Monday, February 22, 2016

5 Things Educators Want Employers to Know About PR Internships

Employers--we educators love you. We love that you hire our graduates. And we love it when you take on one of our students as an intern, giving them workplace experience and often proving us right about professional standards in the process!

We know having an intern is more than just doing a favor to your local colleges. It's also more than just getting free or cheap labor. It takes an effort to hire and manage interns.

A friend and colleague with her own PR firm recently offered up a blog post to help students do a better job of presenting themselves when seeking an internship. Called "How Not to Get an Internship,"  it recounted the unfortunate story of one enterprising student's sloppy cover letter.

I should say that professors and their college Career Services office do a lot of training to help students avoid embarrassing first professional encounters. We wish all students would put such advice to use, but we can't be ever-present.

I would also like to encourage employers to do a few things to ensure they get good interns, and to help us in education by reinforcing the standards we set for what an internship is. Here are a few suggestions:


  1. Remember that an internship is considered the application of concepts and skills learned in class. Some employers seem to take any available student--a "warm body"--without consideration of particular preparedness. Don't assume all college students are the same.
  2. Have a clear job description for your internship. If the student is doing an internship for credit, an appointed faculty internship supervisor will examine the job description to see if the student has met the course requirements to be ready to fulfill described internship duties.
  3. Have students formally apply, and interview them. Internships are job experiences, and that includes the interview and hiring process. It also protects employers and saves grief for faculty members. Ask students what year they are in college, which specific courses they have had that prepare them for the internship duties as defined.
  4. Supervise the intern. In PR this can be a challenge in some cases, because some employers hire a student PR intern precisely because they have no PR staff. In that case, it's especially important to hire an upper-level student who knows what PR is and how to do it. If you are a PR professional, remember that an internship is a bit of a trade-off--you get someone to help with the work load but you have to provide the oversight and assist them in this hands-on learning and application experience. Give candid feedback remembering that this is about the student learning.
  5. Pay them. This is a challenge for some, but even a stipend to cover gas, or a lump sum to help cover the tuition students pay if the internship is for credit. Remember that federal law says interns must be paid and/or getting credit or it is not an internship. They can have both, but if they have neither you have to call them a volunteer. Also remember that paid internships attract the best students.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Some Thoughts on Being an Ethical PR Professional

I spoke earlier today on an ethics panel at the monthly meeting of the West Michigan Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (WMPRSA). I was joined by Jim Wojcik of Central Michigan University (and my college media advisor more years ago than I care to count). 

Jim went over some specific PR ethics cases and issues. I gave the broad strokes, focused on what motivates PR professionals to be ethical, or what influences them into unethical actions.

I started by sharing information from a couple of studies on the subject. A study of PR students (McKinnon, L.M. & Fullerton, J.A. (2014). Public Relations Students’ Ethics: An Examination of Attitude and Intended Behavior. Teaching Public Relations. (90)) showed that students identify certain behaviors as unethical (eg. lying, overbilling, copying work of others, posing as someone you are not etc.) when discussing it in class. However, they also said they would be likely to do these same unethical deeds on the job some day, in a statistically significant difference.  This can be explained by social norms theory and social judgment theory in the sense that a personal ethic in the abstract is less motivating than the organizational or social environment in concrete practice.

Another study about whether PR pros embrace the role of  “ethical conscience” of their organization (Marlene S. Neill & Minette E. Drumwright (2012): PR Professionals as Organizational Conscience, Journal of Mass Media Ethics: Exploring Questions of Media Morality, 27:4, 220-234) showed that increasingly PR pros accept this role, but barriers still exist:
  • Competence in ethics
  • Position in org structure/dominant coalition
  • Management view of PR and ethics
  • Organizational culture

The study concludes with some prescriptions to improve organizational ethics, dependent on the public relations professional: PR must influence the culture, PR must be management function, PR must speak truth to power (no yes men), PR pros must enact a management (not mere tactical) role,
and the PR professional must make the ethical case strategically and creatively to management. 

