Tuesday, October 03, 2017

PR is the Talent that Attracts and Retains Talent

An article in last week's Grand Rapids Business Journal alerted me to another study about "talent." It's become almost cliche' to say that CEOs value "attracting and retaining top talent." This study was no different in that regard, but it did have a refreshing emphasis on communication as a tool to acquire and keep a skilled workforce.

The 2017 Gallagher Benefits Strategy and Benchmarking Survey  had the usual discussion of benefits, salary and quality of life. But near the end it had this gem: communication is a key factor in employee satisfaction. What I especially appreciated was a comment from one of the executives of Gallagher, an insurance, risk management and consulting firm. He noted the need for a comprehensive communication strategy to communicate the solutions human resources provides, but that only 15% of companies have such a comprehensive strategy.

This not a revelation to people who work in or teach public relations, particularly those who focus on what is typically called internal or employee relations. It's a specialty form of public relations, focused on a specific public--employees. When I teach public relations management and other courses, I devote some time to the objectives and strategies of employee relations. I know more than a few PR professionals, including a growing number of former students, whose full-time job is to manage internal communications.

There is an increasing number of books on employee communication, including the recent "Excellence in Internal Communication Management" by professors Rita Men and Shannon Bowen (writing this blog post reminded me to order it!). The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), which has special interest sections for various specialties within the broad profession, has long had an Employee Communications Section.

All of this is to say that it's good to see the CEOs and management consultancies are understanding that communication is vital to the talent problem, and that communication is not just "getting the word out" but requires strategy that is tailored to the public and the goal. This comes from educated and practiced public relations professionals. They may be embedded in the human resources department, or they assist HR from their separate PR department. But however it's structured, a PR professional is both a tool in the talent acquisition and retention of an organization and a form of talent in it's own right.

The fact that PR "talent" is also sought is evident in the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast that there will be a 6% increase in demand for "PR specialists" between 2014 and 2024. I think it will be higher if the definition of "what they do" on the BLS site went beyond "maintaining a favorable image" and "sending news releases." That may have summed it  up in 1914 when "public relations" was new. But the profession is far more diverse than that now, including employee relations.

I would hope that the focus on "talent" will help CEOs and others see the full breadth of what public relations is and can do for a company. One day managers will place as much emphasis on employee relations as they do on consumer relations.

As one example. consider the simple "employee life cycle" that mimics cycles for products or consumer engagement. To truly attract and retain talent, companies need to be thinking about what and how they communicate through all stages:

  • before even hiring, reputation matters. Potential employees look at how current employees are treated, and people talk! The goal is to become an employer of choice in your industry or region, the place top talent would love to work if possible. 
  • when hiring, process matters. This is the initial relationship formation stage. Communication needs to be frequent, transparent, and respectful.
  • the employment stage is obviously the crucial one, and must go beyond dissemination of information and policy. That's necessary, but the objective needs to be motivation, morale, and retention. More than cheerleading is required.
  • the exit, whether by retirement, job change or termination, must be managed wisely. Good companies do exit interviews to understand why an employee is leaving, and to get honest reflection on their time with the company. Excellent companies have alumni employee programs and keep in touch years after employment, recognizing that former employees are their best ambassadors in talent acquisition. 
While much of the emphasis on attracting talent focuses on employees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), I would hope CEOs in those and other industries see the wisdom and benefit in attracting and retaining PR talent as well.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Nonprofit boards--PR vital, pay optional

MiBiz reported recently that the National Association of Nonprofit Organizations and Executives (NANOE) advocates that members of nonprofit organization boards should be compensated financially and also provide more oversight to the organizations on whose boards they serve.

The MiBiz article notes that nonprofit executives in Michigan "bristle" at the notion, and with good reason. For one, pay should be optional. Of the thousands of nonprofit organizations in existence, many can not afford to pay more than an executive director or much staff, let alone board members. Also, many board members work for love of the cause or a desire to engage in some community service. The fact that they work pro bono does not mean they do not take seriously their oversight role.

But what struck me even more is that NANOE suggests there should be four specific nonprofit board roles: an "enterprise development" specialist, a mission specialist, a CPA and a lawyer. I think this roster makes sense but falls short.

