Monday, April 27, 2015

Will The Real Edward Snowden Please Stand Up?

From the LA Times, AP photo by Aymann Ismail. Bust of Edward Snowden in a park in Brooklyn, New York.

We’re talking this week in my media class about law and ethics of mass media.

Which raises the interesting question of Edward Snowden, the man who in 2013 revealed how extensive online government monitoring of citizens had become.

We covered some basic ideas early in the week about the First Amendment, and how, even with its absolute-sounding language, that there are all kind of ethical and legal limits on communication.

Snowden revealed the “PRISM” program. The government, in Snowden’s words, “deputized” corporate America to provide internet data to the NSA.

Snowden, after revealing government secrets, fled to Russia and has become controversial.

Students, were is some background information for you:
  • Snowden is likely to be in the news as parts of the PATRIOT Act are up for renewal this year. Jon Oliver explains and does interview with Snowden.
  • One writer implies that Snowden is gaining influence due to your generation.
  • Snowden’s popularity varies worldwide.
  • A 2013 column that concerns mixed reaction to Snowden’s leaks.
  • Pultizer-prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts says Snowden should have faced courts.
Based on what you read here, where do you stand and why? What are the legal and ethical issues of media practice associated with this? Is it right or wrong, for example, for media to use leaked information under this circumstance?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

My Logo Ego Is Bruised, But I’m Fine

Mount Mercy University has started a new thing called, for lack of a sexier name, “The Fall Faculty Series.” We did it in fall 2014 on the 100th anniversary of World War I, and are again planning a series for 2015.

I suggested the original series, and am coordinating the second. It just seems like a good thing, to me, for a small university to foster a big conversation that crosses disciplines and brings people together to ruminate on a set of important ideas. One cool thing about our first series is that it brought lots of new community members to campus—I joked to other faculty last fall that it was the first time in my life I had groupies, but the only disadvantage was my WWI groupies were mostly male and mostly over retirement age.

Early indications are that our second series, which focuses on the legacy of Vietnam, may turn out to be an even more popular event. With the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Marines entering Vietnam in large numbers in 1965, and the 40th anniversary of the war’s end in 1975, this topic seems to resonate—since the faculty chose the topic, I’ve seen several media items about Vietnam. And, of course, there are lots of living vets and others who directly recall Vietnam.

And it’s a big idea with lots of possibilities. For example, the war came at a critical time for race relations in America, and it can prompt us to have an interesting discussion on that topic. The way in which the government informs or misleads people will be worth considering. And how we treated veterans is a big part of Vietnam. The war even came, not coincidently, at the time of an awakening environmental movement, and Agent Orange stands as an enduring symbol of how war can not only destroy lives, but our natural world, too.

Although I consider or first series to be a huge success, I also think some aspects could have worked out better. While we had decent attendance at the WWI events, I would like to see more students, staff and faculty at the series events. I really want this fall Vietnam series to be even more engaging for the people at MMU.

So, I have a personal marketing and PR project on my hands. I’ve been advertising planning meetings this spring—and to promote those meetings, I created a visual symbol for the series after the faculty picked its name: “Stories We Tell: Legacies of the Vietnam War.”

This is what I created:

It’s not the actual series logo. MMU has a PR office with a talented designer, and whatever else I am, I am not a graphic designer. That office will create the actual symbol for the series.

That I’m not a designer is a point that several people have made to me in recent days. Some of these logo critics aren’t experts, and I can shrug their comments off. But at least one is. The message from the expert? “That logo is ugly.”

Ouch. I can’t really argue the point. The expert has spoken.

Still, here is my lame logo defense. First of all, I did try to create it with a deliberately “retro” feel. I used Ariel, the most Helvetica-like font available on my PC, because Helvetica was a popular logo font in the 1960s and 1970s. The common diamond-shaped bullet, the ubiquitous Wingdings v, was another retro element.

Most of the art is copyright free work from Wikimedia Commons, and is referential of the era—the dove of peace, the peace symbol, an M-16 rifle and a map of Vietnam. The one image that isn’t from the wiki is a detail of a photograph by famous AP Vietnam photographer Horst Faas. I found the image on a Denver Post web page that has lots of Faas photos of the Vietnam War.

That gallery is worth a look. Faas was quite a photographer. And at right, again from the Denver Post, is the original Associated Press image of a nameless solider with the timeless message on his helmet.

Anyway, I hope that the image I created was useful for its purpose—drawing attention to the series. Getting students, faculty and staff aware of and excited about the series now is a big part of what I’m trying to do now.

And the person who called my logo ugly? All is forgiven. For several reasons.

It probably is ugly—it is a crude design by a non-designer. The critic’s verdict was delivered in a humorous, teasing manner. And most of all, and more important, the knowledgeable logo critic is enthused about the series and is coming up with all kinds of cool ideas that can help make it an even better event.

So, even if my logo ego was mildly bruised, I consider my amateur foray into logo design an overall win.

Well done, ugly logo, well done.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Strange Case of Vietnam PR

Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. I took this photo in March.
We’re close to naming a title for the 2015 Fall Faculty Series (unofficial name) at Mount Mercy University this year, but even if the name is up in the air, the topic is not.

The series will be on the War in Vietnam. It’s timely due to two anniversaries:

1) The first really big surge of troops came in 1965, 50 years ago. Advisors had been in Vietnam for years, but when the Marines went in big time in 1965, it meant thousands of American combat boots on the ground. A total of 3 million Americans would see service in Vietnam.

2) The war ended in 1975, 40 years ago. American combat troops left in 1973, and in 1975, the American Congress would not vote funding for more advisors and aid. When American support moved out of South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese Army moved in.

This week in my media class, we’re talking about public relations and advertising—in effect, the role of advocacy in PR.

I told the students that judging advocacy—to determine if you agree with it or think it’s positive or ethical, for instance—means basically looking at two sides: the message and the means used to deliver that message.

The War in Vietnam, whatever else it was—and it was a lot, hence the series—was a PR disaster. I think partly that came from the top. President Johnson ran a sometimes-delusional administration, and some of his advisors confidently predicted a quick end to the war if American boots hit the ground.

Well, the boots hit and then sank into a quagmire. The military was hampered by lots of things, among them the creativity of the NVA and the Viet Cong, who understood they were fighting a war of attrition and simply needed to outlast the Americans (this same crew had managed to outlast the French 10 years before). The war did not have clear aims or even a clear enemy; it was never fought “all out” as World War II, for example, was.

And it was a horrible war. There were napalm attacks on villages and “free fire zones” were anybody who wasn’t in an American uniform could end up dead. The policies the U.S. followed and the way they were implemented—defoliate jungle, bomb an agrarian county, prop up a corrupt regime in order to stave off the spread of Communism—added up to a long-term disaster.

It was a disaster partly built on deceit. Congress approved the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964 using hazy evidence of alleged attacks on the U.S. Navy that, it appears, never really happened. And both the Johnson and Nixon administrations did their best to “craft” their message to gain maximum support—which often left both lacking in the honesty department.

In some ways, I supposed, Vietnam was a dress rehearsal for some of the dreary mistakes we’ve made since 9/11.

The media are often, and correctly, criticized for not doing enough to inform Americans about reality behind facades. But, in defense of our dysfunctional news media, it’s also fair to ask how informed people want to be. If Americans cared about facts, there would be no Fox News.

Anyway, students, we talked about the “means” and the “message” to judge PR advocacy. The U.S. Government used dubious means to push an iffy message in the 1960s to promote the Vietnam War. What do you know about that failed PR effort? And what would you like to learn? What topics of conversation could engage you in our fall series?