Saturday, December 23, 2006

WMEAC Puts PR on Top

PR pros continue to argue that public relations is a management function that should report directly to the top, provide counsel to other management, and help make decisions as opposed to merely communicating them.

So I was happy to see that the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) had named a former PR professional as its new executive director. Rachel Hood, a former corporate community advocate for Metro Health who also has PR agency experience, was named to head WMEAC after the board sensed a need for a shakeup. What the organization needs more than anything is a better reputation and expanded relationships with various stakeholders in the region. Sounds like PR to me.

Good for WMEAC. Good for Rachel Hood. I hope she proves to others that a PR background is a natural proving ground for the top job in a nonprofit, or business or government organization.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Police Report!

Wow. The Grand Rapids Police Department has published an annual report. Good for them. Too many people still think annual reports are only issued by public corporations as a measure of accountability to stockholders. That's true. But the annual report is a major tool of public relations for all organizations--in the private, nonprofit, and public sectors. Annual reports are about both promotion and accountability. Or, to put in PR terms, annual reports help maintain mutual relationships with various publics.

The report is available online.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Bye Bye Barnaby

TV 8 is closing it's Battle Creek operations, and with that closure they've had to let go of some staff. Included in the layoffs is on-air personality Gerry Barnaby, a favorite among viewers for his humorous quirks and among PR pros for his agreeable nature and ability to handle a story that didn't always fit a hard news or beat category.

It will be interesting to see how hard TV 8 pushes "ABC 4" now that they don't have a physical presence in the community. This is where people need to be reminded that TV stations, like all media, are businesses. They need some public relations, community relations work in Battle Creek as they pull out. It's a nice gesture to leave their building in the cereal city to nonprofit Battle Creek Unlimited. But I hope TV 8 President and General Manager Diane Kniowski understands that even an outfit with lots of journalists on the payroll needs to consider its own public relations at times such as this. I once spoke to the National Broadcasters Asociation Community Affairs (NBACA) members. I'm available for counsel Diane....

Unleash Union Teachers

When teachers at Union High School "expressed frustration," to use the Grand Rapids Press headline, I thought they were on a good message.

Both in the Press and on other local media, these teachers were essentially saying the recent vandalism and other problems t the school were caused by a small minority of students and that it was ruining the education of the majority of students. My favorite quote was in a TV 8 interview where a teacher said, "we're here and we want to teach."

This followed the administration closing the school to clean up the vandals' mess. What was really messing though was the word that teachers were not to speak to the media. I say let them speak!

We have had nothing but bad news about the GR Public Schools for years. Now you have a group of teachers who are expressing their passion for teaching. Why stifle that? For one, basic transparency is a fundamental PR principle. But also, what a credible and positive commentary coming from these teachers. They're not complaining about contracts and benefits and other issues--they are saying they want to teach and that the majority of students want to learn. Good message.

Sure there was this "bad news" of vandalism. But like I tell my students, your reactions to the situations in life are more important than the situations themselves. The teachers' reaction was human and mostly positive. GR Public Schools should let the public see more of that.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Press Nutcracker Coverage Gets National Mention

From page D10 of today's Wall Street Journal:

""It's fun, it's traditional, and it pays the bills."

Lines such as this, from the Grand Rapids Press in a recent article by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk, abound during December all across the country. The "it" is "The Nutcracker." And, at face value, anyone vaguely aware of the profusion of "Nutcracker" ballets presented in the U.S. this time of year readily understands such assertions."

Wow. I'm sure the Press is giggling over their coverage being picked up by a big national daily. Probably resulted from the WSJ reporter's quick Lexis-Nexis search for "nutcracker" for a story about the traditional performances across the country.
But still, to be mentioned in the Wall Street Journal! Must give chills to even the most jaded reporter.

But maybe they won't care...or notice. I recall a time that a story I pitched to the Press was ignored, only to get play in the Journal.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Mobile Marketing Award for Meijer

Kudos again to Meijer, once again.

