When a Rumor is a Good Thing

January 1, 2010

Publicity efforts in public relations are primarily a “push” effort.  PR people try to get others to use or view their information.  It is rare when publicity is a “pull” effort where people seek out your information.  Crises are an example of “pull” efforts as stakeholders want to know what happened.  However, no sane managers want to build publicity efforts around a crisis.  Yes, you can get positive effects from an extreme well managed crisis but that is not a option with a high reward value given the costs (damages) and risks.  It is within the realm of crises that we find rumors and the right type of “pull” effort.

In crises, rumors or rumours are defined as incorrect information circulating about your organization.  More generally, a rumor is information that lacks verification—people do not know whether or not it is true.  We typically think of rumors as a bad thing, as in crises, but rumors can be true and beneficial.  One popular view of rumors is that they are sensemaking efforts designed to reduce uncertainty.  As rumor experts Bordia and DiFonzo (2004) stated, “Rumors arise in situations that are personally relevant but ambiguous or cognitively unclear, and when credible explanations are not available from traditional sources” (p. 33).  [To see the first page of their article go to http://www.jstor.org/pss/3649102 which is Social Psychological Quarterly (2006) volume 1].  Most rumor research still focuses on how sensemaking is used to cope with problems (dread).  But the research also examines wish rumors which can be linked to opportunities.

In December of 2009, more Internet traffic was being generated for an Apple rumor.  Now Apple has had its share of problem rumors.  The best case being Steve Job’s supposed heart attack that caused Apple stock to drop in price (http://flowtv.org/?p=2259).  But in December of 2009, the focus was on a potential new product, the Apple tablet.  Many legitimate new sources were reporting on the rumor including the Financial Times (http://blogs.ft.com/techblog/2009/12/exclusive-apple-to-host-event-in-january/) and Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-apple-tablet31-2009dec31,0,5542993.story).   The rumor reports are a form of publicity for the “product.”  People, driven by uncertainty caused by a lack of official information by Apple, are searching the Internet for more information about the Apple tablet thereby fueling the rumor.  This is “pull” publicity as people seek information about the product via rumors.

The rumored product is essentially a large version of the iPhone with a screen just over 10 inches.  The device will be very light and capable of being a book reader like Kindle.  It will have a touch screen and virtual keyboard so no need for a mouse.  Evidence to support the rumor come from searches of the U.s. Patent Office records, Apple booking the San Francisco Convention Center in later January for product announcement, and people close to Apple releasing information (anonymous sources).  In addition, people “know” the product will cost around $800 and be released in the summer of 2010.  One of the hot places for information is Mac Rumors, a blog written by Arnold Kim that tracks rumors about Apple http://www.macrumors.com/

Here is sample of content from Mac Rumors about the Apple tablet:

“Exactly what purpose or role an Apple tablet will fulfill is a legitimate question that has been raised on a number of occasions. Since other company’s tablets have so far been commercially unsuccessful, what could Apple bring to the table that will suddenly make them a success? Steve Jobs himself has previously questioned what they were good for besides surfing the web in the bathroom.

Gruber believes the upcoming Apple Tablet will replace the low end of Apple’s portable computer market which is currently held by the MacBook and instead focus on some core functionality and do it well.

And so in answer to my central question, regarding why buy The Tablet if you already have an iPhone and a MacBook, my best guess is that ultimately, The Tablet is something you’ll buy instead of a MacBook.

Like all Apple products, The Tablet will do less than we expect but the things it does do, it will do insanely well. It will offer a fraction of the functionality of a MacBook — but that fraction will be way more fun.

Apple clearly has been able to reinvent a class of product like they did with the MP3 player (iPod) and mobile phone (iPhone), and people are certainly hoping they will be able to do the same thing with the Tablet. Much of the differentiation of these products was done in software, so we agree with Gruber that the Tablet OS can’t and won’t simply be a scaled up iPhone OS or scaled down Mac OS.

One common prediction I disagree with is that The Tablet will simply be more or less an iPod Touch with a much bigger display. But in the same way that it made no sense for Apple to design the iPhone OS to run Mac software, it makes little sense for a device with a 7-inch (let alone larger) display to run software designed for a 3.5-inch display.

