SAE Makes the Right Move

 SAE Makes the Right Move

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for SAE.

A college fraternity is making headlines again, but it’s not all bad news. Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), the largest US fraternity, announced it will seek to combat an alarming number of injuries and even deaths in its ranks by banning pledging, the process by which potential new “brothers” compete to be accepted into the fraternity.

Pledging is a rite of passage deeply embedded in American fraternities and sororities. On many college campuses, however, pledging has involved hazing: a physically and emotionally stressful initiation frequently involving humiliation, excessive alcohol intake and generally poor judgment. Bloomberg News recently dubbed SAE “The Deadliest Frat”, crediting it with nine hazing-related deaths since 2005.  More than 60 similar deaths have occurred at fraternities during the same timeframe, Bloomberg said.

With media coverage like this, it’s safe to say SAE’s hand is being forced. But regardless of motivation, their decision to fundamentally alter the fraternity landscape is their best move – both for their “bros” and their image. Once, fraternities were seen as positive institutions that helped instill values in their members, shaping tomorrow’s leaders. Today, they’re more often associated with allegations of hazing, racism or sexual assault. While some smaller frats have already banned pledging, that the nation’s largest organization is now doing so sends a strong message, both to its own members and to others.   

THE PR VERDICT: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Sigma Alpha Epsilon. The bigger you are, the more you have to lose.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Lead by example. For U.S. fraternities, the story has gone from bad to worse over the past decade. Isolated incidents have become seen as an out-of-control systemic problem. In  situations like this, a dramatic gesture must be made to right the ship, lest everyone go down. At more than 300,000 members, Sigma Alpha Epsilon is a powerful force. Its bold decision will be seen now the right thing to do, and everyone from university presidents to insurance companies will approve. Fraternities that don’t follow suit do so at their own peril.

The PRV Report Card: This Week’s Winners & Losers

Liz Wahl RT The PRV Report Card: This Week’s Winners & LosersPR WINNER OF THE WEEK: “A” (PR PERFECT) to Liz Wahl, an American anchor for state-owned RT (Russia Today) TV, who resigned on air Wednesday citing the Kremlin’s political interference with the network’s news reporting – in this case, concerning Russia’s invasion of Crimea in the wake of political upheaval in Ukraine. Wahl minced no words in drawing a link to President Vladimir Putin, saying she could no longer be “part of a network that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I’m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth, and that is why, after this newscast, I am resigning.” A day earlier, colleague and fellow anchor Abby Martin  had similarly denounced Putin’s invasion – and faced reassignment as a result. Brava to both.

 The PRV Report Card: This Week’s Winners & LosersPR LOSER OF THE WEEK: “F” (FULL FIASCO) to Belle Knox, the Duke University freshman who publicly identified herself as a porn star, at least by her nom-du-film (she says her “birth name” is still personal information). Knox’s secret was out after she was recognized at a college party. At first, she shied away from inquiring minds, but then approached Playboy, XOJane.com and others to explain that a) she had to do this because school is “f*cking expensive” and b) women in porn need to be more empowered – and she will be their leader. Even Playboy had trouble swallowing that one. Advice to Belle: keep your mouth shut.

 The PRV Report Card: This Week’s Winners & LosersTHE PRV “THERE’S NO ‘THERE’ THERE” AWARD to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who took to the stage at the Conservative Political Action Committee with harsh words for the media, Democrats, and President Obama. He had zero words about the investigation into his alleged involvement in Bridgegate, nor any of the party-crossing banter that won the Republican governor many a Democratic vote in the last election. His pro-life conservative tone is one he hasn’t used in a while, making many wonder which side Christie is really on. The answer is simple: whichever one will get him the most votes.

Apple, Major Corporations Take Stand Against AZ Bill

 Apple, Major Corporations Take Stand Against AZ Bill

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to Apple, American Airlines, Marriott, and the NFL.

Taking sides on religious issues was previously considered a bad idea for corporations. Better to remain neutral, lest someone – meaning, potential customers with buying dollars – be offended. Those days are over as of this week, when Apple, American Airlines, the Marriott hotel corporation, and the National Football League sent a message to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer: Veto Senate Bill 1062 or suffer economic consequences.

