Health Care, Issues Management, and Transparency

August 5, 2009

The summer of 2009 has jump started the health care debate in the U.S.  People debate various plans to help provide health care to the millions in the U.S. who lack health insurance.  It is a vital issue that warrants public discussion.  Public relations can help build the marketplace of ideas (Chapter 3) by providing communication vehicles for various sides.  This is the realm of issues management.  The health care debate is issues management at its best and worst.  The worst comes in the form of front groups that hide their bias and provide information that can kindly be called misleading.  (See an earlier debate about twisting risk communication in this debate).

The Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights sounds like group designed to help patients.  Here is a sample from their about section:

“The Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights is a nonpartisan, grassroots coalition of patients, healthcare professionals, advocacy groups, and engaged citizens who are concerned about the current healthcare debate going on in Washington.

Agreeing that more must be done to reign in healthcare costs and provide affordable access to healthcare for uninsured Americans, the Coalition believes that the private sector can and must be involved in healthcare reform.  Recognizing that each of us are different and have different healthcare needs, we support choice and options in our healthcare – not a one-size fits all approach that simply provides everyone with the same level of substandard care.  The Coalition also believes that all medical decisions must be left to the patient and doctor.  We believe that allowing a government bureaucrat to exercise any authority over personal healthcare decisions would lead to diminished quality of life for all Americans.”
Now people might take” issue” that the about section implies that the U.S. government will take over healthcare and be the sole insurer in the U.S.  Of the plans being discussed, that is not at the top of the list or even a realistic option as of August 2009.  So there is some implied distortion.  What is problematic is the lack of transparency provided  by  The Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights.  The group was developed by the DCI Group.  The DCI Group is a lobbying firm with a history of creating front groups (  As The Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights sends out editorial and op eds, gains friend on Facebook, and has visitors at its web site, there is no indication who this group really represents.  What corporations or industry groups are paying the bill.  By definition, front groups lack transparency.  At best The Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights is an example of astroturfing.  The organization was created to generate grassroots opposition to certain health insurance initiatives.  The organization was not a spontaneous development from constituents.  The organization was built by a communication/PR agency.  Here is how the DCI Group defines itself:

“DCI Group is a strategic public affairs and global issues management firm. We use a campaign-style approach to help corporations, trade associations, and nonprofit organizations address their most critical communications and public policy challenges.”


For the lighter side, see Steven Colbert discuss the Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights as “the word” August 4, 2009 at—hippie-replacement.


Questions to Consider:

  1.  What are the ethical concerns for PR when engaging in astroturfing?
  2. Why does it matter who is funding The Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights?
  3. How do front groups serve to undermine the issues management process?
  4. How does a demand for transparency protect issues management and the marketplace of ideas?
  5. What about the online environment (Chapter 7) makes it easier to create an effective front group?
  6. Does it seem odd that a PR agency with known connection to front groups is also Bronze Anvil award winner from the Public Relations Society of America? 
  7. How exactly might transparency be used to combat front groups especially in the online environment?
  8. Can The Coalition to Protect Patients’ Rights appear to be working as social marketing  (Chapter 8) and what advantage does that offer to its issues management efforts?

Hot Dogs as Issues Management and Risk Communication

August 3, 2009

Many products do carry warning labels including cigarettes, alcohol, and prescription drugs.  The warnings include health risks (cigarettes and alcohol) and side effects (prescription drugs).  But what about a warning label on hot dogs and other processed meat read:  “Warning: Consuming hot dogs and other processed meats increases the risk of cancer.”  The non-profit organization Cancer Project is prosing such warning labels become law thereby initiating an issues management contest when they filed a lawsuit request the labels.  As noted in Chapter 10 on issues management, various groups are involved with an issue because they have something to win and/or something to lose.

The Cancer Project frames their position as public health.  They would consider their actions as social marketing (Chapter 8).  The warning Is sought because of the link between consuming processed meat and some forms of cancer.  As reported in the LA Times:  “‘Just as tobacco causes lung cancer, processed meats are linked to colon cancer,’ says Neal Barnard, president of the Cancer Project and an adjunct professor at the George Washington University medical school in Washington, D.C. ‘Companies that sell hot dogs are well aware of the danger, and their customers deserve the same information,’ he added, reports Times writer Jerry Hirsch,1,2946755.story.

