Tuesday, November 11, 2014

PR Pros Have Increased Need for Video and Photo Talent

I have been wanting to write a blog post for a while focused on how public relations professionals are increasingly using photography and video in many forms and channels as part of their typical work. So when I caught wind on social media yesterday that well known local photographer and videographer TJ Hamilton is now working full time for Sabo Public Relations I took note.

You can read the announcement on the Sabo PR Facebook page.

I have known both TJ Hamilton and Mary Ann Sabo for a long time, and I worked with each of them in the past on different projects. I have a high respect for both for their talents and integrity. So hearing of the announcement is kind of like when long-term friends tell you they are getting married :-)

But I was especially interested to note that Sabo PR, which grew from a sole practitioner practice to a firm with several employees, had enough demand to hire TJ full time. This one firm illustrates what many firms and in-house PR departments are experiencing--an increased demand for still photography and videography for all the standard brochures, newsletters, annual reports, and media relations. But the need is even greater because of the many organizations needing visual content for web sites, micro sites, blogs, and all the flourishing platforms of social media, especially those with visual emphasis such as Vine, YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest.

Visual PR is on the rise for internal publics as well as external. At an campus event recently I chatted with two recent grads working in large local companies. One just hired a full-time videographer just for employee relations videos and the other talked about her work in photography and video as part of her growing number of responsibilities.

Educators have not lost this trend. We are constantly updating courses to give students basic technical skills and a grasp of visual concepts so they can create visual content or be able to work productively with experts who majored in photography or video production. One example is a video the students in the Grand Valley State University PRSSA (Public Relations Student Society of America) made as part of a presentation they made at their annual conference. It's a take-off on "Mean Girls" to illustrate involvement and leadership. They recently posted it to their GV PRSSA Facebook page. As the students explained to me, they created and scripted the video, and hired a video production major to shoot and edit the video for them. Collaboration is part of creativity, right?

So, whether you have the tech talent yourself or not, if you are in PR you will find yourself talking more and more about visual aspects of messages with greater frequency. You'll have to if you want to be relevant in our increasingly visual society.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Arthur Page--Thoughts on Social Media from a Time Before TV

Several years ago I received a pleasant surprise in the campus mail. It was a copy of the book "Words from a Page in History," which is a collection of speeches given by public relations pioneer Arthur Page from the 1920s into the 1950s. The book was sent for free to faculty in public relations around the country by the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State University. The center is dedicated to research in the area ethics and responsibility in corporate communication and other areas of public communication.

I finally got around to reading it, and is often the case with history, I marveled at how prescient some of his comments were and how much they speak to the field of public relations still today.

But first, a little background. Page was a journalist who became a public relations professional and by 1927 had the title of Vice President of Public Relations at the largest company of the time--AT&T. The "Page Principles" are themes gleaned from his many public speeches and documents and are heralded by professors and practitioners as solid guidelines for PR practiced as ethical counsel to management of organizations. You can learn more about Page via the Arthur W. Page Society, on the Arthur Page "exhibit" at the online PR History Museum, or by reading the excellent biography of Arthur W. Page by Noel L. Griese.

So, as I was reading through Page's speeches, I got to thinking about the famous Page Principles that summarize the man's philosophy of public relations practice and how they might apply today to social media. Here's my quick application of each principle from before the TV era to the social space today:

