To Make It up or Just Plagiarize It

Time magazine and CNN this summer suspended Fareed Zakaria, a well-respected editor at the magazine and host of one of the network’s Sunday news shows, after discovering he had plagiarized information from an article written by someone else.

Zakaria may be the most highly visible person suspended, fired, or otherwise punished this summer for plagiarizing material, making up information, or lying in books, articles, or blogs. But he is not the only one.

Among others was Jonah Lehrer, a bestselling author and rising journalism star, who apparently fabricated a quote from Bob Dylan for his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. This error became apparent after the book had been on multiple bestseller
lists for weeks, and soon after he had been caught reusing in his New Yorker blog posts some material he had written for Wired and other publications. His made-up Dylan quote was costly. The publisher recalled the printed copies of Imagine, and Lehrer resigned as a staff writer for The New Yorker, one of the most coveted positions in journalism.

These examples of questionable writing tell us three things of importance to business communicators.

1. People are willing to play the game of odds.

Some people are always willing to take the chance of not getting caught when they make up or steal information for their books or blogs—even in the days of the Internet with everyone watching what everyone else does. Surely Lehrer had to expect that some Dylan expert would have his hands—or database—on everything ever written or said by, or written about, the singer/songwriter, and would pounce on the opportunity to question whether a big-time journalist had really interviewed him and gotten him to say something that did not ring true with his other statements.

This game is stacked against the writer. He/she may get away with it for a while—but not forever. Lehrer was willing to play the odds, and he lost.

2. The borderline between right and wrong is getting grayer.

Lehrer’s reuse of his own Wired material in his New Yorker blog was in a gray—and graying—area of acceptable/unacceptable behavior. Maybe some people would give him the benefit of the doubt here, as The New Yorker seems to have done by only reprimanding him for this mistake (although not for the Dylan quote). After all, it was his own writing that he repurposed, so maybe he thought he had a right to use it again. He wouldn’t be the first writer to do so. In fact, bloggers are always publishing blog posts (or parts of them) in more than one place. My guess, however, is that they first have permission to do so.

You need to know the rules. What’s acceptable at one publication or online outlet is not acceptable at another. Every writer needs to know the particular rules under which he/she is working and know that the correct edge of the gray borderline for one outlet may be the wrong edge for another. He/she needs to question whether walking anywhere close to the edge is too dangerous.

3. It’s too easy to plagiarize—by mistake.

Zakaria was suspended from his Time and CNN positions for only a few days before management decided that he had not purposely plagiarized someone else’s writing. In his apology, he said that it was a mistake to not give credit to the material he found during his research and used uncredited in his article.

As any writer who uses the Internet for research knows, this is an easy mistake to make. How many times have you found just the right statement supporting a point you want to make and then copied it onto your screen—thinking you’ll remember where you found it and will give proper credit? It happens to almost everyone.

Before the Internet, people still found ways to make this mistake, but it was much more difficult to do accidently because they had to photocopy a page, or retype or rewrite the passage. Today, the words—a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole section—can be copied into a document with a couple of keyboard clicks, flowing sometimes in the right typeface and size. The next day, they seem—to the careless and less observant, but also to those with the highest ethical standards—as if they had been written along with the surrounding information.

One would like to think that these acts of plagiarism and of using made-up material in nonfiction writing would never happen within corporate America. But they do.

Perhaps they happen because some writer in the PR, marketing, or corporate communications department gets someone else’s writing mixed up with his or hers by mistake; or they happen on purpose when the pressure to write something great and fast is too much for the writer; or on a rare occasion when the odds of getting caught don’t seen so high because fewer people in business are actually looking for these mistakes and errors of judgment.

Sometimes they happen not at the lowly writer level but at the highest level of the corporation. In 2005, for example, William Swanson, CEO of Raytheon, published a book of management rules, rules he claimed to have developed over his many years in business. After the company gave out about 300,000 copies of the book, and he was praised for his insights, it was discovered that about half of the rules had been taken from a 1944 book on engineering laws and some of the others had come from additional sources. His punishment?  The book was withdrawn and his compensation for 2006 was reduced by almost $1 million.