Exactly how that will be accomplished, of course, is the big secret.

Apple is rumored to be launching their Tablet in 2010 and Steve Jobs has been described as being extremely happy with the upcoming device.”  http://www.macrumors.com/

There is a lot of information out there for a product Apple has never officially discussed.  There is even more interest than information at this point.  The case illustrates the potential of a rumor to fuel “pull” publicity.  Of course not all organizations are Apple and not all products will generate such interest but there is potential for positive rumors when information is scare and interest is high.  The key is find ways to leak information to help move the rumor along.

Questions to Consider

  1. Is it ethical for organizations to fuel rumors about themselves?  Why or why not?
  2. How does the online environment help to make rumors an effective form of “pull” publicity?
  3. Based on the case, what are the optimal conditions necessary for creating an effective rumor to drive positive publicity?
  4. What is the role on a site like Mac Rumors in this process of rumors for positive publicity?
  5. How might an organization transition/build from rumor publicity to traditional publicity?
  6. What are the greatest risks associated with using rumors to develop positive, “pull” publicity?

Leggo Some Eggo: Beneath the Shortage

November 22, 2009

In November of 2009, the major news outlets carried the story of a pending food shortage in the US.  The story also spread across Facebook and Twitter. The product shortage would last until the summer of 2010.  The food in short supply, Kellogg frozen waffles—Eggos.  Not a major crisis for consumers but it is a problem for Kellogg.  Shortage means less sale of the product.  Moreover, the shortage is a result of business discontinuity.  Kellogg manufactures Eggos in four locations in the US.  The largest bakery was offline while major equipment changes were in being made.  That was a planned stoppage.  The cause of the shortage was the unexpected shutdown of the bakery in Atlanta, GA.  When heavy rains flooded Atlanta, the Kellogg facility was a flood casualty.  Flood waters are not clean so the facility needed to be thoroughly scrubbed before it could reopen.  Here is how Kellogg explained the situation on their web site:


I have not been able to find Eggo® waffles in the store. When will they be available again?


Kellogg Company recently experienced supply constraints caused by flood damage at our bakery in Atlanta.  In addition, we’ve been making significant equipment enhancements and repairs in our largest waffle bakery.  Unfortunately, this is taking longer than anticipated. 

The Eggo™ team is working around the clock to bring everyone’s favorite waffles back to store shelves as quickly as possible.  We hope to regain full distribution of Eggo products by the middle of 2010. This is a top priority for Kellogg Company.


Click here to receive periodic updates from the Eggo® brand about your favorite products, including news about when they will be back on shelf, or for more information, call 866-971-3320.  Thank you for your patience during this time, and we apologize for any inconvenience.”


Most of the news reports repeated Kellogg’s story.  Flood coupled with an equipment change created the shortage.  For a sample story see http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/food/2009-11-18-eggo-shortage_N.htm?csp=34

But there was more to the Atlanta facility closure and business interruption than the flood story revealed.  The Atlanta facility has been closed prior to flood for extensive cleaning.  According to the Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA), the facility was closed due to Listeria monocytogenes being found in some samples of Eggos.  Listeria is a rather harmless bacteria but can be dangerous for people with weak immune systems, newborns, and pregnant women.  It is estimated that 4,500 cases of Eggos were recalled in early September.  The facility was then closed for cleaning and was about to restart when the floods hit.  The news stories and Kellogg information did not address the Listeria shutdown, all the blame rested on the flood.  http://www.wsbtv.com/news/21661515/detail.html

The Listeria recall was not a secret.  The recall was voluntary and reported in September.  It was an FDA Class II recall meaning the probably of serious illness was remote.  There were no illnesses reported from the tainted Eggos either.  The GDA oversaw the cleaning process.  The exact products recalled were:

Kellogg’s Eggo Cinnamon Toast waffles, 10-count package, UPC code 3800040440 with “Best If Used Before” dates beginning with: NOV22 10 EA, NOV23 10 EA and NOV24 10 EA.

