Bringing the real world to the classroom: A last look at the Hunter College dust-up

In the PR classrooms at Kent State, we like to “make it real.” We use real-world examples in class discussions and real-world clients for class projects. Students create real-world portfolio materials and they operate under real-world deadline pressures. Our faculty are senior professionals who once labored in the real world of public relations.

Part of Kent’s “real” experience is a capstone course called PR Campaigns. For the past 7 years, real-world clients — some of them Fortune 500 companies — have put up real-world money to sponsor the class. In exchange for a $5,000 donation, clients work with student teams who complete to develop a winning PR plan to meet their needs. The students benefit; the client benefits; the profession benefits.

So you can see why the dust-up at Hunter College earlier this month surprised me a bit. How could a class so similar to our own go so wrong? In a nutshell, a class of PR students at Hunter, using $10,000 donated by the Coach handbag company and the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition (IACC), launched a clever, albeit deceptive, campaign to fight product knockoffs. It was a challenging project, and I’m certain my own students would have enjoyed working on it.

Hunter professor and PR critic Stuart Ewen was among several at the CUNY campus to raise a stink about the campaign. (For an excellent interview with Ewen on this topic, see Bob LeDrew’s blog. And for the finest critical view of PR ever written, Ewen’s “PR! A social history of spin” holds up well 12 years after publication.)

Ewen has good reason to be ticked off about the campaign. A report in Adweek leads us to believe the department was pressured to undertake the project by college administrators currying favor with Coach CEO Lew Frankfort. It must have worked, as Frankfurt subsequently donated $1 million to the school.

Other media reports say the instructor for the class, Tim Portlock, objected to overseeing the controversial campaign. We’re also told in press reports that the course never passed muster with Hunter’s faculty or its curriculum committee. That raises academic freedom issues, but I don’t expect anyone outside of academy to care about such things.

Compounding the mess at Hunter was the decision by a student campaign team to use a fake blog to support the client’s PR strategy. The “flog” was written by a fake character named Heidi Cee, who was distressed over the loss of her Coach handbag. She posted messages around campus and on social media sites — messages that also pointed to the evils of counterfeit products. The irony of using a fake blog to combat fake products wasn’t lost on most of the journalists and bloggers covering the story.

The poster on the left offers a $500 reward for the return of the bag to the fictitious Heidi. The whole campaign is damned creative. Too bad it’s a fabrication. (Do you suppose the marketing people are behind this? I think so, too! LOL)

You have to wonder if the students of Hunter missed class the day their professor taught the ethics lesson on social media. Most of us learned it in October of 2006, courtesy of “Walmarting Across America.” But deceptive online campaigns have been soiling corporate reputations for a good while now. It’s hardly a secret.

I pause here for a two-part confession.

Confession Part I: Kent State was offered a chance to work on the IACC campaign, but at only a fraction of the $10K Hunter received. We passed on the opportunity, as we had another client on the waiting list. But had we needed a partner for the Campaigns class, IACC would have worked nicely.

IACC appears to be a legitimate organization fighting to protect intellectual property. As a bonus, the IACC story is a challenging one to tell, and even more challenging to build public support for. I mean, do any of us feel passionately about the injustice of Rolex knockoffs or fake Harley Davidson jackets?

Confession Part II: Had we taken the assignment, we would NOT have asked our faculty to bless the idea. We never do. Instead, we rely on our own “real world” judgment to decide if the client is in keeping with our professional values and those of the school. IACC looks like a legitimate client that would passed my ethics test. Hunter’s faculty believes otherwise, but Hunter is not a “professional” program that specifically prepares students for jobs in the PR biz. I understand all that — and you will too if you read the report of the Academic Freedom Committee included in the AdWeek story.

Here’s where Kent’s approach and Hunter’s may have differed. In our Campaigns class, each team is assigned three professional advisers. These advisers aren’t aligned in any way with the client, and I’m certain that not one — and I know them all personally — would have condoned the use of fake blogs or fake anything. It’s unprofessional, and it’s unethical.