The Wrong Message

The note stuck to the headboard of our bed in the hotel room said, “Duvet covers & sheets are clean for your arrival.”

The grammar-conscious, observant reader would, first, notice the missing period at the end of the sentence in this note. And then wonder why whoever printed it would take the time and care to choose a friendly, handwritten-inspired typeface, print the message on a Post-it note, and put it on our headboard—but not proofread it to catch the errant period.

As important as correct punctuation is, something more significant trumps the missing period in this sentence: the overall message.

Some guests, I’m sure, wonder what inspired the local hotel manager or the executives of the hotel chain to leave such a message. Did they really think that telling guests that the linens were clean when they arrived would make them feel better during their stay?

It doesn’t.

Telling guests that the linens are clean this time only forces them to question whether they were not clean the last time they checked in. It causes them to wonder why there weren’t notes saying that the bath towels and face cloths were clean, too, and other notes pointing out that the carpet had been vacuumed and the counters washed.

We’ve stayed in this hotel perhaps ten times over the past four years and never felt the need to question whether the linens were clean or whether anything else was not up to our expectations. The note, however, landed as an apology, an apology for not having done a good job in the past and for having gotten caught in this failure. It seemed as if management was trying to make up for past mistakes.

Making sure the linens are clean, one would assume, is a given at any hotel in America. It’s a fundamental part of being a hotel, in fact.

One wonders how diners would feel if they sat down in their favorite restaurant and found on the table a note stating, “Tonight we are going to cook your meal,” or how airline passengers would feel hearing the flight attendant say, “Welcome aboard. Today, we are going to miss all the other planes in the sky and land safely at our destination.”

It seems clear that no business needs to point out that its employees have done the fundamental tasks of their jobs. Such declarations undercut the intended message, leaving hotel guests, diners, or airline passengers questioning whether they should look for another hotel, a new restaurant or a different airline. Even for the most ardent customer, it weakens confidence in the company.

Neither a company nor its customers benefit when communicators skip the effort to thoroughly think through what they are trying to say and when they fail to consider how the words they choose will actually be received.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

Update

About nine months after we last stayed at this hotel, we visited it again this past week.IMG_0437

The note about clean duvet covers and sheets is still stuck to the headboard. Perhaps more surprising, though, is that this sign (to the right) is now fastened, like a 1 ½’ x 2’ piece of art inside one of the hotel elevators.

Although trying to look up-to-date and catchy, this sign continues to stress the same wrong message first delivered by the note stuck to the headboard.

My New Blog on Business Communications

A winter’s morning view from my office.

Welcome.

On this blog, I will cover communications broadly, but always with the idea that each individual post relates in some way (even if not mentioned explicitly) to business communications specifically.

Therefore, over the course of the blog’s lifespan—how long will that be, a few weeks, months, maybe years?—the accumulated posts will represent my view of the intersection of communications in general and  communications about business.

I’ll discuss (and if you stick with me, you’ll read about) word usage, grammar, sentence construction, the structure of documents, communications tools, the strategies and tactics for communicating with specific key stakeholder groups, the execution of these strategies and tactics, and the evaluation of the success or failure of these efforts. As I see it: the whole communications process.

Occasionally, I might post statements that seem, at first glance, far astray from my topic. But from my perspective—developed over years of holding a variety of roles, including PR manager, employee communications director, speechwriter, executive communications manager, public affairs executive director, and others—they do relate (at least in some small, but important, way) to business communications.

In part, I draw my inspiration for this less-than-direct approach to my topic from Michel de Montaigne, 16th century French writer, who said about his sometimes wandering, seemingly unrelated writing: “I go out of my way, but rather by license than carelessness. My ideas follow one another, but sometimes it is from a distance, and look at each other, but with a sidelong glance.”

My hope, therefore, is that these posts will, if we pay attention, make those of us who work in corporate communications, PR, or related functions (either as part of an internal staff or an outside agency) better at sharing relevant, informative, and engaging information with our companies’ customers, employees, online communities, and other stakeholders.

So, the purpose of this blog is to encourage a wider, and yet closer, look at what we love to do: communicate about our companies.

Let me know what’s on your mind as you read my posts.

Good reading.