Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Battle Over Bananas

Today watchdogs keep a close eye on U.S.-based companies that produce merchandise overseas. Starbucks Coffee serves as one example, along with the banana company Chiquita Brands International.

I had no idea about the struggles both companies face, until I visited Colombia in June of 2007. Apparently I’d missed CBS’s detailed report, released just months before.

According to a CBS News.com report, on March 14, 2007, Chiquita agreed to a $25 million penalty fee for paying off Colombian terrorists to protect banana-farming regions in South America.

According to U.S. prosecutors, the company paid nearly $1.7 million between 1997 and 2004 to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a.k.a the AUC, a group of paramilitary linked with narcotics trafficking, massacring civilians and kidnapping.

Government officials convicted Chiquita of making payments to the AUC in exchange for protecting the banana plantations in Colombia. The company also funded the terrorist group National Liberation Army (ELN) and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

According to the CBS report, these arrangements between companies and paramilitaries like the AUC, ELN and FARC remain quite common. The companies want to insure their product, farmland and employees are protected, but at the same time they're funding terrorism.

"The payments made by the company were always motivated by our good faith concern for the safety of our employees,” said Chiquita's chief executive, Fernando Aguirre.

Finally after years of coordinating with the guerilla and paramilitary groups, Chiquita came forward and told the U.S. government about the payments.

At a plea hearing, Chiquita agreed to end their illegal activity and pay millions in fines.

Now on the Chiquita Web site, a link appears on the home page to a Corporate Responsibility section. Here the company outlines their code of ethics, core values, corporate responsibility reports and foundation, which claims Chiquita remains “committed to improving the communities where [it does] business.”

A link to an article written by Augirre entitled, "An Excruciating Dilemma Between Life and Law: Corporate Responsibility in a Zone of Conflict," addresses the issue in Colombia.

In the article, Aguirre states that in 2003 the company learned "protection payments the company had been making to paramilitary groups in Colombia to keep workers safe from the violence committed by those groups were illegal under U.S. law."

Well, no kidding, Mr. Aguirre. Did you really think that it WOULD BE legal to pay a group that kills, kidnaps and traffics cocaine?

He also claims that the payments were only meant to protect workers and their jobs.

Aguirre cites an example when the paramilitary massacred 28 Chiquita employees while riding a bus to work. In 1998, two more Colombian workers were killed on a banana plantation.

So, apparently, Chiquita’s solution to the problem was bribery.

But, isn’t that just indirectly helping the enemy kill more? Yes.

Why would you trust the enemy to keeps their word even after being paid off? You can’t. But Chiquita did nonetheless.

Finally, the company had some sense knocked into it and came forward to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In the article Chiquita pats itself on the back by saying, “had we not come forward ourselves, it is entirely possible that the payments would have remained unknown to American authorizes to this day.”

Wow, way to go Chiquita—way to congratulate yourselves for being even more sneaky and deceptive. Give yourself a pat on the back.

The last sentence of Aguirre's statement says, “for our part, we believe the settlement with the government was a reasoned solution to the difficult situation the company faced several years ago. We hope no other companies have to face such dilemmas in the future.”

You would think that their first hope would be that their own company does not have to face this dilemma again.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Dirty Politics

What is up with stupid politictians these days? They are being caught left and right for scandalous behavior. First was Bill Clinton, then the senator who tapped his foot under the bathroom stall, which apparently is a 'no-no' in the little boy's room. Next was the governor of New York's little prostitution scandal. And now the mayor of Detroit is charged with eight felonies. You'd think that these public figures would have better judgement.

CraigsList in Hot Water Again

According to a CNN report today, Craigslist is in trouble again. Apparently someone placed a false ad online which said that everything in an Oregon family's home is up for the taking. As scavengers were tearing apart the home, taking everything in sight, the family pulled up, in complete shock. The authorities are looking for the culprait and people are being asked to return anything taken.

Nothin' But Net... Neutrality

In my previous post, “Let Freedom Reign?,” I discussed the U.S. government’s censorship of commercial but not political advertising. I explained how misleading ads cannot appear for products like diet pills or even toothpaste; however, it is legal for politicians to broadcast untruths about their opponents.

The debate over political advertising spills over into the Web’s arena. Search engine Google has taken a strong position on the content of its political advertising, making rules that political advertising on its site must not include misleading information or attacks on a candidate’s personal life.

Although this seems to be benign, who decides what stays and what goes on Google? How much censorship is too much? Can the public trust Google to make good judgments?

The fight against net neutrality is spreading across the Web.

According to a CNETnews.com article, “Internet content providers such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon.com” are in favor of net neutrality. But how neutral is the Internet when Google is not allowing it’s searchers to see certain political advertisements that are on other Web sites and even on T.V.?

Wouldn’t you rather use a search engine that displays all the results of your key-word search, and not just what it thinks is politically correct? I know I would.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Hire

After reading Rebecca Blood’s article "Weblogs: a History and Perspective," I am very appreciative that technology has allowed computer illiterate people like myself to create their own blog. Apparently the original bloggers had to know HTML code and craft their own Web sites. YIKES!

In Blood’s article she also mentions a quote by Greg Ruggiero, "'you cannot participate in the media. Bringing that into the foreground is the first step. The second step is to define the difference between public and audience. An audience is passive; a public is participatory. We need a definition of media that is public in its orientation.’"

