Social media dominates much of modern daily life, and provides a lot of our news. Sometimes news stories delivered that way can seem very credible, even though they turn out to be anything but that. Even news delivered via sources that are mainstream can be misleading and disingenuous. As a parent, it has become a part of my responsibilities to make sure my kids understand that what they see on any kind of media is not necessarily the truth.
There has been a deluge of stories recently about police brutality and racial injustice. Some of those stories are true, but some actually are not. Trying to explain to my college-aged daughter that she should question everything and understand where a story comes from, where a video was recorded, what the context of the report is … well, I am not exaggerating when I say that I became the subject of her ire because more than once she has accused me of defending the establishment.
She showed me a video clip of a paralyzed man being dragged from his vehicle by police during protests ignited by the killing of George Floyd. It is a horrific video. But it is not from 2020 – I remembered seeing it a couple of years ago. When I insisted on looking it up, it did turn out to be from 2018. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no less horrible because it’s a couple of years old. But it does show that you have to question everything. Somebody posted it as current to add fuel to the fire.
I recently shared a report I co-authored about electronic cigarettes. I don’t intend to make a habit of doing that, yet here I am sharing another report I wrote for a graduate school class at Georgetown in 2019. The subject of the report is an incident that occurred in Washington DC between an elderly Native American man and a white teenage boy. Despite knowing that we have to verify things we see on social media, I myself made the mistake of just believing a short video on face value. In doing so, I jumped to wrong conclusions.
The purpose of this presentation is to illustrate some of the dangers of social media, and to explain how and why public relations consultants are more important than ever in the media landscape.
Millions of people experienced outrage watching a viral video taken outside the Lincoln Memorial on January 18, 2019. A smugly smiling, white male teen in a “Make America Great Again” cap was blocking a Native American elder. Other boys from the same group cavorted as the older man chanted and drummed. The teens were on a school trip from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky. They were in Washington D. C. to attend an anti-abortion march.
The scene seemed crafted from a script of stereotype; belligerent racist supporters of the president, insensitive teens, maligned indigenous peoples, disrespected veteran, bystanders failing to act. It was all as expected. Except, in a longer video that later emerged, nearly everything changed. The teens were not blocking Nathan Phillips, the Native American man. Instead, Phillips approached the students, and deliberately stood in the young man’s face. The Black Israelites were also involved. A social media battle erupted over reactions to videos of the incident. There was the messy, ambiguous encounter, then frenzied rush to judgment. The story was everywhere on news and social media. Opinions and accusations abounded, name calling and threats. It was a microcosm of the downside of our national political process in recent years.
Nathan Phillips, the Native American elder, has a past laden with mischaracterization and lapses in judgment. He does not acknowledge that standing inches from a teenager’s face while beating a drum might seem confrontational, regardless of his intentions. Reporters discovered Phillips misrepresented his military service in the U.S. Marines, and outright lied about it.
“I’m a Vietnam vet, you know,” Phillips said. “I served in the Marine Corps from ’72 to ’76. I got discharged May 5, 1976. I got honorable discharge and one of the boxes in there shows if you were peacetime or… what my box says that I was in theater. I don’t talk much about my Vietnam times. I usually say ‘I don’t recollect. I don’t recall,’ you know, those years.” (Szoldra, 2019).
In fact, Phillips spent most of his time in the Marines as a refrigerator technician after initially being an anti-tank missileman for four months. Phillips, then named “Stanard,” was not deployed outside the U.S. and never saw combat, according to the Marine Corps. (Goodman, 2019). Military records obtained by former Navy SEAL Don Shipley, indicate Phillips served in the Marine Corps Reserve between 1972 to 1976 and held the rank of private, E-1, on April 18, 1975. Phillips was listed as Absent Without Leave (AWOL) three times. (Schilling, 2019).
The second primary individual in this unfortunate clash at the Lincoln Memorial was Nick Sandmann, a sixteen-year-old from Covington Catholic. When Phillips walked up to the students, he ended up directly in front of Sandmann, who stood there with a stiff smile that has been described as a smirk. A group of students jumped up and down and clapped to the beat of the drum while Sandmann seemingly sneered at the drummer. He and Phillips were nearly touching in the video. “Sandmann said he felt intimidated by Phillips.” (Greenberg, 2019).
Sandmann and his family issued a statement saying the teen was not trying to inflame tensions. “I believed that by remaining motionless and calm, I was helping to diffuse the situation. I realized everyone had cameras and that perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict. I said a silent prayer that the situation would not get out of hand,” Sandmann explained. “… I did smile at one point because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation.” (Sandmann, 2019).