The locally based mega retailer won a Mobile Marketing Award from Advertising Age and the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) for its "SmartReply" program that allowed customers who opted in to receive text message alerts about increases in gas prices. The idea was that customers could buy gas before the price increase. Too bad the program was only done in Indianapolis--perhaps they'll launch it in the local area soon.

If you don't subscribe to Advertising Age, you can read about Meijer's award and other interesting mobile marketing info in a free download of their 2006 Mobile Marketing Guide.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Google Guy Gives Goosebumps

I was attending a simultaneous meeting of Interchange to hear a colleague speak, so I couldn't attend the December 13 Ad Club event featuring Grady Burnett of Google. But it looks like I might not have found a chair--nearly 200 of you showed up.

Good thing the Grand Rapids Press covered the event. And, unlike TV 8 a few months ago, the Press gets that Google's outpost in Michigan is about advertising, not computer science. I get excited thinking about the possibilities.

Witness my earlier post about local ad pros perhaps setting the course for the industry in the future, as opposed to folks on either coast, and you see why I get excited about Google being in our state. Even though they don't plan a physical presence in West Michigan, a lot of our local pros and students have a good shot at getting involved in the next big things in advertising, whatever they turn out to be.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

USA Today Covers Zondervan

When USA Today Religion Writer Cathy Grossman was in town to speak to the WMPRSA, she hinted she was also in town to do a story about Christian retailing. No doubt Lambert, Edwards and Associates, who sponsored the WMPRSA lunch, had a hand in arranging the story that highlights their client, Zondervan.

Not only was this a nice national placement, the USA Today article of December 13 is a pretty solid overview of Zondervan's business. It also positions West Michigan as the capitol of Christian publishing.

I just wish Grossman had done a little more reporting about the dominant local religious flavor. Calling folks "Dutch Reform" is wrong in several ways. For one, it's ReformED. Saying it her way sounds like reform school or something. Also, the term Dutch is not part of the proper name of the two denominations popular here, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) and the Reformed Church of America (RCA). Dutch may be an adjective, but it could have been clarified.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Amway and China

Amway is among the latest direct-selling firms to get a license to operate in China, according to the Wall Street Journal (subscription required).

I wonder if Governor Granholm will congratulate this Michigan company for extending its export potential into one of the world's fastest growing economies. Now that she's won the election, perhaps the governor can move on from political rhetoric to economic reality. The WSJ reports that Amway has 180,000 distributors in China. Those aren't 180,000 former Michigan jobs, however. They will be distributing products made in China, of course, but also many made right here in West Michigan.

Advertising Age predicts China will have a faster advertising growth than the U.S. in the coming year. It would be interesting to get a sense of how many other West Michigan companies are crossing the great economic wall and entering into the Chinese market. If your company is doing business, or plans to, in China, respond to this post or email me at the address above.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

PR Student Status

Richard Edelman writes in his "6 a.m." blog about his very positive impressions after an encounter with PRSSA students at the recent national conference in Salt Lake City. I concur and can make some additional comments about PRSSA students here in West Michigan, at least through my knowledge of them as advisor to the Grand Valley State University PRSSA chapter:

We are up to 30 dues-paying members and more than 60 regular attenders. And there's reason to believe that will grow. The number of Ad/PR majors at GVSU has doubled, to more than 500, in the past four years.

It's a GVSU student, Lisa Tavnik, who is the first to hold a new post of vice president of advocacy for the national PRSSA organization. Her work includes a recent statement on transparency. Nice to see our future professionals taking a strong ethical stance.

Our students, who are required to do at least one internship, have been spreading their wings from coast to coast. Recent internships have been at Oscar de la Renta in New York and Porter Novelli in LA. They also make annual visits to firms in Detroit and Chicago.

While we incorporate 20-30 "clients" into our PR courses each semester, the PRSSA chapter has started a student-run firm and is doing PR work for other student organizations and some community clients.

