Pink nightmares

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation has been a behemoth in the fight against breast cancer. This week, though, SGK is in the middle of a PR nightmare regarding its decision to discontinue its support to Planned Parenthood. According to the Komen’s founder and CEO, the decision is not politically motivated. It has nothing to do with abortion, but everything to do with a policy changes meant to ensure “you are granting money to the right people.”

In this case, the right people are those organizations who are not under “formal investigation for financial or administrative improprieties by local, state or federal authorities,” reports Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. 

On the surface, this sounds like a reasonable policy. Why would anyone want to fund questionable organizations? However, Goldberg’s probing reveals a political agenda. Indeed, this decision was about severing ties with the most important provider of reproductive health services in the United States. These services, of course, include abortions, and Komen finally decided to veer openly to the right on this controversial issue. Komen applied its new policy to PP, which has been the target of a congressional inquiry since September because, according to Representative Cliff Stearns (R), the organization might be using federal funding to pay for abortions.

However, this entire prologue is not the reason I’m decided to write this piece. What makes the Komen vs PP debacle interesting to me is its social media dimension. It makes me wonder whether or not organizations like Komen take social media seriously, or if they merely think of it as an additional outlet for their press releases. You see, before the controversy exploded, Komen’s Facebook page was a bulletin board. The organization would post news tidbits, like this one

After Komen made its defunding of PP public, though, anger flooded its Facebook page. These comments were added to Nancy Brinker’s birthday thread after the announcement

Komen is the latest public entity to suffer the wrath of social media users. Yes, that wonderful outlet works so well in the PR mix also makes it very easy to express dissent, discontent, and outright fury. More importantly, it increases the speed of protest, as Andrew Rasiej of New York Tech MeetUp pointed out to TheWrap

“There’s a new political and media ecology that social networking provides and it’s not controlled by the mainstream media […] It’s controlled by citizens who are able to wield power at a speed that has the mainstream media, the politicians and the institutional players in shock.”

Often, media analysts point out that the power of social media lies in its ability to organize dissenters. However, we should also look at social media’s ability to aggregate discontent. Indeed, we can’t think of this backlash as the result of an organized effort. We should look at it as the result of decentralized actions that coalesced because of social media. We use the social web to connect with each other, but connecting isn’t just about sharing pictures of our pets. We share information, we comment on Facebook pages, we use hashtags, and we spread of memes. The savviest organizations and individuals know how to channel these routine activities into movements. Yet what the organizers of virtual protest really do is guide our clicks in the desired direction. That’s very different from asking us to occupy a public park. Clicking, using a hashtag, signing a petition, changing our profile picture, or sharing a picture costs us very little effort, yet the cumulative effects can be very powerful. Planned Parenthood understood this much better than Komen.

I took this screen capture from Planned Parenthood’s album on Facebook. It was shared over 22 thousand times. Furthermore, Planned Parenthood added this picture below to the album, after Komen reversed its funding policy changes and apologized to “the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives.”

In comparison, what was Komen doing with their social media? According to Kivi Miller, during the initial stages of the crisis, “The only Komen action on their Facebook page had been to delete anti-Komen comments, so the ratio of negative to positive looks more like 10 – 1 instead of the 80 – 1 (and even higher this morning) on Twitter.” Aside from that, Komen carried on as it would under normal circumstances. For example, as Miller noted, Komen re-tweeted a report from FoxNewsLatino on January 30.

Komen did not address their funding decision on Twitter until February 1, when they released Nancy Brinker’s video statement (posted above). Worst of all, Komen’s Twitter feed today had been dedicated to debunking a supposed partnership with Discount Gun Sales, to market pink handguns for the cure.

Now that Komen has reversed its funding decision, they will have to re-build their brand. The damage is significant, judging from some of the reactions posted to their Facebook page. The damage has nothing to do with breast cancer, or Komen’s mission. It has everything to do about their abandoning their primary focus, breast cancer prevention, awareness, and funding for research.

Before the PP debacle, I counted Komen as one of the savvy organizations. Their pink ribbon campaigns and partnerships were Facebook darlings. In fact, you could say that Komen took Facebook Pages best practices guide to heart. It uses its page to  “join the conversation, share their stories, and build a meaningful dialogue with their supporters and volunteers.” Unfortunately, Facebook’s handy guide doesn’t address the other side of the meaningful dialogue, the fact that it is public, and that involves people, not sheeple. The lesson here is that one should never assume “Facebook Likes” mean complete agreement with every policy decision.


