Examining Citizens for a Free Kuwait

On August 2, 1990 Iraq invaded the small oil-rich state of Kuwait under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Prior to this invasion, Iraq had been in an eight-year war with Iran that had set it back almost $90 billion, $14 billion of which it borrowed from neighboring Kuwait. Iraq’s inability to repay Kuwait and Kuwait’s increased oil production, and the ramifications it had on an already suffering Iraqi economy, grew tensions between the two countries towards the late 1980’s. 

On the eve of August 2, members of the Kuwaiti Royal Family and hundreds of thousands of foreign workers fled, as the country formerly known as Kuwait was soon annexed to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This was followed by international condemnations and arms embargo as Iraqi allegations that Kuwait stole oil by slant drilling across the Iraqi border were its excuses for invasion.

On August 11, 1990 a grassroots group in the U.S. called Citizens for a Free Kuwait was quickly organized to raise national awareness of human right violations and encouraged American Intervention in Iraqi-ruled Kuwait.

In a great effort to raise awareness, on October 10, 1990 at Capitol Hill, a young girl named Nariyah stood before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and testified. For the safety of her family who remained in Kuwait, her identity was kept secret, however, her accounts were so atrocious they soon became the talking points of every news station in the country.

Nurse Nariyah accounted in detail that she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers barrage hospitals, remove babies from their incubator, and leave them on hospital floors to die.

These accounts of killing innocent babies, who died before knowing why they died or what it ever meant to live, invoked a great emotional response and quickly became the story of why America saved Kuwait. The President of the United States issued an ultimatum of withdrawal or war.

In 1991, Kuwait resorted back to order following the six month-long gulf war, led by United States coalition forces.

Attempts of following-up with Nariyah’s story post-war unveiled several unfortunate truths. It was discovered, as all truths are after war, that Citizens for a Free Kuwait was in fact not a grassroots organization made up of concerned Kuwaiti Citizens, but rather a front group created by a large public relations firm and funded by the Kuwaiti royal family, and that Nariyah’s story was fabricated. The Citizens for a Free Kuwait campaign, having cost $12 million dollars and leading the U.S. to engage in an international war, was highly successful, but was it ethical?

Immanuel Kant, a 16th century philosopher who believed in absolutism, argued that ethically, something is either completely right or completely wrong. Aristotle’s more moderate approach argues that so long as it does not cross your threshold of discomfort that it is fine. Niccolo Machiavelli presents a less modest argument, that the means justify the ends. If it leads to a greater good or a lesser evil than the means of achievement are justified.

In this case, which approach was taken?
What would you have done different?

— Suhaib Agial

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Merck & Co.’s Vioxx Scandal

Merck & Co. is a pharmaceutical company that was the focus of a major scandal in 2004. It serves as a great case study for students to really understand why it’s so important to be fully transparent as a company.

In 2004, their arthritis drug Vioxx was pulled from the shelves after it appeared to have been responsible for more than 27,000 heart attacks and cardiac deaths. They recalled it after an internal study showed that patients taking the drug were more likely to have a cardiac episode than those taking a placebo.

In May of 2000, the executives at Merck & Co. made a fateful decision. The company’s top executives met to decide whether or not to conduct a study to determine if Vioxx, their new arthritis drug, was causing cardiovascular episodes, as a previously unrelated study’s results had suggested.

They ultimately decided not to conduct the study. Their scientists felt that the sample would have to be too large, and their marketing team felt as though it showed a lack in confidence in their drug, which would give power to rival drug Celebrex.

In 2011, Merck & Co. settled a class-action lawsuit, was agreed to pay $950 million, and plead guilty to a criminal misdemeanor charge. Merck & Co.’s stock fell 33 per cent that day.

If Merck & Co. had been transparent about their drugs from the beginning, and had not tried to ignore a massive problem, this would have never occurred. Consumers would have had much more faith in the company as a whole, as well as faith in pharmaceutical companies.

There are a growing number of people in the world who are refusing to take pharmaceuticals for fear that they are being lied to. How are we supposed to prove to them otherwise?