Kellogg’s Eggo Toaster Swirlz Cinnamon Roll Minis eight-count package, UPC code 3800023370 with a “Best If Used Before” date beginning with NOV15 10 EA. http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/food-poisoning/news/20090902/eggo-recall

Questions to Consider

  1.  Was it ethical for Kellogg to avoid the discussion of Listeria when explaining the Eggo shortage?
  2. Why would Kellogg want to avoid mentioning the Listeria in the shortage coverage?
  3. What is the advantage to Kellogg discussing the Listeria issue given that a few media outlets and online commentators made the connection?
  4. What does this case illustrate about the power of the Internet and the news media to reveal information companies wish to avoid—why it is hard to “hide” information these days?
  5. How could Kellogg use the shortage to benefit the Eggo brand, especially its online presence?
  6. How would you rate Kellogg’s handling of the initial Listeria problem and what justifies your rating?
  7. How is this case related to risk communication?

Sigg has BPA: Reputation in Peril

October 28, 2009

Sigg Switzerland sells variety of drinking bottles in both sport and children’s models. Most are aluminum with an epoxy liner. Many people buy drinking bottles as alternatives to bottled water for environmental and health concerns. Bottle water is wasteful because of the plastic and is no safer than tap water, in most places. Moreover, there is a concern that chemicals, especially BPA (bisphenol-A) can leach from the plastic into the water. Sigg sales had increases of 250% between 2006 and 2007 was concern over BPA increased. Chemical companies still dispute the dangers of BPA but that is another issue. As early as 2008, there were questions about BPA in the epoxy liners of Sigg bottles. In September of 2009, the company officially acknowledged older liners did contain BPA but denied the BPA could leach into water. This “seemed” to be reversal by Sigg from earlier denials about BPA. However, Sigg maintains the denials were about leaching and that the bottles were always safe. Many in the online community have vocally disagreed http://www.zrecommends.com/detail/siggs-bpa-confession-you-arent-going-to-like-it-any-more-than-we-do/

Here is part of the explanation of the BPA issue offered by Sigg:

“1) What is Bisphenol A (BPA) and how is it generally used? Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical building block that is used primarily to make polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. Cured epoxy resins are inert materials and have been used as protective liners in metal containers for more than 40 years to maintain the quality of foods and beverages. They have achieved wide acceptance for use as protective coatings because of their combination of toughness, adhesion, formability and chemical resistance. BPA is still used today in the cans of your favorite Cola for example. 2) Did SIGG use BPA in its bottles? Yes. Prior to August 2008, SIGG utilized a water-based epoxy liner that contained a trace amount of BPA. These bottles were thoroughly and regularly tested in the U.S. and Switzerland and all tests revealed absolutely no migration or leaching of BPA or any other substance from the former protective liner. Click here to view tests. 3) Are you still using the water-based, epoxy resin liner in any of your bottles? No. We no longer use this liner at all. Today and since August 2008, we make all of our SIGG bottles with a powder-based, co-polyester liner that we call the EcoCare liner. BPA is not one of the ingredients in the formula of this liner. 4) Are older SIGG bottles that contain BPA safe? Yes. U.S. and worldwide regulatory bodies continue to deem the component safe and independent research has shown that these bottles do not leach. We stand behind the quality and safety of all our SIGG bottles including those with our former liner. 5) How do I know which liner is in my SIGG bottle? If you purchased your SIGG before August 2008, you very likely have the water-based, epoxy resin liner. Consumers can determine their liner type with a quick visual inspection. The EcoCare liner has a dull, pale yellow appearance while the former liner has a shiny copper bronze appearance. Click here for photos.” http://mysigg.com/bulletin/faq.html

The power of online communication is a part of this story. Customers reacted negatively to Sigg’s initial response. They sent e-mails to Sigg, wrote blogs, and sent Tweets on the issue. The customer reflect the perceptual nature of risk. The BPA may not leach from the epoxy but many customers bought Sigg bottles because they wanted to avoid any contact with BPA for themselves or their children using the products. If BPA is there, people can perceive it as a threat and as undesirable.

