Defamation, Free Speech, Crisis, or Whatever: The Case of Dole and Bananas!*

October 16, 2009

In 2009, Swedish film maker Fredrik Gertten released a documentary film title Bananas!*.  The film is about Nicaraguan banana workers and their battle with banana giant Dole.  The workers claim that Dole knowingly used dangerous pesticides that had adverse health consequence for the workers including sterility.  The 80 minute film debut at the Los Angeles Film Festival in the swirl of media attention.  Here is how the LA Film Festival Described the Film:

“In his most recent film, Fredrik Gertten chronicles the case of Nicaraguan banana laborers, represented by L.A. attorney Juan Dominguez, against the companies that they claim poisoned them with pesticides. Between the film’s completion and its screening at this year’s Festival, critical new elements of the case have come to light.

What happens when a story continues to evolve after the shooting stops? This case study and screening will explore the relationship between documentary filmmaking, objective and subjective point of view, as well as the rights and responsibilities of activist filmmaking.” http://www.lafilmfest.com/tixSYS/2009/filmguide/Title/BB

That media attention and evolution after shooting was the result of claims by Dole that film was untrue and amounted to defamation.  Dole maintains the claims were fabricated by the plaintiffs’  attorneys .  L.A. attorney Juan Dominguez is viewed by Dole as a villain, not the heroic crusader found in the movie.  US courts have ruled in Dole’s favor:

 

 “On Wednesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Victoria G. Chaney issued written Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, formally ordering dismissal with prejudice of the two remaining lawsuits against Dole Food Company, Inc. and two other companies, brought on behalf of Nicaraguan plaintiffs who had falsely claimed they were sterile as a result of exposure to the pesticide DBCP on Dole-contracted Nicaraguan banana farms three decades ago.”  http://www.dole.com/CompanyInfo/PressRelease/PressReleaseDetail.jsp

Interestingly, Dole and Gertten disagree on the interpretation of this court ruling.  Gertten maintains the ruling does not mean all of the claims are false and that the film is a fiction.  For more details on Bertten’s position see the movies web site  http://www.bananasthemovie.com/.  Dole presents its case at http://www.dole.com/DBCPFact/tabid/1229/Default.aspx.

Gertten’s primary defense of the film has been free speech.  He argues that Dole’s efforts to prevent people from seeing the film (Dole tried unsuccessfully to prevent showings at the LA Film Festival) are a violation of free speech.  Groups such as the International Federation of Journalists support Gertten.  See http://www.ifj.org/en/articles/ifj-condemns-attempts-by-embattled-food-company-to-censor-free-speech-in-us.  Dole’s actions include a defamation  lawsuit begun in July of 2009.  Here is how the position is stated on the movie’s web site:

“Dole Food Company is suing filmmaker Fredrik Gertten, producer Margarete Jangård and our production company WG Film for slander and defamation with our film BANANAS!*. The film follows an historic event in an American court, and is a matter of public record – not defamation.

We are supporters of free speech. We believe that filmmakers have the right to make films on important issues and bring stories to the forefront that can create debate and criticism. Lawsuits such as this one are meant to silence and stop all communication and dialogue.

Dole is trying to shift the focus from themselves and their controversial treatment of banana workers on to us and our film. This unfounded lawsuit means more than just silencing a single documentary film. It is a threat against free speech itself and will set precedence for all of us if Dole succeeds. We can not let Dole stop BANANAS!*.” http://www.bananasthemovie.com/show/take_action

On Oct. 15, 2009, Dole dropped its defamation lawsuit.  Dole’s motivation was the negative reactions and protests in Sweden over the lawsuit.  “In a statement, Dole said it decided to withdraw the lawsuit ‘in light of the free speech concerns being expressed in Sweden, although it continues to believe in the merits of its case.’

‘While the filmmakers continue to show a film that is fundamentally flawed and contains many false statements we look forward to an open discussion with the filmmakers regarding the content of the film,’ Dole’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel, C. Michael Carter said. latimes.com/business/la-fi-dole16-2009oct16,0,2332657.story Gertten views this as a victory claiming his film is balanced

Questions to Consider

  1.  Would you have advised Dole to initiate the defamation lawsuit in the first place?  Why or why not?
  2. Would you have advised Dole to drop the defamation lawsuit?  Why or why not?
  3. When is free speech a form of protection against defamation?
  4. How does the international aspects of this case complicate it?
  5. In the end, how did Dole’s actions help to the movie and its director?
  6. Why would Dole worry about a small, documentary film from Sweden?

