Two Examples of Bad PR, Q4 2014

Bill Cosby: Media throughout the fall have been reporting accusations spanning the 1960s to the 2000s that Bill Cosby drugged and raped women. The media that ignited the current crisis were not traditional news outlets; a viral campaign on social media drove the story. The drumbeat began with a standup comedy routine by Hannibal Burgess in October 2014 that lambasted Cosby’s moralizing in light of past rape accusations against him. Burgess urged the crowd to “google ‘Bill Cosby Rape.'” (Note: clip contains raw language.) An audience member shot the video, which was posted to YouTube.

The YouTube video garnered attention and pushed the story to the mainstream media. Ten years ago, Andrea Constand, a staff member for Temple University’s basketball team, accused Cosby of drugging and raping her. Three other women–Tamara Green, Barbara Bowman and Beth Currier–went public with similar accusations. A dozen unnamed women were ready to testify against Cosby in the civil suit brought by Constand, but their accounts were never heard as the suit was settled out of court in 2006.

As comedian Burgess pointed out in media interviews, the accusations against Cosby and his legal issues had been known to the public during the past decade, with the Today show and People magazine granting interviews to the early accusers. The difference in this decade was social media, where gatekeepers and equal time principles do not apply. Per The New York Times, Cosby’s team of agents and lawyers were adept at minimizing damaging mainstream media coverage in past years.  But as Tiger Woods learned when his womanizing crisis unfolded in 2009, even the most formidable team of handlers will be hapless when applying their timeworn techniques in the current media era.

Cosby’s own haplessness was apparent in his official silence. He urged an AP reporter to delete remarks about the growing scandal from an interview and shook his head and remained mute when an NPR reporter followed a similar line of questioning. The vaunted Cosby team failed miserably as well, launching a meme to put the comedian in a favorable light. Instead of fans embracing the tactic, multitudes turn the Cosby photos into captioned commentary denouncing and insulting him.

The number of women accusing Cosby of drugging and raping them has now surged into double digits. NBC and Netflix have pulled Cosby projects, TVLand has taken Cosby reruns off the air, and several live venues have cancelled his appearances.

Uber: Digital technology has upended numerous industries. Uber represents this disruption in the taxi and transportation industry, linking riders and drivers via mobile app, decentralizing the dispatching process while centralizing the payment process through the app. Uber markets itself as “faster and better,” consumer benefits historically promised by companies that present a technological distinction.

Uber has the makings of a “tech darling,” a company that wins public and media approbation due to its inventiveness. USA Today named it tech company of the year in 2013. Yet, Uber has courted controversy throughout its existence, primarily due to the fact that it is not subject to the licensing and regulation imposed on traditional taxi and limo companies. As the company has expanded globally, it has faced fines, restrictions and bans in numerous regions.

Not all of Uber’s media coverage has been as positive as USA Today’s accolade. Uber’s EVP of Business, Evan Michael, suggested at a dinner attended by VIPs that Uber could hire a team to dig up dirt on journalists writing negative stories about the company, focusing on Sarah Lacy, editor of PandoDaily, a noted Uber critic.

This throwback to Nixon’s Enemies List created a PR crisis and cast a harsher light on company practices already under scrutiny, including:

  • Tracking Uber riders’ travel data without justification or permission
  • Placing bogus calls for rides with rival Lyft to slow down their service
  • Using “surge pricing” to jack up fares at high demand times, an algorithm-based system that resulted in price increases during Superstorm Sandy and the Sydney hostage standoff in December 2014

Uber is trying to amend its confrontational image, making CEO Travis Kalanick available to New York journalists in an overture of openness and hiring Obama strategist David Plouffe as senior VP of policy and strategy.

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Bing Crosby and Marketing Environmental Forces

Bing Crosby, legendary entertainer and marketer

All final grading is done and I took an evening to watch an informative documentary on PBS, “Bing Crosby Rediscovered.” It was a detailed, unvarnished and ultimately celebratory look at the man hailed as “the most popular and influential multimedia star of the first half of the 20th century.”

There were marketing lessons in the program (even during a break from teaching, I can’t get away from the subject.) To point, Bing Crosby seized two marketing environmental forces in his extraordinary career.