Had the advisers missed the problem, our instructor would have sounded the ethics alarm when the draft plans crossed her desk. She read the WalMart case, too!

It’s possible that Hunter’s project didn’t call for such close supervision. Perhaps it should have. It’s also possible that marketers from Coach who advised the students were more interested in breakthrough creativity than in campaign ethics. I’ve been in plenty of those meetings, lemme tell ya!

Regardless of what happened at Hunter, the IACC campaign offered PR students an excellent strategic and communication challenge. Public relations education needs more companies and more PR firms to do what Coach/IACC have done. And yes, we like it when you bring your checkbook. I promise we won’t let the money corrupt the next generation.

The biggest reason I like the IACC campaign is that it’s from the real world. That’s what we do here at Kent State.

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17 Responses to Bringing the real world to the classroom: A last look at the Hunter College dust-up

  1. Rob Jewell says:

    Bill,

    Excellent post as usual. It provides a real-world example of several issues important to public relations education and public relations in general.

    First, students need the opportunity to work on projects with actual clients. That adds a dimension that you rarely can achieve in what I’ll call a regular classroom situation. More companies and other organizations should provide that opportunity. I believe they would find it beneficial; certainly the students do.

    Second, ethics and professionalism form the foundation for effective public relations. My guess is that the students at Hunter learned that lesson following this project. Students at Kent State learn it in every class — and then spend an entire semester looking at ethics and issues involving public relations and mass communication in general.

    Third, the marketing people won’t see anything wrong with the “flog” or anything else that was creative but not necessarily truthful. OMG.

  2. Bob LeDrew says:

    Thanks for linking to my blog, and I appreciate your points.

    I think the sad part of this is that Rob Jewell’s second point is apparently wrong. I tried to contact a number of the students who participated in the Hunter College program, and nobody responded. But one student who did an interview with AdWeek’s Andrew Adam Newman told him:

    “Public relations people, in general, have very little morals when it comes to being completely honest with the consumer…I think the entire PR team from Coach was in the class, maybe six or seven women. We were supposed to be working for Coach, who was the client, and they really liked the idea of making someone fake. If they had some ethical issues with it, they should have said so. If there was anybody who could have stopped it, it would have been Coach.”

    As I was afraid when I first heard about the story, ethics were an omission in this case.

  3. Rob Jewell says:

    Bob,

    Let me jump back in here. I believe the two of us are making the same point (No. 2). The students, I expect, learned an ethical lesson after the fact. Or at least they should have. If there had been an emphasis on ethics and professional at the beginning the entire project would have/should have been handled differently.

    And that problem gets me to my point No. 3. The student in your comment is quoted as telling Andrew Adam Newman: “I think the entire PR team from Coach was in the class…”
    I doubt that. Marketing team maybe. PR team — unlikely.

    Sorry Bill. Hope this doesn’t get you banned from any more marketing Web sites.

  4. Bill Sledzik says:

    Not to worry, Rob. Besides, if I get banned from a site, it’s likely because the blogger doesn’t recognize the difference between PR and marketing. Happens a lot in this Wild West we call the blogosphere.

    I’m wondering if the folks at Coach aren’t a little confused themselves. I mean, where did they learn about the PR business? Did they skip the ethics chapters? Do they not read the trade pubs or keep up with the issues of the day? These so-called PR people advising the kids at Hunter may carry the title of “public relations,” but they didn’t bring a high ethical standard to this campaign.

    But ethics aside, it’s just plain dumb to create a counterfeit campaign to combat counterfeit products. As Homer would say: Doh! Or better yet, let me quote the slogan of the client in this project: Get real!

    The mistrust of public relations by the Hunter student quoted in Bob’s comment doesn’t surprise me a bit. If you’ve read Stuart Ewen’s book, you know that he exposes the warts of the PR business in much the same way John Stauber does at PR Watch.