Another group at the location of this incident somehow manage to escape much scrutiny, although they seem to have played a key role. Five African American protesters verbally harassing Covington students near the Lincoln Memorial have been identified as members of the Black Hebrew Israelites. (Curnutte, 2019). Black Hebrew Israelites are an offshoot of a broader religious movement scholars often call Black Israelism, which dates back at least to slavery and Reconstruction, possibly earlier. (Lockhart, 2019). According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a highly regarded nonprofit legal advocacy organization that specializes in civil rights and public interest, the Black Israelites are unquestionably a militant hate group. (SPLC, 2008).
According to Sandmann’s statement, the encounter between him and Phillips took place after the Black Israelite group were shouting hateful attacks at him and his fellow students. “They called us ‘racists,’ ‘bigots,’ ‘white crackers,’ ‘faggots’ and ‘incest kids.’ They also taunted an African American student from my school by telling him that we would ‘harvest his organs.’ I have no idea what that insult means, but it was startling to hear.” (Sandmann, 2019). A chaperone gave students permission to shout school chants in effort to drown out the verbal attacks. One of those chants drew the attention and ire of Phillips and another Native American man with him, Marcus Frejo. “It was a haka — a war dance of New Zealand’s indigenous Maori culture, made famous by the country’s national rugby team. Frejo … told the AP in a phone interview that he felt the students were mocking the dance.” (Philadelphia, 2019). Covington Catholic students have not apparently acknowledged that chanting and doing a tomahawk chopping motion might be perceived as disrespectful to Native Americans.
Chaperones responsible for the students on the trip did not perceive it as a crisis situation. “No one with the Covington Catholic group at the time saw it as a confrontation, Andreev [Val Andreev, a chaperone] said. They didn’t think anything of it until the next day when social media erupted with outrage.” (Wartmann, 2019). Social media hounds and political pundits rushed to judgment, publicly shaming and condemning students and chaperones before all the facts were determined. Everybody had an opinion some based on the scant information. The lens of perspective through which the facts are viewed colors everything about the case.
President Donald Trump jumped on social media to blame “fake news” for victimizing the students. Ironically, the trigger at this confrontation was the “Make America Great Again” gear being sported by many of the high school boys. Trump carried Kentucky with 62.52% of the vote in the 2016 election; he is a popular figure in that state. (Wikipedia, 2016).
The family of Nick Sandmann quickly hired RunSwitch PR, a Kentucky firm, to handle response to the crisis. RunSwitch handles public relations and crisis communications. One of its founders, Scott Jennings, is a Republican strategist who has worked on four presidential campaigns. He is a CNN contributor. Jennings did not discuss Sandmann or this situation on air. His firm released a three-page statement on behalf of Sandmann, which got into the hands of Jennings’ CNN colleague Jake Tapper. (Schneider, 2019). Tapper shared the statement with his nearly two million Twitter followers. CNN later ran the statement on its website. (Storey, 2019). That statement was a turning point in public perception. Instead of being cast as a punk villain, Sandmann was portrayed as a young person hoping to ease a tense situation he was thrust into with adults. Over the course of just five days the narrative changed completely.
In the wake of this confrontation, Sandmann had benefit of a professional consultant and well-connected PR team that flipped the narrative very successfully in his favor. Sandmann sat for an interview on the Today show with co-host Savannah Guthrie. He wore peaceful earth toned clothing, did not smile, spoke calmly and carefully. He softly asserted he did nothing wrong, but he wished that the encounter had never taken place. (Kim, 2019). He was virtually unrecognizable as the smug looking teenager in the viral video.
Sandmann’s parents filed a $250 million lawsuit in U. S. District Court against the Washington Post for defamation. The lawsuit claimed that stories about the encounter included interviews with Phillips that were false, defamatory and indicative of malice on the part of the news outlets. But the lawsuits also include political attacks on CNN and the Post for an alleged bias against President Donald Trump that Wood [Sandmann’s attorney] claimed spurred negative coverage of Sandmann.” (McDonald, 2019). The judge assigned to the case dismissed it, finding that the minimum requirements to prove defamation were not met. (Sullum, 2019).