The now-infamous bill legalizes the right of business owners to refuse service to gays and lesbians on religious grounds. Gov. Brewer, a conservative, has said she is “undecided” on whether to sign the bill into law.

Her decision may be assisted by threat of corporate boycott. Phoenix, AZ, is host to next year’s SuperBowl, and major corporations are making their non-neutral stance clear. Brewer may want to listen to Apple in particular: the tech giant planned to bring sapphire production to the state, which would have major economic impact – as would its loss. While no official statement came from Apple, Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines, summed up the new corporate stance when he wrote to Brewer, “Our economy thrives best when the doors of commerce are open to all.”

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) to Apple, American Airlines, Marriott, the NFL, and corporations that take a stand against discrimination.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: It’s not always about the bottom line, even when it’s about the bottom line. Discrimination is wrong, period; about that, no one can argue. Even three of the senators who voted for SB 1062 are now urging Gov. Brewer to veto it. Companies never want to alienate customers, but at certain points, the only thing to do is take a strong stance. Sure, the lynchpin here is money. But in past times companies might have been content to say they were “gathering information,” or say nothing at all. Some may still be doing that, but the ones that speak up are the ones that stand out.

Arizona Governor May Win Battle but Lose PR War

Jan Brewer 150x150 Arizona Governor May Win Battle but Lose PR War

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.

America is sending decidedly mixed messages to its LGBT citizens. This past weekend’s headlines included clothing chain Banana Republic unveiling an ad campaign with interior designer Nate Berkus and his fiancé Jeremiah Brent. The Brooklyn Nets signed Jason Collins, who becomes the National Basketball League’s first openly gay player. To balance out the notion of acceptance, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer remained undecided on whether to sign a bill allowing businesses to deny service to gay and lesbian customers on the grounds of their religious beliefs.

Whichever way Gov. Brewer decides will cost her. A former small business owner known for her conservative views, she told CNN, “I think anybody that owns a business can choose who they work with or who they don’t work with. But,” she hedged, “I don’t know that it needs to be statutory.” While refusal to sign the bill may anger her religious constituency, signing it would have repercussions as the worlds of advertising and sports accept – and capitalize – upon the LGBT community. As Arizona prepares to host next year’s SuperBowl, companies were already informing the state that it would be dropped as a potential investment location, should the bill pass.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: It’s better to lose the battle and win the war. Brewer, a conservative, may personally align with the bill. But in signing it into law, her state will be identified with discrimination. Tourism will suffer. Arizona will become the target of protests. The businesses so intent on maintaining their religious beliefs by refusing service to gays and lesbians may find themselves with less business overall. SuperBowl advertisers may shrink from the potential for negative publicity via association. In the end, letting go of the bill may be a lose-win situation.

The PRV Report Card: This Week’s Winners & Losers

 The PRV Report Card: This Weeks Winners & Losers PR WINNER OF THE WEEK: “A” (PR PERFECT) to CVS Caremark, the national drugstore chain, for its decision to stop selling tobacco products. Cigarettes in particular have been linked to diseases from cancer to high blood pressure and stroke – something that the country’s largest retail pharmacy just couldn’t reconcile with its broader mission of making its customers healthier. “Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose,” said Larry J. Merlo, president and CEO of CVS Caremark. The announcement was immediately hailed by everyone from President Obama to the American Cancer Society. CVS is the first such retailer to take the plunge and it will cost the company an estimated $2 billion in revenue, a small fraction of overall sales but no chump change.

SOCHI DOG 570 The PRV Report Card: This Weeks Winners & Losers PR LOSER OF THE WEEK: “F” (Full Fiasco) to the Sochi Winter Olympics organizers and host city, where countless stray dogs are being killed ahead of today’s opening of the games. The strays were pets or offspring of pets left by families whose homes were razed to make way for Olympic venues. A Russian billionaire is financing belated rescue attempts but the culling continues – a grisly counterpoint to the festive atmosphere organizers would rather we see. The government claims the strays came for the food construction workers gave them, and stayed. The International Olympic Committee says no “healthy” dogs are being destroyed. Maybe, but this is certain: the round-up is just another PR fail for the most expensive (and worst planned) games ever.