The question often comes up about how to convince a bottom-line focused management to be value ethics. Some recommendations include:
  • Tie to business goals, reputation, crisis and risk management, brand
  • Ask the “what if this headline” question
  • Stress long-term, multiple publics/objectives over short term financial metrics


I also told the professionals assembled about the PR Council (formerly Council of PR Firms) “Ethics as Culture” initiative. It's worth a look by PR pros who want to influence their organization to be more organically ethical and not treat ethics as an afterthought.

I also addressed the four types of motivations motivations to be ethical. 
  1. Personal. This motivation reminds me of Socrates, who cautioned to not do not damage to your soul. In other words, if you do things because you can get away with it or others don't object, you still may be violating ethics. It also relates to personal branding--your personal reputation could be harmed if you do something unethical even though a boss or client pressured you.
  2. Organizational. This relates to culture as mentioned above, or a policy or specific organizational code of ethics. 
  3. Professional. Another motivation is to be proud of and not wish to damage our profession of public relations. This is why the PRSA Code of Ethics has as one of its provisions the notion of Enhance the Profession in anything a practitioner does.
  4. Societal. This is the most altruistic and shows a higher order of ethical thinking, in which PR professionals balance organizational with public or societal interest. It's about the 'R' in CSR—responsibility.

Finally, I encouraged PR professionals to consider what ethicists call the "role morality" of public relations. In other words, what good does the ethical practice of our profession contribute to society? Essentially, it boils down to enabling all publics to make informed decisions. If we do this, if we span the boundaries of the organization to reach all publics and listen to them, if we respond to public interest and don't merely try to influence them, we are practicing what is called the "two-way symmetrical" form of public relations. If we do that, the profession of public relations--criticized by many--is actually inherently ethical. 

I would hope that would be a motivational thought.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Storytelling: A Renewed PR Focus

Storytelling is big. Again.

In many ways, public relations has long been about storytelling. From the early 1900s, practitioners like Ivy Lee, Edward Bernays, Arthur Page and many who aren't famous today worked to inform and influence the public largely by telling stories.

Well all that's old seems new again. I've seen the word 'storytelling' come up in conferences, job descriptions and agency titles across the country and right here in West Michigan.

For example, PRSA alerted me to a "Master the Art of the Storyteller" workshop is set for next month in Phoenix. Advertisers are in on it too, as this Adweek article about the debut of the Sundance Digital Storytelling Conference can attest.

But it really stood out to me with a couple of local announcements recently. Tom Rademacher, the long-time columnist for MLive, this week joined friend and former fellow journalist MaryAnn Sabo  at SaboPR. The news release from the firm touts Tom's title as "lead storyteller."

"Lead Storyteller is a new title for us, although my team and I have been telling our clients’ stories for many years," MaryAnn Sabo told me.  "Our team is looking at new titles that better reflect what we do and add a little fun.  Really, what does associate or senior associate — two of the longtime staples in PR — tell you about someone?"  

Rademacher as Lead Storyteller and former press photographer T.J. Hamilton hired last year as Visual Guru are the first two descriptive titles at SaboPR. Both Rademacher and Hamilton reflect a renewed emphasis on storytelling, in a multimedia fashion, versus mere information dissemination. One example of Sabo's multimedia storytelling is seen on the Children's Healing Center Facebook page.

"When I started my firm 13 years ago, most of what I did was straightforward business communication," Sabo said. "I’ve seen a significant shift over that time to more of a storytelling format — in fact, our logo (which has been around for 3+ years) and our new website (rolled out in December) reflects that shift."  

Rademacher is already hard at work, writing social media, web copy and media pitches. He'll soon be putting a lot of effort into client newsletters, donor solicitation letters, and anything where writing is key. He'll also be leading the firm's "Writing Matters" writing coaching sessions for staff and clients.

Meanwhile, Tom Hanley, formerly of Wondergem PR, launched at the beginning of the year his own firm, aptly named HanleyStory. He explains why in his new firm's first blog post. As a former journalist himself, he has long believed in the power of stories, and adapted storytelling to PR practice. 

