Following the Hunter-Coach incident: let’s not throw away the baby with the dirty water…

I had learned of the Hunter-Coach incident a few months ago when the always careful and brilliant Jack O’Dywer revealed it on his website, and was shocked by the manipulative way in which

our colleagues from Paul Werth and Associates, on behalf of Coach Inc, dealt with the pr program they implemented with Hunter students in Nyc.
By the way, Hunter is the institution in which Stuart Ewen teaches and I personally consider his book PR, the Social History of Spin, as possibly the best book ever written on our profession.
A must read for any colleague who has not had the opportunity to do so.

Having said this, I am still very much convinced that professionals –being well aware of course of how to deal with academic counterparts (but this would stand true with any other constituency they deal with on behalf of their clients/employers…– should do everything they can to reach out to students of public relations and other disciplines, in order for them to better understand what real life pr is about (and in this specific case, although despicably so, they certainly did.. in the sense that students were used as guinea pigs…and this is intolerable even when academics use them for their own research activities without making them well aware of what they are doing..).
In fact I am going to use this case in my next class to demonstrate how public relations is pervasive and how it can be harmful when it is not fully explicit (who I am, who I represent, what objectives do I wish to achieve, how I plan to achieve them in conversing with you… do you agree?).

I am of course also convinced that academics in turn, to avoid being excessively abstract in their courses, should reach out to professionals and give them appropriate access to students.

Many of us who are…sort-of in between… have been advocating in every country closer links between professional and academics so to reinterpret and readjust the growing body of knowledge of our profession.

It is a shame and a pity that incidents like these, carefully reported by Jack in this pdf of his monthly publication which has just been published (see front page and pages 6, 12 and 13), cast a shadow on this positive contamination.
I just hope that the incident does not contribute to, as-they-say, throwing the baby away with the dirty water.
Your opinions?

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4 Replies to “Following the Hunter-Coach incident: let’s not throw away the baby with the dirty water…

  1. In my view, the role of helping students to grow a professional conscience is much much more a technically pr skill than writing a press release or building a press list.
    The growing social impact of our profession and the consequent public scrutiny of our practices demand this priority.
    But, I insist that this has nothing to do with ethics, but mostly with effectiveness.
    The McClellan case you cite merits in itself a full post as soon as the dust settles down and the road is clear for analysis.

  2. What this case shows is not a failure of “PR skills” technically (i.e., proficiency at press release writing, how to build a press list, etc,)… Like so many failures in our business, it stemmed form a failure of critical thinking and judgment on the part of professors and administrators… the people in charge who ought to have known better. Like the whole McClellan fiasco now breaking, it was a failure to speak up and say NO to something that was clearly wrong. That’s not a PR failure so much as a personal and human failure. So… a question back to you (and a serious one): How does one teach PR students to grow a conscience?

  3. thanks Judy. and here is another more recent piece by jack just in case one wishes to stay tuned:
    An issue raised by the Coach course at Hunter College is whether the course violated federal rules.
    Federal law requires colleges as well as research hospitals to have “Institutional Research Boards” that protect students and patients from having undue research done on them.
    There was no such review at Hunter where word of the course “popped out” at a faculty meeting.
    Prof. Bob Hirsch wrote to “Didn’t the students have research conducted on them by the company (survey of attitudes) and didn’t the non-class students have surveys conducted on them? The course appears to have been a study by Coach to determine if it could modify the attitudes of students (i.e., brainwashing, mind control…”).
    “Playing with someone’s head” is risky, he wrote. He noted that advertising and marketing do this but “not under the pretense of providing an unbiased perspective in the guise of education.”

    Research was conducted into attitudes of students before and after the anti-fake campaigns. At Howard University, where Prof. Rochelle Ford worked closely with Travis Johnson of the Int’l Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition and Melina Metzger and Michelle Moore of Paul Werth Assocs., both primary and secondary research was conducted among 300 students and attitude changes were measured.
    Anne Barlow of NYC College of Technology told “The commercial model doesn’t work well in an academic setting.”
    Prof. Henry Giroux wrote: “The real issue is the increasing subordination of all aspects of the university to corporate values…lost in this transformation is the distinction between training and a critical education. The university now adopts the aesthetic of the mall and its administrators increasingly resemble PR hacks.”
    Insidehighered draws 500,000 unique visitors a month. Its audience is 1.4 million college instructors and two million professionals in higher education. Founders of the D.C.-based website are educators Will Collins, Scott Jaschik and Doug Lederman.
    What some Hunter professors are now calling the Hunter/Coach “scandal” will be taken up again in the fall by Hunter professors, some of whom are thinking of demanding a “censure” of Hunter administrators.

