Anti-SOPA Campaign: An Instant Case History In The New PR

The young pups of the internet have a few tricks to teach the old dogs of the Internet if this week’s grassroots campaign against the pending Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA in the House) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA in the Senate) are any indication of how to rapidly mobilize a movement against entrenched –- a.k.a., well-funded-– interests.

“The public relations profession, which is where I spent my entire career, is a miserable place -- a hangout for tense, frustrated, insecure people who always expect the worst,” writes Richard Truitt, the former head of Doremus & Co. and Carl Byoir & Associates in a recent Together article. “We’re pleased with whatever success we might enjoy because success comes so infrequently, and when it does materialize the client almost always gets the credit.”

Without fully endorsing that POV –- you secure, un-frustrated and always-availing PR professionals know who you are –- I think it’s fair to say that the “amateurs” who organized the anti-SOPA and PIPA protests this week are enjoying more than a little success.

The “collective flexing of Internet muscle” that led to Wikipedia going dark and Google blacking out its logo Wednesday went viral in e-mail chains and smaller social-networking sites such as Reddit and Tumblr, Jenna Wortham points out in the New York Times this morning.

Support is clearly eroding as more people become aware that the issue exists in the first place. (Who amongst us could tell what SOPA stood for two weeks ago?) Christopher Dodd, the ex-senator from Connecticut and current CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), aside, politicos are disavowing support for the bill, at least the way it’s written now.

“In the resulting groundswell,” Wortham writes, “lawmaker after lawmaker renounced support for the legislation.”

PBS NewsHour’s Ray Suarez moderated a debate between Cheezburger CEO Ben Huh and NBC Universal Executive Vice President and General Counsel Rick Cotton about the pending legislation earlier this week. Cotton clearly has the better tailor, but Huh’s populist argument -- “this is a very bad bill because it doesn't understand the way the Internet works” -- seemed to win the evening.

Cotton tried to use the common-man approach himself, suggesting that the jobs of “millions of Americans” are at stake because of foreign websites that are “overwhelmingly dedicated to nothing other than trafficking in stolen content and counterfeit physical goods.”

Huh maintains that the bills are so broadly constructed that they would impinge on the “fair use” doctrine and stifle millions of content creators (including, perhaps, aggregations such as this column).

“We need the transparent process to start over and include the community,” says Huh. “There's a fundamental difference between people who want to see the Internet, and say let's lobotomize and censor parts of it because we need to control it, and those like us who see the Internet as a method of growing the economy and innovating in front of the world.”

“January 18th was unreal,” according to the sopastrike.com website put together by an ad hoc organization called Fight for the Future (see below). “Tech companies and users teamed up. Geeks took to the streets. Tens of millions of people who make the internet what it is joined together to defend their freedoms. The network defended itself. Whatever you call it, we changed the politics of interfering with the internet forever--there's no going back.

The lower-casing of Internet [AP style] is itself a political statement, is it not?

The top of the Fight for the Future home page features a garish yellow box that simply states the organization’s intent -– it is “a non-profit helping to organize the historic strike against the web censorship bills SOPA and PIPA on our site sopastrike.com” –- and provides contact information for members of the media looking for quotes, information or “finding an expert for on-air interview.”

Further down the page, it even proffers a little understanding for a profession that is not only regarded as “immoral” and ”biased” by the public but also is literally battered and bruised nowadays: “Press,” it says, “we'd love to talk to you.” Journalists still may be the callous louts they’ve always been, but promising easy access to a source is whispering sweet nothings in the ears of a byte-stained wretch on deadline.

But the site goes far beyond the boundaries of the argument set out by Huh on the “NewsHour” segment -- that the bill is poorly written and will not just be used to shut down overseas sites that pirated big media content, as his adversary suggests. Fight for the Future asks more fundamental, OWS-like questions such as:

  • Why can't I give money directly to every musician I like, instead of paying Apple or Spotify and leaving virtually nothing in the pockets of the artists?
  • Why does the U.S. pay so much for cell phone service? And for slow internet?

I suspect that traditional PR professionals would suggest that anti-SOPA forces reign in their argument and focus on the task at hand: defeating the bill. Then again, it could be that the Internet really has changed everything about how business is –- and will be -- done. And in that case, they’d be wrong.

1 comment about "Anti-SOPA Campaign: An Instant Case History In The New PR".
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  1. Keith Trivitt from MediaWhiz, January 20, 2012 at 9:34 a.m.

    Thom – Your rightly note that the success of the anti-SOPA forces demonstrates a new front in the modern use of PR. At this point in time, it is clear that the tech industry has the momentum and the public on its side in this battle. Rather than focusing squarely on defeating the bill, tech entrepreneurs and their cohorts must further educate the public on why they believe it is important to keep a free and unrestricted Internet alive and well and why both SOPA and PIPA, in whatever format they arrive for a vote in, could hinder the development of an open Internet.

    That’s a tall order, and the tech industry’s track record of coalescing around a common cause (this week’s anti-SOPA protests excluded) isn’t very good. While all signs point to a new paradigm for PR, it’s going to require a continued concerted and amicable effort on the part of the tech industry to demonstrate that it can turn rhetoric and protests into actual policy changes.

    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director
    Public Relations Society of America
    http://www.prsa.org/

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