  1. Tell the truth--always be genuine on social platforms, from your profile to your posts, and what links and other content you share.
  2. Prove it with action--don't automate and aggregate content. Don't present an image on social media but fail to live up to it by replying, sharing, and responding to comments. Be sure your offline presence is consistent with your online and social projection. Do what you say and say what you do.
  3. Listen to the customer--don't blast tweets and updates without first listening to conversations in the social space. And if people respond, reply back in kind, not just with your own agenda but to satisfy the questions and issues of those who reply to your social messages.
  4. Manage for tomorrow--social media is in the moment, but it's still wise to think long term. Analytics are great, but daily, weekly or monthly numbers of engagement should not be the sole driver or reward of social media management for a brand. Consider how social media is an extension of bigger objectives and a piece of a larger media mix that may not yield results for a year or more.
  5. Conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it--Consider that all publics may follow social accounts, on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest and others. Do not see social media as merely a marketing megaphone, but an effort consistent with broader organizational goals and open to the views of many. 
  6. Realize that a company's true character is expressed by its people--many organizations only allow public relations or marketing teams to represent the company on social media. Consider engaging in a "distributed PR" model in which every job function is allowed to tweet and post as part of their job. People engage with multiple publics in many ways. This requires a healthy culture, but in the social space this especially makes sense to allow the organization to be visible in a positive way. As Page said, every employee, active or retired, is involved in public relations.
  7. Remain calm, patient and good humored--this is especially true in social media. Be careful what you say, and don't resort to anger and incivility. Allow comments, respond to them, engage in other social accounts to represent your organization transparently and honestly.
Clearly Arthur Page never had to handle social media. As I noted, the bulk of his career was completed before TV was ubiquitous in American households. But his principles of PR practice are timeless and a good reminder again to contemporary practitioners. Even the social media and digital communication are new, the concepts of integrity, honesty, ethics in PR practice are timeless and transportable across any medium or platform.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Award Winning Annual Reports--from a Municipal Power Utility

The Holland Board of Public Works has earned another recognition for its annual report, according to a story in the Holland Sentinel.

The work behind the creative annual report comes from Randy Boileau and Boileau Communications.

Apparently, this is the latest in a four-year run of awards for annual reports Boileau created for the municipal power concern.

What's interesting is that most people think "corporate" when they think annual reports. They also might think of thin paper, black and white pro-forma template content, and dense tables. Of course, many corporate reports do offer a basic 10K in compliance with SEC requirements, but also offer more colorful and creative content either on paper or online.

But nonprofits, governmental agencies and non-public corporations also should and do issue annual reports. This is because the annual document is not merely an act of compliance, but an opportunity to build and maintain stakeholder relationships and reputation.

As Boileau notes in the Sentinel story, annual reports are a great form of storytelling. Doing so in digital format not only saves printing and distribution costs, but allows an expanded reach and the opportunity for social shares and interaction.

The current 2014 BPW Annual Report, released the same day the award for 2013 was announced, illustrates the power (yes, pun intended in this case) of an online annual report. There is significant visual appeal, content is packaged and navigated easily--I like the "stories, facts, impact" outline of the current issue--and the substance of the content is informative and reader-centric. In short, it provides a great service to stakeholders.

So, congratulations for an award goes to the Holland BPW and Boileau Communications. And thanks also for an example of best practice work to practitioners and to the positive impact of PR to the public at large.




Thursday, October 30, 2014

Defining PR a Challenge Amid Dishonest Media Cultivation

It happened again. A major PR association set out to define "public relations", and the media responded by calling the profession "spin."

This is getting old.

But to get up to date on the current matter, here's a rundown. The Council of PR Firms has rebranded itself and in so doing taken it upon itself to re-brand the entire public relations industry. You can see more about this effort in their "manifesto." (I immediately cringe when they position public relations within marketing, but that's the subject of another post).

 This follows on the tails of PRSA's work to come up with a new common definition of public relations in 2012. The resulting definition pleased some but critics remain.

But, as always, the news media covering the PR industry couldn't resist resorting to diminishing the effort with smug references to PR as "spin." Witness the effort of New York Times scribe Stuart Elliott, whose column is touted as about advertising, but he lumps public relations within it, thus broadcasting some professional ignorance or at least courtesy as to what public relations people actually do.

Industry trade PR Week took on Elliott and the Times directly with a commentary by editor Steve Barrett. I appreciate the effort and agree with the perspective. But this won't be the end of it.

In a paper I wrote in 2008 for the Journal of Communication Management ("First Impressions: Media Portrayals of Public Relations in the 1920s"), I point out how the media persistently refused to give a complete view of the profession in the decade it was first commonly called "public relations." Pioneers from Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee, Arthur Page and others argued and demonstrated that public relations work was already evolving to be more than publicity and was about honest relationships with multiple publics on behalf of organizations. Time Magazine and Editor & Publisher were wickedly scathing in their assessment of the "new" profession of PR, hypocritically resorting to subjective commentary over objective reporting.

So this latest kerfluffle with the Council of PR Firms and the New York Times take on their efforts is more of the same.

