Was Apple protest leader Mark Shields an 'accidental activist'?

More than 250,000 people signed Mark Shields' petition demanding better conditions for workers who assemble iPads. Shields said he fell into the cause accidentally. But he also does this sort of thing for a living.

Mark Shields, the man who circulated a petition in January that demanded Apple improve conditions at iPad-assembly plants in China, is an experienced public-relations executive with a history of organizing protests. Shields (left) speaks with CNN about his Apple petition. At right is an interview he gave in 2007 when he was a spokesman for a gay-rights group. CNN

Apple fans were seething.

In January, they heard actor Mike Daisey describe during a radio broadcast the intolerable working conditions he witnessed at Chinese factories where iPads and iPhones are assembled. Many found their way to an online petition started at Change.org by a man named Mark Shields. The petition demanded Apple improve safety at these facilities, and it would eventually include 256,000 names.

At first, the petition appeared to have simply bubbled up from an outraged public.

Not quite. Apple fan or not, the 36-year-old Shields is a professional advocate and activist. The public-relations firm that has employed him for nearly two years, Washington D.C.-based Spitfire Strategies, organizes demonstrations and protests for a fee much like the one Shields waged against Apple. Though there is no evidence that Shields was anything but sincere in his petition drive, and there is no evidence that he was paid for it, that he does such things professionally received scant attention at the time.

A photo from December 2010 of Mark Shields participating in a demonstration organized by the public-relations firm that employs him. Spitfire Strategies Facebook page

"I think it's good to talk to everyone, and [Shields] shouldn't be off limits just because of what he does," said Kelly McBride, an instructor and media ethicist for the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. "But I do think it's important to accurately report who someone is...it's important to not hold people up to be something they are not, or ignore information that's relevant. The principle of accuracy and truth is what counts."

Anti-Apple protests have become commonplace in recent months. But with every protest there appears questions. Daisey, of course, was discredited a month ago for his embellishments. Even a spontaneous protest in Australia wasn't that: It was an odd, guerrilla marketing stunt by BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion .

Should the public be exasperated with the shifting facts on what most everyone agrees is an important issue? If they are, there's plenty of blame to be shared, starting with Daisey's deceit and moving on to lazy reporting at a wide range of media outlets.

"When someone says, 'Hey this is who I am,' it is up to you the journalist to make sure that's the truth," McBride said. "You know that old journalism cliche about what to do if your mother says, she loves you. You check it out."

Shields' petition drive is certainly the most obvious example of how the tech and business press failed to tell the whole story. Shields maintains that he circulated the Apple petition as a private citizen and his efforts to help change the company's labor policies had nothing to do with his employment.

Nonetheless, Spitfire was very supportive of the campaign. They helped promote it online and at least two of Shields' co-workers, including one of the company's vice presidents, participated in a demonstration at Apple's Georgetown store in Washington D.C. on February 9, according to published reports.

An Apple spokesman declined to comment for this story.

Indeed, though there is no indication Spitfire was formally linked to Shields' petition, professional activism that's supposed to look spontaneous is one of Spitfire's strategies.

"This guide is designed to work best with policy campaigns, issue campaigns, corporate campaigns and public education campaigns," Kristen Grimm, Spitfire's founder and Shields' boss, wrote in a 2006 strategy playbook for clients. "If you are looking to pass a law, win popular support for an issue, organize a boycott or let a bunch of people know that something is bad for them, this guide is for you."

In another of her publications (PDF), Grimm wrote: "Remember, not all campaigns are big, splashy public affairs. Sometimes your goals are best served by keeping your campaign behind the scenes."

Representatives from Change.org delivered Shields' petition to the Apple store on Fifth Avenue in New York the same day the third-generation iPad went on sale. Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Grimm said in a statement that it wouldn't have been appropriate for Shields to identify himself in interviews as a Spitfire employee because he circulated the petition on his own behalf.

"Like many of our employees and socially engaged folks around D.C., Mark also has a number of issues that he cares about and devotes time to in his personal life," Grimm wrote in an e-mail to CNET. "The Apple issue was one that appealed to him personally and one that he chose to address on his own time. We were certainly proud of the impact he was able to achieve. A number of staff, myself included, joined him in asking Apple to pursue humane labor conditions for their workers."

Journalists typically go to great lengths to inform their audiences about who they are interviewing in news reports and alert them to any potential conflicts of interest. It's unclear whether Shields disclosed his background to the reporters who interviewed him about the petition. In fact, the only outlet that appears to have paid significant attention to Shields' background is an Apple fan site called IfoApplestore.com.

The blog wrote that Shields was a longtime communications strategist with "plenty of paid experience expressing outrage." AppleInsider followed IfoApplestore's story and that was largely the extent of coverage on Shields' background.

When asked in a telephone interview whether he believed it was possible that some people who saw or read his interviews might have been misled about his background, Shields dismissed any notion that he should have been more forthcoming. "No, I think I was upfront about who I was the whole time," he said.

In a follow up conversation, Shields said, "I did request that writers not include my workplace in stories unless they felt it was essential as this was something I was doing as a private citizen."

The new information about Shields comes a month after Daisey acknowledged making up or embellishing parts of his story.

The Daisey Chain
No one seems to have fired the public's anger against Apple and the China issue more than Daisey, a monologist. Shields said he was inspired to start his petition after hearing Daisey on the radio detailing the suffering he said he saw among the people making iPads and iPhones during a 2010 trip to China.

On January 6, This American Life, a weekly hour-long radio program, broadcast a news report about the iPad-assembly plants in China, and the show's producers incorporated some of the monologue from Daisey's one-man show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." In the show, Daisey claimed to have been told firsthand stories of inhumane working conditions.

