When the Media Gets it Wrong

This week I’ve learned from the media that my employer hates Catholics and their efforts to help Haitian earthquake victims.

Well, that’s what’s been reported by The New York Times, so it must be true, right?


Let me give you the back story. I find it to be an insightful view into how the media and Washington public policy advocates work.

On Wednesday night, The Times reported that Sprint was demanding that a mobile phone fundraising effort by Catholic Relief Services to help Haitian earthquake victims be “shut down”. The story had statements of outrage from public interest groups and statements  by a former Obama administration official with expertise in tech policy which questioned the current FCC policy governing wireless carriers and text messaging.

It also featured a photo of an employee of Catholic Relief Services who claimed to be “floored” when Sprint “rejected” their fundraising program. Though the piece quoted my colleague from Sprint, Crystal Davis, our full perspective and reaction to the misrepresentations were not included.

On Thursday morning, the public interest groups quoted in the story, Free Press and Public Knowledge issued a breathless joint news release attacking Sprint and comparing us to “medieval barons”. In a blog post titled, “ALERT: FCC Fiddles While Text Messages Burn: Sprint Blocks Fundraising for Haiti”, a Public Knowledge employee proclaims, “Soon after [the fundraising program] was up and running, Sprint shut down the program.”

A Free Press employee blogged on Daily Kos that, “Something is rotten in the world of mobile fundraising.” Though the title of the blog asked, “Is Sprint Stopping Aid From Reaching Haiti?”, in view of the author, there was no doubt: Sprint, “got in the way” and “demanded that it [the fundraising program] be shut down.”

On Twitter, these allegations exploded. Look at this search.

This makes for a compelling story about a villainous wireless carrier, except is isn’t true.

There is not ONE Sprint customer who has been prevented from using the short code set up by the mobile marketing firm hired by Catholic Relief Services. That’s because the short code is operable on Sprint’s network. (It never was suspended and we never threatened to suspend the code.)

When I pointed this out to employees at Free Press and Public Knowledge in separate conversations after the story broke, they claimed that Sprint threatened to shut down the program. I asked if they had a letter from Sprint stating this. “No, but this is what we were told.”

OK. Apparently that’s enough to justify an FCC complaint and the “medieval baron” accusation.

All we did was ask the mobile marketing firm working with Catholic Relief Services to do what everyone else operating in the mobile fundraising world has done: vouch that all the charities they are working with are 501 (c) 3 non-profits; comply with Sprint’s privacy policies; and give us a full briefing on what the program will entail.

The reason we ask for this is simple: when Sprint’s customers have questions about such programs, they don’t call the mobile marketing firm involved — they call us. Our customer care people should be able to confidently tell our customers that the fundraising effort is legitimate.

Can you imagine the uproar from these same public interest groups if a phishing scam was conducted via text message over Sprint’s network? Or what if our customers started getting unsolicited text messages from the firm? Remember, the program involved you getting a phone call from someone asking for your credit card number. The possibilities for fraud by a bad actor are very real.

Though we’ve asked for a very simply form to be completed, as of this writing, Sprint has not received a completed form from the marketing firm working with Catholic Relief Services.

Even so, we have no plans to shut down the short code which is being used in this fundraising effort and we are willing to work with all those involved to get it completed.

Unfortunately, Free Press and Public Knowledge, in their zeal to seek additional regulation of the wireless industry, would rather mislead the public into believing that Sprint is stopping fundraising efforts to benefit Haitian earthquake victims.

Face it. Would anyone care if they issued a news release saying “To protect customer privacy, Sprint asks for paperwork to be completed. If the paperwork isn’t completed in a timely fashion, Sprint promises to keep a fundraising program in place until the paperwork is completed”?

I don’t mean to belittle the public policy positions Free Press and Public Knowledge espouse — the level of Federal regulation of wireless text messages is worthy of debate. (And personally, I share many of their public policy views.) But I don’t understand why either organization would risk damaging their credibility by deliberately misleading reporters and the public into believing that Sprint’s business practices are something different than they actually are.

From a public relations point of view, I won’t sugar coat it — this has been a challenge for Sprint. Neither Free Press nor Public Knowledge will acknowledge publicly what they told me privately — that the short code in question is operable and was never suspended. (If they did that, they wouldn’t be able to fire up their members and get them to contact the FCC, would they?)

We did manage to respond to the FCC with our own letter which denies the allegations made by Free Press and Public Knowledge. More importantly, we also provided our customers with an explanation on Sprint.com’s community site.

This seems to have helped as Ars Technica ran a follow up story which offers a fuller explanation from Sprint and casts doubt on the claims of the public interest groups. But at this point, the damage to Sprint’s reputation has already been done.

I’m not sure what else our PR team at Sprint can do to counter these false allegations — in today’s world, big companies are presumed guilty until proven innocent. But I do know that the next time I read a news story quoting someone from Public Knowledge and Free Press, I will look at their claims more carefully.

I also am reminded that no matter how hard a reporter tries, they can — and do — get the story wrong.

My remaining question is this: at what point is it in Sprint’s best interests to stop trying to refute these salacious charges? It’s clear that the public interest groups are not backing down. Yesterday, Public Knowledge repeated its false claims about Sprint in new videos on its website.


2 responses to “When the Media Gets it Wrong

  1. Pingback: Free Press & Public Knowledge Try to Invent Regulatory Crisis over Sprint Short Codes

  2. Pingback: Digital Society » Blog Archive » Sprinting To False Conclusions

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