    Both Stuart and John do a great service to the profession by exposing abuses. They help keep us honest. But they don’t focus on the work of ethical and responsible PR practitioners like the ones we turn out at Kent State. PR is NOT an inherently evil business, but we do have our fair share of charlatans. And I’ll bet that most of them never took a course in public relations.

  5. Bill Huey says:

    I wonder what the folks over at the Public Relations Institute would make of the Hunter case? While they pursue such noble endeavors as “The Essential Knowledge Project” (including a section entitled “Ethics and public relations practice”), the business of public relations seems to go on much as it always has,

    Perhaps IPR would be interested in developing guidelines that address such questions as, When does subsidy become subvention? Who should determine course content? Who should participate in teaching, workshops and other academic activities?

    This course worked at other institutions where it was offered. Why didn’t it work at Hunter?

    I believe Hunter offers a case study of everything that is wrong with PR education.
    Some of the more salient elements:1) an institution that doesn’t really teach PR but “Media Studies,” including film and graphic design; 2) an unqualified instructor who never had a lick of professional experience; 3) a deep-pockets sponsor whose CEO is a Hunter alum; and 4) up-close monitoring by the client sponsor, including legal counsel.

  6. Kami Huyse says:

    I am so glad you made me aware of this case study. I am gathering some examples of ethics violations for an unconference in Washington D.C. next month. This is a classic.

    But I agree that someone should have helped these students out, be it their advisor or the “client.” They needed the ethical underpinning in their curriculum as well.

  7. Hey, Kami. Thanks for stopping by. You have in the Hunter case that classic study in unethical behavior that you seek, but I think we all agree that the students are not to blame here. Something else went wrong, but I don’t have enough information to say what it was.

    Now, to Bill’s comment:

    I believe Hunter offers a case study of everything that is wrong with PR education.
    Some of the more salient elements:1) an institution that doesn’t really teach PR but “Media Studies,” including film and graphic design; 2) an unqualified instructor who never had a lick of professional experience; 3) a deep-pockets sponsor whose CEO is a Hunter alum; and 4) up-close monitoring by the client sponsor, including legal counsel.

    Let’s examine. It’s not uncommon for “Media Studies” or “Communication and Rhetoric” departments to house PR courses. PR is a popular major and seen by administrators as a cash cow that puts “butts in seats.” But all too often the faculty teaching in these departments have little or no professional experience and many have no academic training in public relations. And too often the courses don’t stress the ethical component of our business. I will add that too often these departments also overlook “skills development.” But that’s another post.

    I don’t know the specific circumstances at Hunter, but I do know that one of its top scholars, Stuart Ewen, built his reputation on critical studies of PR, not professional practice of it. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Hunter students and faculty would harbor similar views.

    Nevertheless, Ewen’s contributions are valuable ones that I cite in my classrooms frequently, and I still recommend his book, “PR! A social history of spin,” to my students in the Ethics class. But Ewen’s research focuses on the “dark side” of public relations, as does that of John Stauber at PR Watch. It’s what they do — and it’s something we need as a profession. PR practitioners should pay attention to these important watchdogs. But in Ewen’s and Stauber’s work you won’t find many stories about the majority of PR professionals who operate in a professional and ethical manner.

    I don’t see any real danger in having the client sponsor involved with the students’ work, so long as this involvement is closely monitored by the faculty member in charge or by neutral “advisers” like those we use at Kent State. But the fact that Hunter’s students opted for deceptive tactics suggests the curriculum might benefit from a larger dose of applied ethics.

    There is a good chance that the “PR Campaigns” clients next year at Kent State will be asked to sign a statement of ethics — one that says they’ll ask nothing of our students that would violate the PRSA or IABC codes. The Hunter case convinces me we must have this discussion with our clients in advance, and that we should get their agreement in writing.

  8. Bill Huey says:

    Quick note, Bill. I read Stewart Ewen’s book on PR, and while it develops some interesting historical precedents, it fails to mention Benjamin Sonnenberg even once. Sonnenberg’s contributions to the development of the business–such as dealing only with the person at the top of the organization–were fewer in number but no less significant than those of Bernays.
    To me, that is a fatal flaw in what purports to be “A Social History of Spin.”