My own research, published as a chapter in the book "Public Relations in the Nonprofit Sector: Theory and Practice," is an investigation of nonprofit boards and their public relations capacity, or lack thereof. Based on an investigation of executives of Michigan nonprofit organization, the results are mixed.

While a majority (76%) said that communications with stakeholders was a role and capacity sought in board members, only 11% indicated it was the most important board member ability. Other capacities included knowledge of the organization's cause or mission and fundraising ability. While 52% said they had at least one board member with PR education or experience, this may be due to the fact that 75% define public relations as “getting the word out.”

The good news is that PR and communications ranked high--after some of these other functions--as an important knowledge or skill set for board members to have. But there is work to be done in building understanding in the nonprofit community of what PR is in the first place--including relationship building, branding, reputation management, and strategies both internal and external.

It's interesting to read NANOE's idea for nonprofit boards, but it's short-sighted to impose it on all organizations as a one-size fits all strategy. It flies in the face of tailored strategy and organizational individuality. It also runs the risk of damaging hard-won reputation and community relations. Ironically, a board member with some PR savvy would be able to offer this counsel.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Entitled Employer

I hear a lot from professionals in public relations and advertising about how some (emphasis on some) college students are too "entitled." There are frequent articles in the mainstream media and in various blogs about the concept too. To a degree, there is truth to the assessment.

But unfortunately, too many employers and others have latched on to this "entitlement" meme to the point that it is painting with a broad-brush all college students and recent grads. It is an unfair stereotype.

What's worse, it has gone too far in some cases that it is the employer who is entitled.

Let's be clear about what entitled means. It is the notion that some "milennials" think they are owed a good job with high salary and benefits, even though they have not proven themselves yet. Again, there is some truth among some young people in this regard. I and my colleagues coach them to be humble and patient and the rewards will come, but they can't expect it the day after graduation.

However, an incident and series of interactions with alumni last week made me think about the other side of this story.

One alumna messaged me about an upsetting experience. She had been interviewing with someone about a potential job and got an offer, but it was for less than her current salary and minimal benefits. She countered by asking for a salary that was the same as her current level and noting that she would need benefits to move.

The employer responded by posting a video on social media where he--after narcissistically telling his own story--complains about "entitlement." He did not mention my former student by name, but it implied the video post was a response to her not accepting his low-ball offer.

Aside from the gum chewing and back lighting in the video, this employer makes significant mistakes. Sure, he is an entrepreneur who made his own sacrifices to launch his successful businesses. That is admirable. But that is not a valid reason to exploit potential employees, to make others sacrifice just because he did. He is confusing his past experience for the present labor market, which is often described as a "talent shortage." It's short sighted and a guaranteed opportunity cost for him to turn away good talent because he wants to see the world within the walls of his own business.

Consider that this alumna is not seeking her first job, but her third. She had good internships in college, worked for little in her first job to gain experience, leveraged that for her next job, pretty much is rocking that job and would be an asset for this employer. There are different ways to struggle, to pay ones dues, to move up the ladder. She did not start her own business but she was her own brand, and in fact very similar to this employer. They should see eye to eye, but the fact that they don't means he is not seeing clearly.

Let me give  other examples from talking to alumni in just the past week.

One is a young man who graduated two years ago and I noticed on LinkedIn that he landed a good job as an account executive in New York City. I congratulated him and we had a good dialog. He had done a lengthy internship in Grand Rapids while in college, got a job at a Detroit agency after college where he worked on a national account. But he left because, wait for it, he wanted "more of a challenge." In his job search he had, wait for it again, several offers in New York but the agency he now works for offered more interesting challenges.

Local video-posting, gum-chewing, entitled employer--are you getting this? Multiple offers in New York. Wanted more of a challenge. That is not entitled. That is talent and work ethic.

Later last week two alumna who had driven up from Chicago at the invitation of a colleague who advises our PRSSA chapter made a visit to one of my classes. They both told their stories of networking, working for low pay or a post-graduate internship, staying humble, doing whatever task was thrown at them. Today, a year out of college, they are both happy and working at an international PR firm and a digital agency in Chicago.