Here is an excerpt from the Cancer Project News Release:

“WASHINGTON—Three New Jersey residents are suing Nathan’s Famous, Kraft Foods/Oscar Mayer, Sara Lee, Con Agra Foods, and Marathon Enterprises for failing to warn consumers that hot dogs increase the danger of colorectal cancer. The action comes in the wake of landmark scientific studies linking hot dogs and similar meats to colon cancer.

The class-action consumer fraud lawsuit, which is being filed July 22 in Superior Court in Essex County, seeks to compel all five companies to place cancer-risk warning labels on hot dog packages sold in New Jersey. The labels would read ‘Warning: Consuming hot dogs and other processed meats increases the risk of cancer.’”

The Cancer Project describes itself as follows:  The Cancer Project is a collaborative effort of physicians, researchers, and nutritionists who have joined together to educate the public about the benefits of a healthy diet for cancer prevention and survival. Based in Washington, D.C., The Cancer Project is an affiliate of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

As you might guess the producers of the products disagree with the Cancer Project.  Here is a sample response:  “These proposals are unfounded. Hot dogs have been enjoyed by consumers for more than 100 years,” said Sydney Lindner, a Kraft spokeswoman (from,1,2946755.story).  The hot dog and sausage industry generated sales of over $3.4 billion in the US in 2008.  So this is a serious issue to the producers. 

The American Meat Institute (AMI), one of the industry groups that represent processed meat, claims that the Cancer Project is pro-vegetarian, animal rights group with nothing more than a nuisance lawsuit.  The Center for Science in the Public Interest (food and drink front groups mentioned in an earlier post) go further by calling the Cancer Project an animal rights groups and the lawsuit as frivolous. (


Scientists feel the link between processed meat and cancer is very complex and warning labels may not be the best course of action.   In other words, there is no agreement on how to address the issue of processed meat being a potential health risk.  However, there is a risk that warrant communication.  Risk communication is the topic of Chapter 11.

Questions to Consider

  1.  Is the Cancer Project really working for the public interest/safety?  Why or why not?
  2. Why should it matter if constituents see the Cancer Project as engaged in social marketing as they attempt to manage the issue?
  3. What is the “real” evidence that connects processes meat to colon cancer?
  4. Are either side making exaggerated claims that could be viewed as unethical?  If yes, provide some examples.
  5. What are the costs to constituents and PR if the claims are exaggerated?
  6. Is the Cancer Project using risk communication is a responsible/ethical manner? 
  7. Does the industry response show respect for constituents and responsible/ethical risk communication?
  8. Who are the various actors in this issue and what is each one’s primary stake in this issues management effort?
  9. What is the role of transparency (Chapter 3) in this case?

High-tech Suits in Swimming as Reputation and Issues Management

July 31, 2009

Swimming is a sport most people only think about during the Olympics and maybe when there is a major world championship.  Still, like all major sports, swimming is a significant global business.  Like other businesses, swimming must be concerned about its reputation (Chapter 9).  This includes what it is doing to build its reputation and to protect the reputation it has built.  This case deals with a potential reputation threat, the high-tech suits swimmers that were popular in the Beijing  Olympics.  The Speedo LZR Racer was a favorite among the Americans including golden boy Michael Phelps.

Janet Evans, a three-time Olympian and still popular swimmer, is among those calling for an end to the suit.  She supports the argue that the suits create an advantage.  The advantage is added buoyancy and muscle endurance.  Evans believe the suits are just a different type of performance enhance but not really different from doping (

FINA, the governing body for swimming, seems to agree.  They have added a new rule that states:  “’No swimmer shall be permitted to use or wear any device or swimsuit that may aid his speed, buoyancy or endurance during a competition.’ The words “or swimsuit” were added after debate over whether a costume counted as a device.”

So why were the suit allowed in the 2008 Olympics and legal through May of 2010?  One answer is money.  The swimsuit manufacturers spent a lot of more in research and development.  The companies also pump large amounts of money into the sport through sponsorships.  Swimmers breaking records in their suits in great publicity that helps to drive sales for the company.  The sponsorships help to build positive reputations as the company is connected to great events, teams, and athletes.  So the ability to manage the high-tech suit issue becomes more complicated.  As noted in Chapter 10 on issues management, all issues have winners and losers.  As a result, even a simple issue may not be so simple.  For most observers. Changing suits that might provide an unfair advantage would seem simple.