The group is nearly finished with a West Michigan Media Guide they will make available for sale to regional nonprofits as a fundraiser to offset their costs to attend the national conference. The guide will be updated and available each year.

Two teams are involved in the annual Bateman PR Campaigns Competition, working with me and GVSU alumna Kate Washburn of Wondergem Consulting as advisors.

All of this is done on top of their regular busy schedules and increasingly stellar work in the classroom. I'd say the industry, passion, and creativity they exhibit are a good commentary on the future of our profession.

Ad Firms Extend Own Brands

It's good to read about a couple of local ad agencies doing so well recently. Hanon McKendry landed national account Rayovac, and Alexander Marketing has opened a North Carolina office to handle increasing client work in the Raleigh area. Both are mentioned in the current Business Review.

The Hanon McKendry site touts its location in West Michigan in both text and photos. The site also has a fun blog, written by staffers, featuring commentary and links to all things creative.

The Alexander Marketing site is upfront about its locations in Grand Rapids and Chicago, with GR leading. I assume the Raleigh location will make the list soon.

I love how both firms promote their West Michigan location right up front. Why not? What's to be ashamed of? In fact, I would say that's increasingly an asset to be in places like Grand Rapids. The biggest creative innovations--Apple Computer, Google, YouTube--have come from a handful of guys in a garage. OK, it was a West Coast garage in all cases. But my point is, innovations more easily emerge from mavericks than from within the well-funded R&D division of major multi-national corporations.

In the ad biz, the Starbucks-swilling scribes on Madison Avenue in New York or the tony Rodeo Drive in LA have little concept of their target audience. In fact, they look down on us literally and figuratively when they commute at 30 thousand feet between the coasts. But their audience is here in the "flyover states." Plus, the big city shops remind me of the old saying: "If your only tool is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail." For many, the hammer is TV spots.

But the world is changing. The small nimble shops like the ones I've mentioned, not to mention the boutique agencies and sole practitioners--or two guys in a West Michigan garage--are more likely to come up with the innovative advertising solutions of the future. Those solutions will be needed to respond to a host of rapidly emerging and converging trends in the ad biz--Web 2.0, social media, consumer sovereignty, time-shifting, ad avoidance. The epicenter of the ad biz will not be where the TV studios are. It will be where the consumers are.

Bill McKendry has been saying for years that West Michigan ad shops need more respect from local clients. For too long, the "prophet in his hometown has been without honor," to paraphrase the Bible. Now that our talented local shops are getting more high-profile clients, they'll be getting respect locally and nationally. I'm feeling both proud and excited.

Memo to the Governor: forget about "pill hill" or "medical mile." Start selling this part of the state as "Advertising Avenue."

Monday, November 13, 2006

Perrigo Replies

Mike Lindemann of Perrigo replies to my post about their product recall:

"Tim,

At least someone out there is actually thinking clearly and seeing the big picture in this thing.  It's too bad ABC, CNN, and other media giants had the blinders on. 

Thanks,

Mike Lindemann
Caledonia, Michigan"

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Volunteers must apply

A little brief in the Grand Haven Tribune says North Ottawa Community Hospital (NOCH) is looking for volunteers to serve on several committees. Sounds interesting, until you read that anyone interested must submit a resume and letter of interest to the NOCH CEO, and then be subjected to an interview.

At some point this sounds less like volunteering and more like, you know, a job.

Volunteers are one of the key publics in nonprofit public relations. The key objectives for volunteers include recruiting them and retaining them. In other words, it's hard enough to keep volunteers without making people work so hard to volunteer in the first place.

Now, it may be that NOCH wants qualified volunteers. In a hospital enviornment there are no doubt some issues that must be addressed before allowing anyone off the street to volunteer. Their online volunteer application even asks for references.

Well, then, a better way to recruit them would be to identify and personally invite or more narrowly target people who would be deemed appropriate. Issuing an open call for volunteers in the local daily and then listing restrictions on being "accepted" as a volunteer could leave some potential community volunteers feeling a little ill. At the very least, a little explanation of the reason for the rigid application process would be in order, as long as a few incentives for people to volunteer given the high barriers.

