Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

All good things must come to an end. And Great Things must begin!

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017
Sean's career in summary

What a long, strange, wonderful PR trip it has been!

For eight wonderful years, I rode the wave of the entrepreneur. Communication AMMO is my second-longest tenure of employment in my near 30-year career in Public Relations and communications. Beginning next week, CommAMMO becomes part of True Digital Communications, a Greater Cleveland-based communication agency, that focuses on the digital world, including advertising, marketing, PR and content.

In my new role, I will lead the education practice that Communication AMMO and True Digital have partnered on for several years, and will also establish a new internal communications practice, which will include the Face2Face Communication Learning Program that CommAMMO acquired two years ago.

I’m thrilled to have the chance to cross-train people on conducting both the Face2Face and AMMO programs. As part of the firm’s leadership team, I’ll also have an operational role for True. As an educator, helping others learn is a critical part of who I am.

This is a terrific opportunity — only such a great one could get me to move on from CommAMMO — and I’m looking forward to working even more closely with True’s principal, Chris Baldwin, and being part of the True team!

This post also appears on LinkedIn. 

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I miss blogging

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

OK, I’m kind of lying. I don’t miss the blogging I did four years ago. You know, the blogging I did because I didn’t have a job or clients and needed to do something productive.

I talk to people “in transition” frequently. I try to say “yes” as much as possible, because I remember what it’s like. Communication AMMO still has just one employee, and it only now seems like it’s going to allow me to earn a living for a while. But it’s a darn site better than the waiting many of our colleagues have gone through for the past few years.

Blogging is a little bit of an ego trip, so obviously, I’m not doing it right. The frequency of posting is way down, and so to is the number of people reading my fevered musings. I’m not feeling very fascinating these days. I’m putting most of my energy into work for clients, work for classes taught and work for volunteer opportunities.

I DO feel like I still have something to say. So, don’t be too surprised if I’m a little more visible than in recent months in this space.

In the meantime, if you are in position to hire people, don’t turn your back on folks who’ve been out of the game for a while. If you can use an extra hand, reach out to a colleague working on launching their own gig. Be generous as you can be, even if only with your time, your support, and your coffee.

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Giving marketers – and marketing – a bad name

Monday, August 27th, 2012

The 26 August edition of the New York Times carries a long story about Todd Rutherford, an Oklahoma entrepreneur who in 2010 started a company that solicited authors to buy online reviews of their work.  Rutherford paid freelancers to write the reviews, and for a little while, was making $28,000 per month. The piece quotes him saying, “These were marketing reviews, not editorial reviews.”  Yeah, well, once upon a time there was a difference.

They have a term for when you buy space to trumpet your products and services: Advertising. A review in a publication or a broadcast is editorial content — by definition, it cannot be paid for. That division ensures that the reader/viewer is getting a third party view of the material, not one colored by someone with a vested interest in it.  If you made the rash conclusion that “user” reviews on Amazon are written by real users, I guess pity the fool. I often thought the reviews were too fawning and too “professional” to be done by real people, but I figured, “hey, if someone styles themselves a critic and wants to write 500 words on this book, movie, whatever, go for it.” It never occurred to me that someone was out there paying for reviews. Jeepers, no wonder so many Amazon books get five stars.

The Times spends 70 paragraphs exploring this issue. We hear from eBook authors who paid for reviews, freelance writers who wrote them (nearly always without reading the publication in question) and Rutherford himself now “regrets his venture into what he called, ‘artificially embellished reviews.'”

As much as I am a committed free marketeer, I still have quite a lot of heartburn about this. Rutherford says the market will take care of the issue, with true negative reviews overcoming the false positives. I’m not so sure about that.  I wrote earlier about bloggers taking either direct payments or junkets in exchange for talking about a product or company. This seems clearly to be in the realm of deception –under the law, the relationship between advertiser (the authors) and the editorial source (the  publication) has to be disclosed. Only then is the consumer of the review equipped to judge its veracity and its utility.

Rutherford’s firm was engaged in deliberate deception — the authors got the ratings and reviews that helped with sales (though some of the more successful ones didn’t give credit), Rutherford and the freelancers made money.  This doesn’t work for me. It’s fraud.

 

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Why is telling the truth so hard?

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Creative Commons, by Brian Hillegas

The Institute for PR has published “Ethical standards and guidelines for public relations research and measurement“, which PRNewser’s Tonya Garcia summarized as “Basically, don’t be a horrible, self-serving liar.” The statement, By Dr. Shannon Bowen, John Gilfeather, & Dr. Brad Rawlins, is a stake in the ground, and on the surface might seem to be a statement of the obvious. But PR as a profession still seems ethically dubious — witness the latest in a long line of Walmart amazin’s stories.

Walmart hired Mercury Public Affairs to lobby LA city hall to approve construction of a store in Chinatown. No problem. But when Mercury employee Stephanie Harnett went to a meeting of Warehouse Workers United, which wants to unionize Walmart’s workers, she lied about who she was, claiming to be journalism student from the University of Southern California.

Both Walmart and Mercury declaimed any responsibility — Mercury saying that she was a junior member of their staff and that no one, neither Mercury nor Walmart, told her to do any such thing.  I’d be tempted to write this off as a sad commentary on PR education and the “anything goes” culture of the modern age, but Socrates did a better job of making that argument.

