Welcome to the weird world of 2024! We hope you had a chance to unplug and relax over the holidays — and maybe even stop scouring the news for a few days.
But now it’s time to come out of that cozy bubble of food and family and get back to work. So let’s catch you up on some of the biggest PR-adjacent stories of the last couple weeks, and the lessons we can learn from them as we fire up for another year.
Harvard’s president resigns
Claudine Gay resigned as president of Harvard after months of criticism over both her response to the Israel-Hamas war as well as allegations of plagiarism in her scholarship, the Harvard Crimson reported. She will become the shortest-tenured president in the school’s long history, having served just over six months in the role.
In her resignation letter, Gay wrote that, “it has become clear that it is in the best interests of Harvard for me to resign so that our community can navigate this moment of extraordinary challenge with a focus on the institution rather than any individual.”
Gay had been dogged by what many said was a late and inadequate response to the initial terrorism attack in Israel that spurred the current conflict, a failure to condemn antisemitism on campus and a disastrous hearing before Congress that also led to the resignation of the University of Pennsylvania president. The spotlight led some to dig into Gay’s academic past, uncovering alleged plagiarism.
Why it matters: This began as a communications issue. From the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks against Israel through to her testimony on Capitol Hill, a failure to have a clear, consistent, strong message led to Gay’s downfall. It made her a target that encouraged some to put Gay’s life under a microscope, finding instances from her past that made it untenable for her to continue in her role.
It’s a cautionary tale for us all: Tell your story or someone else will.
And while you’re at it (whether the plagiarism allegations against Gay prove true or not): Use your own words, and properly attribute your sources.
Pop-Tart stages the weirdest mascot stunt in years
Have you ever looked at a mascot and said, “hey, I wish that costumed creature would ritualistically sacrifice itself so it can be devoured by hungry football players”?
Too bad, because that’s exactly what happened during Pop-Tart Bowl in Orlando.
Words alone can’t do this justice. You should just watch for yourself.
— Pop-Tarts Bowl (@PopTartsBowl) December 29, 2023
Yes, a Pop-Tart-shaped mascot was lowered into a toaster while “Hot Stuff” played and was replaced by an edible replica which the winning Kansas State Wildcats devoured by tearing off chunks with their bare hands.
Oh, and it didn’t end there.
I asked if it was offensive to eat a Pop-Tart in front of the @PopTartsBowl mascot and then its handler yelled out “ITS THEIR DREAM” and then the mascot grabbed a Pop-Tart out of my hand and started force-feeding it to me while making soft grunting noises pic.twitter.com/PaCDY6mzu3
— Rodger Sherman (@rodger) December 29, 2023
Why it matters: It was bizarre, dark and garnered a lot of attention, including a subsequent reference from a Cheez-It mascot who did not want to be eaten, which is a clever bit of newsjacking.
The lesson here is not to copy what Pop-Tarts did. The lesson is to listen to your audience — in this case, nostalgic Millennials who grew up with Pop-Tarts with a taste for dark humor and quirky Gen Zers — and put your own spin on the meme space. But stunts like this must be true to your brand and what your audience wants. Be big, be bold, be outrageous — but above all, be yourself. Even if that’s putting on a really, really weird and borderline cannibalistic publicity stunt.
Mickey Mouse enters the public domain
One of the most iconic characters of all time now belongs to the people.
Well, kinda. Sorta. Not really.
Steamboat Willie, a 1928 short starring an early version of Mickey Mouse, has aged out of copyright and entered the public domain. This means the mouse’s appearance in that film — and only that film — can be used in various ways without having to fear Disney’s litigious wrath.
But there are quite a few limitations on that.
Jennifer Jenkins, director of the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain, explains the possibilities like this:
“Trademark: You cannot use Mickey in a way that misleads consumers into thinking your work is produced or sponsored by Disney.
Newer Copyrights: You cannot use new, copyrightable versions of Mickey until those copyrights expire.
Public Domain 2024: You are free to copy, share, and build on Mickey Mouse 1.0!”
In other words, you have to make it clear that you aren’t Disney, you can’t use more modern version of Mickey (no Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Kingdom Hearts, for instance), but you can play with the version of Mickey from Steamboat Willie, as this horror movie very quickly did:
Still, NPR cautions that Disney can still find ways to protect its trademark, if not its copyright, which could keep Mickey safely in the hands of the House of Mouse.
Why it matters: Theoretically, one could incorporate this Mickey into a number of social media posts or products, as long as it’s clear that you aren’t Disney. But there are still legal risks at play. So before you Instagram that clever Mickey meme, remember to make good friends with your legal department.
The New York Times sues OpenAI
In a move that could change the future of generative AI, the Old Gray Lady is suing both OpenAI and major investor Microsoft for “unlawful copying and use of The Times’s uniquely valuable works,” according to the Times’s own reporting. While the suit seeks monetary damages, perhaps more importantly, it also demands the destruction of OpenAI’s LLM which use data from the Times.
OpenAI and many media outlets, including the Times, have been in negotiations over payment for the use of content in LLMs. Some have reached deals, but the New York Times is now taking a different route.
In a statement, an OpenAI spokesperson said the company respects content creators. “We’re hopeful that we will find a mutually beneficial way to work together, as we are doing with many other publishers.”
Why it matters: This appears to be a major watershed moment in the media industry. Wary of not repeating the same mistakes made in the early days of the internet, when social media and search engines made use of traditional media with little direct payment, the Times is seeking to clarify the situation and either get paid or protect its business model from being poached by LLMs that can regurgitate their work with no payment to the journalists who created it.
This will continue to play out for years, if not decades. But the consequences of these negotiations and deals will echo far longer.