Friday, November 10, 2006

You Go Perrigo

News Friday about a product recall by Perrigo warms my heart.

Not because I wish the hard work and costly reality of a product recall on Perrigo. But because the company is practicing good PR in light of a bad situation. Some of you may remember the famous Tylenol case, when Johnson and Johnson recalled bottles of aspirin because someone had tampered with them. While only a few bottles were affected, Johnson took a huge short-term loss to do the right thing. In the long term, however, the company consistently scores high on reputation surveys.

According to a press release onPerrigo's Web site, the company has made this recall voluntarily, at a cost of about $2.9 million, even though the potential impact of metallic particles found in some of the recalled generic drugs is minimal. This shows that Perrigo is considering relationships before profits. They are thinking long term. They are practiciing good, fundamental, public relations.

My only problem is that the Press and other media won't recognize this as exemplary PR. If it were a negative story, on the other hand it would be called a "PR problem." Or if Perrigo were trying to hide the facts, these efforts would be called "just PR" or "PR gimmicks."

I long for the day when we see a headline like this: "Company proves PR is inherently ethical; recalls product in interest of public."

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Good Crisis Advice

There's a good article about "Fixing the Crisis" in this week's Grand Rapids Business Journal (subscription required).

Nice to see that the advice given from all local PR pros--including yours truly--is not only strategically wise but ethically sound. Consistently, the article stresses NOT spinning, training whole organizations, responding to the problem versus covering it up, acting to prevent future crises.

The article even brings in the legal perspective, which is important. It'd be interesting to do a follow up sometime about how PR folks and legal counsel clash in crisis modes in some cases. PR practitioners advise transparency--telling the truth and proving it with action, as PR pioneer Arthur Page said in the first two of his well known PR principles. Lawyers, in some cases, counter with the reticent strategy of limiting liability and saying as little as possible. At least the attorney in this article understands the best long term advice is dealing honestly with crises immediately.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Holy Cow, Bad PR

I hate it when the news media refers to a public relations effort as a "PR stunt."

I hate it more when they have good reason to.

Witness the short piece in the Grand Rapids Press about a local PR firm's placement of a fiberglass cow downtown, bearing a sign "We're coming home." It's a cute play on the cliche "I won't see you til the cows come home." But it does reek of a stunt, gimmick, or any other pejorative noun that follows PR as an adjective.

Now, this might get some attention. But I have several questions: what is the objective?; who are the publics?; is this cow reaching them in the appropriate way to accomplish those objectives?

Maybe, but maybe not. Some would say such PR efforts are creative, innovative, a necessary reality in our multi-mediated environment. But I would argue that far from innovative, this is a throw-back to the days of PT Barnum hyping his circus and other events, and giving PR a bad name in the process that we still have to shake.

PR is about building mutual relationships. Are fiberglass cows and building mystery part of that? I say horse hockey.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Let 'Em Have Drugs

Meijer follows other big retailers in announcing they are giving away generic drugs to customers. The story on TV 8 shows how this may be more a sign of the big retailers' competitive struggle than it is an expansion of Meijer's corporate social responsibility agenda.

The Meijer press release never really says why the company is being so generous. President Mark Murray does say it is "all about higher standards," staying on message with the company's latest brand efforts.

So, we are left to wonder if this is really a "loss leader" program, an effort of slick marketing, or genuine public relations in the sense that the company is being a caring corporate citizen and trying to address a real problem. It could very well be the latter. If Meijjer is successful in getting reimbursement from health care providers, and even some assistance from generic drug makers--is Perrigo listening down in Allegan--it could be a model in corporate philanthropy.