There was a time any of these alumni might have worked  for low pay and benefits  for the chance to gain experience with a Grand Rapids start-up. But they did that elsewhere. They have been there and done that. They have their own stories to tell, even if they don't post gum-chewing videos. They were snatched up by employers in New York and Chicago, or they are staying put at their current Grand Rapids employer.

They know the employers to pursue, and the ones to avoid. The latter are the entitled ones.

Monday, January 16, 2017

What's Old is New Again: PR News Bureaus

I was glancing through the Grand Rapids Business Journal's 2017 "Book of Lists," jumping to the advertising and public relations section of course, and read a short article in that section in which a particular sentence jumped out at me:

"In recent years, many PR firms have created in-house news bureaus to aid in getting their stories told." The GRBJ subsequently explained that these news bureaus allow firms to pitch fully packaged news stories versus just a pitch to an editor who has to decide whether to invest time and resources to cover the story.

This is why this jumped out at me: I am currently re-reading Stewart Ewan's "PR! The Social History of Spin". Ewan recounts how AT&T, in the early 1900s, was being innovative by employing a mix of paid advertising and "packaged news items". This activity was formalized in AT&Ts Information Department, later renamed, wait for it, the Public Relations Bureau.

In other words, what the GRBJ states is a phenomenon of "recent years" among PR firms was actually done a century ago by major corporations.

What's interesting to me is why this aspect of PR history is considered "new" again. It has to do in my opinion with the media landscape. In the early 1900s there was an surge in "new" media that coincided with increasing leisure and reading time of an expanding literate public. Publishers needed information to feed their growing audiences, not unlike the call for "content" today. TIME Magazine was founded in 1923 and by two twenty-something Yale grads who proclaimed that people needed a "news weekly" to make sense of all the overwhelming volume of information. Radio came onto the scene in 1919 with a first commercial radio station, and by the end of the decade there were radios in many homes.

These days, with the proliferation of digital content and the shrinking resources of journalism, some packaged content also looks welcome.

But we also have to be careful in the current era of sponsored content and fake news that we PR professionals are honest in our presentation of news whether via earned or owned media. This reminds me of a little bit of "the rest of the story" as Paul Harvey would say.

In 1927 a man named Arthur Page became AT&Ts Vice President of Public Relations. He's a PR hero of mine because he used the term public relations, not "press agent" or "publicity man," and because he was at the vice president level of the largest corporation at the time.

But he should also be heroic to all of us for how he practiced PR. For one, he noted by the late 1920s that he didn't do press releases and publicity much anymore, but counseled management on their relationship with their publics. Yes--that is the essence of PR, not getting publicity.

Page is also heroic for his principles of practice codified subsequently and encouraged currently by the Arthur Page Society. The first two are my favorites: tell the truth, and prove it with action. They serve as good reminders in any era of PR, and especially now when digital media offers opportunity but also temptation to be less than ethical in our communication.

So even as PR practices like news bureaus are both as old as silent films and as new as Snapchat, there are principles that remain timeless. I continue to embrace and encourage innovation in our field of public relations, but also a mindfulness of our history and our responsibility to be ethical in our practice.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Tech Media Now Must Take Role of Journalists

As the media shake-up continues, it seems that the role and responsibility of "journalism' is shifting from conventional news organizations to the modern digital companies responsible for the changes.

Consider the confluence of recent headlines.

Today I read that the Detroit News is offering buyouts to all journalists on staff, no matter the role or length of service, in order to meet new budget guidelines as the economic model of traditional journalism continues to struggle. This is just the latest in a long list of news outlets reducing reporting  and editing staff.

The shrinking of conventional journalism means an erosion of the role journalists should play in our society in several ways.

One is the role of providing a public forum. For years the letters to the editor and op-ed pages were what the taverns and coffee shops were modern communication--a place for what German scholar Jurgen Habermas called the "public sphere", where citizens discussed and informed themselves about politics and other news of the day.

But these days, people don't need the op-ed pages and letters forum to engage in public debate. Even the online comments sections on mainstream news organizations' apps and websites are losing traction, so much so that some news sites are eliminating comments. People talk about news on social media. Traditional media don't host the conversations, they participate.