I know Stuart Elliott. He graciously came to speak at Grand Valley State University at my invitation in 2003 when our School of Communications celebrated its 20th anniversary. He was a delight to spend a few days with, and he enjoyed seeing neighborhoods of Grand Rapids as I drove him to and from a TV interview about the history and future of advertising, the subject of his speech to us. It may have gone so well because, ahem, the New York Times PR office assisted in the trip.

But I wonder if his resorting to casting PR as "spin" in his recent article is the tired habit of trying to find an engaging lead over an honest and balanced report. Or kit could be laziness in falling on a cliche or stereotype rather than really listen to the subjects of the story and report it, even if it means interviewing several sources in the field to show a balanced perspective. I worry that Elliott lets his opinion out, and his opinion is not well formed, as evidence by some passages in his article that assert attempts to influence are at odds with transparency and honesty. I would love to ask his opinion of newspaper editorials.

None of this is to say that PR should be without criticism. There are, as in any profession, bad apples who should be called out for bad practice. But journalists should not over-generalize or stereotype entire professions. A little reporting might actually reveal, as I've noted previously, that some of the worst offenders with regard to unethical PR practice come from journalism, or are non-PR people doing PR, or have no education in PR.

But no, this media cultivation and framing of PR by journalists will likely continue. The hope comes in that many journalists, especially when you get out of the biased bi-coastal media centers, have more full and productive relationships with PR professionals. Witness a recent event sponsored by the West Michigan Chapter of PRSA in which morning news producers or anchors from all four area network affiliates stressed their need for help discovering content for their programs.

In the end, I think it best that PR people don't get too morose about select examples of journalists putting forth opinions of our field as if factual. They over-generalize PR people, let's not as PR people over-generalize journalists.

I am launching a study about this next semester. I'll be working with an undergraduate honors student looking at journalists' opinions about news releases and pitches they receive and associating their assessment of them as helpful or annoying and looking for variance based on the sender's PR credentials, actual job function and other factors.

I can't wait to report the honest results.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Click or Clique? More Specific Social Sites Trending

A group of my students presenting a public affairs case study alerted me to GovLoop, a social site specifically for people who work in government and public affairs. It is based on the Ning platform, which, as their tagline says, allows people to build and manage their own community. It's a "walled garden" approach to social media.

It's not a really new idea. Ning has been around for a while. In fact, it's been years since I joined a PROpenMic, a social community for PR professors and students.

But my own observation is that such specific industry or cause-related platforms are becoming more prevalent as people try to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio on their mainstream social networks.

Of course, it is possible to have lists on Twitter, groups of friends on Facebook, groups on LinkedIn, and communities on Google+. But even there, among my lists of students and alumni, PR profs and PR professionals, someone may share pictures of their new shoes or another cat video.

These newer places keep the social but purge the purely personal and increasingly irrelevant content. A mix of personal and professional has always been a favored aspect of social, but with the increase in users it has become harder to keep that blend suitable.

Some studies show that as few as 11% of new Twitter users in 2012 are still tweeting today. One reason is they feel too busy to maintain it after initial curiosity was satisfied. Another reason for social engagement attrition is the lack of return, i.e. there is little relevant information. These content-specific social communities are an answer for many.

I know some colleagues who have refused to jump on Twitter and Facebook, but they have accounts on Academia.edu because it is more interesting and productive for them to engage exclusively with other researchers and educators.

Meanwhile, some managers who don't want employees "wasting time" (not my view necessarily) on social media and block workplace access to Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn will allow and encourage the use of Yammer, an internal social network for employees.

In the end, some may eschew the mainstream social networks for these specific ones. Others may engage in both and use them appropriately for personal vs professional engagement. But for those of us working and teaching in public relations, it's important to be aware of these sites that are more like cliques than all about clicks. The PR practitioners in particular may need to join ning sites in their industry for business-to-business and other networking opportunities. It may not be a way to get mass reach, but it will be a way to engage a more relevant audience, and one that might not be found elsewhere.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Considering the Optics of Your Nonprofit PR Person

Some time ago a local nonprofit executive asked me an interesting question. They lead an organization that advocates for a particular type of medical condition, not unlike the many specific disease-affiliated associations and nonprofits that are out there.