But the bottom line is this--it can't be about the bottom line directly. It has to be a genuine desire to help people. In so doing, it will improve relationships Meijer has with multiple publics. That will yield trust, extend the brand, and may in time influence the bottom line positively. That's PR.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Covering Debate Coverage

Kudos to Grand Haven Tribune reporter Beth Heinen Bell for an inside look at gubernatorial debate coverage at the recent WOOD TV event. Her piece is on page one of the Tribune, next to the AP story about the debate itself.

She gives the inside scoop about how WOOD TV 8 managed the other journalists--herding them into the employee break room to watch the debate on monitors. Could have been the demands of the DeVos and Granholm campaigns, but isn't it sweet irony to see journalists "handling" reporters!

Meanwhile, she makes a few good digs at both spin machines for distributing reaction--i.e. declared victories--from both campaigns within minutes of the final bell. In the big leagues, they actually call this the "spin room" up front. The digs were legitimate, but I fear that the average reader won't separate politics from our noble profession of public relations.

As many of you good West Michigan PR professionals know, spin is a dirty word. PR is not about image and deception, but ethical advocacy and mutual relationship building. Unfortunately for us, PR gets painted with a political brush. I wish more reporters who cover coverage like this would think to ask a certain PR professor for an informed opinion about the field, versus coming to quick conclusions and perpetuating myths about PR.

The best we can do is take the call from the 6th provision of the PRSA Code of Ethics--practice PR responsibly to "enhance the profession."

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

TV 8 Adds News Releases Online

In a never ending effort to make TV and the Internet relevant to each other, local NBC affiliate TV 8 has added news releases to its Web site. That excited me at first, until I had several thoughts.

One, the news releases are simply a feed from PR Newswire, which anyone can get online by themselves. In fact, the Grand Rapids Press and Booth Newspapers have had links to PR Newswire and BusinessWire on their Mlive site for years, under the business link. It would be more exciting for TV 8 to offer some original content, such as links to the news releases of local companies and organizations. They could allow people to see the stories they don't have time to broadcast--a good supplemental use of the Web site. They could also share the news releases about stories they did cover and allow the public to compare--and even on occasion conclude that PR pros are better writers.

At least TV 8 has news releases. Local counterparts TV 13 and TV 17 do not have them on their sites yet. TV 13 has weather features front and center, and TV 17 promotes FOX network programming.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

BE Healthy Offers Opportunity

The Grand Rapids Press premiers a new publication today called "BE Healthy." The glossy mag insert is reflective of several trends.

One, it shows an uptick in consumer interest about all things related to health. Two, it shows a response of the Press to an unhealthy environment for newspapers. Newspapers are struggling to attract and keep readers and are engaging in all manner of re-packaging, re-purposing, and re-posting information. Thus, the BE Healthy may not only be the title of this publication, but the directive from the publisher to the accounting staff at the Press. That's why the piece comes from the Press Marketing Department, as opposed to the news department. Hence the name "market-driven" journalism.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. The piece is well done, and includes information that has what academics would call "utility" for consumers. It also presents an opportunity for health communicators as a targeted ad vehicle and an outlet for health related news pitches.

Let's hope we all consider this a healthy addition to the Sunday Press even a few months after we've digested it.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Allticor Responds

Rob Zeiger, Alticor Corporate Communications Director, responded to my query about why their blog is signed obtusely by "corporate communications":

"The short answer for why we don't use personal IDs on the blog: We want to preserve the editorial "we." Most blogs are like columns, speaking for an individual; we have the need to come across like an editorial, speaking for the corporation. Having our posts parsed for personality (and personal politics, which do differ) would be both a distraction and a fishing expedition, since nearly everything we post is a consensus, not just a sound-off."

Alticor Separates Company from Campaign

There has been a lot of interesting coverage of how Alticor is handling the fact that one of their leaders, Dick DeVos, is in a political campaign. Even more interesting is how Alticor is handling it, with a new series of ads and frank discussion on their company blog.

The ads and the blog are good for showing and stressing the bi-partisan face of the company. The media coverage has been good in the sense that they are getting the facts straight, allowing Alticor to respond to critics from the Granholm campaign. The campaign is part of another episode in the emerging debate affecting the PR profession: the distinction between "commercial speech" vs "political speech" (ie Nike V Kasky).

