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.