Death by Twitter

On Saturday, January 22, Onward State “killed” Joe Paterno. It took two tweets: The tweets have since been removed from Onward State’s feed.  The image above is a screen capture I took from Poyntner’s account of the incident. According to Poyntner, the timeline is as follows: (1) Onward State reports Joe Paterno’s death through twitter. The site subsequently goes down, apparently over flooded by incoming traffic. (2) 94.5 FM breaks the story on its own, but credits no sources. (3) CBS picks up the scent. They tweet a link to Joe Paterno’s obituary on their site.  It’s off to the races at that point, as the Huffington Post, Anderson Cooper, Poyntner, and Breaking News redistributed the story. What do all these sources have in common? None of them tried to confirm the reports before clicking the “tweet” button. Joe Paterno, as it turned out, was not dead yet. Paterno’s son and a spokesman for the Paterno family denied the story.

The question is, how could this happen? Shouldn’t professional journalists know better than to parrot anything from Twitter without checking?

Well, media do know better. As Eric Wemple points out, we should give “Bonus points for all the outlets that didn’t take the bait.” The AP wire, for one, did not take the bait because it couldn’t verify the original report. After all, when your source is Twitter chatter, you should be wary. Didn’t Jon Bon Jovi get the death by twitter treatment last December? As it turned out, Jeffrey Goho, a musician most of us had never even heard of before, started the rumor using Twitter. This time, established media outlets did nothing, that is, until Bon Jovi debunked the Goho’s hoax with a selfie.

So, what’s the difference between the Bon Jovi hoax and Paterno’s death by twitter? What made CBS hurry, when we all know that exaggerated rumors about celebrity deaths are a recurrent theme on twitter?

Here’s one possible answer: It’s all about the source. Granted, I’m not up to date on student run blogs. I had never heard about Onward State. This does not mean that the site isn’t a legitimate news source. Indeed, the site has been profiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Mashable as an up and coming student blog to watch. More ironically, though, US News and World Report described Onward State as being “as new as Joe Paterno is old.” Ouch!

But, what does this tell us about Onward State? It says that, up until the evening of Saturday, January 21 of 2012, Onward State was not seen as a little fringe blog. It was a little blog that could play with the big boys and girls of journalism. Unfortunately, today is January 22 and things have changed. Now, Onward State has become an example of how not to be a journalist.

My colleague, Andrea Duke, characterized Paterno’s death by twitter as one of those moments that remind us of the “whoops power of social media.”  She writes,  “You CANNOT report hearsay.  You CANNOT report assumptions.  You CANNOT report news that may or may not be true JUST to be the first to report it”

Yes, and this is also one of those moments in which we should reconsider how news is reported. We do rely on established news organizations to give us the facts, which means that we trust them to fact check. In this sense, Onward State is not the only outlet at fault. They made a huge mistake, and they have apologized profusely for it. In fact, Onward State has published two accounts of what happened, and how it happened. In one, the site’s founder, Davis Shaver, describes the controversy as “one of the worst moments of my entire life.” In the other one, managing editor Devon Edwards announces his resignation. He writes,

“I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State might be cited by the national media. Today, I sincerely wish it never had been. To all those who read and passed along our reports, I sincerely apologize for having mislead you. To the Penn State community and to the Paterno family, most of all, I could not be more sorry for the emotional anguish I am sure we at Onward State caused. There are no excuses for what we did. We all make mistakes, but it’s impossible to brush off one of this magnitude. Right now, we deserve all of the criticism headed our way.”

By comparison, this is what Mark Swanson of CBS Sports had to say:

Really? One paragraph is all we get from CBS? That’s unfortunate, and it’s shameful. Sadly, I don’t think anyone expects Mark Swanson to step down as managing editor of Fortunately for him, the blame can be shifted to a student run blog, whose own managing editor admits he made a huge mistake.  Edwards writes, “getting it first often conflicts with getting it right.” What’s CBS’ excuse? Why were they more careful about reporting Peyton Manning’s alleged retirement (breaking news, according to Rob Lowe), than when they decided to run the Paterno story? An answer like, “because Paterno was actually dying, and Rob Lowe doesn’t have Manning on speed dial,” does not exempt a news organization from its duty to fact check

Getting it before CNN does not beat getting it right, or at least trying to get it right.