The question was this: they were hiring a marketing director (don't get me started on why the position is called marketing vs PR--a subject for another blog post) and wondered if I know anyone who is actually affected by the medical situation for which this particular nonprofit raises awareness and support.

I can see the logical basis for this question. It is easier and more genuine for a person to advocate for a cause in which that person clearly has a stake. But I also had a bit of a negative reaction. Does, say, the Lung Association spokesperson need to have lung disease? (The organization in question had nothing to do with the Lung Association).

Certainly, if it works out that way, fine. But I would think any organization would want to hire someone with the best communication skills, someone who knows how to advocate regardless of their personal situation. Also, someone promoting a health related cause who is not themselves affected by a particular disease can have another compelling effect on those who hear the message. If someone who has cancer is encouraging donations for cancer  research, that would seem logical. But if someone who does NOT have cancer is making the case, it makes the issue seem mainstream.

I may be wrong here, but I also think the instinct  to have a "patient" be the PR focus can border on exploitation. The public may not know why the person was hired, or if non-patients were considered for the job. But I wonder about the culture of the organization, resulting communication strategies, and the eventual employee's sense of confidence and respect if they were given preference  because of their medical condition. I hear all the time from personal acquaintances that they do NOT want their disease to define them.

As always, let me know what you think about the issue by leaving a comment.

Monday, June 30, 2014

PR Professor-Practitioner Relationships Need Mutual Understanding

The 2014 Academic Summit, sponsored by Edelman Public Relations along with PR Week, the University of Notre Dame and DePaul University, is an event that brings together PR professors and practitioners for some engaging discussion. I wasn't in attendance last week, but I did note some tweets from the meeting and one in particular caught my eye.

Richard Edelman, the well known president and CEO of the global PR firm that bears his name, made a comment in his remarks that in effect said professors need to get out more and not just stay in their office writing papers.

I have great respect for Edelman, and have used his firm's annual 'Trust Barometer" as required reading in some of my classes. But, for that reason, I was dismayed that he would imply that academic research is not of value.

I tweeted a question just to clarify. I asked Edelman what academic journals and conference proceedings he reads. It caused several retweets, comments, and even caused the editor of a well-regarded PR journal to snort aloud at the meeting.

Mr. Edelman did not respond to requests for comment.

One other academic at the conference noted that the context was that academic research is valuable, but it needs to be presented in ways that are not so full of academic jargon. That is a good point. It is possible for some academic works to be heavy on theoretical concept buzz words or statistical gymnastics seeming more intended to impress than express.

But on the other hand, the broad-brush assertion that academics "don't get out much" is a little heavy. I know from my own interactions with other PR professors that many have professional experience before getting a PhD and teaching full time. I also know that once they become PR professors, many of them stay very much engaged with the practitioners in the field through conferences like the Academic Summit and other regular interactions ranging from coffee with local pros to faculty externships. And the papers that we academics write are largely based on "getting out" there and studying actual PR practice and consequences. We don't just sit in a campus office and stroke our chins and venture a guess. Some of us, myself included, still practice PR as consultants ourselves, and also take on local clients for class projects where concepts are applied directly.

Methods from content analysis, to focus group, to survey and others are all about engaging real professionals. But academics go beyond reporting raw data and percent response. They look for the reasons behind the response, the cause and effect that is consistent and can be predictive over time. That can be hard to understand because of the methodological mumbo-jumbo or precision required in defining concepts. But if the results can be communicated to practitioners, that is of tremendous value and considerable practical. Indeed, informing the field--of academics and practitioners, and of course our students--should be the reason we do research.

Certainly, academics need to have a solid and grounded--we academics might say valid--understanding of what PR professionals do every day. But professionals, rather than eschewing academic research, theory, and unfamiliar words, should seek to understand it and apply it. This is one reason I'm an advocate of open-access journals, so professionals can access research without needing access to a university library or membership in academic organizations. I applaud PRSA for having its PR Journal available online. And, if you read the previous post on this blog, that is why I do a summary of journal articles for PR pros and students periodically.

At the end of the day, the professor-practitioner relationship can have mutual benefit if we all try to honestly understand each other.