What seems likely is that both Mercury and Walmart tossed her under the bus. Media reports say that Harnett was shaking like a leaf during her ruse, so she has to know that what she was doing was wrong. Of course, apparently she got over it in short order. Her Twitter account is closed (good idea; it can’t have been much fun to read the tweets), and she’s keeping a low profile.

Walmart’s not known as a Pantheon of ethics — the Astroturf campaign, the Mexico bribery issue. And many PR firms seem willing to do whatever will generate revenue, from selling war through deliberate falsehood to representing dictators.  PR ethics can seem like a contradiction in terms.

But I won’t give up, and neither should you. Thanks to Bowen, Gilfeather and Rawlins, we’ve got another arrow in our quiver.

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Blame the banks again

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Darn those Evil Bankers!

The latest imbroglio in the financial sector is JP Morgan Chase’s disclosure of a multi-billion dollar trading loss. Since the announcement, JPM’s stock is off more than 8 percent, has been downgraded by Fitch (one ratings agency) and is now exhibit A in the Obama administration’s drive for tougher bank regulations. Oh, how I miss working in banking!

When things get crazy, people want someone to blame — Heads on Pikes, as one National City colleague put it. The  narrative is that greedy bankers caused the recession with their complicated hedges, derivatives toxic mortgages, et.al. Aside from that being a gross oversimplification (got to spread the blame much more broadly), it’s not illegal for a business to lose money.  JPM is a financial company that has different types of businesses.

It’s a bank – Chase — in the consumer and commercial banking businesses. It takes deposits and makes loans. It makes money on the difference between what it pays for money (near zero for deposits, but a little more in other sources) and what it takes in (interest and fees).  When people think of banks, this is what they think of. By law, the only path of investments for excess funds is U.S. Treasury bills, bonds and notes, and making loans. There are a lot of different types of loans out there, such as commercial paper, repurchase agreements, interbank lending, etc., but for our purposes, that does it.

The JPMorgan unit offers services for corporations not covered (very much) by Chase. Most notably, it’s various varieties of selling and buying stock and helping companies and other entities manage their cash. This is the part that gets people all twiddle-pated. The work is similar to taking deposits and making loans, but not really the same.

In the course of doing this work for companies, investment banks like JPM can make income by trading on their own – no client required. At its best, it raises cash that can help the company’s balance sheet and income statement. At its worst, it costs them money.  The fear is that too many losses on the “equity” business side will destabilize the traditional bank side.

But back when these businesses were required by law to be separate, in relative terms borrowing was more expensive and rarer, and many businesses lacked the capital to grow. It’s like we are now in a nostalgia mode for the days of the 1970’s. Speaking as one who remembers soaring unemployment, skyrocketing interest rates and surging inflation all at once, that nostalgia is pretty darn silly. Oh, and banks were open 10-3, there were few or no ATMs and no online anything.

Now we take all of that for granted.  It’s not cheap to provide all of that, and then you get told you can’t charge what you want for it.  An opinion piece in the New York Times carped that JPM had lost $2 billion of “our” money.  Not so. It didn’t lose depositor money, or even client money. It didn’t even lose investor money, unless the investor sold in the couple of days following the disclosure. It also didn’t lose government money — it repaid its TARP loan (that it was forced by the government to take) in 2009.

For JPM, they insist they have plenty of cash and profits despite the $2 billion trading loss. CEO Jamie Dimon has been plugging away on the talk show circuit, chanting mea culpas in the “by the book” crisis mode, and has even “accepted the resignations of” three execs with accountability for the loss, but it hasn’t stopped the criticism.

Where the administration, the FDIC and others are correct, however, is in saying that banks that are “too big to fail” are a systemic risk to the economy. Scale is wonderful until it gets so wide that no one knows what everyone else is doing. Even Jamie Dimon would agree that stepping in so huge a cow pie emboldens those who want the biggest banks to be smaller and more tightly regulated. That’s why the broader financial sector got hammered in the market in the few days following the disclosure.

What could Dimon due differently? Nothing. There are times when business is a poop sandwich and everyone has to take a bite. JPM is still with little argument the best financial in the business. Dick Bove, an analyst, said as much this morning when he rated it a buy.

In the meanwhile, the FBI says it’s investigating JPM, the FDIC has sued it for $15 billion, and the media fans the flames of hatred.  In short, the mob gathers again, demanding blood.

What a business.

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Ethics starts with “me”

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

If the public relations industry isn’t evil, it is frequently unethical, caught in a Hobson’s choice between making a living and living a moral and ethically sound life.  Have you opted to do something that doesn’t feel right because your boss, or your client wants it?

The anonymity of the Internet makes it easy: create a phony profile on Yahoo! Finance and go to it. Stir the pot on your company’s message boards, pick fights, misdirect.  Comment on Twitter under a false name and hide the fact the company’s paying you to foster Twitter dialogue.

How about priming the comment stream about your company’s product?

It’s all too easy to say, “Well, if our agency doesn’t do this, the client will just find someone else who will.” Or, “I’ll get fired if I don’t do it.”

We often seem to think that ethical problems are someone else’s concern. But it all starts with “me,” not with “you or them.”

At what price will you sell your ethical soul?

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