibly to not simply provide safe and secure travel, but a comfortable experience as well.

We’re offering customers traveling to/from the New York area today fee waivers to change or cancel their flights. Check for the full details and be sure to check the status of your flight before heading to the airport.

The web site link has operational information to help passengers cope with the disruption.  This includes waiving the change/cancel fees for those affected by the storm. 

JetBlue also has a video on their web site and linked to YouTube.  The video is an apology from Rob Maruster, Jet Blue’s chief operating officer.  Here are some of the reactions to his video:


  • Fire Him Now. No Bonus No Excuses Dock His Pay!!
    • Lame
    • You Lie!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • I’m reading some of these comments so far and everybody is quick to pass judgement. What the media not telling you is that the airport had power outages very frequently and the reason for all those planes was because Boston airport turned away a lot of international and dosmetic diverting flights not because there system was down or they reach capacity but because Libyian fighters was more important. I’m not trying to push the blame one way or another because someone will take the fall for this
  • Rob- Were you the VP of Airports the last time this happened in 2007? Barger was the COO and it was the Founder who took the fall for your incompetence. It looks like you two haven’t learned a thing, in fact it has gotten worse. Jetblue’s customers and crew members deserve ALOT better. It is time to clean house and bring in more competent management!!!!!
  • You need to do better than this. This is not the first time this has happened. The excuses have worn thin.
  • Mr Maruster’s body language speaks far louder than his words, and he is just going through the motions to give us the impression he and his ilk will correct this problem post haste. This man know full well that lessons learned from multiple events going back to February 2007 have been set aside, all for the sake to save a few more bucks and most likely increase his executive bonus. He should be tossed for his deliberate actions to ignore what is already well documented at Forest Hills.
  • And a third chance after the next storm and a fourth chance after the storm after that. And so on.. and so on… Your pilot’s recodring to air trafiic control was played and he said his own company would not help. Bad, real bad.

Question to Consider:

1.  Do you think JetBlue’s initial response will be effective?  Why or why not?

2.  Is it ethical for the Bradley International Airport not to comment early in the crisis? Why or why not?

3.  If you worked for Bradley International Airport, what would you recommend as their crisis response and why would you offer that particular advice?

4.  What role does the 2007 event play in this crisis?

5.  What do the online comments tell you about stakeholder reactions?

6.  How could JetBlue use the comments to help them evaluate and to shape follow-up crisis messages?

7.  What role does social media play in escalating this crisis?  How can it help to de-escalate it?

8.  Based on the video comments, how would you judge reactions to the video apology?

9.  What are the advantages of JetBlue using social media in their crisis response?  The disadvantages?

Xbox + Kinect = Red Ring of Death?

January 5, 2011

The Xbox is a wildly popular gaming system created by Microsoft.  One fear does haunt Xbox users, the “Red Ring of Death” or “RRoD.”  The power button on the Xbox usually lights up green and green is good.  When the three lights in the power button change to red, things are bad and the gaming experience switches to the repair experience.  Anyone who has dealt with electronics knows that is no fun.  The failure rate for Xbox—the Red Ring of Death Rate—is estimated to be over 20% and some place it much higher.  There is an Xbox 360 Red Ring of Death web site with additional information and the claim:

“Realizing that they had released a faulty product, Microsoft eventually released a statement formally announcing the problem and offered a 3-year warranty for this specific fault. The only down side of this was that the console had to be sent back to Microsoft, who would then send a new one “within a few weeks”.

Some criticists have exclaimed that Microsoft have been re-using the faulty parts brought in from Red Ring of Death plagued consoles in the newer “refurbished” consoles, but this is probably just a web myth and there’s little if any credibility to it.

You’re getting a free Xbox 360 console with free shipping so really there’s no real harm in choosing this option. We recommend this option highly as this is a gauranteed, free fix! If you ever do face the Red Ring of Death problem again you can just send it back again!” (

So why a sudden surge in Red Ring of Death in early January of 2011?  The answer is the Kinect.  The Kinect is the new hardware for Xbox that allows the player to be the controlled.  The Kinect reads body movements and translates them into action in the computer game.  For example, you kick and your player in the game kicks the soccer ball.  You throw and your player throws the football.  Christmas 2010 saw a huge demand for Kinect from gamers.  New Xbox system were being sold with the Kinect or people could buy the Kinect and connect it to their existing Xbox.  That is when the trouble began. 

Gamers began posting online that the Kinect was causing the Red Ring of Death in their older Xbox models.  Here is a sample post:

“Sorry guys, this exact thing happened to me tonight. I have an original XBox 360 console – one of the first ones available when they first came out. It’s been working flawlessly till now. Even got the new user interface update last week. Everything was fine.