"Our brains are hardwired to remember stories," he told me, referring to some of the articles he references in his blog post.  "Memorable stories help break through the clutter of messaging noise, and gain our attention. The arc of a story follows a path of dramatic tension that forces us to pay attention, and rewards us when a happy ending releases the feel good hormone dopamine. Advertisers and PR practitioners use these techniques to get people to buy a product, or make up their mind about an issue or an idea."

Hanley is particularly interested in helping nonprofits make fundraising case statements. He notes that in an era of diminished capacity of traditional news media, organizations can use social media, blogs and other means to tell their stories directly to their publics in more compelling ways. Part of the problem, he shares, is that many people don't see or share the big picture of what their business or nonprofit is about, and storytelling is a way to do that.

"I have found in my career that people in business or non-profits wear blinders to focus on their own jobs and miss the big picture of the impact created by their company or organization," he said. "I believe a storytelling approach of asking the right questions guides people to think about impact and outcomes rather than the day-to-day operations."


Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Reluctance to Wear Apple Watch--Theory in Practice

I read with interest this article in Fortune about people who bought an Apple watch not wearing them.

If you look at the specific reasons why people aren't wearing the latest tech gadget, they match the key concepts of the Diffusion of Innovation Theory. In addition to spelling out the main types of adapters of innovation, the theory addresses the five specific factors that influence--or inhibit--adoption of technologies. Those five factors seem at play in the Apple watch owners:

  1. Relative Advantage - The degree to which an innovation is seen as better than the idea, program, or product it replaces.
  2. Compatibility - How consistent the innovation is with the values, experiences, and needs of the potential adopters.
  3. Complexity - How difficult the innovation is to understand and/or use.
  4. Triability - The extent to which the innovation can be tested or experimented with before a commitment to adopt is made.
  5. Observability - The extent to which the innovation provides tangible results.
Relative advantage relates to "missed my old watch." Compatibility relates to the various "didn't like" comments. The other specific comments fall into complexity. While these owners have conducted their own trial and observation of the watch, you can see how those factors did not in this case compel them to "adopt" (i.e. wear) the watch.

I teach this theory in several of my PR classes, and like to point out to undergraduate students that theory is not boring, abstract or irrelevant. It is immensely practical in explaining human behavior, and in forming strategies as a result. 

So, I thought I'd use the latest real-world example of adoption--or rejection--of new technology to illustrate the practicality of theory once again.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Should Your Company 'Brag' About Its Good Deeds?

A news release about local hospital caught my eye as I was trolling news apps and social media. "Metro Health Named One of the Greenest Hospitals in America" was the proud headline.

There is no doubt that organizations of every stripe issue news releases to tout their success. There are even special newsfeed like CSRWire dedicated to being a clearing house for news about various forms of Corporate Social Responsibility, a hot topic in public relations for years now.

But I got to thinking about this one given some recent research I read about what consumers want to know about companies' CSR. Yes, it would seem to be good for consumers to know that companies are doing "good" in addition to just making and offering good products and services. But is it seedy for companies to toot their own horn?

CSR was the topic of a 2014 special issue of PR Journal, published and available for free online at PRSA.org. One of the articles asked my question exactly: "Public Expectations of CSR Communication: What and How to Communicate CSR."

The results are interesting and helpful to PR academics who want to further research this area, as well as to PR practitioners who can use the study to be more nuanced and strategic in the ways they share their company's and clients' CSR activities.

Here's a breakdown:

  • consumers want mostly to know "who is benefiting" from the CSR activity. So PR pros should not write to make corporations central to the story, but to tell stories of improved lives or environments;
  • as far as sources of information, consumers preferred most to hear directly from beneficiaries, with the CEO or PR spokesperson the least preferred. In general, non-corporate sources were preferred over corporate representatives. So PR pros should quote or otherwise give voice to the publics their CSR efforts helped, and let the CEO and themselves be silent or a minimal part of the story;
  • in somewhat of a surprise, consumers liked to hear about CSR more from company controlled media like annual reports, social media, web sites, newsletters and so on as opposed to news media or expert blogs. My guess is this is as much about accountability and detailed information than it is about a particular source preference. But it is worth noting.
So the bottom line is that the news release I saw may be ok, since it was directly from the company and in fact quoted a third-party ranking of the hospital's green efforts, and it stressed the community benefit. 

