Public Relations: Ethics and Crisis

Disclaimer to my regular blog readers – This is an assignment for school. You can skip it if you wish, however, I encourage you to read my thoughts on ethical public relations practices. You may disagree, agree, or completely not care about what I feel is ethical. Feel free to chime in if I’m way off base 🙂

At this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW – seriously, I need to get to this someday), BBH, a PR agency out of New York City had the idea that they would outfit 13 homeless people with shirts that say “Hi, I’m Melvin. I’m a 4G Hotspot.” The idea was make sure people attending SXSW had enough places where they could connect, and since the demand would be high for this connectivity, this idea was born. Each of these people, who happen to be homeless, were paid $20 an hour and were allowed to keep the suggested donation of  $2 for 15 minutes the agency said could be paid for via PayPal or cash. 


Arguments against this case say that the company exploited these people’s precarious situation when they don’t care about their condition outside of the context of this SXSW stunt. Arguments in favor say that they have brought the issue of homelessness to the attendees of SXSW who would talk with them while using the wireless hotspots. One of the 13 people, Melvin, said this, “That’s a good side of it, too — we get to talk to people. Maybe give them a different perception of what homeless is like.”

So I’m posed with this question:

  • Is it an ethical PR tactic in your opinion?
  • Respond to the general idea that “all press is good press.” Do you agree or disagree.

Here’s the deal, I don’t agree with what they did because I agree that they’ve gone ahead and exploited this situation. It makes them look as if they care, but beyond this one single instance, they clearly don’t. I would have agreed with this situation if, in fact, BBH devoted time or money into battling homelessness. I perused their website (though it is a very nice website, neither here nor there right now) and did a quick Google search to see if there had been any charitable efforts following SXSW and no go. Giving these people preference for this kind of job is nice and all… but it’s not helping to battle the root problem.

BBH could have easily gone to an Austin-based not-for-profit who works with people who need a home and have hired through that effort while simultaneously doing actual good. While the people who worked for BBH got a little reprieve, it’s unlikely that there were any long term benefit to. That’s a problem.

The long-term benefit here is in the hands of BBH because I’m talking about them. I’ve visited their site. BBH has been mentioned in more of the articles written about this situation than Melvin, the man wearing the Hot Spot tee.

So no, I do not think this was an ethical PR tactic. Exploitation is never ethical.

Next topic…

All press is good press.

All press is good press… if you know how to handle it when it’s actually negative press.

Crisis communication plans need to be solid, every member of the team needs to be well acquainted with protocol, and for the love of all that is good… please, please, please, never say “no comment.”

All press is good press in the sense that you have the opportunity to start a real conversation. You have an opportunity to right a wrong. Not dealing with the negative correctly is pretty detrimental…

For example? Last September, Paul Frank hosted… a Dream Catchin’ Pow Wow party. Native American cultural appropriation was en masse at this party and it didn’t particularly paint Native culture in a very good light. For instance, they had three signature cocktails that were labeled, “Rain Dance Refresher,” “Dream Catcher,” and “Neon Teepee.”

Credit: Native Appropriations Blog (Adrienne Keene)

Credit: Native Appropriations Blog (Adrienne Keene)

Here’s the rest of the shit storm that was this Pow Wow themed party:

  • Plastic tomahawks
  • Fake headdresses
  • Glow in the dark war (face) paint
  • Plastic bows and arrows
  • Antlers

What the actual fuck?



Indian Country was enraged. I was enraged. You are not honoring a group of people by deigning to emulate a fictitious caricature of a very real, and very still alive, group of people. Paul Frank was DEAD WRONG for doing this.

Thankfully, the writer of Native Appropriations and Harvard PhD candidate, Adrienne Keene (Cherokee), had the wherewithal to email Paul Frank’s PR company about this. And the backlash that Paul Frank got was enormous enough that the President of Paul Frank reached out to Adrienne in response. They immediately admitted to wrong-doing, scrapped the 1000+ photo album off their Facebook, and here’s the kicker, offered to allow real Native artists to come in and design outfits and accessories with the fashion company.

Here’s the letter from President Elie Dekel of Paul Frank Industries to Adrienne:

Dear Adrienne K, 

My name is Elie Dekel and I am President of Paul Frank Industries LLC. I am writing to see if you would be willing to speak with me regarding the recent Paul Frank event. While we have not yet received your letter [AK note: I only had emailed it to the PR company], we have seen the copy online and would like to address your concerns directly. This is something we take very seriously, and since the event, we have begun to take numerous steps to address this regrettable and unfortunate situation. I’d like to talk with you so I can update you on what we’re doing as well as hear more from you, so we learn from this mistake. If you would be interested in speaking with me, please let me know how best to reach you and when you might be available.


Elie Dekel


Keene and Paul Frank worked in conjunction with the Native boutique store, Beyond Buckskin, to create a line of clothing that was made by Native fashion designers and artists from around the United States and Canada.

I actually already bought a pair of Candace Halcro (Cree/Metis) sunglasses. Aren’t they just dazzling?!

glass2_case_RSWhat did Paul Frank do here that makes this good press?

  1. The addressed the problem head on.
  2. They took the photo album down from their Facebook.
  3. They requested to speak to learn from their mistake.
  4. They made it up by featuring authentic Native designs that aren’t superficially made.

It’s terrible it had to happen this way, but because Paul Frank did the right thing in response, I now own Paul Frank accessories. And I’d encourage you to get some of these sunglasses as well. Halcro/Paul Frank just came out with beaded rimless sunglasses like the one pictured above and I think I just have to have them.

Now if only Victoria’s Secret had done a little more like this… I’d probably set foot back in their stores.

Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2012. Granted, they didn't air this outfit when the show televised... but more could have been done.

Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show 2012. Granted, they didn’t air this outfit when the show televised… but more could have been done.

So yeah, sorry I couldn’t give a straightforward answer on the all press is good press debate. But it really does depend on how the press is handled. People will mess up, people will get mad… it’s a matter of dealing with the situation at hand.

Now comment below and tell my professor that I need an A 😉



One thought on “Public Relations: Ethics and Crisis

  1. I appreciate that you have no hesitation to take a strong position. Thanks for writing with passion, clarity and detail, Sam. I enjoyed the read.

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