ANALYSIS: Music industry mistakes its lawsuits for a PR maneuver

When the music industry sued file swappers, the legal issue at hand was suddenly humanized. But going after consumers wasn't a sound PR move.

When the music industry sued file swappers, the legal issue at hand was suddenly humanized. But going after consumers wasn't a sound PR move.

Last week, PRWeek reported on the initial signs of a PR blunder involved in the 261 lawsuits filed by the member companies of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) against music swappers. The story of 12-year-old Brianna LaHara's mother agreeing to pay $2,000 to settle the legal woes of her daughter, who was sued by RIAA for trading songs over the internet, made front-page news across the US. The New York Daily News also identified a college student whose father recently died of cancer, and an unemployed Bronx woman as targets in the RIAA suits. A seemingly desperate PR move masquerading as a legal tactic seemed to open up a communications boon for the file-sharing companies like Kazaa and Grokster, which did not waste any time pouncing on the trade group for playing hardball with "innocent" victims, and further alienated its consumer base.

The question remains: What was the RIAA thinking?

Perhaps that filing lawsuits was the only remaining option because all less severe attempts to enforce its message had failed? That's according to Amy Weiss, SVP of communications for the RIAA. She says the trade group had run multimedia campaigns, in-school programs, and given speeches nationwide to no avail.

"The softer message," which encouraged the public to respect music by not obtaining it for free," says Weiss in an e-mail, "did not work. We learned through research that the only message that resonates with people is one with a harder edge - it's illegal and there are consequences!"

Critics believe, however, that going after the industry's most valuable resource, the consumer, particularly in such a haphazard fashion, flies in the face of sound communications practice.

"In terms of PR, this is the worst thing they could've done because it just further makes the case for people wanting music this way. It's never wise to launch a PR campaign in response to a business problem," says Paul Argenti, professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business.

The RIAA's Weiss insists, however, that filing the lawsuits was not an ill-fated PR maneuver, but "part of a multipronged strategy that includes technological measures, litigation against infringing sites, and, most importantly, allowing the legitimate services to thrive and flourish. Legal music on the internet will be the greatest beneficiary of our efforts."

The PR component, adds Weiss, "will continue to emphasize that illegal downloading and uploading has consequences. When Saks Fifth Avenue went after a famous shoplifter, did that send a message of deterrence to other would-be shoplifters? Absolutely. When the cable industry goes after those who steal signals, does that deter others? Absolutely."

Wayne Rosso, president of Grokster, which is one of several file-sharing companies that have seen their users named in the RIAA suits, refers to what he considers to be faulty tactics being used by the record companies as "PR softballs." In reference to the RIAA comparing its potential customers to shoplifters, he explains, "The record companies have such a great deal of contempt for their end user." Because of this, "Every time Grokster is mentioned in the press, our downloads go up. The RIAA is basically doing our marketing for us," adds Rosso.

Not knowing its audience

What has come across as hostility toward music listeners, say some, is a consequence of the recording industry not knowing its audience. Seemingly void of preliminary market research, the RIAA's PR efforts thus far have not prioritized the concerns of consumers (i.e., wanting access to music in new ways).

"When the record companies talk, it sounds like they are talking to someone else within the industry. They need to stop using jargon and directly address the end users," says Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management (ICM).

One way to do that is by humanizing messages - something that the industry has failed to do. Rock stars, which record companies have sometimes enlisted to speak on behalf of the industry, are not sympathetic characters. Not to mention the fact that several stars, such a Moby, have blatantly spoken out against the RIAA's decision to sue consumers. Similarly, 12-year-old lawsuit defendants like LaHara humanized the issue, but to the RIAA's detriment.

"Telling people that artists like Kid Rock and Eminem, who are always seen living to excess, are going to be out of business if listeners keep downloading music for free is not very effective. It's hard to feel bad for them," says Smith. Telling a story of studio technicians or struggling songwriters, he says, would more likely strike a chord.

Another widely proposed suggestion is for the RIAA member companies to come together and speak with one voice. Suspicion engulfed a recent announcement by Universal, which said the company was dropping its CD prices so that some outlets would be able to sell them for as low as $9.99.

Smith calls the decision "a shrewd business move," and an attempt to take "advantage of an industry in disarray." He warns, "The record companies have to be very careful about protecting their own entities, not screwing the entire industry."

According to Smith, "The RIAA needs to summon the leaders from each company and mutually agree on what they can do to address the concerns of the companies and consumers. If these lawsuits had to happen, and they really are about protecting property, then they need to be clear about that by speaking with a unified voice."

Still, the need for the lawsuits remains unclear, as speculation swarms that the RIAA's actions may be part of a publicity move for a forthcoming legal downloading service similar to Apple's Music Store. Regardless, most agree that communications between the legal and PR departments at RIAA member companies have not been aligned.

The way to build support

Any time a company is trying to protect its interests, says Harlan Loeb, director of litigation services at Hill & Knowlton and law professor at Northwestern University, it is imperative that the company "articulate its position in a way that their internal and external audiences are likely to support." For that reason, adds Loeb, "it is becoming increasingly important that litigation and communications services at companies work together." PR people, concludes Loeb, "need a seat at the table because the legal side of business, in order to be successful, must be able to express itself."

In a USA Today article, tech reporter Kevin Maney compares the music industry's current dilemma to that faced by the movie business when TV became popular for the first time in the 1940s. According to statistics from The American Film Industry, says the article, weekly attendance at movie theaters went from 80 million in 1946 to 12 million by 1972, and the number of films made dropped from 445 a year in the 1940s to 150 three decades later.

"Before TV, people had to pay for visual entertainment," Maney explains. "As with file sharing and music, advertising-supported TV allowed people to suddenly see news and entertainment for free. The studio system fell apart. The industry slowly reorganized around making blockbusters and niche films instead of a steady stream of mediocre movies. Not until the 1990s did the movie industry truly recover from the blow of massively free entertainment."

With ironic optimism, Maney deducts, "It took Hollywood 50 years to figure out how to deal with TV. The music companies have had less than 50 months."

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