On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

We live in a time when public opinion on many issues is almost evenly divided, when politics has changed from a search TCB-22230for compromise to the “permanent campaign” of “us versus them,” and when, as a result, discourse and debate often devolves into a coarse exchange of personal attacks and disrespect.

In this environment, have social media and online communications only made things worse, giving many the anonymity to engage in personal attacks and even hate speech?  And what are the implications for influencers, communicators and others who work within open and free channels of communications?

I’ve often wondered about this when, after reading articles online, I’ve perused the “comments” section that follows, only to find it full of name-calling and extremism. But, after ignoring such vitriol, I was struck by a recent New York Times op-ed column by Joe Nocera.

Referring to Twitter, and why he doesn’t Tweet, Nocera wrote: “What I object to most of all is that, like other forms of social media, Twitter can be so hateful.  It can bring out the worst in people, giving them license to tweet things they would never say in real life.”

He then referred to an “investor and CNBC commentator,” who “regularly tweeted his investment insights,” and had 63,000 followers. But the commentator withdrew from Twitter because of nasty and foul messages.  “I received several life-threatening tweets,” he told Nocera.  “I concluded it wasn’t work navigating the sharks to find the good fish.”

So, it’s at least worth reflecting on whether social media have opened new avenues for hateful anonymous speech that will only continue to worsen public discourse. Thought leaders in public relations and marketing commented that such speech is an unfortunate but not unexpected byproduct of developments in media, yet media and communications professionals can play a role in addressing it.

Just ignore it?

Ron Culp

Ron Culp

Although such online disrespect seems to be increasing, it’s important note that, as with speech in other media, many are ignoring it it.

“If I had 63,000 followers, I’d put up with a few social media shark bites,” commented Ron Culp, public relations consultant (formerly, general manager of Ketchum PR’s Chicago office) and now professional director of the graduate program in public relations and advertising at DePaul University. “Anonymous social media comments — both negative and positive — carry little weight with most readers, so throwing in the towel over a few discouraging comments seems a bit thin skinned.”

Likewise, Augie Ray, a social media leader at an East Coast-based Fortune 100 company, pointed to how anonymity and public discourse aren’t necessarily compatible, and how readers can avoid the vitriol by frequenting platforms where commenters identify themselves.

Augie Ray

Augie Ray

“I’m increasingly a fan of dialog in places where anonymity is not the rule or where moderation is possible,” Ray said. “For example, I’ve observed Facebook being used for more professional and political discourse than was common years ago.

“I think there will always be a place for the open, anonymous dialog on places like Twitter (where I’ve never had a problem with nasty or threatening tweets, by the way), but I also think the benefits of civil discourse are easier to achieve when people have to be themselves, where community managers moderate discussions or where reputation matters.”

When reputation matters

That’s perhaps the key word for public relations, marketing and other professionals who ply their trades in communications and media: reputation.  For professionals whose responsibility is to manage reputation, should we care about the coarseness and vitriol seen on social media?

Mr Seitel043013

Fraser Seitel

“You bet we should care,” responded Fraser Seitel, New York-based public relations consultant, adjunct professor at New York University and television commentator on news communications and marketing-related topics.  “Social media devices are compulsory tools for public relations,” Seitel said. “But they are just ‘tools.’ What matters much more than a facility with social media is knowledge, counsel and judgment.”

Social media, Seitel added, “has not only made coarseness and vindictiveness a prevalent no-risk proposition, but it also has given voice to unknowledgeable, inexperienced, no-talent novices parading as experts; who lower the standards of that on which they opine.

“For public relations people who should be concerned about ‘standards,’ social media pose a new threat to the perception of the field’s professionalism,” Seitel said.

That’s a pretty strong statement, underscoring the special responsibilities of those who work in communications.  In light of the comments of Tim Brunelle, a Minneapolis-based brand strategist, such risks and responsibilities have already existed in other areas.


Tim Brunelle

“The Internet (and social media specifically) are duel-edged,” Brunelle said. “They empower — but that gives fuel to the best and worst of humanity. The same is true of the printed word, of art, of science.

“It’s just easier to run into mean-spiritedness and cruelty in the new social spaces,” Brunelle added.  “And let’s not forget that social media is a child, very few years old. Children are cruel.”