 The PRV Report Card: This Weeks Winners & Losers THE PRV “THERE’S NO ‘THERE’ THERE” AWARD to Bill Nye, more popularly known as “The Science Guy,” who bothered debating science vs creationism with Ken Ham, President of the Creation Museum. The argument had rather predictable results –  no one was swayed from their original side. But apparently geeks and religious types still enjoy a good argument: the 800 audience tickets sold out in minutes, and 3 million people tuned in to watch on television.

Allen’s Team Responds to Farrow’s Open Letter

 Allens Team Responds to Farrows Open Letter

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Woody Allen’s PR and legal team. (Pictured: Allen’s lawyer Elkan Abramowitz)

The denial of allegations of sexual abuse is extremely difficult to nearly impossible, especially in a public forum. Yet it was absolutely impossible for Woody Allen to remain silent after his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow wrote an open letter detailing her account of Allen sexually abusing her as a child. But what would Allen say, and how?

The first line of PR response was not for Allen himself to go public. His reaction was given the next day through his longtime publicist Leslee Dart, who said Mr. Allen would respond directly “very soon.” She then listed the legal facts about the investigation.

Another response came yesterday – again, not from Allen, but from his lawyer, Elkan Abramowitz, who gave an exclusive interview to the Today Show. His stance was crucial, as he was speaking for Allen: Would he call the victim a liar? Not a chance. “In my view, she’s not lying,” Abramowitz said. “She truly believes this happened.” He went on to reiterate the legal facts and to present Allen’s explanation: that Mia Farrow, enraged over Allen’s then-new relationship with her adopted daughter (with André Previn) Soon-Yi, coached daughter Dylan to say she was molested. Another talking point Abramowitz made was that Allen was not angry with Dylan Farrow. “His reaction is one of overwhelming sadness,” Abramowitz said.

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Woody Allen’s PR and legal team.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Respond – don’t react. Allen’s team is obviously skilled and wise. While Allen’s answer could only be maintaining his innocence, the way this was presented was crucial. One cannot claim innocence without implying that the accuser – in this case, the alleged victim –  is a liar. Unless, that is, blame is diverted to the mother and a reason given for her to manipulate a child. In the court of public opinion, reasonable doubt has been introduced.

BOfA and Bono Team Up for Charity

 BOfA and Bono Team Up for Charity

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for BofA’s brand-building philanthropy.

When was the last time an activist rock star gave a standing ovation to a “too-big-to-fail” bank? That’s just what happened last week when U2 front man Bono extolled the generosity of Bank of America and joined CEO Brian Moynihan at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Moynihan and U2 frontman Bono announced a $10 million BofA commitment to RED, the AIDS charity co-founded by Bono. In a clever promotional twist, the bank will tie its donation to U2’s newest album release during the upcoming Superbowl. BofA agreed to pay for every download of the album’s song “Invisible” for 24 hours, an investment they will back with expensive Superbowl advertising.

Rarely have Moynihan and his bank basked in such a warm reception. Under the bright Davos sunshine, CNBC and The Financial Times (among other news media) took turns interviewing the Boston-based banker and his rock activist partner. The visual contrast was nearly as noteworthy as Bono complimenting the bank for its “game-changing influence.”

THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for BofA’s brand-building philanthropy.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Regain trust by carefully picking your allies. Despite continuing efforts to engage in a public dialogue and foster good will, progress has been incremental over the past five years. In Davos last week, BofA wisely avoided interviews about its business. Instead, it joined a unique global health initiative and happily played back up to a true superstar. Well done, BoFA.

Walking Quietly Out of the Closet

 Walking Quietly Out of the ClosetShortly before the end of the year, yet another high-profile member of the media came quietly out of the closet. Robin Roberts, co-anchor of top-rated chat show Good Morning America, followed in the footsteps of her former colleague Sam Champion in divulging that she is gay – though indirectly.

The media reported less on the item itself and more that the times, they have a-changed. More and more, gay and lesbian celebrities and media personalities are  taking a far quieter route to announcing their personal status. A recent article in the New York Times noted the trend adopted by several well-known figures of mentioning a same sex partner as an aside. In Champion’s case, the news shared on GMA was his engagement to be married; the fact that he was marrying a man might almost have been missed in the congratulations. Roberts tweeted her thanks for support during a bone marrow transplant to family, friends, and her girlfriend.

