(CLICK HERE FOR AN UPDATE TO THIS STORY.)
Hunter College students in New York couldn't miss the poster plastered around the Upper East Side campus. Reading "MISSING -- $500 reward!!" it was accompanied by a photo of a young, blonde, Heidi Cee, pleading for the return of her lost Coach bag.
Tear-off tabs listed Cee's phone number, blog, MySpace page and Facebook profile. Visitors to the blog (encounterheidi.blogspot. com), which drew more than 15,000 hits after the posters went up, learned that the bag was a gift from an ex-boyfriend serving in Iraq.
One day, Cee blogged that another student had returned the bag. A day later, she wrote that on closer inspection, the bag was a fake and she had been scammed for the reward.
Outraged ("EFFING COUNTERFEIT!" she wrote), Cee blogged that she was researching the world of counterfeit goods. She discovered, she wrote, that they're linked to criminal activity, child labor and terrorism. She even posted a video to YouTube about counterfeiting, "Break the Chain," and organized an anti-counterfeiting event on campus that drew a crowd with free food and T-shirts.
But here's the thing about Cee: She's fake, too. A public relations class at Hunter invented her last spring. The course was funded by a $10,000 grant from Coach and was part of a college outreach campaign by the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition (IACC), a trade group that includes Coach and other brands like Apple, Levi Strauss & Co., Louis Vuitton and Rolex.
Now red flags are flying. Some of the most pointed criticism has come from PR professionals, who say the Hunter campaign runs afoul of basic PR tenets such as truthfulness and transparency. And as advertisers clamor for viral marketing approaches, the Hunter fracas serves as the latest illustration of how a buzz-seeking stunt may backfire.
More specifically, some faculty at Hunter, part of the City University of New York system, see the class as an example of corporate encroachment on campus and criticize the school's administration, which allegedly demanded that the Coach-sponsored program be offered as a class. Critics claim the motive was to butter up Coach's CEO, Lew Frankfort, a Hunter alumnus, who several months later donated $1 million to the school.
The Old College Try
The Coach incident traces back to 2005, when the IACC launched a campaign, "Get real," to dissuade consumers from buying knock-offs. Ongoing, it's run by Paul Werth Associates, a PR firm based in Columbus, Ohio.
One component is the College Outreach Program, which, according to a 34-page kit the trade group prepared for professors, aims to "change the hearts and minds of America's youth and build a long-term grassroots advocacy movement for the 'Get real' campaign." The kit explains that after one of the trade group's members donates a budget ($5,000 to $10,000), the class will play the role of an "agency" pitching an anticounterfeiting campaign to the "client" -- the sponsor or IACC itself. Campaigns will be developed, and executed, by each class.
Among the other schools that have participated -- with straightforward campaigns that didn't raise eyebrows -- are Ohio State University, the University of Miami and California State University in Sacramento.
At California State, Tim Howard, who worked in PR and now is an assistant professor at California State, says he contacted the anticounterfeit group himself, which lined up a $5,000 grant from the computer electronics firm Cisco Systems. The students came up with a campaign, "Fear the fraud," and its Web site, fearthefraud.com, launched last month.
Fearthefraud.com garnered more than 48,000 hits its first week and more than 700 visitors signed an online pledge to eschew counterfeit goods. Students hyped the campaign with T-shirts and wristbands they gave out at events, and testified about counterfeit goods before the Sacramento City Council.
"It's been a valuable learning experience," Howard says. "The students were able to take PR theories and put them into practice."
The way the sponsored course found its way to Hunter College differs starkly from Sacramento. According to Melina Metzger, the Paul Werth Associates account executive who oversees the College Outreach Program, she was originally contacted by Taina Borrero, who works in Hunter's office of external affairs (and who would end up joining Cee's friend network on Facebook). When first approached to teach the course last year by James Roman, chair of the film and media studies department, Tim Portlock, an assistant professor in the department, says Roman told him that Hunter president Jennifer Raab had requested the class.
"One thing that was expressed to me was that the class was very important to the president of the school," Portlock says.