We’ve been here before

Nocera and his friend, therefore, may have been started at what they encountered on social media, but I believe their response – to withdraw from it – is incorrect. The duty of commentators like them, or public relations and marketing professionals who listen to such teachers as Ray, Culp, Seitel and Brunelle, is to remain in the realm of social media, adhering to professional standards by exhibiting reason, respect, and decency.

John Milton wrote almost 400 years ago that competition in the marketplace of ideas is the only way to ensure the best ideas prevail. Today, the same principle applies to the tone and manner of public speech: as social media are used to enlighten and inform, rather than degrade and defame, more will focus on the former and ignore the latter.

That, perhaps, is one of the great potential opportunities of social media: to elevate public discourse as the public is exposed to more information and more points of view.

What, then, is your view?  Do you agree or disagree? And have the comments of some on social media caused you to withdraw from it, or to participate with a better type of public discourse?


Danger and Opportunity

(The following originally appeared in the July 16, 2013 edition of O’Dwyer’s PR Newsletter)

Several years ago, a 3M Corp. engineer – a native of China – developed the company’s program for reducing its generation of pollution. He acknowledged the public’s view of the pollution “crisis,” but still provided a positive emphasis by noting that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” combines the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity.”

Chinese for “crisis”: “danger” + “opportunity”

I’ve thought of that perspective – that a crisis can not only involve preventing or removing a danger, but offers an opportunity to learn, grow or even benefit – as I’ve read recent tips and commentaries by PR thought leaders on crisis communications.  Crisis counsel is among the most important roles for public relations professionals, and public relations firms have developed robust crisis communications practices.

Yet such commentaries usually emphasize defense and protection: responding quickly, managing the media, deflecting attention and protecting the stock price. Key considerations, of course, but do we often overlook the “opportunity” part of the crisis equation?

Effective crisis counsel should evaluate not only the initial response, but how to build on that response by leveraging a company’s reputation to enhance its standing among key publics. In fact, clients should ask themselves and their public relations counsel well before any crisis occurs if they have forged a sufficiently strong reputation to manage a crisis to their advantage.

Tapping community support

Please note: I’m not referring cases involving human tragedy: in such crises, safety, security and even survival must be primary concerns.

Nor am I necessarily referring to self-inflicted crises, such as that created recently by Food Network celebrity Paula Deen — although even that case, had it been addressed early and sensibly, could have been managed to restore and even build her reputation.

Perhaps the best example of what I am referring to occurred in 1987.  “Greenmailers” were rapidly accumulating stock of the Dayton-Hudson Corporation, signaling a prelude to a hostile takeover of the department store firm.  As Dayton-Hudson management undertook various immediate legal and financial actions, the company’s head of public relations, Ann Barkelew, rallied to the company’s side leaders of the many nonprofit organizations that had benefited from the company’s largesse.

Members of the Dayton family, since the inception of their firm, had demonstrated a longstanding commitment to their local

The onetime Dayton’s department store (now Macy’s) on Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis

communities through such measures as financial support of nonprofits.  Community leaders from an array of nonprofit organizations joined to support and lobby on behalf of the company. Dayton-Hudson had incorporated under Minnesota law, not, as with many of its competitors, Delaware law, and the community groups drove public opinion that resulted in new legislation that made such takeovers of Minnesota-domiciled firms much more difficult.  With that public support, the takeover effort stalled and eventually failed.

Dayton-Hudson had built up a reservoir of goodwill through its community efforts, along with ethical business practices, a high level of customer service and other factors in its long history.  The 1987 crisis became was an opportunity to tap that support and goodwill to fend off a threat to the company. But it also served as an additional opportunity, to remind the community of the company’s importance and to further build and enhance its reputation.

Don’t wait for the danger

Since then, changes in customer preferences and the economics of retail have reduced the popularity of such department stores and led to the rise of such “big box” retailers as Target, once a division of Dayton-Hudson but, today, the surviving and much larger firm.

But the lessons of Dayton-Hudson’s experience are relevant for a company of any size or industry.  When the crisis hit, the company had built up support among its community and customers and developed a strong and authentic public reputation.

When help was needed, that reputation counted for a lot.  But the experience of the crisis itself, by reminding the public of the community asset represented in Dayton-Hudson, helped to further enhance and strengthen the company’s reputation.

Likewise, if you run a company and want to ensure that, if a crisis hits, you have the resources to deal with it, it’s not enough to have the phone number of a crisis counselor who can step in when the emergency occurs.  The best preparation is to work with public relations counsel to build the strong marketplace reputation that, if a crisis occurs, will enable you to take advantage of it as an opportunity – and not just survive the danger.