Phillips has a history of admirable activism for Native Americans, such as fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline encroaching upon the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. (UNICEF, 2017). He is an elder of the Omaha tribe, and was in Washington DC with the Indigenous Peoples March. He is former director of the Native Youth Alliance, which upholds cultural and spiritual traditions for Native American youth today. (Wikipedia, 2019). Phillips is former director of the Native Youth Alliance, served as a Water Protector in the DAPL standoff, and visits Arlington National Cemetery every Veterans Day to honor his fallen comrades. (Vine, 2019). Despite the good he has done; he will forever be remembered for this debacle at the Lincoln Memorial. He did not confer with a professional consultant, in a formal capacity.
“Unlike Sandmann, Phillips does not have a PR firm to represent him and his side of the story, or an attorney to challenge critical journalists. His support team consists of two people: Ray Kingfisher, a northern Cheyenne who has known him for decades, and Daniel Nelson, a non-Native “ally” and program director of the Lakota Peoples Project.” (Noisecat, 2019).
The Lincoln Memorial Confrontation is likely what Nathan Phillips will be recalled for, and a not in a good way. In the days after the incident, Phillips conferred with two long-time personal associates. He gave a couple of video interviews where he did not engage very well, and a written interview that was not highly circulated. He derided Sandmann as coached, insincere and irresponsible in the interview that the young man did with the same show. (Kim, 2019).
The Covington incident left Phillips basically ineffective. He would benefit from an outside consultant to strategize ways to highlight his values, goals and mission so he can become an effective activist again. The consultant should work with him to define Phillips’ strategic goals and suitable metrics with which to measure progress. His new consultant should preferably be one with a Native American background, because that shared connection will assist in building a trust relationship between the consultant and Phillips. People are focused on negative concerning him instead of on his good works and positive efforts on behalf of indigenous people.
Phillips’ points of difference should be leveraged. Print tactics such as newspaper and other media coverage can be utilized for this purpose. His is a nationally recognizable face in Native American issues and activism, and his entire life speaks to his overarching cause. It seems fair to state his key strategic value is anything that will benefit future generations of Native Americans. Phillips needs a seamless, succinct narrative about his life that does not attempt to whitewash negatives, such as misstatements about his military service or run-ins with the law. His truths should not be hidden or ignored. It would not cost anything but labor for a consultant to craft that narrative for him.
A consultant should seek to establish a strong, positive social media presence, and along those channels distribute specific information regarding Phillips that will be his platform for advancing his causes. Negatives affecting his image will never vanish. However, Phillips can be encouraged to choose silence as a response to any questions about Sandmann and be taught the best way to redirect people to issues that matter. Social media is too powerful to just ignore. Phillips has been simultaneously lauded on social media and attacked on it. He has to try and control his image proactively, while being authentic. There is little relative cost to crafting Phillips’ social media presence strategically to advance his purposes of helping current and future generations of Native Americans. A consultant will want to build positive buzz around Phillips and inspire interest in the meaningfulness of the Native American causes he espouses.
It would be useful for a consultant to arrange an interview between Phillips and a well-known Native American journalist, such as Hattie Kaufman, a CBS News correspondent and the first Native American to ever report for a national network. She is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho. (Wikipedia, 2019). The key is to arrange an interview with somebody that Phillips is more likely to trust and therefore speak to in a relaxed manner.
The actual costs involved in improving the perception the public has of Nathan Phillips would be relatively small. A majority of the effort would be written material, distributed electronically. An individual or small team could handle that, so the expense there is primarily labor cost. Effort will have to be made to prepare Phillips better for answering interview questions, yet not stifling his personality. Achieving that goal will require services of consultant expertise of someone experienced. Again, I would not anticipate huge expenses. The return on investment in engaging a consultant for Phillips has the potential to be tremendous. With a clearer image and more polished vocal stance and coming off his high name recognition arising from the Lincoln Memorial confrontation, Nathan Phillips could inspire significant donations to Native American causes. He could become the subject of written material, television material and possibly film. Phillips is the subject of the award-winning 2013 documentary short film Between Earth and Sky. In it, Phillips and his wife travel to his Omaha reservation after she was diagnosed with cancer. (Bonfire, 2012). It gave him some experience in film media.
My overall approach to assisting Phillips minimizes risk because it consciously respects what is known to be important to him, and what is more likely to help him benefit.
The confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial had a polarizing, confusing impact. Snap judgments were based on preconceived notions. Lincoln’s second inaugural address is inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial, and includes “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…” (NPS, 2019). This country is still tearing itself apart. Now, everything pivots on who gets to post something quickly on social media to get the most followers, or likes, or retweets. Meaningful dialogue and introspection get buried under spin, and truth and reality are both at the mercy of perception.
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