Another journalistic function being taken away from journalists is the editing and verification role. Sure, the digital revolution made communication more of a democracy, but it also made it more of a cacophony. Tech companies like Facebook and Google--where much of the control of society's information has shifted--are being asked to vet content they allow into the public realm after reports of fake news appearing along side legitimate information. Facebook and Google don't want to take on this function. It means moving from what the law would call providing access to providing content. Essentially, it means they are being asked to move from being a technology company to being news organizations, going from algorithm to journalism.

In a similar way, Facebook has recently been embroiled in controversy over targeting ethnic groups in Facebook advertising. Micro-targeting is a huge advantage in digital advertising, particularly on Facebook, as a speaker to the GVSU Advertising Club recently shared. This is largely an ethical issue, since in some cases--such as housing ads--certain ethnic groups have been excluded. It raises the old question of do we mainstream all minorities in our communication? Is targeting them a positive way of reaching out to them or is it a negative way of marginalizing them? A lot depends on intent, and requires human oversight.

So even as our technology changes, the issues in our society--and our need for a professional class that can report, monitor, verify, curate and edit content--will be needed.

Advertising and public relations professionals who understand ethics and have integrity can and should fill some of this social role.

But I also wonder if certain former employees of the Detroit News and other "old media" will be snapped up by tech companies like Google, Facebook and other companies who realize the formulas of technology can't fully replace the art and wisdom of actual human agents.

Friday, October 21, 2016

PR and Podcasting

A few weeks ago I was musing in a class discussion that podcasts may not be for everyone. As for me, someone who consumes a lot of media, I would prefer to read. I can read faster than I can listen in real time. I can skim, skip, and delete to get through more content faster. So while I have a few podcasts in my iTunes podcast app on my phone and tab in my laptop iTunes software, they tend to add up while I am busy reading through my blog feeds, email newsletters, academic journal table of contents alerts, and even books on both Nook and hard copy.

But then the evidence to the contrary about the popularity of podcasts started accumulating. Local media and a student organization launched new podcasts. I participated in a Twitter chat about podcasts, and I started a discussion in a LinkedIn group of PR professionals to ask about podcasts.

GVSU PRSSA's Podcast.
One new podcast is PR Hangover, recently launched by the GVSU PRSSA chapter. The podcast is a bi-weekly recap of the chapter's meetings as well as interviews with officers and other news about the student PR group.

Student Kelly Darcy, who has a background working for WCKS 'The Whale" student radio, hosts the podcast. She says the primary audience is PRSSA members, from GVSU and other chapters, but also other young professionals. They've had more than 100 listeners on their Mixcloud account already, and more will come as more episodes are released (there are 5 as of this posting) and now that they are also available on iTunes.

"I am using a Blue Snowball iCE condenser microphone (soon to be two of those, for better sound quality) and recording/editing in Garage Band on my Macbook," Darcy said. "There wasn’t much a learning curve, but after being involved with the radio I had a pretty good grasp on how to record, do sound checks, watch my levels, all of that. Google has also been my best friend."

Even with her radio experience, Darcy is learning a lot doing the podcast and sees the importance of the skill for aspiring PR professionals. She said her peer millennials are constantly on the go but crave learning, and podcasts serve as blogs for busy people.

Pat Evans, a reporter for the Grand Rapids Business Journal and the host of its new podcast, also expects to reach a younger audience with this extension of the weekly paper.

"As the GRBJ Podcast grows and establishes a footing and consistency, it can help us attract a younger demographic along with the growing segment of people who no longer pick up a physical newspaper, don't get to their email or don't have time to read their news," Evans said.

Evans also had experience in college that helped him, in his case doing podcasts for the State News at Michigan State University. But they brought in a sound engineer and producer to ensure the audio quality is professional. He says the radio format isn't too strange for a print journalist--he just forgets the microphone is there and has a conversation like he would in a regular interview.

Both the college student group and the local media outlet have specific reasons for their podcasts, but they also are using them as a PR tactic that serves to expand their reach, educate audiences, and build their brand. 

I asked about using podcasts for PR purposes in the PRSA LinkedIn group and got positive responses from PR professionals in agency, corporate, association and county government settings. A woman from a law firm said audio is less intimidating than video and the casual nature of the conversations gave the lawyers a friendly reputation. Another professional said the podcasts established their company as industry thought leaders. The professional in county government said podcasting was an effective way to educate constituents about county services. 