— Elizabeth McCarthy

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Groupthink and the Conflict of Ethics

 The power of suggestion is a notion that leaves people unsure of the ethical practices behind public relations. Though public relations practitioners know that the dark truths of being a ‘spin doctor’ aren’t necessarily valid, what happens when an individual’s balance of right and wrong becomes blurred by the opinions of the rest of their group?

The concept of ‘groupthink’ is more common a situation than you might think, and it is something to be watchful of if you are working within public relations. Essentially, ‘groupthink’ occurs when a desire to make your ideas and beliefs coincide with those of the other members of a group. The individual finds reasoning in ‘groupthink’ in order to avoid conflict, and reach a decision without a strong evaluation period.  This practice often results in an incorrect or unethical outcome.

‘Groupthink’ usually occurs in crisis situations and involves people of power. As public relations professionals, it is important to understand the effects and consequences.  For example, in the case of George W. Bush’s search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that eventually led to a second military assault by the U.S. against Saddam Hussein, no weapons were found, and no evidence that there ever were any weapons was found.

Most people have considered the former President’s actions unethical due to the lack of proof he had in leading an assault, so why didn’t his advisors avoid the resulted outcome?  Bush’s power and control of the U.S. was strong, and his beliefs were even stronger. To be one of his advisors at the time, going against him could have been career suicide.  By following the President’s lead, despite any personal beliefs, a decision was quicker to pass, and internal conflict was avoided within the group.  After all, it is easier to swim with the current than against it.

As hard as it may be to stand by your own ethical beliefs in a group situation, to find the best outcome in a crisis situation, or any situation for that matter, it is important to have your voice heard.  Public relations professionals act as the voice of the masses, and a thorough evaluation of the situation at hand is necessary in order to come to the best solution.  If you are in jeopardy of sacrificing your beliefs in order to meet the approval or decisions of the rest of the group, perhaps it is best to find a way to remove yourself from the group all together.

— Eli Duern

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Why So Ethical?

The influence of a public relations professional extends beyond the public. The often-overlooked side is internal communications.  That is only half their job; the public relations professional should be the most ethical person in the office.  Having the task of bridging the gap between the public, the corporate heads and the employees there must convey a certain level of transparency in the position.

Being ethical in this position is a must. You have to answer to three entities for your actions.  Often perceived as a spin-doctor, the public relations professional is often placed in a situation where they have to make tough decisions.

These kinds of decisions have ramifications that can affect people on all sides.  It’s a decision that cannot be made on a whim.  They are often antagonized, scrutinized, and analyzed from every possible angle.  Each decision a public relations professional makes is a meticulous move intended to better relationships.

When delivering bad or unpopular news, it is the job of a public relations professional to spice it up and make the impact easier to handle.  Gone are the days when things would be swept under the rug. Integrity is a professional’s most valuable asset. It is increasingly important to remain on the positive side of ethics.

— Troy Baker

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Edward Bernays’ Torches of Freedom Campaign

During the twenties, it was illegal for women to smoke outside. They had the desire to smoke, but were forced to do so in their own homes. Meanwhile, Lucky Strike cigarettes wanted to expand their customer base, especially among women. They hired the help of Edward Bernays, who wondered what drew women to smoking in the first place.

Bernays discovered that the best way to draw more women in would be to associate smoking with empowerment. During a time where women faced discrimination, cigarettes could become a “form of liberation” for them, according to Bernays. This led him to create the Torches of Freedom campaign.

The campaign has become a landmark in public relations, albeit with concerning ethical aspects. Bernays hired women to smoke cigarettes during the 1929 Easter parade in New York City. The women acted as though they had planned it themselves, when they were in fact paid to do so.

It was a marketing and public relations strategy disguised as a protest for cigarettes and women. Bernays anonymously informed the media, and within no time, numerous news stories and photos of the women were published. Cigarette sales tripled that year.

With today’s knowledge about the health risks linked to tobacco, the ethical problems with Bernays’ campaign are clear. Although he did what the tobacco company asked of him, he was unaware of the health risks involved. However, he attached a new meaning to cigarettes by making it appear attractive, through the hiring of young, beautiful women to come together and make a statement.