Bought a Kinect tonight, plugged it in, got the additional update. Console rebooted and I was able to set up the Kinect. After about 10 minutes, as I was moving back to the XBox hub from the Kinect hub, the console froze – first time ever.

When I rebooted, XBox intro started and froze again on boot up. I got 3 red light RROD. Did it again and got same thing. Did it again and got Error E 79. Unplugged the Kinect, and it booted up just fine.

I should have stopped there, but I didn’t. I got brave and plugged the Kinect back in. It detected it, RE-downloaded the update and rebooted. This time I got back in and was able to start Kinect Adventures. It froze again. Rebooted, same issue. It kept freezing at different points when I tried to start the game.

Last time I tried it, it went back to 3-light RROD and won’t even send a video signal to my TV. Every time I restart now, I get RROD with no video signal.

I’m sorry, I just can’t buy that my 360, which was working flawlessly before, just happened to go bad at the same time that I hooked up the Kinect. That’s just way too much coincidence. The Kinect update DESTROYED my 360, plain and simple” White Warlock (

Soon stories were appearing on gamer and technology web sites about Kincect and the Red Ring of Death (,, and

The driver or the coverage seemed to be a BBC story about the problem.  Here is the opening of the story:

“Owners of Microsoft’s Xbox gaming console have blamed its new Kinect hands-free controller o             f causing their consoles to fail.

Console owners told the BBC that their machines crashed shortly after plugging in Kinect.

Kinect allows gamers to control onscreen action with body movements.

Microsoft has denied any link between Kinect and the three flashing light error signal, known as the “red ring of death”.

Ten-year old Adam Winnifrith told BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours he had only used his Xbox with the Kinect a couple of times before it failed” (

Microsoft claims people are wrong about the connection.  They say the use of the Kinect and the Red Ring of Death is by chance.  Microsoft is arguing something else is causing the failure.  The stories are very good at presenting Microsoft’s response:

“There is no correlation between the three flashing red lights error and Kinect. Any new instances of the three flashing red lights error are merely coincidental,” (  Perhaps it is just bad timing.  Time will tell.

Questions to Consider

1. How would you rate the effectiveness of the Microsoft response?  Justify your rating?

2. What risk is Microsoft running by using this denial response?

3.  Do people posting about this story have an ethical obligation to cover both sides?  Why or why not?

4.  Does it matter that the situation involves a gaming system widely used for its Internet play and the users typically being Internet savvy? 

5.  What else could Microsoft do to bolster its position in the situation?

6.  Would you define this situation as a crisis?  Why or why not?

7.  What role does social media play in this situation?

The Threat of a Challenge: Bank of America and WikiLeaks

January 3, 2011

US banks have few friends after being at the center of the last global, economic meltdown.  Among the villains was Bank of America.  In November of 2010, WikiLeaks director Julian Assange claimed he would expose a US major bank’s documents that would take down the bank by exposing an “ecosystem of corruption.”  Bank of America was believed to be the target and its share prices began to drop.  There was a rebound but when the story reappeared at the start of 2011, prices began to drop again.  It is believed that WikiLeaks has some 600,000 pages of Bank of America documents that it plans to release online (  Again, this is supposed information, nothing has been posted.  The information supposedly comes from the hard drive of a Bank of America executive (

Now experts have been offering advice.  A reasonable piece of advice is to disclose any negative information before WikiLeaks does.  The “Stealing Thunder” research says people react less negatively to a crisis when the organization itself releases the information than when the information is first reported by the news media (or in this case new media).  But there are two concerns here.  First, what if WikiLeaks does not have the information Bank of America chose to disclose?  How does Bank of America decide what to disclose in a preemptive release?  The WikiLeak bluffer would have forced Bank of America into admitting it wrongdoings.  Second, any actions taken by Bank of America are likely to trigger reputational damage.  People will assume that if Bank of America is preparing for damaging leaks, it has done something bad.  Why worry if you have nothing to hide?  Still, Bank of America cannot afford to do nothing (pardon the poor phrasing there).  Decisions made by large organizations are bound to have negative effects on some stakeholders.  Those stakeholders may not like how they were evaluated or treated in those decisions.  Hence, Bank of America might not have any legal or ethical concerns to hide but may just face reputational damage from a review of its decision making process. 

Bank of America has been preparing.  According to the New York Times:

“a team of 15 to 20 top Bank of America officials, led by the chief risk officer, Bruce R. Thompson, has been overseeing a broad internal investigation — scouring thousands of documents in the event that they become public, reviewing every case where a computer has gone missing and hunting for any sign that its systems might have been compromised.