    A chasm is evident between academic and editorial attitudes and practices and PR attitudes and practices. “Controversy is at the heart of free academic inquiry” says the American Assn. of University Professors. Editors also thrive on controversy and the U.S. Constitution fosters “vigorous” public debate. But the Hunter/Coach course materials provided a “narrow” viewpoint, said the Academic Freedom Committee. When the professor in the class attempted to broaden the materials, he was slapped down by Coach lawyers. Coach PR was a no-show in this incident.
    Materials of the IACC complain of abusive labor practices in the production of fakes but the labor practices of IACC members also merit examination to provide balance.
    Coach has extensive guidelines for its suppliers but there is “wriggle room” because Coach can only promise is that it will not “knowingly” allow violations. The class should have been told to visit and similar websites.
    The first foray should have been to the Coach financials, which are readily available on the web. With a little guidance, the students would learn how hugely profitable Coach (and many IACC members) have become using cheap labor.
    Gross profit of Coach on sales of $3.05 billion in the 12 months ended March 29 was $2.02B and net was $728M. Coach has almost no debt–$13.94M, giving it a debt/equity ratio of 0.01. It only has 3,100 full-time employees. The rest are part-timers, contractors, etc. Labor costs are kept to a minimum. Use of Hunter students at a cost of $10,000 to reach millions on myspace and facebook fit this mold.
    CEO Lew Frankfort and his wife personally gave $1M to Hunter in 2007. He was ranked No. 4 in terms of pay in 2006 on the New York CEO pay chart of Crain’s New York. His remuneration of $44.4M was topped only by CEOs of Gamco Investors, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch. He made more than Rupert Murdoch of News Corp., who was 15th on the list and Ralph Lauren, No. 18. Frankfort’s 2,989,922 shares at $33.70 a share are worth $100M.
    Carole Stadler, who as general counsel of Coach suggested the $10K gift for the Hunter course to the school administration headed by Jennifer Raab, a lawyer, sold stock worth $20.5M from Sept. 2006 to March 2007 (mostly at about $50 a share), netting about $10M after paying option costs. Stadler, 48, left the company last year. A Hunter grad and daughter of Lorraine Edelberg Sadler, 1949 grad, Sadler has been a supporter of the “Mother’s Day Campaign” which raises money for the school.
    Hunter PR students who contrasted the finances of companies like Coach with the finances of the ad conglomerates might think about a change of careers. They would find WPP with $6.2B in debt (.72 debt/equity ratio); Omnicom with $3.08B in debt (.76 debt/equity ratio), and Interpublic with $2.15B in debt (.92 debt/equity ratio). Their debt almost equals their stockholders’ equity!
    Why? Advertising/PR is labor intensive and labor costs can’t be easily shipped overseas. But the Big Five are trying as hard as they can to cut labor costs. WPP’s Martin Sorrell complained in 2004 that there are “too many people in the middle” in PR and wants PR to be like investment banks (“big producers at the top and then a lot of arms and legs, a lot of soldiers”). Yes, a lot of poorly-paid people at the bottom. Another way of reducing costs is to “mechanize” press placement—send out zillions of press release e-mails and hope for pickup. Some companies, desiring a minimum of press attention, don’t worry about pickup. They just don’t want anyone saying they didn’t put out the news. Coach/Hunter also provides some clues about corporate PR. The IACC, for instance, has no PR staffer at all. Coach corporate PR people had little to do with the Hunter class which at one point had 5-6 Coach lawyers present, a student has said. Coach PR, after supplying one written statement via e-mail to us, said it would answer no further questions. We have asked IACC and Werth whether this campaign will continue given the criticisms of the course materials but have received no answer thus far. –Jack O’Dwyer

  4. For more information on this case, it was way back in February that (Ottawa-based) Bob LeDrew of Flacklife was the first PR-blogger I knew to cover this tale in great depth (Search “Hunter College” on his blog and you’ll get links his numerous research/posts on this topic.)

    And last week Bill Sledzik weighed in on the topic (crediting Bob as an information source), from an (industry) PR prof’s perspective.

    All valuable reads.

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