Eventually the CEO of Sigg issues this “apology”:

“Dear SIGG Customer, (STAMFORD CT) – Last month, I wrote a letter to try and provide you with as much factual and historical information as I could in regards to the evolution of the SIGG bottle liner. I also suggested that people could email me if they had any questions and comments. After reading and responding to hundreds of emails and viewing nearly as many blog & Twitter posts, I realize that my first letter may have missed the mark. What I should have said simply and loudly to all of our loyal SIGG fans is: I am sorry that we did not make our communications on the original SIGG liner more clear from the very beginning. I have learned much over the past 2 weeks. I learned that many of you purchased SIGG bottles – not just because they were free from leaching and safe – but because you believed that SIGGs contained no BPA. I learned that, although SIGG never marketed the former liner as “BPA Free” we should have done a better job of both clearly communicating about our liner as well as policing others who may have misunderstood the SIGG message. For over 100 years, SIGG has earned a reputation for quality products and service – and we do not take that for granted. From the day we made our announcement last month, we made a commitment consistent with SIGG values that we would offer anyone who is concerned about BPA an opportunity to swap their old SIGGs for new SIGGs with the new EcoCare liner. Today, I am announcing that this voluntary Exchange Program will be in place until October 31, 2009 to ensure that our customers have ample time to send their former liner bottles back to us should they choose to do so. Once again, I truly apologize for the lack of clarity in our previous communications. All of us at SIGG hope that we will have an opportunity to regain your confidence and trust. Sincerely, Steve Wasik CEO, SIGG Switzerland” http://www.non-toxickids.net/2009/09/finally-apology-from-sigg-ceo-steve.html#

Sigg has now taken some remedial action to allay fears over BPA in its older products. Again, note how the response recognizes online communication:

“Subject: Our Response to the BPA Issue Date: October 1, 2009 Back in April 2008, the popular blog Tree Hugger ran a story, “Are SIGG Aluminum Bottles BPA Free?” The story ended with: “Conclusion: We are not sure if the lining of SIGG bottles is made with BPA or not, but we like the results of the testing, which is what really matters.” The testing of course showed that SIGG bottles did not leach any chemicals, which we too thought, “is what really matters.” Based on the mail we received this past month, some people disagreed. At the same time, we learned that some people in North America purchased SIGG bottles – not just because they were Swiss-made, beautifully designed and free from leaching – but because they thought SIGGs contained no BPA. We learned that we could have done a better job of more clearly communicating about our liners. We are very sorry for any confusion. To ensure that our North American customers remain completely satisfied with SIGG, we have offered those concerned with our old liner an opportunity to swap their old SIGGs for new SIGGs with the new EcoCare liner. This voluntary exchange program began in August and will run for nearly 3 months expiring on Oct 31, 2009. For more details please see: http://mysigg.com/bulletin/exchange_program.html” http://mysigg.com/bulletin/SIGG_BPA.html

Decades ago, Kenneth Boulding speculated that reputations (he called them images) were fairly stable. He tough smashing a reputation was like smashing an atom—only a direct shot would cause turee harm while glancing shots would simply bounce away. So is the Sigg BPA revelation one of Boulding’s atom smashing reputation strikes? Only time will tell.

Questions to Consider

1. What did the Sigg CEO apologize for and how effective is the response? Be sure to justify your rating of the apology’s effectiveness.

2. Does it matter to the communication efforts if the fear over BPA in the epoxy is irrational? Why or why not?

3. How might insights from risk communication be useful in this situation?

4. What does the CEO’s apology say about Sigg’s online monitoring of its reputation?

5. Why is the composition of the customer base (their values and lifestyles) so critical in this case?

6. How did the online environment help to drive this case? How did Sigg use it in their response?

7. Start from the first blog questioning, what communication recommendations for the BPA in Sigg bottles would you  offer to the CEO?