In addition to the internal team drawn from departments like finance, technology, legal and communications, the bank has brought in Booz Allen Hamilton, the consulting firm, to help manage the review. It has also sought advice from several top law firms about legal problems that could arise from a disclosure, including the bank’s potential liability if private information was disclosed about clients.

The company’s chief executive, Brian T. Moynihan, receives regular updates on the team’s progress, according to one Bank of America executive familiar with the team’s work, who, like other bank officials, was granted anonymity to discuss the confidential inquiry” (

Again, these defensive actions by Bank of America are necessary yet place them at risk as well.  Stakeholders begin to wonder what is in these documents that Bank of America needs to fear?  Are the concerns legal, regulatory, ethical, or simply something some stakeholders will find unappealing?  We may never know the answer to these questions.  What we do know is the threat of what some call radical transparency has reputational implications for an organization and may even precipitate a crisis.  Radical transparency can be defined as when an organizations information is disclosed, without any editing, for all stakeholders to see.  In most cases this disclosure would be provided by a third party rather than the organization itself.  Consider how decision making documentation by Ford in the Pinto case and BP in the Texas City tragedy showed how managers treat people as numbers making death and injuries just part of an equation.  Though often a business reality, stakeholders are often appalled when the details or corporate decisions are revealed.  Bank of America is in a no win situation that could get worse or simply disappear if the documents never emerge onto the Internet.

Questions to Consider:

1. What are the ethical concerns regarding the disclosure of corporate documents by a third party such as Wikileaks?

2.  What advice would you give management at Bank of America and what is the rationale behind that advice?

3. What is the role of the Internet and social media in this case?

4.  Why would media outlets be reporting this story?

5.  Why would stakeholder be interested in a story about something that may never happen or information that does not exist?

6.  What does this case say about how stakeholders in general feel about US banks?

Another Branding Nightmare: Big Ten “Legends” and “Leaders” Panned

December 18, 2010

For the sake of full disclosure, both authors are graduates of Purdue University, a member of the Big Ten.  The Big Ten has had more than ten teams for over a decade, since 1990 to be precise.  When it added Nebraska at team number 12, it announced that two divisions would be formed and the teams in each division.  This makes sense, big conference split in order to hold very lucrative championship games.  But the announcement did not include the names of the divisions.  Instead, the stories notes possible names were being studied and would be announced at a later date.  That date was Dec. 13, 2010 and will not be a positive date in the history of Big Ten sports because people have reacted negatively to the division names:  “Leader” and “Legend.”

This latest branding boomerang was created by Pentagram, the consulting firm hired by the Big Ten to selected what was hoped to be positive division names.  Here is how Pentagram was described in the Big Ten announcement:

“Pentagram is a distinguished international design consultancy with offices in New York, London, Austin and Berlin. Founded in 1972, the firm has a unique multi-disciplinary approach: its 17 partners are generalists, and their practice is wide-ranging. At any one time, projects are likely to involve the design of identities, environmental graphics, exhibitions, products, packaging, publications, and digital applications. Recent sports related projects include graphic programs for the New York Jets, the FIFA World Cup, the Arizona Cardinals, and Princeton University”

The announcement included a new logo but the negative reaction was for the names.  Here is how the Big Ten explained the names:

“The conference also announced today that its football divisions, starting with the 2011 season, will be ‘Legends’ and ‘Leaders.’ A breakdown of the divisions is listed below:

LEGENDS: Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern

LEADERS: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin

“’Legends’ is a nod to our history and to the people associated with our schools who are widely recognized as legends – student-athletes, coaches, alumni and faculty. ‘Leaders’ looks to the future as we remain committed to fostering leaders, the student-athletes who are encouraged to lead in their own way for the rest of their lives, in their families, in their communities and in their chosen professions,” said Delany. ‘We’re proud of our many legends and even prouder of our member institutions that develop future leaders every day.’”

People did not embrace names as intended.  As branding problems go, they emerge and echo in social media.  Here are some sample Tweets about the division names:

* Leaders and Legends are the names of conference rooms at an airport Marriott.

* Nebraska just heard new division names and is trying to see if it can return to Big 12 North.

* Legends and Leaders? Really? What was the second choice — Boring and Also Boring?

* Legends and Leaders. The Big Ten goes into next season with 2 “L”s on its record (sounds about right).

* We are officially the cheesiest conference in NCAA football!!!!!

* What has Indiana football ever done to be categorized as a Leader?

* Unofficially gauging reaction to the #BigTen division names/logos announcement on Twitter: 99% negative, 1% league employees.