Social/Cultural Force:
Like other popular music genres of the 20th century, jazz was an invention of African-Americans. As Gary Giddings writes for The New York Times, young singer/drummer Bing Crosby absorbed and performed jazz stylings, leading to new ways of phrasing for popular singers as Crosby’s career accelerated in the early 1930s.

Crosby was a white man singing like an African-American jazz artist, a bridging of cultures reminiscent of what Al Jolson did before him and Elvis Presley would do later, developing new musical “products” and opening new markets. Crosby idolized jazz legend Louis Armstrong, befriending him in the 1920s and insisting on his star billing in the 1936 film “Pennies from Heaven,” one of their many collaborations.

Technological Force: Crosby was known famously as a “crooner,” giving a nuanced delivery with softer dynamics and a more intimate feel (too intimate for some who felt he was seducing the nation two decades before Elvis’ swiveling hips caused a stir.) This signature style was only possible through the advent of the condenser microphone that could pick up and amplify such vocal techniques. Crosby contrasted Al Jolson who had to use considerable volume and heavy emoting to “reach the back row” in the early decades of the 20th century.

Crosby’s crooning was a natural fit for the ascendant media technology of the 1930s–radio. Everyone was in the front row at household receivers, able to appreciate Crosby’s cool, jazz-influenced vocals. Crosby was a weekly radio star through the 1940s, averaging tens of millions of listeners per broadcast.

By the end of World War II, he wanted a break from the grind of weekly live performance and insisted on recording his shows. Up to that point, recording technology was insufficient to capture the fidelity of live sessions. However, audio tape recording developed in Nazi Germany and appropriated by the Allies provided the solution. Crosby invested in the commercialization of magnetic tape recording, leading to multi-track music recording, video tape recording, and computer data storage technology.

Bing Crosby: singer, actor, technologist, social activist, marketer.

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Involuntary Transparency 2014

Daniel Ellsberg, source of the Pentagon Papers, pioneer of Involuntary Disclosure.

Four years ago, I blogged about the concept of involuntary transparency, coined in a Forbes article on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. It amounts to the age-old act of leaking confidential information, amplified by digital technology that immortalizes damning content, facilitates its collection, and accelerates its publication. Forty-five years ago, Daniel Ellsberg brought the Pentagon Papers to light through a difficult and time-consuming sequence of events: being an employee at the RAND Corporation, secretly photocopying thousands of pages of classified documents, and sharing them with major media. In the 21st century, insider status, Xerox machines, and The New York Times are not required to turn whispers into headlines.

Today, anyone can be an Ellsberg just as anyone can be a Zepruder. And just as easily, anyone can be an exposé subject. Assange and Edward Snowden have targeted the executive branch of the U.S. government as Ellsberg did. CEOs and celebrities now receive similar treatment as their private actions are captured in Nixonian archives, ready to be breached:

  • Donald Sterling lost ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers due to an audio recording of his racist views.
  • Ray Rice was tossed from the NFL with the posting of a security video showing him punching out his now-wife.
  • Stephen Collins was cast out of his acting career with the release of an audio recording in which he admitted child molestation.
  • Amy Pascal was revealed to partake in racist remarks about President Obama and overall boorish behavior when her emails as Sony Pictures co-chairman went public.

The perpetrators of involuntary transparency are frequently guilty of legal and moral transgressions themselves. Donald Sterling and Stephen Collins were recorded surreptitiously. Amy Pascal’s personal correspondence was part of the data trove stolen by hackers retaliating for “The Interview,” Sony Pictures’ comedy about Kim Jong-un. Daniel Ellsberg, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden all drew the ire of the U.S. government, with Ellsberg put on trial.

The right to privacy and the right to know constitute a dialectic, a tension of opposites. Abuses occur at both poles. Hackers consider anything on the Internet fair game. Posting Jennifer Lawrence’s private nude photos is not the equivalent of disclosing the methodology and depth of NSA electronic surveillance as the former holds scant right to know for the general public. Will the right to privacy and the right to know achieve synthesis, a new balance in the digital era?

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