Whole Foods+ CEO + Healthcare Debate = Boycott

August 15, 2009

Whole Foods has built a reputation around natural and organic foods.  Of course that quality does come at a price but their customers  are willing to pay the higher prices.  You could argue that Whole Foods is a cult brand with a core of devoted customers who sing its praises.  John Mackey is the CEO and does make life interesting for the public relations people at Whole Foods.  In 2007, it was revealed that Mackey, using the alias Rahodeb, was posting favorable comments and about Whole Foods and critical comments about rival Wild Oats (who Whole Foods was trying to buy) on blogs and other online postings sites. (http://www.mpdailyfix.com/2007/07/busted.html)   The Securities and Exchange Commission launched an investigation while whole Food banned him from blogging for a period of time.  He returned with this statement:

“I can’t tell you how good it feels to be able to write in my blog again. Even though I wanted to respond openly and truthfully when confronted by the various accusations of wrongdoing last year, our attorneys and Board of Directors both thought it best for me to hold off while they conducted their Special Investigation and the SEC handled its inquiry. Those matters now are completed with the board affirming their complete support for me and the SEC recommending that no enforcement action be made against Whole Foods Market or me. Now that I’m free to post again, I am going to attempt to set the record straight about my internet postings in the past under the screen name “rahodeb.” I promise I’ll be moving on to other topics, but indulge me while I finally get to share my point of view on this particular topic.” http://www2.wholefoodsmarket.com/blogs/jmackey/

The post was a defense of his actions but ended with:

“I wish to apologize to all the stakeholders of Whole Foods Market—customers, Team Members, investors, suppliers, and our communities. I am truly sorry that all this has happened and put a negative spotlight on our company. If I could get a “do over” on this one, I certainly would choose not to have ever participated in the Yahoo! online financial communities. Unfortunately, I cannot undo the past. I can only learn the many valuable lessons that are here for me to learn and try to do better in the future. Thanks to all of you who have continued to support me and Whole Foods Market. I’m excited about what the next few years will bring as we fully integrate the Wild Oats stores and Team Members into Whole Foods Market, and expand our stores and our mission into additional communities while continuing to satisfy and delight our current customers.”

Flash forward of August of 2009.  John Mackey writes an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal about healthcare reform entitled “The Whole Foods Alternative to Obamacare.” You can see the entire op-ed at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB20001424052970204251404574342170072865070.html. Mackey identifies himself as co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods and uses the company’s name in the title of the op-ed.  The op-ed is a logical presentation of his ideas on how healthcare should be reformed and his concerns with the proposed changes. 

The response to Mackey’s op-ed has been mixed.  Many support his position.  Others take great exception to his words.  Those against Mackey have proposed a boycott of Whole Foods.  Their Facebook site quickly reached over 6,000 followers (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=119099537379).  The liberal web site Daily Kos helped to promote the boycott as well  (http://allspinzone.com/wp/2009/08/14/whole-foods-boycott-picks-up-steam/).   The marketplace of ideas was in full swing over the op-ed with both sides expressing their views on the issue. 

Whole Foods found itself sucked into the vortex of healthcare reform.  Not exactly the best place to be when you are not a company strongly affiliated with healthcare such as insurance or pharmaceuticals.  The following message appeared on the company’s Facebook page:

“We would like to thank our customers and shareholders who have let us know their thoughts regarding John Mackey’s op/ed in the Wall Street Journal. Many people, including John, feel passionately about this important issue.

First off, whether you agree with John or not, our 50,000+ Team Members who live and work in your communities will continue to work hard every day to bring you the best natural and organic products available. We hope you will continue to give us the opportunity to serve you.

While there are differing points of view on this issue, John believes certain aspects of the current proposals before Congress would jeopardize our company’s ability to continue providing our sustainable health insurance plan. Whole Foods Market pays 100 percent of the premiums for our full-time (over 30-hours) Team Members, about 89% of our workforce. Additionally, those Team Members get to vote for their new plan options every three years. John does not want to see that changed.

Finally, John absolutely does care about his fellow citizens who do not have health insurance, and he is in favor of health care reform. He believes that the proposals he put forth will provide access to sustainable health insurance for more people.

We recognize that there are many opinions on this issue, including inside our own company. As we all sort through this together, we thank you for sharing your opinions with us.”


Because of the op-ed, Whole Foods as a company is affected by the issue and issues management efforts.  As with his blogging, Mackey is creating reputational concerns that the public relations department will have to address.  The CEO is making like interesting for the public relations people.

