Political speech and PR cleanup: the AAP squirms at the DigitalNow conference

I just watched a keynote presentation by Amber MacArthur at the DigitalNow social media conference.

MacArthur is a Floridian new media PR person and an engaging public speaker. In the keynote, MacArthur encourages companies and organisations to get involved in new media, or “Web 2.0 Plus” as she calls it. She talks about viral video, tools like Twitter and Youtube and podcasting, “power friending”, offering financial inducements for blog promotions, and reputation management. She encourages big business to try to appear “authentic” in their PR dealings online, to build “trust”.

You can download the full video of Amber McArthur’s keynote here, but I’ve picked out the part of interest to me, because it is right at the end.

Why is it of interest? It’s a chap from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in this video called only “John”, quietly panicking about the organisation’s latest public relations disaster: Jay Gordon’s April Fool press release stating that the AAP would no longer accept sponsorship from infant formula companies.

You can read the story in my previous post: “…And objects can’t cast shadows in a vacuum! AAP & formula funding April Fool lawsuit threat“. In short: Jay Gordon sent this faux press release to the Lactnet mailing list, from his usual email address. Gordon is well known in lactation support circles as a breastfeeding advocate and a critic of unethical corporate behaviour within the healthcare system. It was marked April First prominently, at the top. It was very, very obviously satire. The AAP responded immediately to the clearly marked April Fool release by getting their lawyers to issue a threat to the Lactnet admins, alleging that the press release was defamatory. They may or may not have issued further threats privately to other parties; I have no knowledge of that.

And now, after making this a legal matter, a representative of the AAP is standing up talking in public – at a social media keynote broadcast to the world – to ask a social media expert how they could go about harnessing the power of social media to manage the mess they’ve got themselves into.

Amber MacArthur calls the release a “terrible, brutal joke that is not even funny”, and labels Dr Gordon a “loser”. [It’s not at all clear to me whether she realises that the AAP actually does embrace formula industry funding, and John avoids that little fact.] John from the AAP talks about the legal threats they have issued, and claims wildly that the release violates the CAN-SPAM Act. The CAN-SPAM Act controls unsolicited commercial email; the message contained no commercial offer, and the Act specifically exempts political speech.

Amber tells him to solve their problem with a blog and a twitter account.

What was he thinking? Just – what? How does any of this make sense? And, as tigtog asks, is his resume up to date?

Cleanup in Aisle Nine.

Check it out. Transcript below. (Better video, hopefully, to follow.)



[Amber MacArthur calls for volunteers. No one is forthcoming initially, but eventually “John” steps up from the back of the room.]

Amber: It’s nice to meet you, John.

John: OK, I was shoved into this by my team. I’m with the American Academy of Pediatrics. And we have a burning issue. One of our members, on April First, put out a press release. “For Immediate Release: The American Academy of Pediatrics will no longer accept contributions from industry in relation to infant formula companies.”

Alright, so um, it was an April Fools joke. And it was authored by a member from California, and he used the President of the Academy, as if the President signed that letter. So we have a public relations issue, and there’s an old school part of this and a new school part of this.

Amber: OK. Wow.

John: We’re a pretty traditional organisation, aren’t really into the new space that you’re talking about just yet, little bit of it. But ah, to engage lawyers, to talk about “what shall we do with this misinformation, what shall we deal with this member, in terms of his membership?” And the issue here is that the organisations that he is related to have picked up on this thing. And this issue is circling the world. Right? [tired laugh] And it’s misinformation, it’s inappropriate, it’s inappropriate information. It’s using the name of our President inappropriately. So it’s this negative public relations issue, and the brand of the Academy, because of this misinformation, can potentially be compromised if we don’t deal with this thing properly. So it’s kind of a burning issue. It just happened – we’re talking about it right now, so. What do y’all think?

