Sow the seeds of transparency, not astroturf!

April 19, 2010

Ah, astroturfing. My new favorite “PR ethics dilemma.” If you have been following my blog, you will know that my interest in astroturfing was sparked by the Tea Party movement (see a previous post),  the Coffee Party movement (another previous post), and their mutual accusations of astroturfing. Astroturfing is defined by Wikipedia as “politicaladvertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but are disguised as spontaneous, popular “grassroots” behavior.”

You can imagine my delight when the topic of astroturfing came up in my social media strategy class. For an assignment, we were asked to pick an ethical dilemma (my dilemma of choice was astroturfing – big surprise) and provide recommendations for an organization struggling with this dilemma. Because of my interest in politics (hence the relevancy to this blog), I decided to raise the astroturfing dilemma from a political campaign standpoint. This is my core question: Should a campaign – anonymously or posing as ordinary citizens –  post comments on political forums, blogs and online news stories in order to generate the idea that there is widespread opposition to our opponents or a groundswell of support for the campaign?

I’ll just cut to the chase. The answer is NO! The answer is no for three (of course, there are countless other reasons) specific reasons: Astroturfing..

  • erodes the democratic process: Disguising the campaign online in order to create the appearance of a diverse conversation surrounding either the candidate or opponents erodes the democratic process, which requires citizens to seek and obtain honest information from their fellow citizens in order to make informed decisions when voting.
  • makes enemies of news organizations and online opinion leaders: Astroturfing angers journalists and online opinion leaders, who use the Internet as a place to help citizens make informed voting decisions. The media are important filters and gatekeepers in a campaign and to anger them can have negative repercussions.
  • destroys credibility and support: When found out to be astroturfing, a campaign will be painted as unethical, dirty and disingenuous. This will erode support and give opponents the upper hand.

Transparency and disclosure are key in undertaking a political campaign. You will garner support with honesty, not with deceit. If you want to read an example of campaign astroturfing (the McCain campaign), visit this blog, which provides a great description of campaign astroturfing and why it is unethical


Irony? Toyota and the redemption of public relations

April 12, 2010

Spin doctors. Propagandists. Indoctrinators. Public relations professionals have endured notoriously negative stereotypes over the years. It seems to be that among the general public lies the assumption that evil public relations professionals are generally the masterminds behind government and corporate cover-ups and screw-ups. To say that this never happens would be a lie. But to say that there is not an abundance of ethical practitioners infusing honesty, accountability and transparency into their organizations would be fallacy as well. Case in point: Toyota.

Granted, these days Toyota does not seem synonymous with honesty, accountability and transparency. But it was recently discovered that in the days leading up to the discovery of the accelerator problems and massive unraveling of Toyota’s reputation, it was none other than a Toyota public relations executive who urged the company to “come clean” about the mechanical problems.

Read the AP story detailing the public relations executive’s warnings to officials here. Irv Miller, group vice president for environment and public affairs, wrote in an internal email:”We are not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet. The time to hide on this one is over.” Miller is now retired. A Toyota official said that Toyota had no comment on the uncovered e-mails and Miller, when reached, also gave no comment.

This case points to another truth about public relations. The power is not generally in the hands of the public relations practitioner. While Miller urged Toyota officials to be honest about the accelerator issue and not cover it up to the government or the public, his advice stood at just that: advice. So, ironically, if there is one redeeming quality about this Toyota scandal, it is the public relations practitioner who cautioned the company against lying and advised transparency, accountability and honesty.

I bet Toyota wishes it would have listened…

Town hall meetings go virtual

March 30, 2010

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty plans to host his first “Facebook town hall” meeting this coming Wednesday to discuss Republican strategy and the 2010 elections. According to the article (from the CNN Political Ticker), a Pawlenty spokesman said “Gov. Pawlenty wants to use the latest technology and social networking tools to connect with more Americans and talk about the issues facing our country.”

This isn’t the first time Pawlenty has used social media for constituency outreach. Pawlenty met with bloggers during a “happy hour” at the Political Action Conference and is active on Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. On Facebook, Pawlenty has over 31,000 fans.

Apparently, hosting a Facebook town hall is becoming increasingly common. But how exactly can a town hall meeting be conducted online? From my knowledge, the point of town hall meetings is to meet with a set of geographically defined “local” citizens to discuss the issues of most importance to them. This element of “local” loses meaning in a social media context. One of the defining features of the social media landscape is the lack of geographical boundaries and difficulty reaching target audiences in a specific geographical area. The Pawlenty spokesperson said “This will be like a regular town hall, except we’ll be able to take questions from around the country thanks to new online tools.” To me, “town hall meeting” is not the correct way to describe this event. This is a forum, open to anyone from around the country to participate, not necessarily those from Pawlenty’s state of Minnesota.