Questions to Consider

  1.  Why did the op-ed create a reputational concern for Whole Foods?  Be sure to consider the characteristics of typical Whole Food consumers.
  2. Would you classify the situation as an incident or crisis and how would you justify that classification (Chapter )?
  3. If Mackey had suggested the op-ed at a meeting, what advice would you have given him and why?
  4. Would if have made any difference if Mackey had not identified himself so strongly with Whole Foods in the op-ed?
  5. After reviewing his op-ed, who would you evaluate it in terms of ethical advocacy?
  6. How might Mackey’s past lack of transparency have an impact on this situation?
  7. What messages might Whole Food create to address the situation?
  8. What was the utility in using Facebook for the response?
  9. What response might you anticipate from angry consumers to the Whole Foods message on Facebook?  Why would you anticipate that response?

The End to Kleencut: Greenpeace embraces Kimberly-Clark

August 13, 2009

In 2004, Greenpeace launched a campaign called Kleercut.  The target for this action/churn was  Kimberly-Clark, a major paper-goods company.  Among the its well known products are Scott, Cottenelle, and Kleenex.  Clearly the Kleercut is a play on the Kleenex brand.  Greenpeace initiated the campaign to create a specific behavior change—to shame Kimberly-Clark into no longer using old-growth timber, some of which comes from Canada.  In August of 2009, Kimberly-Clark agreed to end using old-growth timber from Canada and to increase its use of recycled materials and environmentally responsible sources.  Both organizations heralded the agreement.

Here is a segment from Kimberly-Clark’s news release on the topic:

Kimberly-Clark Corporation, the maker of Kleenex, Scott and Cottonelle brands, today announced stronger fiber sourcing standards that will increase conservation of forests globally and will make the company a leader for sustainably produced tissue products. Greenpeace, which worked with Kimberly-Clark on its revised standards, announced that it will end its “Kleercut” campaign, which focused on the company and its brands.

‘We are committed to using environmentally responsible wood fiber and today’s announcement enhances our industry-leading practices in this area,” said Suhas Apte, Kimberly-Clark Vice President of Environment, Energy, Safety, Quality and Sustainability. “It is our belief that certified primary wood fiber and recycled fiber can both be used in an environmentally responsible way and can provide the product performance that customers and consumers expect from our well-known tissue brands. We commend Greenpeace for helping us develop more sustainable standards.’

Kimberly-Clark has set a goal of obtaining 100 percent of the company’s wood fiber for tissue products, including the Kleenex brand, from environmentally responsible sources. The revised standards will enhance the protection of Endangered Forests and increase the use of both Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified fiber and recycled fiber. By the end of 2011, Kimberly-Clark will ensure that 40 percent of its North American tissue fiber – representing an estimated 600,000 tonnes – is either recycled or FSC certified, an increase of more than 70 percent over 2007 levels.

‘Today, ancient forests like the Boreal Forest have won,” said Richard Brooks, Greenpeace Canada Forest Campaign Coordinator. “This new relationship between Kimberly-Clark and Greenpeace will promote forest conservation, responsible forest management, and recycled fiber as far and wide as possible.’

Also by the end of 2011, Kimberly-Clark will eliminate the purchase of any fiber from the Canadian Boreal Forest that is not FSC certified. This forest is North America’s largest old growth forest, providing habitat for threatened wildlife such as woodland caribou and a sanctuary for more than one billion migratory birds. It is also the largest terrestrial storehouse of carbon on the planet, storing the equivalent of 27 years worth of global greenhouse gas emissions.”



With the policy change, Kimberly-Clark moves to a strong position on sustainability.  In fact, they could now position themselves as sustainability leader in the paper-good industry.  On a lighter note, Kimberly-Clark noted toilet paper would not be made from 100% recycled material because that would be too harsh for the US market.  (Americans like the soft toilet paper).