One of my pet peeves about podcasts is that the audio is not rich or the participants mumble. Podcasts have to have quality sound or people bail. However, everyone I talked with said GarageBand, Pro Tools and other software make this aspect easier. It's just important to test sound levels and quality before posting. 

I also asked about length. As I said at the outset, I'm busy and can't sit still for too long "just listening." My commute is only about 20 minutes. Evans said the length is determined by the guest and how interesting the conversation is. Darcy said they've tested several lengths and a medium length seems best. For both of them the average length is 20-30 minutes. 

However, in a Twitter chat about podcasts hosted by Ragan Communications, social media guru Shel Holzsaid his listeners are not put off by podcast episodes that last an hour and a half. So the length depends on the subject matter as well as audience interest and media consumption preferences. 

The bottom line here is that podcasts are a good and relatively easy tool for modern PR professionals. They offer a new format with the advantage of intimacy and also efficiency for people on the go. They also are a new media relations opportunity. A 20-minute interview on a podcast by GRBJ or other media is a wonderful long-form media placement.

If you want to learn more about this yourself, Ragan is offering a Podcasting Boot Camp for Business Communicators next Wednesday.

Meanwhile, I'll be listening. In addition to the two podcasts mentioned above, I subscribe to "PR Week Review", "WSJ Media Mix", "Inside PR", "On the Media", and my quirky interest, "Presidential", a series of historical reviews of all US presidents. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

4 Shocking Facts About PR Ethics

September is Ethics Month for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). So before the month runs out, I wanted to chime in on the subject.

If the headline got you to come here, well good. I used the ethically questionable "click bait" tactics of using a number and offering a list, and the word "shocking" probably had you expecting something negative and therefore compelling.

But what actually will shock you is the four things I will impact here about PR and ethics are largely positive. Read on:

1. PR is inherently ethical.  Many people associate PR as "spin" or deception or mere image gloss. And, to be sure, there are some practicing PR that do that. But when their bad deeds come to light the media and others call it a "PR" scandal. This itself is untrue, unfair, uninformed and unethical to paint an entire profession with a broad brush to imply that PR is by definition unethical. That's the shocker: PR, if properly understood and practiced the way it is taught, is ethical by definition. It is impossible to be unethical if PR is done as,what academics call the "two-way symmetrical" model of PR practice. That means that the essence of the field is to build and maintain relationships of mutual benefit, to balance an organization's interest with the interests of society. Some might say that's easy to say but it doesn't happen that way all the time. No, it is aspirational or normative theory. But it also is empirical--it has been observed that PR professionals DO counsel management and co-workers and clients according to this view of the field. Every profession has bad examples; but bad examples are violating professional standards, not defining them.

2. PR is the ethical conscience of the whole organization. Because the public relations function is the only one that considers all publics and works to build positive relationships with all of them, it is best suited to ensure an ethical conscience and culture not just in the PR department or function but throughout the whole organization. An educated PR professional is well trained to listen to all publics, see the big picture, and advise management of all functional areas in ways that ensure ethical considerations are put in practice. If so, crises are prevented, operations are productive, employee retention is enhanced, and profit is achieved.

3. PR problems are most often caused by other people. When an organization is caught in activity that is seen as unethical by a reasonable public, it is called a 'PR scandal,' as mentioned previously. But closer examination of situations reveals that often and even most of the time the deed was done by a CEO, someone in marketing, someone in law, or any other functional area. They may not have sought or did not listen to advice from a "real" PR person. If they had, the ethical lapse is less likely to have happened because, as noted in number 1, the public interest would have been considered.

4. PR as a profession contributes as much positive to society as medicine, law and technology. Ethicists talk about a profession's "role morality," or what is it that the profession contributes to society. Some think that an occupation does not deserve to be called a "profession" unless it has a positive and vital benefit to society. Public health and civil management of disputes are why medicine and law are considered as obvious professions. As for PR, it is all about enabling informed decision making in a democratic society. Whether promoting a product or advocating a point of view on a cause, the public is well served if they have information representing all views. If PR people practice ethically according to a code of ethics and do not manipulate or hide information, they are fulling not just their occupational role but a necessary social one as well.