PR & communications

Free speech… how do some people STILL not get it?

Having lacked the time in recent months to do any blogging, I’ve been looking forward to the summer break so that I could get back to the practice. Fortuitously – though somewhat unfortunately, given this post – a recent incident provided a timely impetus to start typing.

As anyone who follows me on Twitter (@MikeBreslin815) or reads my blog knows, two things that I am passionate about are free speech and media studies. As a career communicator who spent much of his career before academics dealing with the news media, I’ve always had a fascination with the industry. My interest in free speech should be somewhat self-evident given my profession, though I would hope that everyone cares about free speech, regardless of their vocation. Given all that, an online encounter I had with the editor of a leading educational news website gave me pause.

In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of coverage, both in academic and mainstream media, about an article written by Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Tennessee. In it, she compared and contrasted the cases of Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal, posing some thought-provoking questions on issues of transgenderism and transracialism. In sadly predictable fashion, many in academe reacted furiously, claiming that Dr. Tuvel and the editors of Hypatia, the journal where it appeared, were products of “white and cisgender privilege” for daring to write/print the article. Hundreds of academics signed a petition calling for the article to be retracted, forcing the journal to offer a groveling apology.   So much for the spirit of open and free inquiry in academics. But I digress…

While perusing my weekly news email from Inside Higher Ed earlier today, I came across an article that I mistakenly thought was about the Tuvel situation. Upon opening it, I discovered it was about a different person, a professor at Texas A&M, who had raised the ire of some because of comments he made on racial issues several years ago. What struck me as interesting about the article was the fact that the editors of IHE had closed off the comments section that went with it, despite the fact that the article had only been posted two days earlier. Out of curiosity, I looked up the most recent IHE articles on Tuvel situation, only to discover that those comment sections were still open despite the fact that they had been online for more than a week. Upon seeing that, I posted a question for the editors (see graphic) in the comments for one of the Tuvel articles. Within minutes, I received the reply noted in the graphic.

IMG_8745

I replied to the editor as follows:

“Appreciate your quick response. However, the latter half of your point is troublesome, to put it mildly. “Usefulness” in whose opinion? Considering the highly sensitive topics at play here (and in many other cases), it seems antithetical to the ideas of free expression, free speech, etc. to engage in such a practice, especially when inconsistencies are so easily identifiable. In an era where the media are under more fire than ever, I would hope that journalists (i.e., practitioners whose very profession relies on related freedoms, vis a vis freedom of the press) would be more disinclined than ever to do anything that could be construed as contrary to the principles expressed in the First Amendment. My two cents.”

I realized rather quickly that my hopes about journalists and their attitudes towards free speech were misplaced, at least in this case. My pending comment was deleted and not posted. Two subsequent comments that I made on this matter, pointing out the problematic nature of such censorship, were also deleted without posting. (Perhaps my comment  about the linkage between free speech and free press hit a little too close to a sensitive area.) It was only later, after I complained further through the publication’s Twitter feed, that my post finally went live.

Now, let me be clear about a few things before I go further. First, I fully recognize the right of any website owner to monitor/censor/edit anything on that site, including user comments. I, like anyone else who spent more than 10 minutes online in the last 10 years, realize how toxic the environment can become on comments pages, social media and the like. However, as a matter of journalistic principle, I would hope that all news media outlets and editors would be reluctant in the extreme to engage in anything that could even seem like censorship, particularly given the times we live in. Public confidence is already badly shaken in the media, via “fake news”, bias, sensationalism, infotainment (or pornewsgraphy®, as I termed it in a previous blog). As such, it seems counterintuitive that anyone in a profession that depends on the protections of the First Amendment, and which is under more negative scrutiny than ever, would be anything but supportive of those same rights for others.

Further, I am not suggesting that this incident or the actions of this editor are indicative of every journalist out there. I would like to think the truth is far from that. But this is certainly not the only time that I’ve seen instances of people engaging in behavior that is contrary to the ideas of free speech and open dialogue – many of whom should know better. I increasingly see it in news reports about higher education, where some professors and students posit that the answer to objectionable speech is not more speech, but censorship, disruption and/or (in extreme cases) violence.  Sadly, the people engaging in such behavior don’t realize that the solution to “bad speech” is not censorship or less speech; it is more speech.  Please note, I said more “speech”, as in words – not violence, childish behavior and the like, which some people mistakenly think constitutes acceptable expression. Sorry, but if you can’t make your point effectively without shouting people down or limiting their ability to be heard, there’s an excellent chance your  position is flawed to begin with. And, on the off chance it’s not, you’re simply defeating your own cause in the long term by making it anathema to reasonable people. That’s the sad part about such efforts – they are ultimately self-defeating, but the people behind them seem oblivious to that fact.

In the current environment, where so many people are speaking out about perceived losses of freedom, it seems ironic that so many of those same people are trying to erode the very rights that allow them to speak. In such cases, it seems apropos to note the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for – you might get it.”

PorNEWSgraphy: It’s airing 24/7 in the Fourth Estate

In 30 years as a career communicator and public relations specialist, I’ve become a media junkie. I track developments in the media, particularly news media or the “Fourth Estate,” in the same way that some people play golf or follow their favorite college sports team. I suspect that many of my fellow “flacks” share a similar passion.

