No Good Deed: PR Takes On the Battle for Free Speech

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No Good Deed is a column devoted to the discussion of ethical challenges we may face in our profession. Each issue we’ll feature a member’s dilemma and ask three PR experts to comment on it.  We’d love to hear from you, too, so please weigh in on the various “what would you do if…” problems your colleagues are confronted with.

The Dilemma du Jour:

I am one of the founders of a well-regarded and long-established centrist-right think tank. We do not espouse racist, misogynist, homophobic or other negative views that denigrate any group or individuals, but we are decidedly conservative in most of our opinions.

In addition to hosting conferences and sponsoring research, we publish our work on our website and share it through our large, permission-based email database, but we also rely on social media to get our ideas and discussions into the greater public realm. Recently, we’ve been disturbed by what we see as biased censorship on a number of the digital platforms. Our posts are being removed without consultation or rationale and in some cases, labeled “content inappropriate”. We believe strongly in freedom of expression and want to foster dialogue across the broadest spectrum possible, with the aim of greater understanding and empathy for all.

How can we communicate with our stakeholders and hold meaningful dialogues when self-appointed Internet gatekeepers are blocking us?

Signed, A Crusader Against Censorship

Dear Crusader Against Censorship:

Wasn’t the online environment supposed to be the ultimate bastion for the democratization of information and free speech? The sad reality is that today any organization, large or small, can have their content unceremoniously restricted or online social media presence erased without notice.

Sometimes all it takes is a single person complaining about some seemingly questionable content to shut you off from online services. Other times, it may be because an ISP or end user’s own automated or human-based censors objected to some aspect of the content, which might have been present for years without any issues.

No matter what the reason, the prudent course of action is to prepare in advance for the worst-case scenario. Make sure the individuals responsible for your organization’s social media presence know each site’s terms of acceptable use and read every update. Also, ensure all content is backed up offline where it can be accessed and re-used if needed.

Since your content has been blocked, I would recommend you reach out to the service provider or end-user to determine why specific stories are being suppressed. This may be a fruitless exercise, because manycontent censors act as judge, jury and executioner without anyinclinationto explain or justify their action, but if your organization has crossed a line somehow, it’s good to know where that line is and hope there’s a reasonable appeal process available. If you exhaust all your appeal avenues to no positive result, here’s some steps to proactively protect and enhance your think tank’s reputation.

Maximize your owned media channels: Double down by seeding internal channels and available social media networks with fresh content.  

Become a net neutrality advocate: If your organization feels comfortable holding itself up as a victim of unfair discrimination, you could raise its profile and effectively advance its position by jumping into the fray as a vocal opponent of arbitrary digital censorship. 

Rally supporters: To counter the opposition you’ll likely get in today’s polarized political climate, consider rallying your own supporters, including respected, high-profile influencers, willing to support their position through various social media channels, challenge critics, and question the motives behind the seemingly arbitrary digital censorship.

Leverage traditional media: Making a public issue of digital censorship is good fodder for traditional media channels. Lively debates on radio talk shows, Op-Ed articles and TV appearances can all serve as opportunities for your organization to advance its message, expand its audience base and promote its brand and enhance its credibility.  

By the way: YouTube issues a transparency report (published by parent company Google) that discloses the number of government takedown requests, along with details and outcomes of individual requests. 

~ Martin Livingston is principal of Living Communications Inc. in Vancouver.

As communicators, our role is to facilitate communication between the organizations we serve and their publics. Two-way communication has long been the more challenging-to-achieve gold standard. With the advent of social media, it’s become the norm. That should be a good thing, and very often it is. For example, many of us have enjoyed the opportunity to tweet an organization and receive a thoughtful response almost instantly. We live in the age of dialogue, a communicator’s dream.

Online forums have also made it possible for the marginalized to find a voice, build support, advocate for and achieve change at a speed never seen before. An unfortunate byproduct of this positive is such platforms can become an incubator for outrage, with a vocal minority set on drowning out those whose views they oppose. This goes both ways on each issue but the trend is definitely in favour of those who appear to be fighting for the perceived underdog. Fearing reprisal from people who may label them some kind of “ist”, many with conservative views have either chosen to stay quiet or been pushed into it. Do not allow your organization to be silenced. Not only is that your job, it’s vital for ensuring thoughtful, balanced discussion of issues.

While issues management may well become a key component of your work going forward, continue to seek out opportunities to express your opinions. Carefully, avail yourself of the same tools used by those who seek to silence you to get your message out. File official inquiries into why posts are removed. Don’t forget to use traditional avenues too: write balanced op-eds and pursue segments on talk radio and TV. We know that it is much more likely people who hold strong views (positive or negative) will actually speak out and that more middle-of-the road folks won’t act. But they will listen. So keep speaking and work to be heard.

~ Karen McCluskey, APR, is the owner of KM Strategic Communications. 

You say 'censorship' and I say "if you can't say something nice then don't say it at all…” or was it my mother who said that? And that’s the problem.

Defining what's ‘nice’ (and who gets to make that decision) is the tough part. What my mom deems inappropriate may vary greatly from what my generation or my kids’ generation think. But there are some clear boundaries and protections on Internet content for good reason. Social media platforms are working through this challenge in an effort to provide an environment free of hate while allowing the freedom to share information and ideas. 

Facebook recently published their guidelines (known as Community Standards) for how it determines what is objectionable content, including information on how you can appeal. But the social media owners and gatekeepers may not always get it right when making that call, and the same applies to you. If your content has been pulled, it's worth taking another look just to make sure you haven't crossed a line.

Sounds like you have a plan in place for communicating with your key stakeholders, which is an excellent start. You've identified who they are, why they're important to your organization and how best to reach them. I'd put most of your focus on the direct channels you have established to reach those groups who are key to your success. In the long run, that's your best approach.  

~ Peggy John, APR, LM, is the Associate Director, Operations & Integration for Organ Donation and Transplant at Canadian Blood Services.

About the Author

Deborah Folka, APR, FCPRS, LM, is the editor of the ethics column, No Good Deed. She is also a senior accredited public relations professional with over 25 years of experience in strategic communications planning, issues management and crisis communications planning, prevention and management. In addition to working in-house for a variety of public, private and not-for-profit organizations, she has run one of the most successful independent pr consultancies in Western Canada for over 20 years.

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