Ryanair pushes limits of Media Relations with BBC

October 14, 2009

 

The BBC is the state funded television and radio system in the UK.  The funding is based on licensing fees for televisions that residents must pay.  In September of 2009, the BBC show Panorama  was working on a story about budget airline Ryanair.  Ryanair has very low prices and has been very successful in 2009.  The show’s title was “Why Hate Ryanair?”  The show was to examine the success of Ryanair and how customers both love and hate the company.  The hate comes from the fees for various activities such as printing a ticket online and a one-time proposal to charge for using bathrooms in the airplane.  If you read stories about this case that have comments, you will see a mix of positive and negative comments from customers of Ryanair.  For instance see this story for comments:   http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/transport/article6868914.ece#cid=OTC-RSS&attr=1185799

The controversy about media relations involves how the two sides handled or failed to handle an interview with Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary.  O’Leary is a colorful figure with a big personality and flare for publicity.  Originally, the request for an interview with reporter Vivian White was denied.  However, news reports about the developing story lead Ryanair to contact the BBC about an interview.  Ryanair demanded that the interview either be live or aired unedited.  The BBC refused to allow so much editorial control and denied that request.  The situation involved a number of e-mails between the BBC and Ryanair.  Ryanair posted a 25 page PDF file of these correspondences to their web site and e-mailed them to other journalists with a news release.  Part of the news release is provided below:

PANORAMA ‘INVESTIGATION’ REFUSES RYANAIR’S INTERVIEW OFFER

 

Ryanair, the World’s favourite and Britain’s largest airline, today (9th Oct) accused BBC Panorama of bias and censorship as it purports to ‘investigate’ Ryanair but REFUSES Ryanair’s offer of a live or unedited pre-recorded interview in order to fully reply to Panorama’s false claims.

 

Ahead of Monday’s so called Panorama ‘investigation’, Ryanair today published all of its correspondence with the BBC programme which exposes Panorama’s false claims and repeated refusals to allow Ryanair an adequate right of reply. 

 

So far Panorama’s two main claims that (a) Ryanair has ‘hidden charges’ (when we don’t) and (b) that Ryanair reached an agreement with Airbus in 2001 (we didn’t), have both been proven to be false. All Panorama are left with is a series of subjective claims from a tiny number of disgruntled former employees and alleged passengers, none of which have been substantiated.

 

Ryanair’s Stephen McNamara said:

 

“Ryanair has wasted the last six weeks responding to BBC Panorama’s false claims about Ryanair – which is Britain’s favourite airline carrying 66m passengers this year. Panorama has repeatedly refused Ryanair’s offer of an unedited interview, either live or pre-recorded, because they know that these false claims are rubbish and don’t stand up to scrutiny.

 

Ryanair calls on the BBC to explain why Panorama refuses to provide balance in its programming and why licence payers are funding such rubbish filled investigations which don’t stand up to scrutiny, which is why Panorama wouldn’t agree to an unedited interview with Ryanair.” http://www.ryanair.com/site/EN/news.php?yr=09&month=oct&story=gen-en-091009

 

The aggressive publicity generated a number of news stories that included Ryanair’s phrase of a “hatchet job” by the BBC.  Ryanair maintained any edited interview would simply be edited to suit the view of the BBC that Ryanair had hidden fees and treated customers unfairly.  Ryanair had its public relations department on standby for a response to the show.  http://www.prweek.com/news/rss/944729/Ryanair-press-team-awaits-tonights-BBC-Panorama-exposE/

The BBC did shot a short 9 minute interview of O’Leary outside of an office and posted it to their web site unedited.  In it O’Leary defends his demand for live or unedited making a number of comments he notes will be edited from this interview and never aired by the BBC.   The BBC web content begins as follows:

“Uncut: Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary

Ryanair is one of the great success stories in the aviation industry, so why does it divide opinion so much, asks Vivian White, and why do people who don’t like it still use it?

Like Marmite, Ryanair is the airline people either love or hate.

The very mention of the name of its high-profile and strident chief executive Michael O’Leary, who is the human embodiment of the airline, provokes strong reactions among travellers at Dublin airport.

‘Obnoxious – that’s the one word I think of when I think of that man,’ says one smartly-dressed young woman who gets straight to the point.”

Here is a link http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8297211.stm

In the US, Herbalife had a concern over an interview with the US news show 20/20 about 10 years ago.  Herbalife filmed the entire interview and uploaded it unedited to a special Internet site.  Advertisements were run encouraging people to view the unedited interview before the 20/20 story to see how the media is bias and distorts interviews.

 

Questions to Consider

  1.  Do public relations people have the right to make such strong requests about conditions for an interview?
  2. Why are the news media so opposed to strong preconditions for interviews?
  3. How might O’Leary have used a live or unedited interview to hijack the interview and present just the points he wanted to cover?
  4. Would you have posted the e-mail correspondences like Ryanair did?  Provide a justification for your decision.
  5. Overall, how would you rate Ryanair’s media relations for the Panorama interview?  Provide a justification for your evaluation.
  6. Why was Ryanair so concerned about the show and interview?
  7. What other way might Ryanair have handled this situation?

