Monday, April 14, 2008

In the news: Harry Potter goes to court

The issue of social responsibility applies not only to corporations but to individuals as well. As consumers, we have the obligation to not only respect the environment and do our part for the greater good but to also respect the hard work of professionals. Copyright infringement usually gets media attention these days due to digital piracy, or illegally downloading music or movies from unauthorized internet sites (remember when burning a CD was such a big deal?).

The most recent newsmaker regarding this issue is not a music mogul or a television writer, but a book author, J.K. Rowling. Quite possibly one of the most successful authors today, Rowling is wrapped up in a lawsuit regarding Michigan-based publisher RDR Books and an avid fan with big ideas, Steven Vander Ark. Vander Ark did what most other people do these days with something they’re passionate about: he started a website, which at first received praises from Rowling herself. She changed her tune, however, when he decided to turn his Harry Potter lexicon website into book form, charge $24.95 each and began warning others not to copy portions of his website.

"I think it's atrocious. I think it's sloppy. I think there's very little research," the author testified Monday. "This book constitutes wholesale theft of 17 years of my hard work."

There’s no doubt that J.K. Rowling’s empire is successful. Her books have been translated into 64 languages, sold more than 400 million copies while the film franchise has made $4.5 billion worldwide at the box office. This shows that the communications industry is more than just corporate ethics and ever-increasing internet technology; the book industry still remains a viable outlet for words and messages. Those messages should be protected. Even multi-billionaires deserve to get what’s rightfully their own, bringing social responsibility and ethical issues of communication back to their roots: books.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

CSR Apathy

CSR has come to the forefront in establishing values and ethical principles among companies, especially within the last two decades. According to BNet Today, “corporate social responsibility (CSR) refers to business decision-making based on ethical values, compliance with legal standards, and respect for communities, their citizens and environment.” But this isn’t a post about terminology; rather, I’m bringing up the issue of apathy among consumers and stakeholders in the Unites States regarding this issue.

A company must appease key stakeholder groups in order to stay afloat, including consumers, investors, community members, and potential employees. Social performance is important, and just like any communication professional, a company must know their audience.

As consumers, you and I are not only the most visible group but also the most influential. Meaning, that if we don’t like something, we can complain, and it makes news. With this kind of power, what exactly are we doing with it? Do American consumers care about CSR, or better yet, could they even define it?

I bring up United States consumers specifically because there is indeed a discrepancy among their opinions and those of consumers in other parts of the world regarding CSR. For example, a CSR Europe study in 2000 found that in 12 countries, 70 percent of the consumers surveyed said that a company’s commitment to social responsibility is “important to them” when making a decision about buying a product or service. One fifth of those would be willing to pay more for a product they believe is socially and environmentally responsible and two-thirds of respondents believe that the responsibility of addressing pressing social issues lies increasingly with large companies. All in all, the study shows that the demonstration of greater corporate citizenship is important to European consumers.

In another 2000 study conducted in France, Germany and the United States, willingness to support responsible businesses was far greater among the French and the German consumers. However, American consumers were found to value corporate economic responsibilities…but not so much legal and ethical issues, which concerned their European counterparts.

So what does this mean? For one, it shows that CSR really hasn’t hit home in the United States like it has in Europe, therefore consumers don’t really see it as a priority. Economic issues (money is always the bottom line) plagues Americans much more than environmental, social and legal responsibility. But whose fault is this? European consumers care about CSR because European corporations and governments make it a priority; they hold themselves accountable for their customers, therefore, it’s part of the dialogue. Until Starbucks came around, I had never even considered a company to have social responsibilities beyond selling a quality product at a competitive price.

The trend is definitely catching on in the United States. And since companies like Starbucks and General Electric are doing their part in practicing sustainability and other ethical standards, shouldn’t there be a cry of outrage against pharmaceutical companies that continually fall short in practicing ethical standards? American consumers need to look to Europe’s example and abandon this problem with apathy. Figure out what’s important to you and your family and refuse to settle for anything less.

Monday, March 31, 2008

WTF?!? Don't touch my text!

In the previous post the focus was primarily on the issue of censorship, the Internet and what’s exactly at stake for communicators. Here, the focus is not on Internet communications, but on the telecommunications system that has just as much of an impact on daily life.

Decision 2008 will most likely be remembered by the rampant use of alternative communications methods to reach younger generations, namely Facebook and text messaging. Putting Facebook aside for once, text messaging is an increasingly popular tool in American politics and abroad. Campaigns now use texts to reach supporters anywhere, with the cooperation of all leading mobile carriers.

Politicians are not the only ones utilizing this tool; issue oriented programs, namely Naral Pro-Choice America, also uses text messaging for the purpose of communicating with their supporters. However, back in September 2007, Verizon, one of the two largest carriers, played big brother.

A New York Times article outlines how Verizon rejected a request from the abortion rights group for a five-digit “short code,” a code that allows interested recipients to sign up to receive text messages from businesses, politicians and advocacy groups. Basically, Naral would have sent messages only to people who asked to receive them.