Amber: Wow. Well, I think it – again, there is a perfect reason why you need a voice online, to really defend yourself, and to set the story straight. That’s where the blog comes in handy, that’s where Twitter comes in handy, Facebook – you have all of your official accounts, and you tell the real story, and you tell people to come there and find out, you know, the truth about – obviously, this is a terrible, brutal joke that is not even funny – Um, so, again I think that’s where you really have to start to get your own – using these tools, and to build that voice online and have an official stance and be able to defend yourself in situations like this. Do you guys do anything in the online space right now?

John: A little bit here and there, but not very sophisticatedly at this point. There’s a secondary part of this, and the organisation, or one of the organisations that posted this is going – has some legal issues, because the CAN-SPAM Act does not allow these kinds of misinformation things to go on their website. So we have a secondary spinoff legal issue, and our Customer Service department is taking calls every day now, “Is this true?” and we have to defend ourselves in the court of public opinion. Which becomes a bigger challenge for us.

Amber: Yeah. And that’s – I personally believe that every organisation should have a blog. If you’re going to get into this space, that would be the first thing I would do. Then I would sign up for some of these other services. And I say that because – situations like this, this will not be the beginning of misinformation that’s spread on the web, in terms of your Academy or anyone else’s association. People will continue to do this. And, not that it’s like a battle, but I do believe that you need to have a voice. We were talking earlier about “Hey, should we get involved in this conversation, because people may say negative things?” Well, you need to have a stronger voice out there as that other person, and really wield as much power and build your network on the web. And I think again, a good opportunity to do that.

Because what will happen is, and I’ve seen this on a smaller scale, but with my video podcast Command N, initially when I started I got terrible feedback from people in the comments. People y’know hated the show, they didn’t like me, they didn’t like what I was wearing, I didn’t own The Dress. So at the time there was a lot of negative feedback, and what I did was I went in there, and I responded to people all the time, and kind of earned their trust. And it has literally taken a couple of years, but now I don’t even to defend myself. I’ve built up this network of people who are part of my community who defend me. And I could see the same thing happening with your Academy. Imagine if you, you know you defend yourself in a blog post, and there’s other people who are members who are pretty ticked off at this loser who sent out that press release, and who will come and defend you and then all of a sudden you’ve harnessed the power of people on the internet to come, y’know, on your side, and you’ve built up your community and there is nothing more powerful than having your community defend your organisation, versus y’know, individuals from your organisation. So, um, y’know, that reputation-building process kind of needs to start now, and grow over time. So, I hope you guys get a chance to do some of these things.

Thankyou so much.

John: Thankyou.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, law & order, technology

Tags: ,

13 replies

  1. So very weird when people take something that might be an issue (misrepresenting an organisation) and attach totally the wrong reason why it might be an issue (the CAN-SPAM Act which is about spam, not misrepresentations). It’s like they think they have to say something dripping with jargon even if it’s the wrong jargon.
    What does AAP seriously think they can do to Lactnet, anyway? It’s not an organisation with a treasury stuffed with membership fees, it’s just an online discussion community (although a very large and popular one). Somebody’s hosting it on a spare corner of a server out of their spare change. If Lactnet gets taken down by the AAP playing with SLAPPs, then all that will happen is that someone else in the community will start a Lact-org mailing list and let everybody know about it.
    The Stoopid is strong in this one.

  2. The CAN-SPAM thing is like someone said to someone else, “Quick! Find us legislation to do with, y’know, that new-fangled email thingy!”
    Headless chooks.

  3. Considering the information she has at hand, Amber MacArthur gives him a pretty reasonable path of action. Of course, taking that path would involve actually engaging with people who might ask more hard questions, as Amber tells him!

  4. What’s that thingie doctors swear to? Hippo-something? hypocritical? no no that’s not it… hippocratic. Yes. Hippocratic oath.
    ??????????? ?? ??? ????????? ??? ??? ?????? ?????? ???????? ????????? ?????????? ?????? ?? ??????, ??? ????? ??? ??? ??????????, ??? ????????? ???????????????? ?? ??? ??????????? ???? ???????, ???? ?? ??????.
    Something about not doing any harm I believe. Still, it’s all Greek to me. And them too, obviously.