Notice the campaign began in 2004 so it ran for nearly five years before there was a change.  A centerpiece of the campaign was a web site, http://www.kleercut.net/en/.  The web site contained information about the issue and ways people could become involved.  The involvement included action packs for creating your own campaign.  The action packs contain background information on the issue and plenty of public relations advice.  Section included how to get media attention, how to stage street theater, and preparing for media interviews.  Entries included titles such as Kimberly-Clark Declared Greenwasher by Ethical Corporation Magazine http://kleercut.net/en/node/908 and Greenpeace Report: Kimberly-Clark’s Failed Policies Devastate Forest, “A new Greenpeace report reveals that Kimberly-Clark devastated Ontario’s Kenogami Forest while promoting itself as a leader in environmental and social responsibility.” http://kleercut.net/en/node/936


The home page for Kleercut site now explains the agreement and ends this message: “Please join us in thanking Kimberly-Clark for supporting conservation of the Boreal Forest by sending its CEO a congratulations email.” 

Questions to Consider

  1.  How does this case illustrate utility of stakeholder churn and the exercise of power by activists?
  2. What role did public relations play in creating power for Greenpeace and placing pressure on Kimberly-Clark to change?
  3. How does this case illustrate the Excellence dialectic for corporations and activists (Chapter 5)?
  4. Why might it have taken over four years to reach an agreement?
  5. Why is it important that the announcement was made jointly by Kimberly-Clark and Greenpeace?
  6. From Greenpeace’s perspective, how would you measure success in this campaign (Chapter 4)?
  7. How will the action help Kimberly-Clark with its CSR and its reputation?
  8. How might this action influence other companies in the paper-goods business?
  9. How did each side “win” with the policy change?
  10. How does the case illustrate globalization’s effect on public relations?

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?

How a Tweet Haunted Ketchum

August 11, 2009

When we talk about online public relations, social media has emerged as a key component.  Social media are the messages created and published by constituents.  Other terms for social media include consumer generated media and user generated media.  Online line it is easy for people to create messages and share them with others.  Important social media sites include blogs, social networking such as Facebook, and micro-blogging such as Twitter.  Organizations, both corporate and non-profit, have made a big push into the social media as a way to engage constituents.  CEOs and employees are blogging and tweeting.  One problem is that as people get comfortable with social media, the line between work and personal life becomes blurred.  Personal elements in social media posts can be viewed revealing and a way to connect with constituents.  By mixing in personal comments with business, it helps to create authenticity or a genuine feel to the messages.  Said another way, it does not seem like messages were created just to support the organization’s objectives.

There is a downside to comfort and injecting personal comments, people can become too informal and careless in both message creation and content.  Of course a vice president at a major public relations firm would know the dangers on inappropriate messages.  So why did  VP James Andrews from Ketchum tweet in Jan. 2009: “ True confession but I’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say “I would die if I had to live here! 2:58 PM Jan 14th http://blogs.zdnet.com/collaboration/?p=189. “http://blogs.zdnet.com/collaboration/?p=189

So Andrews is not a fan of Memphis.  If you check Twitter people have negative comments about many cities.  The problem is that Andrews was going to Memphis to meet with major client FedEx.  Twitters are public postings that can be shared a go far beyond the initial list of people who follow you on Twitter.  Ideally your clients follow you on Twitter so Andrews should have thought they would see the message.  FedEx employees did see the message and were not happy.   They sent it to executives at FedEx and Ketchum (http://www.blackweb20.com/2009/01/15/when-keeping-it-real-goes-wrong/).  The incident became fodder for public relations bloggers taking Mr. Andrews to task.  The comments to such blogs just piled on with more criticisms. See the long response from FedEx at the end of this case.

An off-handed tweet became a point of contention and embarrassment for Ketchum.  A client is unhappy and constituents may question how clever the organization is with social media.  But it is an honest mistake that can occur when people are too comfortable blurring business and personal in their social media.  Public relations is strategic and that extends to all uses of social media.  Yes we want authenticity in messages but the personal interjections into social media must not harm the organization—some topics and thoughts should not be in a social media message that has a business element to it.  Consider that many people have multiple social media accounts, one for business and one for personal.  As blogger Oliver Marks at zdnet observed:

“For me the FedEx Memphis fiasco (no one comes out of this looking good) is a great example of the enterprise collaboration culture clash between the analog generation (cc’d dressing down email thread) and the digital one (airport bar style Twitter banter). The irony of James Andrews unintentionally demoing the power of digital media prior to his more formal presentation is great.”


