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.

PRSA Chapter Chat – Diversity & Inclusion

Be a part of the conversation! Join the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) on Thursday, August 24, at 2 p.m. CST, for their Chapters Chat on diversity & inclusion.

GFW PRSA Sept. Luncheon: PR ethics – More than 50 shades of grey

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Public Relations Ethics: More Than Fifty Shades of Grey

Your CEO is receiving an award from a non-profit organization. She gives you her “official” bio so you can write a story for the company newsletter. In the bio, your CEO notes that she is “the first woman to receive the award,” and includes her background. You check the background material and find some errors. You make a note of these items, including the source for your information. Now what do you do?

Your client is a local candy maker who claims that the chocolate the company uses is not harvested by children in the country of import. You check this claim and find that the country is notorious for using child labor to harvest the cocoa beans. Now what?

These are just a couple of the ethical dilemmas public relations professionals encounter daily. Join us for the September Fort Worth PRSA meeting, “Public Relations Ethics: More than 50 Shades of Grey.” You will have an opportunity to decide the best way to answer some sticky public relations issues. Dr. Douglas Ann Newsom, APR, Fellow PRSA, will host and facilitate the discussion, adding her own insights from her perspective as a nationally renowned educator and author.

Between now and September 10, be sure to download the Ethics app from PRSA to get a head start on the discussion. You might also want to take the ethics quiz now available at http://www.prsa.org.

Wednesday, September 10 • 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Colonial Country Club (3735 Country Club Circle, Fort Worth, TX 76109)

Complimentary valet parking provided!

Click here to register.

Cost:

  • GFW PRSA Members – $25
  • National PRSA Members – $30
  • Non-members – $35
  • Students – $20

Walk-ups: Add an additional $5 to the above prices

To account for additional costs associated with walk-ups and other meeting services, the Greater Fort Worth Chapter of PRSA uses the following reservation policy: Online reservations are due no later than 5 pm the Friday prior to the luncheon, and cancellations must be made by 5 p.m. the day before the luncheon. No-shows will be billed or a representative may attend in that person’s place at no additional charge. Walk-ups are accepted for an additional $5 if space is available.

About the Speaker:

Doug Newsom, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA
doug_newsomDoug Newsom, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, is the author of Bridging Gaps in Global Communication (2008), and the senior co-author of: This Is PR (with Judy VanSlyke Turk and Dean Kruckeberg) 11th ed. 2013 and Public Relations Writing: Form and Style (with the late Bob Carrell) and now Jim Haynes, 11h ed. in progress. She is co-editor of a book of women’s colloquium papers, Silent Voices (also with Bob Carrell). She was senior author of the first media writing textbook, Media Writing (with the late James Wollert). Dr. Newsom’s degrees from The University of Texas at Austin include: Bachelor of Journalism, cum laude, 1954; Bachelor of Fine Arts, summa cum laude (broadcasting), 1955; Masters of Journalism 1956 and Doctor of Philosophy, 1978. A Fulbright lecturer in India in 1988 and Singapore in 1998-9, she also has held public relations workshops in Singapore (1988), South Africa (1992), Bulgaria (1993), Hungary (1994 and 1995), Romania (1994), Poland (1995), Vanuatu (1997) and Latvia (1998). Dr. Newsom was named Professor Emerita on her retirement in May 2009, from Texas Christian University. Dr. Newsom’s retirement from TCU marked a 41-year career there. In 2010 she was inducted into the School’s Hall of Excellence. Dr. Newsom is a public relations practitioner and served for 24 years on the board of directors of a publicly held company, two of those as lead director.

GFW PRSA Luncheon: Impeccable Ethics Still Matter in our Social Media and Digital World

OfficeSmallGFW PRSA will be delving into the world of ethics and how to handle sensitive situations when and if your personal and business ethics are ever challenged. This luncheon is a special Ethics Awareness Month program, and DFW’s most respected PR professionals will discuss several recent high profile social media blunders in DFW and nationally. Learn what to do if you ever find yourself in this position. It is better to be overly prepared than have your mistakes known to the world as some in our community learned recently when a Dallas Morning News investigation made very public the real names of those behind a Facebook façade.