After a significant show of outrage among Verizon users, the carrier reversed itself on their policy, stating that “the decision to not allow text messaging on an important, though sensitive, public policy issue was incorrect,” and was an “isolated incident,” according to Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson.

So, what does this mean for communications? For one, it goes back to the issue of censorship but in a very different dimension. Since when are our personal cell phones subject to sensor? It would be one thing if advocacy groups began bombarding anyone and everyone asking for monetary support, but users choose to receive the messages.

Verizon customer Wyn Hoag makes an interesting point: “I’m a supporter of abortion rights, but I could be a Christian right person and still be in favor of free speech,” an unalienable right that apparently Americans once enjoyed and took for granted. Especially since Verizon "did not retreat from its position that it is entitled to decide what messages to transmit."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Fight for Net Neutrality

According to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights :

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Censorship is pretty much a universal problem these days, obviously more prevalent in certain countries versus those in the more forward-thinking, modern and free western world...right? The U.S. media is sure to report instances of censorship and the infringement of human rights, free speech, etc. in countries such as communist Cuba, China, and various countries in the Middle East. The response generated is usually a few minutes of airtime and maybe an expose buried in the International section of the New York Times (see my post below regarding online dissident’s arrests in China).

Americans view these stories with a certain calm, generated by the comforting assumption that issues of censorship simply don’t apply to them; we have an outsider’s perspective of this problem. In reality, we’re fooling ourselves if we go to sleep at night thinking that we’ve had completely free access to all information throughout the day. Censorship is present in the United States just as it is in Cuba or China; we’re simply ignorant of the fact. We don’t have a military police or a dictator in power. Think about it. How would we know what’s being censored?

Censorship is an extremely broad topic, so in order to narrow the focus a bit, the concept up for discussion is “net neutrality,” specifically what it is, who it affects, and why it’s such an issue in the Western world.

According to, net neutrality is “the principle that protects our ability to go where we want and do what we chose online.” If one compares this definition to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the two statements are indeed complimentary. Until recently, I assumed (like most Americans) that the Internet was free domain and provided full access to any information I needed. However, the Internet is now being regarded as a commodity, up for grabs to the highest bidder. Comcast, AOL Time Warner, Verizon and AT&T have already been busy for years playing gatekeepers in order to discriminate against sites and sources they don’t like.

These communications giants want to tax content providers to “guarantee speedy delivery of their data while slowing and/or blocking their competitors,” according to So what does this mean for unknowing Internet users?

The major implications affect small businesses, bloggers, grassroots organizations and non-profits who will now be stifled by this new “tiered Internet” with faster service for the select few (i.e. corporate giants) willing to pay. Costs will also skyrocket to post and share video and audio clips, putting a muzzle on “citizen journalists” and every-day Internet users like you and me.

This is corporate control of the web. And it’s already becoming a problem. For instance, back in 2006, AOL Time Warner blocked all e-mails that mentioned, an advocacy campaign opposing their pay-to-send e-mail scheme.

In August 2007, AT&T censored a live Pearl Jam concert because the lead singer criticized President Bush.

And perhaps the most eyebrow-raising, in September 2007, Verizon screened and censored text messages sent by NARAL Pro-Choice America to its own members. Of course, the phone company later reversed its policy and cried “glitch” after The New York Times published an expose in response to the incident.

So what’s being done? The Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008 is currently on the table in Congress, but the above-mentioned companies are viciously lobbying Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to “gut” net neutrality and overturn the bill.

Do we really want the Internet to turn into Cable television, screened and monopolized in access and content by corporate America? In this sense we are not like China and Cuba, in that we have the freedom to protest these practices. Speak your mind. We have the right; don’t take it for granted.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama vs. Clinton: When words speak louder than actions

That’s right; it’s finally time for a political post.

I’m not focusing on any specific platform or endorsing a particular candidate. I am, however, noticing major differences in communication strategies among the two remaining democratic candidates, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Regardless of what one thinks of either of these individuals, there’s no denying that both are skilled orators. Clinton was on the debate team at Wellesley while Obama is an exceptional rhetorician and best-selling author. Both know how to speak, sway and communicate effectively. However, they’re delivery techniques are drastically different. While critics of Senator Clinton claim she comes off as harsh and abrasive, Obama’s critics are turned off by his repetitive and idealistic messages of ‘hope,’ ‘unity’ and change.’ They claim they need a lot more than an enthusiastic ‘yes we can,’ to win their vote.

The media had a field day with the recent claims of Obama’s friend and pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, most notably that the United States caused 9/11, created the AIDS virus and distributes illegal drugs. Obviously, Obama’s PR team had some major damage control on their hands.