On Sunday, January 22, 2012, Joe Paterno did pass away. Last night’s odd turn of events has become a footnote to a long career. Yes, he had triumphs, and also scandal, but this post isn’t about Joe Paterno’s career. This post is about last night. Frankly, I could not help but think of other times news media has gotten it wrong. I thought about Dewey defeats Truman, but more importantly, this story reminded me of the 2000 election miscall. Four years after one of “the most egregious election-night gaffes in the modern television era,” television news anchors were more than cautious when calling the 2004 election for Mr. Bush.

That probably explains how the Washington Post used Twitter to announce Mr. Paterno’s real death this morning

Cuentame: Immigration Crusaders.

Now that Tony Plana no longer plays an illegal immigrant, he’s becoming more active in the immigration reform movement. Plana has put his celebrity to use as a campaigner for Reform Immigration for America, and Cuentame. He is by no means alone, as other celebrities and prominent Latinos(as) have joined the fray. Here’s Plana’s Reform Immigration for America ad:

And this is the Cuentame campaign ad:!/video/video.php?v=392770581902&ref=mf

Cuentame,is a Brave New Foundation project. Its organizers describe themselves as “the Latino instigators.” Unlike the Reform Immigration for America campaign, Cuentame is using Facebook exclusively. I think they have a some things re-think about their strategy. Slick as it is, it has problems.

Now, the use of facebook as a tool for social activism is not new. Nick Judd, in an article posted on tech president, notes as much. He also states that the results of FB activism haven’t been exactly spectacular for Cuentame. Fund raising and national exposure are still relatively low. The campaigns celebrity videos, featuring Tony Plana and Hector Elizondo, can catch the attention of supporters, but without data on sharing and re-posting, all we have to go by is the likes.

Can we judge the effectiveness of a campaign based on likes? if so, is the fact that the Tony Plana video has only garnered 159 likes (as of 5/18/2010) evidence of failure? Cuentame has almost 30 thousand followers. So, 159 likes is less than 0.5%.

Here’s three additional issues I find odd about this particular campaign:

1) The petition drive doesn’t provide any stats about how many people have signed. Even the Tea Party patriots have stats on their petition. When Nick Judd checked for his piece, they had 43,500 signatures. When I checked back today, they had a little over 58,000. How come Cuentame doesn’t have anything like that?

2) I totally agree with Judd. A FB-only campaign has the disadvantage of closing off your video linking ability. I can’t embed it on this blog, like I can with youtube videos. I actually tried to embed the Tony Plana video, after googling how to do it. Guess what: It didn’t work. For me, this begs the question of why on earth would you want to cut yourself off from youtube, the most popular video sharing sites, when you’re producing video?? That just baffles me.

3) The fact that Kobe Bryant’s wife was wearing a “Do I look Illegal” T-shirt could have been significant, but the t-shirt in question looks nothing like the ones that Cuentame is selling (even they admit it). Take a look:

Worse part of it is that Vannessa Bryant’s former housekeeper, a Latina immigrant from Peru, sued her boss for verbal abuse.  The Bryants decided to settle out of court, which is just icing on the controversy cake. I suppose neither of these things should matter, in terms of exposure. But they do. The character issue casts doubts on the legitimacy of the claim. Cuentame, by so joyously jumping on the celebrity bandwagon, might end up doing itself more harm than good, although I seriously doubt that it would go too far anyway. Only one person mentioned the lawsuit on Cuentame’s page. Ergo, it’s not part of the conversation (at least not yet).

The Reform Immigration for America campaign is, in my opinion, much better organized, and obviously better funded. Their use of social media doesn’t ghettoize the campaign to FB. It provides content through all of the most popular sites available, and they’re also taking their message to mainstream media. Indeed, campaigning with new media should complement, not replace mainstream media. It can be effective, as Judd’s article suggests, to build up contacts for future mobilization, but we should acknowledge its limits as well. I don’t think Cuentame does that yet, and until it does, I’m skeptical about its mobilizing ability.