For these reasons, Bernays’ campaign can be seen as propaganda. Bernays tapped in to the emotions and environments of women during that time. With this “fake” protest, Bernays created a false reality that manipulated women into buying cigarettes, making the campaign unethical.

— Samantha Liacos

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Athletes and Codes of Conduct

The Ultimate Fighting Championship made headlines this week when they announced that they suspended Matt Mitrione’s contract, following the heavyweight fighter’s remarks toward Fallon Fox.

No stranger to controversy herself, Fox was the target of a verbal tirade from Mitrione during a recent interview, in which he called the transgendered fighter “a sick, sociopathic, disgusting freak.”

The UFC issued the following statement regarding Mitrione’s suspension:

“The UFC was appalled by the transphobic comments made by heavyweight Matt Mitrione today in an interview on “the MMA Hour”…  The UFC is a friend and ally of the LGBT community, and expects and requires all 450 of its athletes to treat others with dignity and respect.”

It goes without saying that athletes are heavily scrutinized. It is imperative that they choose their words carefully, in order to uphold the positive public image that is expected of them.

In Mitrione’s case, his lack of discretion cost him tens of thousands of dollars in potential fight purses and sponsorship. But for higher profile athletes competing in more lucrative organizations, personal misconduct can cost them even more.

The National Football League, the most profitable sports league in the world, introduced in 2007 a conduct policy to help control off-field behaviour by its players and preserve the league’s public image.

Following the one-year suspension of Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones, and the eight-game ban for Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry, two players notorious for their off-field issues, the message from commissioner Roger Goodell was clear: players are to hold themselves to higher standards and are expected to conduct themselves in a way that is responsible, promotes the values upon which the league is based, and is lawful.

For Jones and Henry, their failures in adhering to the policy resulted in the loss of millions of dollars in salary, while also severely tarnishing their public image, and, what was probably most important to them, the inability to play the game they love.

Jones was never able to shake his public perception as a promising talent who was always on the wrong side of the law. For Henry, the consequences were even graver. In late 2009, he and his fiancée were engaged in a domestic dispute when he fell out of her moving vehicle, tragically succumbing to injuries from blunt force trauma to the head.

For both aforementioned cases, the outcomes were different, but the message was the same. Mitrione was subjected to the UFC’s continuous desire to establish itself as a sport rather than a spectacle, choosing to make an example of one of their athletes who they felt did not embody their values. Jones and Henry were simply adjudged to be unfit to represent the most popular and prestigious sporting organization in the world.

Professional athletes practice their skills rigorously, but they are now responsible to practice much more than just the physical demands their respective sport requires. With so much at stake, and so little privacy, they must always be fully aware and understanding of their public image.

— Etienne Dale

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Public Relations: The Bad Guy

Public relations is a multi-faceted career, and there are many avenues that a career can follow. So why does public relations have a bad reputation?

Well, the reality is that public relations practitioners are more often than not approached to exclusively handle a potentially devastating situation with both strategy and finesse. To onlookers this might look like they are inclined to put a positive “spin” on a negative situation, but why wouldn’t they? They are hired to stand behind the corporation, the small business, the senator, the charity, and they are just doing their job.

The bad reputation among public relations practitioners exists because they are seen, first and foremost, as spinning a blatant lie to make it seem like a gift, to make it seem like the wrongdoing their client took part in was not a wrongdoing after all, and that it was a lesson learned that somehow benefited the community.

Public relations practitioners know how to deal with bad situations quickly. They are trained in crisis response, and are taught that the communication relating to the issue must always be clear, concise, and complete, and that everything can be okay as long as you learn all there is to know about the affected audience.

However, crisis response is not their primary function, and that is usually what goes unnoticed. Why does the positive work get overlooked? Because people simply love scandals. Positivity just doesn’t capture the attention of the average person today.

Public relations’ negative reputation is unwarranted, because there are many individuals within the industry who go to work everyday to make a positive difference. They work hard and hold ethics in high regard. They are the true face of the industry.

— Natasha Jamieson

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