  9. Bill Sledzik says:

    Agreed, Bill. Ben Sonnenberg gets little credit in the texts for “PR Principles” classes. Most treatments of PR history — other than the work of Scott Cutlip — strike me as “Lee Bernays and all the other folks.” There is some fertile ground to be tilled in the area of public relations history for anyone who wants to do the work.

    I want to go back to your point about what’s wrong with PR education. It reminds me of a post that’s been sitting in my queue for about 6 months. Here is my working title: “Let’s raise the bar for PR education, and let’s raise it really, really, really, really, really, really high.” If we want PR to be seen as more than the “soft side of business” (something that emerges in the gender research too often) we must significantly reduce the number of PR graduates we produce by significantly increasing the rigor of our programs.

    I’ll work on that post as soon as I survive the 3-week crash course I’m teaching. One more week. Just one more week.

  10. Bill Huey says:

    That post sounds interesting, and I look forward to seeing it.
    In the early Nineties, I taught at a state U. where a few of us tried to raise the bar higher—not even really, really high—and the students revolted.
    The director and the spineless faculty caved, claiming that they were acting in the students’ best interests.

  11. Serine H. says:

    It is so true that stupid people learn from their own mistakes and the smart people learn from the other’s. Well, clearly we can see who is who in this case.
    Situations and failures like this are a great way of learning valuable lesson, both ethical and moral. It gives as an opportunity to think about our own steps, behavior and professional choices. At this point Kent state’s student should be very grateful towards their instructors and advisers. The case described above was not just a wrongdoing of the students; it was a failure of the faculty stuff to supervise them and most importantly to build a strong moral awareness towards each case they take.
    I can’t argue that the campaign was not well developed; they’ve had a good motivational strategy to drive the student to the blog and expose them to the main message but at the same time a great strategy isn’t always about goal achievement, it is the method and the approach you use to achieve that goal without omitting any serious and common ethical policies.

  12. Bill Sledzik says:

    I’d love to do another post on this topic, but only because of what I see happening within Hunter College. Since few of my readers care about academic issues, I have decided to let it go.

    I am troubled by the comments I see posted to this story at insidehighered.com. I expect these come from academic types, as that is typically who reads the site…

    From Henry Giroux: The university now adopts the aesthetic of the mall and its administrators increasingly resemble public relations hacks.

    Ah…This is what happens when the boys and girls misbehave. We are all painted with the same broad brush, as we were by Andrew Cohen the other day at CBS. We simply can’t police the behavior of all PR people, and since we aren’t a licensed profession, we can’t toss out the slimeballs. But hey, lawyers are licensed, and it hasn’t helped their image, has it?

    From Aaron Barlow: To Giroux’s point: the commercial model doesn’t form well to an academic setting, as this rather slimy incident shows.

    Well, I think Aaron is wrong on this, but he’s entitled to his opinion. Every other school working on the AICC project did just fine. And here at Kent State we partner with corporate sponsors all the time. But the difference is, we pay close attention who what the students AND the clients are doing. It’s part of the job.

    From Bob Hirsch: Conducting a human subjects study without obtaining Institutional Research Board (IRB) approval appears to be a significant problem that has been overlooked. Would someone please answer the question, “was this research on Hunter students approved by an IRB (or equivalent)?”

    Maybe I missed something, but didn’t the class students have research conducted on them by the company (survey of attitudes) and didn’t the non-class students have surveys and opinions assessed for use by the company? The “course” appears to have been a study by the company to determine if the company could modify the attitudes of students (i.e. brainwashing, mind control, or ?, …).

    Yikes! Call out the Feds! Bob is correct when he says research performed on students — or any human subjects for that matter — requires IRB approval. Our students secure that approval routinely when they do research on behalf of clients. But IRB approval is not required for partnerships with clients — only for the research done on their behalf. The idea that these companies are dealing in “mind control” or “brainwashing” is patently ridiculous. This ain’t a Frankenstein movie.