A chicken sandwich with religion on the side

I have often viewed mixing business and religion – or, more specifically, the values, stances and opinions that a business owner may derive from his or her religious beliefs, particularly when the business has no religious connection – as contrived and cheap attempts to curry favor with customers.  Recent events, however, should remind businesses that such a strategy can become an unnecessary risk to a company’s reputation.

The risk was illustrated vividly during the past week of historic change in the United States.  The U.S. Senate passed major immigration reform legislation.  Earlier, the Supreme Court issued a string of major decisions, striking down a key part of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, then issuing two major gay rights decisions: striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and letting stand a lower court ruling that struck down California’s Prop. 8 and, as a result, made gay marriage legal in that state.

Perhaps overlooked by many was the ill-advised Tweet by the president of fast food chain Chick Fil-A following the Court’s gay marriage decisions:

“Sad day for our nation; founding fathers would be ashamed of our gen to abandon wisdom of the ages re: cornerstone of strong societies.”

The Tweet was quickly removed from the company’s Twitter feed, and a spokesperson did her best to defuse the controversy with a Tweet saying the company’s president:

“…has his own views but we are focused on providing great tasting food and genuine hospitality to everyone.”

The controversy, however, had begun.  While the company may have hoped attention would turn to its products and services, it remained focused on the executive’s personal views on a sensitive social and political issue.

Most Americans are aware that Chick Fil-A, a company begun in the Southern United States, built its brand on identification with “down home,” Christian “traditional values.”  It puts those values into practice, for example, by not opening on Sunday’s, so that employees can attend church.

As the spokesperson’s follow-up Tweet illustrated, however, a corporation that takes such an approach in today’s diverse society cannot “have it both ways.”  Although the company president was moved to use his bully pulpit on a social issue, the spokesperson sought to move Chick Fil-A past a controversy it didn’t need.  “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

Of course, it doesn’t work that way. Any organization that decides to stake its reputation on an issue in this manner m risks the consequences, which can easily be divisive and negative.  Someone in company management needs to ask, “What in the world does religion have to do with serving a good chicken sandwich?” And if we position our company in this way, won’t consumers avoid us due to their reluctance to support certain political positions?

Which leads, perhaps, to a broader issue, something that consistently baffles business people in countries outside the United States.  Why, they ask, are people in this country – which led the world in separating church and state – so inclined to mix business with their own religious views? As the global economy has developed, successful and sensible companies have recognized that business success should not depend on the sect you belong to or whom you associate with, but on performance, innovation, competitiveness and achieving company goals.

The best of intentions

Such risks to a company’s reputation, however, are not limited only to such public controversies.  At a company where I once worked, the talented and committed CEO was very supportive of employees, often seeking their views on how the company could improve and succeed.  In a commendable effort at employee communications, he would periodically email all 100 employees an update on company progress, priorities plans.

The CEO, however, would often include in the emails comments on the importance of his faith and beliefs.  Although never emulating the Chick Fil-A president by commenting on controversial social issues, the CEO was eager to share how his religious principles guided him in leading an ethical and successful company.

During a conversation on company communications, I suggested to him that although employees understood and respected his values and beliefs, such comments could risk making some employees uncomfortable, or could distract from the company’s principal mission and focus.  At first, he didn’t entirely agree and was somewhat defensive.  But eventually he did acknowledge that he could talk with employees about company values and commitment to the company’s goals without introducing an element of religion.

Unlike the Chick Fil-A president, he knew that leading all employees in a successful business purpose did not require them to endorse or even agree with any belief that, in essence, is something each employee is free to choose and decide on privately.

Successful corporations, to use a rather outdated term, “respect diversity” not simply out of a desire to recruit the best talent from a work force that is much more diverse than just a few years ago.  It also reflects a professional understanding that employees, customers and other stakeholders consider certain beliefs and choices matters of private, personal choice. Although religion has played an important role in U.S. history, so, too has the American belief in individualism and desire privacy. In today’s global economy, that belief has become universal.

The values and ethics of a business are certainly important to employees and their commitment to a company’s mission: they provide the basis for the firm’s identity and reputation. When a company, however, decides to express a religious view – totally unrelated to its business purpose – on a sensitive public issue, it must tread carefully.  An impetuous Tweet by a national executive can pose an warranted risk to his own company’s reputation.