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Passive Voices, Passive Minds, PR Failures, and the Teacher Who’s Actually Taking Credit for “Heidi Cee”
By letterhead | February 27, 2008
Wandering the blog-o-sphere, you find so much bad sh…shtuff, sometimes it’s hard to hold down your lunch. But there’s a ton of good shtuff too.
I found a delicious post at the Sandwich Chronicles that sparked a few thoughts about PR and the “Heidi Cee” fiasco. So as suggested by Bill Sledzik over at Tough Sledding (GO there too!), I’m sharing the wealth and linking to it, together with another relevant post.
After all, Web 2.0 is about making connections. As it says on the bottle of sunscreen: “Apply liberally for best results.”
Hi Ho! Hi Ho!
Off we go… first to this tasty little post on writing in the passive voice. To the proprietor of Sandwich Chronicles: Your bacon breath is a waft of fresh air.
The whole post is worth a read, but the highlight is his take-down of the passive voice as a form of deliberate evasion:
…there are times you want the soft, evasive language [of the passive voice]. But when you’re talking about students in a composition or writing class, they are most often not using passive voice in a deliberate manner to put a buffer between subject, action, and object.
They are doing it because they hear it all the time in the news, in political speeches, in history textbooks, in scientific reports, where the authors and speakers use it because it absolves blame.
“Climate is changing.” Not, “We are causing global warming.” “Hundreds were killed in Kosovo.” But we don’t say who was killed, or who did the killing, or why. No one is responsible, no one is to blame, these things don’t happen, they just are.
Language is important. It frames the way we think. The reason your professors cover your papers in red ink and tell you not to write in the passive voice is because it is the language of doublespeak, the language of failure to consider accountability and outcomes, the soft, important-sounding language of lies. You are supposed to go to school to learn, above all other things, how to think for yourself.
Speaking of Thinking… They Weren’t
Think of some recent high-profile PR disasters: Coach/Heidi Cee, Edelman/Walmart, Target, and FEMA. Weren’t these a failure of critical thinking? The failure of senior professionals to critique their own ideas and hear the ethical alarm bells?
Passive voices failed to speak up, and passive minds deliberately ignored accountability. The Coach case includes:
- The president of Hunter, who deliberately hand-picked an unqualified teacher, presumably because he wouldn’t know just how unethical his course work was.
- The teacher, who actually DID know, but just rolled over when his objections were quashed, and then took credit for the course material and fundraising on his resume. [this was not entirely correct; see comments below]
- The flacks at Coach who avoid all discussion of ethical issues and make excuses, seemingly to justify their involvement.
There has been no acknowledgement from anyone – not even in the politically expedient passive voice – that “mistakes were made.” FlackLife, which reported in-depth on the story, posed some very critical and challenging questions to the PR people at Coach.
In response, what they got from Coach were deflections and dismissals. The gist of Coach’s response: it was somebody else running the initiative, and besides, other companies participated, too. Coach “merely” sponsored the course.
“They did it. We merely sponsored it.” Take that FlackLife! There’s a considered detailed response to your considered detailed questions!
Now, be gone before I drop a “$428 Coach Heritage Stripe Multi-Function Tote” on you too!
Students Learn to “Bucky” the System
The co-professor who taught the “Heidi Cee” course was one Benjamin Weisman (aka “buckyben”/buckyben.com), who earned an MFA in Integrated Media Arts from Hunter in 2006. The resume on his website takes credit for the Coach/IACC project, specifically:
- Develop a syllabus & class structure for New Media studies at Hunter College
- Work to create a corporate sponsorship with Coach & the IACC to bring a budget to an Integrated Campaign Class structure
He looks to be a very skilled Web designer and artist. But he has zero background in PR communications disciplines. And the kids are most definitely learning what he’s teaching.