Are these online town hall meetings a good idea? Does social media really allow government representatives to have two-way conversations with their citizens? What sort of pitfalls could arise using social media in politics? Will a social media presence create transparency for public officials and breed trust among those they represent? Is building a presence online done authentically with purpose or is it done merely to follow the crowd? These questions should be at the forefront of any politician’s mind when deciding whether or not to use social media.

It will be interesting to see how the Pawlenty town hall goes. Do you think it will be a success? Here is just one comment from the article:

“Going to predict an EPIC fail. Technology to deliver a message or allow someone to express an idea is a great concept – a way to get reach young voters. But real time interaction?
You have seen the real town hall’s and their complete disregard for any civility, yes? Now, take out the face to face interaction or ability to remove the unruly from the room.
1. He will get trapped in a corner.
2. He will be verbally abused
3. Nothing constructive will come out except for more divison.”

Passing health care and how NOT to respond

March 22, 2010

Tonight the health care bill – which, according to CNN, constitutes the biggest expansion of federal health care guarantees since the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid more than four decades ago – passed in the House. With all 178 Republicans (and 34 Democrats) opposing, this raises an interesting question for the upcoming days of aftermath: How should Republicans (and those Democrats who voted against it) respond?

Things to avoid: scapegoating, name calling and personal attacks.

Should Republicans shout hostile things from the House floor? No. A Republican lawmaker shouted out “baby killer” as Rep. Bart Stupak explained why he would not support the motion to recommit the bill (from CNN). This hostility will not raise support for Republicans. Nor will personal attacks on those who supported the bill. Nor will scapegoating leaders of health care reform.

In a democratic system, the majority prevails. In this case, the majority was in support of healthcare legislation. Accepting defeat with grace and humility is probably (I apologize for my cynical view) unlikely, but if any grace and humility make a guest appearance in the response from those opposed to health care legislation, I will truly be pleasantly surprised.

Oh, and a few facts about the health care package, courtesy of CNN:

  • Congressional Budget Office projections: The bill will cut budget deficits by over $1 trillion in its second decade.
  • It will subsidize insurance for a family of four making up to roughly $88,000 annually, or 400 percent of the federal poverty level.
  • Medicaid will be significantly expanded, ensuring coverage to those earning up to 133 percent of the poverty level, or just over $29,000 for a family of four.
  • Starting in 2013, it also imposes a 40 percent tax on insurance companies providing expensive “Cadillac” health plans valued at more than $8,500 for individuals and $23,000 for families.
  • Individuals are required to purchase health insurance coverage or face a fine of up to $750 or 2 percent of their income — whichever is greater.
  • Federally funded abortion coverage for people purchasing insurance through the exchanges will be banned under the bill now passed by Congress. Exceptions will be made in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother.
  • Illegal immigrants will be barred from buying insurance in the health insurance exchanges.
  • Closes the Medicare prescription drug “doughnut hole” by 2020. Under current law, Medicare stops covering drug costs after a plan and beneficiary have spent more than $2,830 on prescription drugs. It starts paying again after an individual’s out-of-pocket expenses exceed $4,550.

A caffeinated countermovement (and more recommendations for the Tea Party)

March 14, 2010

In a splendid (or, should I say splenda?) new development in the Tea Party Movement saga (see post “steeping in transparency”), a grassroots countermovement has emerged via social media that is calling itself the “Coffee Party.” The party started on Facebook when individuals who were frustrated with the Tea Party’s claim that the Tea Party was representative of America took to this Web 2.0 platform to express their frustration. The Coffee Party Facebook fan page now has over 150,000 “fans.” Kicking off with upwards of 400 coast-to-coast coffee house meetings, the Coffee Party claims to be unaligned with either political party and boasts the same platform that the Tea Party does: A call to action for people to wake up and take control over their future and demand representation from their government.

I questioned the true authenticity of the Tea Party and its “grassroots” nature after learning more about the “coincidental” relationship between Tea Party activist groups and GOP political consultants. It has not taken long for the same skepticism arise; at least, skepticism from the Tea Party. A Tea Party leader said, in a CNN article, “This Coffee Party looks like a weak attempt at satire or a manufactured response to a legitimate widespread grassroots movement.” Other critics claim that the Coffee Party is merely a pro-Obama movement to counter the growing conservative criticism of The Obama Administration and Congress.

From what I see, the Coffee Party is completely authentic and grassroots and I certainly don’t get the whiff of astroturfing that the Tea Party  has exuded. I don’t see how a nationwide movement of coffee house meetings that sprouted via a social networking page in six weeks is any less legitimate than what the Tea Part claims to be. And with strikingly similar goals – accountable political representation – you would think that the Tea Party would support their caffeinated counterparts in a united attempt to realign political representation with the issues that matter to the public. Dare I say the Tea Party is losing steam?

