The True Story of a Bogus Blog

(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.”

Failing Grades

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.

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