(Borrero and Roman both referred questions to Hunter spokeswoman Meredith Halpern, who wrote to Adweek that it had been "well received at many other colleges around the country" and "was offered to Hunter as an experimental course.")
Portlock, who holds master's degrees in painting and electronic visualization, says he didn't want to teach the class. "Initially I thought this was a joke because I have absolutely no experience teaching PR," says Portlock. He says he told Roman he wasn't qualified "multiple times," but Roman insisted. Portlock, 39, will be eligible for tenure in 2009, which he says put him in a precarious position.
Portlock asked Benjamin J. Weisman, who has worked as an art director and Web director at advertising and PR agencies, to co-teach the course, which he did. (Weisman did not respond to phone and e-mail requests seeking comment).
In the course, offered last spring, the 15 or so students were divided into four teams and told to come up with a campaign to pitch to Coach representatives, who subsequently visited the class. Portlock says the Coach contingent chose a combination of two of the pitches: the fictional student and another pitch with the tagline, "Break the chain," about ending the cycle of counterfeiting -- a concept Cee professes to come up with on her blog.
In a written statement to Adweek, a Coach representative says the Coach employees "viewed the different campaign pitches from the students and gave their feedback" and that "students and professors then regrouped and decided which campaign to develop."
The class had been put on the schedule without the customary departmental review. But over champagne at a department meeting at the end of the term, Roman toasted Portlock for teaching it.
Post- toast, says Portlock, "I knew a lot of hell would break loose about the class. And it did."
Stuart Ewen, a former chairman of the Hunter film and media studies department and the author of PR! -- A Social History of Spin, wasn't at that meeting, but heard about it soon enough and started to investigate.
"It was a course sponsored by an outside corporation and basically course material had been provided to the instructor by an outside trade organization that the sponsor, Coach, was a member of," Ewen says. "The course was unequivocally designed to further the interests of the company and the organization."
Ewen says he recently filed a complaint with the college senate's academic freedom committee, which is investigating.
"This thing is a staggering event," Ewen says. "It may be unprecedented in the history of American universities that paid-for curricula is coerced on faculty members."
Ewen gave a presentation about the course at a conference in New York in February, "Where the Truth Lies: A Symposium on Propaganda Today," which created some interest from blogs and watchdogs.
Sheldon Rampton, research director at the Center for Media & Democracy, which publishes PRwatch.org, is struck by "the delicious irony of a campaign against counterfeiting creating a counterfeit student," he says.
Debbie Weil, a consultant and author of The Corporate Blogging Book, says she finds Cee "morally questionable" because "it falls in a troubling middle ground between hoax and clever campaign."
Weil helps companies such as GlaxoSmithKline start blogs and sign up for social networking Web sites so that they can connect with customers. She urges caution.
"We know how to use these tools, whether a Facebook campaign or a blog, but we have to be responsible how we use them," Weil says.
MySpace, where Cee's profile also remains posted (myspace.com/lookitsheidi), prohibits content that "constitutes or promotes information that you know is false or misleading." MySpace did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Bob LeDrew, who works in PR in Ottawa, Canada, has written about Cee on his blog, FlackLife. (His first post was entitled "Now we flacks get students to astroturf for us.") Among LeDrew's concerns are that the students were encouraged to run a campaign that he believes violates aspects of the Public Relations Society of America's ethics code, namely: "Be honest and accurate in all communications," "avoid deceptive practices" and "reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented."
"When the students said, 'Oh, we'd like to make up an identity for a person,' I don't think they would have had to bring out the yardsticks and smack them on the hands," LeDrew says. "But they could have had a discussion about the ethics of this."
Still, LeDrew sees where even seasoned PR pros can falter when it comes to the sniff test for online campaigns, since traditional advertising itself is largely a game of pretend.
"If I see an ad and there's a guy in a white coat telling me to use a toothpaste, I know that he's an actor and not a dentist," LeDrew says. "Advertising is based on a lot of a collective understanding that things aren't factually real." But when that toothpaste brand launches an Internet campaign and decides, "we'll invent a dentist called Dr. Bob and he can write a blog about dentistry, you're running into an entirely different set of ethical understandings," LeDrew says.
