Plagiarism explained by Common Craft

Common Craft created a neat public service video that explains plagiarism. The video is done in characteristic Common Craft style: easy to understand, light, funny, but very clear. Embedding is not available for people who don’t have a membership, but please click through and watch:

The Common Craft Plagiarism video

I would not hesitate to show this in undergraduate – but maybe even in graduate courses.

Please tell me this isn’t true

Please tell me this isn’t true…

Northwestern University (very, very good and well-respected university in the U.S.) teaches the first course on viral videos. OK, I get it. Viral videos are an important phenomenon in today’s media landscape & contemporary culture, and they should be studied. This is wonderful news.

Except that, according to a Northwestern press release, they teach astroturfing as a technique to help a video become viral.

Please tell me this isn’t true!


No, really, I can’t imagine ANY university teaching students to lie and use unethical tactics.

Please tell me they teach ABOUT astroturfing, but do not recommend it as a promotional tactic. Somebody, please, tell me this isn’t true…

The economy of attention

The phrase that keeps coming to mind as I make sense of the way U.S. society is going is the economy of attention.

These are times of information overload, cacophony of voices, pluralism, multitasking, fragmentation, community, and isolation -to name a few.

It has become an established fact in social psychology that people need attention. Children need attention to develop into healthy, balanced adults.

Everything and everybody is fighting for your attention: your children, your pets, your friends, your twitter friends, mass-media, individual-media, TV, employees.

People and pets will do strange things to get attention: Start a fight, act up.

I’ve been working long hours lately so my cat Pooky gets quite possessive when I come back home. I can’t have a phone conversation without him acting up – the other day, running across the dining table as I was eating and talking on the phone, just to make a point, I’m sure!

So, to quote an Indian English phrase, What to do?!

If you’re in an attention-giving role: Give it. Make smart decisions about who and what needs your attention most. In the long run, in the big picture, is it your Blackberry or your kid?

If you’re in an attention-needing role: Ask for it. It’s OK, you don’t need to fight, act up, attack people just so they will notice you. There are plenty of kind people out there who will sit down to have a loving, heart-to-heart conversation with you. You don’t even have to pay them. You just need to get over your ego and open your heart enough so you can find them.

If you’re in the communication professions (PR, marketing, advertising): Be responsible. Don’t do society a disservice by adding to the cacophony unnecessarily. That’s not going to get you attention. Be smart, be judicious, imagine you have a limited “communication & messaging” account and use it wisely to communicate important, valuable, useful information. Sometimes being quiet will get you attention.

As a college student in Romania, once a year, I’d attend the International Advertising Festival. I’d pay half my monthly income on a ticket to sit and watch back-to-back commercials all night long (9 pm – 5 am). I’ve done this 2-3 years in a row, and guess what commercial got my attention and stayed with me to this day, more than 10 years later? This one stood out among the cacophony of voices, among the visual and auditory assault on the senses:

  • Blank white screen.
  • Line-drawn piglet shuffles on screeen.
  • Stops in the center, stares at you, blinks.
  • Oinks.
  • Text bubble: Why are you staring at me? Go to a museum.

I believe it was an ad paid for by the Serbian Art Federation.

Ghost writing

Ghost writing is, unfortunately a common practice in PR. It goes against the ethos of social media, and I personally believe it to be unethical, but unfortunately, it still happens a lot. PR people write blog posts, news articles and who knows what else on behalf of clients. But research articles????!!! Published in medical journals???!!!

Check out this story on my husband’s blog.

What do you think about ghost writing? Is it ethical? Acceptable? It depends? On what? What should I teach my students about it?

The Golden Wall

I’m reading The Discovery of Heaven, a novel of ideas by Dutch author Harry Mulisch. One of the main characters, Onno, after a stint in politics, meditates on the nature of power.

He claims that power exists because of the Golden Wall that separates the masses (the public) from decision makers. Government, in his example, is a mystery hidden behind this Golden Wall, regarded by the masses (the subject of power) in awe.

Once the Golden Wall falls (or becomes transparent), people see that behind it lies the same mess as outside it. There are people in there, too. Messy people, engaged in messy, imperfect decision making processes. The awe disappears. With it, the power.

What happens actually, with the fall of the Golden Wall, is higher accountability and a more equitable distribution of power. Oh, and the risk of anarchy.

But the Golden Wall must fall.

In the communication professions, social media is tearing huge holes in the Golden Wall. Just like in 1989 Europe, some are celebrating, others are paralyzed with fear.

In education, the Golden Wall stands. Secret meetings behind closed-door decide the curriculum, the professors’ yearly evaluations, tenure, lives, my life.

I talk to my students about squabbles in faculty meetings that result in curriculum changes. I want them to see behind the Golden Wall. To understand how decisions about their education are made. That we’re human, imperfect, and hopefully, possibly, subject to change. I haven’t seen undergraduate students involved in changing the curriculum. Nobody asks them. They don’t push. At Purdue, the Graduate Student Association had a representative sit in on faculty meetings. We did impact the curriculum. We were in, behind the Golden Wall.