In a speech said to be one of the most pivotal of his campaign, Obama managed to deliver a winner. He might not have gained any votes, but he didn’t lose any either. Carefully and eloquently constructed, it began with personal background in regards to racial issues in America, followed by the condemnation of his pastor’s comments and the interweaving of his usual messages of hope, unity and equality with new statements defending his heritage and race. While the speech was obviously written with the purpose to clean up Wright’s mess, he wasn’t the main focus.

The underlying message was the damaging effects of the racial divide still present in this country. And while he somewhat ‘pulled a Hillary’ by incorporating the personal story of a supporter named Ashley; Obama managed to sound incredibly genuine. He didn’t look at his notes; he spoke about her as if he actually knew her personally and focused on only her story, not three or four blurbs about struggling blue-collar workers and single moms who can’t afford health care. It’s a perfect example of a debate tactic that Obama mastered, but unfortunately generates eye-rolls for Hillary.

Watch the speech and let me know what you think...

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Airing Out Coke’s Dirty Laundry

Everyone loves controversy. It’s true. We especially love when a big powerhouse gets caught with their pants down (Enron, anyone?). Investigative journalism is usually at the heart of all revelations, and then it’s only a matter of time before the media runs with it. These days, when most of the media is online, news spreads like wildfire. Blogs are a major tool in fanning the flame.

Exhibit A: Coca Cola’s fake “Zero Movement” blog, a sorry attempt at underground marketing for their newest innovation, Coke Zero, is discovered to be one big Coca-Cola-owned advertisement. Perhaps if the execution had been better, they might have gotten away with it. But, tragically, as one blogger put it, “how does a fictional male blogger whining about chick flicks help sell a diet cola product?” Good question.
In response to this revelation, a slew of angry anti-Coca-Cola blogs added their name to the list already in existence. Most notably, “The Zero Movement Sucks” blog took quite a stab at the conglomerate, providing links to a number of blogs responding to Coke’s human rights scandals just a year earlier. In 2005, “egregious actions” by Coca-Cola were unearthed in both India and Columbia: high pesticide levels in soft drinks and poor labor practices (leading to dozens of innocent union deaths), respectively.
This is a perfect example of how the blogging community makes a huge impact on big business, or any business for that matter. Blogs facilitate dialogue and lots of it, good or bad. Simply by clicking on link after link, I was led to the “Killer Coke” site, outlining the gross human rights violations in Columbia, as well as “The India Resource Center,” a site centered on the malpractice of Coca-Cola companies in India. Extremely informative, the site led me to press releases from the University of Michigan regarding its temporary probation and the subsequent full-blown suspension of business dealings with the Coca-Cola Company. In addition to the loss of business partnerships, blogs like “The Zero Movement Sucks” and “The India Resource Center” sparked major advocacy campaigns, protests and rallies in India.

If all publicity is good publicity, then why was there such a poor response to the Coke Zero campaign? Could it still be the aftermath of those abominable episodes in Colombia and India? After all, blogs created in response to the Coke Zero debacle made sure to mention Coke’s previous violations abroad. Someone simply Googling Coca-Cola would most likely find at least one of these less-than-glowing reviews of the company.
I guess some free publicity really is bad for business.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Return to the roots

An “Avatar” is a term commonly used today, especially in the blogging world but unfortunately, rarely understood. These visual representations of internet gamers, bloggers, and IM screen names have a history deep-rooted in ancient religion and highly significant to the spirituality of many. Surprised? So was I, and I doubt most bloggers and internet users with their own avatar know the significance of the concept behind those cute little cartoon characters.

Ask an avid blogger what an avatar is and he might describe a three-dimensional cartoon character he thinks represents himself, or a simple, two-dimensional picture that he see’s as an embodiment of his character. What he most likely will NOT say is that an Avatar, according to the Hindu faith and the Sanskrit terminology, means “the decent of God” or “incarnation.” Indian’s ancient Vedas, the oldest spiritual text known to man, describes an Avatar as an

“Incarnation of Godhead [that] descends from the kingdom of God for [creating and maintaining] the material manifestation…when they descend to the material creation, they assume the name Avatara.”
– Chaitanya-caritamrita 2.20.263-264

A personal form of God descending to Earth from the spiritual realm, an incarnation, this is the actual religious meaning of an Avatara. It is also said, according to The Avatar Site (, that although Avatars may appear in different forms at different circumstances, they have one supreme purpose, “to reveal the Absolute Truth in this world and arouse a love of God everywhere.”

This is a perfect example of how today’s communication, particularly in the blogosphere, have taken a culturally significant element to a select group of people and appropriated it to the masses. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but what does it mean to those of the Hindu faith, to have millions of people using avatars according to their own 21st century understanding? A cartoon character that can wink and wave is a far cry from a personal form of God descending to Earth to reveal “the Absolute Truth.” Given this information, it’s important to remember that everything has an origin; everything started somewhere; and sometimes, things have layers of meaning. If we pay attention to these deeper meanings behind the most seemingly frivolous of things, we can foster a deeper understanding of those around us, even if we’re separated by a few thousand miles and a computer screen.