Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Journalists Move from Mainstream to Trade Publications, and Offer New PR Opportunities

In the early weeks of the semester in my media relations class, I go over the media landscape for students. College students typically are not well aware of the various media outlets or how and why they cover news. This has been especially interesting in this era of media transformation, where legacy media have apps and multiple digital platforms in addition to traditional formats.

One of the things I always tell my students is to consider small, niche outlets, such as suburban weeklies, minority media, bloggers, digital-only outlets, and trade publications. These media outlets may have smaller reach, but they are more likely reach the audience most appropriate for the content a PR professional has to share. If a trade publication, there is an increased likelihood they will be interested in your industry-specific news release or pitch.

So I was interested to see another local example of a former mainstream media reporter striking out on his own to fill a gap with a new series of trade publications. In this case, it's Rob Kirkbride, formerly a business reporter with the furniture industry as part of his beat, launching several new global publications to cover that industry with greater depth.

He recently launched Bellow Press with two partners, a company that produces "Business of Furniture" and "Workplaces" magazine. Shandra Martinez, business reporter at Kirkbride's former employer Mlive (before that the Grand Rapids Press), offers a nice overview of the new venture, including one industry PR pro's positive reaction to the depth of coverage the trade publications will provide.

It has been interested to watch what happens to former journalists who have left newsrooms across the country as the digital revolution spreads audience, lowers advertising revenue, and thus shrinks the size of newsroom staff. Many have gone into public relations, some taken to freelancing for newly created media outlets, such as Bridge Magazine in Michigan. Some, like Kirkbride, are getting entrepreneurial and finding a niche subject and market for trade publications.

This matters to PR professionals for several reasons. Primarily, as old media decrease and change, we need to be constantly monitoring the media landscape for new ways to reach audiences. Much of what we do now is owned or shared media, but old fashioned earned media also has new opportunities. We need to think not in mass reach to impress clients and bosses with numbers, but focused, targeted and strategic messaging. Trade publications offer this piece of a media mix. PR professions in a given industry should watch for more emerging publications in their arena to monitor competition, spot and respond to consumer trends, and position their companies as industry leaders to grow and maintain business-to-business as well as consumer relationships.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Going LIVE! Can Kill Relationships

The new Facebook Live is popular. I know this because my phone is blowing up with notifications that so-and-so is now live.

These live posts are from everyone. There are friends showing their antics at the lake, or an activity at the office. There are self-appointed gurus of advertising, public relations, or something else posting live commentary. The various media outlets I follow have been going live, even the print ones that used to mock TV for going LIVE! for nebulous reasons. And of course various consumer brands and nonprofit organizations are going live at their events and for other reasons.

As I posted recently on my own Facebook account--those who go live too often will soon be dead to me.

Here is the problem with all technology: too many people use it because it is new, because they can, or because others are as opposed to harnessing some discernible value for themselves or others they are hoping to serve. This is now evident again with Facebook Live.

Many people are jumping on the bandwagon, going live because they can, not because there is some merit or reason for real-time proclamation or airing of whatever content they have.

There's a current ad that speaks to this, the one about the lawn mower. "It's not how fast you mow, it's how well you mow fast." The humor in the ad is that this silly statement becomes a meme. But it inspires me to offer a suggestion about live posting, on Facebook Live, Periscope, or other platforms: it's not that you can go live, but why and how you do it.

So let me offer some cautionary commentary to individuals and brands about going live. You can read this right now or later, it's up to you.


  • Everyone is doing it is not an excuse for children or professionals. If you see others doing something, you do not need to also do it. It should not be about how cool you look or keeping up with others. It should be about offering value to whomever you want to or expect to view your content. 
  • Consider the context and environment. Again, if everyone is going live, then your live offering will more likely be seen as an annoyance than a contribution. We quickly cross a line from interesting to intrusive and inundation. 
  • Time-shifting is also a thing. A key motivator in media consumption, particularly TV but other media as well, is the public control of WHEN. We record programs to binge watch later. We stream music playlists more often than listening to radio. We catch up with friends and any brands we follow on social media when we have a moment. So the live movement is contradicting this media convention. 
  • Having something to say is a better motivator than having to say something. Content itself can not be a commodity. There has to be something meaningful there, or it is only noise. How you say things also matters as much as what you say. So Live content must have an urgency or timelines to it that justifies a live notification--another one along with all the others--that justifies it.
In a nutshell, PR and Ad pros responsible for social media management need to be judicious about live content. Try to be interesting and instructive, not merely an interruption. Just as sending news releases daily to a newsroom has a "cry wolf" effect in which you'll soon be ignored, posting too much and too irrelevant live content will get you unfollowed in real-time. Here are a few ideas that might merit going live:

  • Legitimately urgent information. This could be really positive information, your own version of 'breaking news,' that has actual urgent interest to your publics, or it could be an added means of transparency and efficiency in crisis communication.
  • Live events. A nonprofit donor-recognition dinner, a corporate product launch event, a government speech. We can be the media with these and other types of events. Remember to base the decision to go live on viewer interest and not personal or organizational ego.
  • Engagement. Live offers the opportunity for virtual conversations and presentations, a Facebook version of a press conference. Allow people to ask questions via email or some other social platform, and respond on camera in the Facebook Live platform. 
I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has used Facebook Live creatively, if you've measured the response of intended viewers, or other thoughts you have on the topic.

Monday, June 06, 2016

West Michigan Firms Win Awards for 'Good' Advertising and PR

It is interesting to me that a conversation with students about certain professors in other major programs bad-mouthing the ethics of advertising and public relations coincided with news of two local West Michigan firms that earned awards not only for their work, but the fact that it exemplifies socially conscious communications work.

In my spring Fundamentals of Public Relations course, during a discussion of ethics in public relations, several students complained that professors in other courses labeled PR or advertising as nothing short of evil. While it is good to have students consider the negative consequences of some  in the field, it is also paradoxically unethical for someone from outside the field to make such a broad brush stereotype declaration about an occupation. It's what scholars call a synecdoche, in which a part (or one bad example, often of someone not even in PR) serves as representative of the whole profession.

So I was delighted to learn of not one, but two West Michigan firms recently lauded for their ethical and socially aware practice.

First, the Image Shoppe became the first marketing firm in Michigan to be certified as a Benefit Corporation, also called a B Corporation.  Basically, a B Corporation is one that meets rigorous standards we in PR call the "triple bottom line" of sustainability, which includes positive impact on the "3 Es"--economic, equity, and environment (some also use the "3 Ps" of profit, place, people). Learn more about this award in this RapidGrowth article.

Then just last week, Lambert, Edwards and Associates earned a Silver Stevie Award in the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Program of the Year category. The award is part of the annual American Business Awards.  LEA won the award for its 10,000 Scoop Challenge cause marketing program that was created for Denali Flavors, the developers of the legendary Moose Tracks® ice cream. The campaign combined grassroots networking, experiential marketing, media/celebrity engagement, media relations and product sampling into one event. Attendees are encouraged to help eat ice cream for a cause, with every scoop eaten, Denali donates $1 to the local chapter of The Salvation Army, with the goal of raising $10,000 in a four-hour window.

We celebrate creativity and meeting business objectives in our field, and we laud local examples of excellence. It's good to know that we have local firms who are also leaders in terms of not just doing good work, but doing work that does good.

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.