In U.S. government, C-SPAN gets us glimpses behind the Golden Wall. But we don’t watch. We’re too busy. It’s too boring. (OK, there are exceptions.)

Look around you. Do you see Golden Walls? Tear them down.

Then come back here and tell the story in the comments section.

Messing with their minds

This semester, I won the teaching evaluations lottery. It got me thinking about what makes a good teacher. It’s really an elusive concept. Some semesters I’m the best teacher ever, others I’m… not.

I always try to reach out and relate to students as people. I genuinely care about them and invest a lot, mentally and emotionally, in these people who, for one semester, are my responsibility. I approach teaching with awe and care, because ultimately, what I am doing, is messing with their minds. For one semester, they sit there and we talk, and I’m supposed to guide, direct, have the answers, be right. They open their minds to me and I get to mess with them. Scary.

Messing with their minds is what many of you in the strategic communication professions (PR, marketing, etc.) do. Granted, your audience is more skeptical than mine, but every time you communicate, whether it is to an audience of 10 or 10 million people, there is a chance you are messing with their minds.

You get to teach them new ideas & beliefs, influence attitudes and opinions, and change behavior. You can influence your publics on an individual level (yey! Mary bought my brand of… insert product here) and you can influence the overall culture (think about how the Mastercard priceless commercials have become part of everyday culture here in the U.S.). That’s what I call messing with their minds.

Communicating involves a huge responsibility, because when you communicate, you get to mess with people’s minds.

Are you aware of that responsibility? Do you reflect upon it?

The easy test I apply is: What if they believe me? What if, out of 10 (or 10 million) people, there are a few who 100% believe me? Who do as I say? If my communication is successful, and they believe me and do as I say, will their lives be any better? Will the world be any better? Am I, knowingly, causing any harm? What if my communication is really changing someone/something in the world? Am I comfortable with the direction of that change?

I don’t claim I’m always successful (at communicating, or at applying the above ethics test) and I can’t claim that all ethical responsibility is on one side. Yes, people should take care of themselves and protect their own minds against my messing with them. Yet I can’t help but reflect on my responsibility as a teacher and communicator.

Thank you for (not) allowing me to mess with your mind. What are your thoughts?

Triple astroturfing cheeseburger

So, what exactly is wrong with the anti-counterfeiting campaign run by Heidi Cee? Or was it run by Hunter College students? Or was it actually run by the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition (IACC)? Or was it actually run/paid for by the corporations behind the IACC?

That’s exactly the point. If figuring out who’s behind a public relations campaign feels like playing with Russian dolls, you’re most probably dealing with a case of astroturfing. Here, I see a triple case of astroturfing:

  1. IACC is a front group for corporations. Creating front groups or coalitions to campaign publicly and lobby for corporate interests is a textbook astroturfing tactic. See Beder, Sharon. “Public Relations’ Role in Manufacturing Arti?cial Grass Roots Coalitions.” Public Relations Quarterly, Summer 1998.
  2. The campaigns that students have run on many campuses, not only Hunter College, are in fact a public relations tactic for promoting IACC’s goal, are supported by IACC, and paid for by corporations. This relationship, even if it were fairly implemented and did not interfere with course content and academic freedom, is tainted by many shades of gray. To sort through them, let’s think of the publics on those campuses. Do they know that they’re targeted by an IACC campaign? Is it clear to them who exactly is behind the message? Are they fully informed and able to make a decision about the message’s credibility, which includes its source? Some campaign materials I’ve seen on IACC’s website do list IACC and a corporation (Coach, Perry Ellis, etc.) as a source of support. But is supported by a clear disclosure of interest and authorship? The shades of gray are getting darker…
  3. Finally, there’s the issue of a deceptive campaign that uses a fictional character (Heidi Cee) who engages social media. On her blog, “Heidi” writes that it’s her initiative to run this campaign and that she approached the IACC and raised funds from Coach for the campaign. It’s not until the very end of the campaign that a press release and a one-line blog post reveal that Heidi Cee doesn’t actually exist. Some people might find humor in this campaign, but the social media savvy will know that social media culture does not tolerate deception.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a similar case of astroturfing layered upon astroturfing (layered upon astroturfing). It’ll make a neat example in a public relations lesson, one that the poor Hunter College students are learning the hard way.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here are some links to help you catch up on what happened.

First, read this post that summarizes the story: A public relations campaigns class at Hunter College was closely directed by Coach (member IACC) to run an anti-counterfeiting campaign. The campaign used a fictional character. The major issues people point out about this case are academic freedom and the deceptive campaign strategy. More relevant posts on this case:

Update [Feb. 27 9:00 am]: I came across the class blog for this course. It was mainly a tool for students and professors to stay in touch. But I found a number of problematic posts showing that no one thought twice about using deception, such as these about deceiving friends on facebook or the media. And this one summarizes the origins of the campaign’s concept.