So far, Alticor seems to have a handle on separating politics from business. Too bad so many politicians in the state do not.

I only wish that in this otherwise excellent example of corporate transparency, Alticor's bloggers would show their faces. Posts are signed by "corporate communications." Blogs are supposed to be about personal, mutual dialogue. They say the blog is written by democrats and republicans. Great. I'd like to know who I'm talking to as opposed to having an image of that imposing, flag bedecked building in Ada.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Next in line at Meijer

It's hard to know if Meijer released a story about its new president because their online news releases are not available as I post this.

Nevertheless, the story in the Grand Rapids Press about Mark Murray visiting Meijer stores in his first month on the job is interesting for several reasons.

For one, it's good to see the instinct of a corporate leader to spend some serious time getting to know business fundamentals. But I'm also glad to see the article mention that Murray is meeting employees. (Self disclosure: as a faculty member at Grand Valley State University, I know Murray, former GVSU president). I'd have to say he was remarkably adept at getting to know large numbers of people in such a large organization.

The article didn't say, but I would hope he also talked to Meijer's primary public: customers. I talk to one a lot--my wife. She points out the following complaints: the newest store locations (Sherman Street in Muskegon) are featureless boxes with no trees in the parking lots like some of the previous Meijers (Grand Haven); changes in store layouts (which the article says they plan every three years) are annoying and make hunting items a nuisance; she has to keep two lists now, one for what she's buying at Meijer and another she creates in the Meijer store for items or brands that have been discontinued that she now has to purchase at other stores.

Others have echoed these complaints. It'll be interesting to watch if Meijer changes course to be a step ahead of Walmart, Spartan and other stores. Otherwise, the "price drop zones" and other recent Meijer innovations make them look like they're copying Walmart gimmicks. That's a strategy to ensure that Meijer will be, as their slogan used to say, "next in line" in supermarkets as opposed to a category leader in the Midwest region.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

FOX Morning Debut Shines

WXMI Fox 17's new local morning news program debuts this week and is a hit. The 6-8 a.m. program, ably anchored by FOX 17 News charter member and until recently weekend anchorAmy Turner, the program delivers what was promised in promos: you can get your news, get your weather and get going.

Compared to other local morning programs, it is a refreshing dose of solid local and national news. Other programs have on the half hour updates of just two or three stories, often recycled from the previous day's 11 p.m. cast. And then they return to network morning blah blah shows for more recipes and celebrities. FOX 17 has a good mix of local and national stories, with the national stories from the FOX network feed but the whole program anchored locally.

It is also interesting that the local markets have a heavier apetite for news in the mornings, with a significant increase in 6 a.m. viewers over 10 or 15 years ago. This tidbit was well explained in a detailed article by former TV 8 personality Colleen Pierson in the Grand Rapids Press. Note, however, that the Press places this article about TV news in its own "entertainment" section.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Press Blogs

Alas, the Grand Rapids Press now has blogs.

I recall many years ago sitting in Press editor Mike Lloyd's office and being chastised for suggesting that the Press could post some information on its then new Web site. "I need to sell papers!" he nearly yelled at me. I should have known better than to suggest to a newspaper editor another way to inform the public. In retrospect, I can see how my idea too clearly resembled, you know, journalism.

But now, Press reporters are blogging. The paper version started alerting readers to these offerings several weeks ago. So far, the blogs seem to make a conventional mistake--merely posting information, in this case columns, online. Blogs are supposed to be about dialogue--two-way dialogue, We PR professionals know about two-way communication; we can't expect journalists steeped in a tradition of agenda-setting, gate-keeping, one-way dissemination to adapt too quickly to the blogosphere. But it will be fun to watch.

Readers are able to email the reporter, but that's nothing new. It would be better if all readers could view both the blog and the readers' comments. Perhaps that is yet to come.