That said, I’ve grown increasingly dismayed in recent years about the ongoing – and accelerating – devolution of journalism in the United States. Trends like infotainment, sensationalism, “advocacy journalism” (an oxymoron, to be sure), and unapologetic political bias in reporting (thank YOU, Fox News, MSNBC and others) have made it difficult in the extreme to rely on national news reporting as a source of objective, accurate information. To be sure, there are still many good journalists out there who are eager to practice their trade in an objective, reliable way. The sad irony of this is that, in too many cases, forces beyond their control won’t let them.

Consider this alternate definition of “pornography” from Merriam-Webster.com:  “:  the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction <the pornography of violence>” (emphasis added). Applying the same cause-effect paradigm to the way most “reporting” nowadays is geared toward pathos (emotions) rather than logos (rational thinking), isn’t it fair to apply the term “porNEWSgraphyTM?” Given the dreck that spills forth daily from many of the new operations in America today, is the term unreasonable?

Meet the Press - Dana Carvey

NBC’s Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press” discusses political impressions with comedian Dana Carvey. Apparently, it was a REALLY slow news week.

One does not have to look far for examples of pornewsgraphy. As I type this, NBC’s “Meet the Press” has just finished airing an interview with renowned statesman Dana Carvey regarding the impressions he does of George H.W. Bush and others. Yes, that’s Meet the Press – the iconic Sunday morning news program that has provided insights on key issues and access to world leaders since 1947 – acting as a promotional vehicle for “Saturday Night Live.” What’s next? Former presidential advisor David Axelrod juggling to promote his new book? New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand reading a few steamy passages from “50 Shades of Grey” before discussing women in the military? Apple CEO Tim Cook plugging PornHub as part of a discussion on online privacy and data breaches? Somewhere, Tim Russert is banging his journalistic halo against a wall.

In fairness, NBC and MTP are by no means alone in offering such pathetic fare under the guise of “news.” The aggregate total of this problem on a daily basis is stupefying, particularly in terms of its implications. Whether one looks at it from the vantage point of a communications professional, a journalist, or “just” a citizen, the long-term damage caused by the lack of a credible journalism industry is ponderous.

So, sit back and tune in to your favorite news program. Regardless of what network you watch, it’s bound to be “entertaining.”

 

Just shut up

Silence

Just shut up.

While that may not be the most polite phrase, it sometimes is the best communications strategy. It took me a long time to learn that.

In the nearly three decades I’ve been working in PR and communications, one of the hallmarks of my style has always been assertiveness, sometimes bordering on aggressiveness. Like many communicators, I hold to the idea that if you don’t tell your story, someone else will…often badly. Accordingly, I’ve always had a penchant for wanting to “get in there and mix it up” in situations that involved adversarial communications – labor disputes, conflicts over business matters, and so on. Call it the Irish New Yorker in me, but my default defense setting is to go on offense.

That said, I’ve learned first- and secondhand that, at times, it’s far smarter to remain silent and not engage, even in high-profile PR situations. The key to knowing when those times are lies in the ability to correctly read the stakeholder environment. Two examples illustrate what I mean.

About 10 years ago, while I was with Ketchum, I had the chance to work on the agency communications team for a multibillion-dollar merger. As with any large merger of consumer-facing companies, opponents like Consumers Union responded predictably, decrying what they (inaccurately) saw as the loss of consumer options, the likelihood of rising prices post merger, and so on. To be sure, we were well prepared to respond to these and other misplaced charges as the merger process progressed. However, for the most part, we kept silent. Why? Because one of the senior members of our team knew the key stakeholders – in this case, federal regulators – well enough to realize that hyperbolic claims by CU and others would not gain any traction. Strong responses on our part would only serve to give their claims a perception of credibility – “Why would Company X respond this way if there was no truth in the accusations?” Sure enough, the process moved smoothly to regulatory approval despite the opposition.

A more recent example involves a high-profile PR fiasco that we are all familiar with – the Cosby rape scandal. From a communications standpoint, this matter has been botched from day one. Even allowing for the difficulties that can arise when a PR strategy has to co-exist with a legal defense strategy, this matter has been completely fumbled by Team Cosby. The latest example: His lawyer, Martin Singer, issued a public statement late last week saying that he had documentation to dispute the latest accusations from a single accuser, a young woman who alleged an assault at the Playboy Mansion.

Seriously? With dozens (literally) of women standing in line hurling accusations, why would Team Cosby extend the news cycle by issuing a press release over a single accusation, a release that no one is likely to believe anyway regardless of its veracity? Even if you allow for the fact that this latest charge falls within the statute of limitations, and thus may warrant the legal team fighting it aggressively in the courts, why issue a statement on the matter, ensuring yet another round of bad headlines? It would be far smarter at this point for Cosby and his people to lay as low as possible, at least until the next high-profile scandal comes along and captures the public’s/media’s attention. It seems apparent at this point (IMO) that Team Cosby has no clue when it comes to reading their key stakeholders – in this case, a public that has been disillusioned at the fall of a beloved icon, has lost faith in him beyond redemption, and which now just wants the whole tawdry matter to go away.

Again, though it may go against the grain of many a communicator, sometimes the best PR strategy is no communications at all.

And with that, I’ll just shut up.