Is the new quiet coming out – as a mention, a sign of acceptance by the masses, or canny PR? Perhaps it’s both. Taking this approach lends credence to the argument that this “news” shouldn’t matter. Or it could all be a matter of professional politics, knowing that it may be difficult to report on matters such as gay marriage without appearing biased. That is, if anyone noticed the personality’s news in the first place.

THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Robin Roberts of Good Morning America.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: When the news concerns your personal life, consider your agenda. The corporate head of Chick-Fil-A make his business vulnerable to negative press by airing his personal anti-gay views. On the other side of the coin are media personalities whose job is to report news impartially. Can this be done when you become part of the news? Yes, apparently – when a revelation is presented as being no big deal. If in doubt, make your move on a holiday weekend, when shoes tossed from the closet tend to drop with barely a sound.

The PRV 2013 Final Grade: And the “A” Goes to…

 The PRV 2013 Final Grade: And the A Goes to...THE PR VERDICT’S “A” (PR PERFECT) grade for 2013 goes to Pope Francis, the Argentinian priest who appears to be single-handedly revamping the priorities – and image – of the Catholic Church.

What a difference a year makes. The church was in chaos in February when Pope Benedict XVI resigned the papacy – something not done in over 600 years. Benedict cited advanced age, though the media speculated his decision was linked to an alleged secret gay network within the Vatican and/or depression after his personal assistant leaked confidential information to the media.

Enter Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first Latin American and first Jesuit priest to be named pope. He was an upstart from the beginning: standing to accept his cardinals’ congratulations instead of sitting on the papal throne; sporting a simple white cassock at his first public appearance; and becoming the first Pope Francis, a name he chose to honor St. Francis of Assisi, himself known for his dedication to the poor.

Pope Francis has sent a consistent message to his flock: get back to basics. On Easter, he bathed and kissed the feet of a group that included women and Muslims. On his first trip official trip abroad, he carried his own bag and insisted on limited security. He recently issued a blueprint for the church that denounced “the idolatry of money” and urged Catholics to stop obsessing over issues like same-sex marriage and contraception. Both Time Magazine and The Advocate, a gay and lesbian publication, named him “Person of the Year.”

THE PR TAKEAWAY: If you can’t reinvent, reinvigorate. No pope can rewrite the Old Testament, but he can take the church in a new direction. It’s no secret the Catholic Church – sullied for more than a decade with child-molestation scandals and a dwindling base – desperately needed a leader who could help close old wounds and inspire new hope. Pope Francis has all the  ingredients for great PR: conviction of his beliefs, consistent messaging, and a personality brimming with charm and enthusiasm. For the Catholic church’s PR, Pope Francis is a nothing short of a godsend.

Martha Stewart’s Bad PR Continues with Holiday Layoffs

 Martha Stewarts Bad PR Continues with Holiday Layoffs

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Martha Stewart Omnimedia

An unwritten rule in publishing used to be no layoffs between November and January. No company wanted to appear either heartless or desperate and ruin employees’ holidays. But just as print gives way to digital, so the old rules are broken in favor of the first law of business: survival of the fittest. And so last Thursday, Martha Stewart Omnimedia terminated 100 employees, roughly a quarter of its staff, two weeks before Christmas.

The move itself isn’t that big a surprise for a company that has been losing money steadily in recent years. Ad pages in MSO magazines are down, and the company ceased publication of two titles, Everyday Food and Whole Living, earlier this year. Television productions have also lost revenue.

While the terminations may save some money, the timing of them does nothing to stanch the flow of negative publicity for MSO including the recent court case with Macy’s. Now come terminations at the behest of new MSO CEO Daniel Dienst, described as a “veteran turnaround expert” by the Wall Street Journal. Stewart released the quote, “Dan has specific expertise helping companies run efficiently and productively.” This season Martha’s holiday cheer gives rise to nothing but scorn for the 100 employees whose got a gift wrapped pink slip for Christmas.

PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Martha Stewart Omnimedia.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Appearances can be aggrieving. When taking a company’s bottom line into consideration, factor in customer reaction. Martha Stewart caters to female consumers – specifically, homemakers. Really specifically, women who wouldn’t want their joyous holidays turned lean after being fired by a Scrooge. The timing for this could not have been worse. Tough decisions need to be made, no doubt, but timing in cases like this really is everything.