Should Tweets be for Hire?

August 12, 2009

One observation that is very clear about public relations these days is the need to be versed in online public relations, especially the various social media. One unique aspect of the social media is that the user creates and controls the content. Everyone can become a public communicator online with the social as the preferred delivery system. (Sometimes online communicators are called “citizen journalists” but that term suggests some sense of training and code of conduct that does not exist). The term authenticity is used frequently. Authenticity is the idea of being genuine, the message comes from the person creating it and represents her or his views. Transparency is related to authenticity in that transparency makes it clear who the author of the message and, ideally, if she or he has a particular interest in the message content. For instance, someone blogs favorably about product or organization. Is it useful to know if that individual works for the organization or has some other interest such as owning stock? One complaint about public relations is that it corrupted the traditional news media by manipulating the content of news stories. People see news stories thinking they were created by the news media when, in reality, the stories were crafted by public relations people. Well media relations is predicated on the notion of creating or influencing news content. This is not a secret conspiracy, you can learn this is any textbook that covers media relations.

A variation of this complaint extends to the online environment. There is a fear that media relations practices will be re-created online and we have messages in the social media crafted by public relations people, not the individuals posting the message. Or at least the public relations people are influencing the content of the social media posts. Public relations people do pitch stories to bloggers and send them media releases just like they do to traditional journalists. At this point you are probably wondering where the case is. Company called uSocial.net is buying Twitter followers. A quick Twitter review. Twitter is a microblogging site where messages can be only 140 long. People who Twitter can follow others. As a follower, you sign up and are send tweets from those you are following. Size of followership does matter. More follower is equal to more influence for the Twitterer. So buying Twitter followers seems to violate the intent of Twitter where followers organically emerge from this electronic marketplace of ideas.

Here is how uSocial.net describes itself:

“uSocial.net is the world’s premier advertising service, offering some of the most unique and fresh approaches to getting you traffic, attention and new clients. Here at uSocial, we like to do things differently. We believe that to get really powerful results, you have to think outside the box. It was this thinking that led us to create the world’s most prominent and talked about social bookmarking front-page service which got us a feature in the LA Times. This thinking also led us to create the world’s first and so-far only true unlimited press release disribution service where you can send any number of press releases to promote your business to our list of over 560,000 media contacts. And finally, this thinking enabled us to produce the cheapest and most cost-effective social-bookmarking submission service where you can submit and unlimited amount of links to over 170 social sites instantly and without hassle.” http://usocial.net/about/

Thought not is the about us section, uSocial.net does boast about its ability to buy Twitter followers. The service was covered by the Bulldog Reporter (a popular PR newsletter) in its Daily Dog on August 11, 2009. http://bulldogreporter.com/ME2/Audiences/dirmod.asp?sid=2436B6EB9392483ABB0A373E8B823A24&nm=&type=Publishing&mod=Publications%3A%3AArticle&mid=8F3A7027421841978F18BE895F87F791&AudID=213D92F8BE0D4A1BB62EB3DF18FCCC68&tier=4&id=BF50DDF81D0746058F4CF4E3B44A1D71

Another news story reported: “On Twitter you can go from literally no followers to 1,000 followers in a week using sites like uSocial.net, but it will cost you $87. If you need more than that, the site lets you buy up 100,000 followers in a year for just under $3,500. On their website, uSocial.net says: ‘The more followers you have, the more money you will inevitably make marketing your products and services to them.’” http://www.ksl.com/index.php?nid=172&sid=7081655

uSocial.net luckily calls itself an advertising firm sparing public relations some of the flack generated by paying for Twitter followers. But their heavy use of publicity tactics makes them appear to be a public relations firm and has already brought public relations into the discussion of paying for Twitter followers. The continuing new applications of online communication keeps pushing the boundaries of ethics and proves the need to discuss the ethical implications of public communication actions.

Questions to Consider

1. What are the ethical issues for organization’s that buy Twitter followers?

2. What are the ethical issues for people who sell their Tweets (Chapter 3)?

3. What role can transparency and authenticity play in keeping social media communicators honest and ethical?

4. How might uSocial.net’s actions create problems for the reputation of public relations as a field (Chapter 2)?

5. How might buying Twitter followers help an organization?

6. How might bought Twitter followers differ from naturally occurring Twitter followers? What the implications of those difference for public relations?

7. What are the advantages and disadvantages of treating social media like the traditional news media (Chapters 6 & 7)?

8. Do you thing that “citizen journalist” is a good term for social media users? Why or why not?


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