PRSA COVID-19 Updates

Due to the latest COVID-19 developments, the following changes have been made to the chapter’s upcoming events:

• March 19: GFW PRSA Health Care Special Interest Group meeting – postponed

• March 26: PR After Dark Happy Hour – postponed

• April 1: PRSA April luncheon – will be turned into a virtual event. Watch for details.

• May 6: PRSA May Luncheon – will be turned into a virtual event. Watch for details.

We are thinking of you & your teams and feel that keeping this group of PR professionals in contact will be beneficial as we all navigate this unprecedented time.

Publishing Rights – March PR History

How the women of Newsweek became the news – and made history

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

On March 16, 1970, Newsweek magazine ran a cover story titled “Women in Revolt.” It was a dramatic story about women’s struggle for gender equality, with an equally dramatic illustration: A posterized photo of woman, her fist raised and appearing to break through the female gender symbol. Oh, and she was nude. 

That same day, 46 women from the Newsweek staff – fully clothed — held a press conference at the office of the American Civil Liberties Union to announce that they were suing the magazine for sex discrimination.

It’s not that there were no women working at the magazine; in fact, there were a lot. The problem was, they all had jobs like secretary, mail girl, researcher, news clipper and, occasionally, coffee server. But none worked as a senior writer. As former employee Lynn Povich noted in her book, “The Good Girls Revolt” females were told, ”women don’t write at Newsweek.” To be fair, the cover story had been written by a female. But she was a freelancer, and the wife of a male Newsweek reporter. Now that’s diversity.

The Newsweek women were the first in the media to bring a sex discrimination suit. And their press conference was successful in generating media coverage – just not necessarily the type they may have wanted. The New York Times reporter (a male) noted that the women were cheered on by a “minskirted” female reporter, adding, “By contrast, some 30 young women of the Newsweek staff who were present at the news conference were neatly and almost conservatively dressed.”

But the Times’ coverage was lame compared to that of their crosstown rival, the forward-thinking New York Daily News. Their gem of a headline was, “Newshens Sue Newsweek for Equal Rights.” Not to be outdone, the reporter wrote, “46 women, most of them young and most of them pretty, announced they were filing sex discrimination charges today against Newsweek.” In an act of shocking negligence, the journalist failed to report how many of the women present were not young and not pretty.

In response to the lawsuit, Newsweek’s editor in chief issued a statement denying there was any discrimination at the magazine, which was a big relief to everyone. But he added that the idea of giving women greater responsibility was “under active consideration.” You know how men are always changing their minds.

And they did change  their minds. Management signed an agreement with the women on Aug. 26, 1970, 50 years to the day that women had won the right to vote.

Similar female activism would follow at Time, Inc., Reader’s Digest and at Ladies’ Home Journal, where the male leadership apparently had overlooked the magazine’s slogan, “Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman.” Especially one on deadline. More recently, the suit inspired an Amazon television series.

In the bigger picture, the lawsuit was another major milestone in what has been called “The longest revolution.” And clearly, women have made great progress in their fight for gender equality. But anyone who thinks women have achieved full parity had better think twice before opening his mouth and showing everyone what a fool he is. Just like my wife told me.

Getting the Third Degree – February PR History

Written by: Jeff Rodriguez, Historian

On February 27, 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee on herself while sitting in a car. Normally, that would not be worthy of mention, except for what happened in the months to come: Liebeck was severely burned by the hot liquid, she was awarded a tidy $2.9 million – and she was vilified as the greedy woman who cashed in on her stupidity.

Most PR pros are at least vaguely aware of this story. But few people are aware of the background. For example, Liebeck suffered second- and even third-degree burns as a result of the spill; she was hospitalized for eight days and underwent a skin graft; and she was left her partially disabled for two years.

Also noteworthy: before seeking a lawyer, Liebeck had written a letter to McDonald’s, asking for $20,000; they offered $800. And in the 10 years prior, McDonald’s had received some 700 reports of burned customers and paid more than $500,000 to settle claims.

Still, the accident was Liebeck’s own fault, and the $2.9 million she was awarded in 1994 seemed a pretty sweet payout – and the media let everyone know it. “Java jury burns McD’s for $2.9m,” said one headline; another paper called the case a “Hot McVerdict.” International media also covered the story; one German paper announced, “Millions for coffee.”

Some media didn’t report the full story, others just plain got it wrong. For example, at the time if the spill, Liebeck was sitting in the passenger’s seat of her grandson’s car, which was parked and did not have cup holders. But both NBC News and George Will stated that Liebeck had been holding the cup between her legs while driving.

From there, it only got worse. Liebeck was mocked in political cartoons and by late-night comics; the spill was parodied in an episode of Seinfeld, and a citizen created The Stella Awards, presented annually to “any wild, outrageous, or ridiculous lawsuits.” ABC News called the case, “the poster child of excessive lawsuits” – prompting the Republican party to cite the case as a prime reason to introduce the Common Sense Legal Reform Act. This, class, is what a public relations crisis looks like.

But Liebeck did not have a PR team working to get out her side of the story. As one analyst later observed, “Once everybody decides what is true about something … how do you deal with the fact that they might be wrong?” So when a trial judge later reduced the payout to $640,000, it was widely perceived as a measure of justice for McDonald’s. (The parties later settled for a confidential amount.)

The epilogue: Liebeck died in 2004, age 91. In the years following the suit, several media outlets produced quality pieces, trying to fill in the narrative. But in 2009, Toby Keith released a song with the lyrics, “Spill a cup of coffee, make a million dollars.”

Was Liebeck’s big payout justified? Was any settlement appropriate? What could she have done in response? And what could McDonald’s PR team have done to manage the situation — or perhaps even prevent it?

These questions may be worth considering while you sip your morning coffee today. But carefully, please.