Featured Speakers:

Steve Jacob, MPH, MA, MSBA
Founding Editor, D Healthcare Daily
Adjunct Faculty, University of North Texas Health Science Center & Author

Jacqueline Lambiase, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Strategic Communication
TCU Schieffer School of Journalism

Rebecca Rodriquez
Communications Professional & Former Broadcast Journalist
Ciano Media

Gigi Westerman, APR, Fellow PRSA
President
Strategic IMAGE

Moderator:  Laura Van Hoosier, MS, APR,  PRSA Southwest District Chair-Elect and GFW PRSA Ethics Chair

Based on PRSA’s Code of Ethics, Ethics Awareness Month seeks to inform and educate the public relations profession about ongoing issues and concerns regarding PR ethics. Brush up on your ethics knowledge with PRSA’s ethics resources, and read commentary on ethical standards in PR by visiting http://www.prsa.org/aboutprsa/ethics/resources/ethicsmonth2012.

You can continue to focus on ethics awareness in public relations year-round by using the Twitter hashtag #PRethics.

Wednesday, September 11 • 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Colonial Country Club (3735 Country Club Circle, Fort Worth, TX 76109)

Complimentary valet parking provided!

Click here to register.

Cost:

  • GFW PRSA Members – $25
  • National PRSA Members – $30
  • Non-members – $35
  • Students – $20

Walk-ups: Add an additional $5 to the above prices

To account for additional costs associated with walk-ups and other meeting services, the Greater Fort Worth Chapter of PRSA uses the following reservation policy: Online reservations are due no later than 5 pm the Friday prior to the luncheon, and cancellations must be made by 5 p.m. the day before the luncheon. No-shows will be billed or a representative may attend in that person’s place at no additional charge. Walk-ups are accepted for an additional $5 if space is available.

Speaker Bios:

Steve Jacob, MPH, MA, MSBA
Steve-Jacob-sigSteve Jacob is founding editor of D Healthcare Daily, a D Magazine website that covers the business of health care in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. He is the author of the book Health Care in 2020: Where Uncertain Reform, Bad Habits, Too Few Doctors and Skyrocketing Costs Are Taking Us. The book is available on Amazon.com. He is the former suburban publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and spent nearly four decades in newspaper and magazine editorial and business management. Steve has written about health policy for Texas newspapers and magazines for several years. He is an adjunct faculty member at the School of Public Health at the University of North Texas, where he teaches health policy and health services management. He holds master’s degrees in journalism and business administration from Indiana University and a master’s degree in health policy and management from the University of North Texas. He has won awards from the Texas Public Health Association and Texas Medical Association for his commentary. He is a member of the National Speakers Association and speaks frequently about health reform and the future of health care.

Jacqueline Lambiase, Ph.D.
jacquelambiaseJacqueline Lambiase, Ph.D., is associate professor of strategic communication in the TCU Schieffer School of Journalism. She is co-director with Dr. Laura Bright of the Certified Public Communicator program at TCU, in partnership with the Texas Association of Municipal Information Officers. She teaches writing, research, ethics, case studies, and advocacy. For 10 years, she has consulted with or spoken to diverse groups about earning their share of discussion in social media and public relations opportunities, including TAMIO, 3CMA, the Texas Municipal League, the Texas City Management Association, the Dallas Regional Chamber, communicators with the City of Austin, managers for the cities of Abilene and San Angelo, Children’s Medical Center-Dallas, the American Heart Association, Texas Instruments, and UT-Southwestern Medical Center. She is co-founder of the DFW/TCU Nonprofit Communicators Conference, now in its sixth year. Her research focuses on public relations ethics, representations of gender and sexuality in media and marketing, as well as social media. She has co-authored and co-edited two scholarly collections, as well as published more than 30 book chapters and refereed journal articles. Before her life as an academic, she served as spokeswoman for an East Coast electric utility and worked as a wire editor, business reporter and news editor for daily newspapers in Texas.