    I will admit that many of the companies who back IACC sell consumer items at obscene profit margins. But you know, those who pays $500 for a handbag or $20,000 for a watch deserve what they get. That’s another post for another day.

  13. Nikki Rubin says:

    One thing i have found incredibly helpful is the ‘real world’ type classes in Public Relations we have here at Kent State. I mean, how else do you really learn than without putting it to the test. I can see where this would go terribly wrong if the students weren’t taught consistently that the number one guideline in PR is to tell the truth. Those are the students that will continue to give PR a bad name in the future from their unethical behavior.

    This particular case is actually incredibly intriguing and yet would be very difficult to pull off. I see knockoff handbags everyday passing me on the streets, i guess i would consider myself a sort of purse expert and can spot them a mile away. Heck, you go to New York City and china street is filled with bags that look so real, and yet really aren’t. As college students, many of us don’t have the money to go out and buy a two thousand dollar purse so a knock off is really the only way to go. Maybe those students didn’t really believe in the cause, maybe they couldn’t be true advocates. In any case, it shouldn’t matter.

    I couldn’t even see where a fake blog would even work very well in this case. Regardless, they lied their publics. I am surprised that Coach didn’t put their foot down, they should have known better. Where were the teachers and advisors?! It’s shocking to me that this wasn’t pulled from the campaign when reviewed by the advisors.

  14. martin says:

    Hi Bill… We may never get to the bottom of what really happened here. But in a post I wrote on this subject I got a comment from the guy who actually taught the course… Tim Portlock, who says he was pressure into teaching it… presumably for fear of losing his part-time position at Hunter. He also said he had misgivings aboutn the content from the very beginning but was pressure by IACC officials as to what content to include. It seems there was quite a bit of nefarious activity behind the scenes that people at Hunter/Coach/IACC are not owning up to.

    Mr. Portlock directed me to an article for Inside Higher Ed… http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/03/03/hunter

    (This will be a good resource for Kami.)

  15. martin says:

    By the way… in my post I also have some disturbing quotes from students and co-Professor Ben Weisman. The prof urged his students:

    “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-”

    Weisman was encouraging the student in the brilliant idea that the kid could use the tag line “You got faked!” in revealing the fictional nature of the Heidi Cee blog to a reporter. The student thought that “faking out” the journalist would be a great way to make an impression and get the reporter’s attention…

    Well… I guess he wasn’t wrong in that, was he?

  16. Bill Sledzik says:

    I feel for Tim on this one, Martin. The position of some untenured faculty can be — well — downright tenuous. In my years on the tenure track I was encouraged to work hard and not make waves. That’s pretty much what I did — except for when I grew the ponytail near the end! I’m thankful we didn’t have blogs back then, as would surely have pissed off someone and been fired.

    While I don’t fault Mr. Portlock so much in this case, the faculty at Hunter has to bear some responsibility here. A junior faculty member was put in an untenable position. This means it was up to the senior faculty to stand by him — to fight the battle for him. Maybe they did that and lost the fight. But had the IACC mess happened at Kent State, I can think of a handful of my colleagues who’d have had my back. What happened at Hunter?

  17. martin says:

    I think Bill Huey nailed that question… the professors weren’t qualified to teach this kind of course material. I went back and traced some of the exchanges btw students and their professors on the course blogsite… (this site has since been taken down by Hunter… presumably to hide the evidence of misdeeds by Mr. Weisman)… the professor was clearly enamored of the idea of a fake blog and ENCOURAGED students’ activities in this area, telling them that it was an ingenious ploy.

    I think Mr. Portlock just got run down by forces bigger than himself… profs and administrators who were clueless as to the ethical aspects of PR. They didn’t have his back because they thought his concern was misplaced. Seems he had no means of redress here. At all. For that… yes… Hunter bears all the responsibility.

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