Mike Daisey Greg Sandoval/CNET

Hardly anyone disputes that Chinese employees sometimes suffer harsh working environments created by the companies contracted with Apple. Apple acknowledged some of them in the company's own reports last year. In January, The New York Times published an exhaustive expose that detailed a fatal accident at one of the factories. The report included details about how employees often toiled for marathon shifts and some were injured following exposure to toxic chemicals. The safety issues at these plants surfaced only after a number of despondent workers took their own lives.

Two months after the broadcast, however, This American Life issued a retraction of the show after conducting an investigation of Daisey's claims and finding numerous inaccuracies and fabrications. Daisey himself acknowledged that some of his story was fantasy.

The discredited Daisey story was the seed for Shields' campaign.

"You're Apple. You're supposed to think different," Shields wrote in his petition letter to Apple, in which he asked the company to take steps to improve the working conditions at the Chinese iPad plants. "I want to continue to use and love the products you make...Please make these changes immediately so that each of us can once again hold our heads high and say: 'I'm a Mac person.'"

Daisey said Tuesday night in New York, where he was moderating a panel about theater, that he had nothing to do with the initiation of Shields' petition and has only communicated with him once, via e-mail to thank him for starting the petition.

After The New York Times story about the factories was published on January 25, interest in the petition skyrocketed. At about the same time, Change.org also began to throw its resources behind promoting the effort. The petition topped more than 30,000 names on January 28 and 100,000 the next day. The number of names doubled to 200,000 by February 8.

All the while, Shields was doing numerous interviews with the media, and Change.org was organizing demonstrations around the delivery of the petitions to different Apple stores. Shields appeared at the Georgetown demonstration and Daisey appeared at a similar one in New York.

The 'accidental activist'
Shields told Current TV that he was in his kitchen making humus when he heard Daisey on This American Life. He noted that he was streaming the show "through my Macbook and through my Apple AirPort."

A graphic used by Spitfire Strategies in one of its guides on how to influence public opinion. Spitfire Strategies

"I was asking a friend about it and how to write a letter," he told Current TV. "She said, 'Why don't you start a petition on Change.org and make it more useful than that.' It took off."

Shields told The Guardian, a British publication: "I am an accidental activist here. I have never started a petition before. I am an Apple person. I have my MacBook and iPhone. I love all that stuff. These products have changed my life, but they are coming at a cost in human suffering."

This image of Shields as an accidental activist conflicts sharply with his record.

Over the course of his career, Shields has amassed extensive experience writing letters and advocating for various causes. He is the former communications director at the nonprofit National Park Foundation, the official charity of the country's 400 national parks, and deputy director of communications at the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

On his LinkedIn page, among the skills Shields lists are "writing opinion pieces and speeches," as well as educational guides. He wrote that he has "built and maintained relationships with reporters and producers." If he needed help starting petitions, he could have just referenced a plan created with the help of his employers that is available online. It was designed to persuade Missouri citizens to sign a petition demanding child services be protected from budget cuts. On YouTube are videos of Shields being interviewed by CNN and MSNBC from 2007, arguing articulately on different gay rights issues.

Shields is also apparently skilled in organizing demonstrations and protests. On Spitfire's Facebook page is a photograph dated December 14, 2010, in which he and other people are spinning Hula Hoops around their waists in front of the Washington, D.C. offices of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).

The caption reads: "Spitfire staffer Mark Shields shows his support for low-power FM radio stations at Prometheus Radio Project's Hula Hoop for Freedom event. This event was one of the strategic activities built into their communications plan. Very cool!"

A public-relations plan designed to persuade Missouri citizens to sign a petition. City of Kansas City, MO

On the Web site of Prometheus Radio Project (PRP), the group identifies itself as an advocate for community radio stations. PRP wrote on its site that it wanted the NAB to quit forcing smaller radio stations to jump through hoops. It held the demonstration to demand support for a plan that would have expanded the public's access to 100-watt, low-power FM radio stations. On Spitfire's Web site, PRP is listed as a client.

Shields says his decision to become involved in the cause that came to be known as the "Ethical iPhone" was personal. That said, he wasn't the only one from Spitfire participating in the protests against Apple. In a February 9 post on Spitfire's Facebook page is a link to a story in The Washington Post. The caption of the Facebook post reads "DC Spitfires joined Mark Shields and Change.org to deliver the #EthicaliPhone petition to Georgetown's Apple store. Have you signed the petition?"

At least two of Shields' co-workers attended the demonstration at the Georgetown Apple store. In a story about the delivery of the names, CIO.com quotes a Phoebe Kilgour and identifies her as a Washington resident who signed the petition. It does not disclose that Kilgour is an account coordinator at Spitfire.

"[Apple's 'Think Different' motto] should apply to the entire supply chain," Kilgour told CIO, "not just the end user."

In an interview with CNET, Kilgour said the CIO reporter never asked her for her background information. She and Shields work for Grimm, who founded Spitfire Strategies in 2002. Spitfire's client list includes many well-known foundations and nonprofit groups, such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Children's Leadership Council, The Audubon Society, William Penn Foundation, YWCA and Greenpeace USA.

Grimm's publications show examples of the kind of advice she offers clients about how best to sway the opinion of the public as well as lawmakers. Among some of the tips she offers are these:

"If you know that your base of supporters is most likely to mobilize around an aggressive campaign that uses more confrontational tactics, choose this over a more reassuring approach that uses softer tactics," Grimm wrote.

Elsewhere, she advised: "Practice consistency. You want everyone to think the number of supporters for your issue is significant. You can create this perception by ensuring that everyone who is speaking about your issue is saying the same thing--again and again... Some communications vehicles offer less control over your message than others. For example, with paid ads, you control the message. With earned media, the reporter selects the message.

"Make your choices carefully," she added, "and have plans in place for doing damage control if needed."

 

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