Among U.S. campaigns that crossed the line, LeDrew points to an ostensible fan blog about PlayStation Portable, in which a blogger, Charlie, rhapsodized about the game. After it was revealed that the site's URL was registered to Zipatoni, an agency working for the game maker, Sony apologized.
In 2006, a couple with a blog, Wal-Marting Across America, about traveling across the country in an RV and staying in Wal-Mart parking lots, failed to disclose that the venture had been funded by a Wal-Mart-sponsored group and organized by Edelman, Wal-Mart's PR firm. Richard Edelman, president of the firm, wiped the egg off his face on his own blog, writing, "I want to acknowledge our error in failing to be transparent about the identity of the two bloggers from the outset."
The cousin to fake blogs (or flogs), are sockpuppets, in which people assume an alias to defend or hype themselves online. Perhaps the most notorious example is that of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who was exposed for posting to the Yahoo message board under the name Rahodeb, and hyping his own company while assailing rival Wild Oats Markets.
Such revelations can cause more than embarrassment for CEOs in Europe, where a company caught "falsely representing" itself as a consumer on a blog or other site is subject to fines or prison time. Countries began adopting the rule earlier this year; it takes effect in the U.K. this month.
"You have to be authentic, who you say you are -- that's what corporate blogging is all about," Weil says. "Authenticity is the keystone of effective use of social media by companies."
Back at Hunter, when it comes to accountability, everyone seems to be reaching for a 10-foot pole.
Portlock says the PR team from Coach green-lighted the idea for Cee and raised no ethical concerns. A representative for Coach maintains that while the company "is pleased with the students' positive response to the course," it did not have the final say, but rather gave feedback on ideas.
And the IACC has grown more circumspect as the controversy has spiraled.
"The IACC did not propose nor would have endorsed the fictional 'Heidi Cee' character the Hunter students developed," the group wrote in a statement to Adweek.
Metzger, the publicist who works on the trade-group account, adds: "I agree that it violates the PRSA code of ethics." Metzger says a copy of that ethics code will now be included in the kit the group sends to professors who teach the sponsored course.
Metzger faults Hunter for assigning the course to a professor who protested that he was unqualified to teach it. "That's very disappointing that they chose someone to teach the class who didn't have the appropriate background or experience, and to find out one year after the campaign that was the case," Metzger says.
As for the timing of Frankfort's $1 million donation, Hunter's Halpern says the gift "was not contingent upon the inclusion of the IACC course in the curriculum."
One Student's Lesson
Sarah El-Edlibi, 21, a senior at Hunter, took the Coach-sponsored class as a junior. "I can honestly say this was one of the best classes I've taken at Hunter," says El-Edlibi, who earned an A. "Prior to that class, I had two PR internships and they were bullshit. You end up doing the grunt work and you learn the nature of the business, but no methodology."
El-Edlibi set up Cee's Facebook account using photos of a non-student who a classmate had enlisted to be the face of the campaign. She then posed as Cee to invite students to join her friends network
"People just want friends on Facebook -- that's why it worked," she says.
"Oh, please," she responds. "People do crazy shit on Facebook like every day."
El-Edlibi also does not believe the campaign was truly deceptive, because at the end of the semester the class issued a press release revealing Cee was fake, and linked to it on the social networking sites. On Cee's blog, the press release is the 32nd -- and final -- entry, and is preceded with, "Here is the catch -- I am totally not real!"
For PR Watch's Rampton, that disclosure is too little, too late. "They still used false pretenses to gain an audience and I think that disclosure after the fact doesn't make that acceptable," he says. "It doesn't make the deception OK that later on you tell them that you deceived them."
Still, if the campaign was less than forthright, El-Edlibi says she believes that's how things really work in the field. "Public relations people, in general, have very little morals when it comes to being completely honest with the consumer," El-Edlibi says.
She also disputes Coach's claim that it didn't give its imprimatur to Cee.
"I think the entire PR team from Coach was in the class, maybe six or seven women," El-Edlibi recalls. "We were supposed to be working for Coach, who was the client, and they really liked the idea of making someone fake. If they had some ethical issues with it, they should have said so. If there was anybody who could have stopped it, it would have been Coach."