The embarrassment trigger a chain of events that was followed closely in social media.  Nothing draws attention in the social media like a misuse of the social media.  Here is the chronology of events:

Andrews then apologized:

As many of you know there has been a lot of online chatter around a recent situation that has unfortunately spiraled. As an active practitioner in the space, I felt the need to both address the situation and offer my perspective on the practice of social media.  Two days ago I made a comment on Twitter that was the emotional response to a run in I had with an intolerant individual. The Tweet was aimed at the offense not the city of Memphis. Everyone knows that at 140 characters Twitter does not allow for context and therefore my comments were misunderstood. If I offended the residents of Memphis, TN I’m sorry. That was not my intention. I understand that people have tremendous pride in their hometown.

Ketchum then apologized:

Ketchum also called the incident a ‘lapse in judgment,’ in a statement. ‘We’ve apologized to our client… We greatly value this long standing client relationship. It is our privilege to work with them,’ the Ketchum statement read.

In later Twitter postings, the ‘keyinfluencer’ said he was ‘Having a great day with my new friends at #Fedex’ and apologized.

And Fedex said it was letting the whole thing go:

FedEx spokesman Jess Bunn said, ‘This is an unfortunate situation and demonstrates very poor judgment by Mr. Andrews. The reaction by our employees proves once again that FedEx takes great pride in our hometown of Memphis.’

‘This lapse in judgment also demonstrates the need to apply fundamental communications principles in the evolving social networking environment: Think before you speak; be careful of you what you say and how you say it. Mr. Andrews made a mistake, and he has apologized. We are moving on.’ “ 


It is amazing that one tweet can create so much of a controversy. 




FedEx Response:

Mr. Andrews,

If I interpret your post correctly, these are your comments about Memphis a few hours after arriving in the global headquarters city of one of your key and lucrative clients, and the home of arguably one of the most important entrepreneurs in the history of business, FedEx founder Fred Smith.


Many of my peers and I feel this is inappropriate. We do not know the total millions of dollars FedEx Corporation pays Ketchum annually for the valuable and important work your company does for us around the globe. We are confident however, it is enough to expect a greater level of respect and awareness from someone in your position as a vice president at a major global player in your industry. A hazard of social networking is people will read what you write.

Not knowing exactly what prompted your comments, I will admit the area around our airport is a bit of an eyesore, not without crime, prostitution, commercial decay, and a few potholes. But there is a major political, community, religious, and business effort underway, that includes FedEx, to transform that area. We’re hopeful that over time, our city will have a better “face” to present to visitors.

James, everyone participating in today’s event, including those in the auditorium with you this morning, just received their first paycheck of 2009 containing a 5% pay cut… which we wholeheartedly support because it continued the tradition established by Mr. Smith of doing whatever it takes to protect jobs.

Considering that we just entered the second year of a U.S. recession, and we are experiencing significant business loss due to the global economic downturn, many of my peers and I question the expense of paying Ketchum to produce the video open for today’s event; work that could have been achieved by internal, award-winning professionals with decades of experience in television production.

Additionally Mr. Andrews, with all due respect, to continue the context of your post; true confession: many of my peers and I don’t see much relevance between your presentation this morning and the work we do in Employee Communications.



Questions to Consider

  1.  What are some ways that social media can help an organization and constituents connect with one another (Chapter 7)?
  2. What does it mean to say all communication with constituents should be strategic (Chapter 4)?
  3. This incident seemed minor on the surface.  What made it such a threat to Ketchum’s reputation (Chapter 9)?
  4. It is a stretch to call this incident a crisis but apologies were issued.  How would you rate the effectiveness of the apology and what is the rationale behind your evaluation (Chapter 12)?
  5. What does this incident reveal about the power of the social media and its affect on the web of constituent relationships?
  6. What guidelines might an organization create for social media use to help prevent such lapses in the future?   How might such guidelines be viewed as a form of risk communication (Chapter 11)?

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