  5. Arrhh gee WordPress doesn’t like greek. Which makes the already weak last line weaker still. Apologies. But the AAP sucks, bigtime. On this and many many other issues.

  6. @ Bernice:
    I suspect you can make WordPress like Greek if you use the standard HTML/XHTML or Unicode entities for Greek characters. Could be more trouble than it’s worth, though.

  7. lilacsigil: Mamapundit has a great post on why blogging and twittering (with everything else staying equal) isn’t the solution to the AAP’s current problem: “The AAP isn’t really “getting” social media”. Read the rest, but excerpted:

    For an organization to use social media effectively, it has to engage the online conversation where it already is. The organization has to believe in what it is doing, and thus feel no reticence at engaging in dialogue with critics, by thoughtfully, confidently and politely explaining its position. What this means for the AAP is that from a purely strategic point of view, they need to decide that the brand is 100% okay with taking money and swag from the infant formula companies, and then be 100% ready to proactively explain and even promote that position via social media.
    But the reality is this: the AAP knows that its relationship with infant formula companies violates all kinds of ethical boundaries, as well as international agreements. So instead of wanting to openly talk about what they are doing in this regard, they are ashamed, only speaking of it when “outed” by others, and then only doing so in a defensive, legalistic ways. When your message is coming from a negative, uncomfortable place like this, simply having a Twitter feed or a blog talking about other stuff (while ignoring the giant white elephant in the room) won’t do you a lick of good.

    I think it’s a good example of why offering off-the-shelf fixes to problems based on snap judgements and scraps of information might not be the most useful approach.
    There’s not all that much point, from the AAP’s point of view, in putting a lot of PR effort into getting the truth out there – because the truth itself is the problem. Though the main problem is of course the dearth of ethics itself, it’s also an interesting little exercise in public relations thought: Amber seems to be assuming that everyone’s up front and doing the right thing, and that all they need to do is let people know and all will be glitter and unicorns! Whereas a large part of actual PR is massaging, distorting, or just plain covering up the truth.

  8. There was NO misinformation.
    Indeed The Truth about AAP relationship with the formula companies is a deep one and a problem.
    Maybe it’s time for AAP to clean up their act and they would not need to defend themselves aganist the truth in a April fools joke!

  9. @ one smart cookie!:
    Agreed – I and most courts do not see satire as misinformation. However, from a purely objective point of fact, Jay Gordon’s document did claim something that is not true – that AAP is actually going to do the ethical thing and reject funding that presents a conflict of interest i.e. money from the infant formula companies. So saying that there is a theoretical argument for deliberate misinformation was worth pointing out before I jumped on them for using the wrong legal jargon against it. As satire is held to be a special defence from defamation anyway arguments about misinformation are moot.
    Where the clusterfuck comes in for this PR response of them jumping up and down saying “it isn’t true he’s telling lies it isn’t true he’s telling lies” is that NOBODY ELSE CARES WHETHER JAY GORDON’S DOCUMENT WAS FACTUALLY TRUE ABOUT THE AAP FINALLY DECIDING TO ACT ETHICALLY REGARDING THIS CONFLICT OF INTEREST.
    A whole bunch of people just want the AAP to finally decide to act ethically regarding this conflict of interest. I wonder whether they will ever grok this?

  10. It just gets better and better doesn’t it? Digging a bigger and bigger hole for themselves. Goliath versus the gnats — and the gnats are so small and dispersed that they can’t get ahold of them.


  1. mamapundit » Blog Archive » The AAP isn’t really “getting” social media
  2. …And objects can’t cast shadows in a vacuum! AAP & formula funding April Fool lawsuit threat — Hoyden About Town
  3. …And objects can’t cast shadows in a vacuum! AAP & formula funding April Fool lawsuit threat — Hoyden About Town
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