* Was ‘X’ and ‘O’ that bad?

* So who will be the first one to write/announce, “Wisconsin, the Leaders leader…” Is it too late for the Big Ten to get its money back?

* I think I’d be happier if the divisions were named ‘Meat’ & ‘Potatoes.’ #bigten

* If Big Ten was looking for a logo that looks like it was designed by Atari, they got it right!

The Big Ten has heard the comments.  Jim Delany, the commissioner of the Big Ten, said in a radio interview on WGN AM-720 in Chicago on December 16 that they are aware of the name mocking and may make changes.  Delany said:  “It’s humbling, to say the least, because we’re trying to build fan bases, not push them away,” Delany said of the uproar caused by the new division names. “I was surprised. I’ve been around this business a long time, and it’s one of the more surprising things.”

But why still Big Ten when there are 12 school?  Answer is again branding.  That is the brand the schools and their alumni are attached too and is used by the very lucrative Big Ten Network. 

Questions to Consider:

1.  How can organization and its consulting firm be so out of touch with stakeholder reactions to a brand name?

2.  What viable options does Jim Delany have?  Which option would you recommend and why?

3.  What problems does the Big Ten face if it does not make changes to the Division names?

4.  How does this case illustrate the power of social media?  What exactly is that power?

5.  What might the Big Ten have done differently to avoid this situation?

6.  Would you consider this situation a crisis?  Why or why not?

Fake Twitter Accounts and Tweets: New Astroturfing and Ethical Assault

November 7, 2010

Ethics is a serious concern for any public communicator, that includes public relations.  One problem with social media has been its loose ethics and ease of manipulation.  Consider how “citizen journalists” (a terrible phrase) print whatever they want in blogs and micro-blogs because they have no real ethical code or training in the responsibilities of being a public communicator.  Add to this the view that almost anything goes on the Internet, the last space for truly free behavior and we have a deadly combination for ethics.  Would the average person think it was okay to create a fake journalist and publish articles under his or her name?  We are hoping the answer is “No!”  The same cannot be said for the Internet.

Fake Twitter accounts are as easy to create as a real one.  It is hard to verify the biographical information on the sire and few people ever check that information.  A few clicks and fake Twitter persona is born.  Some fake accounts are for fun and people make humorous posts.  The point is entertainment, not deception.  The problem is when the information in the fake tweets are used to deceive people.  Two recent examples can illustrate the problem.

Political communication and public relations have a concept known as astroturfing.  Astroturfing is when fake public concern is generated.  It appears as though citizens are outraged but it is really the work of front groups or public relations people.  The idea is the outrage is used to support policy options (issues management) or to build support for a politician (political application).  Researchers at Indiana University created the Truthyproject (  The idea was to expose astroturfing in Twitter.  Here is how they describe themselves:

“Truthy is a research project that helps you understand how memes spread online. With our images and statistics, you can help identify misuse of Twitter. Our first application was the study of astroturf campaigns in elections. Now we’re extending our focus to the diffusion of all types of information in social media.”

Their research uses network analysis to find suspicious memes and reveal the astroturfing.  One sign is a few accounts generating a lot of messages including retweets of one another.  Here is a specific case:

“Menczer says the research group uncovered a number of accounts sending out duplicate messages and also retweeting messages from the same few accounts in a closely connected network. For instance, two since-closed accounts, called @PeaceKaren_25 and @HopeMarie_25, sent out 20,000 similar tweets, most of them linking to, or promoting, the House minority leader John Boehner’s website,”

In another case, a staff member of a Canadian politician created a fake twitter account.  The original intent was to use the account to help get an incriminating audio tape about the politician.  Once that was accomplished, the account continued.  The Tweets claimed to support the opponent but were designed to support the other candidate.  One Tweet read:  “I can see Ford’s appeal. I don’t agree with him on everything, but the man speaks the truth. George needs to improve on that.”

If you want to see more about the story and the Tweets visit  This second example is political communication.  However, the concern over Twitter being used for astroturfing has applications to public relations so we must think about the ethical concerns over this practice.  In these cases, public relations can think and learn from the mistakes of those outside of public relations.

Question to Consider

1.  Why is it unethical to use any fake Twitter account in public relations?

2.  What makes the use of fake Twitter accounts a type of astroturfing and front group?

3.  If you were to create some basic ethical guidelines for using Twitter accounts in public relations, what would they be?

4.  Why do you think people see different rules applied to social media verses traditional media?

5.  On a related note, what are the ethical implications for paying someone to Tweet in support of an organization? 

6.  How do citizen journalists differ from real journalists?

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