In one blog post, a student in the class asked for advice on how to handle a reporter from the school publication (Hunter Envoy) who called him for comment about “Heidi Cee.” The student said he planned to continue the ongoing deceit, until letting the reporter in on the real story, at the last minute:
For his gotcha moment with the reporter, the student wanted to use the catchphrase, “You got Faked!” to drive home his point and link it back to the PR campaign.
Yeah, right before his deception BECAME the story, which he did not anticipate… and neither did Bucky the professor. Mr. Weisman replied in the post’s comments section:
“Def share Heidi’s story and the concept or promoting an anticounterfieting [sic] eventy [sic] with a counterfiet [sic] person, etc.. perhaps think about an analogy? And how we used integrated concepts and media to promote the event and idea at large-”
Yikes! It’s terrifying to think that this kid might someday be at the helm of a corporate PR department, using this kind of nitwittery to guide his program development. Awsome! It’s even more appalling that an institution like Hunter is passing this stuff off as college-level PR education.
What Happened To Our “Shock-Proof Shit Detector?”
Given that our PR bread and butter is dealing with words, message, and narrative, it’s appropriate here to quote Hemmingway:
“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar, and all great writers have it.”
Those are fancy words for “skepticism,” which is essential to our profession.
At a fundamental level, our work is based on the comparative analysis and prioritization of messages, and on anticipating audience reaction/reception to those messages. Our success often depends on both anticipating and neutralizing counter-arguments. And it is our unique responsibility to think through every facet of a given communications and/or business strategy – every potential internal/external response and outcome.
Critical thinking, and healthy skepticism, are the lifeblood of what PR people do. I’d go so far as to argue that we cannot do what we do – even badly – without it. If anything, crafting a PR campaign is an exercise in DELIBERATE thinking.
Which begs the question, Where were their “shock-proof shit detectors” when all of this sh… shtuff was going down? Shut off, no doubt. Or the volume was turned all the way down.
There’s no way to credibly argue that such bungles were mere accidents. In crafting all these programs — from FEMA to Walmart to Coach, and others — high-level PR pros made informed and deliberate choices, despite all the alarm bells warning them not to.
Chain, chain, chaaaaaain…. chain of….
The biggest problem with PR these days is that this bus ain’t got no brakes. As these PR fiascos show, we’re careening headlong over speed bumps, hedges, mailboxes, fruit carts, and baby carriages.
In each of these disasters, all along the decision chain: mistakes were made, truths were not disclosed, plans went afoul, ethical standards were flouted, accountability was passed, and responsibility was denied. And in the aftermath, folks just moved on as quickly as possible. (Because that’s a PR tactic – get it behind you as quickly as possible. See, we PR people are good at PR!)
But it’s looking at this point like we have NO standards, and the “professor’s” words are ones we may someday hang by: “how we used integrated concepts and media to promote the event and idea at large.”
How we used the media… [all media]
“Use” them as if they lack any inherent ethical character or agenda of their own – only the manipulative one we set for them. And this stilted, self-centered way of practicing PR is being put to use in every kind of half-baked, deceptive spin-job imaginable – for anyone who can afford the hourly rate. “Critical thinking” is MIA and the “shock-proof shit detector” has been buried with Hemmingway.
I wonder if we don’t actually prefer not to think critically, because the conclusions of critical thinking connote an unbearable responsibility. I notice styles and patterns of leadership — educational, religious, political, familial — that appear to seduce, enchant and bewitch. Turn our brains to oatmeal. Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Wish I could remember who said this, but I can’t say it any better: “There have always been men of arrested development who, dreading reality, found psychological protection in the art of incapacitating the minds of others.”
Ah… “patterns of leadership that seduce, enchant and bewitch.” A lovely way of capturing how so many PR people behave these days.
It’s a great quote. I have no idea if it’s real, or who said it. But in the wake of the “Heidi Cee” fiasco, I’d paraphrase it as a challenge to our profession:
“There will always be men [and wymyn] of narrow interest who, dreading reality, gain economic and political protection by incapacitating the minds of others.”
Do we really want to be counted among such people?