After reading this quote it made me realize that online blogs and interactive media are two forms of communication that allow the audience to be participatory. The blog, for examaple, allows for instant reader feedback (unlike other forms of traditional news media).

I also realized, from an advertising/PR perspective, how perfect the blog is. It can be used for a million different things. It's the perfect venue to promote a new product and for companies to spread a controlled message about that product. And, creating online traffic to the blog site is no big deal these days. It's pretty simple to define and reach a specific target audience.

Creating viral buzz about new products is the way to go. Blogs and the Internet in general are borderless and cost effective venues for promotion. They’re a PR and advertising professional’s dream.

One brand took these realizations to heart. BMW’s interactive media campaign took Ruggiero’s advice and made their audience active not passive. The company made a series of Hollywood-grade short films called "The Hire" starring Madonna and Clive Owen to demonstrate the capabilities of the "Ultimate Driving Machine."

BMW devised this marketing plan to particularly appeal to the technology-savvy BMW consumer. These individuals actively logged onto the BMW Web site and spread the link to friends all across the globe.

According to Wikipedia (which duh, knows all), "BMW saw their 2001 sales numbers go up 12 percent from last year and the movies were viewed over 11 million times in four months. Two million people registered with the Web site and a large majority of users, registered to the site, sent film links to their friends and family causing the site to go viral and sales to skyrocket. The films proved to be so popular, BMW ended up producing a free DVD for customers who visited select BMW dealerships."

Case in point - online interactive media is the way to go. The blog is a great place to start.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Let Freedom Reign?

America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. At least that’s what we tell ourselves before every major sporting event, as we stand up from our stadium seats and take off our baseball caps to sing the national anthem.

But, how free are we? Take communication for example. How free are Americans to speak? How much does the First Amendment protect?

In 1942 the Supreme Court ruled that pure commercial speech is not fully protected by the First Amendment. Since then, advertising has been closely watched for deception – anything that is false or misleading.

Interestingly enough, political speech is fully protected by the First Amendment. So political advertising can legally be false or misleading. A candidate can say anything he or she wants to about an opponent without legal repercussions. The theory is that the truth will come out in the end, and by limiting political speech, it will limit the marketplace of ideas.

Australians feel differently. Down Under, the Aussies believe that political speech should be censored. Candidates are libel if they make a false statement about an opponent. The country's government believes that people are indeed rational, but the public must be making rational decisions about politicians based on truthful information, not lies.

In the U.S. a false attack ad could run so close to an election that there's no time for the other candidate to rebuttal. Thus, the public could make their decision to vote for someone based on false information.

To me, it’s a scary thing that U.S. citizens could possibly be choosing their next president based on an intentionally misleading television commercial. Is the Land of the Free allowing too much freedom in the political realm?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Tire Blowout Causes PR Blowup

I remember the first time I flew on a plane by myself. Although I was 13, a reeeaaal teenager, I was still terrified of A) the plane crashing and being without my mom to hold my hand on the way down, B) sitting next to a creepy stranger, and C) accidentally dosing off and drooling on that stranger.

Luckily neither A, B nor C were issues on this flight.

When I arrived in Phoenix my Aunt Sharon and Uncle Jim swooped me up and told me about all the adventures we were about to embark upon.

During my last weekend in Arizona we took a little road trip up to their cabin in Flagstaff. After the weekend trip we drove back to Phoenix. I slept in the back of the Explorer sprawled out across both seats. Suddenly I heard a loud THUMP and the car seemed lower on one side. Then there were more thumping noises, at which point I popped up in my seat to see what was going on.

Uncle Jim pulled the Ford over to the shoulder of the highway to investigate. We realized that the tread had completely come off the Firestone tire. I asked Aunt Sharon how this happened. She attributed it to the heat. That day as the hot Arizona sun beat down on the red clay earth, Uncle Jim changed the tire as a state trooper helped, or rather, watched.

It never occurred to me at the time, but after I’d returned to Dallas I realized there might be a connection between our incident and the high profile Ford/Firestone blowout scandal. Our story was, thankfully, not nearly as severe as others. But there was definitely commonality.

In August 2000 Ford and Firestone disputed claims that "tire treads were separating from the tire core-leading to grisly, spectacular crashes," according to a Forbes.com report.

According to one case study, the two companies made irreparable PR moves.

First of all the companies did not have a crisis management plan in place. So, apparently their idea of smoothing things over with the press was covering up safety defects. Bad idea? I think so. By being dishonest with the public and covering up information, hundreds of lives were lost because people were left in the dark.

The company also blamed customers for improper tire inflation. Like my mom always says, “The customer is always right!” Bad move Firestone, bad move. That’ll really put everyone who lost a family member to a blowout at ease. Not!

The unsuccessful communication strategies continue…

Ford and Firestone then began to publicly blame each other for the accidents. Real mature…

Lastly, neither party was quick to try and solve the problem. Finally Firestone recalled the tires, but was slow to alert the media. The public had no resource, no Web site, no hotline, nowhere to get information about the recall or how the company was going to address the issue.

After hearing all about this on TV I asked my Aunt Sharon if she ever reported our tire incident to Ford. She said, “No,” and that was the end of it. I’m glad our Ford/Firestone story didn’t have and alternate ending.