But there will have been over two years of record smashing performance in those suits.  Evans wants the record books to note the records using suits and those without.  This would include her record in the 800-meter freestyle but she says it is note personal.  She thinks it is a matter of fairness; swimmers should be recognized for their non-enhanced accomplishments.  This part of the issue remains open.

Here are some links that provide graphics and descriptions of the high-tech suits:

Questions to Consider

  1.  What PR implications would revising the records have on swimming as a sport?
  2. What PR implications would revising the records have on the individual high-tech suit manufacturers?
  3. What other arguments could be made to support the issue resolution and removing the high-tech suits from competition?
  4. How does this case illustrate the way that reputation and issues management can intersect?
  5. If you were Speedo, what would you be doing now to address the emerging PR concerns from this issue?
  6. Why would FINA have wanted the high-tech suits in use for the 2008 Olympics?

HP, Greenpeace, and Aggressive PR

July 30, 2009

You probably are or have used an Hewlett Packard (HP) printer, maybe even a computer.  We should note up front that HP has taken actions to become more environmentally friendly.  The computer industry can generate toxic materials and use them in machines.  On page 261 of our book, Chapter 13 on Corporate Social Responsibility, we note HP efforts to recycle computer and computer-related equipment as efforts to reduce waste.  However, constituents can still pressure for change even as a corporations is changing.  That pressure is designed to keep the change process moving and to shape the direction of that change process.  Check out page 86 and other discussions of the Excellence Dialectic for more on that process.  To learn more about HP’s environmental efforts, visit HP Eco Solutions at

On July 28, 2009, Greenpeace painted the words “Hazardous Products” on the roof of HP headquarters in Palo Alto, CA.  There is a link to a piture near the end of this case.  A message recorded by actor William Shatner (Captain Kirk or Denny Crain depending on your tv viewing) was sent to HP as well.  According to Greenpeace, here is the reason for the action:  “Earlier this year, HP postponed its 2007 commitment to phase out dangerous substances such as brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic from its computer products (excluding their server and printer lines) from 2009 to 2011.”   Greenpeace views the failure to change as unacceptable.

Greenpeace created a publicity stunt—an event designed to attract media coverage.  Though not traditional, the rood painting is a form of public relations.  In addition to media relations (traditional and online), the action can be tied to reputation management and corporate social responsibility.  It also illustrate various aspects of activist PR.

HP’s response:  “The unconstructive antics at HP’s headquarters today did nothing to advance the goals that all who care about the environment share.”

As You Sow is another activist group that wants to see the end to BFRs.  Here is a part of their news release about the event:

“Publicly chastening companies has in the past been effective in calling attention to issues such as toxic chemical use, Conrad MacKerron, director of the corporate social responsibility program at As You Sow, said in a telephone interview. “But in the long run, in terms of the actual change, it depends on whether they are making good faith efforts to change things,” he said, adding there could be credible reasons for why they are unable to adapt quickly, such as lack of suitable alternatives. Regarding efforts to recycle electronic waste, MacKerron said there are concerns on both sides of the lifecycle — from production to deconstruction and disposal — and it will take a fair amount of time to clean up an entire sector of business. “The IT industry has been more responsive to stakeholder concerns in a similar amount of time, compared to when we were pressing apparel companies for using sweatshop labor a decade ago,” he said. Indeed, the sector has made efforts to clean up their businesses. For example, Dell sells laptops with mercury-free LED backlighting and offers free computer recycling worldwide. Lenovo sells a PC monitor that is free of arsenic and mercury, as well as monitors that contain 25 percent post-consumer content recycled plastics. In addition, HP plans to release a BFR/PVC free notebook in September, and says that by fall of 2010, all “new commercial products” released will also be free of these chemicals. Between 1987 and 2007, HP recycled one billion pounds of electronic products. At this point in time, the situation has presented a market opportunity for Apple to promote its PVC and BFR-free products over its competitors’ wares. Perhaps competition could be just as powerful of a motivator as public shame to push its rivals to find solutions fast.”

You can read the complete release at


 Link to picture of the roof:



Questions to Consider

  1.  Does the Greenpeace effort hurt or help efforts to change HP’s behavior?
  2. Chapter 5 on activism talks about different PR actions taken by activists?  How would you categorize Greenpeace’s efforts here?
  3. How does As You Sow’s PR efforts differ from Greenpeace in this case?  Which do you think is more effective and why?
  4. How can As You Sow and Greenpeace be used to illustrate the idea of moving the middle (p. 101)?
  5. How does HP’s environment efforts and communication about those efforts increase their concerned about the negative publicity about  BFRs?
  6. What ethical concerns do you see with Greenpeace’s aggressive PR.

