Inside the Profession

Friday Five: A Sorry Week for Some

Friday Five LogoAmong other things, 2014 may be branded the year of the apology or more often used non-apology. This year we’ve seen an abundance of companies, celebrities, politicians and others apologize for various mistakes. The internet/social-age has allowed the general public greater access to more information, more quickly than ever before. That access and speed has also allowed us the opportunity to share information faster and on a broader scale.

In this week’s Friday Five – PRSA’s analysis of the week’s biggest public relations and business news and commentary – we look at the weeks biggest mistakes and the apologies that followed. We review several incidents that have forced apologies from Greenpeace, Rolling Stone magazine, a Sony executive, a Harvard Professor and a PR Agency.

Texas PR firm changes lynching-themed name ‘Strange Fruit’ (MySA)

At any given moment, most of us have accesses to the majority of the worlds collected knowledge no more than a fingertip away. Through our smart phones, computers, televisions, tablets and a slew of other internet-connected devices, we can pretty much find out anything, anytime. That’s why it’s somewhat baffling how the owners of a PR agency based in Austin Taxes wouldn’t know that the name they selected for their company was most popularly linked to lynching, racism and a dark part of American history.

According to Mary Mickel and Ali Slutsky, the owners of “Strange Fruit PR,” although they Googled the term before deciding to name their company in 2012, they saw the more popular song by Billie Holiday but thought “it would have nothing to do with our firm, and since it was written in 1939 it wouldn’t be top of mind in the public consciousness.”

The question that comes to mind was perfectly summed up by at least one person on Twitter when they asked, “What part of ‘Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/#Strangefruit hanging from the poplar trees’ didn’t #strangefruitpr get?”

The daft duo have since change the name of their agency, but it’s unlikely that the PR 101 lesson of “Google it first” will soon be forgotten.

Read the full recap of the incident and the apology at this link.

Greenpeace apologizes for protest at Peru’s Nazca Lines (Reuters)

Environmental activist group Greenpeace has long made a name for itself through the organization of what some might consider extreme, public protests. According to the organization’s website, they use “peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and to promote solutions that are essential to a green and peaceful future.” So it may be a little surprising that their most recent publicity stunt may have caused near-irreversible damage to one of the most famous archeological sites in the world, the Nazca Lines in Peru.

According to an article by Reuters author Marcelo Teixeira, “the activists placed giant letters in the soil close to the figure of a hummingbird, saying ‘time for change, the future is renewable.’” Which is somewhat ironic because through their actions, they have changed the very environment they hoped to protect… but for the worse.

As the BBC reports, Luis Jaime Castillo, a Peruvian deputy culture minister, says the 1,500 to 2,000 year-old lines are “absolutely fragile. You walk there and the footprint is going to last hundreds or thousands of years.”

Greenpeace has since apologized for any “moral offense” they may have caused. See more about their destructive stunt and apology on Reuters.

Scott Rudin apologizes for dissing Angelina in e-mails (USA Today)

Sony, still reeling from a recent hack to their system, continues to feel the pain resulting from a breach that has cost them millions and compromised the personal security and information for many who’ve worked with them. The most recent person to suffer the weight of the infraction is producer Scott Rudin, whose private email conversations with leaders at Sony Pictures entertainment were made public.

Maria Puente writes that among the topics discovered in the email conversations between Rudin and Sony Pictures entertainment chief Amy Pascal, are Rudin describing Angelina Jolie as a “spoiled brat” and making racially insensitive comments about President Obama’s taste in movies. In response to the embarrassing disclosure, Puente reports that “Rudin acknowledged that the statements were insensitive and thoughtless and offered regret and apologies to those he had offended.”

The article containing more about what was found in the email discussion and apology highlights from both Rudin and Pascal can be found here.

Rolling Stone Revises Apology as Backlash Against its Handling of Rape Story Grows (PRNewser)

Accuracy is among the top tenets of Journalism. Writers, editors, anyone associated with a published piece hates for any part of it to be wrong… sometimes to a fault. If you browse the “corrections” section of most newspapers, when there is an error highlighted, most papers will try to explain why that mistake was made; this can often seem like a classic non-apology. In the case of Rolling Stone magazine’s inaccurate reporting on a topic as heavy as rape on a college campus, doing so sparked a fire of backlash from readers.

As explained by Elizabeth S. Mitchell of PRNewser regarding the magazine’s apology/explanation: “This ‘apology’ didn’t sit well with many readers, as it seemed, rather than taking responsibility for its own failure to fact-check, the magazine was effectively placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of a possible trauma victim. The backlash was swift, and many took to Twitter, using the hashtag #IStandWithJackie to call out the magazine, pointing out that trauma victims often misremember details, and that this didn’t necessarily mean her story was fundamentally untrue.”

The magazine retracted their first apology and posted a second. You can find both at the site.

Harvard Business School professor apologizes for e-mail rant over a $4 overcharge (Washington Post)

You may have heard the story of attorney/Harvard Business School professor who was overcharged $4 on his Chinese food order and reacted like any sane person would… by writing a pretty epic legal meltdown  regarding repayment.

While this could quickly have turned into a “why your small business needs PR” case study about the Chinese restaurant, the abrasive, arrogant and threatening tone taken by Professor Ben Edelman left him as the villain in story. Among other things, Edelman requested a refund of three times the amount of the overpayment.

According to the Washington Post piece: “After the story was published, embarrassed Harvard Business School students set up a fundraising page for the Greater Boston Food Bank, noting that ‘negative stereotypes of Harvard and HBS were reinforced’ by Edelman’s e-mails.”

In the end, Edelman saw the errors in his ways and posted an apology on his company page which partially states: “Having reflected on my interaction with Ran, including what I said and how I said it, it’s clear that I was very much out of line. I aspire to act with great respect and humility in dealing with others, no matter what the situation. Clearly I failed to do so. I am sorry, and I intend to do better in the future.”

More about the restaurant owner’s reaction can be found in the article by Elahe Izadi.

Laurent Lawrence is the associate director of public relations for the Public Relations Society of America


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Laurent Lawrence, APR

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