Rebecca Rodriguez
RRodriguez8.13Rebecca Rodriguez is an expert in strategic communications and public relations with an extensive background in broadcast journalism. She worked as a freelance correspondent for CNN and Fox News Channel before becoming a news anchor and reporter in Dallas, where she worked for more than half her career. Prior to that Rebecca worked as an anchor and reporter in Seattle and Austin. Several years ago, Rebecca left WFAA-TV to launch her own communications company, Ciano Media, which specializes in bilingual public relations campaigns and video production. She’s also worked in public sector communications, as Marketing Communications Manager for the City of Arlington and most recently as Chief of Communications for Dallas ISD. Rebecca is also active in a number of professional and civic organizations and currently serves on the National Board of Directors for the Carole Kneeland Project for Responsible Journalism.

Gigi Westerman, APR, Fellow PRSA
Gigi-WestermanLRGigi Westerman, APR, Fellow PRSA, started her career in television newsrooms where she learned to think fast and work hard, delivering compelling and meaningful stories on national and local issues. Transitioning to public relations, she provided high-level communications solutions to leading healthcare and insurance companies for more than a decade. In 2001, Westerman founded Strategic Image, Inc., a communications consulting firm with a track record of success with business, government and nonprofit organizations. Serving local and national clients, Westerman offers high-value consulting services and business-focused communications aimed at bottom-line results. A trusted adviser and skilled communicator, Westerman has a reputation for solving problems and delivering award-winning results. She was named a finalist in this year’s PR News Nonprofit Awards, is a two-time Best of Show recipient at the annual Greater Fort Worth PRSA Worthy Awards and was recently awarded a 2013 Silver Anvil Award of Excellence.

 

Practicing Ethics in a Social World

Gigi-WestermanLRBy: Gigi Westerman, APR, Fellow PRSA
On Behalf of the Greater Fort Worth Chapter of PRSA

Recent news of a high profile, local individual allegedly creating fictitious social media personas to influence a contested community issue casts a dark shadow on the many respected and ethical public relations professionals in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It also stands in direct opposition to the code of ethics set forth by the two major professional public relations organizations.

On its website, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) affirms its commitment to ethical practices, stating that “the level of public trust PRSA members seek, as we serve the public good, means we have taken on a special obligation to operate ethically.” Members are called to “serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent” and “provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts, and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.”

Some might believe the rules of engagement have changed in today’s shifting social media culture, but the ethical values of advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence loyalty and fairness stand firm for professional communicators. In 2008, PRSA issued this advisory that directly addresses the question of deceptive online practices and the misrepresentation of organizations and individuals with the following statement:

The use of deceptive identities or misleading descriptions of goals, causes, tactics, sponsors or participants to further the objectives of any group constitutes improper conduct under the PRSA Member Code of Ethics and should be avoided. PRSA members should not engage in or encourage the practice of misrepresenting organizations and individuals through the use of blogs, viral marketing, social media and/or anonymous Internet postings.

The individual involved in recent local news reports is not a member of PRSA national or the local chapters, and our intention is not to comment about the facts of this case. Rather, we take this opportunity to educate the public about the role of public relations and the ethical standards expected of those within our profession.

As members of PRSA, we are obligated to serve the public and operate in a manner that sets a standard of performance, professionalism, and ethical conduct. These are more than guidelines. These values are the fundamental beliefs that guide our behaviors and decision-making processes. They are vital to the integrity of our profession and in the best interest of the public that we serve.

Tweet Gigi Westerman, APR, Fellow PRSA, @StrategicImage