Should the PR Contract be Renewed?

July 29, 2009

Susan Davis International (SDI) has a contract with the Defense Department to help guide the “American Supports You” program.   ASY is designed to be pro-troops.  According to the web site, “America Supports You, one of many initiatives managed by the Office of Community Relation, is intended to communicate citizen support to the men and women serving in the Armed Forces and their families. All America Supports You related content will continue to be featured under the “Citizen Support for Our Troops” section of” [See the web site

In 2008, the government found SDI has acted inappropriately—mismanagement and potential financial wrongdoing.  To be more specific, “The Defense Department Inspector General reports that the America Supports You program was being managed in a “questionable and irregular manner,” the department’s top public affairs official said today. “ 

[See the longer story at]. 

Part of this included receiving over $8 million dollars from the Stars & Stripes budget to conduct public relations for ASY.  With all these problems, in July of 2009 the contract with SDI was renewed and they received another $1 million in tax payer money.  [For a critical look at the case see].

Questions to Consider:

  1. Why are some constituents upset by the renewal—why might the renewal be viewed as bad public relations?
  2. How could a solid rationale be built for continuing the contract?
  3. What ethical concerns are raised by the renewal?
  4. See if you can find any coverage of the story in the traditional media.  How does the amount of media coverage of the inappropriate actions help or hurt public relations aspect of the contract renewal?

Booth Babe Abuse and PR Implications

July 28, 2009

Comic-Con is a major entertainment event for interacting with consumers (fans).  It is more than comic books as it attracts film, television, and video game companies.  In addition to fan feedback, Comic-Con provides the publicity opportunity provided by any recognized convention.  The attractive women who frequently wear provocative outfits at Comic-Con and other conventions are called “Booth Babes.”  These women are a form of public relations as their job is to attract attention and traffic to a booth.  Companies pay large fees for booth and want floor traffic.  Booth Babes work long hours and have to deal with sometimes “aggressive” constituents.  It is not an easy and glamorous job but does have PR ties.

At the 2009 Comic-Con, EA (a major video game company) tried a questionable promotion related to Booth Babes.  EA was trying to build interest in the release of game Dante’s Inferno.  The PG rated version of the marketing idea is presented below.  Basically the idea uses social media and “sex” to attract attention. 


Convention attendees were asked to “commit acts of lust” with booth Babes, photograph the acts, and post those to social media such as Facebook and Twitter.  Here is a link so a sample reaction

The winner would get a date with two women and prizes.  Surprise, the reaction online and in person was negative.  The contest was viewed as encouraging sexual harassment of women just trying to do their often difficult jobs.   The Bad Pitch Blog reviews the purposeful action angle  The marketing action created negative publicity for EA.  Some think it was a publicity stunt not a marketing effort.  The belief is that EA was subscribing to the belief that any PR is good PR even when the content is negative. 

EA did need to address this action that could damage their reputation.  This is an incident rather than a crisis but still has reputation ramifications.  So PR was used to redress the situation.  EA offered the following response:

“We apologize for any confusion and offense that resulted from our choice of wording, and want to assure you that we take your concerns and sentiments seriously. We’ll continue to follow your comments and please let us know if you have any other thoughts or concerns. Keep watching as the event unfolds and we hope you’ll agree that it was all done in the spirit of the good natured fun of Comic-Con.”

*To see the racier version of the marketing message try

*To learn about booth babes you can visit the link below to information by the G4 Network.  they did a special about what the job is really like.  Has links to more information and pictures:

Questions to Consider

  1.  Why would this be an incident rather than a crisis?
  2. Do you agree or disagree that any publicity is good publicity?  What lead you to your conclusion?
  3. How does this case illustrate the unique demands that come with public communication?
  4. What ethical issues do you see emerging from this case?
  5. How would you evaluate EA’s response in the case?  What informs your evaluation?
  6. If you were at a meeting where the idea and sample message were proposed, what would you have said and why?
  7. Why would people at EA have thought this was a good idea?
  8. In addition to promoting harassment, what other negatives do you seeing being created by this action?

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