The Coffee Party’s first coordinated national effort will be March 27, when members will meet to discuss ways of engaging members of Congress during the Easter recess. It will be interesting to see where both the Coffee Party and the Tea Party go from here. Until then, I have more words of advice for the Tea Party (my first recommendation was a call for transparency in my post “steeping in transparency”):

Tea parties in glass houses….

The Ticker joins Facebook

February 27, 2010

Yesterday, The CNN Political Ticker, my favorite go-to spot for the most up-to-date and reliable political news, made itself even more accessible: it joined Facebook. By becoming a “fan” of the Ticker on Facebook, my newsfeed will now be populated by the latest developments in politics. In addition to the latest headlines, the Facebook-friendly Ticker also promises that CNN correspondents and producers will add photos and provide “behind-the-scenes insight of the hottest political stories.”

This recent decision to join Facebook echoes evolving trends of the Web 2.0 world: convergence and mobility. The days of waiting until you get home at night to check your email and the latest updates on your desktop are over. With the endless abilities and applications of gadgets like the Apple iPhone and the Blackberry, news is always at your fingertips- literally. With this ease of mobility also comes convergence. Just as getting information on-the-go is easier, the ability to find everything in one place has become easier as well. While email, news, social network sites, blogs, videos and other facets of the online world used to be accessed separately, technology is allowing different platforms to converge into easy, accessible and completely mobile applications. Now, instead of logging into Facebook to see the ever-important updates of my friends’ lives and then checking the CNN Political Ticker to see the latest political happenings, I can now do both at the same time and place.

With the promise to provide on-the-go photos and images from behind the scenes in Washington, the Ticker is allowing CNN correspondents to add a timely and mobile aspect to the Facebook page. Instead of seeing photos after-the-fact, Ticker fans can feel like they are in the middle of the action and witnessing the same things as they unfold. I wonder at what point fans of the Ticker will be able to begin adding their own images and information? Part of this trend of mobile convergence is the idea of convergence between producer and viewer, as the public often has the latest news updates before news organizations. This facebook application for the Ticker would suit “fan-generated content” fairly well. All in all, I can’t wait to see where else the CNN Political Ticker manages to invade my online life.

You can also follow the CNN Political Ticker on Twitter.

Mudslinging 2.0

February 25, 2010

Ah mudslinging. The colloquial term for trying to win an advantage by referring to negative aspects of an opponent or a policy rather than emphasizing one’s own positive attributes or preferred policies (from Wikipedia). Mudslinging has been a part of politics for as long as there has been politics. Generally, mudslinging rears its ugly head during election time; however, with the bipartisan bickering that has consumed Washington, mudslinging has become a daily occurrence.  What is even more interesting is the format being undertaken: social media. Just today, three episodes of online mudslinging have occurred.

Former Presidential Candidate Fred Thompson tweeted “Harry Reid: Jobless men = domestic abuse” in reference to the Majority Leader of the Senate’s discussion just days ago about the correlation between joblessness and domestic violence. CNN Political Ticker says that Thompson’s tweet suggests that Reid “might engage in domestic abuse if he fails to win re-election in November.”

Senator McCain took to YouTube for his latest mudslinging endeavor. He released a video linking his J.D. Hayworth –  2010 challenger to McCain’s Arizona Senate seat – to prominent “birthers” Orly Taitz and Phil Berg. According to Urban Dictionary, a “birther” is a “conspiracy theorist who believes that Barack Obama is ineligible for the Presidency of the United States, based on any number of claims related to his place of birth, birth certificate, favorite birthday, or whether or not he has heard the song Africa by Toto.”

And finally, the Democratic National Committee also created a Web video for YouTube calling some Republicans “Highway Hypocrites.” The hypocrite name-calling is in reference to Republicans who voted against the stimulus bill and then promoted stimulus funds in their districts.

So why this flurry of online mudslinging? While we may be used to seeing these types of accusations on television commercials during election time, the new communication channels of Web 2.0 have created fragmented audiences. This fragmentation has ushered in the need for campaign strategists and political advisors to branch out in their political strategies to reach – well, anyone who may be on YouTube in the DNC and McCain example – or those who probably already are right-leaning followers of Fred Thompson on Twitter.

The success of President Obama’s campaign has been attributed to his strategic use of social media, and social media is certainly in use in politics. Mudslinging  has been called “as American as Mississippi mud.”  While that may be true, are we really ready to be bombarded with callous accusations of political campaigns and candidates through every online venue we frequent?