For everyone else, don't play faux humility about CSR efforts, but also don't be too self-righteous. Strive for that middle ground where the company is in the background and the beneficiary is the star. Also, don't think media relations is the best when consumers are looking to your "owned" media for CSR information.

When it comes to doing good, it really is nice to share.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Insta Thoughts on Increased Popularity of Instagram

Instagram has reached 400 million monthly users, Adweek reports.

The social site which enables "instant" sharing of photos, as well as video, and of course text, has grown by 100 million users just this year.

It's easy to get all crazy excited about this, especially if you work in PR and have digital and social media as part of your job responsibilities.  But let me give some "instathoughts" about the news.


  • It's monthly users.  That means it takes a month to get 400 million people to use Instagram. That means people don't use it what could be called "regularly" in our hyper mediated world. They could use it daily, weekly, monthly. We don't have that data in this report. But the use is occasional.
  •  75% of those 400 million reside outside the US. That is fascinating if you work for an NGO or MNC and want to reach a global audience. But if you have a more domestic focus, you are talking about 100 million, or one-third of the U.S. population.
  • Instagram started as and still primarily is a photo sharing site. That means to engage those users--if you still want to, given the above--you need to think and act visually. Does the organization story you have and want to tell have a visual aspect? If yes, go for it. If not, maybe Instagram in spite of its growth is not right for you.
  • It's a social medium. Just because there are a lot of people on Instagram or any other social site doesn't mean they are patiently waiting for messaging from businesses and nonprofit organizations. They want to engage with friends and network with individuals mostly, and maybe, if the content is right and not too overtly a marketing message, they'll pay attention to a brand message. 
  • Sometimes less is more. People are still lured by large numbers, but the growth of Instagram in volume of users may not mean it's an easy targeting opportunity for brands. Consider networking in person. If you walk into a room of 20 people you may have more meaningful engagement than a room of 200, 2,000, or more. It's the paradox and tension of digital media and the nature of attention--more people means more chaos. Remember that in social the people are not just an audience, they are the participants and the messages as well. You have to find a way to be relevant, engaging and real. So, work to find niche audiences within Instagram.
All of the above is just some quick critical thinking about this news. There is still rich opportunity on Instagram, but it must be considered realistically and strategically.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Nature Conservancy Shows Good Visual PR (But Caution About Ads)

The Nature Conservancy has a project that is a good example of employing visual PR, i.e. video, to reach audiences in a compelling and educational way.

Their video collection of Michigan preserves caught my eye recently. I have worked with various environmental organizations in the past and know that it can be a challenge to educate a mass public about what a preserve is, how they are arranged, and why people should care. This is one case where visual communication is compelling and I would imagine effective to show rather than merely tell in this case.

I was alerted to the video series in an online article on MLive, this one focusing on the video about the headwaters of the Grand River, which flows from near Jackson to Lake Michigan at Grand Haven, thus meandering through many MLive readership markets. So the Nature Conservancy has the videos and is doing the media relations to get the word out about them. Kudos for that.

I did notice one thing that provides a cautionary tale about PR pros using online video across sites and platforms. While the videos hosted on the Nature Conservancy site simply play from the beginning, on MLive I was served up a pre-roll ad before the video played. No huge problem there--MLive is a media company and like any business needs to make a profit. But this particular ad was advocating that tracking or shale oil drilling can be done safely. I will not get into the pros/cons of that particular issue. But the point is that such an ad may conflict with the Nature Conservancy's mission and brand, and they don't have control over which ads run as a preface to its own video.

What do do? Organizations can hope that viewers will make the distinction between ad message and their own content. Or they can restrict views of videos to proprietary sites without ads. Or media companies could start paying more attention to not just content but sentiment of ads and try to offer some compatibility, such as we have seen in print over the years with some human judgment about ad placement relative to editorial content.