Tuesday, February 15

Putting Accuracy First

When I teach Writing for Public Relations at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), one of the first lessons I share with my students is that great writing is accurate, clear, concise, human, and conspicuous. And there is a very good reason that accurate is at the front of the list.

Recently, Johnson & Johnson faced a lawsuit over its marketing campaign for Splenda, which is an artificial sweetener. Part of the campaign's success has been attributed to the copyline "Splenda No Calorie Sweetener is made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar." Or is it? According to the Sugar Association, Splenda is an artificial chemical sweetener that does not contain sugar. It is made by converting sugar into no calorie, noncarbohydrate sweetener. The patented process selectively replaces three hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sugar molecule with three chlorine atoms.

The Sugar Association says the marketing pitch does not accurately reflect the end product and is misleading because it gives the impression that Splenda contains natural sugar (and is a natural product). Possibly, but I'm not entirely convinced. Yes, Splenda's copyline might have been more precise had it said "Splenda No Calorie Sweetener starts with sugar so it tastes like sugar,” but to conclude it is a natural product that contains sugar based on the aforementioned copyline would require the reader to infer a message that does not exist.

Still, regardless of the outcome, this case demonstrates why accuracy is so important. It's never enough, even in advertising, to simply be clever. Unless, of course, your client does not mind the occasional lawsuit.

Sunday, February 6

Forgetting The First Amendment

This morning, I read a column by Thomas Mitchell, editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, that shared some disturbing (but not so surprising) survey statistics that revealed how much 112,000 high school students valued the First Amendment.

After having the First Amendment read to them, 35 percent agreed with the statement "does the First Amendment go too far in the rights it guarantees" and 21 percent were undecided. Even more troubling, when asked whether newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without prior government approval of a story, only 24 percent of these students strongly agreed. Thirty two percent also concluded the press had too much freedom.

A year earlier, a similar survey was conducted among adults. Sixty five percent disagreed with the statement "does the First Amendment go too far in the rights it guarantees" yet only 48 percent strongly agreed that newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without prior government approval of a story. While not much better, we could at least find some comfort in that a majority of Americans truly valued one of their most important Constitutional freedoms.

While one can only guess, there seem to be several reasons that the First Amendment is losing its luster. Among them: a growing mistrust of the media and its corporate owners, the increasing number of news stories that have been proven politicized or biased, the continuing number of inaccurate stories that are the result of journalists who sacrificed accuracy for expedience, and the ever-present emergence of less credible yet popular publishers who specialize in pushing the boundaries to the extreme. In short, the media is very often its own worst enemy in demonstrating its vital role in preserving our most basic freedoms for one reason or another.

Personally, I tend to subscribe to the theory that any abuse of the First Amendment tends to die in a day, while any restriction to the First Amendment will last generations, if not indefinitely. Unfortunately, I find myself in a shrinking minority, perhaps because my fellow citizens sometimes have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees.

They don't always understand that increased government scrutiny on the media would include increased government scrutiny on their individual thoughts, views, and opinions as well. Perhaps it is ignorance, but they don't seem to understand that the day they begin a website or blog is the day that they have effectively decided to become a publisher, subject to the same restrictions that might one day be placed upon the media. Second, and even more startling to me, they sometimes seem to think that the government (whether local, state, or federal) will always act responsibly and never do anything to undermine the freedoms we have been granted, especially the First Amendment. But then again, I know better.

A few years ago, I worked on now State Senator Bob Beers' first run for the state assembly. During the race, his campaign team published a direct mail piece that brought to light several lies being promoted by his opponent during the primary. Once the piece was published and mailed, his opponent filed a complaint with a state commission and this governmental body ruled that although the piece was factually accurate, Beers should be fined because, in sum, the commission did not like the presentation of the content. Right. Beers was literally fined for telling the truth, a blatant violation of the First Amendment.

Fortunately, Beers was exonerated and went on to win his first bid to serve in the legislature as an assemblyman. Last year, he was elected to the state senate. Coincidentally, we again faced a challenging primary from a 20-year incumbent who allowed his campaign team to publish countless misleading information and blatant lies about Beers. We decided, rather than file a complaint with a governmental entity, to employ an old-fashioned solution: the best way to remedy an abuse of the First Amendment is not by censoring the abuser, but by a candid, timely, and open discussion and presentation of the facts. In doing so, relatively few people were swayed by the opponent's misleading statements. Bob Beers won handily, and is currently representing his district as the clearest voice among fiscal conservatives and as vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

My point is simple enough. The First Amendment does not simply protect the media. It protects all of us. Value it. Preserve it. Protect it. Without it, we may very well one day have to apply for a license to publish something as simple as a blog post.

Tuesday, February 1

Adding Value With Philanthropy

Last week, I received a news release from a friend of mine at Bank of America announcing that the Bank of America Foundation gave more than $800,000 in financial support to 83 agencies in Nevada last year. Bank of America volunteers also logged more than 3,500 hours in the community. Nationwide, the company's foundation contributed more than $109.5 million in cash to nonprofit organizations.

Although Copywrite, Ink. is a small company in terms of size, we also formalized a corporate giving program a few years ago. In most cases, we provide nonprofit and professional organizations with in-kind communication services that greatly exceed any monetary contributions our company could allocate. Last year, we assisted 16 organizations by providing an in-kind services that were valued at more than 20 percent of our gross income. I mention this not to 'toot our own horn,' but to illustrate how even the smallest companies can develop beneficial giving programs.

The Bank of America release also reminded me of an article I wrote a few years ago about business giving, which is still relevant today. I've included the article (featuring interviews with Microsoft, Salesforce.com, and the Business Community Investment Council) as a comment to this post with the hope that it might inspire a few ideas for small business owners. Our company has also assisted several companies in developing giving programs as part of their overall communication strategy. Enjoy.
 

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